Summer Learning, for Free

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beach scene

Free learning a stone’s throw away

Summer vacation is a great time for students and lifelong learners to read for pleasure; I’ve posted here before on a few good college-prep book lists available online:

Summertime to Read (2012)
Libraries List Books for the College-Bound (2011)
How to Create a Summer Reading List with Teeth (2011)

Another tip: if you’re on the go this season and looking for a great source for e- and audio-books, try Open Culture (billed as “The best free cultural & educational media on the web”). Your reading needs will be fulfilled: the site boasts 550 free audiobooks, “mostly classics,” for free download! It’s also a good place to go for free movies (catch up on your classic films); an impressively long list of free language-learning resources; and even college lectures and MOOCs in a wide array of subjects.

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The Finals Countdown! (If You’re Studying for Them, Breathe . . .)

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purple flower

Relax

It’s that time of year. If you’re one of the students under pressure to perform on finals, here are a few quick tips to calm you down a bit:

  1. Don’t multitask (for goodness’ sake). It’s amazing – the powers of applying your entire brain to the task at hand. So, don’t have your phone in sight just in case you miss a text. Hide it or switch it to airplane mode for the time being. Don’t have other windows open if you’re using a computer or tablet to study. Conjure up that (old-fashioned?) image of the solitary student bent over a book in a quiet library – that method really works. You owe it to yourself to concentrate when you’re studying for important tests.
  2. Take occasional breaks. Give yourself a short rest at least every couple hours if you’re in a marathon study session. Stretch and take brief walks in the sunshine, if possible; perhaps take a lap around the building. At the very least, physically move away from your desk for a bit.
  3. Listen to New Age music. As a student, I’ve always preferred Classical as background when getting down to business; but recently, I’ve realized New Age – the kind of soothing music one hears at a spa while getting a massage – also can be excellent music for concentration. Personally, I find it most efficient to check out CDs from the library’s New Age section. I grab what looks interesting, and later usually discover I don’t like some of the albums, but I find others excellent for calming the anxious mind.
  4. Stay grateful. Keep in mind if you’re studying for finals, you’re in a group of lucky people enjoying the opportunity to earn an education. So even if the going seems rough at times, remember you’re partaking in a precious gift.

Good luck! –And for more Finals goodies, including study tips, click “exams” on this blog’s word cloud . . .

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College-Searching? Here’s a Tool to Help

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Which direction?

Whither shall I go?

Those searching for the perfect college often feel overwhelmed, but here’s a tool that can help bring clarity to the process: PossibilityU, which claims to help students “find the schools that fit – academically, socially, and financially.”

The site is free, and aims to put a vast amount of existing college data to practical use. You can read more about PossibilityU on the Chronicle of Higher Education, in a piece that was published earlier this year:

Netflix-Like Algorithm Drives New College-Finding Tool (Jonah Newman)

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4 Fun Websites for Readers

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reading dragon

A rip-roaring good time

Because readers are fun-loving folks: here’s a small handful of easygoing sites for our sheer enjoyment.

Book Seer
A simple, useful, and visually amusing site: type in the book you’ve just finished enjoying, and the Book Seer will provide recommendations for similar ones.

Bot or Not?
I’m not sure what the existence of this site says about modern and contemporary poetry; I’ll leave that to you to ponder. But the site is fun, offering visitors the chance to read a randomly-chosen poem and guess whether it was composed by a human poet or a bot.
(P.S. – April is National Poetry Month!)

Goodreads
The robust Goodreads, 25 million members strong and billed as “the world’s largest site for readers and book recommendations,” offers the chance to connect with a community of readers and keep track of your own reading. Even without signing up, anyone may find candid and worthwhile reviews of books here.

Shakespearean Insulter
What is worth insulting is worth insulting well: impress your enemies by using this classic site, where one click will generate, yes, a random Shakespearean insult (example: “Rogue, thou hast liv’d too long”).

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What Olympians Do that All College Students Should

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Ice hockey

Never easy

I’ve long thought athletic competition a useful analogy to academic striving; students seem to understand athletes need to practice long hours to perfect their techniques, but those same students can cloud over when being reminded they need to work long hours to learn.

To illustrate, here are a few specific things Olympians do, with notes on how each can be applied to academics:

They must face their fears; they must bounce back from injury
Olympians, and athletes in general, must cope with the possibility of falling in any way short of the goal they’ve set. Who wants to be eliminated? Who wants to work for years only to be sidelined from the game with an injury? Of course competitive athletes accept that failure is a possibility and charge ahead with confidence. Time after time we hear of Olympians who had to sit out a certain Olympics or world championship, who had surgery only months before and know they may suffer a physical limitation, and so on; yet they come back and persevere as soon as they’re healthy enough to do so. In contrast, I’ve seen so many students with potential who, unfortunately, don’t seem to have the fortitude to bounce back from a failed class, even a failed assignment, and continue on with their education. They let one low grade or one negative experience discourage them – one! Listening to the stories of some ultimately successful world-class athletes, I realize many of them have a considerable number of setbacks, failures, and injuries. Babe Ruth said “Never let the fear of striking out get in your way.”

They must set personal problems aside and focus
This is closely related to the first; so many students in the community-college classes I’ve taught have had sad circumstances in life and obstacles – family-related, financial, medical, psychological. Those who really hunger for their degree – those “going for the gold” – are able to set those problems aside and focus on learning. Many times I’ve advised students who are dealing with very serious and time-consuming problems to come back to school after their crises are over. College does indeed require focus and dedication, and students have to be able to supply that when the time is right.

They must not cheat
We all know of high-profile athletes who were found to have cheated, but I don’t think many of us think this dishonesty is an admirable, or even acceptable, trait. Maybe for some athletes the specter of getting caught is the only thing that keeps them honest; but for the athletes with character, cheating is unacceptable because to do it would be utterly disgraceful. With 43% percent of undergraduate students on one large survey admitting to being academically dishonest (1), I wonder how many students think of cheating on papers and tests in the same light: that to do it is disgraceful and defeats the entire purpose of being a student. I believe some students see some of their classes as mere means to an end (diploma or degree) and thus rationalize plagiarism and academic dishonesty. But learning is and ought to be about self-improvement, and as such it is self-defeating to ingest “performance-enhancing drugs” in order to deceive oneself and everyone to whom one has lied about credentials.

They must perform under pressure
This is obvious when thinking of Olympians competing on “the world stage,” but students, in particular college students, perform under pressure as a matter of course: for instance, on exams and other time-sensitive projects; when knowing their scholarships depend on certain grades; and in some cases, when knowing their precious time is limited and must be shared with various family duties. Both athletes and students need to know themselves and know their stress-inducing triggers, and practice methods of coping with pressure.

They must take into account their “personal best” as well as their score
When I was watching ice dancing, I noticed the commentators revealing to us which scores were “personal best” marks for the couples – regardless of their standing with the others. I also recall high school track, in which the “personal best” time for a race was met with respect from any coach. So I don’t quite understand why students seem frustrated when their scores over time rise, but might not be high “A.” It is a big deal to achieve a personal best, and if, so far in the class, a score has moved from 61 to 71, that is a wonderful thing; it might not be the numbers that student was hoping for, but the important thing sometimes is that the needle – a barometer of mastery – is moving up.

They must practice and work hard
We know, we just know, that the figure skaters and skiers and hockey players we see on TV have practiced. And practiced. And practiced, in order to achieve their level of performance. Coaching and talent contribute, of course, but the “99% perspiration” element is not a new or surprising idea. So, again, when I read surveys in which students admit they aren’t giving their all to academics, aren’t taking that much time to study, I believe it should be no surprise when those same students aren’t learning very much, and also (it follows) aren’t getting very good grades. Anything worth mastering will take time and practice!

(1)    The McCabe survey summary information is found here:
http://www.plagiarism.org/resources/facts-and-stats

Older posts on this blog inspired by the Olympics:
A Bit of Learning in Honor of the Olympics
What College Students Can Learn from Olympians

Image via Wikimedia Commons: Slovakia vs USA, men’s ice hockey, Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics, credit: Atos International via Flickr.

Becoming a Better Student

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studying in field

On fields of green

Speaking of New Year’s Resolutions . . . All new and prospective college students should take a look at this article from The Teaching Professor Blog, “Seven Characteristics of Good Learners” (Dr. Maryellen Weimer, Faculty Focus).

I particularly like # 3 and 4: “Good learners recognize that a lot of learning isn’t fun” and “Failure frightens good learners, but they know it’s beneficial.” Too often I’ve seen students who mistakenly believe learning always should be fun, or else something’s wrong (the so-called “Sesame Street Syndrome”); and sadly, I’ve repeatedly seen students who have a tendency to give up and drop out upon facing academic challenges and frustrations. Avoid these pitfalls, and enjoy Dr. Weimer’s thought-provoking list!

Looking Back at Last Year, and a Useful, Fun Site for Short Lessons

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binoculars

Always more to learn

Massive! Open! Free for all! 2013 in higher ed certainly was a year of much discussion around MOOCs; as just one example, this end-of-the-year piece from NPR looks at the “online education revolution” and questions the effectiveness of the MOOC (though it does offer some hopeful thoughts in the conclusion).

Maybe you, yourself, are intrigued by the concept of free learning online; maybe you’d like to learn something, academic or otherwise, but perhaps are not so interested in investing your time in an entire course. Enter the notable website Curious, which offers free, interactive lessons in bite-sized chunks. Its succinct and admirable mission is “to connect the world’s teachers with its lifelong learners.”

So, as a lifelong learner, you can carry out your 2014 resolutions to learn a little French and/or wilderness survival techniques, ski moguls, brush up on Excel spreadsheet skills, and ponder issues in philosophy. For some traditionally academic lessons on the site, check out the “Smarty Pants” lesson collection; you’ll also find quite a few lessons on avocations.

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For Those Who Will Graduate . . .

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graduation hats

Facing the future

I recently saw British workplace adviser Jane Hart give a talk about social media and its teaching tools. Ms. Hart is known for her popular website, Top 100 Tools for Learning, but she also co-authors a site for students that includes interesting resources: ALifeofJobs.com. The premise is that college students should be thinking about their “life of [many] jobs” from the time they enter college – and they should consider that they’ll need to take charge of their professional development.

Speaking of development, a recent survey from Chegg shows that hiring managers want certain soft skills they believe are in short supply in recent graduates. (Read those results, and see “Guides to Career Success” for students, here.)

If you’re a college student (at any stage) looking forward to graduating, it’s worth your time to check out these resources!

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Responding to Failure: World Series Edition

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Busch Stadium

Outstanding in their field

I’ve been watching the baseball World Series and though I’m a Cardinals fan, something Boston’s manager said after Game 3 really struck me. That game had ended with a stunning (but not incorrect) obstruction call that gave the Cards the winning run in the ninth inning. I saw a reporter ask how that ending affected the Red Sox the following night, and John Farrell replied something similar to “It happened on the field last night, and we left it there.”

How wise is this. Would that more students heeded this message . . . the idea that when something doesn’t go your way, you must leave that thing in the past as much as possible and focus on “winning” the next night. (Again, I prefer to see the Cardinals win, but anyway.) So many of my students, sadly, became defeatist after failing at a small assignment or failing a class entirely; they were prone to give up, drop out, and adopt a victim mentality. Perhaps they were dwelling too much on unpleasant events in the past; perhaps they were letting their anxieties and frustrations determine their fate.

It seems we have a philosophical lesson to take from sports: that is, the best players do take personal responsibility for their wins and losses, and when something out of their control happens, they don’t let it get in the way of their big-picture goal.  Naturally this is difficult to enact in real life, but I have to conclude the champions in the sports world have gotten where they are due to very hard work and persistence combined with the right attitude.

Take this example if you’re a student; know you’ll win a few and lose a few, but focus on the future!

Post script: I wrote a little piece on baseball and what it can teach us (featuring historical tidbits) in October 2011: In Honor of the Fall Classic: “Our Game.”

Image via Wikimedia Commons/Fredlyfish4

More Negative News about Our Knowledge Levels . . . Do You Yearn?

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horses

Drink up

I suppose if one lives here in the US, one could consider these recent Inside Higher Ed stories to be gloom-and-doom: first, “ACT Scores Slip,” pointing out that this year’s results are the lowest in five years and that reading and English scores are particularly down; and second, “Troubling Stats on Adult Literacy,” pointing out that American adults’ literacy and numeracy levels fall below average.

Naturally, these quick pieces don’t tell the entire story (for instance, the ACT story notes “more students are taking the exam — some of whom are required by schools to do so but have no collegiate aspirations”), and any kind of rankings amongst large groups of people, as well as any kind of measure of skills and intellect, are bound to be sticky as they deal with human beings in different circumstances, cultures, etc. That said, basic knowledge can be tested, and standardized tests for all their controversy do measure something.

So what’s a student of any age to do? Well, first get the right attitude; recall this exchange from the TV show Seinfeld:
Kramer: Do you ever yearn?
George: Yearn? Do I yearn?
Kramer: I yearn.
George: You yearn?
Kramer: Oh, yes. Yes, I yearn. Often, I sit and yearn. Have you yearned?

Ah: but can one be taught to yearn for learning?

Consider this: within “ACT Scores” kinds of stories, it’s generally observed that students who take a more rigorous college-prep curriculum do better on these tests, which suggests students who challenge themselves learn more. Indeed! Of course, students must first desire to learn: it’s very telling, I think, that during my years in higher ed I’ve heard this particular cliché more than any other: “you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.” Teach for awhile and you realize the yearning for learning comes entirely from the student: it must.

As for the article on US adults lacking in literacy and numeracy levels, we could consider the schools of course, and we should; but I firmly believe any and all of us can take, to a large degree, our educations into our own hands. A common-sense action for anyone who struggles with reading would be to read, read, read some more. Too many of my students who struggled with both reading and, not surprisingly, writing, told me they didn’t like to read, so they avoided it. Well, they will stay in that less-than-optimally-literate place unless they take initiative to start reading more and, again, start challenging themselves. I could do my part by assigning readings in class and guiding them, but if they dropped out (which happens frequently in a community college), they then lack formal guidance and must themselves yearn to learn in order to come back around.

What do you think – how might we raise literacy and numeracy levels?

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