The value of a liberal arts education

Postmodernism debunked- “As debunkers, they contribute to a cultural climate that has little tolerance for finding or making meaning”! It’s not enough to simply be critical. Achieving consensus is just as important in my opinion. Here is a good article describing what we lose when we teach our students to equate intelligence with criticism. Some of my colleagues think a year of Liberal Arts should be mandatory for every student! I don’t think this is a bad idea!

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Information Communication Technologies (ICTs): Friend or Foe?

I recently finished a book called Alone Together by Sherry Turkle (2011), a professor at MIT. The book discusses how social media and technology has infiltrated our lives and its visible effects on human connections. Turkle explains that ICTs – e-mail, text, Twitter, Facebook, etc. – are fundamentally changing human interactions; they change who we are.

As I read the book, I felt like I was reading my personal diary. I was the individual who, in her book, was constantly connected yet felt the need for more interaction. Turkle explains that through this technology, people present the best of themselves, an ideal; they can type, delete, and edit every interaction. She says, “Human relationships are supposed to be messy, but now they are edited and perfected.” When I thought about this, I thought about how this affects our learning environments for all students. How have these ICTs influenced our classrooms?

I’ve had experience in university classrooms as a student, teaching assistant, and even as a lecturer. One thing I’ve noticed is that many students are only half-there; there is a cluster of students who are texting, emailing, on Facebook, or doing other assignments. How do these distractions influence learning? How does it impact the classroom atmosphere? What are the effects on classroom discussion?

First let’s discuss ICT influences on discussion. I recently read a post about improving class discussion. The author discussed how students often talk to the professor and not to each other; they have difficulty building on other’s ideas. Personally, I think this has something to do with what ICTs have done to our relationships. We’re so used to editing ideas that sometimes we are afraid to speak to one another; or, since we’ve minimized human relations, maybe students just want someone to listen to their idea. Either way, getting students to participate is tricky. There are many strategies that teaching faculty can employ, one of which is making it a rule that students have to agree or disagree with each other. No matter how it’s done, class discussion is an essential learning activity as it actively engages those who participate.

For those who don’t want to participate, or who do so half-heartedly, say it’s because they can multi-task well. A study by Wood et al. (2011) examined the impacts of technology, multi-tasking, and student achievement. The researchers found that devices such as Facebook and MSN were distractions and students who engaged with these ICTs had lower levels of academic achievement. Additionally, the study compared “technology users” and “pencil-and-paper users” achievement scores; the pencil-and-paper users out-scored the technology users. While Wood et al. (2011) agree that these results should be taken with a grain-of-salt, I think they lend important insight into the effects of ICTs on student learning. Another study showed that faculty and professors find these tools to be distracting. One professor noted,

Part of the reason I have been “fighting” social media in the classroom is that I have had students who are not paying attention to class and then are upset to find out they do not do well on exams. That is why I am considering a much more overt use of social media. If students are going to FB during class, I want it to be about class! (Faculty Focus, 2011, p. 16).

Recently, I sat down with a professor at McGill University to discuss the idea of ICTs on human relationships and classroom learning. Interestingly, he pointed out that he’s talked about this idea with some of his students. He shared with me that there is a professor who provides students with a “technology break.” This is where the class stops and the students can pull out all their gadgets and get their technology fix. He explained that one of the students found it to be a great strategy; they knew they would have their break so instead of multi-tasking, they focused when they needed to, and connected when they were permitted.

Together, we discussed whether we thought this was a good idea or not. Is it sad that students and teaching faculty need a technology break? (It sounds like ICTs are an addiction!) Or, is it a wonderful strategy to help students focus in the classroom? In her book, Turkle explains that for the upcoming generation, being tethered to each other through ICTs is considered‘normal,’ but for the ‘older’ generation, it’s not as normal. However, I think we are adapting – many of us are in constant contact with each other too!

I don’t think ICTs are a bad thing, I believe that they can be a positive learning tool. In fact, I just completed my thesis of the Effects of Twitter on Undergraduate Learning and the results were generally positive. I think it’s about how these ICT tools are integrated into course design. Nonetheless, it’s still important to consider how these tools are positively or negatively (you decide) changing the educational landscape. Whether you know or don’t know, pick up Turkle’s book, read it, and see where you stand.

Faculty Focus. (2011). Social media usage trends among higher education faculty. Faculty Focus.Retrieved from

Turkle, S. (2011). Alone together. New York: Basic Books.

Weimer, M. (2014). Class discussion challenge: Getting students to listen and respond to each other’s comments. Faculty Focus. Retrieved from

Wood, E., Zivcakova, L., Gentile, P., Archer, K., De Pasquale, D. & Nosko, A. (2011). Examining the impact of off-task multi-tasking with technology on real-time classroom learning. Computers & Education, 58, 365-374.

Picture References:
Gauge Design. 2014. Book review: Alone together. Retrieved from

Stadermann, A. L. (2011). Book review on Sherry Turkle: Alone together. Retrieved from


Balancing the Roles of Supervisor, Mentor, and Friend

Mentor. The word itself was originally a name—the name of an advisor in Homer’s epic poem The Odyssey who was impersonated by the goddess Athena. The term’s mythical connotations are all but gone now, but it still describes an advisor and teacher.

But we have another term for that in graduate education at many universities: supervisor. The difference is that supervisors usually focus on helping students along the path toward graduation. Mentors make time to guide some of their students in other aspects of their lives.

How? One of my mentors was not my supervisor but a professor from whom I took two or three courses. (One of the courses happened to be on James Joyce’s massive game-changing novel Ulysses, which was based in part on The Odyssey.) After our courses were over, he offered me research assistantships and later helped me to get a job in the instructional development office that complemented my sessional teaching.

These were my day jobs, which I wisely did not quit, but for years I spent many evenings writing music and playing in a band. My mentor too was a musician, a much more accomplished guitarist, and when he launched an album he asked me to play with his group for the occasion. He knew that classical and flamenco were not my forte but thought the experience would be good for me. And it was, perhaps mostly because it was a vote of confidence and a gesture of friendship.

Most supervisors cannot, and probably should not, be friends of all their supervisees. There’s not enough time. There’s also the unavoidable risk of bias. But mentoring has a mode that M. Christopher Brown II calls “frientoring,” which accepts subjectivity as a good thing. Frientoring also attempts to equalize the power differential between mentor and mentee so that they’re equals on a personal level. So, I play tennis and ride road bikes with my local mentors. I still don’t win many sets—but that’s because of my serve, not an institutional dynamic.

Frientoring and mentoring have fewer risks when they can be separated from supervision, which is one reason that supervisory committees are becoming more common than sole supervisors. One supervisor, however multifaceted, simply doesn’t have all the facets that a group does. And if one supervisor can help a student to focus on degree requirements, then another might safely be friendlier.

The mentor can think through longer-term or personal questions with the student: What’s out there after graduation? Who can a person become? The Supervision website at McGill has a page on mentorship that offers many more such questions for mentors and mentees, in addition to lots of other scholarly advice on the roles and responsibilities of supervisors. For alumni and current students, there’s also the Mentor Program at the Career Planning Service.

Wherever you go, and in whichever field, you will find people who have benefited from a mentor and who have grown into that role themselves with time. They attest to a significant need for continuous advice from people who have probably known you only as an adult, and who understand the many phases that adults go through in their careers and personal lives.

Although the original Mentor was a teacher hired by the departing Odysseus to continue the education of his young son Telemachus, most mentors today guide adults. As graduate students gain independence as researchers, mentors become no less important. They are often inspiring, enabling, crucial figures—during and after grad school. In fact, for life.

3 Minutes to change the world – top graduate student research in 3 minutes or less

On March 31st, McGill hosted the third annual “3 minutes to change the world” competition, where graduate students give three minute presentations on their own research and impact on the community.

3 Minutes to Change the World

This year, we are pleased to have partnered with the Canadian Association for Graduate Studies (CAGS) and Association francophone pour le savoir (ACFAS) to participate in the first national Three Minute Thesis (3MT) competition. A 3 Minutes to Change the World presenter, in both English and French, have been selected to represent McGill at the CAGS 3MT eastern regional finals and ACFAS concours Ma thèse en 180 secondes

This yearly event is an excellent opportunity for students to share their valuable research, to perfect their elevator pitch and presentation skills, and to network with their peers across disciplines – It takes all kinds of knowledge to change the world and thesis research from all disciplines is showcased.

These TED-style talks are incredibly well done and point to the high-quality work of McGill graduate students. These students overcome the difficult challenge of taking very sophisticated research and communicating it effectively in three minutes.

Have a look at the Youtube playlist below to see all the student presentations.


Communications and Expectations in Graduate Supervision

During my graduate education, I had two great supervisors and never any problems with communicating our mutual expectations. Their PhDs in English literature certainly helped. But a PhD of any kind is no guarantee that communication will be good enough to prevent misunderstandings.

Although professors are often intelligent and articulate, their attention to communication is often directed outward instead of inward. They are busy experts called upon for critical opinions; they speak and people take note. And students who feel overwhelmed by the quantity of information they receive, and the high expectations of graduate education, sometimes stop listening so they can manage the stress. That’s a form of communication too—but not one that serves both sides.

I wonder: How would their supervisory relationships be different if students and their supervisors reflected more often on themselves as senders of messages, implicit and explicit?

When a supervisor tells a supervisee that the office door is always open, but the student discovers that the door is often shut, the supervisor is both sending a message and closing off communication. Maybe he or she was speaking metaphorically, or perhaps the supervisor spoke without thinking about how busy the term was becoming.

This sort of problem is not only the fault of supervisors. When a grad student goes AWOL for five weeks (not to imply too seriously that the supervisor is a drill sergeant), the message could be received as “I don’t care whether my supervisor knows I’m okay.”

Defining unambiguous expectations at the beginning of the supervisory relationship, especially the plan for communication, is a way to avoid problems. How often will you meet? When can you expect to get a response to an email? How will you talk when there is a sabbatical or holiday? Will the office door really be open, or only before the term’s frenzy starts?

McGill’s Supervision website has a research and evidence-based page on clarifying expectations that every supervisor of graduate students and postdoctoral researchers should read. The practical advice is simple: “Make a list of what you expect, then talk about it.” There’s a page on discussing expectations for supervisees too.

Internal research at McGill confirms that clarifying expectations about communication is important. The 2012-13 Supervisory Surveys sponsored by Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies found, for example, that “around 95% of responding supervisors reported that they informed their supervisees about short and long-term commitments away from the university; in contrast, only 68% of supervisees said that their supervisors informed them about being away.”

I still remember the funny emails that one of my supervisors would send to me in Canada from Hungary, where he was living during a sabbatical—hilarious because the foreign keyboard didn’t always produce the alphabet as he intended. He had told me about his trip in advance and jokingly commented on the technological issues by asking me not to worry if his emails looked like swearing (#^@%!). I don’t think he was swearing. My supervisor worked hard to imagine how his messages might be received, and to take time with them, and he helped both of us in the process.

This kind of attention to communication can establish and preserve rewarding supervisory relationships.

More advice for students!

I don’t agree with all of what is written in the attached article. My students are hard working, diligent and committed. The technical possibilities for experiments that can be done has literally exploded since I began my own graduate training and although a lot of these experiments involve “kits”, a lot require careful design, good knowledge of many techniques and a broad reading of the literature. The description of that older generation o student certainly applies to me I have to admit- I worked like a dog during my PhD and read everything as it appeared in print in the library- which for a large part of my training was right next to my lab! We also dump more material on students in lectures than we used to- with PowerPoint and web links etc. so I give them a break there too. All that said, the stuff about professionalism is good advice- if you want to get into grad school or get a job- understand your target… read their papers, and be thoughtful in how you approach us. Also, learn to write… it will open more doors than any article in high impact journals ever will…

A conference for undergrads: assessing students in large classes using posters presentations

This post is part of the ongoing series about assessments strategies for large class sizes

After teaching for a while, you just start wanting to do things differently.

That quote, from McGill Professor Jens Pruessner, resonates strongly: teaching is a dynamic and ever-changing activity, and strategies evolve over time. That being said, doing things differently is particularly challenging in large classes: moving ‘beyond the multiple choice’ when assessing students in a class with hundreds of students requires creativity, time, courage, and a lot of energy!

This didn’t faze Jens as he started re-thinking ways of assessing his students in his 300+ student Psychology class titled “Hormones & Behaviour”. The goal of this course is “to familiarize students with the basic concepts and theories in major areas of hormones and behavior, and to stimulate interest and further study in Behavioral Neuroendocrinology.” He wanted to find creative ways to link deeper aspects of research and scholarship directly into the course. In his own words:

When I was a student it was all about transferring content and not at all about becoming a scholar or researcher. In my course, I want students to learn how to present work to colleagues in conferences and publish in journals. So I wanted to combine content with some knowledge of what it means to work in academia.”

McGill Professor Jens Pruessner
McGill Professor Jens Pruessner

Jens has achieved this goal by having groups of students prepare poster presentations for 20% of their grade in the course, and he spends two days at the end of the term having a mini research conference where the students present their posters. This is very much in a ‘conference style’ since the instructor and TAs spend about 10 minutes with each poster, asking questions and interacting with the students. Given the class size (the most recent offering had over 400 students), group work is part of this process, and in groups of 4-6, students either select a poster topic from a list, or pitch a different idea to the instructor (or TAs).  The poster topics are appropriately detailed so that the expectation for the poster content is quite clear. As an example, for a particular topic students might be asked to present a research problem or question and highlight a research paper (from the peer-reviewed literature) that provides a solution to the problem. The students are well aware of the expectations, and are graded according to a rubric that includes these criteria: (1) Thought and Ideas, (2) Organization and Focus (3) Diction and Clarity and (4) Grammar/spelling. They are also given additional feedback according to the face-to-face discussions during the mini-conference.

Overall, Jens feels this assignment has been successful. Feedback from the students include the notion that this is a ‘very modern way of teaching (interacting- group projects)’, that material is presented ‘in a way that is engaging (and often hilarious)’, that ‘this prof has a deep understanding and a reflection process concerning the material’, and finally, that ‘he reflects upon pedagogical philosophy and has an interesting teaching method.’

This class offers students a different medium for thinking about the course and its content, and the poster activity is representative of what really happens at scientific conferences.  Working as a group, reading and evaluating literature, presenting their findings, and having to answer questions about their presentation are all key skills for students in a model of higher education which includes a deep connection to research. The mini-conference also has the added value of allowing students to see each other’s work, a process that is typically very tricky with large class sizes. As Jens explains, “Students might not have any incentive to read each other’s papers, whereas they are very excited to see each other’s posters.

In sum, I think Jens has done something creative, innovative, and remarkably special. He has found a method of assessment for a large class that includes many of the key ingredients for student engagement: real-world scenarios, collaborative work, relevance, excitement about the end-product, feedback, and fun. I hope others follow this model and think about doing poster assignments in large classes.

Discussing what matters in higher education.


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