Category Archives: graduate school

Building a Genuinely Social Class Community

This term I (Clive) have two wonderful graduate classes, each with 25 students. One is on Foundations of Curriculum Studies and the other Reflective Professional Development. As part of the community building effort we go to the pub after class three times during the twelve week term (that evening we finish the class half an hour early). This week we had our second pub visit in both classes.

As always, I was impressed with how enjoyable it was and how much we got to know about each other. Only about half the students came, due to the frigid weather, family responsibilities, and school classes early the next day. But it was nevertheless entirely worthwhile.

Other strategies to build a social culture include: sitting in a large circle for most of the evening; having the students say each other’s names around the room each time we meet; chatting and joking at the beginning of the class and at other times; each student giving a brief presentation on their emerging essay topic (2 or 3 presentations a week) with responses from the 3 students sitting to their left or right; small-group discussions on interesting topics, with everyone in each group reporting back. All this leaves less time for me to talk, but I find the students say at least 90% of what I would have said; and anyway, I get to choose the weekly topics and readings.

It is only a 36 hour course, shorter than most school courses, yet a real bond is formed. The social atmosphere adds greatly to the enjoyment of the course and the discussions are deepened. It may not seem very “academic,” but I wouldn’t do it any other way!


Imposter syndrome & the emerging professional

I (Said) graduated from UofT’s Concurrent Teacher Ed. Program in 2014. Since then, I have had experience working as an occasional teacher and as a student affairs professional. I am currently working on my Master of Arts at OISE. I am sharing this to highlight that as a graduate student and emerging professional, the pressure to achieve is tremendous. Every year, I have felt my professional identity transform and evolve in numerous ways. Said “the teacher”, Said “the researcher”, Said “the professional”… it is overwhelming at times, especially when imposter syndrome takes over.

imposter-syndromeImposter syndrome is a collection of feelings of inadequacy despite signs of evident success. Those who experience it struggle with the fear of being exposed as a ‘fraud’ or ‘not smart enough’, especially among peers and other professionals. Therefore, any success is often attributed to luck, downplayed, and rationalized as a means to mask a supposed lack of knowledge or expertise. Beginning teachers may feel like they do not belong in the classroom, especially if working within a school culture that does not value their contributions and perceives them as inexperienced. What they must remember is that they were deemed qualified to teach and are worthy of their position.

Similarly, graduate students may feel intimidated at their institution, especially when working with faculty members considered leaders in their research fields. However, I have come to realize that my voice has value and that insight from the sharing of ideas and heated debates can spark new avenues of inquiry and inspire those around me.  Isn’t it wonderful how being part of a research team/community of scholars allows us the opportunity to discuss, dispute, disagree, dispel, dissertate and so much more? I refuse to be trapped in a self-imposed cage, and if I ever feel surrounded by 20-foot walls, I will build a 21-foot ladder.

As I embark on a journey in academia, I recognize that it is perfectly normal to feel slightly out of place, as any novice would. Instead of emphasizing my invented unsuitably for this exciting new endeavour, I have decided to do all that I can to gain more confidence in my professional and academic life. If you ever feel like you are ‘not enough’, please remember what Christopher Robin once told Winnie the Pooh. You are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think.

The Graduation Speech Harvard Is Calling ‘The Most Powerful’ You’ll Ever Hear

Topics and Methods for Class Debates

In previous postings, I (Clive) have recommended debates as a way to give students a voice in university and school classrooms and also introduce some variety into class activities. Of course, the topics have to be interesting to the students if they are to get really involved; and the overly combative tone of traditional debating needs to be avoided so there are no hard feelings.

This term, in my graduate class of 22, I used two debating topics that worked very well. They were: (1) Teaching Values in School and (2) Formal Professional Development for Teachers. In each case we formed 4 groups (by numbering off from 1 to 4 around the class, including myself) and then assigned “positions” to the groups as follows:

Teaching Values in School

Group 1: On the whole, teachers should keep their values to themselves

Group 2: It is often appropriate for teachers to promote the values they believe in

Group 3: On the whole, schools should advocate general “human” values (e.g., treating women and men equally) even if they conflict with the values of the family

Group 4: On the whole, schools should honor and respect the values of the family, even if they conflict with general “human” values

Formal Professional Development for Teachers

Groups 1 & 3: Formal professional development has a very important role to play in teacher learning and school improvement. Examples of effective formal PD include….

Groups 2 & 4: Formal professional development does not play a major role in teacher learning and school improvement. Examples of more important methods and factors are….

Each group spent 20 minutes preparing their case, with each person in the group proposing and outlining an argument and/or example. Then each group in turn presented their case to the whole class, with every member of the group speaking. Finally, we returned to the whole class circle and went around with each individual saying what they thought about the topic (we didn’t have time to go all the way round the class, but this final activity also proved very valuable).

Notice that the “opposing” positions were softened by using phrases such as “on the whole,” “it is often appropriate,” “not a major role” (rather than “not any role”). Also, the emphasis on giving examples to support one’s case was a big success – I hadn’t used this before.

So, this was my experience. If you have a chance to experiment with debates, let us know what topics you used and how it went – we can do a guest blog!



Thesis Defense = Celebration of Learning

I (Clare) am a very active doctoral supervisor and have two students near completion of stress-lego-faces-popular-science_2400x1800their Ph.D. At the University of Toronto like many other universities the final stage in the doctoral program is the thesis defense. It is a complicated process requiring 2 external examiners, a student presentation, discussion, and voting. The entire exam is so so so stressful for the students. No matter how much I reassure them that they will be fine because their work is high quality they are still nervous, stressed, tense, anxious …. From my perspective it should not be so stressful nor so high stakes. These students have worked for years under careful supervision and presented at their doctoral committee meetings.

Some universities have a much more informal (and civilized) approach to the final exam. I try to see it as a celebration of the student’s work rather than a grueling experience. I think it is time for many universities to rethink the final stage of the process to make it less stressful for the student (and supervisor) and more joyous.

To Device Or Not To Device: Place of Laptops in the Classroom

One of my (Clare) colleagues circulated this letter about use of laptops in the classroom. For me it is a real conundrum. I know that some students toodle around Facebook  during class but others responsibly use their laptop. I thought others might find this article interesting.

Pulling the plug on classroom laptop usage

By: Eric Andrew-Gee, The Globe And Mail | August 22, 2015

When university courses resume this September, Canadian students may find themselves learning the meaning of two new letters: HB.

The standard pencil, for many years alien to digitized lecture halls, is coming back into fashion on campus as a growing number of professors across North America ban laptops from their classrooms.

Many of these instructors are responding to a body of research showing that computer screens are distracting for people trying to learn, and that handwritten notes lead to better conceptual understanding than typed ones.

Computer-free lectures seem to mark a departure from the optimism around technology that has prevailed on many campuses in recent years, and academics who have banned laptops say they are part of a growing wave.

“It’s become pretty common now,” said Arash Abizadeh, a professor of political theory at McGill University who banished laptops from his classes in 2010.

It was about five years ago that Paul Thagard, a professor of philosophy at the University of Waterloo, started noticing a “wall” of screens in his lectures. When he installed a graduate student at the back of the classroom to spy on his plugged-in students, he learned that 85 per cent of them were using their computers for something unrelated to class.

“Since I teach cognitive science, I know how limited attention is,” he said. “Pedagogically, I thought this was a disaster.”

A 2003 study by researchers at Cornell University came to the same conclusion as Prof. Thagard’s sleuth: Students who use laptops during class also engage in “high-tech ‘doodling’ ” – sending e-mails, exchanging instant messages, surfing the Web.

The study found that these students scored significantly worse on a pop quiz about a given lesson’s content than students whose laptops were closed – a finding consistent with troves of research showing that “multitasking” is virtually impossible for most people.

Online distractions have become only more seductive in the past decade, with the advent of Facebook, Twitter and other social networks.

“Both the form and the content of a Facebook update are almost irresistibly distracting, especially compared with the hard slog of coursework,” Clay Shirky, a professor of new media at New York University, wrote in a 2014 essay for the website Medium, explaining why he, of all people, was banning laptops from his lectures.

It may be intuitive that the Internet can impede focus, but researchers have also recently come to a more surprising conclusion about the impact of laptops in classrooms.

In The Pen Is Mightier Than The Keyboard, their cleverly titled 2014 paper on the subject, Pam Mueller of Princeton University and Daniel Oppenheimer of the University of California, Los Angeles, wrote that even when students use computers only for note-taking, they retain less information than students who take notes by hand.

That is because scratching out words on a piece of paper forces students to synthesize as they write, distilling the gist of a lesson, rather than copying a professor’s words down verbatim. The joint study found that note typers were less able to answer conceptual questions about a given lecture than students who took notes longhand.

“In high school, I took typing – and so I know, as someone who can touch type, that I can type things without having any idea what I’m typing,” Prof. Abizadeh said.

Most professors who ban laptops insist that they are not grouchy Luddites and tout their use of technology in other spheres.

Pierre Martin, a political science professor at the University of Montreal with a device-free classroom, said he was the first in his department to create a website for his courses. “I’m actually a rather compulsive user of technology,” he said. “It’s because I am that I know it’s bad for the students.”

But sheer frustration with the sight of glazed student eyes is another motivating factor for professors who start anti-computer crusades. A widely watched YouTube video from 2010 shows a University of Oklahoma physics professor dunking a laptop in liquid nitrogen before smashing it to pieces. Perhaps turned off by such bellicose tactics, some students have objected to anti-laptop policies, saying that even if the devices are harmful, banning them is a paternalistic abuse of power.

Teachers such as Prof. Martin counter that doodling online distracts not just the person on Facebook, but everyone around them.

Laptops in class are like secondhand smoke, he argues.

Indeed, many now grudgingly – even gratefully – accept the bans.

“As many complaints as I get, I get compliments,” Prof. Thagard said.

Meaghan Eyolfson, a University of Ottawa law student, said her 20-person criminal law seminar is mostly laptop-free. Two students per class are allowed to type up notes and send them around to others.

She recognizes the policy’s advantages, even if it means more work. “Obviously, I pay 10 times more attention in the class,” she said. “It’s just a pain in the ass.”


This article was written by Eric Andrew-Gee from The Globe And Mail and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.


Grad school is like…

I (Clare) was at an orientation for new graduate students. And some of these metaphors about grad school were shared. Thought I would share them with you. It is worth reading the whole post because some are quite hilarious. Will only take a moment.

What's in a Brain

Now that I’ve survived my first full week of classes in grad school, I am clearly a grad school expert.


But I have been spending quite a lot of mental energy trying to figure it out – noticing how it’s similar to, and especially different from, undergrad; working to figure out what’s expected of me, by others and myself; and trying to articulate what exactly my goal(s) is/are.

This look is pretty consistently on my face. Image: This look is pretty consistently on my face.

I’ve also been a bit preoccupied with metaphors, as I’m working on a metaphor-based research proposal for a fellowship application. I guess the two have become intertwined in my subconscious, because my first (coherent) thought upon waking up this morning was, “grad school isn’t a sprint; it’s a marathon!” Not long after I began giving myself credit for this clever analogy, I was racking my brain for more. As a firm…

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