Reflection -> Awareness -> Improvement

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Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” – Albert Einstein

Wouldn’t you agree?

So why is it that so many students fail to make changes to their routines and habits when they are disappointed, stressed or unimpressed when they consider their academic performance over the past semester?

You know I have an answer.  It’s because they fail to reflect.

What is reflecting anyway? 

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines reflection as both (1) a thought, idea, or opinion formed or a remark made as a result of meditation and (2) consideration of some subject matter, idea, or purpose.

I like to think of reflection as a personal self-assessment.  For me, it involves taking time out of my busy schedule to purposefully think about a particular event, experience, encounter or exchange.  I honestly schedule in the time because that’s how I roll.  I think about what happened, how I felt, how others reacted and if I would change my approach or actions in a future situation.  And this my friends is the purpose of reflection.

So, why bother reflecting?

Reflection brings about awareness which can bring about positive change which is what continuous improvement is all about.  We all should be taking more time to reflect in our daily lives.  In fact if we did, I bet the world would be a better place.

Alright.  How do I get started?

Reflection isn’t something you should do only “at the end” of a project; however, that seems to be the most obvious time to pause and evaluate the event, activity or work performed.  At a minimum, students should be taking the time to reflect after receiving feedback (either in the form of a grade or actual written feedback) on each test, exam, paper, report or assignment.  I recognize that some evaluators rarely take the time to provide written comments so if they do, consider it a bonus.  Another even better time to reflect is before the feedback (i.e. grade) is provided.  This timing will remove any bias that results from an unexpected good or poor evaluation of the work.  Reflecting at the end of a semester or academic year is also an excellent time to pause and consider the timeframe as a whole.

If you’re not sure what you should be thinking about, here are some questions to get you started:

  • How did this experience differ from your expectations?
  • How did this experience make you feel?
  • What was the best and worst thing that happened during this experience?
  • What was your biggest challenge?  What enabled you to overcome this challenge or what prevented you from overcoming this challenge?
  • Was there anything which made you uncomfortable or discouraged during this experience?
  • What helped or hindered you through this process?
  • How did this experience challenge your assumptions and stereotypes?
  • What you would change if you had the opportunity to repeat this activity?
  • What skills did you develop or improve as a result of this experience?
  • How will this experience benefit you in the future?
  • What have you learned about yourself?

I highly recommend keeping a “reflection journal” which can take the form of a dedicated notebook or a simple Word document.  The act of jotting down notes will help you internalize your takeaways and apply what you have learned to the next experience.

Now you know what to do and how to do it.  Do yourself a favour and schedule in some time to reflect as this academic year comes to a close.  If you seriously apply the learnings from this effort to new experiences (i.e. new coursework) you should see results.

photo credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/gemmabou/7226316180/”>Gemma Bou</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin> <a href=”http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/”>cc</a>

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Show Up or Ship Out

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One of the reasons I decided to start this blog was to provide myself with an outlet to blow off some steam.  And that is what I will do in this very post thank you very much.

Students,

  • I know that your brain has just about reached its capacity for critical and creative thought at this point in the academic year.
  • I know that the winter has been long and the sunshine scarce.
  • I know that you are getting anxious to change-up your routine.
  • I know that a long weekend is just around the corner and your mind is drifting…

But you still have to show up!

And by show up I don’t just mean occupy space and deplete oxygen in the classroom.  I mean be a contributor to your own learning and not just a consumer of information.

Being a contributor does not necessarily mean that you have to actually speak up in the class (although that is what my students are expected to do on a daily basis).  In fact, in some classes asking questions or sharing an opinion is not the norm at all.

Being a contributor means showing up with the intention to learn.  For one, having a sheet of paper and a pen in front of you, whether the paper is filled with your well-thought out notes from your advance reading of the material or simply a blank piece of paper (forget about the laptop – that’s too distracting).  It means taking notes and forming questions.  It means thinking about what you’ve just listened to, watched, observed.  It means asking questions, providing an opinion or debating an idea.  It means being resourceful and seeking answers to your questions.  Again, these things may not happen in the class itself but could take place in the context of the weekly seminar, in a group of peers or even just by yourself.  It means shaping the direction of your thoughts and perhaps even the direction of others.

When you are a contributor you are the creator of your own learning.

Being a consumer means waiting for the professor to tell you what to write, what to think, what to do next.  Like a shopper, it means waiting for others to share ideas and opinions and then picking the one that you like best.  It means waiting for something to happen before you take the next step.

When you are a consumer you are a clog in your own learning.

So what are you?  A creator or a cog?

There is no time like the present to change your behaviours.  Don’t wait until next term or next academic year.  Today is a great day to refocus. Start by analyzing your past behaviours.  Ask yourself how what you are doing both inside and outside the classroom that puts you in either category.  Start small.  Identify one element you want to change and do it.

Woody Allen claims that “80 per cent of success is just showing up”.  Increase your chances and most definitely follow that advice.

photo credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/tomazstolfa/5310306188/”>tomazstolfa> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin> <a href=”http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/”>cc</a>

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Stop Multitasking Already and Focus!

Time Lost

How many of you are proud of your ability to “multitask”?  How many of you would add this skill to your resume/cover letter or even share it as one of your strengths during a job interview?

If you answered in the affirmative to any of these questions, STOP IT NOW! 

Multitasking is not something to be proud of and should be avoided at all costs.

Study after study points to the dangers of multitasking in both the workplace and in everyday life.  Has anyone heard of the distracted driving laws in place all across Canada?  See Christine Rosen’s article entitled The Myth of Multitasking for more fascinating examples.

What if I told you that multitasking in the classroom or while studying is ineffective?  This is absolutely true according to my observations.  But if you don’t believe me (fair enough) you can check out the findings from a recent study conducted by researchers from York University’s Department of Psychology who found that students who use a laptop to browse the Internet while listening to a lecture performed poorly.  Get this.  It’s not just the offending Internet surfer who is affected.  The study also found that students sitting near the offender were impacted negatively.  This is pretty powerful stuff.

If you want to experience firsthand how you are personally impacted by multitasking, try this exercise I picked up about a year ago from a professional organizer.  In order to complete this exercise you will need a timer, pen/pencil and this sheet:Multitasking

This is what the finished product will look like:

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Follow these instructions:

  1. Read all instructions first (always a good idea).
  2. Set timer.
  3. Complete section 1.  Fill in the lines by alternating between the two lines (i.e. enter “M” first, 1 second, U third, 2 fourth, etc.).
  4. Document time to complete section 1.
  5. Set timer.
  6. Complete section 2. Fill in the letters on line one first and numbers on line two second.
  7. Document time to complete section 2.

What did you find?  If you are like the students who have completed this exercise in my classes, it would have taken you approximately 60 seconds to complete section 1 and 26 seconds to complete section 2.

What does this mean?  You could save a significant amount of time in your day by FOCUSING.  Forget about bouncing back between your textbook, email, text messages and phone calls.  Remove all interruptions (it is possible to close your computer screen and turn off your cell phone) and get the work done!

Try the 60/40/20 rule and see if it works for you.  This is what you do:

  • 60 minutes of uninterrupted work.
  • 40 minutes of email/voicemail/text checking and returns.
  • 20 minutes for a break.

Why is this so hard to do?  I don’t really know.  But I do know that those who focus will perform better both in the classroom and in the workplace.

Are you up for the challenge?

photo credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/matt_gibson/3281131319/”>gothick_matt</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a> <a href=”http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/”>cc</a>

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To Get Support Show Support

Helping HandYesterday’s class brought tears to my eyes.  But in a good way.

Does this happen often? Not really.

In my decade or so of post-secondary teaching I have experienced the odd classroom situation that has made me want to run as fast as possible from the room, curl up in a corner of my office, grab my tea and a box of kleenex and let loose.

Why?  Because I care.  Even though I’ve learned to distance myself from student issues, disappointments and frustrations, they still get to me from time to time.

Fortunately yesterday’s class was nothing like that at all.  In fact, by the end of class I wanted to call for a group hug and tell my students how proud I was of them.  You know, a regular “Kumbaya” session.  I’m writing this post to share what happened and why what happened is so important to student learning.

The Story

Yesterday, groups of students from my management class presented details of the business ventures they have been working on for the past three months.  This is a huge project involving lots of coordination, research, writing, number crunching, organization and group drama.  The project ends with the presentation.  It’s generally a happy day for most students as they are truly relieved that the process is over.

After each group presents, the class is invited to ask questions.  It was during this time that I observed a major difference from past years in the classroom tone.

In the past this Q&A session has let’s say, been a little tense.  Students on the receiving end are often on the defensive because they are really completely invested in their ideas and research.  It’s their baby and they will do what it takes to protect it.

Students on the delivery side are often on the offensive.  I believe that some students feel that in order to make their project seem more impressive it’s a good idea to pose questions that are designed to make other groups feel inadequate and uncomfortable.

That did not happen yesterday.

Yesterday’s questions were posed with a genuine desire to better understand the business plan that the presenting group had developed.  Even though some of the questions were similar in content to those posed in the past (remember, the ones with the bad intent) there was something different about the delivery that made the difference.

For the first time I had a presenter respond to a question with “That’s a really good idea.  Thanks for bringing that up.”.  I also had comments from students that simply recognized the hard work, something unique about the idea or presentation and the excellent job put forward.

The supportive and encouraging atmosphere created by the students was what brought the tears to my eyes.  I was so proud of them.

So What?

A supportive environment must be present in order for most students to take risks.  And taking risks is necessary to foster student learning.

What do I mean by risks?

I mean asking questions of faculty and fellow students.  I mean sharing information and opinions.  I mean asking support services on campus for help or guidance.  I mean reaching out to fellow students and simply making an introduction.

Let’s face it, some students don’t necessarily need a supportive environment to take risks.  They would do so regardless.  That’s their personality.  But many students are in no way ready to take such risks, especially in the first couple of years of university.  They NEED this environment in order to grow.

What About You?

What do you need to do in order to be in a position to take risks?  How can you help create a supportive environment?

Here are some ideas:

  • When you are “shopping” for institutions or classes, pay particular attention to the “community feel” you get from the place or from what past students have experienced.
  • Get to know your fellow classmates.  Just say hi.  Start the conversation and you’ll be surprised how easy it takes off.
  • Do the work so that you can be an active contributor in class or in discussions with your professor or fellow classmates outside of the classroom.
  • Take advantage of opportunities to work in small groups (seminar/tutorial sessions or simply smaller class sizes).
  • Work well in groups.  Know the tools that exist to help manage plans and progress and use them.

Don’t wait for someone else to create a supportive environment for you.  Take initiative and do it yourself.

Support is a funny thing.  You get more when you give more.  So, are you doing everything in your power to be supportive?  If not, what can you do to be more supportive in your classrooms, in your family, in your life?

photo credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/mandajuice/562954687/”>Mandajuice</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a> <a href=”http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/”>cc</a>

 

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Effort vs. Success

Long JumpThey are staring at me.  Wondering when I will give them some attention.  Waiting patiently for me to begin making colourful markings in green ink (my colour of choice for grading – much brighter and less harsh than traditional red ink).

They are a stack of reports sitting on a shelf.

Just like everyone else, professors can come up with many reasons and many ways to procrastinate.  Hey, I haven’t written a blog post in a while.  I better get on that today!

When it comes to grading, the one that gets me every time is the fact that I’m just not ready to face the disappointment.  Disappointment that some students didn’t do the work leading up to the testing point.  Disappointment that some students didn’t bother to ask questions when they were unclear about the material.  Disappointment that some students didn’t plan their time well leading up to the test/exam/paper.  And ultimately disappointment that some students simply didn’t understand that effort ≠ success.

Don’t get me wrong.  Some reports will be very well done.  Accurate calculations will be performed, insightful comments will be made and clear and concise writing will flow.

At some point I will take a deep breath, let out a big sigh, pick up my green pen and begin the work.

The grading will get done.  It always does.  But it doesn’t end there.

At least one student will visit me in my office after the report is returned.  Most often this student won’t ask for feedback (remember, there are lots of colourful marks on the paper) but will let me know that she just doesn’t understand her grade because she tried really hard.

What does “trying hard” mean anyway?  And what does “trying hard” have to do with success or a good grade?

The bottom line is that “trying hard” (whatever that means) doesn’t equal academic success.  Just because a student thinks she worked hard doesn’t mean she deserves an A.

How would you define “trying hard” anyway?

  • Does it mean doing what is required (and only what is required)?
  • Does it mean time spent on the task?
  • Does it mean being resourceful when problems arise (like asking questions, doing internet research, hiring a tutor, etc.)?
  • Or does it mean something else?

For the past number of years I have used an activity at the start of one particular course to help my students “recalibrate their excellence meters” (thanks to Keith Starcher for his article on this activity).  The activity forces the class to think about what success means and how it relates to “trying hard”.  Here’s what happens.

At some point during the normal introduction of the course I ask the class for volunteers to participate in a standing long jump competition.  I don’t actually teach phys. ed. by the way (I’m actually an accountant by training).  Most students look a little alarmed at first but then seem to warm up to the idea of doing something different.  I have at least six volunteers – three jumpers and three “coaches”, discuss their strategy for jumping the farthest before the competition begins.  Some teams decide that stretching first is a good idea.  Others decide that taking off their shoes will help them out.  Some take a few practice jumps and others take off heavy layers so they won’t be weighed down.

Then the competition begins.  There are usually lots of laughs and smiles.  I proceed to mark where the jumpers land and eventually send everyone back to their seats.  Instead of announcing the obvious winner I say something like “Although some students jumped farther than others, I believe that everyone put in a great effort.  Everyone tried hard so we will award a gold medal to everyone.  What do you think?”.

Most of the time the students protest this idea.  The one year this didn’t happen I was shocked but maybe more on that another time.  The discussion that follows is often about how success is defined in sports and then how that definition carries over to success in the classroom.  The class always reaches the conclusion that although everyone “tried hard”, clearly one student jumped the farthest and therefore is the winner.

I conclude this discussion by encouraging the class to focus on figuring out how to produce excellent RESULTS rather than being content with the illusion that so-called excellent EFFORT is enough.

photo credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/robert_voors/775781834/”>Robert Voors</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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Does University Prepare You For the Workplace?

OpportunityGreat question.

An interesting young man recently started a discussion in a LinkedIn group for Students and Recent Grads by asking the question “Do you think university prepared you for the workplace?”.  I honestly expected to read multiple posts answering “Are you kidding?  No.  My university education did NOT prepare me for the ‘real world’.  I’m still looking for a job!”.

There were a couple of comments of this nature.  I’ve had my fair share of conversations with upper year (ready to graduate) and new alumnae who expressed shock and frustration over not being able to find employment despite being university educated.  I’ve also heard many rumblings in the halls of my institution over the years along the lines of “Where am I ever going to use [insert topic] in the ‘real world’ anyway?” or “Why do we need to know X?”.  This is why I assumed that most students would respond negatively.

I was surprised.  Very pleasantly surprised.

The majority of comments were really insightful.  Most posters agreed that the university experience (both inside and outside the classroom) provides the OPPORTUNITY for students to develop and refine essential life and workplace skills, gain new knowledge, expand networks and build relationships but it certainly doesn’t guarantee that this will happen.

The posters also expressed the need for students to take action, be proactive, take risks, and even do things that feel uncomfortable in order to get the most out of the university experience.

The bottom line is that a university education does not equal job training but it certainly provides the OPPORTUNITY to prepare individuals to do something meaningful after graduation.

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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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