Tag Archives: Study hacks

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

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?

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

Keeping the “extra” in extracurricular

Over at Study Hacks, they are floating the “dangerous idea” that

Outside of a few exceptions, college extracurriculars are of minor importance to your efforts to find a job after graduation. There is no benefit to be gained by suffering through an overwhelming load of activities at the college level. [emphasis theirs]

The article makes the point that extracurricular activities in college can add a little color to your job applications later, and of course it’s always healthy to be active in things you enjoy. But overall, they advise that college students keep the number of their activities small, use those activities to surround themselves with interesting people, and don’t be afraid to cut back.

I agree, and this fits with the idea I’ve blogged about before that time is a scarce resource that (like any such resource) requires budgeting and careful management. There are only a certain number of hours in the week that you aren’t sleeping, bathing, eating, or attending class — that number is computable based on your credit load — and if you use up all those hours on extracurriculars, when are you going to study? And most college students budget their time out to the extracurriculars first and then give the meager leftovers, if there are any, to studying. There’s nothing inherently wrong with most extracurriculars, but students simply can’t have them all. Eventually one must pick and choose and pay the opportunity cost for not following certain appealing activities. (Not a simple thing for today’s overscheduled teenage generation.)

I think a lot of freshman orientation programs out there contribute to this problem by having 85% of their activities be about fun and community, and the other 15% devoted to study and time management. Unsurprisingly, that’s roughly the same ratio students end up having of “fun” stuff to studying when they get into the semester.

College students, especially incoming freshmen, should definitely go read the entire article.

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

LaTeX as a word processor?

Good article here at The Productive Student giving five reasons why students should use \LaTeX as their word processor and not Microsoft Word:

1. Never worry about formatting again.
2. It looks way better. [By the way: Very nice article on LaTeX’s typesetting at that link.]
3. It won’t crash: LaTeX is basically a plain text file. You can edit it anywhere, in any text editor, and it basically can’t crash on you. File size is very small which makes it very portable.
4. It’s great for displaying equations, which is why it’s the leading standard among sciencitifc scholars.
5. It fits in with the workflow of a student and allows you to do one thing well: Write.

The writer also shares some of his practices for writing papers (not necessarily math or science papers) with \LaTeX, stressing \LaTeX‘s ability to handle bibliographic data as the “killer feature”.

\LaTeX was not designed to be a word processor, so there are some downsides for using \LaTeX for word processing. Graphics are not easy to handle, if you are going to include any in your document. Some basic formatting tasks like footers and margin settings are tricky to manipulate. And above all, there is a fairly formidable learning curve to \LaTeX, not the least of which is the fact that you have to install things yourself (something a surprisingly large number of students don’t know how to do) and use a text editor. (We forget that text editors are essentially an alien world to students who are raised on GUI’s for everything.) And for collaborative projects, Word’s ability to insert comments and track changes in a document is really essential.

Still, I think most college students can learn \LaTeX if they put their minds to it, and the fact that it’s free and portable and “future-proof” is awfully appealing in a world where this year’s version of Word can’t be trusted to interoperate with last year’s.

Finally, I think there’s a lot to be said for something the article brings up as well: You should use a text editor to write content, and a word processor to format it. Type it up in a basic editor or Google Docs, and then import it into your favorite proprietary program(s) to make it look nice. Separating content from form will save a lot of people headaches and improve their writing as well.

[h/t AcademHack]

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Filed under GTD, Higher ed, LaTeX, Profhacks, Study hacks

Happiness and productivity in college, the GTD way

I missed this the first time, but Study Hacks posted this article on Getting Things Done for College Students back last summer. It’s basically a self-contained overview of GTD, although it differs from “canonical” GTD in that it takes into account that college students don’t have a fixed 8-5 work day. Instead, they propose fixing down “work hours” and making that be your work day. There are other college-student specific variations in the main article. Well worth a look if you are a college student needing a trustworthy system for productivity.

That article is just one link in this massively-link-filled post on being productive and happy in college in general, which contains so much good advice on time and “stuff” management for college students that I think the average college student would be overwhelmed by it all. But it’s definitely deserving of a read from all students out there.

How come they don’t teach stuff like this in the freshman year, or in freshman orientation?

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Filed under GTD, Profhacks, Student culture, Study hacks