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Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Technical Job Training vs. Training to Think – Why Am I Really In College?

Why are you, as a student, in college? Take a moment to really think about your answer, because you may be surprised to know that your expectation for what college does for you does not match what college is designed to do.

If you said, “Well, I am in college to get the training I need to get a good job,” then I hope you are in a degree program that is technical in nature – nursing, medical assisting, graphic design, etc. This is because most degree programs are designed to give you background information about a particular field while providing a pathway for you to develop critical thinking skills. They are not, however, designed to give you direct job training so that you can begin your first “real” job with all the intricate details that go into completing the projects or tasks for that job.

If you said, “Well, I am in college to learn more about a particular field while I become an independent learner who can think critically about my field of expertise,” then you are much closer to what most degree programs at 4-year institutions offer you. This is particularly the case for degrees for the more “traditional” programs – biology, psychology, history, sociology, etc. In fact, any program labeled “pre-“ is going to be designed to give you that basic level of content while pushing you to develop critical thinking skills that will be important once you move on to more specific training (pre-med, pre-law, pre-vet medicine are just a few).

The distinction between job training and training to think is a very important one for students to understand. Job training involves teaching you how to use equipment that you will use every day in a particular job setting; training to think involves teaching you how to use one particular piece of equipment – your brain – in any job setting. Thus job training gives you lots of content knowledge for a very specific job, while training to think gives you the skills you need to apply a critical eye to many areas of study.

Only a handful of college programs are true job training programs (most of them I listed above), mainly because in the past, most of those job areas were filled with people who did not go to college, but were trained on the job. For example, it has only been in the last decade or two that we have seen a surge in veterinary technology degrees offered at colleges (these lead to veterinary assistant positions at animal hospitals, not to a direct route to become a veterinarian – that requires a traditional biology degree or equivalent). Before the recent development of these programs, all the training you were required to have occurred on the job – you were hired for the position, they trained you on site, and as long as you became proficient at your position, you kept your job. No college degree was required, because the skills you needed could be learned on site and were specific to the job at hand (you don’t need to be able to write a persuasive essay to give a dog a shot).

Most college programs are training-to-think programs – they require courses that have basic content information for any particular subject, but they also require courses that expand your critical thinking and communication skills, which often go hand-in-hand. It is presumed (and research with employers backs this up) that most companies and graduate/medical/dental/pharmacy schools are more interested in hiring or accepting graduates who are capable of critically evaluating information given to them, developing creative but realistic solutions to problems, and communicating their critiques and solutions to co-workers and superiors in an effective manner. Regardless of field, these three activities are the nuts-and-bolts of critical thinking, and they are typically the goals of most college programs.

This means that for most of your college classes, the ultimate goal is not to have you memorize a bunch of random information. The ultimate goal is to push you to think critically about that information. Let’s take a basic Introduction to Psychology class as an example. Yes, you need to learn some basic core content in that PSYC101 course, such as what areas of the brain are important for which behaviors and how the number of people in a room impact your willingness to follow the majority decision. But you also, based on the assignments and classroom discussions, are required to think critically about what that knowledge means for you and your family, place of employment, state, etc. If you have this knowledge about conformity in group settings, then you can critically evaluate the appropriateness of voting by show of hands vs. anonymous answers on paper when choosing a team leader for a project, or communicate by memo to your superior why company-approved nap time may increase productivity levels. Training you in critical thinking skills (evaluating information, developing creative but sound solutions, communicating information effectively) provides you with a skill set that can be taken to a wide variety of jobs, unlike job training that is specific to one place of employment.

As you move through your college career, you may occasionally ask yourself, “Why do I need this class? What is it going to do for me?” As a psychology professor, most of my students ask me that when it comes to the math requirements – lo and behold, taking math produces critical thinking skills in analyzing the results of research studies, a key component of being a good psychologist (clinical or research). Taking English composition allows you to develop persuasive writing techniques that are valuable from making that suggestion about nap times in a Fortune 500 company to winning a case in front of the Supreme Court.

These skills transfer across multiple positions at a variety of places of employment, which means the stronger your core critical thinking skills are, the more valuable you appear to potential employers. Once you can appreciate the value of the “training to think” approach, the more likely it is that you will come to enjoy those required classes your college makes you take and consider how you will use your new critical thinking skill set in the future.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Contacting Professors by Email

My job sure has changed since I began teaching in higher education in 1984.  There was no such thing as the internet, email, video conferencing, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and so on.  One of the biggest changes has been the way students contact professors. 

I would say that my contact with students is mainly electronic.  I do miss the days of students popping into my office for a chat or lingering after class to discuss ideas! 

So, let's explore better communication with your professors via email.  Remember, many of your professors are old school when it comes to new technologies (and yes, for many professor, email is a new technology).  I can remember when my  ex-husband and I first had our cell/mobile phones.  The only calls we made were to find each other when we went shopping! 

Here are some guidlines:
  1. Use your school assigned email account.  Many professors will not respond to email that is not a school address.  You might find this ridiculous, but it stems from federal regulations on your privacy.  Anyone who is 18+ is covered by FERPA.  This means professors can only talk to you about your grades.  When you send an email from, a professor has no way of knowing whether it is you or some other student in the class posing as you!  By using your school assigned email account reduces this concern for professors.
  2. Include your course name and section number (group name, if applicable) in the SUBJECT line of the email.   Professors have multiple courses and/or sections of course.  You will receive a speedier response, if the professor has this information.
  3. Be sure you really have a question!  Often times students email professors questions that can be easily located in the syllabus or other course materials.  Before you email your professor, be sure you have read the course material!  There is nothing more frustrating to a professor than a student who has not read the material.  Professors have spent a number of hours anticipating student questions and try to provide clear direction in their course syllabus or other course documents.
  4. If you do have a legitimate question, is it a question that can be easily answered in an email?  A good question to ask yourself is how long do you think it will take a professor to answer your question?  If you think the professor will be able to answer it in 2 minutes or less and/or 3-5 lines of email text, then email your question.  If it is a more detailed question, explaining materials -- concepts, equations etc., it might be wiser to make a face-to-face appointment with your professor.  Email is not an efficient means of asking detailed information.
  5. Assume your professor has a life!  Professors are not chained to their email accounts.  You should expect a 24-48 hour response window.  If you are completing an assignment one hour before the deadline, don't expect a response to an email.  If you are taking online tests, be sure to start it long before it is due!  This actually shows initiative on your part!
Remember, email communication does not convey emotion!  If you are asking for a really big favor of your professor, ask in person!

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

About Learning!

Professors are sometimes frustrated with the amount of effort demonstrated in assignments.  I hear about the lousy test scores, students not reading directions carefully, students not proofreading papers, and the list goes on.  I think students underestimate the amount of time required to learn new ideas. 

I want you to think about a time that you were learning something to play a musical instrument, how to play a video game, how to dance or sing, how to play football and the players and positions for the NFL....  If you think about your favorite past-times, I am certain it took you longer than a few minutes to understand and become proficient in the past-time.  How much time and effort is required for you to enjoy these past-times?  Even moving into a new work environment requires time for you to learn new information about the work you are expected to do.

A colleague once told me a story about her son.  She was watching him do his math homework and he was getting angry because it was taking so long.  When she looked at the clock, she realized he had the expectation that the answer should not take more than one minute to calculate!  If this is your thinking, it might be time to become more realistic in how long it takes to learn new things.  Yes, learning is hard.  Sometimes you will have to reread material, recalculate math problems, proofread, go to a study lab or group, or talk to your professor to be successful.  All of this takes time.

Learning and thinking is hard-work!  When I am doing intense thinking/learning, I am physically a good way.  I have a sense of accomplishment when I conquer a tough assignment.  When my students finish their degrees, I want them to be independent thinkers and lifelong learners..a true sign of an educated person.  Unfortunately, it take time and work to achieve!  I hope you approach your studies with the intensity and commitment you devote to your past-times!

Why Professors Assign Group Work

I hear it every term from students, "I don't like group work."  This does not come as a surprise to me.  Group work is more difficult because you have to interact with other people who might not share your ideas on how the work should be organized, commitment to learning or understanding of the assignment.

So, why do professors assign group work?  Many professors recognize that a college education is more then having students learn the content of their discipline, especially undergraduate.  This is one reason many Universities require students to take courses across many disciplines for their undergraduate degrees.  Professors understand that there are a variety of skills that are necessary to be successful in the workplace.  Certainly, assignments will relate to the content of the discipline and course, but other skills such as communication skills, critical thinking skills, conflict resolution skills are implicit in ALL group work regardless of the discipline.

In creating  group assignments, I think about the developmental opportunities for students.  In working in the private sector for some time, I realized the importance of excellent communication skills in the workplace.  If students are unable to communicate substantial ideas to other students, they will struggle in the workplace to do the same.  Many of the skills inherent in group work are the skills employers value.  You may one day be working with colleagues from around the world without everyone being physically present in one location. More and more work assignments require people who can complete projects online with virtual groups.   

We will address how to be an effective group member and what to do about non-participating group members, common issues when doing group work, in a  later blog.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Aack!! So Many Assignments, So Little Time!!

We are going to return once again to assignments. As we have discussed in previous posts, doing all of the assignments for the course (including doing all the components of each assignment) is an easy way to maximize your final grade in any given course. In fact, it is so easy that professors are baffled when they have students that do not take advantage of these opportunities to do well in a class. But based on my casual conversations with students and comments on course evaluations, it seems that the most common reason for students to miss out on turning in these assignments is fairly simple – the time factor.

Most students who do not turn in an assignment or turn it in late usually use the same excuse – I didn’t have the time I needed to work on it. And while to some extent that may be the case, that doesn’t absolve the student from his responsibility to meet the requirements of the course (i.e. turning in all assigned work). What this usually means is that the student needs to do a better job at managing the time she has. This includes figuring out how many hours she is in class each week, how many hours she has to work, how much time goes to other, non-negotiable commitments (e.g. daily commute, religious-based activities, etc.), and how much time is left over.

Getting a good education requires time, and not just the time you actually spend sitting in a desk in a classroom. It requires time to read the textbook, to study for exams, and to complete assignments. The general rule of thumb is that you should expect to spend 2-3 hours outside of class doing those things for every 1 hour you are in class. If you are taking a psychology course that meets 3 hours a week, then you should expect to spend 6-9 hours outside of class doing the work required to get a good grade for that course. Based on this guideline, taking a 15-credit hour load (a traditional full-time course load of 5 3-credit hour courses), then you will spend 15 hours a week in the classroom and 25-30 hours reading textbooks, studying, and working on assignments. (By the way, professors who teach hybrid or on-line courses expect you to spend that much time on their courses, too, so if you think you can take a hybrid or on-line course and get away with devoting only 4-5 hours a week to it, you might want to think again. The amount of time you would spend in class gets added to the on-line work you do on your own time.)

Now, you may be thinking – holy crap! That’s a full-time job! Yes, it is. Being a full-time college student is a full-time job. Many students also have to at least work part-time (sometimes 2 part-time jobs) to help pay for college or other expenses, like to sleep and get some exercise, and hang out with their friends. So devoting that much time to studying, reading, and writing may seem daunting.

Guess what – most professors recognize that time is getting harder to come by, and greater numbers of students each year have to work and take care of their families while going to school. And, in fact, professors try to design assignments so that you can multi-task while completing an assignment. For example, my Adolescent Development students have to write 3 reflection papers over the course of a quarter as part of their overall course grade. They must select 3 terms to define in their own words and use personal examples from when they were teenagers to illustrate those concepts. For this simple 3-page writing assignment, students have the opportunity to hit all three outside-of-class work at the same time: reading the textbook to decide what concepts to define, study the material by thinking of personal examples for the concepts, and writing it down as an assignment to get points for their course grade. This type of assignment should take about 1 hour above the amount of time it takes to read a few chapters in the book, which would be well below the 9 hours that would be expected if a student took a week to work on the assignment.

So what does that mean for the student who perpetually misses turning in assignments because of the time factor? This means that either a) the student is trying to do too much in taking too many classes while working too many hours and having too many other commitments, or b) the student has not done a time management plan to figure out how to work everything into his busy life. Professors cannot do anything about the first problem. If you are trying to work 40 hours a week while taking 5 classes (with 2 of those classes having labs) and taking care of your 3 children, then there really isn’t much the professor can do in terms of advice – in fact, her primary recommendation may be to either take a part-time class schedule or go to working part-time at your job. Professors require the number and variety of assignments for any given course for a reason – actually, for multiple reasons – but that will be a topic for a later post.

What a professor can do is help you figure out a time management plan that might give you a clear picture of how you can take care of your coursework while also taking care of your other responsibilities (within reason, of course). I suggest to students that they print off 2 types of calendars – a basic week sheet, and a set of sheets that cover the number of weeks in a given term (whether it is a semester or quarter). On the basic week sheet, put in when you are in class, when you typically have to work, and anything else you do that takes time. Then look to see where you have blank space – that is time you can devote to coursework. For the set of sheets that cover the term, you will use the syllabi for your courses to jot down due dates of various assignments (if they are already on the syllabus – good professors will do this), when final exams are, when holidays occur, and your basic work schedule. Now you’ll be able to get a sense of whether you are going to have multiple assignments for different classes due around the same time and when you’ll have stretches in which you can work on assignments early or at least get caught up or read ahead in your textbook.

Planning ahead at the beginning of the term will allow you to discover time that you may not have thought you had. Time has a nasty way of getting past us faster than we expect – how many times have you gone on Facebook to check something out really quickly, only to find that 2 hours have gone by and the only thing you gained was learning that your best friend was enjoying spaghetti for dinner?

Which brings me to the next sticking point – you may have to give up some of your favorite activities to be able to get your coursework completed. There are only 24 hours in a day, and only 7 days in a week. If you have a big paper due, then you have to subtract time allotted to other activities to get it done. If it means taking a break from World of Warcraft for a few days, so be it. Does that suck? Yep. But if you are serious about your education and want to maximize your course grade, you will do it. Which is more important – your education, or your on-line video game record? If you answered your education, then taking the steps I outlined above will help you find ways to do both while putting your education first. If you answered your video game record, then you might want to rethink why you are in college in the first place. If you don’t want to make your education a priority, then you can save your parents, yourself, or taxpayers (for those who get grants) quite a bit of money by waiting to go to college until you are ready to make it a priority. The assignments that are the basis of your education take time, and they are well worth the time you put into them.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Talking to Your Professor about Your Grades

Sometimes I hear professors talk about students who hold the professor responsible for their grade.  The reality is that students earn grades.  If a professor was going to "give" a grade to students, I don't think they would devote the time and energy into creating and grading course assignments.  They would merely look at a student and say, I like that student therefore I am going to give her an A or I'm going to give everyone an A.  So when you talk to your Professors about your grade, it is better to ask the Professor to explain how your grade was calculated.  Not, why did you give me that grade?

Professors also frequently hear, I need an A in this class.  If you need a particular grade, it is your responsibility to understand how the final grade will be calculated.  You should be monitoring your own progress toward your goal grade.  If you are unclear on how to calculate your grade, the professor would be more than happy to assist you. 

Professors are also informed by students that the student is the professor's customer.  This is an incorrect orientation toward a professor and it surely will not get a student very far.  If you really need to apply a business model to higher education (which really isn't applicable), you should look at professors as your boss!  Would you be late for work?  Would you ask for an extension on a special project?  Would you not complete the work that you were assigned to complete?  If you approached your work as you do your education, how long would you be employed?

At all times, you should approach a professor with respect.  If you are asking about your grade, be sure you understand the syllabus and assignment details.  When students approach me about a grade dispute, the first question I ask is what did it say on the syllabus.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

The Assignments, The Whole Assignments, and Nothing But The Assignments

In a previous post, we talked about what students can do to be successful in a course. In that first segment, we mentioned that it is really important to turn in all assigned work. Students will often times think a missed assignment here and there might not impact their grades; to some extent, they may be right if there are dozens of assignments that are worth relatively few points, and they only miss one or two. But many students forget how many assignments they have missed, and too often this leads to poor final grades, even if they know the course material well.

Another issue professors typically see with poor performance on assignments is lack of following directions. Good professors provide assignments with explicit directions on how to complete the assignments they give in their courses. In fact, you may have had a professor that has given you an assignment with 1-2 full pages of directions on how to complete it, and you may have thought, "Wow - this is overkill! Does she think I'm stupid or something?" No, she does not think you are stupid - she just wants to make sure you include all that is needed to do well on that particular assignment.

Some professors require time to learn a valuable lesson, but when they do, it leads them to create assignments with lots of directions. What is that lesson? That students cannot read their minds! (I know - shocking, isn't it?) A few professors assume that students should know what to do to complete a reflection paper, or do a set of algebra problems. Those professors learn quickly that if they do not write out directions completely, then some students will ultimately not complete the assignments in the way the professors wanted them done.

What can be frustrating to a professor, though, is when she takes considerable time developing an assignment and the directions for it, and then a student simply does not follow those directions. When it comes to a difference between an "A" paper and a "C" paper, it sometimes comes down to whether or not the student followed the directions completely. It really can be that simple. Let me give you an example. One day I was sitting in my office when a student came to see another professor down my hallway about a grade he received on an assignment. For 45 minutes (this is not an exaggeration, by the way), I listened to the student and professor discussing why the student received a "D" instead of an "A". The student insisted that his writing style was "A"-worthy and that he had never once gotten a "D" on a writing assignment. The problem, as the professor pointed out, was that the assignment had four parts to it, and he only completed the first part. Thus, he actually only completed 25% of the assignment (he got off lucky with a "D", if you ask me, considering he only did 1/4 of the assignment). If he had simply done all four parts of the assignment at the level of writing he did, then he would have gotten an "A". Instead, his grade was barely passing, all because he did not follow directions to submit a complete assignment.

To be a successful student, you have to turn in all assignments AND make sure you have followed the directions carefully for those assignments. Sometimes you may feel as though the way you want to complete a particular assignment is a better way than what the professor wants you to do it. Don't fall for that urge! Though you may not recognize this, it is highly likely that your professor has designed the assignment to maximize your learning of the content, your development of critical thinking skills, and/or your mastery of a specific skill that is quirky for that discipline. For example, students taking upper level psychology courses are often told to write concisely in a boring, scientific manner while following seemingly ridiculous rules of format. This is called APA-style. Students who do poorly on APA-style papers often do so because they think that their fancy font looks better, or that flashy adjectives and rhetorical questions make for a more entertaining read. When they do this, they are not following APA-style, which is a technique that must be mastered for that discipline, as quirky as it is. When I talk to students who are in classes in which they must write APA-style papers, I tell them all the same thing when they ask what they can do to get great grades on those assignments - "Don't overthink it - just follow directions!"