“Kids These Days” Part 2

Last week, I reflected on the grading process and the tendency for us as faculty to sometimes judge that a student’s performance is more tied to internal motivation issues rather than external issues and a lack of experience.  When you think of a cohort of students, you can group them into three categories – the group that “gets it” and performs well, the group that is motivated but has knowledge gaps, and the group that lacks the motivation to want to meet the course outcomes.  Of course, these are simplistic categories, but I think it’s a useful illustration of how faculty approach their class, because how we choose to define the middle category impacts how we think about students and their performance.  If you frame the discussion around a group of students who want to be helped (are motivated to succeed), then you are more likely to want to extend yourself to help the student.  However, if you frame the conversation around whether the student should bootstrap themselves to catch up, you might be less willing to take extenuating circumstances into account.

When we assume that students are the sole reason for their failure, it’s possible for us to close off other considerations that questions whether we are dealing with a level playing field.  I don’t mean to say that students should not be responsible for their performance (and by extension, failure).  We as teachers must hold students accountable to their performance.  Yet, when a student fails to meet an objective, we should ask ourselves a number of questions:

  • Was the assessment fair?
  • Was the assessment clearly communicated?
  • Should the student have worked “harder” or “smarter”?
  • Is there something I could have done to better prepare the student?
  • Was there factors that influenced the student’s performance?

It is this last bullet point I’d like to discuss, because I think there is something really interesting going on that we often miss.

Engineering programs share a common trait – the problems are hard and the only way you will get the material is by slogging through the practice problems.  Many of the concepts are difficult to master, and the only way you can see the internal logic is to grind through problems, get feedback, and understand where you go wrong so that you can fix your methodology.  Some students appear gifted and grasp concepts easier, but most engineers will tell you stories of how they spent huge chunks of their time on manual computation.

Setting aside discussions about learning styles, this way of learning how to be an engineer is a good reflection of how the brain works.  The brain really hasn’t changed much in the last few thousand years, and we haven’t found genuine shortcuts to get around this limitation.  Structured education, being the only systematic way that allows you to efficiently teach advanced concepts, is the best approach to bringing someone to proficiency.

BUT

Students aren’t just students.  They are also members of this cultural and historical epoch.  Outside of the classroom, their lives are informed by culture, technology, and social norms, and increasingly over the last several decades, culture and technology has prioritized reducing friction.  Technology and corporations are incentivized to innovate ways of reducing barriers in our lives.  The technologies and corporations that achieve this end up shaping culture.  We spend less time focusing on basic survival, sustenance, communication, and transportation, because technology, innovation, and scale has reduced the time and resources we need to devote to these tasks.

As an experiment, consider this: when was the last time you had to carry cash?  For the average person, you can go weeks without needing to go to a bank.  Almost everything in your life can be handled through banking cards, e-transfers, direct deposits, and apps that instantaneously resolve payment upon the completion of service.  These services are available to us because they make things frictionless (and this is good for corporations because it helps us spend more).

If you want to buy stuff, you order it online.  If you want entertainment, you can find it on-demand.  If you don’t know something, a search algorithm will sort and rank answers for you.  If you don’t know how to do something, video tutorials are freely available with a few keystrokes and clicks to walk you through it.

Life outside of the classroom is frictionless, and yet we are insulted when students expect their experience in the classroom to conform to every other experience they live through in their daily lives.  Students ask for shortcuts to mastering hard concepts because literally everything else in their life operates this way.  The surface level encounters they experience have been refined through intentionally designing the user-interface (UI) and user-experience (UX).  Students have little grasp of the underlying mechanisms that hold this up because they’ve never had to worry about it.  If something breaks, it is either repaired as a service, or we cast away the broken and move on with purchasing new.

I was an undergrad student in the mid-aughts, and when I look at what life is like for students now compared to when I was a freshman in the dorm, I am startled at how easy it was for me to be a student.  I didn’t have the distractions that students experience today.  My life was less guided by algorithms and the whims of corporations and technology.  You may argue that technology has put the world at student’s fingertips today, but I think that the signal-to-noise ratio has shifted from my time.  Yes, I had to work harder to get answers, but that’s because there was less distraction clogging my search.  And don’t get me started on the attention economy and designing to maximize user engagement…

When we dismiss performance as being the result of “kids these days” not valuing hard work, we miss the fact that there is no incentive for the kids to work hard when life has grown frictionless.  I personally now value friction, because I understand what friction does for the learning process.  Much in the same way that you have to introduce low level stress to the body (exercise) in order to promote health, the introduction of friction can be a good thing.  But without understanding the motivations and lived experiences of your students, your demand for frictioned lives reduces you down to an old person yelling at the clouds.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

 

 

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“Kids These Days” Part 1

At the time of writing, I’m assisting faculty with processing the grades and academic standings of students from the last academic year.  All of the grades for the Winter are in, but for the engineering degrees we are in the long, tedious process of reviewing all the grades and courses delivered over the last twelve months and making notes on ways the delivery can be improved for next year.  This is an important process for us to follow, not only for our continuous improvement requirements for accreditation, but also because it’s important to pause periodically and reflect on the reasons students perform they way they do – especially when they fail.

Because people have a tendancy to shift blame away from themselves, reviewing student failures can be challenging.  If you ask students why they fail, you’ll likely hear something that reflects courses that are too challenging, professors who are unreasonable, or circumstances they had no control over.  Faculty, on the other hand, think students are unwilling to put in the hard work needed to be successful.  The truth is likely somewhere in the middle.  In my opinion, I feel that faculty sometimes forget what it’s like to be a student, and I feel that students don’t see the bigger picture to help them understand how they should be prioritizing their work.

Despite the fact that students are legally adults when they come to school, we forget that the depth of their experience is often pretty shallow.  It’s the first time they are away from home, the first time they are having to manage their day-to-day lives, and often higher education is a large step-up in academic expectations compared to their secondary school experience.  I’ll chat a bit more about this next week, but I think the takeaway is that we often take for granted the experience we, as professors, draw upon to manage ourselves and our work, and instead we shake our heads when the students perform poorly in their work and seem to ignore the opportunities we extend them for extra support (office hours, anyone?).

A valuable skill faculty need to develop and practice is empathy for students.  We as faculty have a responsibility to both apply high expectations to the students, but also be willing to place ourselves in their shoes and see the world as they do – a world where everything seems important, everything is competing for their attention, and crucially, students think everything carries dire consequences.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

A Note to My Students

I closed out the winter semester last week, submitted my marks, and took a breather.  During the next week, I will be prepping my next semester and updating the course shell in anticipation of the start of the new semester.  During the interim, I’ve been reflecting on how the last semester went, and what I can do to improve the student experience in my online course.  My failure rate was higher than usual, and I want to make sure that I’m doing what I can to address those elements I can control.

Were I to give some advice to my students, this is what I would say:

Hello Students!

It is the start of a new semester, and I welcome you to the course.  If this is your first general education elective or philosophy course, I hope it meets your expectations.  Gen Eds tend to be a special kind of course.  This is one of the few courses you get a chance to choose, but it’s also one of the courses you’ll take that is a departure from your core major courses.  While you need the Gen Ed credit for graduating, you will feel the conflict over prioritizing the rest of the semester’s courses that will lead directly to your career.  It is very easy to let my course slip to the back-burner.  I recognize this and can understand your predicament.

In light of that, I want to give you some advice on how to do well on my assignments.  If there is one piece of advice I can give that will maximize your chances of passing my course, it’s that you have to do the work and submit your assignments.  As obvious as it might be that in order for me to give you a grade, you have to give me something to mark, I know that you will look at the assignment weightings and judge that the assignment is not worth your time to complete when you have other “more important” assignments to turn in.  Unfortunately, each submission you don’t turn in is essentially free marks that you will miss.  A good grade in this course is not won through stellar big assignments.  It’s about showing up consistently and slogging through the little assignment.  All those little assignments add up.

It can be intimidating to do philosophy.  If you are used to coming up with the right answers easily, you can face down a philosophy paper and become paralyzed by the weight of the work.  However, I want you to remember one important fact: doing good work in philosophy is not about thinking big ideas.  To do good work in philosophy, you must be good at communicating ideas.  I don’t expect you to have the “right” answer.  I don’t expect you to fully understand the concepts you are encountering.  Instead, I expect you to give an honest attempt to grapple with the ideas, and for you to use what you are learning in the module to play around with the ideas.  The more connections you can make between the ideas, the better.  Also, the more simply you can communicate those ideas, the better.  Don’t try to wow me with big vocabularies and vague writing.

I am generally not a hard marker.  I value progress and earnest intellectual work over feeding me the “right” answer.  Don’t give me what you think I want to read, and don’t give me your unsupported opinions.  Learn to play around with the ideas and explore topics you’ve never thought about before.  Make sure to attribute your ideas, and make sure you keep your reader in mind when you write your papers; explain the concepts to me as if I am a your grandmother.  If you do that every week, and put in an honest effort, I won’t let you fail my course.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Management and Teaching My Replacement

Over the last two weeks, I’ve been onboarding my replacement at work.  On the one hand, it’s great to finally offload the extra tasks that I’ve been juggling since assuming my new position.  On the other hand, I’m having to experience a new world at work in the form of management and performance coaching.  It’s one thing to do the tasks yourself, but it’s an entirely different thing to anticipate another person’s tasks, teach those tasks to the person, the follow-up on the progress with feedback.

While I am not the direct manager for the new program assistant, I share some of the responsibilities for ensuring she’s successful in her new role by virtue of me being the last person who occupied the role.  I suppose I’m over-thinking this a bit, since employees move on all the time and are not accountable for the new person’s performance.  Nevertheless, between me still working in the same office and me being a team player, I feel that it is my duty to help the new employee succeed until she can run under her own steam.  Afterall, the program assistant position is a job that was developed over the course of four years, so it’s a lot to take in all at once.

I knew prior to her starting that I would need to reflect intentionally on how I could teach someone to do the job that I have built over time, and figure out how to deconstruct the tasks and portfolios so that it makes sense to a fresh set of eyes.  Since this is my first time doing this, I took a stab at it and realized that there was a lot more I could have done to prepare for onboarding her.

One example is at the end of her first day.  I met with her to do a mini-debrief on how she felt her first day went.  She admitted it was a bit overwhelming, but was confident that she would learn more as she did the tasks.  She then asked for my input on what she should do the next day.  I hadn’t anticipated this question, so I floundered a bit, suggesting that she should take some time to read through the relevant policies and procedures I’ve got stashed away in a binder, as well as reviewing the committee minutes from the past year for an upcoming meeting she will need to plan.

After work, I reflected on this and realized that I didn’t do a good job of setting her up with concrete tasks for her to fill her day meaningfully.  Don’t get me wrong – at some point she will need to read over all of that stuff as it will be important to her job.  However, I realized there are better ways she could be utilizing her time.  Instead of reading over abstract documents, I need to get her working on tasks that are directly related to what she will be doing over time.

The next day, I jotted some ideas down and met with her in the afternoon to discuss how things are going and give her concrete tasks to start figuring out, such as responding to program-based email inquiries, learning where to find reports, typing up committee minutes so I could critique them, etc.  I also coached her on setting up meetings with the program Chairs to 1.) introduce herself more formally, and b.) to learn from them what their needs and wishes are.  I seeded some questions with her on topics she ought to cover, and left it to her to arrange the meetings.  In the background, I also spoke informally with some of the Chairs to let them know she was doing this, and to suggest ways they could help onboard her to their program areas.

This was a much better way to onboard her, and she was busy over the rest of the week learning various systems.  She would stop by my office a few times a day to ask clarifying questions or ask advice on how she should approach a certain task.  She was learning by doing, and seems to be adjusting well to her new role.  I’ll leave it for her actual boss to determine whether she is meeting targets, but at least I know she’s able to work with us as a team behind her.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Values-based Decision Making

In a recent accreditation visit at work, a comment was made in the visiting team’s report that the college and engineering program need to better demonstrate the rationale behind program changes that are tied to something called “graduate attributes.”  I won’t bore you here with the details of how an engineering degree gets accredited since it’s a bit more complex than a short blog post would allow.  The main point is that the visiting team wanted to understand the motives we had when making updates to the courses in our continuous improvement process.

This reminded me of my KWCF experiences, specifically the Engage!KW program.  One of the activities we did was to reflect critically on our values.  We were asked to come up with a list of our values, and compare our espoused values with how we choose to spend our time in a week.  The point of the exercise is to a.) see whether you are living according to your values, and b.) to reinforce that you should make decisions based on your values – and if a decision does not align with your core values, it’s probably not something worth pursuing.

The visiting team’s comment didn’t sit well with the faculty and administration, largely because we felt that all of our decisions were made in the spirit of making graduates from the program better prepared for their careers.  The idea that we need to somehow demonstrate or explain better what we are already doing was hard to understand.

My best explanation for how this would work goes like this:

Suppose you receive feedback from your industry partners that in order for graduates to  be successful, the college needs to buy every student a pink hat.  The students must wear the pink hats at all times, and they must bring them with them into their careers after graduation.

Now, it might be the case that these pink hats are a good idea.  The idea originated from our industry partners, whom will be the very people hiring our grads.  However, buying the pink hats is an expensive endeavor.  The money we spend on pink hats means we can’t allocate those resources elsewhere to improve the program.

When the team evaluates the idea, they should look to the core values of the program and see whether the pink hats falls in line with those values.  In our engineering programs, we have twelve graduate attributes that we seek to instill in our students.  Every student who graduates from an engineering program will possess these attributes if the program is designed well.  If we look at the attributes (our values) we won’t see a connection of how pink hats are essential to making a better graduate or a better engineer, even though industry is telling us this is the case.  And so, we would make a decision to ignore industry’s suggestion, and instead allocate our money elsewhere.

Pinks hats might seem like a silly example, but the situation is the same for any piece of technology that industry wants us to teach, such as 3D printers and proprietary programming languages for manufacturing robots.  It costs a lot of money to adopt these technologies, and it takes a lot of time to teach and reinforce the skills in our students.  At each point, we have to ask ourselves whether this investment materially improves the students, or whether there is a better way we can allocate our time (such as teaching good computer modelling for 3D printers, or teaching good programming foundations so that our students can easily teach themselves any programming language used in industry).

The key lesson is that these decisions should not be made on a whim, but nor should they be made because a stakeholder tells you they are important.  Input from industry is only one point of data in a sea of information.  In order to tease out the signal from the noise, it’s important to use your values to help determine what’s worth pursuing, and what’s worth leaving behind.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

 

 

My Backfill Starts Today (Job Update)

A few months back, I updated that I hadn’t been selected for a job I was in the running for (again).  Well, turns out that I was a tad premature in my announcement.  A few weeks after the post went live, my boss came to my desk, smiling, and let me know that the candidate they had moved forward on originally had accepted a job elsewhere, which moved me from the second slot to the top.  I was advanced to two more informal interviews, and on March 4th I started my new job as the Graduate Attributes Quality Assurance Coordinator for our degree programs.  And finally, my replacement for my old position started today, which will begin the formal hand-off of all of my old job tasks.

This is a different phase of work for me.  I’ve trained people on tasks before, but I’ve never trained my replacement.  Until now, I’ve been trying to balance both job portfolios, but now I begin the process of uncoupling myself from my old tasks and handing them off to the new Program Assistant.

I feel a little bad for her.  The Program Assistant position didn’t exist in our office when I first started at the college.  It is the result of four years of expanding the role to take on tasks that didn’t really fit under other people’s roles.  It’s wholly unique in the college as far as I know, and it interacts with almost all major stakeholders: students, faculty, administration, alumni, and industry partners.  I have to condense the four key areas of my job – Advisory Committees, Program Development, Continuous Improvement, and Student Advising – into a meaningful set of processes and best practices.  At each phase of my old job’s development, my boss would give me a mandate, and I would figure out how to operationalize it over the next year.  It’s a lot of stuff to summarize and cleanly hand off, and I’m only now realizing that I didn’t spend enough time reflecting on how to make the work accessible to someone else.

Granted, this is a place of business, and she’s an employee.  She’s competent and is expected to actively learn her role, so it’s not up to me to hold her hand or treat her as if she needs special guidance.  The benefit of this transition is that I’m still in the office and available to answer questions as she learns her new role.

And in this transition, not only do I have a new job, but I’m occupying a brand new position at the college, which means I get a chance to take the objectives set by my boss and figure out what it means all over again, which is an exciting prospect to me.  Similar to my experience working in the gambling lab, I like situations where I’m given an objective and carte blanche to set up processes and procedures myself.

It is a steep learning curve, but I’m liking the work so far.  It’s just outside of my comfort zone, which is a good place for me to be.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

 

Emails and Saving Mental Bandwidth

At the start of 2019, I wanted to conduct an experiment.  I had grown irritated with the volume of email in my personal account.  Each day, I would wake up to 10 or so new emails from various retailers with information on promotions, offers, and deals.  I had tolerated these emails for sometime because I liked to keep abreast of potential deals that I could take advantage of.

However, the emails weren’t just morning updates.  I would keep my personal email open at work and clear emails throughout the day, which forced me to continuously switch back and forth.  I wanted a better way of managing the inflow of messages without unsubscribing to emails that genuinely were bringing me information I would want when planning upcoming purchases.

I took some time and set up around 60 filters to automatically route messages from my inbox to a separate Promotions folder (I know Gmail can handle this, but I wanted to be intentional with the process).  I also unsubscribed to a bunch of lists where I never opened the messages.  It was a lot of front end work that took a few days to complete, but slowly my inbox got quieter.

emails
As of March 18th, 2019

Now, after 3 months of progress, I have seen between 1,500-2,000 messages get routed away from my inbox.  2,000 messages that I never read, and didn’t have to make a decision whether to open it or automatically delete.

I don’t think of this as some sort of productivity hack.  At most, I’ve saved maybe an hour of time in 3 months, so it’s not like it’s a quality of life adjustment.  Instead, the value I find is in the mental bandwidth saved from not having to constantly switch back and forth through email.

It’s a signal and noise ratio issue.  So much of my time is spent wading through a lot of noise that is distracting me from focusing my attention on what’s important.  On the best of days, I do my best to fight off my inability to focus on work and maybe carve out some meaningful time by avoiding things that have been designed to draw me towards them (I’m looking at you, social media and YouTube).  Sometimes I succeed, and sometimes my monkey brain gets the best of me.

There are two strategies to deal with this.  You can either intentionally focus the signal, or you can do what I’ve done in this instance and try to turn down the noise a bit.  Too much noise can interfere with the signals you are trying to pick up.  While email is hardly a signal-killing thing in my life, it’s a steady trickle of distractions that I’ve started intentionally cutting to make room in my attention for more important things.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan