Practice Makes Perfect

In this modern world, we are expected to be a multi-task person to accomplish different goals efficiently. Take myself as an example, being an PhD student in engineering, I’m expected to supervise three master plus one visiting PhD students, act as a research assistant for two to three research projects annually, write at least three manuscripts per year, and be a reviewer for several journals and conferences. That is only my academic part of PhD life, quite occupied yet full and enjoyable to me. However, being multi-task does not mean you should complete all things at once (e.g. one day), rather at an extended time period (e.g. one semester). You only have one pair of hands, and focusing on too many tasks simultaneously will lead to an overload on your brain. In the end, you probably could fail in all tasks. The wise choice should be focusing on each task one at a time and finishing them successively. For me, I tend to evaluate my current mood and energy and choose a suitable task to start with.

However, things are always easy said than done, especially in a world full of technologies. Advancement of technologies do enhance our efficiency greatly via, as Clive puts it, “infinite memory” in this digital era. Still, we are constantly exposed to excessive data flow and may get lost in between. For example, searching for a suitable topic for scholarly essay can end up as one hour chatting with friends on social media. Even for myself, I may check emails or twitter periodically when confronting a difficult task like writing a manuscript. Distraction is only one side of the evil, and I should say plagiarism has never been so easy with the Internet as well. Searching a similar topic or answer can be completed within a couple of clicks, and nobody is watching when you do “copy and paste”. Clive brings about this challenge on when should we not to use the “digital thinking tools” and just rely on traditional ways of thinking and technologies (e.g. books and paper). I do not have direct answer at this moment, but I believe we should start practicing our next generation to be able to focus on one particular task.

Personally, I benefit a lot from my parents. When I was in elementary school, my mom always asked me to finish all homework before turning on the TV, and my father tended to jog with me in the morning before one day began during summer vacation. I was also told to concentrate on eating the food instead of talking or watching TV to avoid biting my tongue or dropping the food on the table/ground. Gradually, I get better towards different interference when doing tedious work and try to be more efficient. Living in this digital era, we definitely cannot abandon using advanced technologies, and thus we need to evolve our ways when taking best advantage of them. It takes time to master the trick to efficiently harness the power of technologies to deal with a specific task, and success always comes from more practice.

This is earth and I’m not alien

Diversity, especially ethnic diversity, always seems to be a new thing to me considering the majority of the population in China is Chinese. We were taught that China is made of 56 ethnic groups, and together we formed this harmonious society. But before coming to US, I only knew a few people from minority ethnic groups, and they looked exactly like Han people (the major race of Chinese) with similar lifestyle. In this sense,  the only “foreigner” I met in my first 18 years was a native English teacher. So most of the times, we Chinese people believe that we “are non-racist in the sense that most are not aware of our own multiethnic background and care little about it“.

Things changed rapidly the moment I arrived in US. I did not expect to become “nonresident alien” as if I came from outer space with the UFO. This title definitely confused me in the first few days and made me feel that US is not a great “melting pot” as advertised. I started to think about my ethnic background for the first time in my life. Fortunately, I was not treated differently as an “alien” during the first semester in VT. Surely the language and culture differences hit me. But after some adjustments in the following few months, I gradually get used to the new environment and made lots of new friends. As I walked through the campus, I could see faculty, staff, and students coming from different backgrounds and places and forming a robust and welcoming community.  By the end of the first year (2016), building an “inclusive VT” became one of the major goals in our university. The ultimate target of “inclusive VT” is to make sure that “inclusion and diversity is infused throughout Virginia Tech“.

A inclusive VT recognizes our diversified background and washes away any potential labels, “alien” for instance, to bring all members in this community as one. This is extremely important to higher education since we need a diversified and inclusive campus to “makes us smarter“, as Katherine Phillips believes. With different backgrounds, we saw things from various aspects and approach to questions in different ways. New and creative information can be brought into discussion, and potentially it is the key for solving the puzzle. Personally, I benefit a lot from this diversified campus and have multiple projects with all kinds of collaborators. The inclusive environment can help you find the strength as well as weakness of yourself and make best use of your merits. As a result, we can have a harmonious living environment with a enhanced working/research efficiency. I just hope this inclusiveness is not limited in VT or higher education but all over the US. As the most powerful country in the world, US should be famous for its inclusiveness instead of the tragedies, for example the one happened in Charlottesville. I do not want to talk about any politics involved, but treating people with different backgrounds as “aliens” is only isolating yourself.

Pair Up Students for Better Learning

When I was in middle school, my parents told me that being a lecturer at college is the easiest job on earth. You can talk to students freely in 50 min and then leave the classroom to enjoy life. Since then, I have dreamed about becoming a lecturer in university with all the respect, authority, and most importantly an easy and cozy life. Once I was admitted to the university, I found that not every teacher is cool and charming. Instead, boring teachers with unchangeable tone can be the best lullaby. Some teacher’s voice is so low that I cannot hear from the 5th row, whereas another small portion of lecturers speak too fast that I can barely catch up with their pace. That was the first time I felt that being a good teacher is not easy from a student’s perspective.

Going to graduate school gives me more opportunities to get involved in teaching. Last year, I was a teaching assistant for one semester. In this course, the instructor was in another campus, which gave me a rare opportunity to present in every class and act as the mediator in between. The first few class went smoothly, but the situation got tougher as the teaching content became more difficult and complicated. Though the instructor was fully prepared before the class, students still had lots of questions during the class, which greatly hindered the class progress. As a PhD student seating in the classroom, I felt all the knowledge was quite easy and should be understandable, so did the lecturer. Still, as a 4000 level class, students were made up of seniors and master students. The master student tended to be more experienced whereas seniors were struggling for the coursework. In the end, the teacher slowed down the pace for undergrads, and everyone is happy.

Now I cannot help imagine what I should do if this is my class. How to approach to all students at different levels? Like Sarah wrote in the “Finding My Teaching Voice”,

The more I understand of my students, the less important it is to me that I treat them identically. They don’t enter my classroom with identical backgrounds, and they won’t leave it with identical understanding, no matter what I do.

I always believe that no one should be left behind. But simplified the class content or slowing down the class pace is definitely not my preference. But what is the more efficient way to deal with students with diversified background? Back in China, students are categorized into various classes based on their current knowledge level and learning capabilities (e.g. learning speed), especially in high school. Then students with similar background will be taught together with quite good results. However, besides potential discrimination, this approach is still not ideal since one-time exam-based categorization is not accurate. Sometimes, I think about pairing students into two-people small groups, usually with one learning much faster and the other feeling quite miserable in catching up. The class will still be taught at the normal pace, but paired students can help each other after the class. The assessment will be performed on the group basis, as two people will get the average score for their individual homework, quiz, and exam. Through this way, smart students will not feel boring about class content while no one is left behind.

Face the Sorting Hat Bravely

I still remember in the first Harry Potter movie, the appearance of the Sorting Hat really amazes me. During the opening banquet at the beginning of each school year (or academic year in our case), all freshmen will wait to be seated on a stool. An enchanted and sentient hat, known as the Sorting Hat, will then be placed on their head. The Sorting Hat takes some moments to evaluate each student through “mind-reading”. Based on their personality, capability, and potential, every student will be sorted into one of the four Hogwarts Houses (i.e. the best fit House).

Where would the Sorting Hat place you?

The Sorting Hat provides rapid assessment for young talents and place them in the House that can be most beneficial for their later development. This talking hat plays such an important role in this fantasy world, and I always believe that the implement of Sorting Hat leads to the success and prosperous of Hogwarts. Back to our real world, we “mundanes” are facing all kinds of assessments in this society as well, qualitative or quantitative. Qualitative assessments are everywhere, from an informal “you did quite well in this project/presentation” to a formal written feedback/comment. This type of assessment can be subjective. A teacher may give two different qualitative assessments towards the same homework on two difference times, letting alone several different teachers. Qualitative evaluation is complicated and quite time-consuming since thorough understanding of the content is required. Quantitative assessments, on the other hand, are more standardized and hence much easier to operate. An unanimous grading standard is normally formed to quantify student’s performance and ability. Quantitative assessments end up with a score, level, or a percentage that is clearly to interpret. Since the performance is quantified and even ranked, some students find the quantitative assessment, such as test, quiz, and exam, quite scary, posing adverse effect on their performance due to mental stress. So more and more people start to rethink our current assessment system, and quantitative assessments are more preferred.

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But can we really abandon letters or numbers in assessment? I would say “yes” if we are in Hogwarts with the help of the magical Sorting Hat. To me, I agree with Alfie Kohn that quantitative assessment is not “a particularly useful way to assess student learning”.1 However, the tests and exams do evaluate students’ performance on specific questions or scenarios, and most of these questions are originated from real world under simplification or reasonable assumption. A higher score tends to indicate enhanced capability and potential in solving these issues. If we need one person out of one hundred for a decision-making position, can we really select this person based on qualitative assessment? Qualitative assessment can narrow down the candidate to at least 5 people, all receiving high recommendation from the committee. By the end of the day, we still need to count on “numbers” to choose the best fit. Another example is that consulting company use decision matrix to find the best alternative and propose it to the client. Quantitative assessment happens everyday in our real world.

I know not every assessment can be accurate. Even for the Sorting Hat, it makes few mistakes once a while in categorizing students. However, that is not the excuse for us to abandon the assessment system, both qualitative and quantitative ones. Combination of various assessments can be more effective, and more constructive advice can be rendered for further improvement. Students need to know that our society builds on assessment. We need to face the “Sorting Hat” bravely and embrace it with positive attitude.



  1. The Case Against Grades. Alfie Kohn, 2011.

Keep Auto Update and Step Out Your Comfort Zone

When I got my first laptop in 2007, I found that every few days a small window popped up telling me that some software or system drivers would be updated during next boot. This was quite annoying since it made the startup period extremely long, and several reboots could occur during the installation process. In the end, I changed the “Auto Update” to “Notify Me When an Update is Available” option and enjoyed a peaceful and undisturbed working environment. Once a while, I would check the update list and only selected those that seemed to be necessary for my laptop. The available updates accumulated over the time, and eventually I gave up checking the list. Luckily, things went on smoothly for the following year, and I gradually forgot about all these update issues.

In 2009, I was dragged into the World of Warcraft by my classmates and became a little abscessed with this fascinating world. However, upon installation, I could not open the game client properly. With the help of my roommate, I finally found out that the problem was my outdated video driver. It required substantial upgrade (about 2 hours) to meet the minimum requirement for this game. I spent the rest of that day updating lots of my software and other patches and thrilled to discover lots of new and easy-to-use functions in my current software. The computer also ran much faster due to some major optimization in operation system.

Computer is a simplified version of our human brain, and it needs our humans to turn on the “Auto Update” function to achieve continuous evolving. Without this major learning process (i.e. installation of various patches), computers will not be compatible with many new software or games and may be abandoned in the end. For our humans, we are lucky enough having direct control to our own brain and can easily embrace all the changes and new knowledge via continuous learning. In order to keep up with this digital era, we should hold an open mind to all the new things. For example, my parents have never used a smartphone before, and in their mind phone should only be used to contact someone. Once I introduced all the fancy new functions on the smartphone, my parents were amazed by the all the convenience this tiny device could bring. Last year when I got back home for Christmas, my parents taught themselves of all the new functions on smartphone. Right now, with the help of a smartphone, they can easily purchase anything with “Alipay” without concerning short of cash or receiving forged note. This is an example of how technology can change our life, but it can only happen when you embrace it positively.

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I know keep learning new things can be scary to someone, considering this process always start with stepping of your comfort zone. But in higher education, you need to stay on the “same page” with most of the people. For example, our graduate students need to read new research papers every week or even every day to absorb new knowledge. To me, I can keep my mind at its best state and come up with lots of fresh research ideas via timely “upgrade”. So don’t turn off your “Auto Update” function, stay positive, be brave enough to step out of your comfort zone, and embrace changes and new knowledge with passion. This is when the magic can happen in this digital era.

Draw a Pair of Wings for Your Publication

Ancient Book Pages with Birds Flying Away

(downloaded from Dreamstime, click on the figure to be directed to the original source)

Publishing a manuscript always tends to be a painful process for most graduate students. We put well-tailored figures and organized tables in a manuscript together with years of effort, survive several rounds of reviewing process, and in the end receive an email starting with “Congratulations! You manuscript is accepted for publication on …”. At that moment, you must feel like a rising star in this field, yet this daydream is easily crashed when Google Scholar and Researchgate tell you that very few people read your “intriguing” 10-page paper over the past year with zero citation. You start questioning yourself does your years of research actually benefit the whole community?

Internet gives us easy access to tons of research papers, but access alone does not grant efficient learning. Let’s start with a simple experiment: Download several research papers outside your own field, and I’m sure you can barely make it to the third paper, letting alone remember the major points. Most of the publication in academia are full of jargon and detailed technical processes (even in abstract and keywords), building up a impassable wall between a specific scientific community with the general public. You can imagine the frustration of newcomers in one field, especially undergraduate students, when reading these barely understandable words. At the end of day, our learner-unfriendly publication seems to achieve anything but publicizing our findings effectively.

Guess what? Nobody understand your abstracts!

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How can we possibly change this difficult situation? Recently, most of the journals encourage or even require authors to submit a graphical abstract along with the manuscript. Successful graphical abstract provides a great visual presentation of your current work, which can quickly attract people’s attention within seconds. Readers can easily grasp the fundamental points and broader impact from your work without reading your whole paper. Through this way, the initial screening and skimming processes on the Internet become a enjoyable treasure hunt, significantly enhancing the learning efficiency.

From the researcher’s perspective, creating a graphical abstract is also a refreshing learning process. Graphical abstract abandon the fixed pattern from “Introduction” to “Reference”, and you just need to find a quite place and totally set your mind free! Whether you are an old-fashioned person into colored pencils or computer geek playing with AutoCAD, you can use your own unique way (for example, using avatars from computer games or cartoon) to deliver the most important information embedded in your paper. Once completed, I believe you will have some new understanding or interpretation towards your current work. Besides, the graphical abstract can be further used on digital platforms such as social media and PPT slides for oral presentations (recyclable).1

The process of creating a graphical abstract reminds me of one previous app (Draw Something) on the cellphone. It is so much fun!

Who says only artists can have their portfolio, we scientists and engineering can have amazing taste of art as well! Draw a pair of wings and paint them with your imagination, and they will make your publication fly across the land and ocean.



  1. How to make a good graphical abstract.

No Information is an Island

We are entering the digital era, and everything gets digitized: we work with Microsoft Office software at work, purchase goods via PayPal, monitor everyday exercise or even sleep habit with fitbit, and post daily life experience on social network. Almost every behavior is influenced by Internet to some extent, and we really enjoy the convenience, efficiency, and stability it brings. As it comes to the learning process, the conventional “schooling” is also greatly transformed by Internet towards an advanced form of networked learning. Learning process is now not limited within an isolated classroom or a single textbook. You can easily have access to all the information and knowledge, jump into a discussion on online forum consisted of diversified groups of people, and express your opinions anytime/anywhere. The Internet-based learning, being one form of “connected learning”,1 bridge all the information and opens a new door for higher education with enormous benefits.


Digital Platform in 21st Century

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But still, when this networked learning gradually extended to every classroom, there still have several challenges to be properly addressed. Using a laptop or PC for learning process can always be a distraction in conventional classroom or study room, especially for those freshman. New concepts tend to be boring, and complicated equations are always tedious. With a laptop on the desk and a whole world of interesting things happening every seconds, the lecturer can easily lose control to young students. This challenge urges lecturer to rethink about their way to deliver key information and make their fast-paced class more intriguing and understandable. On the student’s side, more self-control is preferably required for enhanced learning efficiency.

“internet vs classroom”的图片搜索结果

Online Education vs. Traditional Education

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Networked learning via Internet requires more critical thinking for all the information. The traditional textbook-centered learning approach tends to deliver safe and well-confirmed knowledge to all learners. As Internet being a massive flee market of information and knowledge, students should carefully read through all related information online and rule out fake claims and incorrect messages. This process can be rather difficult for those students stepping into a new and unfamiliar area. Though more practice can certainly help, teachers should provide proper aid at starting period to help students understand fundamental principles and guide them through screening stage.


The last challenge for networked learning online is to effectively convey your points and messages in a professional way. As Doug Belshaw mentions in his blog, “ensure your data is readable by both humans and machines”.2 Students tends to treat Internet as a casual space, and hence their writings may have lots of oral language, confusing abbreviations, and/or random tags learned from social network, such as Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. It is better to separate the writing pattern of insightful blog with that on social network to promote deep and more efficient communication. Having more practice in professional blogging can definitely help, but it could be better if university can offer workshops on professional blogging for freshman. Online blogging and forum certainly provides us a channel to access the professional and unique perspectives from others, post our own critiques, and eventually understand the original information better via comprehensive discussion. No information is an island in this digital era, and no learners should be separated from others.

“academic blogging”的图片搜索结果

No Academic is an Island

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  1. For Ito’s most recently published thoughts on this topic, see Henry Jenkins, Mizuko Ito, and danah boyd, Participatory Culture in a Networked Era: A Conversation on Youth, Learning, Commerce, and Politics (Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2015).
  2. Doug Belshaw “Working Openly On the Web”