Too Good to Be True-isms in Higher Ed (Advice: Just Find a Good Prof!)

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ghostly door

Behind that spooky college door

A recent piece in Inside Higher Ed, “College Express,” skewers methods some institutions of higher learning (or so-called diploma mills) have taken to speed up, or “simplify,” obtaining a degree:

 “All of our classes are accelerated. Classes that were already accelerated have been further accelerated.”

It also casts a wary eye on jettisoning “traditional” classes; offering online classes with little regard to quality; having lax curricular requirements; and accepting too eagerly alternate ways of certifying skills:

“Certificates, letters, badges — just forward them to us, and we’ll find a way to make them count.”

Though humorous, this article is a good barometer of some of the anxieties in higher education today. I’m reminded of other specters that keep us awake at night, such as grade inflation (both at the K-12 and post-secondary level) resulting in a slow march to educational mediocrity . . . we have no shortage of frights.

How, then, is a student to know where to go and what to take in order to get a good college education? Alas, it’s not an easy question. College rankings and statistics may give a general picture, and yes, policies shape school practices; but getting a good education has a whole lot to do with your individual educators. The best professors are good communicators devoted to rigor and student learning  – and these reside in community colleges and state colleges as well as more highly-priced universities. Of course, some students don’t recognize who their best profs were until years later: immediately after class, they may leave stinging remarks about too much work or “too-low” grades on “Rate My Professors,” which is why I submit it’s difficult to get an accurate picture of true educational quality from student peers. But word of mouth is still valuable, and were I a student today, I’d ask my academic adviser who has a great reputation for pushing his or her students – who’s demanding? That’s whose class I’d take.

Though this blog is all about DIY college prep, and certainly, much learning can be done by a solitary curious mind, talented and dedicated instructors keep inspiring and impacting individuals semester after semester . . . and I don’t think these teachers can ever be replaced.

How do you think students should search for quality in education?

Article quoted above is “College Express” by Carolyn Foster Segal, published 8/2/12 at Inside Higher Ed.

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Very Bad Classroom Behavior

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Danger signWhile I try to stay as positive as possible on this site, my commentary today about classroom behavior and safety necessarily deals with unpleasant classroom situations.

Currently circulating the web is an appalling video of a Florida Atlantic University classroom: in it, a student launches into a screaming, threatening tirade, lashing out at her professor and physically assaulting a fellow student. The disruptor was taken away by security, although her disruption seemed surprisingly lengthy before that point (some commenters on Inside Higher Ed note that the class should have been dismissed immediately for safety reasons). Of course, one could comment on the angry student, or on this campus’s and law enforcement’s reaction, or on how and to what degree a professor should deal with such alarming incidents. All topics are worthy of discussion in order to work toward curtailing these kinds of situations. I’ll simply comment on the incident from a standpoint of student interest.

First, I agree with other IHE commenters in that while I’m shocked at the tenor and length of the outburst, I’m perhaps equally disturbed by the students’ reaction: some began filming the episode and laughing (though some students did appear to leave the room, and at least one tried to calm her down). I’m neither a psychiatrist nor a criminologist, but I opine that in this case, too many students didn’t seem to recognize the potential danger or take the enraged person seriously, and rather, in their immaturity, they seem to have thought this kind of behavior to be acceptable or, at least, somewhat entertaining (!).

I hope I’m wrong about this. Otherwise, what is the purpose of a classroom? Of any institution of higher learning? And is this borne out of such outrageous behavior being accepted, to any degree, in K-12 classrooms? I dearly hope not, as I strongly believe that although “control” can be established many ways, if the instructor does not have control of the classroom – or, put another way, if the classroom environment is not a professional, safe place of integrity – learning cannot occur.

And a classroom is for learning. Period. True, no one can predict human behavior, and we occasionally may encounter a student who aggressively vies to gain control of the classroom. I’ve experienced shades of this myself at the community college, and because I was concerned about safety, have been compelled to call campus security a couple of times. It may be sad, but it’s reality: because of a (very) few individuals’ behavior, faculty and students alike should be well acquainted with emergency services, phone numbers and procedures if they spend any time on campus.

Also, students should recognize such behavior certainly is never acceptable and certainly is never humorous: learners have a right to a civil and professional classroom environment and a responsibility to treat others professionally 100% of the time. Absolutely nothing excuses disruptive, threatening, hostile behavior in the classroom.

Article about this incident: “Class Problem,” Kaustuv Basu, Inside Higher Ed, 3/26/12.

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Tiny Audio Lectures Deliver Learning & Delight

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headphonesNeed a quick break from your regularly scheduled computer tasks? Browse this site, The Academic Minute from Inside Higher Ed and WAMC Northeast Public Radio, to hear professors give very short lectures on a wide array of topics. What a delightful way to learn something new!

I enjoyed today’s segment, “Chemistry of Artificial Sweeteners” (by Dr. Nicholas Leadbeater of the University of Connecticut); and you’ll note recent topics include politics, science, pop culture, food, sports, and psychology. In addition to listening, you have the option of reading more about the professors and, often, viewing a companion transcript. Finally, you may subscribe to the podcast series here (thanks to WAMC Northeast Public Radio).

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Helicopter Parents in Higher Ed — hmm.

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Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) Bell 206 ...

Hovering (Image via Wikipedia)

Here’s a link of interest regarding parental involvement in higher ed: “I Want to Speak to Your Supervisor!” (by Afshan Jafar, published in Inside Higher Ed’s University of Venus blog). It’s powerfully written and incidentally to all you English Comp students out there, it’s a nice example of a cause-effect essay, as well: it explains a problem in higher education (parents contacting college administrators on behalf of their adult children) and discusses three possible causes for this trend.

The article’s tone (excerpt: “the number of calls and emails that administrators receive from parents is appallingly on the rise”– emphasis mine) is consonant with what I’ve generally observed in academia: strong feelings against this kind of parental intervention. And although I remain optimistic that the majority of students do not involve parents directly in their college affairs, the phenomenon certainly is real. As a community college instructor, I myself have experienced a couple of the scenarios mentioned in the piece (ghost-writing father, indignant parents phoning deans); and such experiences strike us as jarring and bizarre when day in, day out, we’re teaching ostensible adults.

Regardless of this phenomenon’s whys and wherefores, though, it doesn’t hurt for you, the student, to be aware it exists. For the student, I think the crux of the matter is rather simple:

If you’re old enough to be a college student, you should consider yourself a responsible adult, and you need to own your choices, successes, and failures (be they academic or not). Mom and dad certainly can be a welcome source of advice and support to you personally, but they definitely should not be thrusting themselves into your collegiate academics (example: phoning your professors). Also remember your job as a college student is not only to study, but also to handle the “housekeeping” tasks that go along with being a student. Even if your parents don’t call the college defiantly (as this article discusses), if they do select and register for your classes, order your textbooks, and schedule appointments with your advisors, that’s not a good thing. They may offer cheerfully to do such tasks, but it’s inappropriate. All that is your job, and abdicating such responsibilities to your parents is preventing yourself from becoming a mature adult.

Khan Academy, Comprehension, and Why Attitude Matters

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English: Salman Khan, famous for the Khan Acad...

Salman Khan of Khan Academy (Image via Wikipedia)

In “The Problem Solvers,” Steve Kolowich (Inside Higher Ed) discusses Salman Khan’s very popular learning website that offers tutorials and exercises to students. The whole IHE article is a worthwhile read; first, it’s exciting to learn about the ongoing engineering research behind Khan Academy’s academic exercise platform. Most intriguing to me, though, are Khan’s own views on the state of education in general. (He is, after all, referred to straightaway as “a fledgling voice of reform in higher education.”)

For one thing, Khan believes students have trouble retaining concepts, and sees this as a significant problem. Kolowich’s article explains Khan’s contention: that “completion [of academic programs] means nothing . . . without comprehension – a command of crucial skills that stick around long after the test, and the course, are over.”

This belief is manifested in Khan’s exercise and analytics project. But I’m happy to hear it wherever it’s spoken – for I believe it ties in closely with a student’s academic attitude. I’ve seen students of all ages who undervalue the prospect of an education; they seem to believe their classes are merely hoops to jump through for that diploma (“pay your fee, get your degree”), and seem disinclined to internalize that what they’re learning can have a real impact on their lives. This particular attitude can poison individual students, and sometimes the toxins spread through entire classrooms. If students see the class as a pesky hurdle, those students are more likely to view their prof as an unfriendly roadblock; to see no good reason to try their best; and perhaps, even, to have cavalier attitudes about academic dishonesty.

If students, on the other hand, truly understand that comprehension is critically important for their futures, those students also will understand the professors to be helpful, valuable resources (likewise tutors, librarians, and advisors); they’ll work hard to learn the maximum; and they will know that cheating is utterly pointless (as the saying goes, cheating in school is only cheating yourself).

I appreciate and celebrate Mr. Khan’s focus on comprehension. A student at any level will do well to keep the goal of comprehension and understanding as his or her personal learning lodestar.

State of the SAT

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Mean SAT Score for reading and math tests, by year

Image via Wikipedia

This article in Inside Higher Ed (“SAT Scores Drop”) offers analysis of the latest news from the College Board. The piece nods to the ongoing debates over standardized testing: what scores really mean, and the role tests ought to play in college admissions. Further SAT-related internet articles in the last two days discuss the achievement gap, who’s taking the tests now, and efficacy of a testing culture, in general.

My own view is that such standardized tests cannot show everything about a student’s ability and knowledge, but they do show something, particularly in the aggregate. So scores dropping over time is, in my opinion, cause for concern.

Remember, though, if the SAT does reflect an individual’s preparedness for college, of course that’s something you can work to improve yourself. Note this part of the College Board report – it’s rather useful and worth repeating:

 “Rigorous High School Education is Critical”: That is, students who consume a healthier academic plate (core curriculum) perform better on the SAT; and the rigor of the courses themselves matters. (For more information, visit the College Board’s website and see “News & Press”: http://www.collegeboard.org)

In other words, students who challenge themselves in their studies end up doing better on tests.

If I might offer related advice: Students who challenge themselves academically before college end up performing better in college, too.

So whether or not a college entrance exam is in your near future, you should study hard and seek out the most challenging courses, the most challenging teachers, and the best extracurricular study enhancements you can.

Libraries & Librarians: Academic Lifelines

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This article from Inside Higher Ed discusses an Illinois librarians’ study about how college students perceive and interact with their library signcampus libraries. The study suggests students do not understand how librarians can help them; in addition, they routinely have major difficulties researching for college-level assignments. For instance, they rely on Google too much and don’t understand how to use search engines effectively.

This lack of understanding not surprisingly results in resource-hunting “anxiety and confusion,” yet again, the students are unlikely to ask librarians for help. In fact, according to the study, students believe “librarians . . . do work unrelated to helping students.”

This perception is the opposite of reality: yes, librarians are curators of research materials, but they’re also there to help students with research.

It’s a terrible shame that so many students under-appreciate and under-use the library, all the while suffering through inefficient ways to research. In truth, the library is a wealth of information, as are librarians; together, they can be major players in your collegiate success.

Thus, I propose one of the most important things you can do as a new college student is take time to educate yourself about the library and its resources. Sign up for an on-ground tour. Also, check out your campus’s library website and any resources it has: many such librarian-created resources offer excellent assistance to students searching for good research materials. And keep in mind that a librarian is an ideal resource when you do have research-related questions (for instance, when you get stuck while searching databases or the web).

Below are a few good library-produced webpages: check them out to learn more.

These first four pages are from the Colorado State University Libraries:

http://writing.colostate.edu/guides/researchsources/libraryresearch/staff.cfm
“Library Staff”: a brief summary of what librarians do.

http://lib.colostate.edu/tutorials/
Library Tutorials. Start with “Five Steps to Better Research.”

http://lib.colostate.edu/tutorials/seeking_info.html
“Seeking Information” Tutorial (covers search engines vs. library databases – a frequent point of confusion).

http://writing.colostate.edu/guides/researchsources/libraryresearch/
“Writing Guide: Conducting Library Research.”

http://www.ipl.org/div/aplus/
From the Internet Public Library, “A+ Research & Writing for high school and college students”– check out the “Info Search” link at right.

The article, “What Students Don’t Know” by Steve Kolowich, reports on the ERIAL project (Ethnographic Research in Illinois Academic Libraries). Papers from this series of studies will be published by the American Library Association this fall.

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