What is the motivation for pursuing graduate school?

Last week an interesting hashtag was floating around twitter:  #whyididaphd.  It was great to see reflections on this topic, and during our most recent lab meeting, I asked my students why they were pursuing advanced research-based degrees, and here are some of their responses:

  • Graduate school allows an opportunity for freedom to do the things you find interesting, every day.
  • Doing research means you can follow your interests and curiosity.
  • Doing a MSc is a perfect transition between an undergraduate degree and whatever might come next!
  • Doing research is an opportunity to work independently, and this is important to me.
  • Research is about gaining knowledge and learning on  your own. It’s like the best kind of drug: you can get hooked and it’s good for you, and it never ends.
  • Graduate school develops my network of collaborators, and I need this as I enter the work force.
  • I want to do things that are relevant, and are my ‘own’. Research allows this.
  • Doing an advanced degree was an important career stage, because I need it in order to do what I really want to do into the future (i.e., academic position).

These reflections were insightful, and showed that the students had wonderful motivations for pursing advanced degrees in a research-based laboratory. I agree that doing a MSc or PhD is perfect for people who are curiosity-driven, and who appreciate the independent nature of the work.

I had two responses to #whyididaphd. The first one certainly reflects my thinking now:

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The second response is a little more honest, and reflects my thinking at the time I decided to continue with research, about 20 years ago:

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Is it wrong to pursue a MSc or PhD “just because there’s nothing better to do”, or “because I don’t have another plan and I like University”?  We had a heated debate about this, and the lab was divided. One argument is that it’s a total waste of time, energy, money and resources to pursue a MSc or PhD “just because”. Sure it’s nice to stay in a University after the undergrad degree is done, but why pursue it unless you know you need that advanced degree!  Have a plan, have a career goal, and if a MSc or PhD is part of that plan, pursue graduate school.

In contrast, if you don’t have a plan, or a specific career in mind, perhaps graduate school is the *perfect* place to develop your research skills in an exciting, and familiar environment. Graduate school is a perfect transition to many, many careers, so if there is nothing else on your horizons, keep on trucking along at a University! If you are a curious person, and independent thinker, it’s an ideal learning environment.

I suspect many people fall somewhere in the middle (I think that was the case for me).  I always felt I might eventually like a career at a University, and since I seemed to like research, and be good at it, pursuing graduate school was a natural progression. So, even if the motivations for doing graduate school aren’t always based on a clear career path, those motivations can still be more than enough to give it a try.

I’ll finish by expanding that last point: “give it a try” does not mean “stick with it even when it’s not working”.  It’s important to know when to quit if grad school is not for you. It’s an awfully difficult and frustrating process if it’s not going well. Give it a try if it floats your boat, or it’s what you need. However, also know when to quit.

 

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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:

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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!

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!)

Social media in higher education: a teaching and learning project

This term I will be spending some time with Teaching and Learning Services (TLS) at McGill: instead of doing my normal winter teaching, TLS is offering me a home for 2-3 days a week to work on projects with them. This is an outstanding opportunity as it provides real and significant time to work on teaching innovation. In my opinion, teaching in higher education should constantly be evaluated and re-assessed, and all Professors (regardless of career stage) should be supported and encouraged to improve, change and innovate their teaching. However, I would argue that many institutions put more attention on research productivity rather than supporting teaching innovation.  This is not to say that Universities don’t value teaching, but rather an argument that promotion is often weighted more towards research productivity than developing innovative approaches to teaching. There is also sometimes a culture by which Professors are unwilling to change anything about their teaching because of fears related to how this might affect teaching evaluation scores.  I have written previously about barriers to teaching innovation, and another barrier is that Professors aren’t typically supported to take time away from other duties to work on projects related to teaching and learning. Sabbaticals, for example, are mostly about re-inventing or re-tooling a research program and less often about pedagogy.  Over the past several years I had these kinds of discussions with various TLS colleagues, and the result is that I now have meaningful support to invest some of my time and energy towards teaching innovation. Bravo, TLS! I’m delighted to be spending time with you this term! (and a sincere thanks to my Chair and Faculty for supporting this endeavour).

It’s fitting that I’m using a blog to discuss the main project I’ll be delving into this term, because it will be all about the use of social media tools in teaching and learning. The way that we teach is changing, in part because there are countless new tools to use; tools that may help with interactions among students or between instructor and students, or tools that help us interact with dynamic, ever-changing content.  It can, however, be overwhelming. There’s an onslaught of technologies (….clickers, video-conferences, tablets, smart-boards and more) as well as countless on-line tools (… Facebook, Google hangouts, blogs, twitter, on-line discussions, etc). How do we make sense of this? How do we incorporate the correct tools into our courses in an effective and productive manner? What ethical or privacy issues must we understand when using some of these tools in the classroom?

My project will try to make sense of all of this, and over the next several months, I will be reading, talking, tweeting, blogging, seeking, sending, writing (and more).  I will be looking to the literature to assess the ways that social media tools can be used effectively in the classroom; I will survey current practices at various institutions, including McGill. At the end of the day, I hope to produce a dynamic ‘document’ to be shared and used by all those who are interested. This document will cover best practices, provide some case-studies and examples, and provide some guidelines about effective use of social media tools in teaching and learning.

Now I shall ask for help: Please let me know about the sorts of social media tools you use in the classroom. Drop me an e-mail, or comment (below), or tweet at me. I hoping to gather examples from a range of disciplines, using a range of tools, in a range of settings (small seminar classes, large courses, field courses, labs). Send me papers you might have written, or links that I’ll need to look at. The products from this project will only be strong if a community can be involved in its development, from the start.

Thanks everyone: this will be a terrific project, and thanks again to TLS and McGill for supporting this project..

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.

Social media, mobile technology and an outdoor classroom

Last year, my field biology course took part in an amazing project – we used mobile technology in a field setting, and combined that with social media tools.  This was done in collaboration with Teaching and Learning Services at McGill, McGill Libraries, and the tablets were generously provided by Toshiba.  I am immensely thankful for the support and an truly honoured to be able to explore these adventures in teaching and learning.  More specifically, Laura Winer, Adam Finkelstein and PhD student Crystal Ernst helped make this project a success.

One of the ‘products’ of this pilot project is this 5 minute video about using social media to engage students in inquiry-based 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. This is terrific, and as the video illustrates, the students end up benefiting.

This term, the course is again using social media, and you can find details in this post, and follow along with twitter using the hashtag #ENVB222.