April 28, 2007

Report from the Council of Graduate Schools: The devil is in the details


A short article in the Chronicle yesterday alerted me to this recently released report (note: it's a pdf file) from the Council of Graduate Schools. It's entitled "Graduate Education: The Backbone of American Competitiveness and Innovation: A report from the Council of Graduate Schools Advisory Committee on Graduate Education and American Competitiveness."

Because of my experience working with graduate students both as a coach, and along with Jayne London, running our Writing Clubs, I became excited reading this report. The Advisory Committee suggested many items in their "Action Agenda" that I endorse.

Of course, the devil is in the details. And the funding.

The report offers recommendations to those in higher education, business and policy. Here are a few selected tidbits that I liked, with my comments.

Interdisciplinary research preparation and education are central to future competitiveness, because knowledge creation and innovation frequently occur at the interface of disciplines.
I don't think anyone would argue with the importance of interdisciplinary studies. When I started my in my Ph.D. program in neuropsychology, there was no graduate degree in that field -- you were either in clinical psychology or physiological. Today it is a well-accepted discipline, with many programs offering a neuropsychology degree.

The problem is the universities haven't always ironed out the details that make it difficult to achieve a Ph.D. that bridges two disciplines. The student may have a committee made up of people who don't know much about the "other" discipline, or who even mistrust or dislike it. There may be no advisor who is conversant enough if both fields. The student may end up feeling like he or she must write the equivalent of two dissertations, if the committee cannot agree on the balance that must be struck in this kind of research. In addition, the student may feel not truly a part of either department, due to the time that most be spent in the other's department.

Instead of this kind of situation, universities should bend over backwards to accomodate such interdisciplinary students. There needs to be training for the professors who advise such students, and guidelines for departments and committees, in order to avoid inadvertently discouraging those who courageously attempt to bridge two fields.
Universities need to expand innovative collaborations the private sector, building on best practices illustrated above. Such collaboration must be integral to disciplinary and interdisciplinary research activity. University policies and practices should be reviewed to ensure that any barriers to creative partnerships are based upon principle and not bureaucratic traditions.
I love this one, because this is what I'm trying to promote with my business! Academic Ladder uses innovative techniques that are effective for helping graduate students be more creative, productive researchers. And of course, it is difficult to find academic leaders who are innovative enough to provide the funding for programs like ours, even though our services will make a huge difference in the success of the graduate student.

The quality of U.S. graduate education also depends on indicators that are less tangible than measurements of hard quantitative metrics. True quality hinges on the extent to which programs cultivate graduates with traits that are more difficult to measure, such as creativity and risk-taking. These qualities are key to advancing innovative basic research and must be integral parts of a national competitiveness strategy.

How do you promote creativity and risk-taking? Universities need to start applying well-known psychological principles (let's start with positive reinforcement) within their departments, in order to provide an atmosphere that is conducive to creativity and risk-taking. As seen through the lens of someone who is not affiliated with a university, but who works with graduate students, this kind of atmosphere is extremely rare. Instead, graduate students find their self-esteem, self-efficacy, and just-budding creative ideas tamped down by a well-meaning, but often unwelcoming advisor, committee or department. It doesn't take too many humiliating exchanges with an acerbic professor to inhibit a graduate student from airing nascent ideas.

All well and good, you say; but how do you motivate departments to institute this kind of training? Aye, there's the rub. The individual professors, and maybe even the department chairs, don't have the motivation or incentive to consider such changes. As Barbara Lovitts point out in Leaving the Ivory Tower, her excellent study of the relational factors that contribute to the high attrition rate in graduate education, there is often an attitude of "survival of the fittest" among advisors. If put into words, it might sound like this:
If you've got it, you'll make it. You are either born with it or you're not. I don't want to spend a lot of time nurturing your creativity or helping you with the production of this dissertation. If you don't show me you're good enough, you aren't cut out for this. Why should I put a lot of time into someone who might not be here next year?"
I believe that some of the most brilliant and creative students (with a disproportionate number being minorities, women, and other under-represented groups) are discouraged by such attitudes. And the sad fact is that there is no evidence that you can't teach someone who was good enough to get into graduate school how to be a creative, productive, academic.
Identify “best practices” in reducing attrition and shortening time required to receive a degree; this information should be promulgated throughout the graduate education community.
I couldn't agree more! And doing so may require that the education community think outside the box. A few orientation lectures to new grad students, and checking in with them a few years later to see whether they've graduated or not, is no longer enough.

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April 24, 2007

Trains and planes: creativity bursts on public transportation


I just got back from a business/pleasure trip to Philadelphia. I took Amtrak from Union Station in D.C. to Philly; a 2-hour train ride. I cannot believe how much work I got done on the train! It's not just the amount of time I spent writing; I was able to revise my book in a much more creative way. What is it about public transportation that is so conducive to creativity, at least writing creativity, for me?

One Writing Club member had this opinion:

I think people get work done on public transportation because we surrender our control to the driver of the vehicle, which frees us to focus on our other concerns. Also, being in a bubble of sorts (a train car, a bus, a car) kind of feels like a safe place. The fact that the trip won't last for ever puts a limit on how much a person will work (an outside timer or sorts).


I agree with everything she says. There is something safe about knowing that you are waiting for a specified period of time, in a place where there are few distractions, that jumpstarts previously blocked areas of the brain. Any other ideas?

I just wish I could bottle it and take a spoonful today...

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April 21, 2007

Better Lectures

The latest message from the Tomorrow's Professor's Mailing List was called "How to Create Memorable Lectures." It was from the newsletter, Speaking of Teaching, produced by the Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL), Stanford University -, http://ctl.stanford.edu/Newsletter/ Winter 2005, Vol. 14, No.1.

It never hurts to have reminders about how to lecture, because, let's face it, all academics do it. I remember being highly influenced by the best lecturers when I was an undergraduate, many years ago.

The whole article is good, but I liked this reminder of how to help students take in the information you're presenting:

Once we have students' attention, we need to consider how quickly students can process information. Short-term memory requires time to process the sensory input we receive; students are not sponges and cannot immediately "absorb" new information. Give students short breaks throughout lecture to review their notes and ask questions. A short break that includes students' questions can also give the lecturer an opportunity to assess student understanding and adjust the remaining part of the lecture if needed.You can also include a more formal activity or assignment after every 15-20 minutes of presentation. For example, ask students to summarize or paraphrase the last few important points, either in their notes or with the person sitting nearest them. You can then review the points and move on to the next phase in the lecture.

A frequent complaint from the professors I work with is that it takes too long to prepare lectures. I you include these kinds of techniques, not only will you have less to prepare, your students will learn more .

For your convenience, here is the summary that was included at the end of the article:

Quick and Easy Ideas for Better Lectures

Provide students with a framework for each lecture

o Aim for three to five main points in each lecture.
o Begin the lecture with a high-level question that the upcoming information can answer.
o Prepare a handout of the lecture's main points.
o During lecture, be explicit about what students should focus on.

Don't overload students

o Give students short breaks throughout lecture to review their notes and ask questions.
o Include a formal activity or assignment after every 15-20 minutes of presentation.
o Don't use too many different types of presentation materials at once.
o Don't give students two conflicting things to attend to at the same time.

Students are also more likely to remember information that relates to ideas or experiences they are already familiar with.

o Use examples from student life, current events, or popular culture.
o Ask students to generate their own examples from personal experience.
o Tell students how new information relates to previous lectures in your course.
o Show students how specific skills can be applied to real-world problems.
o Create activities and assignments that ask students to fit new information into the overall themes of the course.

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April 17, 2007

Helping your students cope with the Virginia Tech Tragedy

The news of the massacre at Virginia Tech hit close to home for me, as I'm sure it did for many of you. Having both of my children graduate from a Virginia university (U. VA), one of them just last spring, I had the immediate thought that most parents have had -- "That could have been my child."

You might be wondering how to deal with this in your classes today. I'm a member of POD: Professional and Organizational Network in Higher Education. Today I received an email from their listserv that may help you decide. This is from Dr. Therese Huston, who is the director of the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning at Seattle University (I'm only quoting part of her letter):


For those faculty and faculty developers who are thinking about addressing the tragedy in the days to come, there is [a] resource that might be helpful. Michele DiPietro and I published an article in the most recent edition of To Improve the Academy (2007) that reported on a study examining a) what students said their faculty did following the attacks of September 11, 2001, and b) which faculty actions students found helpful following the attacks.

Of course, the terrorist attacks of 2001 are very different from what happened yesterday - it's hard to know what the events at Virginia Tech might compare to - but the survey results still might shed some insight into what students found more or less helpful in the classroom following an unexpected, horrific, and collective tragedy. DiPietro (2003) has published an earlier study looking at faculty reporting of what they did following the9/11 attacks, which does a great job explaining what faculty found confusing.

Quick summary of Huston & DiPietro's (2007) results (complete reference follows):

- On one campus, in the days immediately following the terrorist attacks of9/11, students reported that only 62% of their professors mentioned the attacks at all; the remaining 38% went on with the course material as though nothing had happened.

- Many students typically found an instructor's complete lack of response frustrating or disappointing. A few students did not care whether their instructors did or said anything, and a few said "doing nothing" was appropriate. But most students wanted their instructors to show some acknowledgement.

- In most cases, students found it *helpful* whenever faculty tried to acknowledge the tragedy in some way (one minute of silence, a short or long discussion, offer to review the material again later, read an inspirational passage, mention counseling services, etc.).

- The only response that was truly *unhelpful* was when faculty" acknowledged that the attacks had occurred but said the class had to go on, with no mention of extra help." Students were often frustrated when faculty said "there is nothing we can do.”

The quantitative data can be found in the paper itself, but the implications for faculty and faculty developers may be most useful here. The following excerpt is taken directly from the TIA article (Huston & DiPietro, 2007, pp.218-220)."Implications for Faculty. The results indicate that from the students¹ perspective, it is best to do something. Students often complained when faculty did not mention the attacks at all, and they expressed gratitude when faculty acknowledged that something awful had occurred. Beyond acknowledging a tragic event, faculty would be well-advised to take the extra step of recognizing that students are distressed and to show some extra support, such as offering to grant extensions for students who request them. Cognitive research informs us that working memory capacity is reduced in times of enhanced stress so students are less capable of learning new material (e.g. Arnsten, 1998).Offering extensions or the opportunity to review the material later is one-way to accommodate students¹ decreased capacity.

It is perhaps a surprising relief to learn that an instructor's response need not be complicated, time-intensive, or even personalized. Responses that require relatively little effort, such as taking a minute of silence or offering to review material later in the course are likely to be viewed as very helpful by most students, so faculty should not feel pressed into redesigning their course. Faculty responses that required high levels of effort were also viewed as helpful, so those who wish to use the lens of their discipline to examine the events surrounding a tragedy are encouraged to do so. A repeated issue that appeared in students¹ comments was that they appreciated when an instructor responded in a unique and humane way, so faculty should not feel pressured to homogenize their responses.

Implications for Faculty Developers

The results suggest that faculty developers can play several roles in the wake of a collective tragedy. First, faculty developers can provide resources and leadership to Deans and Department Chairs. We know that one Dean, the Dean of the College of Fine Arts, contacted all of his Department Chairs to encourage faculty to address the attacks and support students. Professors teaching studio courses in the Fine Arts responded more strongly than most of their peers by leading more discussions, by offering more extensions, by offering to talk privately with more students, etc. Although these studio instructors might have been just as proactive and compassionate without their Dean¹s leadership, this is still a valuable reminder for faculty developers; namely, that Deans and Department Chairs are the nexus of faculty action. Connecting Deans and Department Chairs with the findings from this study along with online resources such as those at University of Michigan empowers administrators to help their faculty respond more effectively.

A second implication for faculty developers is that if time and resources are limited, as they are likely to be following a tragedy, it would be strategic to focus on schools or departments that offer a greater number of project courses or large lecture courses. Our results indicate that faculty in these two types of courses were the least likely to mention the attacks, which would suggest that they are the most likely to benefit from guidance on how to respond. Although a full class discussion may not suit these courses, some of the quick, low-effort activities might work well. The third role for faculty developers is to reassure faculty after the fact that their actions were probably helpful to students, even if it was not clear in class. As DiPietro (2003) noted, many faculty were still unclear about whether their responses were helpful several weeks later. The good news is that most students found most instructor responses, with the one noted exception, to be very helpful." (Huston & DiPietro, pp. 218-220)

Complete references:

Huston, T. A., & DiPietro, M. (2007). In the eye of the storm: Students perceptions of helpful faculty actions following a collective tragedy. In D. R. Robertson & L. B. Nilson (Eds.) To Improve the Academy: Vol 25.Resources for faculty, instructional, and organizational development (pp.207-224). Bolton, MA: Anker.

DiPietro. M. (2003). The day after: Faculty behavior in post-September 11, 2001, classes. In C. M. Wehlburg. and S. Chadwick-Blossey (Eds.) To Improve the Academy: Vol 21. Resources for faculty, instructional, and organizational development (pp. 21-39). Bolton, MA: Anker.

I hope this is helpful for some of you. I've been reading Comfortable with Uncertainty, by Pema Chodron, an American Buddhist Nun, and finding it very helpful. I'll be writing more about that book in my newsletter on Wednesday.


Addendum: Here is a link to a University of Michigan site that has suggestions for how to handle discussions of the tsuanami, which might be helpful in this situation.

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April 6, 2007

Themes from a professor coaching group meeting


I always learn something from the brilliant professors in my coaching groups.

1.) A deep thought from Despair, Inc.:


Hard work always pays off after time,
but laziness always pays off now.
2.) The difficulty of getting into "flow" in your research and writing, when there's so much external pressure to publish, etc. Paradoxically, you have to let go of caring about what "they" want, in order to enjoy what you really want to be doing for your career. How can you sit down and "dance" with your work in a curious and joyful way (these are my words) if you feel your chair or dean breathing down your neck?

For some people, the answer may be actively practicing relaxation, meditation, or self-hypnosis. It takes a real effort to be present and relax into your work.


3.) Coping with the last stretch of the semester when you're burned out but want to keep researching and writing. Yes, 15 minutes day does work, and it's better than nothing.


4.) Ways of coping with a sabbatical. That might seem like heaven to those of you with a full teaching load, but it's easy to let those long, empty days go to waste. One trick is to alternate tasks so you don't overload one part of your brain for too long. Obviously reading and writing can be alternated, but even more important is to have tasks that use a really different part of the brain. This is one reason I like mindmapping, cardifying, and yes, even looking at pictures.


I revealed for the first time something weird I noticed about myself. When I write my newsletter, I love the part where I search for illustrations. Not just because it's a mindless break. It actually seems to clear my mind, and clarify my arguments. Various members of the Writing Clubs have used similar visual techniques when they are stuck, such as creating "poster sessions" for themselves of their work, drawing diagrams, or putting sticky notes up on the wall with the topic of each paragraph.


5.) When to just plow through and write the book, and when to stop and publish and article based on one of the chapters. In addition to keeping in mind what the book publisher will allow, one of the considerations is whether your department, and your field in general, prefers to see numbers of publications, or values the book above all else. The key is to be mindful of these factors when setting your goals.


Of course, there was much more. Just wanted to let you in on some thoughts that came up today.



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