Monthly Archives: January 2013

What School Should I Choose?

Coin Flip“A lot of people don’t want to make their own decisions. They’re too scared. It’s much easier to be told what to do.”
~ Marilyn Manson ~

I can’t believe that I just quoted Marilyn Manson.  I guess never say never.

Decisions are hard but guess what?  The more decisions you make, the better you get at it.

At some point in the near future many of you will be in a position to make a decision concerning your post-secondary future.  The first decision involves the application and the second decision involves the acceptance.

If you are not one of those people who knew from a young age that you wanted to become a nurse or a teacher or a doctor or another “professional” label when you grew up then what are you to do?  Even if you are a person who has a good idea about what subjects you want to study or what profession you want to pursue you still need to make decisions about which path to follow to get you to that ultimate goal.

Sure, there are elements like scholarships and fancy residence rooms and alumni success stories to consider.  The problem with these elements is that they are most often short-lived.  The impact might not carry past the first year.  That scholarship might help you out in year one (or even in multiple years but maybe you hate the program you are stuck in) or that residence room will be really cozy (but what if you get assigned a challenging roommate?) and that story is really inspiring (for the moment).

Having a longer-term perspective can help you through this process.  Here are three elements to consider when making the decision about which schools to apply to and (eventually) which offer of admission to accept:

1.  The Environment

Having a good understanding of yourself and the environment that is most conducive to your success is key.  Different strokes for different folks.  The idea of  “the environment” can cover a lot of pieces including:

  • The availability of academic and personal supports.  For example, some institutions offer non-academic programming in the areas of effective note-taking, exam writing, essay preparation, presentation delivery, etc.  Do you have these skills?  What if you run into trouble?  What services can you turn to for help?
  • Opportunities to get involved in organizations and activities that meet your interests or that take you out of your comfort zone.  Getting involved means making connections with new people and ideas which can last a lifetime.
  • Class sizes.  Are you someone who thrives in a more intimate setting where the professor knows your name, strengths and weaknesses or would you rather hide out in the back row of a 400 seat auditorium for your thrice weekly lecture?
  • Proximity to home.  Personally, when I was 18 I couldn’t have imagined living any further away than the three-hour drive I did from my parent’s home.  I wanted the ability to break away from the safety and security of my home but still be able to head back for a weekend of home cooked meals and face to face chats when I needed it.  Others might be completely comfortable with the idea of taking up residence on the other side of the country.  Again, know yourself and what you need to be successful.

2.  The Program Options

Let’s just get this straight.  A university education does not equal job training.  Well, not directly in most instances anyway.  One of the purposes of a university education is to help you develop your critical-thinking skills (like can you take/find information, analyze it and then come to some sort of conclusion or opinion about it?).  You can do that in ANY subject area.  So if you love history, then study history!  If the subject area doesn’t interest you or get you excited, you’re not going to develop these skills because, let’s face it, you’re not going to do the work.

Another element to strongly consider is the flexibility of the program.  For example, can you choose electives or is the program so rigidly defined that there is no way you are going to have the chance to study other topics?  The ability to move or transfer between programs is also worth understanding.  What if the program you choose doesn’t work for you?  Can you transfer to another program relatively easily or is it a big production that will equate to a lost year?  Get the facts.

3.  Gut Feel

Trust it.  Take advantage of the opportunities that exist to visit campuses and attend events where campus representatives come to you.  What are your first impressions?  What do you like/don’t like?  Be prepared with questions (see above) so that you get the answers you need.

I want to know what helped you make your decisions so please share!

photo credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/freddy-click-boy/3221177018/”>Freddy The Boy</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin> <a href=”http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/”>cc</a>

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Advice on Group Work

Group workSooner or later it is going to happen. You are going to have to work in a group! Some of you love the idea and others cringe at the thought.

Group work can provide many benefits to students including the ability to divide and conquer a large quantity of work; the opportunity to benefit from other people’s ideas, perspectives and experiences; and the chance to get to know other students in your course or program (heck, I started dating my husband after working with him on a university group project).

Let’s face it. Group work can also be a real drag. Some students take complete advantage. They miss meetings, have excuses for not doing their part and avoid responding to email, text and facebook messages. Like you’ve cut yourself off from all forms of electronic communication. I don’t buy it.

Personally, I don’t understand how these individuals can sleep at night but it happens again and again and again.

So what are you to do, a simple member of a dysfunctional group?

Much of the success (or failure) related to the group experience boils down to what takes place during the initial meeting. Early in my teaching career I assumed that students understood how to manage a group work project. I spent very little time in the classroom discussing planning and communication strategies. I know that I’m not alone on this.  Many professors assume the same or they just don’t feel like they have enough time in the course to cover the details.  You’re all adults, right?

My approach has changed.  I do spend time on the mechanics of group work in my courses because I find that most students have never been “taught” strategies for managing groups.  I want you to benefit from these tips in order to make your next group work experience more effective.

Planning Advice:

1.  Use a Workplan

This simple tool is by far the best thing since sliced bread.  Many different versions of workplans exist.  Below is a sample which details all of the elements you will want to include (along with an example of how you would fill it out).  Each objective (i.e. what do you need to figure out or do?) would deserve it’s own row in the plan.  The key here is that the workplan provides accountability for all members of the group.  By documenting the “action steps”, “specific output” expected, individual(s) responsible and the timing, there are no misunderstandings.  And if Barry doesn’t do his job, everyone will know.  This document just might create enough social pressure to deter slacking.

Workplan

2.  Develop and Sign a Team Contract

The purpose of the team contract is to establish a set of ground rules.  I provide a team contract template to all of the groups that form in my courses (which they are free to alter to their liking).    A team contract might include a bulleted list of individual responsibilities (i.e. I will show up on time to group meetings, I will let the other members of my team know if I can’t make it to a meeting, I will complete all of my work on time, etc.) and group responsibilities (i.e. As a team, we agree to discuss problems openly, share the “leadership” position, etc.).  You don’t need to get too crazy or fancy here.  Just sit down with your group and decide what behaviours you will accept and which you won’t.  Next time I am going to add a bulleted point to the individual list stating “I will not make excuses” or maybe “I won’t whine”.  That should be interesting.

3.  Get Organized

There are absolutely no excuses here.  I can sob about the “when I was a student” days when we did not have cloud technology or even the widespread use of email (that’s right, I’m ancient).  Decide how you plan to store the documents and files your group discovers and creates.  Many blackboard technologies used by the universities themselves have this capability and there’s always Dropbox, Google Docs, Facebook and more you’ve probably already been exposed to.  Centralizing the document and source storage system will save your group a lot of time and headaches later in the process when you’re wondering where that government report document ended up.

Do you have other ideas?  If so I’d love to hear about them.

photo credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/paolomargari/3511791090/”>Paolo Margari</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a> <a href=”http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/”>cc</a>

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3 Questions to NEVER Ask Your Professor

QuestionDon’t get me wrong.  Asking your professor good questions is definitely ok.  See the It’s Ok to Ask Questions post for exactly what I mean.

Asking questions demonstrates that you care about the course and content.  The interaction is also a fabulous opportunity for you to start building a relationship with your professor which may come in handy down the road (See the Will You Be My Reference? post).

The bottom line is that you need to think about what your questions really say about you before you ask.   I’m not saying that you should never think about these questions and seek out answers to them but most of the time you shouldn’t present them to your professor.

The list below highlights the dreaded questions followed by your professor’s true feelings.  In some cases your professor might actually verbalize the response which will likely result in embarrassed faces and awkward moments and in others you might simply notice that your professor is rolling her eyes while she grunts a short response.

Neither situation is ideal.

Here we go…

1.  Will that be on the test?

Who cares?  Aren’t you here to learn?  It’s impossible to “test” every single topic, concept and idea so…maybe.  That’s right maybe.  All content covered in the readings, lectures, class discussions and exercises is fair game people.

Advice:  Be prepared.  Assume that all content covered in readings, lectures, discussions, exercises and through guest speakers is testable unless otherwise noted.

2.  What did I miss in class?

Who am I?  Your mother?  I have (insert large #) number of students in my courses and I’m a busy person.  I can’t possibly “re-do” the missed class for you.  Figure it out yourself.  

Advice:  It’s your responsibility to get what you need/what you missed from somebody else in the class.  Most of the time professors post lecture notes and announcements through their course websites so some of this information is easily accessible to you.  Get to know other students in the class early in the term so that you can connect with them and find out what you missed in the case you need to miss a class.

3.  Is it ok if I leave early/miss class?

See the initial response above.  You are an adult and capable of making your own choices.  If you choose to leave class early to tend to something else you deem more important then don’t look for my approval.  I manage to schedule my dental appointments, doctor’s appointments, personal training appointments and everything else outside of my teaching hours because class is important to me.  Do what you need to do.

Advice:  Unless you are asked to report absences (perhaps for a seminar session) or your absence will affect the way the class functions (like you were supposed to deliver a presentation) it’s best not to say anything on this one.  If you need to leave early then sit somewhere where you won’t disrupt the class when you leave.

Aside:  I once had a student tell me at the beginning of class that she had to leave early and then pack up and walk out five minutes into the class.  Are you kidding me?

I want to know.  Have you ever asked your professor a question and received a surprising (good or bad) response?  Share!

photo credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/colinkinner/2200500024/”>Colin_K</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin> <a href=”http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/”>cc</a>

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Will You Be My Reference?

Help Me!

I’ve been wanting to write this post for a loooooong time.  Clearly I’ve been too busy writing reference letters!

Let’s face it.  At some point in your life you may need an academic reference (i.e. a reference from a college or university faculty member).  This could be for any number of reasons including a grad school, scholarship or job application or maybe even for a volunteer position would you like to hold.  Academic referees are often required to answer specific questions (rather than simply provide a general assessment) about the individual in question and in addition we are often asked to rate you (yes you!), against your peers in a number of categories including communication skills, academic ability, judgment, leadership ability, maturity and the list goes on.

One of my biggest pet peeves as a professor is the number of unqualified reference requests I get from both past and current students.  Let me explain what I mean by unqualified.

An unqualified reference request has one or more of the following elements:

  1. I don’t know the student well; therefore I am not able to evaluate if the student’s skills and accomplishments are a good match for this program/award/position.
  2. The student did not perform well in the course (final grade below 75%, did not attend classes, etc.).  What do you think the rankings are going to look like?
  3. I don’t know what I’m being asked for.  The student hasn’t sent me all necessary information to evaluate if acting as a reference would make sense.
  4. I don’t remember the student.  Gasp!  Yes, this has happened.  I’ve taught a lot of students and my memory isn’t what it used to be.  If it’s been five years since you graduated (assuming we haven’t talked since) this could happen to you.

So what are you to do?

Here are my tips for what to consider before, at the time of and after the reference request.  I hope this information will shed some light on the subject and save you (and your professors) from some awkward correspondence.

BEFORE You Ask

  • How well does this person know me?  If the answer is “well, she knows my student number and midterm exam grade” and that’s it – we’re in trouble.  Think about what your professor might be able to say about you in relation to the program/award/position you are applying for.  Draft a letter about yourself.  Do it!  This is a great exercise.  If you don’t know what to include in a letter about yourself how will this person be able to figure it out either?
  • What do I want this person to say about me?  Do you want them to speak to your ability to work well in a team?  Your leadership potential?  Your willingness to contribute to class discussions?  WHAT?  If you don’t know, how are we supposed to know?  If we have observed these behaviours, skills, etc.  in action then it would make sense to ask us to speak about them on your behalf but if not…

WHEN You Ask

  • If in person, make sure that it is a good time (like not right before class when your professor is madly trying to get the projector to work) and if it is through email then make sure you communicate professionally (appropriate subject line, capitalization, sentence structure, etc.).
  • Indicate why you are asking this particular person for a reference or why you think this person would be a good reference for the purpose.  What value will he or she be willing to add to your application?  Professors like this.  It demonstrates thinking.
  • Include all relevant information in the request like the due date (big one!) and a description of the program/award/position (a link to a website with this information is also very useful).

AFTER You Ask

  • No matter the response, be gracious.
  • Make sure that you follow up with all additional information (contact information of where the letter should be sent for example).
  • Don’t assume that you can use this person as a reference for the rest of your life.  You need to ask each time you would like this person to be a reference for you.

On that last point, a couple of months ago I was surprised to get a phone message from a background check company on behalf of a student I taught SEVEN YEARS AGO.  Thankfully I wasn’t in the office when the call came in so I had a chance to figure out who this person was.  That doesn’t mean I was able to give a good reference.  I really didn’t remember this person or know anything about the position he had applied for.

I hope I haven’t scared you.  The purpose of this post was to provide you with some context so that you make sure you are proactive in building relationships with individuals who might be able to help you in this capacity.  What a great idea for a future post!

Have you had a good/bad reference request experience you would be willing to share?

photo credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/ohmannalianne/3405673898/”>ohmann alianne</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a> <a href=”http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/”>cc</a>

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