College needs Archives

Know Better – Do Better

I read this quote by Maya Angelou: “When you know better you do better.” It sounds interesting because it can mean many things. Let’s see…

First, I think of learning. If you learn well, then you know better, and then you do better with your tests and exams. But what else “knowing better” may mean? What do you know better? Perhaps, a better way of doing something; a better method that you learned about, or that you discovered. And then of course you do better to achieve your goals.

When you have something to do, first you have to know well (to understand) what you have to do. And then, if you really know what you have to do, you do better and your results are better. First you have to know what you have to do , and only then you do it.

It may also mean that you know a better life. If you had been impoverished (perhaps you were born in a poor family) and at some point you succeeded to raise yourself up to a better life, then perhaps you tend to be willing to help people who experience similar difficulties. So you tend to do better. You tend to do good deeds. In general, if you experience yourself a certain thing, a certain situation, then you know it better than someone who only thinks about it. And if you know better, you can help better someone else who experiences the same situation.

College needs to know better how to impart education. If they know better how to educate young minds, then they do it better, the results are better.

It is a nice and thoughtful quote. I am still trying to find more meanings to it.

How about you? What does it mean to you?

Lecturing Is Still One of the College Needs

Hello again! A month has passed and no blogging took place here at the College Needs Corner… Today is the day I want to blog again.

An article by Dan Berrett that was published in the Chronicle of Higher Education on October 25, 2012, and titled “Lectures Still Dominate Science and Math Teaching, Sometimes Hampering Student Success” stirred my curiosity.

I had taught Computer Science (one of the STEM fields) for more than 6 years, in different places, both in USA and abroad. Students who don’t succeed in Computer Science or students who just get low grades are those who came to college with a background missing certain learning skills or certain basic knowledge one should acquire in high school. Also, those who don’t succeed may also be unaware or unwilling to make the intellectual effort required by such a rigorous discipline. This has been my personal experience. Others may have different experiences. I would be glad to hear from them.

Following is some information about the article I read, quoted from ACM TechNews. I inserted my own thoughts.

“Efforts to boost graduates from science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) programs may be impeded by the continued reliance on lecturing. Fewer than 40 percent of students entering college intending to be a STEM major complete a degree in a STEM field, according the President’s Council of Advisers on Science and Technology. However, an institutional survey in 1997 revealed poor teaching to be the main concern among both STEM graduates and those who had left those majors, and STEM teaching at that time consisted of lecturing.”

Well this is quite an old survey, and I would very much want to find out how did it reveal that lecturing is poor teaching. Certainly, lecturing should be combined with questions for students during lecture, with problem solving in class during lecture, with many examples, and maybe other teaching methods. But then what is a class, if not lecturing?

“A more recent UCLA poll found that STEM faculty tend to grade on a curve at twice the rate of non-STEM faculty.”

Does the article not mention the date of this more recent survey? I did not grade on a curve…

“University of British Columbia professor Carl E. Wieman reports that grading on a curve signifies STEM educators’ unfamiliarity with educationally effective practices. He also says faculty are seldom trained in creating valid learning measures, and they lack feedback on the quality of their examinations.”

Why is it so? Why don’t teach STEM faculty educationally effective practices?

“Wieman emphasizes that faculty design practice tasks for students that are suitable to their levels of comprehension, but still rigorous enough to require intense intellectual effort. Work assigned inside and outside class should link patterns of expert thinking in the field to students’ already acquired knowledge, and motivate them appropriately.”

Sure, I agree with this. Although, it seems that the article complains that this does not happen, and that the assigned work is inappropriate. I doubt this is a general trend. I recently took an online Computer Science course from Stanford University. The course was quite well prepared, there were both lectures and examples discussed by the professor. (He recorded his talks and the students could listen and see the professor talking.) Besides, the assigned work was very much appropriate, a little challenging but nevertheless was linked to the knowledge acquired from lectures.

You may not agree with me, but I like lectures, I mean good lectures.

College Needs an Intelligent Textbook

I just found out about the so called “intelligent textbook”. It is in fact a software system called Inquire, writes Michael Reilly in the New Scientist article The Intelligent Textbook that Helps Students Learn.

“The aim of Inquire is to provide students with the world’s first intelligent textbook, says its creator David Gunning of Seattle-based Vulcan. At first glance, the system just looks like an electronic version of Campbell Biology, the tome that forms the bedrock of biology classes for first-year university and advanced high school students in the US. But behind the scenes is a machine-readable concept map of the 5000 or so ideas covered in the book, along with information on how they are all related.”

The system is able to answer questions about concepts not well understood. If you highlight some text then the system asks questions about the highlighted text. There were experiments done that showed that students who used the full Inquire system scored better on quizzes than their peers who used the paper textbook.

“While such results are promising, perhaps it’s a little soon to crown Inquire the future of textbooks. For starters, after two years of work the system is still only half-finished. The team plans to encode the rest of the 1400-page Campbell Biology by the end of 2013, but they expect a team of 18 biologists will be needed to do so. This raises concerns about whether the project could be expanded to cover other areas of science, let alone other subjects.”

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I thought I would really like to learn using such an intelligent textbook. Certainly, college needs good textbooks for the students to learn.

After all, what do I expect from a good textbook, whether it is written on paper or not?

A good textbook should be clearly written, without mistakes (unfortunately this almost never happens). It should have both a table of contents and an index, such that one could easily find the concepts they are looking for. There should be self-test exercises and interesting assignments that help you understand the new concepts and the methods. Some of the assignments should be easy, but some should be difficult and challenging. Chapters summaries are useful to have too. Also, it helps to have the same concepts explained more than once, using different words and examples.

If you want to master a certain subject it is good to read several books on that particular subject. Even if you have one good textbook, it is always useful to read the same “story” told by different authors.

Moreover, as the musician Stan Getz used to say:

You can read all the textbooks and listen to all the records, but you have to play with musicians that are better than you.

One should discuss the subject with people that are more knowledgeable in order to learn more and better.

College Needs and the STEM Fields

I read an article in the San Francisco Chronicle: “The Obama administration unveiled plans to create an elite corps of master teachers, a $1 billion effort to boost U.S. students’ achievement in science, technology, engineering and math.” Following are some of my thoughts about this and another related article.

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I believe America really needs better teachers and better educated students. In particular, there is indeed a gap between USA and other countries (e.g. Russia, India, China etc.) with respect to high school students’ achievements in math and science. Better math and science teachers will better prepare students for college. Even non-STEM majors require students to take an introductory course in math or science (physics, chemistry, biology, or computer science.) In particular, I know that a music major requires math courses. Besides, there are too few students choosing a college major in the STEM fields. (STEM = Science, Technology, Engineering and Math)

The article also says that “The program will reward high-performing teachers with salary stipends.” By agreeing to pay good teachers higher salaries, we just recognize how important their work is for the future of the whole society.

However, there seem to already exist more than 80 teacher quality programs. Therefore I question: what has been achieved so far with all these programs? Unfortunately the article has no information on such existing programs.

All I know is that many students become freshmen with a background in math and science that is less than adequate. Why does this happen? I believe they finish high school with low grades in math and science or else their grades do not match their knowledge. College needs students better prepared in the STEM fields.

The tech sector is set to grow faster than all but five industries by 2020. Out of those fields, half of which are related to healthcare, tech pays the best with an average salary of $78,730, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

If technology is the future, however, we are doing a woeful job of preparing our kids for it. Computer science is the only one of the STEM fields that has actually seen a decrease in student participation over the last 20 years, from 25% of high school students to only 19%, according to a study by the National Center for Education Statistics. (Read more in the article “Can We Fix Computer Science Education in America?”.)

Again, this problem boils down to high school curriculum. “Take a look at the curriculum of many classes labeled computer science today and you’ll find not much has changed from the days of dial-up modems. Most cover the basics: learning how to type and use Microsoft Word and PowerPoint.” In my opinion, this is not appropriate to a high school curriculum; rather, these should be taught in elementary school.

“The only serious computing class available to many students is AP computer science and it’s not very popular. Part of the problem is that the course is primarily focused on Java programming.” Also in my opinion, there are other easier-to-learn programming languages besides Java, for example Python. Actually, the second article mentions a language developed by MIT called Scratch, which introduces students to programming concepts likened to “virtual LEGOs.” Moreover, computer science is more than mere programming languages. High school students should be able to understand algorithms and formal models of computation.

I am a Computer Science person, but I don’t want to be biased. As you see, these are not all only my opinions. America needs both artists, bankers, health care providers, and technicians, engineers and scientists. They should all have something in common: being well prepared in their respective professions. They should all aim “ever upward” — excelsior!

College Needs Corner News

College Needs Corner has read some new articles and wants to share the information with you.

  • In the article “Lawrence Landweber Helped Build Today’s Internet, Now He’s Advising Its Future” published by Sarah Mitroff in Wired online magazine one can read about one of the Internet’s pioneers. In 1979 Lawrence Landweber created the Computer Science Network (CSNET), an intentionally open computer network that helped pave the way for the modern internet. He predicted that this technology would be used in banking, travel, and commerce, but did not anticipated the hackers’ attacks of the unsecured network. Landweber is currently involved with the Global Environment for Network Innovations (GENI) project to create faster and more secure networks. “The current internet has serious flaws,” says Landweber. “The internet was never designed to be secure, and in the formative days, privacy wasn’t that much of an issue,” says Landweber. He is as enthusiastic as ever about computer science: “What I love most about this field is that no matter what you’ve done in the past, the future is always more exciting.”
  • From Palo Alto Online News: “Stanford’s hottest major: computer science”
    Stanford student interest in the field follows curriculum redesign, and outpaces national trend.

    More than 220 students in a class of about 1,700 chose to major in computer science — a 25 percent leap from the previous record in 2000-2001. The Computer Science department’s Associate Chair for Education is Mehran Sahami, a former research scientist at Google.”Virtually every field is touched by computer science in some way,” Sahami told the Engineering Report.”In medicine and biology computational methods are used to analyze DNA, predict treatment outcomes and model drugs at a molecular level. In environmental sciences, there is need for climate modeling. In investing and finance, algorithmic approaches are widely used.”

    “Computers have dramatically changed animation, and artists with knowledge of computers are increasingly in demand. Conversely, computer scientists studying graphics need an appreciation for art. After all, a bad picture, even one in high resolution, is still a bad picture,” Sahami said.

  • From Rutgers University Media Relations: Rutgers Engineers Design Cell Phone App to Reduce Distracted Driving. Disregard for laws prompts experts to investigate whether technology can help reduce accidents. Laws that limit cell phone use while driving don’t seem to be curbing accidents blamed on drivers who insist on talking or texting behind the wheel.
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    This has some engineers and lawmakers wondering if technology can do what threats of fines or jail time are not. Could cell phones automatically become less distracting while their owners are driving?

    Rutgers engineers believe they can. They and colleagues at Stevens Institute of Technology have designed and tested a smart phone application that pinpoints where a cell phone user is sitting: on the driver’s side or the passenger’s side. Then, according to the position in the car, the smart phone application acts differently. It lets the passengers continue their use of the phone, but limits the driver’s use of the phone.

  • Whichbook is a website that makes available new ways to choose books to read. Another website What Should I Read Next? provides recommendations and suggestions from real readers. Explore them!

College Needs a Better Reputation

Recently I stumbled upon an article from December 21, 2009 and written by Cliff Kuang. The title of the article is “Infographic of the Day: Is College Really Worth It?”. I became interested and I read the article, which contained an infographic originally from Online Colleges and Universities. On this website one can see also the sources of documentation for the infographic, which seem to be serious and well reputable. (The infographic is way down the page.)

I invite you to see the infographic. Essentially, it says that too many students spend too much time in college having fun (including alcohol consumption) and also spending a lot of money. Well, I believe college needs a better reputation.

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Having fun is not a bad thing, certainly. It depends, though, how one has fun and for how long. I can assure you that some students have fun in many ways: some have fun even when they study, because they are interested to know more about something they are passionate about. I believe there’s no limit having fun like this. Some have fun reading a book, watching a movie, meeting friends, partying, doing sport and exercise, and much more. But if you don’t have fun at all studying for your college degree, then probably you should not be in college. Some students work hard for their college assignments, and have some fun doing some of their assignments; they go to party only when the assignments are done.

Read the data in the infographic: one out of three students drop out after the first year. This costs a lot of money. Unfortunately the tuition has risen steadily for some time. The average freshman spends 10 hours per week partying, but only 8 hours studying… No wonder so many drop out after the first year in college, which is a pity: a waste of money and a waste of time. It also says that students spend more than $5.5 billion a year for alcohol. Wow! That’s a lot of money and a lot of alcohol!

Beware of alcohol consumption. When it is too much, it is no good. There was a mathematician and logician, well known in Romania, called Grigore Moisil, who used to say, jokingly: “Every man has the right to drink a glass of wine; but after one drinks a glass of wine then he becomes another man, who also has the right to drink a glass of wine …” But Moisil was a university professor and researcher who was never seen drunk.

It is interesting to read also some of the comments about the article I mentioned in the beginning.

I wrote about this infographic because initially I suspected it was not well documented. It seems, however, that the authors from Online Colleges and Universities did consult some well documented sources for their data.

What is your opinion? Is the data accurate? Tell us what is your own experience with college life.

Free Online Courses by Top Universities

College needs both interested students and dedicated professors. But sometimes they never get to meet in person. Recently (I mean this year) several well known and top universities started to offer free online courses. Yes, totally free and completely online.

Top universities have many prestigious professors. So imagine you live somewhere in India, or Russia, or Pakistan, or Tunisia, New Zealand, Mongolia … wherever. If you have access to the Internet then you have access to courses taught by professors at M.I.T, Stanford, Harvard, Virginia Tech, etc. All you need to do to enroll in such a course was to provide your name and your e-mail address.

Harvard and M.I.T. formed a partnership, called edX, whose president is professor Anant Agarwal. Yesterday, The New York Times published an interview with Mr. Agarwal. He was the first to teach the online course offered through edX, “Circuits and Electronics”, in March-June this year. There were 150,000 students enrolled in this course. A certificate of completion was given to each student who successfully completed the course.

How does one professor handle so many students? Mr. Agarwal says that there were no assignments to grade because they were all formulated to be automatically graded. But there were chat forums where students asked questions. The course taught by Mr. Agarwal had four teaching assistants who were supposed to help with answering the students’ questions. However, as soon as a question was asked on a forum, another student came up with an answer. Often the answer was not completely correct, but other students would come up to answer the question, and often, working together, they got the answer write. The professor instructed the T.A.s to wait sometime before they answer a question, because often times, all they had to do was to say when the answer was correct.

Only 7157 students passed the course. This was because the course was M.I.T.-hard and required a very solid background in calculus and differential equations. There were weekly assignments and many students did not have the time to complete them.

The edX courses operate under an honor code. In the future they may use the cameras inside a laptop or iPad to watch the person while taking the exam, and everything else that’s happening in the room.

Professor Agarwal talked also about the future of edX: “When there are more courses, I could imagine people taking several of them, and putting them together, getting the certificate, and using it something like a diploma. I think the courses will get better and better, but we don’t know how they’ll be used.” He added: “Our goal is to change the world through education.”

edX intends to offer also courses in computer science, biology, math, physics, public health, history and more.

Miscellaneous News

College Needs Corner has read a few articles and a book related to college education. Following are some excerpts from these articles and some of my thoughts.

  • College Presidents Are Bullish on Online Education but Face a Skeptical Public
    published by Jeffrey R. Young in The Chronicle of Higher Education.”Delivering courses in cyberclassrooms has gained broad acceptance among top college leaders, but the general public is far less convinced of online education’s quality, according to new survey data released this week by the Pew Research Center, in association with The Chronicle.”They queried 1,055 college presidents and 2,142 adult Americans, but they don’t say how many students were among those 2,142 adults.

    I believe good online courses have some advantages over classroom courses, but probably not every course is appropriately taught online.

  • The Worrisome Ascendance of Business in Higher Educationpublished in the same Chronicle by William W. Keep, dean of the School of Business at the College of New Jersey.”Though colleges can learn many things from the ways businesses operate, treating a college strictly like a business would be a mistake.”Certainly, I believe that education is not business and it should not be conducted as business.

    “…the student-as-customer model fits poorly.”

    “What we need is to learn the discipline of business without the short-term orientation.”

  • New book can help college students succeed:
    Title: How to Succeed in College (While Really Trying): A Professor’s Inside Advice
    Author: Jon B. Gould
    Publisher: University of Chicago Press, Chicago
    ISBN: 0226304663, Pages: 160, Year: 2012

    “Academic life should not be a mystery, and yet too many students come to college either not recognizing what will be expected of them or unprepared to meet the new challenges awaiting them.”

  • Rethinking Community College Placement Tests published by Catherine Groux in U.S. News University Directory.College placement tests place too many students in remedial courses. “…various colleges and organizations feel too many students are being placed into remedial courses they do not need…” because they lack test-taking skills.

    If they lack test-taking skills then it means that in high school they did not take enough tests. It is unthinkable that a high school graduate lacks test-taking skills!

    A valid alternative (already used by California’s Long Beach City College) is to evaluate students based on their high school grades.

  • STEM Fields And The Gender Gap: Where Are The Women? published by Heather R. Huhman in Forbes.”The STEM fields—science, technology, engineering, and mathematics—have always had a woman problem. Men tend to dominate in the tech industry, and for women, the numbers aren’t growing. A 2011 report by the U.S. Department of Commerce found only one in seven engineers is female. Additionally, women have seen no employment growth in STEM jobs since 2000.”

    The article continues to propose three ways to promote female advancement in the STEM fields:

    1. Create programs that will encourage women to study tech.
    2. Rework the K-12 curriculum.
    3. Combat stereotypes.

    These are all good points. I just want to mention that there are and have always been women scientists. Here are just a few examples I know about: Grace Hooper, Sheila Greibach, Shafi Goldwasser, Margo Seltzer in Computer Science; Marie Curie and Irene Joliot-Curie in Chemistry and Physics, Ada Lovelace and Sophia Kovalevskaya in Mathematics, Ileana Streinu in Mathematics and Computer Science… Read about them and others in Wikipedia.

Learning and Confusion

Most of us assume that confidence and certainty are required for a good and successful learning experience. But a new study led by Sidney D’Mello of the University of Notre Dame shows that confusion when learning can be beneficial if it is properly induced, effectively regulated and ultimately resolved. Uncertainty and bewilderment can be beneficial when it comes to learning complex information.

Sidney D’Mello is a psychologist and a computer scientist, whose research areas include artificial intelligence, human-computer interaction and the learning sciences. He and Art Graesser of the University of Memphis, collaborated on the study.

We found out about this study from the article “Confusion can be beneficial for learning: study” published by Susan Guibert in University of Notre Dame News.

They found that by strategically inducing confusion in a learning session on difficult conceptual topics, people actually learned more effectively and were able to apply their knowledge to new problems.

The study consisted of a series of experiments, using subjects who learned scientific reasoning concepts through interactions with computer-animated agents playing the roles of a tutor and a peer learner. It is always better when you learn together with someone else – which in this case was a computer program – and one or both “persons” ask questions about what they learn.

“We have been investigating links between emotions and learning for almost a decade, and find that confusion can be beneficial to learning if appropriately regulated because it can cause learners to process the material more deeply in order to resolve their confusion,” D’Mello says.

“According to D’Mello, it is not advisable to intentionally confuse students who are struggling or induce confusion during high-stakes learning activities. Confusion interventions are best for higher-level learners who want to be challenged with difficult tasks, are willing to risk failure, and who manage negative emotions when they occur.”

To confirm in part the scientists’ conclusions, here is a quotation by John W. Gardner:
“One of the reasons people stop learning is that they become less and less willing to risk failure.” John William Gardner, (October 8, 1912–February 16, 2002) was Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare under President Lyndon Johnson.

When you learn it is also important to be able to ask yourself good questions because, according to Lloyd Alexander, “We learn more by looking for the answer to a question and not finding it than we do from learning the answer itself.” Lloyd Chudley Alexander (January 30, 1924 – May 17, 2007) was a widely influential American author of more than forty books, primarily fantasy novels for children and young adults. His most famous work is The Chronicles of Prydain.

Returning to the study mentioned at the beginning of this post: “It is also important that the students are productively instead of hopelessly confused. By productive confusion, we mean that the source of the confusion is closely linked to the content of the learning session, the student attempts to resolve their confusion, and the learning environment provides help when the student struggles. Furthermore, any misleading information in the form of confusion-induction techniques should be corrected over the course of the learning session, as was done in the present experiments.”

To stress what I said on different occasions, that college needs to teach students how to think, and in connexion with this study’s conclusions, I like to quote John Dewey: “The aim of education should be to teach us rather how to think, than what to think—rather to improve our minds, so as to enable us to think for ourselves, than to load the memory with the thoughts of other men.” John Dewey (October 20, 1859 – June 1, 1952) was an American philosopher, psychologist and educational reformer whose ideas have been influential in education and social reform.

Why I Like Online Courses

When I was a college student there were no online courses. I was curious to experiment and understand what an online course is, so I enrolled recently in one of the free online courses.

There are many such courses now. I suppose they are run differently, nevertheless I want to share with you the seven reasons I enjoyed the online course I enrolled into.

  1. I got to watch videos of the lectures. There were quizzes during the videos. You could stop and replay anytime you wanted, whenever you wanted. There were several videos for each week of study. None was longer than 30 minutes. It is not easy to concentrate to listen to your professor talking for straight 45 minutes or more.
  2. I got PDF files containing the slides used during the lectures. So it was much easier to take good notes, and much easier to organize the material you ought to learn.
  3. You could do the assignments whenever you wanted, during the allotted time (to meet the deadline). You could save the answers to some of the questions and answer the other questions later. You got several attempts to answer the assignments, with the best answer taken to be the final answer. So you got to learn from your own mistakes.
  4. There were several discussion forums where you could interact with the fellow students but also ask the stuff clarification questions. And there were students from all over the world. Great experience!
  5. Was there any cheating? Perhaps there was some, but I liked it that we were asked to abide by a code of honor, which specified certain kinds of interactions that were forbidden. You could still give or get help to or from other students, in order to better understand lectures and questions asked during assignments.
  6. The final exam was of course open books and you could use the Internet too, however you needed to understand and learn the stuff pretty well in order to answer the exam questions.
  7. Finally, the course was free and the lecturer very good. He explained things well, you got to learn new specific terms with their correct pronunciation, there were many examples, and there was optional material for those who wanted to learn more.

Do you have experience with online courses? Does your college offer online courses? If not, do you think college needs online courses? Do you think there is still need of the usual, face-to-face, classroom courses? Do you prefer classroom courses?

You are welcome to share your own experience; use comments or send email to

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