Teaching with mobile technology: seeking help!

I need your help!

Tomorrow I’m attending a conference on Education Technologies, and I will be giving a talk about using mobile technology, and social media tools, in ‘out of the classroom’ environments.  I am excited about the opportunity and I welcome the chance to discuss the topic, highlighting my field biology course as a case study.  Here’s an overview of what I will discuss:

Screen Shot 2014-03-03 at 12.51.25 PM

As part of this talk, I would like to engage a broader community of educators, using social media tools.  More specifically, if you have comments or ideas on some of the discussion questions (below), please comment on this post, or tweet at me, or use the twitter hashtag #EdTechMobile to give your perspective. (Note: For ‘real time’ interaction, you can tweet using that hashtag between 330-415 PM (Eastern) on 5 March)

Here are the discussion questions:

1) What are the challenges and opportunities when using social media tools in the classroom?

2) How might mobile technology (e.g., smartphones, tablets) facilitate learning? How might it interfere?

3) How might the approach of linking ‘out of class’ learning environments with mobile technology and social media tools be adapted for other teaching environments? (i.e., other than University-level, the context in which I have used these tools).

Thanks, everyone!

Operation zero: how to achieve an empty inbox every day

I’m continually fascinated by how people deal with to-do lists, projects, contacts, and emails. All of these things relate to the broader issues around time management and productivity. If you can ‘take control’ of time management, I believe this is a key ingredient for success. My friend and colleague Dezene recently published a terrific blog post about email management. His ideas are great, and he’s found a wonderful system. His post was partially initiated by a conversation on twitter about how (overworked) scientists manage their emails. This is a very significant problem, and one that’s quite universal. One problem that I share with all my colleagues is the feeling of being inundated by email (I easily get over 100 emails each day). It’s a real challenge to deal with emails, and takes a lot of time and mental energy.

I wanted to offer you a peek into my email management system – not because I don’t like Dezene’s (I do!) but rather to offer an alternative. It’s a method that’s quick, and offers you an opportunity to achieve the joy of having a ‘zero-inbox’ EVERY day! It’s also pretty simple:

1) Simplify: I only use two addresses: my work email, and a gmail account. The latter is for family / social (‘non-work’) things, and it’s the email address I give out to my kids schools, or when I register for on-line accounts. I NEVER delete any of those emails, and just let all of that reside away on google’s servers. The gmail search function is so amazing that it’s always possible to find an old message.

2) Consolidate: I only manage email on my one, main computer using one program (Mac Mail) and when I read mail on other devices (mobile device, webmail), I never manage messages or tasks. This is so the system is consolidated. With my main Mac Mail, I have the gmail and my work accounts set up (but separated, so I don’t confuse work and family business).

3) Minimal rules: I set up a few rules, but not too many, since the system I will outline reduces the need for too many rules. I do set up rules for all my ‘calendar invites’ I receive over email, so that I can deal with scheduling things on my own time – that means all invites go to a separate folder. I also set up rules for my editorial work, so that all emails related to editing end up in one folder on my computer.

4) Moving messages: In addition to folders associated with rules, I use only two (or so) other main folders: one is called ‘IMPORTANT‘ (yes, in all caps!) –> into this goes stuff that’s really REALLY important. The sorts of emails that need to be found quickly.  There only about 20 emails in that folder, related to flight confirmations, or exam scheduling, or other emails whose content is important to access regularly and quickly. The other folder is called “short-term archive”. At the end of every day, any emails that are in the ‘inbox’ get dropped into the short-term archive.  After a month or two, all of those emails get moved into a ‘long-term archive’ (which is on my computer), and after about a year or two, those all go into a long-term ‘deep’ archive (e.g., external drive). I will occasionally set up another folder for a specific project (e.g., research project, or grant proposal).

This system means I NEVER have to delete any emails (megabytes are cheap – why bother deleting anything? … and it takes time to delete stuff), and I always achieve ‘zero inbox’ at the end of each day. That is a very nice feeling!

Operation zero, daily.

Operation zero, daily.

5) Flags: If I can’t deal with an email quickly, or during the course of the work-day, but it still requires some kind of action, I simply flag that email, and then after all emails are sent to the short-term archive, I simply look in the ‘flagged email’ folder (which is a feature of Mac Mail) and all those emails are in one place. This is sort of like a to-do list, although I prefer to think of those emails simply as needing some kind of attention, sometime. That attention can be because they are part of a conversation with important contacts or content, or perhaps are waiting for some follow-up, or or perhaps a review request, etc.  I have come to realize that there are always between about 70 and 100 ‘flagged’ emails. Every now and then I go back and double check how many of those flags can be removed and thus there is turnover in those ‘action item’ emails.

6) Search: Finally, I depend very heavily on the search function to retrieve old emails.  Because nothing is ever deleted, I can almost always find it again. If I can’t, you can bet someone else has that email in one of their folders.

In sum, hopefully some of you might find this system to be worth trying. In my time using it, I’ve never lost an email, and I’ve been fooled into thinking I’ve dealt with all my emails each day.

Now.. what isn’t included, above, is the dreaded ‘to do’ list. For this, I generally depend on a rather inefficient combination of scratching things down on sheets of paper. Recent conversations are causing me to re-think this approach. I do think I need to write things on paper in order to keep the tasks on my mind. I also block of time in my calendar to specifically tackle big jobs. It’s the only way I’ll protect the time and get productive work done – that is only moderately successful. So, my next task is to rethink how I manage my tasks…

Why emails must be well-written and error-free – UPDATE

UPDATE: some people have noticed that *this* post contained some errors (Gulp. Oops. Sorry). We all make mistakes, and there is always room for some errors. So, I would like to propose that we stick by the argument that we “strive for” error-free emails! (and blog posts).

———

dear prof can u help me with a Q about the crs work…. Its really important and would be gr8 if u could let me know when i could come by and see u in your office”

I get emails like this all the time. Most often, emails sent with shorthand, all in small-caps, without punctuation come from undergraduate students. Sometimes they are from graduate students, and very occasionally, from colleagues.  Quite often, emails from prospective graduate students are riddled with errors and make no sense. This is not the way to make a positive first impression.

Rite gud emails pls

Email remains the last vestige of anything reassembling ‘official correspondence’ between a writer and a reader. As such, any ‘first contact’ over email, or whenever you are not sure of the relationship with the receiver*, you must proofread and strive for clear, error-free emails. It matters. Here’s why, from my perspective as an Academic:

 1) Triage: I’m overwhelmed with emails. Every one of my colleagues is overwhelmed with emails. Triage is often based on a series of quick decisions, and if an prospective student can’t string together a sentence, that email will likely be deleted**. If a student asks questions about course content, I guarantee that the well crafted email will get a response faster than the one that was sent without being proofread. Well-written emails are seldom ignored or deleted quickly.

2) Don’t risk it: Being polite, formal and clear in your writing will not hurt your chances of a positive interaction with someone. Being too casual and sloppy can hurt your chances of a positive interaction. It’s not a chance worth taking.

3) You get what you give: A well written, clear and error-free email will raise the bar. It tells me the sender is serious, and I will respond with the same level of seriousness.  Quality gets you quality, and you will not be taken as seriously if you do not take the time to think about what you are going to write, draft it, proofread, think about it, edit, and then send it.

4) Know your audience: most Academics are somewhat “old school”. We hang on to things from the past. We like books and remember the days of hard-copy newsletters, fax machines and the sound of the dial-up modem. When writing to people of that ilk, take the time to craft an email like it’s an old-fashioned letter, sent with a stamp.  I guarantee it will get noticed.

End of rant.

* email communication can quickly slide into the informal/casual and shorthand provided you have an established relationship between the sender and the reader. If there is a certain amount of familiarity, I see nothing wrong with quick and sometimes sloppy short-hand.

** writing problems are sometimes because of language (i.e., writing in something other than your first language). From my experience, it’s usually quite easy to separate a language issue from sloppiness or carelessness. If you are writing to someone in a language you are less familiar with, I suggest being clear about this. Tell your reader that you are writing in a second (or third language), be honest and genuine, but do pay careful attention so that your email is not sloppy.

(oh, and by the way, here’s a post about common writing errors!)

Tablets in the forest: using mobile technology in Higher Education

I am pleased to present a publication that came out earlier this week in Educause Review On-line. This article resulted from a pilot project done in Fall 2012, in which students in my field biology class at McGill used tablets to enhance experiential learning.  Authors on the paper included colleagues from Teaching and Learning Services at McGill (Adam Finkelstein and Laura Winer), and PhD student Crystal Ernst.

Here are the ‘take away’ messages from the project:

  • Environmental biology students mobile devices to gather rich data in the field and to support learning through real-time interaction with their instructor and the larger research community.
  • The project included an analysis of survey and interview data to determine the impact of tablet use on student engagement once the project was complete.
  • Students recognized the value of the tablets as a research tool; however, the tablets’ most important contribution to learning was the real-time communication and feedback they enabled between students, instructors, and the scientific community.
A group using a Toshiba tablet to help identify an aquatic invertebrate

A group using a Toshiba tablet to help identify an aquatic invertebrate

Stated another way, tablets are wonderful to use, and can be effective tools in a field biology course, but the students felt connectivity (which facilitated communication) was essential: the mobile WIFI units paired with the tablets made the project successful.  Here’s a quote from the paper to further illustrate that point:  “most students (53 percent) reported that the tablets increased their interaction with the instructor and TA. This was corroborated by their responses on tool use: 72 percent of students thought that live communication with the instructor and TA helped develop their skills.”

I previously highlighted a video from that project on social media use in the class, and the video (below) is more specifically about the use of the tablets in the class.

This work was done in collaboration with Teaching and Learning Services at McGill, McGill Libraries, and the tablets were generously provided by Toshiba Canada, and Bell Mobility helped us with mobile WIFI units.  I am immensely thankful for the support and I am truly honoured to be able to explore these adventures in teaching and learning.  We are continuing with these kinds of initiatives, and a Brown-Martlet Foundation grant has allowed my Department to purchase some of the tablets originally used last year.

Why undergraduate students are teaching my entomology course

This term I’m teaching an introductory Entomology course at McGill. These days, however, I’m not lecturing at all – the students are doing the teaching. For the past couple of weeks, and for the next couple of weeks, groups of students are lecturing on the part of the course called ‘overview of the insect Orders‘. Typically, this section of the class is a little dry for one person to teach – it’s a standard series of lectures on the Insect Orders – and covers the  evolution, phylogeny, biology, ecology and economic importance of the Insect Orders, starting with Collembola and moving through to the ‘Big Four’ – the Lepidoptera, Hymenoptera, Diptera and Coleoptera.

This term, I decided to turn the tables, and students became the professors. They provided me ideas on what Orders they were most interested in, and based on their feedback, I assigned them to groups and scheduled who would teach what. I also provided them a detailed outline of what was expected. This is not a trivial task – preparing lectures, and lecturing, takes an incredible amount of preparation and time and energy. These lectures are graded (with a rubric), and thus in addition to the peer/instructor pressure for students, this part of the course is part of their final grade.

Here are some refections about the process, so far:

Perhaps what has struck me most with this experience is that the students are delving into the content to a level that I would not have done on my own – in part because I simply would not have the time if I was lecturing on all the Orders. The students, by becoming ‘experts’ on a topic, have more time to dig out the most interesting and fascinating facts about the Orders. They are hunting down the true controversies surrounding the systematics of different Orders, and presenting them like seasoned veterans.  They are taking ownership over the topics, and with such ownership comes responsibility, and pride.

Lecturing is so much different than the typical short-format presentations that students are used to. They have plenty of experience giving presentations to their instructors and peers, but these are seldom more than 15 or 20 minutes. Filling up 50 minutes is a very different ball game. It requires a different set of presentation skills – skills related to thinking on your feet, preparing for unanticipated questions from the audience, and experience with a more spontaneous form of science communication. In my experience, these skills are seldom developed during an undergraduate student’s academic program.

What is also evident with this process is that the students are having FUN with the content and FUN with the lectures. They are linking to the best videos and images for their Order – they are challenging each other with who can find the most fascinating facts about a particular Order. They are smiling, laughing, and genuinely passionate about what they are presenting.  They are also deeply supportive of each other – they ask good and fair questions, engage with the content, work to make the experience positive for everyone. (by the way, I have been tweeting some of the fun facts from this course using the hashtag #ENTO330 - please follow along!)

The education literature supports the ideas I have written above, and the overall process is defined as ‘peer teaching‘.  As the title of Whitman and Fife’s report states “to teach is to learn twice”  , and although caution is warranted when executing peer-teaching, that report does highlight the fact that learning can occur effectively under peer-teaching scenarios. More recent literature from Dioso-Henson (2012)  shows that “reciprocal peer tutoring” (i.e., students run tutorials instead of instructors) “produced significantly larger academic gains than traditional classroom instruction“.  Those interested in delving into the Education literature on this topic should see Topping’s (1996) article.

Now, what I have not provided here is any perspectives from the students, and Graham Scott correctly pointed this out to me. Once the course is over, I will bookend this post with another post containing some refections from students. It’s important to see whether or not my positivity is a reality from their perspective! So, stay tuned for that!

In sum, we often talk about Higher Education being about teaching and learning, with the assumption that the teaching is done by a Professor and the learning is done by the student. Peer teaching, I believe, is a valuable method by which undergraduate students can be fully immersed in the process. The learner can become the teacher and this makes the experience so much richer, for everyone.

Instructors: please contact me if you want more details on this process. I will be happy to share the details – assignment overview, grading rubric, etc.

References:

Topping, K.J. 1996. The effectiveness of peer tutoring in further and higher education: A typology and review of the literature. Higher Education 32(3): 321-345.

Dioso-Henson, L. (2012). The effect of reciprocal peer tutoring and non-reciprocal peer tutoring on The performance of students in college physics. Research In Education, 87(1), 34-49.

Whitman, N.A. & Fife, J.D. (1988). Peer Teaching: To Teach Is To Learn Twice. ASHE-ERIC Higher Education Report No. 4.

A difficult week (and a way forward)

It’s been a difficult week (and it’s not over yet). Despite a lovely weekend away, and gorgeous autumn weather, the world of science communication is being ripped apart by two very serious, and related, situations. First this, involving D.N Lee . She was called a whore and this is never acceptable and in a professional context, unheard of. In my opinion, the reaction from Scientific America was slow, and didn’t feel right.  And now this with Bora Zivkovic. Sexual harassment of any kind is never OK, and in this context, it was done by a ‘high profile’ man in a position of power. This piece in the Huffington Post, in particular, really grabbed my attention.  It spoke to the issue that the broader scientific community must pay attention. Although some people are actively discussing this issue, most are not.  That’s a shame. It also rattled my world because I know of women who have been abused by men in position of power, and the decision of when to be silent, and when to be vocal, is extraordinarily difficult – for them, and for me.

These are not isolated incidents. The world science is fraught with tales of abuse, manipulation and intimidation. In particular, men in positions of power use and abuse this power. It sickens me, and makes me very, very sad.

It’s also very complicated. Good people sometimes do very bad things. Bad people sometimes do very good things. We appreciate the good because we have a benchmark for it. We know what is bad because there is a gradient from good to bad, and because some behaviours are, without a doubt, wrong. The problem is that behaviours cannot always be mapped easily onto people and vice versa.

It’s also complicated because knowledge about or exposure to abuse and harassment in the workplace does not always mean direct action is possible. There are sometimes unknown and long-term consequences when these situations are brought to light – they affect people’s jobs, mental and physical health, families, and friends. I remain particularly concerned about the victims – until he or she is willing to name the abuser, there is sometimes a limited number of things that a friend, colleague, Chair, or Dean can do. Additionally, a victim may wish to wait for some time before naming an abuser, as was the case with Monica Bryne.  Despite how uncomfortable, frustrating and difficult it is to remain ‘quietly supportive’ of a victim, sometimes it is necessary.

Autumn’s here. It’s OK if you want to cry.

After this reflection, and despite sometimes being quietly supportive, there are still things that I can do, and that I will try to do. There must not be a ‘deafening silence’ surrounding sexual harassment. I pledge to be a more active advocate for the rights of, notably, female scientists. They are facing a serious uphill battle in the Academic milieu.

When it is possible and in the context of abuse and harassment, I will:

a) Call out wrong-doing when I see it;

b) Listen to others who call out wrong-doing;

c) Strive to make my workplace a safe and welcoming environment;

d) Work to create openness for talking about abuse of power;

e) Learn what I can do about it (rules, policies, procedures);

f) Be proactive rather than reactive.

I want everyone to talk seriously about harassment, abuse, and abuse of power. I want all of us to speak out when we can, and be supportive. We need people like Monica Bryne  and Hannah Waters to be courageous, and to know that there is a lot of support from a broad community – from colleagues, friends, peers, family. Many of us will help in whatever way we can.

Yes, it’s a difficult week, but there are important positives that we must keep in mind. The students that I interact with every day lift my spirits. My field laboratory earlier this week confirmed that.

Some McGill students walking to their study sites during my Field Biology class.

Some McGill students walking to their study sites during my Field Biology class.

Let’s hope that when these students enter they enter the workforce and that they don’t put up with the crap we’ve heard about this week. Let’s hope they stand up and shout with a loader voice than my own. They can do it: they are intelligent, articulate, thoughtful, hard-working, and confident. I see the world as a better place when I spend time with these students.

I’m also hopeful when I interact with my children, and see they already have a maturity and sense of respect for their fellow citizens, and a very strong moral compass.  I want them to grow up in a world where stories of abuse in the workplace are virtually non-existent because they’ll be non-existent. I want the next generation to walk down pathways lined with colourful trees, leading to a village filled with people who respect each other, support each other, and work together to be in the best world possible. I don’t think that’s too much to wish for, and we can work now to help create this kind of world for them.

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(a BIG thanks to four amazing people who helped me pen this post – you know who you are)

Tweet tweet, twitter twitter: linking natural history and social media in a field biology class

Last year I used twitter and blogs in my field biology class at McGill, and it was such a successful experiment that I shall do it again!  Last year, students sent tweets to promote their blogs about natural history in the St Lawrence Lowlands, and the tweets were one way to disseminate information to a broad audience. This assignment also gave students an opportunity to write in different ways, and to distill information down to the most important facts.

This year things will be a little different: Students will again be completing natural history projects in the course, and will be doing so after assembling in groups early in the term. Projects will be focused on specific species found in our region, from trees to beetles, to mushrooms and mammals. Each week, students will be tweeting facts, anecdotes, and observations about their study species (and some of these tweets should come directly from the field)

Tweeting from the field!

Tweeting from the field!

So, this raises the question: why Twitter? 

1. Open. Twitter allows the conversation to go out to the world, to whomever is interested. It allows ANYONE with an interest in the topic to follow along, reply, interact and collaborate. It provides an opportunity for experts on the topic to comment and improve the quality of the content and information. As an instructor in a general field biology course, I cannot be an expert on all things, and thus twitter can bring in the experts.

2. Collaboration: Twitter is terrific at fast, easy collaboration. It allows quick commentary, discussion, and is immensely user-friendly. I am especially fond of the reply features in Twitter that allow a conversation to maintain some elements of open-ness for all to see, but the direction and flavour of the conversation can be  focused. Experts external to the course can quickly view the conversation and take part regardless of their geography. The quality of the ideas and content are what matters, not whether someone has a PhD, or attends a certain institution. Its requirement of 140 characters is an asset, making sure that users get to the point quickly, and thus allow opportunity for the careful construction of a sentence. It’s more difficult to write concisely and twitter presents an extreme example of this.

3. Tracking: The use of a hashtag allows easy archiving of content, including conversations, and it’s also possible to track who (outside of the course) engages with students, and has an interest in the topics. Students can monitor the activity occurring in other groups, and can learn about who to follow, who to engage with, and that can improve the quality of their own twitter use.  They can track related hashtags, and find content more specific to their own project.

4. Academic value: In my experience, twitter is not fully appreciated for its academic use. Twitter has serious value, and in some circles, twitter is embraced as a teaching tool (e.g., see this & this). Education is about people, communication and collaboration as much as it is about facts and content.  ANY tools that help us better connect, discuss and debate are good tools, and when we can engage a community beyond the institution’s boundaries, everyone wins. Sure, twitter can be fun and social, but its value is much deeper and more significant.

5. Validation: we all need to feel that things we do are valuable and valued.  In most University classes, students write for a Professor or Teaching Assistant, sometimes for peers, but seldom for an audience beyond the institution’s walls. Last year, one of the most significant ‘A-Ha!’ moments was when students talked with delight about how they interacted with people from other countries about their natural history projects – interactions facilitated by social media tools such as twitter.

A tweet from one of last year's groups.

A tweet from one of last year’s groups.

So, are you sold, now?  Make a twitter account and follow along!  Carly Ziter (incidentally, a TA for the class this term!) wrote an excellent ‘how to’ guide for social media (accessible from this page).  Follow the hashtag #ENVB222 and take part in this class, whether you live in Brisbane, Medicine Hat, or Dublin. If you like Natural History, you’ll enjoy the experience.

Please stop telling me how busy you are

I’m guilty of this. And I apologize. This post is for me as well as you.

We are both overworked. We say “yes” to things when we should say “no”. Our to-do lists never end. We are distracted during dinner, and check our email or twitter feed obsessively. We want to slow down, but it’s easier said than done.

Here’s a proposal: if you and I stopped complaining to each other about how busy we were, I think we could start to wrestle back some control.

As Barbara Frei stated in a tweet yesterday, there seems to be some cultural context to this complaint: it’s some kind of badge of honour – bragging rights – self-importance:

“I’m busier than you are, look how important I am”. 

How very troubling.

Stop. Please stop. You are not busier than I am. I am not busier than you are. We are in this together. We need to stop comparing ourselves to others: it is unfair, makes us question what we are doing, and whether we are ‘busy enough’.

Complaining about how busy we are adds fuel to an already out-of-control fire. It adds to frenetic behaviour. It makes me feel bad and anxious, and I make you feel bad and anxious when I complain.

Fine, then. We agree? Good. Let’s shake on it.

But what do we do about our out-of-control lives?

Here are some ideas (and, by the way, I do all of these very, very poorly. Maybe by writing them down, it will help?):

1. Small things: Let’s take some moments to enjoy the little things that make us happy, be it strumming a mandolin, going for a run, or watching a sitcom.

 2. Priorities: I think we can prioritize more carefully, and think about what’s really important and deal with those things. Let’s stop using ‘I’m too busy’ as an excuse and be more honest about why we have or have not followed through on a commitment.

 3. Say no. If we don’t start saying no, it will never get better. Let’s say yes to things that are either required as part of our job, or things that bring us much personal satisfaction and joy.

4. Deflate that self-importance.  Um, sorry, but we are not *that* important. The world won’t stop if we stop or slow down. We are fortunate to be busy. Many people need a job, can’t find food for their family, or are sick. Let’s keep things in perspective.

 5. Lower expectations: time is the most limiting of resources, and the current state of instantaneous communication, and rapid access to everything is creating unreasonable expectations on time.  Let’s work to lower expectations on how quickly things ought to be done, by us and by others.

This post was inspired by recent writings about time, by Terry McGlynn and David Maddison. And by discussions I have with colleagues (and my wife), almost every day.

 

How to succeed at University: 12 tips for undergraduate students

About a year ago I wrote a post about “10 tips to success at University“. Since that time, this list has increased, and it’s also clear that these tips don’t just apply to incoming students. Therefore, I thought it appropriate to update this post … and it’s now 12 Tips for success!  Hope you find this helpful!

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The start of term is an exciting time for those of us involved in Academia – new students are arriving on campus, full of enthusiasm, hope, and questions.  As a Program Director for McGill’s Environmental Biology Major, I am asked a lot of these questions, and I am sometimes asked for advice.  I thought it worthwhile providing some tips for incoming and in-course students, and perhaps some of these will help make your time at University a little easier..

1. Work hard. At the end of the day, hard work pays off. You made it into University, which suggests you have the fundamental skill set required for higher education, but don’t forget to keep your eye on the ball and buckle down and get the work done! It’s easy to get swayed by social life, engagement in students clubs and activities, and by trips home to see family. These things are all important, but success largely rests with a student’s ability to develop and maintain a strong work ethic. Make lists, prioritize, and focus on getting the “job” of being a student done well.

2.  Meet your academic advisor:  Most academic programs have an ‘academic advisor’ associated with them (e.g., see here for McGill’s website about advising).  These individuals are there to help students get through their program, and advisors typically help students with course selection, and help plan a student’s academic program.  When arriving on campus, you should book a meeting with your advisor, and more importantly, listen to their advice!  Advisors know the ins and outs of your program, and paying attention to them will help you in the long run.  You don’t want to end up messing up your academic program because you decided to avoid taking required courses early on in your program!

3.  Have an agenda, and use it:  This seems like pretty obvious advice, but you would be surprised how many students (and Professors!) don’t have a good system for managing time.  University is a lot about managing your time: getting to classes, dealing with e-mails, assignments, planning for exams, facebook, and squeezing in a social life, or a part-time job.  It’s a struggle to manage all these tasks, and to help with this, develop a clear and straightforward system of ‘calendar + tasks‘.  Under calendar, include your class schedule, important dates and meetings, and most importantly, LOOK at the calendar regularly!  I personally prefer using an on-line calendar that syncs with my phone – but some people prefer the old-fashion (yet dependable) hard-copy calendar.  For tasks, include short-term tasks (with deadlines – cross-referenced with your calendar) and long-term tasks, so that you are reminded of deadlines.  I use a small notebook for my task list, and it is always with me – for me, the act of physically writing down a task list helps me remember what I need to work on.   A good system for your agenda and tasks will make your life a lot easier.  Furthermore, effective use of an agenda and task list will help you refine your time management skills, and these skills are truly essential to success at University (and for your career, beyond…).

4.  Show up on time and don’t miss deadlines:  Again, this seems pretty obvious, but it’s also pretty easy to mess up.  Treat University like a professional job – you need to be mature, you must be on time, and you never miss deadlines.  In fact, aim to have everything done early (with good time management skills, this is very possible!).    Being late to lectures, or having to ask for extensions on papers or projects, does you no favours.  Professors, generally speaking, are not impressed by these behaviours.    At some point, you may need to ask your Professors for a letter of reference, and it is much better to be remembered as the students who hands in papers early.

5.  Go to lectures:   Lectures are there for a reason:  they provide you with value-added content.  It’s true that some of the content may be available on-line, or with a text-book, but in most cases, lectures will help to draw connections between different content, and/or provide a valuable context to the material that might be in the textbook or on-line.   Professors take a lot of pride in lecturing, and work hard to make the lectures engaging, interesting, and thought-provoking.  You will soak up an amazing amount of material by just being in lectures, and paying attention.

6. Keep up! This point is closely related to the previous few ideas – but is important to keep in mind as a separate item.  Assignments at University do tend to sneak up on you – deadlines seem so far away, until you realize that there are three written reports due within a two week period, with Thanksgiving in the middle! Similarly, lecture content builds upon itself, and assuming you will just naturally be able to keep up may not be the best idea. Try to build some habits in your life so that you review the content soon after each lecture and/or spend a bit of time each morning prepping for you day and keeping an eye on the week ahead.  Do your best to stay on top of the material: in my experience, if students start to fall behind a little bit, this quickly spirals as the weeks pass by, and the stress level increases as you try cram for an assignment or final exam.

7.  Ask questions:  In most of my classes, I tell students that there are no stupid questions (except for “Will this be on the exam?”).  This is very, very true.  If you are confused about a concept, or failed to get the point of a slide, or discussion, you must ask for clarification. Although it can be intimidating to ask a question in a large lecture hall, it’s important to try.  If you are confused, it’s highly likely that other student’s are also confused.  You are helping yourself, and your peers, when you put your hand up.

8.  Get to know your instructors:    Whenever possible, get to know the instructors of your courses, be they Professors, Lecturers, or Teaching Assistants.  Most instructors have office hours, and these hours are there for good reason – they provide time to meet your instructor, ask questions, and have a personal connection with them.  Don’t be intimidated by the Professors: we are people, too, and most of us recognize that life as an  undergraduate student can be stressful and difficult.  We can provide you help with course content, but also help direct you to other resources.  Getting to know your instructors also helps when you might be seeking a summer job in the future, or when you need a letter of recommendation.

9.  Get help when you are struggling:  At some point in your University career you will likely need help, whether it is with difficulties with a personal relationship, failing a course, or getting sick.  The University system is a compassionate and collegial environment and it’s a place with a lot of wonderful resources to help you when you are struggling.  Don’t hesitate to seek help when you need it – visit health services when you are sick, or talk to your academic advisor if you are having difficulties with your program.  Most importantly: know what services are available ahead of time (e.g., see this example for McGill), so when you need assistance, you know how to get it.

10. Avoid ‘grade panic':  I am living proof that it is possible to do poorly at undergraduate courses yet still have a successful career!  When I was an undergraduate student at the University of Guelph, I just about failed my first year physics course and I was terrified that this would make it impossible to succeed in any kind of career.  Of course this was not the case – a University education is much more than a single course, or a single quiz or examination – an academic program has many components and even if some of the components slow down occasionally, this does not mean the program is broken.   Aim for excellence in your academics, but also remember that EVERYONE has bad days, performs poorly on an exam, or just can’t seem to figure out a particular University subject.  This is normal, and you must keep everything in perspective!  Your University career is not defined by a single moment of failure – keep the bigger picture in perspective, and don’t sweat the small failures.  In a University environment, success at everything is nearly impossible to achieve.   Keep a level head,  keep calm, aim for excellence, but don’t panic when things go wrong.

11.  Stay healthy: Your mother was right – eat your vegetable and get some sleep.  Invariably, influenza and/or a bout of gastro will whip through residence halls sometime around when mid-term exams are starting.  Your best line of defense is a healthy immune system, and part of that includes nutrition, sleep, and exercise.  I think it’s more important to be less prepared but well rested than over-prepared and exhausted – and if you attended lectures (see point 5, above), your rested mind will be in a good position to access the course content.

12.  Have fun!   Life as an undergraduate student is incredibly enriching on intellectual, emotional, and social levels.  Slow down every now and then, breath deeply, and remember what an amazing environment you are in. University provides a wealth of opportunities (student groups, sports, lectures, laboratories, and more), and these are all extremely rewarding in many ways.  Don’t forget to take it all in – in the future, you will remember a lot of details from your University days and you want these memories to be more than sweating over deadlines.

Hear This! Podcasts as an assessment tool in higher education

It’s the week before classes start at McGill University. Professors are getting course outlines ready, and thinking about ways to assess students. In this post (first published over at the Inquiry Network Blog of McGill), I explore the idea of using podcasts as an assessment tool… 

As a University Professor, I’m always experimenting with new ways to assess students in my undergraduate classes. This can be a significant challenge with larger class sizes, especially since I’m not a fan of multiple choice style questions. It’s nice to be able to assess students on the basis of how they are integrating and synthesizing course content, and traditionally this is done with longer-format essay-type assignments.  These long-format assignments are great, but do take a tremendous amount of time and energy to grade, and I seldom feel I can give enough time to each written assignment.

This past winter term I was faced with an increased enrolment in my undergraduate ecology class at McGill. I had a TA for the class, but I certainly didn’t have enough TA hours to include a large individual written assignment. I started to think of new and interesting ways to grade students, and I was looking for a way to test how students might be integrating content from different lectures in the class.

This got me thinking about podcasts.  When I mow the lawn, or when I am on a long road trip I listen to a lot of podcasts, and This American Life or RadioLab have become go-to places for me to hear new and interesting stories, from science through to art and culture. A good podcast entices the listener, is creative, informative, and overall, makes learning fun.  Bingo: Makes learning fun.

Podcasts as an assessment tool seemed a perfect fit with the challenge I was facing in my ecology class.  Together with my amazing TA, Carly Ziter, we brainstormed and came up with a podcast assignment.  We assigned students to groups, and handed out the assignment. Here are some of the details, as provided to students:

The learning outcomes for the Ecology Podcast assignment are the following: (1) expose students to ecological stories in the news, (2) explore the ways that ecology is portrayed in the news media, (3) link these stories to ecological content as delivered during lectures, and (4) to communicate (orally, and as a group) the story and the ecological concepts linked to the story.  Podcasts are an exciting way to communicate science, and can be an effective tool in helping to find a deeper understanding of ecological concepts.

The Ecology Podcast is done in groups, and is devoted to exploring the portrayal of ecological concepts in the news media and linking concepts to course material. Groups are required to get approval for their topic in advance of commencing the research and recording. Within the first 10 seconds of their podcast, each student in the group is requested to clearly state their name. Introductions should be followed by the title or concept that they  discuss.  The remaining time is  spent introducing the story / concept, explaining it to the audience, and linking the story to more fundamental ecological concepts, including those discussed during lectures.  It is expected that each group member spend approximately the same time speaking on the podcast.   Students are encouraged to be creative with the podcast – to have fun, and find ways to provide an informative and entertaining podcast.  Students are encouraged to interview other experts on the topic, and find other content to bring into the podcast. Podcasts are to be between 3-4 minutes long.

The podcast assignment is worth 15% of the grade in the class, and is graded using the following rubric:

Each of the following criteria is graded between 0 (poorly done) to 5 (excellent, above expectations) for a total out of 25 points:

  1. Format & Quality (length of podcast, sound quality, all group members given equal time)
  2. Broad coverage of ecological concept (introduction and explanation of broader topic, overview of portrayal in news media)
  3. Link to fundamental ecological concepts (links to lecture content, links to other course materials)
  4. Synthesis, integration (all parts of podcast linked together, evidence of deeper critical thinking about the topic, opinions presented and discussed)
  5. Creativity (effort to make podcast interesting, fun, entertaining; evidence of creative thinking)

Carly and I also did a sample podcast (ours was on Orca whales stuck in sea ice in the Arctic). This was really fun to put together, and allowed us to refine/adjust the assignment details to ensure it would meet the learning objectives.

We also provided a list of ‘model’ science podcasts out there (e.g., Scientific America’s 60 second science podcasts, and NASA’s earth audio podcasts), as a way to encourage students to make their podcasts high quality, interesting, and effective.  Students used McGill’s Learning Management System for uploading their podcasts, and then Carly and I sat down and over the course of a day, graded the entire set of podcasts.

Overall, the students rose to the challenge and produced truly amazing and high quality podcasts. You could tell they had fun with the idea, and in many cases, the groups found ‘experts’ to interview about their topic.  Here are links to two of the podcasts, and in both cases, the students sought out and interviewed another Professor in my Department, Dr. David Bird.

This one is about cat predation on birds, and this second example is about snow geese.

From an instructor’s perspective, podcasts were a true delight to grade, and it was a refreshing change from grading essays or tests. It also allowed students to exhibit creative talents that they otherwise would not get to explore in this ecology class.  I believe the podcasts were effective at assessing how students were engaged with the course content.  Explaining ecological concepts is difficult, and requires a deep and intimate knowledge of the content. “Teaching” in the form of a podcast, is an excellent way to learn.

Podcasts were an effective form of group work. In some cases, groups could not find time to work together, so individuals were able to record sections separately and merge them together after the fact.  It’s also important to note that students had no complaints or technical issues with this assignment. They all were able to access software and hardware for this assignment, and uploading assignments to our learning management system was smooth.

In sum, podcasts are ideal as a student assessment tool, especially when class sizes make written assignments unmanageable. Podcasts are fun to put together, enjoyable to grade, and because they force an explanation of content, they can truly test content in all the right ways.

I encourage instructors to try it out — You’ll like what you hear.