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.


Posted in GRAD 5114 | 7 Comments

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.

Posted in GRAD 5114 | Tagged , , | 6 Comments

Why Do Universities Exist?

I just wondering if you know the mission statement of your university. Did you read it before applying to?

I have to answer no to that question. I did not read the mission statement before applying to my current university or neither my previous university. As a student, I read it because it was part of an assignment or it was time for strategic planning. Unfortunately, often times, these statements go unnoticed on the universities website.

When I think about a mission statement, my first thought is a statement about the hopes for the institution. However, I am wrong!!  According to Provost Ralph W. Kuncl1,

“A mission statement is an authentic way of saying what’s important about an institution. An explanation of what you do and why you do it.”

“Take this mission statement back to the committee and tell them to rework it. I’d like to mention education”

So, I decided to compare the mission statement of the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), which is one of the top US universities, with the mission statement of Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Virginia Tech).

The mission of the Caltech is to expand human knowledge and benefit society through research integrated with education. We investigate the most challenging, fundamental problems in science and technology in a singularly collegial, interdisciplinary atmosphere while educating outstanding students to become creative members of society.

Caltech University is a private doctorate-granting university located in Pasadena, California, United States. First, I had to figure it out what doctorate-granting means because I had no idea (Sorry! Everything is new for me!).

“Doctorate-granting universities are institutions that awarded at least 20 research/scholarly doctorates in 2013–144

At first sight, what really surprised me is that in such a short paragraph I could capture the what (investigate the most challenging, fundamental problems in science and technology) and the why (to expand human knowledge and benefit society) of Caltech. I have to confess that I looked at other universities statements and they were either very long or too short.

The fact that they related research with education really caught my attention (research integrated with education). I usually see these two words separately. However, I believe that there is a strong relationship between research and teaching.

Research creates knowledge and what we teach is the body of knowledge. The mere process of explaining students a concept or a phenomenon makes us realize that something is missing or not suit enough. Teaching also helps us to develop others skills that are also necessary for research such as, mentoring and learning to give feedback3. Even, if some professors are not researchers, sharing research findings adds something new to the class material. What is really important is to show students why these results are important, the impact that these may have for the specific field. Nowadays, companies care about research. So, for students become vital to be updated with the new findings.

On the other hand,

The discovery and dissemination of new knowledge are central to Virginia Tech mission. Through its focus on teaching and learning, research and discovery, and outreach and engagement, the university creates, conveys, and applies knowledge to expand personal growth and opportunity, advance social and community development, foster economic competitiveness, and improve the quality of life.

Virginia Tech is a public land-grant, research university located in Blacksburg (main campus), Virginia, United States. Again, let’s start with the basics.

A land-grant university is a higher education institution that has been established as a result of a “grant,” of land or cash from the federal government. Schools were originally focused on the teaching of practical agriculture, science, military science and engineering (without excluding classical studies)5

Once again, I could capture the what (discovery and dissemination of new knowledge) and the why (to expand personal growth and opportunity, advance social and community development…) of Virginia Tech.

What really stood out to me is the fact in addition to teaching and research, outreach is also part of its mission. At present, outreach is considered as an active learning because, under this approach, students learn by doing. This experimental learning not only has a positive impact on student’s life but also adds a significant value to the class. It gives them the opportunity to apply what they learned in class to a real world context. In addition, students discover or strength additional skills that will help them to succeed in their future careers.

Despite one university is public and the other one is private, the “why and what” of their mission statement is very similar. At the end, both seek to contribute to the social development by creating new knowledge throughout research and education. Nevertheless, each of it has special features. Meanwhile, in Caltech, interdisciplinary work is highlighted, in Virginia Tech, the service is emphasized.

What I have seen so far, at least here at Virginia Tech, is that the university really cares about meet its mission statement. I am saying this because in my previous university in Colombia, the mission statement is only used when it is time for strategic planning!

Posted in GRAD 5104 | Tagged , | 3 Comments

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!




Posted in GRAD 5114 | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

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 start 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?

Posted in GRAD 5114 | Tagged , , | 10 Comments