Tag Archives: post-secondary

The Curiosity Test

I think, at a child’s birth, if a mother could ask a fairy godmother to endow it with the most useful gift, that gift should be curiosity. ~ Eleanor Roosevelt

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This post is the second in a series highlighting the work of Ken Coates and Bill Morrison’s book What to Consider When You’re Considering University.  The first post introduced the book and highly recommended that all high school students, struggling early year university students and parents pick up a copy right away.  The moral of the story is that a university education is not for everyone and that there are many other highly attractive options including college, polytechnic and trade educations that may better align student’s (or is it really their parent’s?) goals with desired outcomes.

Throughout the book, the authors argue that far too many high school students chose the university route when they are either ill-prepared or ill-suited for the quest.  The quick and dirty measure Coates and Morrison use to assess a student’s suitability for university is the Curiosity Test, which is presented in Chapter Two, the “Know Yourself” section.  This test asks five straightforward questions.

  1.  Do I like to read?
  2. Do I read high-quality non-fiction?
  3. Do I watch foreign films, art films, CBC documentaries, or thoughtful PBS programs or series?
  4. Am I troubled or excited about world affairs?
  5. Do I enjoy learning?

Let’s explore the questions…

The first two questions are closely connected but distinct enough to warrant separate queries.  If a student doesn’t like reading much at all, even if we’re talking about the latest People Magazine or a Twilight series novel, the chances of that student surviving, let alone enjoying the volume and nature of university course reading is minimal.  Let’s say that a student does enjoy reading for pleasure but the scope of materials has been limited to what would be considered “low-quality” works.  Under this scenario I am optimistic that the student could handle and possibly even enjoy university course reading materials.

University courses require a lot of reading (and writing, but we’ll get to that later).  If a student doesn’t like reading or can’t handle the quantity of reading necessary, the chances of success and enjoyment are low.

The third and fourth questions explore a student’s interest in the world around her.  Have you ever turned to the internet to Google information about an issue, situation, world leader, or even a country you didn’t know about just because you wanted to (and not because it was assigned work as part of a research project)?  If you heard about the 50th anniversary of the Selma march on the news or through Facebook posts, did you look up what it was all about?

An orientation towards exploring issues, ideas, situations and seeking understanding and meaning from them is what drives learning and is the core of the university experience (and what relates to the final question of the test).

So, what is the likelihood of a 17 year old you know acing this test?  Probably fairly low.

Does this mean that those students should throw in the towel and write off a university career?  Not necessarily.

Even though most high school students may not take an active interest in world affairs, choose CBC documentaries over Netflix and actively subscribe to many news sites, not all hope is lost.  The early years of university are a time when students are presented with the opportunity to explore various topics and learn more about the world around them to figure out what piques their interest.

Even if a student doesn’t arrive at university innately curious but does begin her studies with an open mind and a true desire to learn and grow, there is still hope.

The key to success is for that somewhat curious student to immerse herself in the university experience by:

  1. Doing the work (read, prepare for discussions),
  2. Being an active member of the class (show up, listen and engage with professor and fellow student points of view), and
  3. Participating in as many of the amazing campus activities (student clubs/teams, “celebrity”/alumni talks, student government) as possible.

If after the first or second year, a student does not find herself truly interested and engaged in her program of study, it is a pretty good sign that it’s time for a change.  That change may involve a program shift, a change in institution or even a withdrawal from the post-secondary experience for a period of time.

Either way, parents need to be open to that possibility.  I’m directing this portion of the post to parents because far too often they do not recognize the consequences of pressuring a child to “stick it out” because “that’s what we do in this family”.  If the environment or program isn’t a good fit the whole experience is bound to result in bigger debt, more stress, strained relationships and overall unhappiness.

As a parent, that’s the last thing I want for my children and I’m sure others feel the same.  This doesn’t mean I’m going to let my children off the hook for commitments and responsibilities throughout their lives but it does mean that I am aware that university might not be the best fit and I will genuinely listen to my children’s account of what is working and what isn’t working to help support them when the time comes.

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The Best Gift for High School Students

Where has “What to Consider if You’re Considering University” by Coates and Morrison been all my life?

In my opinion, this book should be required reading for every single grade 9 student and her parents from coast to coast.

What, you may wonder, has got me so excited?

It’s real. It’s honest. And the information is absolutely relevant to the swarms of graduating high school students seeking direction on what to do next.

Coates and Morrison use the term swarm to describe the large majority of university bound students who have been “influenced by the over-selling of a university education”. These are the students who don’t necessary enjoy reading, probably won’t engage entirely in what a university has to offer and who seriously lack in the curiosity department. Swarm students are less likely to succeed at university and if they do manage to scrape together the grades required to graduate will probably be no further ahead (just further in debt) then they were after high school.

It’s no surprise that I have encountered a number of students from the swarm over the years. In extreme cases, swarm students have admitted that they just want to “get through” the next four years and it would be so much better if I would just get on with it and tell them what I want them to do and how they should do it to make the process as painless and expedient as possible.

That’s sad. And the individuals I described are not the type of students for which the university system was designed.

What many soon-to-be high school graduates and parents don’t realize is that there is more to life (and post-secondary education) than universities. In fact, other post-secondary options might be a much better fit for both the student’s learning style and desired outcome.

This post is the beginning of a series of four that will delve into the key takeaways from Coates and Morrison’s book.

I encourage all high school students, students struggling through first or second year university and parents of said students to pick up a copy of the book.

Unfortunately many students and their parents were mistakenly led to believe that a university education would somehow automatically line them up for a great paying job so if they could just “get through” the next four years, all will be well in the world.

Reality check – a university education does not equal job training (unless you are in a professional program like nursing, medicine, engineering, teachers college and possibly some business programs). If a specific job is the desired outcome, one of the other options might be better for you.

Let’s explore…

Colleges

Coates and Morrison describe college as the road to employment. If you are interested in a particular career then a college program might be the right choice for you. Colleges typically offer a range of programs (most often diplomas) in the areas of social service, health care, paraprofessional, and trades. Colleges tend to be regionally focused and do a good job adapting to the changes in local and regional economies (which is rarely on the agenda of universities). Not only do colleges train students in high-end facilities using the latest technologies, but they offer a direct pipeline to potential employers who often have longstanding relationships with the institution.

Polytechnics

Most people don’t even know that polytechnics exist or how they are different from colleges or universities. There are similarities and differences.  Polytechnics can offer certificate (typically one year programs), diploma (typically two to three year programs most like colleges) and degree (three to four year programs) programs.  Polytechnics are informed by advanced applied research and offer practical, hands-on training, often designed in conjunction with employers. If you’re looking for a direct connection to work upon graduation, the polytechnic choice might be the right one for you.

And what about universities you may ask? I will leave that to the next post where I explore Coates and Morrison’s Curiosity Test as a measure of university readiness.  In the meantime, share this post or order a copy of the book for that special high school student in your life.

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Why Group Work Doesn’t Have to Suck

 

I feel really awkward using the work “suck” in the title of this post because I wasn’t allowed to use the word when I was growing up. My parent’s detested it. Although my kids don’t always agree with the decisions I make, like it’s time to tidy up or go to bed, they haven’t floated the “s” word yet. If they do, I’ll crack down just like my parents did. In the meantime, I hope my mom will forgive me.

Working in groups is an inevitable part of life. Because none of us work or live in a vacuum, group work is something that we will be required to partake in so we might as well figure out the best way to manage it.

Professors don’t assign group work just to torture you. We actually do it for very sound reasons including:

  • To provide an opportunity for students to develop employer sought transferrable skills including communication, time management, conflict resolution, coordination and project management;
  • To assign valuable projects that would not otherwise be possible to manage on an individual basis; and
  • To generate stronger insights and approaches to issues, topics or problems.

I guarantee that one of the questions you will be asked at your next job or volunteer placement interview will be, “tell me about a time you worked in a group and what you learned from that experience”. If you didn’t experience group work, you wouldn’t have anything valuable to share, thank you very much.

Even though (most) professors have good intentions in assigning group work, I understand that it isn’t always easy.

I personally work in multiple “groups”, which are called “committees” in the real world, and I can vouch that the experience isn’t always great. Just like in student groups, there are members who contribute ideas, ask great questions, perform background research, coordinate and track progress and are effective members overall. And there are the others. These members show up when they please (or not at all), complain, offer no constructive feedback, block progress and ultimately take up the good oxygen in the rooms in which we meet.

It’s true. Even experienced, educated “adults” can be ineffective group members!

So what can you do about it?

One of the most effective tools I have used to manage group work is a work plan. A work plan is a document that specifies the tasks to be performed for a particular project. The set up doesn’t have to be fancy. A work plan can be prepared the old fashioned way using a basic table pen and paper-style or can be prepared using sophisticated software.

In addition to the benefit of helping the group reach a consensus for how to tackle the project, a work plan also provides a method for ensuring accountability. Although I’m not in the business of calling people out for not contributing, a work plan allows you to do just that.

Below is a sample work plan template I have provided for my students.

Here’s how it works:

  1. Objective entries represent the overarching goals for the project. For a business plan project, one of the goals would be to understand the customer. Another would be to understand the competitive landscape.
  2. Action steps required outline the process to be followed to meet the objective. In the business plan project example, understanding the customer might involve preparing, testing and administering a survey. Each of these three phases could be broken down into individual action steps with more specific action steps outlined.  The more specific the better in a work plan.
  3. Specific output is a critical part of the plan. This is what you expect the individual to present to the rest of the group when she reports back. Are you expecting a complete summary of the survey results so that the rest of the group can analyze and discuss the findings together? Is an oral report ok?  Or are you expecting the individual responsible for this step to do that work herself? These are very different outputs and if the group is not clear on what is expected,misunderstandings will most definitely arise.
  4. Responsibility simply identifies which member(s) of the group is responsible for the task.
  5. Deadline is when the group decides the work should be completed.

A work plan is not a static document. It should evolve and be updated as new information is discovered and the project moves forward. Keeping the work plan updated is an important part of keeping the group connected and on track to produce a high quality project on time.

Preparing a work plan takes time but if the group is conscientious and thoughtful, the tool can prevent future group work tragedies.

I would love to know what other tools you have used to help manage and coordinate group work efforts. Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

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What the Heck are Office Hours Anyway?

Why does every professor note “office hours” on the course syllabus?  Am I the only one who has no clue what they are?  Is this when the professor is working and if so what does she do with all of that other “free time”?

These great questions are posed by many first year and even upper year students who aren’t familiar with the office hours concept.  I’m going to use this post to reveal the mystery behind office hours so that students understand what they are and how they can benefit.

Office hours are designated times professors deliberately schedule in order to meet with students.  Whoa.  Hold up.  Why would my professor want to meet with me?

I’m going to be honest here.  Some professors could care less about meeting with you while others are quite open to the idea.  Most post-secondary institutions require professors to hold office hours at a rate of one hour per class instructed, or something along those lines, so it’s not necessarily coming out of the goodness of anyone’s heart.

On the other hand, many professors value the opportunity to get to know their students personally and to help their students in a number of ways.

Here are the four most common ways students utilize my office hours:

  1. Clarify course content by asking specific questions.  I love it when a student prepares a list of questions in advance of a visit.  These students are able to stay focused and make the most of the time.  I appreciate it when students don’t waste my time by spending the majority of the meeting rifling through their paperwork.
  2. Discover opportunities to learn more about future courses, program options, volunteering opportunities and work experiences.  Professors can be an amazing resource for all types of information.  If you have legitimate questions about program pathways or ways to gain experience, your professor just might have some answers.
  3. Ask questions about papers, tests or assignments.  Sometimes you just don’t know what the professor meant by writing “awk” in the margin of your paper.  If you take the time to clarify feedback, chances are you will perform better on the next paper or test if you can apply those lessons learned.
  4. Express concern over course performance or progress.  If things are not going well and you’re not sure what you can do, your professor might be able to provide some guidance that could help you get back on track.  You might even learn that this course/program is not for you and make some changes (caution: always seek a second opinion!).

Some of the benefits of visiting your professor during office hours are obvious from the above list.  Another obvious benefit is that the professor gets to know you.  This is a tremendous help if you ever ask that professor for a reference.  See the Will You Be My Reference? post for more tips on what it takes to receive a qualified reference from a professor.

Another benefit is that you get to know your professor too.  There might be some interesting clues in your professor’s office that reveal useful information.  During one office hour visit a student realized I was a past Chapter Board Chair of Kids Help Phone from the recognition plaque on my shelf.  It turned out that she was interested in getting involved with the organization as a volunteer and we were able to have a meaningful talk.

Most professors have specific guidance around preferred systems for managing office hours so pay attention the information she shares.  In my previous role, I managed my office hours using an advanced booking system because there were just so many students to accommodate.  In my current role I operate on a drop-in basis because it better suits my style and the students I work with.  Some professors operate on an open door, drop-in basis while others would give you the nastiest stink eye ever for not respecting their time.

ProfWhile we’re on that note, let me remind you to please respect your professor’s office hours because they actually have a lot more work to do outside of preparing for class, teaching and meeting with students.  See the What Do Professors Do Anyway? post for more on that topic.

I hope you’re better equipped to understand when and why you might visit your professor.  If you have any questions around office hour etiquette or purpose, please post below.

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End of Term Magic Moment

Stars

It really is the most wonderful time of the year.

Exams and papers are graded, I can see over my filing pile and I am up to date with all of my reference requests.  I still haven’t starting writing “that” paper for a conference submission but at least I feel optimistic it will happen.

The best thing to come out of this entire term’s grading (and there was a lot of it) were the takeaways and key learning points, otherwise known as the “ah-ha” moments, identified by numerous students in their final business communications course papers.  In a previous post I pointed out that professors don’t take any joy in grading poor papers but I didn’t mention the immense joy some of us do get from grading insightful, original and well-crafted documents.

The specific points identified by the students don’t really matter to me at the end of the day.  What does matter to me is that the students demonstrated that they learned something from the course content and from the experience in which they participated.

I have known some of these students for two and even three years and to see them grow and mature in their communication effectiveness and analysis was wonderful.

Although I’m going to enjoy my break from the student’s smiling faces over the holidays I know that when classes resume I’ll be ready to smile right back.

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What’s Your WHY?

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Yesterday I had the pleasure of visiting a high school class to speak about the university experience and of course to put in a plug for my institution.  Instead of starting my presentation by asking standard questions like “How many of you have applied to university?” and “How many of you know what program you want to pursue?”, I started by asking “WHY?”.

WHY do you want to go to university anyway? 

The classroom stayed silent.  It was very uncomfortable.  Most students stared at me blankly.  Apparently they hadn’t been asked or hadn’t thought about this question before.

Eventually one brave soul raised his hand and reported that he wanted to go to university and get a degree because that was simply what you had to do to eventually get a job.

I was disappointed.  If the only reason you are planning to pursue or are in post-secondary studies is to get a degree, leave with that flimsy piece of paper in four years, then you are really missing out.

There are so many other reasons to attend university and although I can rhyme off building your network, developing transferable skills (that yes, can be beneficial when it comes time to seek employment) and gaining new knowledge, YOU need to identify your personal WHY in order to make the most of your experience.

If you don’t know your WHY then how are you going to make decisions?  What courses will you take?  What clubs will you join?  What relationships will you pursue?

The students who get the most out of their post-secondary experience are those who begin with the end in mind (which happens to be Stephen Covey’s second Habit of Highly Effective People).  Decide what you want at the end and then design your experience around that vision.

Everyone can benefit from periodically revisiting our personal WHY.  Incorporating this habit into our routines to help prioritize and focus time and energy is invaluable.  Unfortunately those always seem to be in short supply.

I’m curious.  What’s your WHY?

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Should I Stay or Should I Go?

Questions

It’s that time of the year again.  Midterm exams and midterm papers have been graded and returned.

What do you do if your result is not stellar?  And by not stellar I mean poor.  In some cases really poor.  Like you are seriously questioning if you are going to make it through the course with a passing grade poor.

Every year I speak to several students who share this same question. It doesn’t have to be the end of the world.  And dropping a course can actually be a positive decision.

All institutions have an official “drop date” (check your institution’s academic calendar for details) for quarter, half and full term courses.  In most instances, if a student drops the course before said date, the course grade and attempt will not show on the student’s official transcript.  On the other hand, if a student continues in a course and ends up failing, this attempt (sometimes shown as “F” or sometimes with the actual number grade) will appear on the transcript.

Before you make your final decision, consider your honest answers to these six questions:

  1. How much effort did you put into the required coursework?  Did you attend class?  Do the readings?  Prepare the review questions?  Participate in the class seminars and discussions?  Seek clarity if you didn’t understand the content?  Etc.
  2. How well do you understand the content?  Do you actually get it but for some reason weren’t able to showcase your understanding through the testing vehicle or assigned paper?  Or do you really have no idea what is going on?
  3. What strategy were you using to learn the content?  Did you keep up with the weekly readings or did you try to cram eight weeks of reading into a 48 hour period?  Did you do the readings before class or after class or never?  Did you think about and document your personal responses to the assignment questions, review problems, cases, discussion questions, whatever, before class or did you just hope to absorb the content by osmosis?
  4. Is this a mandatory or optional course for you?  If it is a mandatory course for your program it is likely a prerequisite for future courses.  How will dropping this course impact the rest of your academic plan?  Will a poor grade impact your performance in future courses?  Should you retake the course at a time when you are ready to give it your all?  On the other hand, if it is an optional or elective course when will you be able to make up this course?  Will that be easy or difficult given your schedule?
  5. What is your grade potential in the course?  By grade potential, I mean what is your projected final grade?  Work out the math using the evaluation breakdown in your course syllabus.  Will it be enough?  Most programs require a minimum average to stay in the program and sometimes a minimum grade for core courses in the program.  Do you risk being removed from the program?
  6. Were there extraordinary circumstances that affected your performance?  For example, were you extremely sick with the flu the day before the exam?  Perhaps you really understood the content but your performance suffered because you were dehydrated, weak and perhaps a little nauseas.  Did you experience a substantial loss that would impact your mental state and therefore your performance?  Will these circumstances continue to affect your ability to perform or are they one-time events that you do not expect to impact you in the future?

Before you make your final decision I highly recommend making an appointment with an academic counsellor to get some answers to the questions above.  If you feel comfortable or if your professor has made it clear that she is willing to talk to students about this issue then by all means, make an appointment and discuss your concerns with her as well.

Dropping a course can free up valuable time for you to put more effort into other courses or to manage other issues in your life.  At the end of the day the decision to stay or go is personal and yours to make.

Do you have enough information to make your decision now?

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