Coping with the information overload

7537238368_27da452a16_oOn Friday I was teaching students about barriers to learning, including over-stimulation and overload of information.

This morning, I turn on my desktop to find a dozen journal updates, another dozen updates from news sites I subscribe to, a pile of interesting/important stuff to read/digest about Thursday’s general election, as well as all the rest of my work. Outlook reminders ping into life even as I type (including the one to write this).

I was on the verge of saying that this is a particularly bad time, between the different things happening around me, but actually it’s fairly typical. and I guess it’s not unfamiliar to most of you.

In short, there’s a hell of a lot of information out there and more and more of it is heading towards you.

I’d love to give you some good advice here. Something about filtering, or prioritising, or deep breathing, or mindfulness, or some such. But I won’t, because I don’t think I do any of these things. Probably the sum-total is to regularly read Oliver Burkeman’s This column will change your life on The Guardian website (and then promptly forget it all).

So why tell you this?

To remind you that you have to handle this and that students probably have to handle it too. Maybe not so much on the academic side, but quite likely more on the social/personal side. If we don’t have an appreciation that their education is only one part of their lives, then we might be better able to design and run learning environments for them that engage and stimulate.

As always, there are different paths open to you (and them). I realise that I rely on a number of different filters to pick up new research (e.g. Google Scholar alerts, Twitter lists, journal update emails) and on routine to produce content (e.g. blogs, academic writing). These work (most of the time) for me, but other things might work for you: I’ve tried having a commonplace book (or Evernote, for a digital equivalent), but never quite clicked with it, for example.

Data management is a key skill for our students, as we can testify, so we should be having those kinds of discussions with students.

But now my colour-flagged email list grows longer. At least, I tell myself, it’ll all be much quieter next week, once this election has passed and everything’s sorted for another five years. Maybe lying to myself is also a part of it.

This Just In . . . Again

WBNT NBCRecently I overhead a conversation between two students in which one of them stated “professor” as a post-graduation career plan. Soon afterward I found out that one of our seniors had been accepted to several doctoral programs and was trying to decide which one to enter.

I’ve written before about why graduate school in many humanities and social science fields is a losing proposition. Links to past posts on the subject are embedded in my 2014 note to prospective graduate students. Today I’ll repeat my message with some references to data that are indicative of broad trends in the academic labor market. 

Here is the U.S. labor market over the last decade, as of June 2014. Employment in private education, which includes private K12 schools, universities, and corporate training, has increased 23 percent since the beginning of 2004, though average salaries have dropped by 12 percent since the end of 2008. This looks good, but social science and humanities research jobs — highly concentrated in government and academia and for which a PhD is the preferred credential — are down from a high of 66,100 jobs in September 2006 to 59,100 jobs in mid-2014, a drop of 11 percent.

If we focus on seven humanities fields, the picture gets worse: the number of faculty jobs advertised by disciplinary societies has decreased from 14 to 30 percent since the beginning of the Great Recession in 2008.

David Colander and Daisy Zhuo have produced an economic analysis of the academic job market in one of these fields — English. Their findings:

  • The United States “needs only about half the graduate English programs . . . that it currently has” (149). 
  • English graduate programs prepare their students “for jobs at research-focused universities, but most of their graduates do not get such jobs and cannot expect to” (145).
  • Over the last thirty-five years, “fewer than half of graduated PhD students have gotten tenure-track academic jobs upon graduation. The result is a large pool of residual job seekers, which places even more pressure on the job market for existing students” (139).

Colander and Zhuo also make the important point that none of the programs examined in their study provided “correlated placement data with full entering cohort information, together with detailed attrition data” (142). In other words, the rate at which people drop out of doctoral programs in English is unknown, and reported job placement rates are exercises in survivorship bias.

Graduate programs that train people for non-academic professions are of course a different matter, except for law, which has traditionally been touted as career option for political science majors. A recent study of over 1,200 law school graduates in Ohio, all of whom passed the bar exam after finishing law school in 2010, found that one-quarter have jobs for which a law license is not required. Many of those who did become attorneys were forced to open solo practices at significant financial risk. Additional information on debt loads and job placement for law school graduates in the USA can be found at Law School Transparency.

Despite these statistics, I still encounter colleagues who give advice to students as if the labor market in higher education, law, and other fields has not changed since they attended graduate school decades ago. They provide this advice while a nearby post-secondary technical training institute proceeds with the next phase of its $200,000,000 expansion. This expansion will more than double the instructional space on a campus that is less than five years old. I think the folks there have a much better idea of the labor market than many of the faculty who work at universities like mine.

Forcing Fair Participation in the College Classroom

Today we have a post by a guest contributor, Ryan Welch, a PhD candidate in the political science department at Florida State University.

HorshackTeachers and students  believe student participation in the classroom important for maximizing learning in the classroom.[1]  I define participation as verbal engagement [2] by the student with others in the class (instructor and other students) of the learning material.[3]  Participation has many educational benefits for students that often translate into life skills.

Although both students and teachers find participation important in the classroom, teachers struggle to get adequate student participation.  I know very early into teaching a class which 4 or 5 students (of 50 or so) will dominate discussion.  If left unchecked, that leaves a vast majority of students missing out on the benefits associated with participation.  Why don’t these students participate?  What can we do as instructors to motivate participation?

A number of students tell me that they wish to participate, but lack confidence in speaking in front of the group.  Research overwhelmingly comports these anecdotes.  So I attempt to increase participation by asking questions about the material.  Of course those few students mentioned above will volunteer their answers, but I also want to engage others.  Calling on non-volunteers presents problems of fairness.  No matter how hard we try, the decisions for which students to call upon will be biased.  In order to create a fair participation atmosphere we must randomly call upon students.

In order to create a more random selection process, I adopted my advisor’s poker chip strategy.  I assigned each student a number sequentially based on the alphabetic order of my class roll.  I numbered the poker chips and put them in a plastic container.  At times during the class period, I pulled a chip from the container, observed the number on the chip, and found the corresponding student on my roll.  That student must answer the question, or lose participation points.

This semester I tried a different method.  The process of drawing a chip, matching a number with a name, and then calling a student takes a non-trivial amount of time.  Enough time to break up the natural flow of class conversation; especially if a student does not know the answer, and I must call another student.  In order to rectify this issue, but continue calling students randomly, I tried something new this semester.  Instead of using poker chips, I used the R software package to create a random list of student names by drawing their names from a uniform distribution with replacement. With this list, I can seamlessly call on students without breaking up the flow of the class conversation.

But no method is perfect.  The most apparent drawback of this method is I am not able to learn the students’ names as easily.  Using the poker chips, I matched a number to a name on a printed roll with pictures.  Every time I called a student, I reinforced who that student was with a visual cue.  I did not realize how helpful that was for learning names until this semester in which I consult a list of names without pictures.  Knowing student names fosters a supportive environment that encourages participation  (which is the point of this whole venture).  The importance of knowing names has me brainstorming how to incorporate name-learning while still using the random list.

Student participation in the classroom leads to a number of learning and professional benefits.  So much so, that I find it reasonable to force participation. But forced participation should be done as fairly as possible, so I’ll use the list again.  If you want to try it out yourself, include the R code below to generate the random lists.  If you decide to give it a go, any comments and questions are welcome.

R Code

#set working directory

#load foreign package in order to write out the .csv file

#create a vector of student names
student.names <- c(“Student A”, ” Student B “, ” Student C “, ” Student D”)

#create vector of 100 randomly selected names with replacement
random.list <- sample(student.names, 100, replace=T) 

#create a .csv file in the directory folder which you can access and print or save to a tablet
write.csv(random.list, “student_list.csv”)


[1] For a comprehensive review of participation in college classrooms see Rocca, Kelly A. 2010. “Student Participation in the College Classroom: An Extended Multidisciplinary Literature Review.” Communication Education 59 (2): 185-213.

[2] The most common verbal engagement includes comments, questions, or answering questions presented by the instructor.

[3] Learning material is usually reading assignments, but may also include other media such as audio and video clips.

“You can’t even see the join…” *

For the next few weeks I’m covering for a colleague on sick leave. It’s a module/course I’ve taught before, so I’m comfortable with the material and the subject matter. What I’m less comfortable with is how to make a connection with the students.

In all our writing, we’re making the assumption that you know what’s coming, at least at the basic level that your line manager tells you at the start of the year or semester what you’ve got lined up to deliver: if they don’t, then your timetabling system must be even more messed up then everyone else’s.

But there’s always some element of uncertainty: illness is the obvious case. Students still need their content delivered, assessment still needs grading.

The problem is an obvious one: if you walk in when most of the module/course has been delivered, how can you know what’s been said and (more importantly, I think) how it’s been said?

In my case, I have the powerpoints from all the weeks and I know pretty well my colleague’s views on the big questions, but I still can’t really know about the fit of it all. Even with the support of the seminar leader – who very helpfully talked with me both before and after the first lecture – I’m still feeling my way around in the dark.

A large part of it is asking questions: did you cover this? are you comfortable with these sorts of ideas? can you see how this links to something you’ve done earlier? Even just some nodding or shaking of heads (which is what I got) gives a steer. Likewise, trying to be (even more) friendly and accessible.

If I were feeling more bold – and, to be clear, I’m not in that sort of mood these days – I might have asked someone to stand up and explain something they’d already learnt back to me, so I could gauge their level and the kind of language that they use. But as I say, I’m not that way inclined at this point.

There’s another thing I’m going to try, though.

I’m experimenting with podcasts for a general audience, on the same subject matter as this class. It’s very early days, but essentially I want to produce a series of 5 minute ‘casts that are framed by simple questions that people ask of it all.

My idea is simply to encourage some interaction with the students by asking them what questions they would like answered: they might be a bit too technical for what I’m planning, but it would stimulate my thinking, as well as giving me more of an ‘in’ into how they understand (or don’t understand, more pertinently) the topic.

Whether that works, I’ll have to report back, but if you have any suggestions, I’d love to hear/read them.


* – old joke, watch the clip.

Corinthian Colleges R.I.P.


Corinthian Colleges, a U.S. for-profit educational company, described back in July 2014 as in financially perilous condition because of federal government regulatory action and multiple criminal investigations at the state level, has given up the ghost. All remaining twenty-eight campuses have closed, effectively immediately. The 16,000 students who were still enrolled at these campuses, many with large amounts of debt, are now spinning in the wind.

Meta-Cognitive Reflection 2.0

MetacognitionWith another spring semester coming to an end, I’m mentally reviewing what I can change for the next academic year. I think that the meta-cognitive reflection exercises that I bracket all my courses with — the knowledge plan and the quality of failure essay —  need some minor adjustments. My directions for the knowledge plan currently read as follows:

Identify your goals for this course by writing a 2-3 page essay (double-spaced, equivalent to 11 or 12 point font) that answers these questions: 

– What do you plan to learn in this course?
– What will you need to do to learn the knowledge and skills that you want to learn?

– How do your goals for this course correspond to how you are living your life?

Answering the following question can help you construct your knowledge plan.

– What do I want to get out of this course, and what do I need to do to achieve that?
– How will my academic strengths and weaknesses affect my ability to achieve my goal?

– What can I do to improve my understanding of the subject beyond the minimum that is required?
– How will I respond if I start to struggle in this course?
– How are the different ways that I will be evaluated in this course connected to what and how I can learn?
– What are the available resources for learning that I can use to my advantage? What must I do to use these resources?
– What are the barriers I often create that diminish my learning, and how can I change these behaviors?
– How can I shape my interactions with fellow students to increase my (and their) learning?
– What is the role of the instructor in my learning process?
– What am I not asking but should be?

As is typical of professors, I have created a long list of questions that students probably find confusing or irrelevant. A better approach is:

Plan for this course by writing a 2-3 page essay (double-spaced, equivalent to 11 or 12 point font) that answers these questions: 

– What do I want to get out of this course?
– What do I need to do to achieve my goal?
– What are the barriers I often create that diminish my learning, and how can I change these behaviors?
– How will I respond if I start to struggle in this course?

For the quality of failure essay, I’ve already inserted short reading assignments to add a compare-and-contrast element. The revised directions for the essay:


– The assignment rubric.
– Robert J. Morris, “My Biggest Failure? Failing to Recognize Failure,” The New York Times, 16 June 2014.
– Adam Bryant, “Nancy Dubuc of A&E: Mixing Doers, Thinkers and Feelers,” The New York Times, 19 March 2015.

Write a 2-3 page essay that analyzes your failures in the course in relation to your knowledge plan from the beginning of the semester. Why did these failures occur? Are your experiences similar to those of Robert J. Morris and Nancy Dubuc? Why or why not? Explain what you have learned from your failures in this course.

Would You Like Coffee With Your Freshman Year?

Starbucks BaristaIf you’re in a radio market like mine, you get to hear ads for the dozens of online education programs offered by Arizona State University (ASU). ASU also garnered publicity not too long ago for its collaboration with Starbucks that provides the company’s customer service employees with access to an affordable college education.

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you’re also familiar with my prognostications about the technology-driven transformation of post-secondary education — those depressing posts about the financial unsustainability of small colleges with mediocre reputations, the inevitability of a tiered pricing system that conforms to market demand, and the rise of convenience-based learning.

As of today the stars have aligned: ASU has partnered with edX to offer, according to The New York Times, “an online freshman year that will be available worldwide with no admissions process and full university credit.” Cost? Two hundred dollars per credit hour, payable upon passing each course. The total price for the whole program is about $5,000. 

According to MIT professor Anant Agarwal, the CEO of edX, the full complement of courses for the new Global Freshman Academy is projected to be live within twenty-four months.

Say goodbye to your general education requirements.