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


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”

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.

How should assessment be applied to large classes?

The largest class I’ve ever taken was Introduction to Anthropology. Over 1500 students were seated in the convocation hall, facing a large-screen projector and a professor on the podium. The course rotated through four areas of anthropology (biological, archaeological, linguistic and social), and lectures were provided by four different professors according to their area of research.

What were the assessment methods?

The two exams – midterm and final – consisted of multiple choice questions, as many would have guessed. This seemed like the most efficient method of assessment for a large number of students.

The other deliverables consisted of four essays, one for each area of anthropological study. These were graded by teaching assistants, who were responsible for about 150 papers each.

Were these assessment methods appropriate?

Multiple choice questions get bad rep, and I think for the right reasons. They certainly served as efficient tools of assessment, since the instructor (or more likely, TAs) only had to insert answer cards into a machine; but they were not necessarily appropriate because they could only determine whether the student was proficient in memorizing facts. Ironic, since the field of anthropology is riddled with uncertainties, in terms of facts and perspectives.

The essays, on the other hand, were appropriate for learning the subject as they required greater critical thinking, but they were not necessarily appropriately evaluated. There was already inconsistency and unfairness by having multiple evaluators. Throw in the difficult task of assigning a single number – a percent grade – for 150 students, you can imagine the variability per evaluator as a result of fatigue, mood…

To be fair, attempts were made at demystifying the grading process. I remember there being a rubric that outlined the different facets of assessment, and the grades were assigned in increments of 5% (to avoid ambiguity between 85% and 86%, for example). The result still seemed to leave a number of students unsatisfied, possibly for the reason that the rubric was simply another scale in disguise, a complement and justification for the grade.

What would be an appropriate method of assessment?

Not sure. How about start by not having large classes? Idealistic, I know, especially when massive open online courses are on the rise. A large class is convenient for mass information transfer, but is also an obstacle on its own in terms of providing students with meaningful feedback. When instructors and TAs are saddled with the burden of grading so many assignments, they, too, are likely to succumb to the “get it done” mentality familiar to many students when completing assignments. Let’s not even mention attempting to track the development of individual students.

Thoughts on evaluation for large classes? MOOCs?

The Mindless Undergrad

My undergraduate engineering education appears blurry at best, and it wasn’t until graduate school that I felt like I was learning and was being mindful about it. Langerdefines mindful learning as being able to “draw novel distinctions” so that we are more sensitive to “context and perspective.” In engineering education, I think we could further specify mindful learning as being aware of context, limitations and implications (of theories, frameworks, systems, designs). As a simple example, when confronted with an equation, a mindful way of learning would be understanding the assumptions and limitations inherent in the math, and the context in which this equation could be suitably applied.

This topic of mindful learning is near and dear to me, because I felt like I wasted four precious, irreversible years not learning as much as I could have. There was a number of reasons for the so called “mindlessness”:

  1. While I agree with Langer  that the term “basics” may not be applicable to everyone, I do think there are fundamental concepts in engineering that should be learned as the necessary prerequisite to more advanced material. Some examples include the equation of motion, static analysis, etc. For this reason, the engineering curriculum was understandably mostly content driven. However, these fundamentals were delivered on a problem-by-problem format that screamed “this is how and where you apply this formula” and often with little relevancy to real life problem solving. Students learned to solve these individual problems by following established procedures, and would do so repeatedly for a number of similar questions, but would they be able to apply these concepts in a foreign setting in which the problem scope was not clearly defined?
  2. It was difficult to be a mindful learner under stress and sleep deprivation. In the Canadian education system where I went through undergraduate, it was normal (mandatory) to have 6 or 7 courses per semester in which lectures, tutorials and labs took up 35-45 hours per week. This did not include the time it took to complete assignments, projects and studying for tests. Under bombardment of course content and time constraint, students often chose the easiest route that would maximize their grades. It became a game of guessing what will be covered on the test, and memorizing key solutions so as to get by. I didn’t think there was enough time (and I didn’t have the energy) to truly absorb the material, let alone to reflect and extrapolate. The mentality was simply “to get things done.” While I might come off as complaining, I honestly did not think that overloading students was truly conducive to learning. What further perplexed me was that the heavy curriculum had to physically take place on campus even though the majority of students commuted an hour or more to school (one way). Was it a wonder that early morning and late evening classes were mostly empty? Perhaps the one thing I did learn from undergraduate studies was time management.
  3. Do we place enough faith in our undergraduate students? I hesitate to answer, because in my own experience, the better learning material had always seemed to be reserved for the graduate students. By “better,” I mean the presentation of material with qualifying statements, with all its uncertainties, and not simplified so that it was only correct…for the time being. (You will learn the real thing in graduate school!) There are of course benefits to simplifying certain concepts in introductory courses, but I think instructors should be responsible for framing the concepts in a way that allows room for discussion, questioning, and exploration of the open ended aspects. I often hear professors say that “it’s too hard” for the undergraduates and that “they won’t get it.” Is it fair to place limitations on the students’ intellectual development without even giving them a chance?

It is impossible to turn back time, and I am pretty sure I would not want to suffer through the same delivery of that curriculum again. I can only hope to draw from my own experiences as a student and move forward as a teacher. If engineering education needs to be content driven, then perhaps it is only logical to explore various methods of content delivery. As I was writing the second point about balancing time, travel and workload, it occurred to me that uploading lectures online, such as in video format, and allowing students to learn the material whenever, wherever, however, might be more suitable for a student population that is geographically dispersed. While this entire post might seem like an angry diatribe (and I apologize!), I am glad at the possibility of transforming an unpleasant experience into a stepping stone for a better educational experience for others.

Lessons from Music

Those of us writing posts for GEDI have likely adapted to and done reasonably well in the current education system. All of us are graduate students who love school so much that we would want to spend a few more years in it. But not every student feels this way. Lectures and coursework could come off as boring and obligatory. Some students might even find school not worth their while to want to make it through to the finish line.

The question of how to engage students and make learning effective is at the heart of education. (Just what did I learn back in history class?!) I’d like to share a pedagogy used by one of my piano teachers that has resonated with me and is relevant to the topic.

This teacher, let’s name him Mr. Motif, loves to repeat himself. I often think, “Why does he have to say the same thing five times in five different ways? How onerous!” Sometimes, he would even make me do ridiculous looking physical motions and emit weird sounds. But I have come to realize that Mr. Motif’s method worked, no matter how tedious it seemed at times. Because out of the many ways he tried to convey one single idea, at least one of them stuck.

Mr. Motif’s teaching method reflected the diversity in modes of learning and internalization. A single way of teaching will not likely resonate with every student. In fact, the word “teaching” implies a one-way transaction in which the student is passive. For some, being talked at might only result in words being bounced off.

Which brings me to the other reason for what I believe to have attributed to the success of Mr. Motif’s method: between the listening, physical motioning and sound emitting, I was an active participant who was able to make meaningful interpretations in a way that worked for myself.

I was excited after reading about the intellectual games played in Reacting to the Past. I saw the possibility of not only active participation but also individual student customization. By being an active game participant, the student could have the freedom to role play, essentially being responsible for his or her own learning. I could never have imagined that a pedagogy I have been used to on a one-on-one basis could be applied to a full-size classroom. Given the chance, I would like to try playing, even if it means braving through history class again.

Image result for musical motif

Musical motif: a short, recurring musical idea.

Thoughts on the Relevancy of Networked Learning in Engineering Education

Until last semester, when I took Preparing for Future Professoriate, I didn’t even know that blogging was a school thing. I asked around, and it came to my attention that the majority who did blog as part of coursework requirement were outside of engineering. The initial shock was tempered by the statistics, and it served as a beginning to my reflections on the engineering education experience.

Let me start by saying that I find blogging fun. That what I’m currently writing will be (please?) read by not just a person who assigns the grade but a collective audience that interacts. Words now have the potential for greater meaning and outreach, whereas they used to be archived and gathering digital dust after given another checkmark.

So why is blogging less prevalent in engineering education?

One reason could be that the curriculum is geared more towards problem-solving. Presently, it’s hard to imagine learning the mathematical and technical fundamentals other than through the more traditional methods (i.e. the chalk and blackboard lectures). There is also the issue of meeting ABET requirements, so that the engineering program maintains accreditation (see link below). Hence, the student contract, or the syllabus.

But there are engineering topics that cannot be taught in the traditional sense. One of my most memorable undergraduate experiences was a course about entrepreneurship in the energy sector. The class wasn’t so much a lecture as it was a discussion on why certain people, policies, technologies succeed or fail. I learned so much from my peers, who unfortunately probably didn’t learn as much from reticent me. As with all complex problems, the solution cannot be taught or given. But the problem can be discussed, and ideas can be bounced off one another, hopefully providing participants with broader perspectives that can lead to forward-moving decisions. It’s what happens in meeting rooms, conferences, political stages, where big issues are given voice. If discussions are integral to real life, why shouldn’t education reflect that?

I know a number of students who chose to go into engineering because it represented the path of least resistance – more numbers, fewer essays. Boy were they in for a surprise! Writing, and communication in general, occupy an enormous chunk of an engineer’s time. Practice makes better, and there’s no better motivator (in my opinion) than to practice writing for an actual audience. It could even be a more comfortable channel of communication for the less outspoken, such as myself. Again, it’s this element of relevancy to life that I think can enrich engineering education.