Why Are You Here?

Why are you here? That’s the question that we may ask students or ask ourselves as students. Why? If we are in class because we are interested in learning a specific topic, I believe that the probability of paying attention to the class may be higher than if we are there just to meet a requirement. Don’t you think so? Won’t you be more engaged in the class?

I believe that laptops when are not “truly needed”, are a very distractive tool in the classroom. Especially, when you are not interested or bored in the class. I speak for myself, I have used my laptop during classes to answer emails, check facebook, read the news, shopping, and so on. This happens when I lose the attention of the class.

Two of the reasons for students using laptops during classes are to 1) take notes and 2) to follow the class material. However, for me, it turns very difficult to take notes with my laptop. During my undergrad and master studies, I always wrote by hand everything. Thus, when I was studying for the exams I remembered that I have written something about the specific doubt in my notebook.

According to Darren Rosenblum,

“Students process information better when they take notes — they don’t just transcribe, as they do with laptops, but they think and record those thoughts”.

Now, the question is, are you a multitasking person?  Undoubtedly, if you want to listen, to understand what the professor is saying and to take notes at the same time, you need multitasking skills.

I used to be very good at multitasking activities when I was in Colombia. However, since I started to take classes here in the United States, this became a challenge for me. I can not do it. I mean, I can write something but I forget what the professor says very quickly. Meanwhile, I am taking notes, I am listening but all my attention is not there. So, at the end, I am very lost. Essential activities such as listening, reading, thinking, and writing, when combined are challenging by nature but these are even more challenging when you have to do it at the same time in your non-native language.

By coincidence, I took a multitask test this week to help my friend collecting data for a class. The first exercise consisted of memorizing numbers of 6 digits that appeared one at a time for 3 seconds on the computer screen. Then, I had to select the respective number between two options that were very similar. I had to say left or right depending on the location of the answer. At the same time, I had to play Tetris and try to score the highest score. In the second exercise, instead of memorizing the numbers, I had to hear numbers in a recording and then I had to subtract 1 to each number and to report the result. Again, I was playing Tetris at the same time. Guess what? I did so bad with the Tetris (look at my score, that’s very embarrassing!). I could not do both tasks at the time successfully. So, my question is, how can we improve our multitasking skills? Are we relying so much on Google?


Won’t We Need to be Able of Critical Thinking Ourselves?

As commonly mistaken and as described in “Paulo Freire and Critical Pedagogyby Shelli Fowler, teaching does not consist of communicating the body of knowledge only. Teaching is a complex construct that encompasses several dimensions, including knowledge production, student’s encouragement and several concepts that should get included in the classroom such as diversity. But how to achieve such challenge? It sounds like a difficult task, but critical pedagogy and critical thinking provide a guide to be followed within the higher education context.

Critical pedagogy should be promoted in the classrooms in order to allow students not only to receive information but also to reflect and analyze the topics covered during the class. We should stop giving students a lot of information to memorize. Instead, we should incentive them to relate the class’ concepts or topics with their career practice or why not, with what is happening in today’s world.

Critical pedagogy involves the participation not only of the students but also of the professors. This is an interactive process where both groups can learn. But, how to incorporate critical thinking in the classroom? We should come back to the basics as Bell Hooks mentioned in his book “Teaching Critical Thinking”. We should encourage students to interrogate all the time what they are learning. Children’s learning is a great illustration. Children are not afraid of asking “why” all the time. And taking into account that in our daily lives we don’t know the answer to many questions, asking questions is a practice that should get encouraged in the classroom. Because if we don’t know the answer, someone in the classroom may do, which is why diverse environments are a lot more beneficial for the learning process. Additionally, everyone will understand and perceive the concepts/ideas/or issues in different ways. For that reason, we have to show them not only the positive side of a specific topic but also its contradictions. As Paulo Freire described in his article “The Critical Pedagogy Primer”, we can incorporate in the class thought experiments where we can ask students “what would happen if”.

Here is an example given by Armani. She has a disabled student in her TA course, Fluids Mechanics this semester. The primary physical issue for this student is the difficulty of moving his hands and legs like normal people, such that he needs a writer to help him do homework. He comes to her homework help session every week. For his convenience, Armani tried to become his writer and guide him to solve the problems on the whiteboard. But gradually, she noticed that he became very dependent, paid more attention to the final answer rather than the procedure, and did not think about problems by himself before coming to the help sessions. These behaviors also reflected on the grade of his first exam. In engineering, critical thinking is significant for learning not only in the classroom but also when they are practicing applying the concepts and principles to homework problems by themselves. Typically, we can ask students to show their calculation and explain what they think to us. However, because of the special conditions of this student, the general strategy seems not working. Also, when the educational systems and educators try to accommodate their inconvenience, sometimes it might discourage them to be become independent learners. Recently, inspiring from the reading of GEDI materials, Armani has found that for this type of students, we actually need to spend even much more time on asking them questions (e.g., “Why?”, “What do you think?”, “What is next?”, “Does this remind you anything you learned in class?”) and give them even much more time to think.  This is the way not only to teach them how to think critically but also help them to internalize the knowledge and develop their own logical ways to solve the problems.

In summary, these are some illustrations of how Critical Pedagogy’s strategies can contribute significantly to the learning process. These theories and strategies lead to a practice that can get applied in the different fields of knowledge, both in the social and technical ones. Incorporating a process of analysis and synthesis, providing a safe space so questions and discussion are encouraged, and acknowledging the potential of diversity in the classroom; lead to a better learning process and contribute to the creation of critical thinkers all around us.

Why Fit in If We Were Born to Stand Out?*

Diversity is everywhere, no matter where you go. That’s the amazing thing of this world! Don’t you think? I had not had the opportunity to be around a lot of people from different countries, cultures, ethnicities, languages, abilities, backgrounds, beliefs, religious, etc., “on a daily basis” until I came to Virginia Tech. This was a completely new experience for me!

As Katherine Phillips discusses in her article, it is really powerful when people with such diversity work together. It is not only the background what makes a big difference, there are the experiences and philosophies what bring to the table different perspectives and information.

I love being different and I do not want to appear something that I am not just to fit in a place or a culture. However, sometimes I feel that everyone is looking at me just because I do not look like a typical American student. Sometimes, even I do not feel comfortable speaking because I know that my English is not good enough. This, sometimes, may affect students’ performance. There are several questions that come to my mind. Do the professors really care about diversity in the classroom?

I am taking a course this semester in which the professor, at the beginning of the class, posts trivial questions to engage students. We use i-clicker to answer those questions. From my point of view, this does not engage students at all or at least it does not work for me. I do not know any of those answers because all of these are related to movies/series of the United States. There are more than 150 students in that class and I would dare to say that there is a lot of diversity in that classroom. Could not he be more inclusive?

So, my questions for you are:

Are you promoting an inclusive environment in the classroom? If not, how can you do it? And, are you taking advantage of all the benefits that diversity groups may have on students’ creativity, work, and interpersonal interaction?

It is time for an inclusive teaching and learning!

*Quote taken from Dr. Seuss

What is your Signature?

I studied at a teaching-oriented high school. At that time, when I was in my last two years, I had to teach at elementary schools. This opportunity helped me to start developing my teaching skills, especially those related to creativity because it is really hard to have the attention of children around 6 – 10 years old. I ended up doing a lot of games as a way of teaching them. I realized that they really enjoyed that time because the class was something different to their daily routine.

Since that time, I always ask myself,

How do I want students to remember me? What is the impact that I want to have on them? How would you answer these questions?

I envision myself as a professor out of the box. During my years at school and university (my whole life), I have realized what I like and what I do not like when I am taking a class. This really helps me to envision the professor that I want to be.

First, I want to be a very creative/innovative professor. As mention by Prof. Shelli Fowler “The average attention span of people age 18-35 is close to 15 minutes”. That’s why I really care about spending a lot of time finding new techniques or ways to engage students in the class and to explain the topics. I do not want they feel boring in the class.

I am always looking for caught the attention of the students, even when I have to do a presentation, I always want to catch the attention of the attendees. For example, last semester I was a speaker at a conference where I was the only Ph.D. student. All the attendees were experts in the industry with more than 25 years of experience (most of them men). I was terrified and very intimidated by them because that was my first conference presentation since I came to VT. Plus, I had to talk for 1 hr and 15 minutes in a language that is not my naïve language. At that moment, I asked myself, where are the “normal” 20 minutes time for a conference?

I can tell you that I spent a lot of time working on my presentation. Maybe, this is something that most of students or professors usually do not do. I have been in classes where the professor has slides with text everywhere that I do not even have time to read it. If I try to do it, I will miss what the professor is saying (I can not do two things at the same time in English). They rather think if these are the better ways to communicate the concepts and examples. Just to give you an idea, the following picture was the first slide of my presentation (I am working with a concept called “phantom float”). That was a complete success, I had not even started and everyone was saying what an interesting way to start a presentation. Everyone was engaged from the beginning.

Second, I want to motivate and inspire students to be their own best selves. I truly believe that when you share your own experiences, you definitely have an impact on people’s lives. I want to be approachable. I want students to feel comfortable in the class so they really desire to go to the class instead of just going because they have to. I want to they enjoy the learning process! I am not the kind of person that can tell jokes in a classroom because I do not even understand the jokes in English but I can definitely find other ways to make the environment more enjoyable. For example, my advisor uses to play music before the class starts. Students can also select the music that they want to hear.

As well as our signature is unique, our teaching style and approach are too. So,

What is your signature?


Battle of the Grades. The story of my life!

Nowadays, grades are all that matter for students. Haven’t heard in your class, will this topic be on the test? or how many questions does the exam have? The assessment is what students really care. But is it students’ fault? or is it the education system’s fault? god?

Sorry for disappointing you but, grades and tests are going to be present for a while. This is because resources are limited in education and not everyone has the financial funds to afford his/her education. That’s the reality. You have to compete with someone else to get a spot. From my experience, I can say that this kind of assessment is very stressful and put so much pressure on students. Let me tell you the story of my life: Tests everywhere! Just look at the picture below!

In order to be admitted to the civil engineer program in my previous university (Colombia), I had to take a standardized test during a whole day. What a nightmare! Then, based on my score, I had to compete against hundreds of students that also applied to the same program! If you are lucky, you are one of the 60 students admitted to the program. If not, as my case, you have to train yourself for a couple of months, pay for the exam again, and re-take it. Why? As many students out there, this was my only chance to study. I definitely could not afford a private university.

Why did I say that you have to train for those tests? You have to be seated for more than 8 hours in a chair. You have to be able to read and understand everything at once because you do not have time to re-read the problem or the questions. You are competing against the time. At the end, a lot of students have to fill out the bubbles without even have Hread the questions because there is no time! Sometimes, quantity does not mean quality!

Then, my first exam in grad school. What experience! I did not finish it and I failed the exam! Welcome to the grad school! The test was too long and this was my first time taking an exam in only 1hr and 15 minutes. I was used to have 2hr for an exam. I struggled so much reading it in a language that is not my native language. I had to read the questions many times to understand what I had to do or answer.  I could not think what I was doing I just tried to do as much as I could. I studied and prepared very well, I understood all the concepts (I am the TA for that course now) but at the end, grades are what matters and I did not get a good grade. So,

Why was the test useless to assess what I learned?

It is true that “grades promote a fear of failure”. For my second exam, I felt so much pressure of doing well because I did not want to failure again!

As professors, we really have to think what is the best way to assess students learning performance in terms how ready they would be prepared for the demands of this century workplace. All the disciplines are so different in nature! Even more, each student is different and the way how they learn is very diverse. The job is not easy at all.


Mind…. What?

Mindless, Mindlessness, Mindful, Mindfulness… Mind…. What?

I did not know how many words you can create with the word mind. This is the first time that I read all of these at once!!

Over the years, teaching has focused on what professors teach instead of how they teach1. This traditional approach promotes Mindlessness because different perspectives of learning are neglected in the classroom. As Ellen Langer states:

we are stuck in a single drawn distinction from the past

and the reality is that we are in constant change as the philosopher Heraclitus said in his famous quote!

“No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.”

Memorization and repetition are not the most suitable approaches to learn. I learn best by understanding and thinking instead of repeating (like a robot) something that I do not understand. Unfortunately, oftentimes, we do not apply what we learned in class. At present, everyone can access the internet and find what the professor is teaching. So, the question is,

How do you add value to the class?

As a professor, we have to motivate students to look at the information given from different perspectives or point of views1. Diversity is everywhere, especially in a classroom. We will have students from different disciplines, socio-economic status, countries, etc.. What a better scenario to promote Mindfulness.

Last week, we were asked how we learn. I took the answers and I created this word cloud to see if we are stuck in the past. Judge for yourself. What do you think?

Teaching by fostering Mindfulness should not be only an approach or idea that you can find on a paper. It should be applied on a regular basis in a class. Engaging students in the classroom is not an easy task but it will help them to see things from a different perspective. They will learn and enjoy the process.


Why do you Feel Sleepy during Lectures?

Last year I took a class that was taught by my advisor. This is usually a big class with around 80 students or more. I used to sit in the first row and sometimes, in the middle of the class, I used to look back, and guess what? I always see a couple of students sleeping. At that time, I could not understand why there were sleeping because I was so excited in that class (The motivation and excitement of the first semester at VT).

Now, trying to understand the students’ behavior, maybe, the class was too long. Well, this is not a maybe, this is completely true! The class was 3 hours long! and what could be worse? The class was almost at end of the day, from 5:30 pm to 8:30 pm. At that time, everyone is tired from a long day and I guess everyone wants to go home!

As professors, we should consider the average human being’s attention span when planning the length of a lecture1. It turns very difficult for students to keep their attention after have been seated for more than an hour looking at a lot of slides. Depending on the length of the class, the amount of information received could be overwhelming for some students. Next day, they would probably not recall all the information given in the lecture1.

In fact, one of the things that I really like about the classes in the United States is that most of them are usually 1hr or 1 hr 15 min long. When I was doing my bachelor and my master in Colombia, 2 hours in a class were an eternity for me!  Believe me, most of the information provided by the professors during these 2 hours, sometimes, was very unuseful. So,

Do you carefully think about the content that you want to convey in a lecture? Are we preparing the students for the real world? or Are we just transmitting them things that they never are going to apply in their careers?

Let’s back to the class that I took last year. What I really liked about this class is that my advisor always incorporated some stories from either his own experience or life1 These helped us to understand a concept easily. Even his sense of humor made the class more enjoyable. His jokes broke the wall between students and professor. The class was very active because we had to do several exercises. I consider this as an active learning2 in my field (civil engineer) because students can work in teams for problem-solving. They actually felt very comfortable working with a partner during the class. They did not have the pressure of being evaluated, they generated discussions, and felt free to ask questions. This is something necessary during heavy classes because all the exercises look so good in the slides, and the solutions even better! But,

Do you really understand everything just by looking at the solution in the slides or in a book?

I totally agree with my advisor when he says that

“It is not until you do it that you learn how to do it” Don’t you agree?

Another reason that comes to my mind when I think why students feel sleepy during lectures is the lack of motivation or interest in the class or the topic. For me, this is the root of the problem. If you are motivated, you do not care if the class is late or long. You always have a positive attitude and try to do your best. So, when I read the following statement, I was not surprised about it:

“Students quit and fail not because they lack funds, but because they lack motivation and interest2

This year, I am the TA for the class that I took last year. On the first day, I had to introduce myself. Usually, my advisor asks me to talk about where I am from, my background, and my office hours. However, I decided to do something different this time. This is what I told students:

You guys are so lucky for having the opportunity to take a class with one of the most well-known scheduling experts in the industry. In my case, I had to come from Colombia, which is thousands of miles away, just to have the chance to work with him. I can tell you that I have no regrets! I know that you have a lot of work to do in this class! But believe me, at the end, everything will pay off and you will learn so much!  So guys, don’t waste your time on Facebook or using your cell phones. Instead, work hard and learn from the best!

I know that I was out of the script as my advisor said but I felt that I should motivate the students in some way. You know what? It worked! Students are so interested in the class, they are paying attention, they are working on the class exercises and asking questions. They are taking notes instead of using their cell phones or laptops. It is really cool! I think that they just needed some kind of motivation.

Now, in this new learning era, as instructors, we have the challenge of taking advantage of the unlimited resources that the internet gives us and combine them with an environment that allows students to build and experiment the topics, concepts, ideas, examples, etc. in a different way3.

We have to be very creative!




Sorry, No Internet Today!

Facebook – 1.9 Billion Users, WhatsApp – 1.2 Billion Users, Instagram – 700 Million, Twitter  328 Million Users, Google+ – 375 Million Users, LinkedIn – 240 Million Users1,2

Can you imagine just one day without internet? Will you survive? What would you do instead?

Although we are in a digital era, Networked Learning is definitely a new term for me. What can I say? I learned how to use a smartphone when I was 25. Too late, isn’t? Maybe, it is time to be part of this revolutionary technology world. So, let’s get started with the basics.

“Networked Learning is a collaborative online learning where technology/internet is used to help learners connect with others or with valued learning resources3

In education, this approach seeks students to build their knowledge throughout technology tools within and outside the classroom4. It sounds like easy but,

how do you move away from the traditional education to this new concept? How would you change the misconception that grades are all that matters in education?

Although, I consider myself a very creative person, sometimes, I struggle thinking of innovative, interesting, and easy ways to explain students a topic in class. Maybe, I am not aware of all multiple digital tools available in today’s world (definitely true!) or maybe, Networked Learning can be more easily applied in some areas of study than in other ones. What do you think?

Unquestionably, Networked Learning strengths other skills that students will need not only in their careers but also in their life. It forces them to think, reflect, and form their own opinion by exchanging ideas, promoting discussions, and receiving feedbacks. It certainly empowers the students’ voice by giving them the opportunity to share with the world what they believe is important to be known.

The idea to put students in a real context/problems through these digital tools for classroom-based learning is amazing! However, before to jump to this Networked Learning world, we should ask ourselves

What kind of educational experiences changes lives2? and How do you, as an instructor, guarantee that students will gain the knowledge and skills that they will need as future professionals?

For me, education is not only to transmit knowledge for students to learn. That would be the easiest part. Don’t you think? I would have to go class and based on some slides give a lecture. Does it sound familiar to you? I want to inspire and to motivate students to give your best in whatever they have to do. They should enjoy the process of learning. Otherwise, even the most amazing Networked Learning tool is useless. At the end, everything is about motivation. That’s what makes the difference.

Are you ready to make a difference?

1. http://marketingstrategyx.com/social-media-stats-infographic-2017/
2. https://www.fool.com/investing/2017/03/30/top-10-social-networks-how-many-users-are-on-each.aspx
3. https://www.igi-global.com/dictionary/networked-learning/20217
4. http://er.educause.edu/articles/2016/1/networked-learning-as-experiential-learning