Tag Archives: learn

CollegeQandA asks: What will be on the test?

What will be on the test?

This question can also be phrased, “will this be on the test?”

For students, this is an important question.  For teachers, this is a frustrating question to hear more than once.  How do you figure out what’s on the test, but also, turn yourself into a good learner and not just a test gamer?

FRustrated man screaming

Student perspective of tests

Tests are pretty common in courses.  Tests can be one of the main assessments that then are converted into your overall grade in a course.  Students need to get good grades, and therefore, knowing and understanding what is on a test is fundamental to getting those good grades.

Teacher perspective of tests

Learning the material is common in all courses.  Tests can be a good and easier than others assessment that shows if students have learned the course material.  An overall grade shows how well students have learned the material (though I don’t really agree with this).  Testing helps determine a students grade in the course.

Some of education’s bigger perspective

The goal is to learn.  Real understanding can not be easily tested, and the learning process takes a significant amount of time for both teacher and student to achieve and assess.  How can we teach and learn important skills, understanding, and complexities with tests?  We probably can’t, and equally, grades are a poor signal in terms of how each of us will perform in the real world with complexity.

The reality perspective

So, you are going to have tests as a student, and many of us professors will use tests as time-reasonable assessments for what you understand in our courses.  Coming from a perspective of wanting to learn and understand and willingness to work on learning, be curious, and understand the world better will serve you well.

If you need to figure out what is, likely, on the test, then pay attention to your professor in lectures, do the class work (readings, assignments, and projects), and find more senior students to understand past testing trends.  In lecture, emphasis of ideas, points, and skills are strong indicators that the material will appear on a test.  Does the professor underline writing?  Is there a significant number of problems dedicated to a particular idea?  Many professors (myself included) plain and simple say, “and this would be an excellent question on an exam”.  Those signals are strong indicators that the material will be tested in the future.

Also, the past can be a strong predictor of the future.  Students who have previously taken the course will have a feel for what professors will ask on their exams.  Make friends with other students and ask about their experiences.  However, understand that we all have biases and you are the one who does or doesn’t benefit from learning.

Credits: photo titled: frustration; by Rakesh Rocky


CollegeQandA asks: What are office hours?

The most underutilized resource at universities

Person sleeping in their office

Some professors have busy office hours filled with students, but most of us schedule office hours and have little to no contact with students unless there is a major exam, assignment, or activity that has an upcoming due date.

But, what are office hours?  The office hour(s) is a scheduled time by the professor where they guarantee that they will be in their office to be available to students and their concerns.  The main purpose is so students can ask questions about things that they either don’t understand or want a deeper understanding as related to a course.  However, most professors are happy to discuss ideas beyond the course including advising, careers, new ideas, etc.

I want to go, how should I prepare?

This depends on the professor, but most professors have a basic expectation if you are coming to ask additional questions or get help for topics in a course.  Note, the title above implies that you prepare for the office hour, and it should not be considered a time to redo a lecture.  You should do some preparation before you walk in and ask questions.  For example, imagine I have given you an assignment on topic X.  You should first try to do work on topic X, you should search out resources (such as textbooks, internet, etc.) to help you on topic X, and then when you are having problems you can bring what you have done working with topic X, and we can look at what you are doing well and what is missing to allow you to make further progress.  Don’t come in and just say, “How do I do this assignment?” or “I don’t get this?” without trying to learn on your own.

The same is true if you are going in for curriculum advice.  You should have some idea what you courses you need to do in the future, and your meeting should be spent on questions that you are unsure of instead of simply saying, “What courses should I take?”

Preparing for a meeting is, likely, part of your future job, and it shows that you respect both the person you are meeting with as well as your own time.

What if I don’t have questions about …?

You should go to office hours even if you don’t have direct questions related to the course or advising.  However, you should still prepare what you want to discuss before hand that is of real interest to you and is, likely, an interest of your professor.  This might be tricky since you are learning an area where the professor is a more experienced person in the topic.  Try open ended questions (the ones that can’t be answered yes/no) related to the course topics or your professors research since they may lead to interesting discussions.

Note, I suggest that visiting your professor is a good thing, but don’t overdo it.  Just because a professor has scheduled time to meet with students, don’t spend all of that time.  If you don’t have course or advising related questions, then an interesting discussion with a professor once or twice a semester would be good and not considered overbearing.

Credits: photo titled: Office Intern, by: Richard Elzey


CollegeQandA asks: What is the most important class to take in college?

What is the most important class to take in college?

Unique classroomWhat is the most important class to take in college? That’s an opinion question, so the following is my opinion.  Also, picking one aspect of your education as a single most important aspect really is a useless exercise.  However, it is fun so let’s get started.

The point of higher education

The point of it all is… well, that’s also not easy to define either.  Let me say that I would hope that the following goals are met in an undergrad:

  1. Student intellectual develops and progresses in self-authorship along the lines of Perry and Baxter-Magolda
  2. Student gains a better understanding of how the world works
  3. Student gains a deeper understanding of one small branch(es) of human knowledge that then can be used and communicated to others

With those goals in mind

The most important course is… well, it’s still hard to pick.  Based on goal 2 though, I really like Douglas Rushkoff’s view on the importance of understanding how modern technology works and can be used (programming).  The reason I pick “programming” as so important is because it’s the one that opens access computation, and computation is the tool that seems to have changed us so much, and yet, people are still scared of many aspects of that tool.

Conrad Wolfram has suggested computational thinking would help us teach math better.  The web is packed with campaigns and sites that are helping children learn to program.  The maker movement has democratized electronics, programming, aspects of manufacturing, and creativity.  Still, only a small population of us has an understanding of what computation is and how it works, and to satisfy the 2nd goal of higher education people need to at least have opened the hood once or twice to get a feel for the technology, tools, and simplicity of our machines.

Is programming the most important skill?

No, not for everyone.  I would consider communication skills (writing, reading, speaking, and listening) to be the most important skills for almost everyone, and these skills should be a focus skill set for any undergraduate education.  Programming and technology are an extension of these skills in the modern world format.

Credits: Photo titled: Le salon de lecture Jacques Kerchache (musée du Quai Branly) by: Jean-Pierre Dalbéra


CollegeQandA asks: What do I do when I just don’t understand something?

It happens to everyone

What do I do when I just don’t understand something?  You may think that “smart” people never have this problem.  Well, the idea of “smart” people is a misnomer.  Anyone who learns something works hard at understanding the material, and hard is probably the most important part.

signs pointing to a bunch of places

In many cases, you might understand material or acquire skills more easily than someone else, and I call this aptitude.  Aptitude can even get you through K-12 education and into your college education, but everyone at some point runs into ideas, concepts, and skills that don’t just come easy.  In my life, I have repeatedly met these points and know there are more to come; for example, I have been challenged by writing well, recursion, complex math, and graph theory.

So, what do you do when you are challenged?

The first choice is do you really want to learn the idea.  There is nothing wrong with not challenging yourself and pushing to learn something, but this is your choice.  Those who choose to want to learn need to apply the acclaimed “grit” characteristic, because learning something that is challenging is not easy, there is no fast procedure, and the process can be both painful and time consuming.

Once you have decided you want to learn something, then you can start to learn it.  My starting suggestion is to read the book: The 5 Elements of Effective Thinking.  This book provides a number of tactics on how to think through difficult topics.

Does a book have all the answers?

No.  When you are challenged by learning, there is no linear path (step by step solution) to learn.  For example, when I was in my graph theory class and needed and wanted to learn the topic, it took me three months of daily work on problems to just get a B in the course.  This included doing the same beginner problems over and over.  The concept of recursion in computer science took three lectures of nothing clicking in my head until I had what seemed like a magical aha moment.  Some ideas like probability and statistics are still not areas where I have strong understanding.

The only constant that I have observed constantly in each of my learning challenges is time and work.

Credits: photo titled: from confusion hill; by hitchster


Question – Why am I going or should I go to University/College?

This is my part 1 answer of an unknown number of parts.  First off, universities are not the only path towards a career and a good life.  For example, if you are predicting the robot/automation job takeover of the future, then you might choose a very different path that focuses on becoming a modern day artisan.  On the other hand, our world seems to have an ever increasing need for credentials to get basic jobs (credentialism debates: 1, 2, and 3).

My first answer to this question is from my experiential perspective.  Why would I tell my younger self to go to college?  The problem with my younger self is I was 18 years old, my brain wasn’t a complete adult brain yet, and I was more interested in music, video games,, parties, and basketball than a field of study. My slight interest in programming and parental insight was enough that I would survive the first two years of engineering.

My answer to that person with this inside knowledge would be, “don’t go to university since you’ll not get the real benefit of those early years”.

And that’s what happened (forward-sight advantage).  But on the other hand, those two years of getting through early university courses allowed me to mature, live on my own, and see more of the “real-world”  to solidify my desire to learn about computer engineering and take a fulfilling path.  Still, I wonder what would have happened if I didn’t have that slight interest to push me forward through the directionless times.  Unfortunately, because my passion was not sparked early, I missed out on some ideas and lessons that still hurt me today.

So the answer to the first why is an undergraduate degree is an opportunity for some people to mature and find their path.  This happens to many of us.  What scares me is that those of us who enter college, pay large sums of money, but then leave because of other factors (no passion, no commitment, financial problems, and life problems) can horribly suffer from this personal experiment.