For Students: A Brief Guide to Success

Before considering some of these techniques, it’s important to dispel a couple of myths. For one thing, there’s no such thing as "fixed intelligence." Some people might have an easier time with math or the piano, but everyone can learn, provided that they commit to it.

In her book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, Carol Dweck examines the importance of having a growth mindset. “The view you adapt for yourself profoundly affects the way you lead your life,” she writes. “It can determine whether you become the person you want to be and whether you accomplish the things you value.”

Moreover, as cognitive scientist Daniel T. Willingham has shown, “learning styles” do not exist. It’s true that you might prefer one method to another or one subject to another, but when it comes to learning, the most important thing to know is that it requires regular and focused practice. As Cal Newport shows in his book Deep Work, attempting to multitask is counterproductive. The key is to focus without distraction.

You need to be precise and practice particular activities, the kind that you will be expected to demonstrate on an exam or assignment. One of the best things you can do is practice retrieving information. Flash cards, for example, work to build information networks in your brain, which you can later access with ease. There are a number of good electronic ways to do this, including the Flash Card Machine, which is free and allows for sharing.

You should also practice more difficult skills, like analyzing what you’ve learned and applying it to new situations and across courses. Here’s a great definition and overview of critical thinking that you might find helpful. Even if you’ve moved on to new material or a different module, you should review what you’ve learned. As Dustin Bakkie puts it, “The best time to learn something is right as you’re about to forget it.”

Here’s a video on five different ways to take good notes. The “mind map” method works very well as a pre-writing exercise for papers. When deciding between pen and paper or computer, you should know that research has found that people retain information better when they take notes by hand.

In addition to the how, there is also the question of how much studying. Indeed, “time on task” is one of the greatest predictors of student success. The “Carnegie Rule” is that you should spend 2-3 hours a week studying for every hour you are in class. Not every course will be this demanding, but many of your professors are operating under the assumption that you are a “full-time student.”

One big difference between high school and college is the amount of unscheduled time you have. Most of your work will be done out of class, which means you need to have strong time management skills and an ability to prioritize your activities. Managing your time properly will ensure that you can attend classes prepared. You will get more out of class, if you know what everyone is talking about and you can contribute with informed questions and comments.

David Allen, the author of Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-free Productivity, which has become a movement of sorts, offers five steps for productivity: (1) writing down everything you have to do, (2) identifying the actionable steps, (3) organizing those activities by category and priority, (4) frequently reflecting on your list, and (5) remaining engaged.

You should also keep a calendar that is accessible from your mobile phone that you refer to and update frequently. At the beginning of each semester, you should add all of the key dates for your courses and assignments—and refer to the syllabi regularly. It contains important information about assignments and expectations that you might not remember from the first day of class.

Todoist a free app to organize your projects and tasks, when merely putting them on your calendar is not enough. Many people use the Evernote webpage/app for notes and lists. It's free, flexible, and integrated into other programs, apps, and websites. You could use Google Docs in the same way. Its formatting makes it simple for writing papers, and since it’s cloud-based, you never have to worry about losing your work.

Stephen Covey, author of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, suggests you keep a to-do list that's organized around how important things are and when they are due. It’s inspired by Dwight D. Eisenhower, the president and general. Most people are prone to spend their time working on things at the last minute, then are too exhausted to do anything other than waste time on unimportant activities. The trick is to maximize the time you spend on important but not urgent work.

If you struggle with time management, you might want to check out "How To Avoid Procrastination for Good" or "The Science of Procrastination" video for a number of effective techniques. You could also keep a log of all your activities for a couple weeks to determine if you are using your time wisely.

If you’re concerned about writing, you should make heavy use of the Online Writing Lab (OWL) at Purdue University and Writing for Success, a free open-access grammar and style handbook. Grammarly is an excellent Chrome extension that helps with spelling and grammar in email and websites.

With a Youtube channel, a blog, and a podcast, is another great resource for serious students.

Finally, you should visit your professors in their offices early in the semester and again later, as the need arises. The same is true of support services around campus—your advisor/s, the research librarians, the Learning Center, etc.

There are a great many people on campus wanting to help you succeed. Most times, however, it’s easier for you to find them than it is for them to find you.

Big Learning

James Lang, the author of four books and a regular contributor to The Chronicle of Higher Education, has just published a remarkable new book on teaching and learning, called Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning.

Lang, professor of English and director of the Center for Teaching Excellence at Assumption College, takes his inspiration from baseball, specifically the term “small ball,” which emphasizes doing all of the little things well, rather than swinging for the fences. His approach is in large part a recognition that faculty, especially part-time faculty, are busy and often not in a place to make large-scale changes to their course design. It is far better to make incremental improvements and have your teaching evolve, than attempt something massive or, worse yet, avoid making changes at all because of the time cost.

Although the book is informed by the latest psychological and pedagogical research, it’s highly engaging and accessible. In the span of one page, Lang references the latest academic research, Aristotle, and ordering tea from his local barista.

Here’s a distillation of Lang’s suggestions, which correspond to its chapters:

1.     Give students frequent opportunities to retrieve what they have learned.

2.     Ask students to make predictions prior to learning will increase their ability to process that material.

3.     Space out learning and mix up the practice of skills (“interleaving”).

4.     Use prior knowledge to help students make connections and expand their networks of

5.     Break down what you want your students to do into small and specific tasks and give them feedback on those tasks.

6.     Have students explain what they are doing and why they are doing it, especially at the mid- and advanced stages of development.

7.     Appeal to your students’ willingness to help other people and make a contribution to their community and the world (“self-transcendence”).

8.     Communicate with your students in a way that praises effort over natural ability to foster a growth mindset.

9.     When you’re ready for some big teaching, consider more activity-based learning, such as service learning, games, and simulations.

As part of his emphasis on the fundamentals, Lang offers a powerful corrective for two common practices (and errors) in higher ed. For one thing, he worries that we are too taken with Bloom’s taxonomy, specifically the notion that we should be spending as much time as possible on higher order skills such as evaluation and synthesis at the expense of more basic and essential skills like remembering and understanding. Regrettably, I am guilty of this. This is the premise behind Lang’s first principle: maximizing the “retrieval effect” will mean students have more knowledge to apply, when they get to that point.

Lang is also concerned how flipping courses—that is, having students’ first exposure to material occur before class meetings and saving class time for more difficult work—has not been matched with making good use of class time, an issue that the tips from Lang’s book will certainly help with.

If there is one essential lesson of the book, it relates to how we start and end our classes, which Lang discussed in two recent articles for The Chronicle. The open of a class should have students reflect on prior learning and prepare them for what’s to come, just as the last few minutes of a meeting should be used for reflection and to seal what has just been covered.

Also noteworthy is the extent to which Lang seamlessly interweaves lessons for onground and online teaching. He firmly recognizes how commonplace online and blended courses have become for teachers and does not treat them as an afterthought, as we find in many other treatments of the subject.

The great virtue of the book is that it speaks equally to novice and seasoned teachers. Even if it’s just getting in the habit of showing up to class 5-10 minutes early to make connections with the more reserved students, it’s impossible to read Small Teaching and not come away with something that can help your teaching tomorrow.

Lang’s hope is that small teaching can lead to some big learning.



Using Slack as a Teaching Platform

After hearing about how the communication platform Slack is taking over the business world, I decided to see what all the buzz was about, with the hope that I might use it for some administrative tasks. The platform seemed a little too involved for the standard academic committee, but I was delighted to see that I could adopt it for my online courses.

The discussion board is really the heart of an online or hybrid course. For years, I’ve been using Google Blogger linked into Blackboard, rather than using Blackboard’s clunky and uber-clicky discussion board.

The great virtue of Slack is how simply and intuitively it uses the discussion format as the basis for how it works. It’s more like Facebook and Twitter than Blackboard. It even seems fun--something no one has ever said about Blackboard.

Here’s how I've it set up for my Political Psychology course.

The Channels
Rather than having a closed drop-down menu, Slack is organized around a series of open, user-created channels. The “starred” channels function the same as regular channels, but starring them sets them apart at the top, which makes it ideal for administrative purposes. I’ve set up three.

The first (“info”) works like an announcements tab, which I use for course information, like explanatory videos on the syllabus and how to use the platform. Slack can be synced with Dropbox to upload documents, but I just posted and pinned the “share” link from my syllabus in Dropbox, so students can easily find it at any time.

I set up a special Google calendar for the course and installed the Google calendar app on the “calendar” channel, which allows for daily updates on activities and reminders I can set up for specific deadlines. The “members” channel is where students and I introduce ourselves. The fact that Slack permits users to create profiles (with pictures) makes it especially good for online courses, where students can sometimes feel removed from their colleagues.

The “starters” channel (shown below) is for the initial overview and summary of the materials I’ve selected for that week (aka, the lecture). The first week includes an overview of the history of the disciplines for the course and a TED Talk on the economic decision-making of monkeys, a class favorite. This is also the channel where students ask questions about the material I've presented.

The “discussion” channel is probably the most traditional part of the course. I post more analytical questions, and the students are required to bring the material to bear on them and make reference to what their classmates have said. The small comment bar actually opens up to a separate window for larger posts. 

Slack also comes with RSS functionality, which I’ve set up for the “options” channel. Rather than having students go off and scour the web for sketchy articles and links, I’ve set RSS feeds from some quality academic and popular sources. Students peruse what interests them, then share it with the class on the “presentations” channel, where others can comment. When the channel name is bolded, as the "options" one is in the image, it means it has been updated since your last visit.

Finally, the “free time” channel encourages students to interact with one another and me, independent of the course material.

Students can also start direct messages and Google Hangouts with me or their classmates by typing "/hangout" into the "hangouts" channel. (They can actually start a Hangout on any channel, but I wanted to set it apart and also draw their attention to that feature.) The direct messages feature is part of Slack; Hangouts is an add-on that takes two minutes to set up.

In addition to Google's calendar and Hangouts, I'm using Google Docs for students' written work, Google Forms for quizzes, and Google Sheets for an anonymous gradebook.

The Future of the LMS?
There is no such thing as a perfect platform—and truly anything that can accurately be called a “Learning Management System” probably shouldn’t be used for teaching—but Slack (as a website and its mobile options) is as good as I’ve seen so far.