Tag Archives: learning

CollegeQandA reviews: Teaching Minds: How Cognitive Science Can Save Our Schools

Book Review: Teaching Minds: How Cognitive Science Can Save Our Schools

Teaching Minds: How Cognitive Science Can Save Our Schools
 

Teaching Minds: How Cognitive Science Can Save Our Schools is an excellent book for teachers (and some learners) on what may be wrong with our teaching approach; it isn’t necessarily us, but might be an institutional situation.  After reading this book, I had to get back to blogging.  I’ve been trying to finish up my own book, and this book comes along and shatters/challenges/supports many of my previous perspectives on teaching in an elegant succinct way.

So, why is this book shattering some of my views on education?  Well, having read the book, many of the ideas line up well with preexisting beliefs I have about learning.  Dr. Schank, however, structures many of these ideas in a better way.

The major idea in the book is his clear explanation in chapter 4 of the “twelve cognitive principles that underlie learning”.   His main thesis is that these principles are captured in what we all do in our lives, jobs, and education, and that they should be a fundamental focus of learning as opposed to knowledge and content.  We tend to focus more on content than action.

The majority of the book looks at these principles and their application/relation to education.  A few other interesting aspects and ideas in the book include:

  • Chapter 11 shifts to an attack on colleges and universities, which includes many strong arguments on to what these institutions do and how they might be changed.
  • Schank states that teaching should not include the assigning of grades/marks by the teacher, and instead the assessment of performance should be done by a separate entity.
  • The idea that nothing can be learned if it doesn’t involve failure.
  • An examination or test implies that a field has a right way and a wrong way.

Does this book relate to CollegeQandA?

It’s all about teaching, learning, and universities.  In a way, I wish these were my ideas, and I’ll, likely, reference this book in future posts.

I would recommend this book to…

This book is written at a level appropriate for teachers.  I think the concepts are understandable by all, but many of the arguments drift into the world of higher ed and cognitive views that might not be at the level of college bound students.   However, I think this is a good book for everyone to take a look at to better understand learning and a bit of the why things are the way they are in education and how we might, possibly, do better.

CollegeQandA asks: How do national politics and universities mix?

How do national politics and universities mix?

Into this rabbit hole we go since I’m late for a very important debate.  The complexity of this question is so deep that in this post I’ll just try to make an argument from the perspective one or two starting assumptions and see where this takes us.

Starting assumptions

Assumption 1 – universities are institutions of learning.

This assumption means that those of us at higher educational institutions are fundamentally there to learn.  This assumption captures both the ideas of research and education.

Assumption 2 – in a democratic society, national politics is about choosing representatives (by a form of majority selection) that will participate in the government systems of decisions that guides and runs a nation.

The  running a nation is far more complex than any one person can possibly understand, and therefore, most of our nations have created a system within which the economy, laws, social programs, and public infrastructure and services are created, administered, and funded.  Representatives in democratic governments modify, add, and delete parts of the system based on their decisions.

So where’s the intersection?

Not surprisingly the intersection itself is complex.  Many people at a university will study and participate in intersecting fields that relate to government such as political science, journalism, sociology, history, …  Universities will get funding, whether through grants, scholarships, or direct dollars that come from the government.  People at the institution (both students and staff) will be voters in the election.  Institutions will suggest policy ideas.  The intersection is massive and because of it the challenges are great on how to navigate changing politics of both institution and nation.

The real question

So, the real question is what is the role of higher education to the nation.  I pose two of many possibilities (with personal bias to 1):

  1. These institutions are places of inquiry and debate where all ideas are part of the open discussion and exploration.  Yes, ideas can be against your beliefs, but ideas should not be hidden just because they’re challenging to you.   This gets even trickier when ideas challenge a core value that many of us have for basic human rights (where human = all humans and rights = {I can’t define this well enough, but it’s related to the golden rule}).  Is there a limit on what ideas can be explored?
  2. These institutions are places of learning such that what is learned is, mainly, applicable to economic growth and older ideas, which includes students developing a better understanding of the world and being prepared to work within our national economies.

One more piece to the puzzle

Technology – Every new technology is a Pandora’s box that gives us benefits and costs, and each technology impacts the capabilities of us, our institutions, and our nation.  Computation, AI, DNA, nuclear energy, all-2-all communication on the internet, and so on allow us to do new things, but always come with some cost/change.

So, how should universities deal with politics while dealing with an ever changing technological world?  We should provide a space to discuss, debate, think, and question possibilities.  Where else is this going to happen?  Or, we can just ignore all of it – and read the next article in my feed.

CollegeQandA asks: What questions challenge your advisors/mentors?

What questions challenge your advisors/mentors?

The reality is the questions here are the big questions we all have.  In university, your mentors are great for asking simple questions to such as: “which course should I do next?” or “what are some good career options to look in to?”.  More complex questions, which are usually individual and deep personal searches, are hard for all of us.

Does that mean you shouldn’t have those discussions with your advisors and mentors?  No, but expect them to be long conversations that you will need to reflect on more than you possibly thought going in.

Person in meditation by water

So, what are these questions?

“What should I do with my life/career/major?”

Those are big questions.  Flavors of that question are hidden in others such as, “should I do this major or this major?” or “will I like this job?”

There are two certainties to deep questions of your future.  One, it’s a personal decision.  Two, the decision can be an educated decision, but is impossible to make as right or wrong – it is just a chosen path.

Find office hour times to have this discussion – quiet times are best

Your mentors and advisors can provide suggestions on how to help explore these questions, but they can not solve them for you.  For even something as simple as picking a major and what career will I have once I complete this major, all an advisor can tell you is where people have gone previously with certain paths, and provide insight on their own experiences and paths.

The bigger task is for you to determine which path you want to take now.  And here is the problem.  Not all paths can be taken.  Only one can be pursued.  At some point, you just have to make a decision and take a path.  Once on that path, observe opportunities and, potentially, take other paths.  A little bit of reflection and thought along the path will guide you in, hopefully, better directions for you, but the unpredictable is, well, unpredictable.

Credits: photo titled: Wisdom; by Moyan Brenn

CollegeQandA asks: On the college tours, what should I ask?

What are some good questions to ask on the college tours?

It is college tour season.  I participated in my first faculty panel this month.  These panels have professors representing different parts of the school sitting and answering questions from prospective students and families.  This is one small piece of the college tour.  I sit on these panels fascinated by the questions that are asked.  I wonder if the questions I hear are the important questions to ask.

Tour guide pointing to statue

What is the goal of the tour?

The goal is to find out if this is the place that will be a good environment for your next 4 years of learning.  This means you are looking for a welcoming, challenging, engaging, and interesting environment.  So, why then is place X better than place Y?

What would be a good question?

The good questions will have answers that will help you differentiate between different places.  This means the questions should be open ended.  The questions should be related to the learning environment.  The questions should be about personal experiences (the bad and the good).

For example, a question such as: “How big are your classes?” will have many nuanced answers from place to place.  Based on the size of the university (student enrollment) and the type of classrooms (how many large lecture rooms) you can easily guess to this answer.  They start bigger and progress to smaller, but this answer doesn’t give you any idea of the experience.

A better question might be: “How does your college make bigger lecture classes into good learning environments?”  That’s a very tricky question for a professor, and if they aren’t aware that there are different ways of improving learning, then maybe that university isn’t particularly interested in undergraduate education.  “How did you like your lecture with 100+ students?”, will get to a students perspective on the large lectures.

Similarly, “Can you describe a situation where you did a research project with a student/faculty member?”  This is another question that looks into the idea that undergraduates are doing research-like activities at this university.  What is actually being learned and what are undergraduates actually doing?

Follow these questions up with, “Can I get their email to find out more about their experience?” and “Can you name professors/students in your department who have done things like this?”

Questions that delve into personal experiences at a university will go deeper into the experience at said university instead of generalities.  Also, try and talk to people who are not directly involved in the college tours.  What do the non-groomed faces of the institution have to say?

What questions are bad?

The bad questions tend to include superficial questions (how big is the dorm rooms?), mechanical questions (are there internships available?), or too focused on a particular path (how hard is it to switch from major X to major Y?).

The first two questions can be asked via email or a web search and tell you very little about this particular university.  All universities have very similar offerings, will offer similar good rankings, will show how past students have been successful, and will have all sorts of statistics that are in favour of the school.  Therefore, asking these types of questions allows for the toured presentation to talk about things that don’t really matter in respect to what is the university offering to you and how it differs from your other potential options.

The last question is too specific to an upcoming experience (undergraduate degree) that is very difficult to plan out from day one to day 1200.

Credits: photo titled: Guided Tour; by Mads Bødker

CollegeQandA asks: Why is active learning the best learning?

Why is active learning the best learning?

Let us take one step back and ask “What is active learning?”.  The basic idea of Active Learning is that the person who takes action during class time is the one who learns the most and should be the student.  Therefore, if classes move from passive lectures to active lectures, where students do things, then the learning for students will be better or more efficient.

So, is active learning better?  Not always.

Playing and singing on harp

Diverse learning is better?

So, what is diverse learning?  I kind of made up the term.  I would call “diverse learning” an environment where a learner has the opportunity to experience and be assessed on doing in a number of ways.

For example, some of the best learning I have done in class was when both the professor and the textbook were not conveying the ideas successfully to me as the learner.  In this case, it appeared I had no resource that could guide me along the learning path to understand the material.  I learned to seek out other resources (textbooks, people, etc.) and to mold those other resources into the course I was being taught.  If the teacher or textbook are always exactly what you need to learn something then you will never learn to seek out and use other resources or learn from them.

Many people will bash on the lecture as a bad format for learning.  Some evidence might suggest that lectures are a poor efficiency use for learning, but equally, information and ideas will be delivered in your lifetime in a format that you simply need to focus on and extract meaning from.  If you can’t do this, then you will not be able to learn from lectures.

Active learning is one of the many modes of teaching and learning that should be part of your diverse learning environment, but you need the variety.

Active learning is good though

In terms of maximizing learning, I feel active learning is on a higher level than many on how to use class time efficiently.  It is, however, tricky to manage, more work for both professor and student, and non-conducive to many classrooms including their size, space, and content requirements.

Credits: photo titled: Active Child Laneway Adelaide12; by: Peter Tea

CollegeQandA asks: What is career fair and why should I go?

What is career fair?

What is a university career fair?  This isn’t that interesting a question, and as you can imagine, career fair has employers come the university to talk to students about careers at their respective companies/institutions.  A university can have a university wide career fair, but there can also be smaller career fairs that are focusing on a particular area or degree.  Most people think that career fairs should be attended in your graduating year where you dress up, and finally, look for a job post graduation.  The wiser among you should go early and often to learn and prepare for your career.  Nobody else will.

University career fairWhy should I go to career fair?

Well, yes, fourth year is a good time to go to career fair and try and find your future employer, but to be prepared for this culminating experience I suggest you go in your first, second, and third year too.  You want to go to learn how the career fair is done, and how you need to be prepared for the event.   For example, at Miami during career fair almost everyone is dressed in a business suit/attire, and students will line up to do short interviews with their prepared resumes that might be followed up with a post fair longer interview.  If you walk into the fair without the proper attire, then unless you’re looking to be recognized for your uniqueness, you stand out as unprepared.  Just knowing your basic career fair flow stops you from making these simple errors.

Also, just like doing integration, playing an instrument, or writing an essay, networking and interviewing are skills that need to be practiced.  Where can you get this practice beyond the mock interviews your career center might provide?  Career fair in your first and second year is great time to practice without any major consequences.  Also, you might find an internship early that will lead to your future career.

Keep in mind, university will help you develop some skills, but getting a job and the skills need to both get said job and perform well at it are your responsibility.  Career fair is a small piece of this, but one you should not ignore.

Credits: photo titled: SNRE Career Fair; by University of Michigan School of Natural Resources & Environment 

CollegeQandA asks: Do professors know about Course Hero and similar sites, and what do they think about them?

Do professors know about Course Hero and similar sites?

There are many resources on the internet that will help you in your courses.  Some of these sites do have material that students upload from previous years that you can purchase or upload your work and sell it – such as Course Hero.  Do professors know about these sites?  I would say a good number do, but definitely, not all of them.

Course Hero Screenshot

The existence of test banks (groups keeping records of all the tests and in some cases answers), course notes from previous years, and the accumulation of information as related to a course is not new.  The internet and its all-to-all communication model has just made it a little easier for this information to be archived and searched, and the existence of these types of sites was inevitable.  In the future, there might be some legal battles fought out on who owns what in the case of a course, but until then here are some basic ideas.

What do professors think about these sites?

I can’t speak for all professors, but I’m certain that universities and their faculty have a mixed opinion of this type of information being available, and a bigger concern on how it could be used.  For example, most professors would agree that using this material in the form of copying would be considered a violation of academic integrity.  In other cases, however, this material could be useful for a student to model solutions, answers, or responses that is a goal for a student to achieve.   Using material in this way might be fine.  So there’s a mixed feeling on this information being available.

Note, there are some course syllabi that strictly state that material from the course is not to be shared.  In these instances, uploading that course material is a clear violation that might result in further academic and legal battles that I can’t guess how they might proceed.

The future is active and tailored learning

In my opinion, these types of sites will have less and less impact as we proceed into better higher education.  For those courses that are template based and use traditional information transfer that is assessed through basic tests, then these types of sites are a concern.  For most of my courses, which are active learning with some student proposed work, these sites offer little benefit when a student has to learn to perform.

In the big picture of a degree, information is always available and is ever more accessible.  Information is useless unless it can be used in our ever theme of “doing”.  You won’t get a good job or a great career or achieve anything meaningful unless you learn to do.  Learning to do is hard, and there is no easy path.  Sites like these promise the potential for an easy something, but my guess is they rarely lead to any great achievement – just a way of skipping the work.

CollegeQandA asks: What should I do the weekend before classes start?

What should I do the weekend before classes start?

Your family has dropped you off at college or you arrived at campus by yourself, and you have a few days before classes start – that first weekend.  Is there anything you should do before classes start to pave the way for a good semester?  At Miami the excitement of the new semester has started, and the streets are alive with youthful vigor.

Uhaul van moving in

Get the basics done

For those of you who are in your first-year or new arrivals to campus, your first weekend is about discovering where things are, how to do the most basic activities, and figuring out who might be your new friends and acquaintances.  In other words, expect to be disoriented for the next few days, but make sure you ask questions to everyone so that you do everything you should to just have the basics down.

Your priorities are:

  • If you don’t have your University ID card, then where and how do you get it.  This thing will do a lot around  campus for you.
  • You need to figure out where and when your classes are.  I would find the rooms ahead of time so you’re not late on class one.
  • How do you get your daily food and pay for it?
  • Where are the people who can help you if you need information or things?

All these basics are also needed for more senior students, but I would expect that those of you in that category almost know all of these.

Connecting with friends new and old

Take some time to socialize and meet old and new friends.  The reality is that this is probably the quietest time in the upcoming semester, so you should spend time with friends to reconnect.  However, don’t overdo the socializing with friends and party too much.  There’s no reason to start off the semester already tired and disorganized.  You can easily balance your reconnect to friends with solid preparation.

Get a jump on course organization

If your upcoming courses have an online accompaniment, then there is no reason you shouldn’t take a peak at what material is already posted (including the syllabus), needed books, and creating a semester calendar (I would suggest google calendars) with your actual next few months (you can tie this into your goals too).

Do you have your notebooks prepared for each of your courses?  If there are slides for the course, then do you have them printed?  What other materials will you need for these courses?

Most important – Set your semester goals

The big thing you need to do the last weekend before the semester is to nail down your goals for the semester (whatever they might be).  This doesn’t mean a general goal statement such as, “do well in my classes this semester”.  Instead, to achieve a goal you need to break it into smaller goals that will help you achieve your bigger picture.

You need to make specific goals both semester long and short term.  So, if I want to “get in shape this semester”, I need to include short term weekly/monthly goals that I can measure to get me to the big goal.  Smaller goals such as: “work out three times a week at the rec center” and “follow a progression workout for the next month” are steps to my bi goal, and if I truly want to achieve the bigger goal I can check in and see if I’m meeting my smaller steps.

Be prepared and have some fun to get you in the right mode for the fall semester.

Credits: Photo titled: Moving Truck; by CJ Sorg

CollegeQandA book review: How Will You Measure Your Life?

Book Review: How Will You Measure Your Life?

How Will You Measure Your Life?
 

How Will You Measure Your Life? is written with us in mind, but presents ways to live with examples from how companies act and business theories apply.  The book reads well within the classic format of: story example(s) from business, business concept explained, and how concept can be applied to life theme.

The three major life themes are:

  • Finding your best fit career
  • Having good relationships
  • Staying out of jail

Each of these themes is covered well in the format described above, and overall, I enjoyed reading the book.  I plan on reading it again this summer if I have time.

Does this book relate to CollegeQandA?

This book is about ideas in your life.  If many of us had the wisdom that is described in this book, not only would life be better, but college life could be leveraged even more to get greater gains.  For example, chapter four (“Your Strategy is Not What You Say It Is”) discusses how many of our (companies and people) resources are allocated to things other than what are our real goals.  A good strategy means that we put our time and money towards the goals that matter, and if we allocate them differently then it might mean our stated goals are not our true goals.  Yes, we all want to do well in classes, but does our allocation of resources truly show that?

I would recommend this book to…

This book is an interesting cross-section between self-help and business advice.  The strength is how business concepts are applied to living a life worth living (this is of course your definition of worth living).  This book is recommended for all of us interested in taking a different look on why we behave the way we do and how we might make that better.

CollegeQandA asks: Why are projects so important in College?

Why are projects so important in College?Building Construction

Projects are some of the closest activities you’ll do in College that have some similarity to the working world (that I assume you are trying to join).  A project allows you to demonstrate that you can do something from early conception to close to completion.

There are very few jobs in – taking exams

It’s true.  There just aren’t many jobs out there in taking exams, regurgitating facts, showing the steps on how you solved something, and picking between letters in multiple choice or picking true/false.  The follow up question should be, “Why then do we take all these exams in school?”

Well there are a number of reasons to take exams, but start with this idea that exams are meant to assess how well you have learned a particular set of concepts and ideas.  How should a teacher determine if you understand these ideas and concepts and give you feedback on your learning?  Exams and tests are a way to do this assessment at a reasonable time cost.  For example, with a test that I can create in about 4 hours, have students do in 1 hour, and mark/grade in 8 hours it costs only 17 hours and maybe 52 person hours (for a class of 30 students).  If a machine can grade the test, that time goes down.  So in many cases examinations are the easiest and most efficient (time perspective) method for assessing student knowledge.

For that same class of 30 students, if I spent 20 minutes in an oral examination to evaluate their understanding, it would take 10 hours assuming that I know the right oral questions to ask and probe, there are no delays between students, the scheduling of these oral questions is magically administrated, everyone takes exactly 20 minutes, and so on.  That assessment is harder to implement for the teacher though and the time will always be much greater.

Projects to the rescue

A project in a class is an opportunity to create an activity that can be assessed in reasonable time, but the depth of student work (including creativity, problem solving, communication, doing, and critical thinking) goes far deeper than almost any exam can capture.  Plain and simple, the learners doing the project tend to learn far more since they have to do something and solve all the steps to get it done.

I also like open ended projects since students have the opportunity to create and do something they’re interested in.  For engineers, this might be one of the few opportunities in their lives to work on their creations as opposed to being told what they need to do.

Finally, projects with their depth and unknown challenges they provide mirror more of what people tend to do in the working world.

Is there anything projects can’t do?

The worst thing about class projects is they lack a completion and quality aspect.  For example, a student group starts to do their project, gets close to the end of the semester, and runs out of time.  What do they do?  Submit what they have done and probably get a lower grade for their work.  The same is not true in the real world.  A lower grade for not completing a project or delivering a weak project is getting fired.  So projects lack a more pure assessment in college.

Second, most projects are done in groups again to simulate the “real-world”.  Group work has all sorts of complexities that make it hard to achieve something.  It seems like someone always free loads.  People are hard to work and get along with.

Projects have many other limitations, and are just another activity/assessment that is part of your learning.

Projects are good

Still, each project you have is an opportunity to establish your portfolio.  Projects are the rare opportunities in school to allow you to take some autonomy (see the book Drive by Pinker).  Projects can be lots of fun.  And projects are about the closest to real you can get in college.

Credits: photo titled: Construction; by Stephen Rush