Tag Archives: college

Discussion thread: Student responsibilities

I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts on the following statement about responsibilities in college:

In college, it’s the student’s responsibility to initiate requests for help on assignments, and it’s the instructor’s responsibility to respond to those requests in a helpful and timely way.

Do you think this statement is true or false? If false, could you modify it so that it’s true?

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Filed under Education, Life in academia, Student culture, Teaching

You can’t become an expert in college

Cover of "Outliers: The Story of Success&...

Cover of Outliers: The Story of Success

Here’s something of an epiphany I had at the ICTCM while listening to Dave Pritchard‘s keynote, which had a lot to do with the differences between novice and expert behaviors in problem-solving.

Malcolm Gladwell, in his book Outliers, puts forth a now-famous theory that it takes at least 10,000 hours to become a true expert in a particular area, at the top of one’s game in a particular pursuit. That’s 10,000 hours of concentrated work in studying, practicing, and performing in some particular area. When we talk about “expert behavior”, we mean the kinds of behaviors that people who have put in their 10,000 hours exercise as second nature.

Clearly high school or college students who are in an introductory course — even Dave Pritchard’s physics students at MIT, who are likely several levels above the typical college undergrad — are not there yet, and so there’s not a uniform showing of expert behavior. There are more hours to be put in. But: How many more?

On the one hand, if a person spends 40 hours a week working at this activity, for 50 weeks out of the year, then it will take 5 years to reach this level of expertise:

(10000 hours) x (1 week/40 hours) x (1 year/50 weeks) = 5 years

But on the other hand, a typical college student will carry a 16 credit hour load, which means 16 hours of courses per week. If the student does this over a 14-week semester, and if the student takes the standard advice of spending 2 hours outside of class for every hour inside of class, and if the student undergoes two semesters of classes every calendar year, how long does it take to get to 10000 hours?

10000 hours x (1 week/48 hours) x (1 semester/14 weeks) x (1 year/2 semesters) = 7.44 years

That’s fairly close to double the usual time it takes for people to earn a bachelor’s degree. And it assumes that all that coursework is concentrated into one area, which of course it isn’t.

So there’s an important truth here: Nobody can become an expert on something just by going to college. College might add the finishing touches on expertise that was begun in childhood — for example, with kids who start playing music or programming computers at age 6 — but there’s just not enough time in college to start from zero and become an expert.

This has implications for college coursework. Many of us profs have “expertise” in mind as the primary instructional objective of our courses, but this is quite possibly an unreachable goal for most students. Instead, along with reasonable levels of mastery on core subject content, college courses should focus on what students need for the remaining hours they need to get to 10,000. We should be teaching not only content in the here and now, but also processing skills and broad intellectual tools that set students up for success in continuing towards expertise after college is over.

We can’t make students experts in the time we have with them, probably, but we can put them in position to become experts later. Ironically, the harder we try to make experts out of everyone, the less we stress broad intellectual skills, and the less likely they are to become experts later. How are students supposed to continue to learn, practice, and perform to get to that top level if nobody teaches them how to think and learn on their own?

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Filed under Education, High school, Higher ed, Life in academia, Problem Solving, Study hacks, Teaching

On not paying for your kids’ college

Meagan Francis has this “bad parent” column today in which she confesses that she has no plans whatsoever to pay her five kids’ ways through college. Snippet:

Our plan is to assist each of our children with lots of support (including living at home if necessary), encouragement, and information; and as much financial support as we are able to — and that it makes sense to — give. […] Paying our kids’ ways through school has become such an integral part of “good” parenting that we feel pressured to do it even if footing the bill means mortgaging our own futures. Yet even Suze Orman warns that it doesn’t make sense to tap into our retirement funds or put our own finances at risk in order to subsidize the education of young, able-bodied people with lots of time ahead of them. By doing so, couldn’t we in effect punish those adult children when they have to, one day, support our broke and aging butts?

My wife and I are pretty much of the same mind as Francis here. I made it all the way through four years of undergrad (including two summers) and five years of graduate school with my mom and dad paying only for my utility bills during my final two years of undergrad (because I had moved out of the dorms), textbooks that my scholarships didn’t pay for, and some “allowance” money. Their total financial investment in the nine years between high school and finishing my Ph.D. (at super-expensive Vanderbilt, no less) was probably about $5000 and certainly less than $10,000. The rest was paid for through scholarships, assistantships, work-study, and part-time jobs. I never applied for a student loan, so I finished up my PhD with no debt. Plus, I gained some valuable life- and work-related skills through my work-study and part-time jobs that added a lot of value to my education. Having to work while in a rigorous major at an academically-focused university forced me to come to grips with time management and making good choices about my priorities, and I would like for my kids to get that kind of “education within an education” too.

So my wife and I are firm believers that socking away a fully-funded college fund for each kid is just not necessary. We plan on saving up enough to be able to help our kids through college but not to pay for it. Actually our plan is to instill an excellent work ethic and a love of learning in our kids on the front end, right now even before they start school, so that they’ll do extremely well in K-12 and end up getting a full ride somewhere. And believe me, if you’re a good high school student, you can get a full ride somewhere. It may not be at an Ivy League school or MIT, but it will very likely be at a number of really good schools that aren’t especially well-known but where you can get just as good of an education, if not better, than at the big-name places.

The important thing for students and their parents to keep in mind is balance. Francis’ advice taken to its extreme would have some students trying to manage 18-hour credit loads while working 40+ hours per week to pay for it, and that will lead to failures both at work and at school. If your financial situation is going to require this kind of insane schedule, it’s probably better to wait 3-4 years before starting college and get a job to save up money; or plan out a 5- or 6-year path through college taking about 12 hours a semester; or both.


Filed under Education, Family, Higher ed, Life in academia, Student culture

Should everyone go to college?

I’m reading through a number of books and articles related to the scholarship of teaching and learning this summer. One that I read recently was this article (PDF), “Connecting Beliefs with Research on Effective Undergraduate Education” by Ross Miller. There are lots of good points, and teaching tips, in this article. But Miller makes one assertion that doesn’t seem right. He brings up the point, under the general heading of “beliefs”, that “questions arise, both on and off campuses, about whether all students can learn at the college level and whether everyone should attend college” [Miller’s emphases]. As to the “should” part of that question, Miller says:

According to Carnevale (2000), from 1998 to 2008, 14.1 million new jobs will require a bachelor’s degree or some form of postsecondary education—more than double those requiring high school level skills or below. Given those data, it makes sense to encourage all students to continue their education past high school. Consistent high expectations for all students to take a challenging high school curriculum and prepare for college (or other postsecondary education) benefit everyone. Our current practices of holding low expectations for many students result in far too many dropouts or graduates unprepared for college, challenging technical careers, and lives as citizens in a diverse democracy.

So, Miller answers, yes — everyone should attend college. But the reasoning seems spurious for a couple of reasons.

  • How much of the increasingly common requirement of a bachelor’s degree for new jobs is the result of an existing oversupply of people with bachelor’s degrees? Miller claims that people need to have a postsecondary education because more and more jobs require it. Maybe so. But is that because the jobs themselves inherently use skills developed only through a college education? If so, we have to ask if our higher education system is consistently giving students that kind of education. If not, and if students should get a BA or BS  merely because there are so many people out there with BA’s and BS’s that you have to have one to avoid the appearance of intellectual poverty, then this encourages superficial education at the postsecondary level, and the reasoning here is more mythological than anything and needs to be repudiated.
  • As Joanne Jacobs noted back in early 2008 (quoting an article by Paul Barton) it’s not at all settled that the claims about jobs here are even valid. According to that article, only 29% of jobs in 2004 require college credentials, and the percentage is expected to rise only to 31% by 2010 — not exactly a clarion call for all students to matriculate. Also, Barton notes that the wages earned by males with college degrees have slipped, which indicates an oversupply.

College is just not the best choice for every person, and to say that it is merely sets students up for wasting four years of their lives. Some people may have a vocation into a field for which four years of college are a massively inefficient use of time and resources. If you’ve got a vocation to be an electrician, go learn how to be an electrician. If it’s to be a stay-at-home mom, then go do that. Both of these vocations can benefit from a college education if the person is inclined to get one, but neither requires a college education. If you want to go to college and then do those things, fine; but let nobody say that you should go to college, irrespective of your life situation.

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Filed under Education, Higher ed

Going out not drinking

Good advice for college students from Kill Jill, a college student herself: Give up drinking.

Fact: drinking every weekend (or, in my case, sometimes twice in a weekend) quickly drains your bank account, which is tiny to begin with.

Fact: groceries and an upcoming trip to New York City should be a priority, not a few hours of mixing vodka and Raspberry Sourpuss.

Fact: drinking that much can do serious damage to one’s health.

Fact: drinking every weekend at college leads to death 78% of the time.

OK. So, that last one wasn’t exactly a (documented) fact. But still, you get my point. Anyway, I’ve been 100% sober for 10 days and I plan to be sober for a long time. I can’t afford it and I just don’t feel like it.

She goes on to list seven “Ways To Have Fun In College Without Opening A Bottle Of Anything That Isn’t Coke, Pepsi, orange juice or Snapple”.  She’s not a prohibitionist or a religious fanatic; she just figures life is better without intoxication. I agree, and I wish more college students would get the fact that there are lots of really amazing opportunities out there which only college students can take, and they’re all better than being drunk or bragging about being drunk. And even if you’re a college student and don’t accept that idea, then at least consider the cost angle — do you really have all that much money to throw around on alcohol?


Filed under Student culture

Accreditation nation

Higher education is awash with accrediting agencies, on the institutional level and sometimes on the level of individual programs. Losing one’s accreditation is the kiss of death. Accreditation is a big deal. But here’s one thing I’ve never understood about accrediting bodies: Why do we have them in the first place?

My understanding about accreditation is that it’s roughly analogous to getting a letter of recommendation or a certification — except accreditation is on the institutional level instead of the individual level. You have this body of higher ed people in the accrediting agency, supposedly experienced in how universities and their programs are supposed to operate, and they come in every so often and pore through mounds of collected evidence about how a university does business, and then give a thumbs-up or -down. That way, colleges that are nothing more than diploma mills and are not offering viable academic programming can be distinguished from those that are, and the outside world — for example, the people who employ college graduates — have some sense of what they are getting.

But, two things:

(1) What happens when institutions have viable academic programming but it’s done significantly differently than how the main stream of universities do it, or it’s done from a religious and political standpoint that the experts from the accrediting agency find intolerable? This happened to Patrick Henry College and to King’s College, two relatively new institutions who had to go to court to have their accreditation reinstated, or in PHC’s case revert to a Christian-college-only accrediting body, because accreditation was revoked on the basis of the Christian approach to the curriculum that those colleges employ. How can we be sure that accreditation is not just a political litmus test?

And more practically:

(2) Wouldn’t the free market perform the job that the accrediting agencies are supposedly doing, at much lower cost? If a college produces graduates who are employable and go on to have productive personal and professional lives in the real world, then what difference does it make if it has the stamp of approval of some higher ed bureaucracy? Or conversely, if a university produces graduates who are consistently unemployable or earn a track record for being poor performers on the job, then is the accreditation that the university has earned really worth anything? Why not just dispense with accrediting agencies altogether and let the market decide whether or not the degree is worth the paper it’s printed on?


Filed under Higher ed, Life in academia

That’s right, a B. You got a problem with that?

This past week I sent off for my unofficial undergraduate and graduate transcripts, because I discovered that my copies that I got in 2000 for my last job search were long gone from my archives. I got both transcripts in the last couple of days, and reading them is an interesting trip down memory lane.

I was a pretty hard-working student and my grades in my undergrad and graduate courses were mostly A’s. But I did have a few courses here and there where I didn’t get A’s; far from being disappointed by those courses or feeling like if I had just given a little more effort, etc., I actually feel pretty doggone good about some of them.

  • General Physics I and II (Fall and Summer of sophomore year): B. My undergrad is from Tennessee Technological University, a place swarming with math, science, and engineering majors — especially freshmen who came to Tech wanting to major in engineering. With that many engineering prospects, there had to be a weed-out course. Physics I and II was it, and the department at the time openly embraced the role of that course. In the run-up to the final exam in Physics I, the professors adamantly told us that the exam would not be focusing on memorization of obscure formulas but on big, general concepts, and we should absolutely not expend energy on memorization. The exam itself was, of course, a series of problems which all required recall of exotically obscure formulas. I made a 20% on the final exam, and that ended up being in the upper quartile of the course. In the second semester, the profs said the very same thing about memorization — that we don’t need to worry about it — and I promptly went and did the opposite of what they suggested. I ended up with the highest grade on the final out of over 200 students taking it. I survived, and I am darn proud of those two B’s.
  • Advanced Calculus (Fall of junior year): B. This was the first semester of a yearlong sequence in Advanced Calculus. The course was taught by a faculty member using the Moore method approach, only she used the Moore method only because she didn’t know the material herself and would frequently rip students to shreds when presenting only to find out later that her own criticisms were mathematically flawed. Once I was struggling with an induction proof and she said, “You know Robert, the good students in the course aren’t struggling with this.” (And people accuse me of being uncaring.) Also, she was a chain-smoker, and these were the days before smoking bans inside buildings; my attempts to get help in office hours probably shortened my life by 5 years. A nightmare of a course. I made it my mission in life to get an A in the second semester, and I did.
  • Theory of Functions of a Complex Variable (Fall of grad school year 2): B+. My complex analysis course at Vanderbilt was taught by Richard Arenstorf, a brilliant German mathematician of the old school — meaning he was as prolific as he was hard-nosed. His grading system for homework consisted of four kinds of grades: R (“right”), R/2 (“half right”), 0 (“zero”), and F (“false”). (I have never fully grasped this grading system, but it seems awfully appealing to me now as a professor.) Our weekly homework consisted usually of 3-4 problems that would take all of us fully one week to solve (if indeed we did solve them); our two-hour final exam consisted of ten of them. I am still thrilled to have merited a B+ in his class. In fact on the course evaluations I remember writing, “It is a distinct honor to have my intelligence overestimated by Prof. Arenstorf.” Despite all that, I actually enjoyed Dr. Arenstorf very much as a mathematician and as a person, and I was disappointed to see his proof of the Twin Prime Conjecture didn’t work out.

Sometimes it’s the less-than-perfect grades that mean the most.

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An outside look at college football

At Culture11, Alex Massie muses on an unlikely sports obsession for a Scotsman: American college football. Here’s one of several insightful observations, appropriate for this opening day of the season:

There is [a] permanence to college football that is comparable to European soccer or rugby. True, sports teams in Europe have owners, but their sides are held in trust, beholden to the supporters and the communities that hold them dear. It is all but unthinkable that their teams could be moved as a result of an owner’s whim. Even in an age in which sport has become big business, there’s an identity and belonging that endures, rooted in a keen sense of place. College fans know this feeling, because it is their feeling too.

Read the whole thing. It makes me think back to the four years I lived in South Bend in my first job out of graduate school. Those Saturdays when there was a Notre Dame home game were horrible for traffic, and forget about having out-of-town visitors; but the whole atmosphere of the city had this happy charge to it (even in those beginning-of-the-end Bob Davie years), and the one home game I actually attended was one of the most fun experiences I’ve had. It made you glad to live in South Bend, which is not an easy thing to pull off.

It’s easy to focus on those instances of college athletics where the sports programs have basically taken over the school, crossing the line from co-curricular to super-curricular. But college sports, football especially, remain a powerful means for students and communities to identify with universities in a way that you don’t usually see with academics. And don’t forget that you can’t be dumb and be a good football player at the same time.

[ht Phi Beta Cons]

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Filed under Higher ed, Life in academia

Legalizing it?

There’s a movement afoot to lower the legal drinking age from 21 to 18, and it’s being supported by an unlikely group:

College presidents from about 100 of the nation’s best-known universities, including Duke, Dartmouth and Ohio State, are calling on lawmakers to consider lowering the drinking age from 21 to 18, saying current laws actually encourage dangerous binge drinking on campus.

The movement called the Amethyst Initiative began quietly recruiting presidents more than a year ago to provoke national debate about the drinking age.

“This is a law that is routinely evaded,” said John McCardell, former president of Middlebury College in Vermont who started the organization. “It is a law that the people at whom it is directed believe is unjust and unfair and discriminatory.”

Other prominent schools in the group include Syracuse, Tufts, Colgate, Kenyon and Morehouse.

MADD is, of course, against this idea, as are some other university presidents. The rationale behind lowering the drinking age is familiar: College students are going to drink no matter what, and having the legal age set at 21 encourages a “culture of dangerous, clandestine binge-drinking”.

I’m not a fan of the “they’re doing it already, so let’s legalize it” argument in general , and I am certainly painfully aware of the tendency towards binge drinking on college campuses. But I think there’s a point to be made by the pro-18 crowd. Responsible alcohol consumption is a part of normative adult behavior for most people. Alcohol is not an illegal substance, and there is nothing inherently immoral, or even un-Biblical, about consuming alcohol in moderation. The problem comes in when people drink without moderation and outside accepted cultural norms — binge drinking, becoming dependent on alcohol. Does the drinking age being set at 21 rather than 18 moderate these negative behaviors? The research cited in the original article claims that doing so has reduced the number of drunk driving fatalities, which is good if it’s really true, but otherwise no evidence is presented that a higher legal drinking age makes the acquisition of normative social behavior of alcohol any more likely. Setting the legal age back to 18, on the other hand, might take some of the illicit appeal out of alcohol and help college-aged students learn how to consume in a responsible, adult way (maybe).

The main thing missing from this discussion is parents. Any discussion which does not consider the role of parents working with their kids on this issue when they are adolescents and teenagers is going nowhere fast. It’s as if the parties involved in the article aren’t even aware parents exist. Isn’t it obvious that passing a law is not going to solve the problem of irresponsible drinking on campus apart from parenting which has taught kids about alcohol and its responsible consumption at some point?

Another thing is true in this article — college administrators have to deal with the reality of irresponsible drinking head-on, regardless of what the legal age limit is, rather than blithely pretend that it doesn’t exist or that it’s just part of the college fabric. If the presidents here are really seeking to take on the task of helping young people learn how to be responsible, then great — but if they are just trying to define the problem of “illegal drinking” away by changing the legal age, then shame on them.


Filed under Higher ed, Life in academia, Student culture

Five big ideas for freshman orientation

This past week saw most of the incoming freshman class converge on my campus for an initial round of freshman orientation. At the end of the month is a much more extensive exposure to orientation, taking up what appears to be 80% of students’ waking hours from the Friday before classes all the way up through the end of the weekend. One has to wonder how much orientation leads to disorientation.

I'm thinking these students aren't learning about studying or time management.

I'm thinking these students aren't learning about studying or time management.

The purpose of a freshman orientation program ought to be, well, to orient freshmen in college — that is, to give students a “compass bearing” in the strange and unfamiliar world of college. Many such programs do not even remotely address or even desire this goal, preferring instead to indoctrinate students into the correct political stances or endorse irresponsibility in an ill-advised attempt to be relevant. Other programs tend to focus on making college first and foremost a place for fun and socialization and only secondarily (if that) a place where hard work and learning is going to happen.

I’ve seen very few freshman orientation programs that really put academics first and seek to address the points of students’ greatest needs and misconceptions. Generally speaking, those are all rooted in the sudden and overwhelming freedom they get when they enter college. Students don’t have their moms or dads waking them up for school, making their breakfasts and dinners,  planning their after-school schedules, and — especially — checking to make sure schoolwork is done right and on time. Most freshmen I’ve met do not have a good concept of how to manage that freedom, nor do they understand the various ways its misuse can mess them up. That’s where freshman orientation ought to step in.

If I were to make up such a program, here are five big concepts that I would make sure the freshmen got in significant doses:

1. The basics of college-level academic expectations and how they differ from those of high school. This is by far the biggest need. I cannot count how many freshmen I’ve had, many of them academic standouts in high school, try to operate in college using high school parameters and end up doing poorly. The common refrain is “I never had to study in high school!” (High school teachers: What’s the deal with that?) Yes, in college, professors assign stuff for you to do, but no it’s not always taken up for a grade, and yes you are still supposed to do it. Yes, professors will expect you to complete the readings prior to class, and yes, you will look like an idiot if you don’t do them. Yes, we are serious when we say “two hours of studying outside of class for every hour inside”. Freshman orientation is a chance to set the academic tone for the entire college for the entire year. In fact one could argue that it always does so, and it’s just a matter of whether the formative impression students get is one of games and pizza parties or one of rigorous, rewarding learning.

2. Time/task management with a view towards a student-friendly version of GTD. This is a close second to academic expectations in terms of need. I’ve blogged about time/task management many times before. College is not, of course, all work and no play. But it is primarily work, and work involves getting things done with timeliness and quality. How many orientation programs have you ever seen which stress that there are only so many hours in a week, and you have to first give plenty of time to personal maintenance (sleep, etc.) and schoolwork, and THEN divvy up the remainders for the “fun” stuff? The tendency of orientation programs to have an 80/20 ratio of “fun” stuff to academic stuff doesn’t help. Time management is not something many freshmen have even needed to think about, so they need training and practice, and they need a system that works for them. I propose GTD, because it’s exactly the kind of system that doesn’t require much thought — indeed, a main idea with GTD is to minimize the amount of time you spend thinking about your system — and can be implemented with fancy computer software or just with a pencil and notebook. Here’s a good article which outlines a student-focused implementation of GTD that I think would serve well.

3. The meaning and centrality of academic honesty. This is really a subpoint of #1 above, but one which is so problematic these days that I think it must be driven home with force — especially since some so-called educators are redefining plagiarism to the extent that cut-and-paste hack jobs are considered endearing works of intellectual creativity. That works fine for 4-year olds, but not so much for grownups. Every semester I have to intervene, sometimes punitively, when students cross the lines of academic honesty, because their threshhold for dishonesty is a lot higher than mine or my college’s. I think most freshmen (or older students) don’t realize how important academic honesty really is to higher education.

4. Basics of nutrition and exercise. When I was a freshman, I ate horribly — including multiple trips per week to the pizza buffet across from my dorm — and I gained not the usual “freshman 15” but more like 30 pounds that I struggled to get off all the way into graduate school. When you have the freedom to eat a breakfast that consists of lime jello, Cocoa Pebbles, and Mountain Dew — or maybe just the Mountain Dew — then you very well might do so. A lot of students forget that their brains are part of their bodies, and as your body goes, so goes your ability to think and pay attention in class. Even varsity athletes seem to struggle with this point. And I think it’s ironic that many colleges are spending millions on lavish new student athletic facilities but giving nothing in their freshman orientation about the importance of exercise or simple strategies for exercise during the school year when it’s busy.

5. The meaning of “free time” and how to spend it fruitfully. Many freshmen have a backwards idea of time. They think that every hour of the day is lawfully theirs, and when a professor gives an assignment it is cutting in to “their” time. The opposite is really the case. The freshman’s time belongs not to them but to the university and whomever else they are obligated. “Free time” is best defined as the time left over once a person’s obligations are taken care of. So freshmen have a lot less free time than they think (and some have so overloaded themselves that they have no free time). This means that free time, being scarce, is valuable and therefore must be carefully managed. If you budget 10 hours a week of free time, will you spend it playing video games or watching TV? Or exercising? Or working on a fraternity service project? Or doing some reading for pleasure? (The importance of reading for pleasure might be another item for this list.)  Nobody can tell a person how to spend his free time, of course; but there are some choices for doing so that are better than others. Orientation programs should spend some time driving home the truth that investing free time in something that will bear fruit for you later on is better than simply spending it on unfruitful things. That fact will lead different people to make different choices, but at least there’s a reason behind their choices which, maybe, will make their college education more full.

After the orientation program has addressed all that stuff, THEN the freshmen can play goofy group games and have pizza parties.

What are some other elements that you’d like to see in freshman orientation?


Filed under Higher ed, Life in academia, Student culture, Study hacks