Author Archives: hanhle

Multi-tasking: its benefits and limits

According to Sanbonmatsu et al. (2013), when people multi-task, they simultaneously engage in two or more functionally independent tasks and each task has specific goals, mental transformation, and response outputs. You can have an active conversation with your friends when walking across campus. But when the tasks require cognitive processes such as reading, listening, and writing, it is hard to be done at the same time.

In the classroom, students can provide several reasons why they use electronic devices such as computers and tablets in class. The first reason is to take notes. E-notes have become so popular since it is so easy for students to access their notes when they need even a semester or years after that. They can also directly add notes on lecture slides. Therefore, e-notes have a big advantage over paper notes. Besides, these devices are very helpful when students need to look up specific information related to a topic being discussed in class such as new words or examples. Electronic devices are also helpful when students need to share their work with their classmates or review their classmates’ work.

However, when these electronic devices are available, it is tempting to check email, surf the Internet, and update on social media during the class. When students try to listen to their teachers or a discussion and be on the Internet at the same time, they cannot 100% focus on either the classroom environment around them or the online interactions. A study of Kuznekoff and Titsworth (2013) published on Communication Education showed that using mobile phones during class time could affect the learning process. In fact, students who did not use their mobile phones took more detailed notes (62% more information), recalled more information for the lecture, and got a higher grade (one and a half letter grade) on the test compared to students who actively used their phones (for texting and Facebook interactions). The authors explained that when students learn new information, there are several components in the process, including short-term memory, working memory, long-term memory, and metacognition. Since learning is a process, if any components are impaired or interrupted (for example, texting diverts students’ attention from the target task), the information processed in short/working memory may be incomplete, which results in insufficient storage of information in long-term memory.

Actually, when students multitask, they are not doing two (or more) things at once. Instead, they are shifting from one to another. A study of Ophir et al. (2009) suggested that for students who frequently switch their attention from one activity to another (heavy media multi-taskers), they may have more difficulty to filter out irrelevant distraction in the environment than light media multi-taskers.

Personally, I will allow my students to use their computers in class, but I will set up limits on how their computers should be used and explain to them about the learning purposes of these limits.


Jeffrey H. Kuznekoff & Scott Titsworth (2013). The Impact of Mobile Phone Usage on Student Learning, Communication Education, 62:3, 233-252, DOI: 10.1080/03634523.2013.767917

Ophir, E., Nass, C., & Wagner, A. D. (2009). Cognitive control in media multitaskers. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 106(37), 15583–15587.

Sanbonmatsu DM, Strayer DL, Medeiros-Ward N, Watson JM (2013). Who Multi-Tasks and Why? Multi-Tasking Ability, Perceived Multi-Tasking Ability, Impulsivity, and Sensation Seeking. PLoS ONE 8(1): e54402. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0054402

Authoritarian pedagogy

Wikipedia defines authoritarianism as a form of government that is described by strong central power and limited political freedom. According to Freire, in authoritarian pedagogy, teaching was to deposits of information into the minds of the learners, which is similar to deposit money in a bank account or “banking education” and the identity of learners was not taken into account. The situation of learners and teachers is relatively fixed. Power is held by the teachers. The role of learners is to learn what is taught, memorize the information, and can produce the same information on exams. There is little room for deviation or questioning. This model of education places learners into a passive position and the learning process depends upon the teachers. The interests of students as well as the meaning of given information are negligible in authoritarian pedagogy. I read somewhere a nice comparison that learners in authoritarian pedagogy are seen as a blank paper to be written on rather than a book written in invisible ink that just needs the right light shone onto.

Freire argued that the goal of authoritarian pedagogy is to condition learners to accept the cultural, social, political status quo of the dominant culture, to view the practices and behaviors of the dominant groups as complete, whole, and correct, which prevent learners from knowing the world and seeing it as something which can be changed. Therefore, it limits the liberation and freedom of the oppressed.

In my own experiences, I can name some examples of an authoritarian education model. Students from every single school from remote areas to big cities are required to use one set of course books, whose content is pre-prescribed by the ministry of education. There is a fixed schedule (including which class to take, when to take it, how many hours per week) that the ministry of education has designed for students from elementary to colleges. Every student follows the same schedule despite their interests. Teachers often ask students to perform in certain ways (using method A for problem A, do not use method B, even the results are the same) and they might get angry if students do not follow their directions. Grades and punishments are announced publicly not only in schools but also in the students’ living community. When I was a kid, my teachers were my worse fear than my mom.

Review old things with a new eye

Inclusive pedagogy is a huge topic and I am going to reflect some changes during my learning process when my classmates have different background, culture, and point of view and the classroom environment is completely strange. Studying abroad gives me the chance to expose to people I would not otherwise meet and to the culture that I am very unfamiliar to. Especially, it gives me a new look at things that have not been questioned before.

I am adjusting my view about subjects

Before, my classes were divided by two main categories “primary classes” (science classes) and “secondary classes” (social science classes). Therefore, I spent most of the studying time for those science classes (same as other students), which was encouraged by my parents and my schools. Now, I still enjoy math and chemistry classes a lot and they have helped me a lot for other classes as well as my research. But I see two new things. First, I might remember the definition or a chemical formula better than my friends but they seem to know how to apply that piece of information into a real life problem much better than me. Second, my fellows know a lot about history, art, geography, and much more. And they care a lot of current social events that might affect the community. I am so embarrassed to say that I should have known much more about my home history and culture. No class should be classified as “secondary” compared to other classes.    

I am changing my learning habit

In general, I am a product of a passive education system. I was taught in a way that students get all knowledge from teachers, listen to teacher’s lecture as a truth and without questions, take note, memorize information, and reproduce memorized information in exams. Now, I am trying to become an active learner since I am the one who plays the major role in my learning process, instead of the teacher. I have always preferred to study by myself. But this semester, I start trying to study with others in a small group. Beginning feedbacks seem to be positive.  

I have learned some very new concepts. For example,

“Privilege”: for the first time, I understand the meaning of this word and clearly see my privilege in different contexts. I am so surprised that I might not experience the same environment as others. Then I think about my country, yes, I had seen how a city teacher and a countryside teacher received different reactions from students and their parents. Privilege exists in my country too. It just has not been defined in my home or I just do not realize it.     

“Microaggression”: the same word, the same sentence, but for different people, it might have very different meaning. Suddenly, I think about an international instructor or an instructor of a multicultural classroom, who might face microaggression more frequently. Since they are in a powered position, their saying and action might have more effects on students.    

Features of effective teachers

In my previous school, every year my department has about 10 sections of Principle of Biology Lab and I was TA for some of those. With the same class content, different teachers have very different ways to convey the materials to their students. Some teachers have to teach more than one class. But the way they teach Monday class is not identical to that of Friday class. Since teachers have a great impact on student learning and the impact might even last for years, it has always been so important to have effective teachers in the classroom. I completely agree with Deel (2004) that there is more than one way to become an effective teacher. But I think effective teachers often share certain features in common. Here is the list based on my own experiences and reading materials.

  1. Effective teachers know the subject they teach, love the subject, and commit to sharing it with their students.
  2. Effective teachers enjoy teaching and concern about the quality of their teaching.
  3. Effective teachers have clearly-defined standards of conducts as well as goals and expectations for their students.
  4. Effective teachers create a learning environment with mutual respect. In this environment, students feel they are a part of the classroom and comfortable to speak out their own thoughts.
  5. Effective teachers clearly explain the objectives of the course and each class. Also, they tell students the position of each class and how it connects with others in the overall picture of the course or even the discipline.
  6. The classes of effective teachers are well-prepared with plenty of additional information related to course materials such as the context for material, examples, and various ways of explanations to make materials more understandable and memorable. The class contents are often used to explain real-life phenomena or to link with their practical applications. Information is delivered in different ways, therefore, students of different learning style have the opportunity to absorb it.
  7. Effective teachers can explain complex ideas in simple ways.
  8. Effective teachers are willing to address students’ questions and discuss various viewpoints other than their own.
  9. Effective teachers know that not all students learn in the same way and at the same pace.
  10. Effective teachers have different methods to assess and evaluate students’ performance. They provide feedback (recognition as well as ways to improve) to individual students and explain the gap that the majority of class miss it. Also, they can adjust their teaching strategy if it does not work for the class.
  11. Effective teachers make themselves available for their students even on matters not directly related to the course.

Student Self-Assessment

James H. McMillan and Jessica Hearn defined student self-assessment as a process by which (1) students themselves monitor and judge the quality of their own performance and their learning habits. Also (2) students themselves identify gaps in their understanding and skills and propose ways to fill those gaps. If doing properly, student self-assessment is important not only in an assessment process but also in a learning process. Why is that?

  • Students know best about their own weakness and their knowledge and skill gaps.
  • Students know best about their capability to set up realistic goals.
  • Students know best about their learning style and habit, therefore they can best manage their time, speed, and method to complete their targets.
  • Students can best track their learning progress.

Fig.1 of James H. McMillan and Jessica Hearn showed the cycle of student self-assessment process. They are more responsible for setting their learning targets, working to achieve the targets, monitoring their progress, modifying their strategies, and finally adjusting their original targets or setting up new targets.

I think the self-assessment method gives students all factors (autonomy, mastery, and purpose) according to Dan Pink leading to better performance and personal satisfaction.

In order to facilitate self-assessment in an effective way, teachers play an important role. In particular, teachers should set up clear expectations, provide assessment criteria, show students how to judge their performance based on provided criteria, provide them feedbacks, and give them the chance to practice self-assessment.

By doing it properly, student self-assessment can enhance student motivation and achievement. More important, it is a critical skill that students can use beyond the classroom scale as a life-long learner.


McMillan, J.H. and J. Hearn. (2008). Student self-assessment: the key to stronger student motivation and higher achievement.

Changing classroom environment changes students’ engagement?

A while ago, I read in Virginia Tech news that to facilitate interactive and technology-driven learning, Virginia Tech spends $42 million to have a brand-new building with state-of-the-art classrooms. These classrooms have moveable furnishings, wall-mounted writing spaces, and multiple screens for sharing students’ work. Besides, some classrooms are specifically designed for team-work and active learning. Although I have not been to any of these classrooms, I hope that these facilities can increase students’ interaction and then learn better.

I think students come to class because they want to learn something. Even with this good goal or motivation, it is not hard to find students, who look bored, disengaged, or even fall asleep in classrooms. Traditional classroom setup (with desks in straight rows facing the front of the classroom where the teacher stands or sits) limits interaction between students and teachers and students with each other, which limits students’ relational involvement and connection, leading to students’ disengagement. Studies showed changing desks in different patterns, decorating the classroom, or changing light and temperature of classrooms could significantly improve the learning environment, therefore the student’s engagement. Luckily, these changes have been seen in many classrooms. I have talked to other students and agreed that students now want more interactions in the classroom environment. Students want a stronger relationship with teachers, with peers; want teachers know their background and learning style; and want their teachers to establish an environment to promote interdependent relationship and a culture of learning. With support of technology, connection and communication are getting easier and faster than ever.

Therefore, I have reasons to believe that the classroom environment plays an important role in students’ learning experiences. A classroom with interactive and technology facilities will support students to learn, apply their learning, and turn it into their knowledge. Of course, a modern classroom is not enough; teaching technique, learning activities, and method of assessment to name a few are also needed.

How blogging changes the way I write

Blogging is not a new thing to me as an audience. Besides traditional newspapers, I usually read blogs to have different points of view. However, I have just started writing my blog last semester as a requirement of my class. Since our topic this week is “Networked Learning”, I will blog about the difference how I write my assignment using a blog.

In general, I think blogging has positive impacts on my writing. Traditionally, my work is only seen and evaluated by a single audience, my teacher. Meanwhile, by blogging, my audience changes significantly, they include my teacher, my classmates, and even people outside classroom scale. With broader audience with diverse opinions, I have spent more time and effort to think about what I should write, what other people want to read, and what they might think of the topic. Besides, before publishing my work online, I spend time to double check grammar, spelling, and word choices. A hard copy of a writing paper is easy to be lost. Even a paper submitted online by mail or Canvas can be hard to find. Writing a blog makes it very easy to go back anytime to read, to revise, and even to continue the content. Another thing I like about blogging is it is convenient to cite or link online related information as many as I want, which makes information is clearer and more connected to each other. The crucial benefit is that blogging is purposefully designed to promote communications between the author and audience as well as among audiences with different features such as providing feedback and sharing the content easily. Therefore, when I write I can leave some open questions and ask for others’ opinions.

Saying that does not mean using a blog for writing assignment has no limitations. However, I think generally it has more positive points than negative ones.

Improve reading and writing skills in higher education

I believe that in higher education, reading and writing skills are fundamental for success in school and future career.

Reading is one of the most important method to gain information and knowledge for all educational levels. However, reading becomes more and more important in higher education since besides textbook graduate students have to read variety of materials such as scientific journals, webinars, newspaper, and blogs with much higher frequency and most of the time by themselves. For graduate students, reading goes together with critical thinking rather than memorizing facts.

Everybody agrees about the significance of reading in success of graduate students, but it seems that there is lacking of efforts to strengthen their reading ability, especially for academic texts. I think students should be trained to read analytically, to distinguish between important and unimportant ideas, to distinguish between facts and hypotheses, to summarize main ideas, to compare and contrast with other readings, to find answers for their questions, to judge the strength and validity of the author’s opinions, and to enjoy what they are reading. I especially like the idea that attitude of students to reading needs to be improved. We often focus on the outcome of reading (what messages you take with you from the reading material) but underestimate the feeling of readers.

Writing is a communication tool to convey ideas to audiences. Writing is indispensable part of graduate school from a short blog or essay to a hundred-page dissertation. I believe some people are better than others in writing. But at the same time, I believe, writing can be improved through intentional training. In order to success in various types of writing, graduate student should be trained about requirements, involved factors in the writing process, audiences, writing purposes.

Improving reading and writing is not only helpful for studying and doing research but also facilitating lifelong learning.

Journal impact factor

The 1st scientific journals, French Journal des sçavans and the English Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society in London, were published in the middle of 1600. By the middle of the 18 century, there were only 10 journal existed. When there were few journals, it was easy to evaluate and use scientific contents. However, numbers of journals are now increasing so fast that there is a need of a tool to compare among journals.

An idea of an impact factor was first mentioned in Science magazine in 1955. It has evolved over time. The impact factor of a journal now is calculated based on two elements. First, the numerator is the number of citation in the current year to any items published in the journals in the previous 2 years. Second, the denominator is the number of substantive articles (source items) published in the same 2 years. In other words, it is a measurement of the frequency that the average article in a journal has been cited in a particular period [1]. Therefore, the journal impact factor shows the importance of absolute citation frequencies. This measurement overcomes some biases of comparing large journals over small ones, frequently issued journals over less frequently issued ones, or older journals over new ones. It also receives numerous criticisms. For example, I agree that in some journals just a small portion of influential articles get most of the citations, while a much larger portions received few or even none at all. Therefore, the average number of citation might be misleading. Another thing is who cited those papers.

For individuals, the impact factor has been used as an approximation of the prestige of journals for deciding where to publish their work. It also influences assessment of who gets jobs, tenure, and grants.  However, a number alone do not tell the real story. To be more accurate, it should be considered in conjunction with other factors such as peer review, productivity, and subject specialty citation rates [1].

I agree that value of a scientific community cannot be captured in a single number, but the journal impact factor is still a useful tool. We might have to use it together with other factors to have an overall picture.

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