Like Deer in Headlights

I am a teaching assistant for a professor that travels frequently. This has proven to have both pros and cons; this creates much more work than the average TA, however I have had the opportunity to hop right into teaching at the collegiate level. As I have begun to regularly sub for the professor, there have been challenges along the way. Especially as the students transition from one teaching style to the next, they tend to frequently have a “deer in headlights” look, especially when discussion is expected or questions are posed. Recently, there was such a lack of response when I asked the group as a whole if they understood the material that I literally had to say, “Are we shaking our heads yes or no”? In this course, students are able to bring their laptops and phones to class. Sometimes it seems as though students are much more engaged in what is being displayed on their laptops versus what is taking place in the classroom. The Leave Your Laptops at the Door to My Classroom article really resonated with me. Through my undergraduate career, I rarely brought my laptop to class because of how I knew I would be distracted by it.

I do see the argument that typing notes on laptops can be done much more quickly than taking notes by hand and can also be much more legible for both the student taking them and for others. This also serves as an easy way to consolidate notes, update them, and save them for later. Personally, I am an advocate for taking notes by hand, however I do not think it is my place to “choose” that for students as everyone learns differently. My stance at this point in time is that whatever route is chosen, it is essential that expectations be communicated the first day of class.


The Smarter Than You Think reading by Clive Thompson adds to this conversation by shining light on the fact that we don’t have to rely solely on humans or technology; there can be a healthy combination of both. In fact, the integration of the two is often the most beneficial option. Therefore, maybe allowing students to use their computers and phones to perform certain tasks, but asking them to put them away otherwise could be a way to accomplish this. This article brought up a good point that being aware of how technology affects our daily lives (sometimes inhibiting us) is key. As instructors, we can help students to reflect on this concept and be more mindful about technology being a distraction/how technology is a distraction from a personal standpoint. When I peer reviewed Debjit’s course syllabus in class, his statement about the usage of technology in the classroom impressed me. It was like a friendly forewarning about how technology can serve as both a beneficial tool in the classroom or a distraction. He stressed that it was important for students to be able to recognize the role it played for them personally, putting the responsibility on the students, but still allowing freedom of choice.



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Week 12: insert interesting title

I don’t know if Google is making up stupider. I doubt it really. I feel like we are just now openly doing what we covertly did before. Did we ever really deeply read every academic article we came across? Or just skim it for relevant information and move on? I think the latter, now we just don’t lie to ourselves about it. Google just makes it easier to do what we were already doing, and harder to mask it.

The articles about a shorter attention span are interesting, especially concerning the genre of the novel. I think that constantly consuming small amounts of information has conditioned our brain to expect that; thus the not being able to read a single “longish” article or chapter without our brains wandering. If we can condition our brain to ingest short bits of information quickly we can condition it back; if we want to. That really makes me wonder, however, which is more likely. Will we spend the time engaging in “longish” works to recondition our brains to focus for longer? Or will the genre of the novel, and long form journalism start to disappear in favor of new genres that more closely sync up with our decreased attention spans?

Now, what I’m most honestly interested in is people’s opinions about laptops in the classrooms. I design a few activities where I have everyone on their laptops actively researching something. But other than that I ask them to put their laptops away during class (with the exception of the students who use them according to their disability statements. Why? I’ve been a student, still am, and let’s look through a list of things I’ve seen students doing on their laptops during class: Facebook, Pinterest, twitter, instagram, reddit, solitaire, WoW, spider solitare, chess,, shopping, photoshop, math homework (not in math class), chem homework (not in chem class), checking the weather, watching a baseball game, watching surfing movies, watching rock climbing movies, Mircrosoft paint (you know where you make a bunch of circles and fill the circles in with a different colors), message boards,, checking email, writing email… and I’m sure there’s more but I think this list will suffice. They pretty much do everything that isn’t paying attention. Then they ask questions that the teachers already covered, probably just two minutes before. Does closing the laptops make students pay attention? No, they can doodle or daydream or whatever. Does it help? I think so.

Free Food Anyone?

A question raised from this week’s reading was whether our constant connection to the internet has caused distraction in our lives, particularly in the classroom and during times when we learn. Evidence [1,2,3] has also pointed to the inability of the human brain to multitask, but our connection to online devices has often forced us to switch between tasks when instead we should be concentrating. What surprised me, however, was that none of the readings thought to mention the distractions inherent in the American higher education system. I’m thinking about all the campus events – the football lottery, the guest speaker, the free food in the office upstairs. Is it really a wonder that students are distracted when our inboxes experience constant influx and we feel obliged to be updated in case of missed opportunity?

I used the word “obliged” because students now are almost expected to venture away from the books and be involved in different facets of university life. Employers like to see students doing things other than school work. Valuable skills can certainly be gained, and it is worthwhile to dive into one’s passion. But the time devoted means keeping up with the relevant opportunities and communication, which now seem to occur almost exclusively online.

With so much going on, time management seems increasingly important. Perhaps this is a skill that we need to talk about. Concentration is one part of it, as it helps us maximize the use of our time. I will try not to multitask anymore, after having that myth debunked. The other part is prioritization, and perhaps this is where we could be smarter about how we use the internet. Could we be more selective of the notifications that pop up on our devices? Could programs be more intuitively designed so that we could have greater control over the information influx? Lastly, for obvious reasons, we also have to exercise discipline and simply refrain from wasting time when we need to get something done. Turn off the phone. The world won’t end from the short-term abstinence.

[1] Technology: Myth of Multitasking

[2] Think You’re Multitasking? Think Again

[3] Media multitaskers pay mental price, Stanford study shows


Who Knows How to Use a Screw Driver?

A not so long time ago.

In a small classroom somewhere near us.

Brandon : How many of you know how to use a screwdriver?

Students thinking: (Refer to the image that follows)

Without peeling it, poke 2 holes into the onion using your screwdriver -- one on the left, and one on the right.

After about 3 people in a class of 30, raised their hands, Brandon realized the enormity of the task at hand. He also out the answer to the question – How many engineers does it take to use a screwdriver? (You would not be incorrect if you said 10%.)


Live scenes of Brandon from his class (not!)

Our group (Which was the Best Group Ever!!) acknowledges the limitations of the banking form of education. Simply trying to transfer our knowledge unto students is an outdated method of instruction.


Teachers as Depositors

The banking form of education assumes instructors and teachers as being the single source of all information. We would like to disagree. We understand that students bring their own experiences and viewpoints to the classroom, and they can also impart valuable information to both their teachers and their peers.

Me when I started teaching

However, at the same time, we realize that teaching is not a one-way street. Learning to think critically requires simultaneous participation of teachers as well as students. One can obviously argue that current incentive structures hinders critical thought. A system  with primary focus on grades is detrimental to critical thinking. Students essentially minimize thought in an effort to maximize grades.


The drawbacks of the prevalent incentive structures

In an effort to wean students away from existing methods of learning, we should focus on incremental learning, like in cooking, where you reuse fundamental skills over and over, occasionally adding trying a new method or step to create something new.

Pedagogy is like cooking

Additionally, forming relationships leads to engagement in the learning process by the students. Educators and students can establish mutual teaching and learning relationships. Active listening as well as active silence are necessary to establish a successful learning environment.

Doing things differently

We as educators, must impress upon students that education is an ongoing pursuit for democracy, freedom, equity, deep critical thinking, and diversity. We should promote ways to overcome barriers that hold some students back from developing their deep potential.


Balancing Lives




Ethan –

Jyotsana :

Miguel Andres (



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Whose Fault is it Anyway?

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The current week’s reading made me think critically about critical thinking (Citation: anyone in the class who used this line in their blogs. I will find your blog and cite you). Well not that critically to be perfectly honest. I cannot hold a thought together for more than five minutes. But here are my two cents anyways.

Critical thinking is a pretty rare commodity nowadays. This is “disciplined” out of us early on in school. The majority of my school years were spent mugging up anything and everything that was placed in front of me. I blame the incentive structure. The only thing that mattered at the end of a school year was how much I had scored overall and where my ranking relative to others. I did what I had to do. I’m not ashamed to admit it. Fast forward to my college days where I spent countless hours (mostly the hours on deadline days), working on projects and assignments. Nobody told me the purpose of these. Although I must admit that I learned more through the projects, yet the primary purpose of it went largely unnoticed. I had assignments to submit and grades to get and people to compare myself to (To those who are completely bewildered: Final grades of a class are publicly available to all the students in India).

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Fast forward a few more years and I end up taking classes at Virginia Tech. I learn the hard way that Problem Based Learning (PBL) doesn’t seem to always work (Also a shoutout to Alex: It couldn’t be my fault, could it? Had the blamer really become the blame-ee (I know! I know! it not a word. Cut me some slack)?

Hooks (2010, Chp 2) address various pre-requisites that are essential in order to encourage critical thinking. Firstly, students must learn how to enjoy thinking. A thing easier said than done thanks to the rigid schooling system and the incentive structures in place. Can we not destroy people’s critical thinking in school? That’d be great. Thanks ya’ll (Did you think I’ll stop blaming others? You were wrong). In colleges, there has to be a conscious effort on our (graduate students and faculties) part to focus more on the journey (how much students learn along the way) rather than the the solution (aka: Final project submission). This is somewhat similar to what Dr. Fowler’s recommendation of  “Using PBL that encourages not just problem-solving, but problem-posing”.

The need of the day is for all of us to change. However the onus lies on us, the educators, to bring about changes in the current systems in order for students to change for the better.

Image links and citations (in the order they appear):

  3. Bell Hooks. (2010). Teaching critical thinking: Practical wisdom. Routledge.

Suppressing Heuristics

The idea of human beings using heuristics isn’t a new concept. Our brain processes information either analytically or affectively (Refer to Epstein 19931). While the former is deliberate and slow, the latter is faster and relies on heuristics. The same heuristics that Shankar Vedantam refers to in the excerpt from the Hidden Brain. I actually want to get this off my chest early on. The excerpt from the Hidden Brain by Shankar Vedantam and was darker than my previous post about students with suicide plans. That was depressing. Geez!

Coming back to the topic at hand, heuristics help us respond faster in unfamiliar circumstances. Can’t decide on something? Let’s pick the middle most option available (Saini and Monga 20082 ). Human beings are prone to use heuristics in a variety of situations. Except when it is used on them. I am from India (read: I am brown) and am growing a beard (Abe Lincoln’s excuse: I have a weak chin). Many a times have I been told in restaurants that they serve halal meat. On the outside, I thank the host and the hostess, while I actually want to tell them to stop trying to use heuristics. This is when one realizes that heuristics are not all good.

An episode from my class further showed me that heuristics are not always correct. My early experiences with students from University sports teams have shown me that I need to spend more time with them on all aspects of the class. Talking about class, exams and keeping them on track with their final projects. And so in my last class I was pleasantly surprised when a student from the sports team turned out to be the best student in class. The student received the best grades in the midterms and finals and ended up having the best final project. That was when I decided to throw that heuristic out of the window. The thing about heuristics that people do not realize is that it is born out of experiences. It undergoes modifications throughout one’s life. In my case, I opted for the extreme case of totally over ruling my heuristic. And I intend for it to stay that way.


  1. Epstein, S. (1993). Implications of cognitive-experiential self-theory for personality and developmental psychology.
  2. Saini, R., & Monga, A. (2008). How I decide depends on what I spend: use of heuristics is greater for time than for money. Journal of Consumer Research34(6), 914-922.

P.S. For those of you wondering, I do know that Wladimir Klitschko has a doctorate and he could knock me and my heuristic, out, in the blink of an eye.




The Nervous Instructor

This week’s topic is difficult. I imagine that, inevitably, at some point in our teaching careers we will find some form of discrimination in the classroom. When that time comes, we, as instructors, have an important role to play. The thought makes me nervous – I’m not confrontational by nature, but I know very well that certain situations will require leadership from the instructor. I don’t tolerate discrimination, but would it be too easy to simply kick someone out of class? How can I create a meaningful learning experience out of an unfortunate situation?

I liked what Arao and Clemens1 said – that perhaps what we need are “brave spaces” rather than “safe spaces.” Out of all people in the class, the instructor cannot opt out of difficult conversations no matter how uncomfortable these might be. I would like to set the precedent that social injustice issues hold just as much, if not more importance then the class material itself, and would be willing to dedicate class time to facilitate discussions. I hope to send a message of positivity rather than one of passivity and complicity2.

I think my nervousness largely stems from inexperience – still have much to learn about leadership and handling difficult situations. What are some of your unfortunate classroom experiences dealing with discrimination? How did you handle them?

[1] Arao, B. and Clemens, K. (2013). “From Safe Spaces to Brave Spaces a New Way to Frame Dialogue around Diversity and Social Justice.” The Art of Effective Facilitation. 135-150.

[2] The Heinemann Podcast: “Dismantling Racism in Education”

The Authentic Teaching Self – Always a Work in Progress

It is almost absurd to think that the majority of teachers teaching below the collegiate level typically have years of training, whereas some collegiate teachers merely have a class handed over to them even though they may have zero teaching qualifications. Similar to what was said in Finding My Teaching Voice, I feel that many collegiate professors only know about teaching what they have experienced themselves. This can be both a good thing and bad thing. Some of the practices used by my teachers and professors throughout the years have really stuck with me and are applied into my own teaching. However, I would say with confidence that we have all had what I would consider to be bad teachers, or at least ones that implemented bad teaching practices.

The whole “being a well-liked female professor while still maintaining authority” thing really resonated with me. Especially being fairly close in age to the students, I find it important that they respect me as an authoritative figure, while still feeling comfortable enough to have authentic conversations with me. After all, I feel like I’m there to help them in whatever academic capacity I can. This is what I told my students the other day when I subbed my professor’s class – that I am here to talk with them about internships, graduate school, etc. in addition to the class itself.

For my Graduate Teaching Scholars class, one assignment required students to read Parker J. Palmer’s The Courage to Teach. Although at times a bit monotonous, this book did a great job at discussing one’s authentic self and the importance of this in the scope of teaching and shares a few ideas with Sarah Deel’s article. How cool is it that while our students are trying to figure out who they are, we, as teachers, are also doing the same? The past couple of years I have become more reflective as I read more and more about authenticity in teaching. I think that authenticity requires vulnerability. Lately, I’ve been more ok with being vulnerable in academic life and life in general. Sometimes it is seen as such a bad thing when I’ve beginning to learn that it is actually very powerful.

Although some of these points may seem self-explanatory, The Authentic Teaching Self and Communication Skills document provides concrete examples of how to improve teaching. Through the years I’ve begun to appreciate and become more tuned in to the physical aspects of good teaching. I find myself “hiding” behind the podium sometimes when giving presentations. I’ve worked my way up to walking around a bit. It helps me to relax and typically contributes to a better rapport with students. This is not something I’ve been able to achieve over night. I would both figuratively and literally take baby steps. But I promise that practice helps. Good teaching truly is a process where you’re always re-evaluating yourself. It can be easy to be hard on oneself through this continuous process, but you just have to be ok with the fact that doing something wrong is just fine; you’ll try to do better the next time.

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Let’s Meet Halfway

I’d like to foster a partnership with the students. I envision this as striking a balance between instructor and student responsibility, where the learning environment is the product of both parties’ efforts and engagement.

A starting point could be to have high expectations both for myself and for my students. I will try my best to be prepared for class, to be respectful and fair, to answer questions and offer extra help, but my students are expected to be equally prepared and respectful, and to take charge of their own learning. Perhaps this baseline seems lofty, but I would like to set a common goal that everyone could strive for.

Democratize the classroom, where all parties could have some say on course direction. This does not mean a free-for-all. The instructor should provide a basic framework with supporting rationales, but also allow room for student input and adjustments. This idea came from my Continuum Mechanics professor, who established a baseline method of evaluation for the class but allowed students to decide among themselves how exactly to allocate grades and how many assignments and tests to have. Though students were bummed about having to do tests, they were at least satisfied with the prospect of being able to decide how much the tests mattered in comparison to everything else. I would like my students to have the same feelings of empowerment and the opportunity for collective decision making.

Perhaps fostering a partnership goes beyond the division of responsibility mentioned previously. One of my strengths is being open to different points of views and circumstances, and I could bring this quality to the classroom by treating students as individuals. It seems like a worthwhile effort in establishing a reciprocity, where students could feel like they mattered.

I have reservations of whether this idea of partnership will work, specifically for undergraduate level courses. Thus far, I have only lectured for graduate level classes where the students consisted of my graduate peers. They were already friends, so mutual respect wasn’t hard to come by. They were also graduate students, so they already have some interest in the subject of study and were easy to engage. Doubtful it would be just as easy for undergraduate classes, but I am still willing to try and adjust, if need be. After all, the point is to meet halfway, so both the instructor and the students have to take part in this dynamic…wrestle, push, pull…to create an environment that is unique and meaningful for those involved.

Idiot with the Drill

I must be a “schooler” because the parable at the beginning of Papert’s chapter is ridiculous.

I think even worse how pretentiously he presents that there’s pushback against the idea that teachers shouldn’t be able to recognize the future classroom. Of course there is. Talking about the surgical theater brings up visions of a plethora of electronics all used to monitor different vital signs. We don’t need a pulse oximeter in the classroom to ensure that we are safe. Most people don’t need an oxygen mask. No one needs to be under constant supervision because they have been sedated with a drug the potentially could stop their heart. The comparison intentionally leads people in the wrong direction and then tries to use their obvious confusion at why the classroom would ever need to look like a surgical theater to make a clarion call for megachange.

This chapter was written in 1992, why would the classroom need to change so radically that teachers from 100 years before wouldn’t understand what was going on? Video games can be a great teaching tool, but are they necessary to create most of the change he was talking about? We talked in class two weeks ago, about a group of students that were taken outside and asked to walk around barefoot in order to facilitate a more student directed learning while emphasizing critical thinking skills. Is he expecting the classroom to look more like the matrix where we can plug in and experience new things we otherwise never could?  How much of a role does technology need to play in changing the philosophy of the education system?

Again, maybe my schooler mentality is obstructing my ability to see the future of the machine.

More to the point, however, why is making bad comparison something we should avoid? Example: me. I’m writing this blog post. We had two really good readings about finding your teaching self, and I’m stuck on this terrible parable. I’m not even talking about the rest of the chapter the bad parable came from.

Maybe it’s a flaw of mine, I should be able to look past the parable to see the bigger picture, right? Perhaps, but story telling is a powerful teaching tool. If you haven’t read some of the research on how well humans learn through story telling it’s pretty interesting. The basic gist of it is that stories help us experience things, not just hear and process. Stories stick with us longer. They incorporate more parts of our brain than when receiving facts. They have been a part of human existence probably from its beginning. Keep in mind the earliest cave paintings are more than 40,000 years old. We are hardwired to listen and relate to stories. I’m sure this is why storytelling was listed as something lectures are good for a few weeks back.

Back to Papert though. If the megachange needs to occur in the mindset of educators and the basic philosophies of the education system. The focus of the parable shouldn’t be on technological tools. Because that’s all they are… tools. And tools are only as proficient and creative as the craftsman that holds them. If the craftsman has new tools, but their mindset, philosophy, and creativity hasn’t evolved with the tool then the tool won’t be used to its full potential anyway.

Let’s end with a story about a man provided with the technology that could change they way he does his job. It’s called. Idiot with the Drill.


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