Monthly Archives: June 2017

Ways to Improve Writing Ability in Graduate School

If you’ve already been accepted to graduate school, we’ve got good news for you: your writing skills were strong enough to get your application past the admissions committee. But this doesn’t mean you can just kick back and coast on what worked during your undergraduate studies. Not only will more be expected of you during your pursuit of an advanced degree, but there’s also likely to be a thesis in your future. The takeaway? The time is now to sharpen up your writing skills. Let’s count down six tips aimed at ensuring that your writing is on point in graduate school.

   Convey Your Expertise
Graduate students are training to be experts in their field. This expertise should be exemplified by your writing. Your language should be direct, confident and authoritative in order to foster a sense of trust with your readers.

Other ways to assemble a cogent argument? Avoid first person tense whenever possible; employ transition words and phrases; and pay attention to sentence structure. Two true hallmarks of graduate level writing? Clarity and control.

   Make Writing Routine
We’ve all heard the expression “practice makes perfect.” This is no more true than when it comes to graduate level writing. Making time to write regularly will not only help you develop critical thinking and writing skills, but can also be an invaluable confidence booster.

Establishing a writing routine is particularly beneficial when it comes to working on your thesis. Many graduate students wait too long to start writing and end up rushing through the process. This can lead to everything from an underdeveloped argument to lack of proper formatting. Avoid this pitfall by setting a schedule for writing as you go…and by committing to stick with it.

   Know Your Reader
Any piece of writing should keep one overarching question in mind: Who is the audience and why are they reading your writing? In addition to clearly presenting your ideas, keep in mind that your thesis is an original contribution to your particular discipline. Make sure your reader knows what to expect by including “signposts” — such as a table of contents, abstract, introductory paragraphs, etc. — along the way to help guide your reader. Each sentence should relate in some way to your overall argument.

   Seek Feedback
While graduate level writing is largely an individual effort, there’s plenty of help to be found if you know where to look. For starters, your advisor can be an amazing resource when it comes to “big picture” issues, such as selecting a topic and refining your thesis. In addition to helping identify your paper’s strengths, your advisor can also help suss out your weaknesses thereby preventing you from venturing too far in the wrong direction.

Your fellow grad students, meanwhile, can offer editing and proofreading assistance. And while finding someone in your field can be particularly useful — especially if you’re writing about a complex or scientific subject — friends and family members can also offer a helpful second (or third or fourth) pair of eyes.

   Embrace the Revision Process
No piece of writing gets it perfect the first time. In fact, research and writing go hand in hand with revision, but many writers still get tripped up by setting impossible expectations for themselves. The best way to avoid this trap? Make revision part of your mindset.

Also, keep in mind that revision is much more than merely proofreading for mistakes. Rather, it’s an act of complete “re-seeing.” While this often involves expanding on key concepts, it sometimes means letting go of good material if it doesn’t make an essential contribution to your writing. We can all learn from William Faulkner, who once spoke of the need to, “Kill all your darlings.”

   Learn from the Best
One of the best ways to get a better sense of what your writing should look like? Immersing yourself in published work from experts in your field. Visit your school library to read top journals in your discipline, noting writers and writing techniques you most admire. Reading dissertations in your particular area can also help you familiarize yourself with the corpus of research while gaining a better sense of the language used to describe varying concepts.

You’ve already proved your mettle by getting into graduate school, but that’s just the start. These six tips can help you take your writing to the next level. The best part? Writing is a transferrable skill. In other words, you can continue to call on these skills to be a better writer, thinker and communicator throughout your professional and personal life.

Reasons For Learning in Cuba

Last spring, President Barack Obama became the first US president to visit Cuba in nearly 90 years, at which time he called on Congress to lift the long-standing trade embargo. This continued a promising trend of improved relations between the two countries, including the reopening of embassies and the loosening of longtime travel restrictions.  The takeaway for many mobile-minded students? There’s never been a more exhilarating time to visit this intriguing Caribbean hot spot. Let’s count down six reasons why the island of Cuba claims a spot on our shortlist of desirable international study destinations.

1. Education is a Priority Here…As Evidenced by its Excellent Universities

Cuba’s 60 public universities have grown in repute over the past several decades thanks to a strong commitment to education shared by the government and its people. Five of its universities earned places in QS University’s 2016 ranking of the top universities in Latin America, which considers factors including academic reputation; employer reputation; faculty/student ratio; citations per paper; international research network; proportion of staff with PhDs; and web impact when determining standings.

And while Cuba’s universities offer a breadth and depth of subjects to choose from, its programs in medicine are particularly celebrated.

2. It Has a Top-Notch Health System

Given Cuba’s exceptional reputation when it comes to educating doctors, it’s hardly a surprise that it’s also known for a top-notch health care system.

Just how extraordinary is health care in Cuba? Margaret Chan, Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO), said in 2014 as reported by the Huffington Post, “Cuba is the only country that has a health care system closely linked to research and development. This is the way to go, because human health can only improve through innovation.”

Whether you’re looking for an innovative medical education or simply hoping to benefit from the country’s widespread access to medical services, you’ll find both — and much more — in Cuba.

3. Its Politics and History and History are Fascinating

Sure, Cuba has gorgeous white sand beaches, breathtaking architecture, and picturesque towns and villages, but so do many other Caribbean destinations. What separates Cuba from the rest? Its remarkable history, for starters.

While Cuba is small, it plays host to nine UNESCO world heritage sites with three others on the tentative list. These historically, naturally, agriculturally, and architecturally significant spots comprise everything from fortresses to coffee plantation remains — all packed into Cuba’s tiny 44,200 miles.

And, of course, no discussion of Cuba is complete without acknowledging its long-standing commitment to Communism despite tremendous external pressure, and the crossroads at which it now stands.

4. You Will Improve Your Spanish Skills

If you’re looking to learn Spanish or improve your Spanish skills, you’ll have plenty of opportunities in Cuba.  However, keep in mind that just as there’s a difference between the Spanish spoken in Spain and the Spanish spoken in Latin America, there’s also a difference in the Spanish spoken in Caribbean-influenced Cuba. That said, many language experts agree that if you can speak and understand Cuban Spanish, you’re in excellent shape as it’s widely regarded to be one of the more challenging accents.

Don’t speak Spanish? While it’s always good to learn a few basic phrases in any country where you’re traveling, the Cuban people are enthusiastic, hospitable and very patient.

5. There’s Nothing Like Cuban Music

Cuban music has been influenced by many different cultures and styles with origins in both Europe and Africa. The result?  Not only is the island’s music scene unique and vibrant, but it’s also inextricably interwoven into everyday life. Wherever and whenever you go, you can expect to hear amazing live music.

Already a fan of the Buena Vista Social Club? That’s just the start of what’s waiting to be discovered in Cuba. From Cha-cha-cha and Conga to Timba and Trova, there’s no end to the heart-stirring, toe-tapping tunes you’ll hear while visiting Cuba.

6. You’ll Beat the Crowds

Because Cuba was inaccessible for so long, it retained its culture in a particularly unique way. But with travel to Cuba easier than ever and relations on the upswing, more people are adding Cuba to their must-do destinations, meaning it may experience a decline in authenticity and charm as it becomes a mecca for tourists. If you’re hoping for a taste of pure, unadulterated Cuba, the time to go is now.

While study abroad programs in Cuba aren’t new, the opportunities are greater now than ever before. And while Cuba’s strong academic offerings are incentive on their own, Cuba’s on-the-cusp status sweetens the deal, with visitors getting to experience “old and new Cuba, past and future, through the same lens.”

How Big Data Influence To Change Higher Education

Six years ago, the UN General Assembly designated October 20th as “World Statistics Day.”  As the science of learning from data, statistics plays an important role in how we wrangle massive quantities of information into meaningful insights — both within the world at large, and within microcosms of that world, including the higher education sphere. As big data gets, well, bigger, its impact on higher education is expected to continue to grow. Wondering how that will play out in higher education? Let’s take a closer look.

Leveraging Data into Smarter Admissions

While some colleges are small enough to have human eyes looking over each and every application, others have historically been at the mercy of factors like grades and standardized test scores. But were these elements an accurate reflection of student success in college? Not necessarily, according to industry insiders.

This is why many colleges and universities are using new types of data collection when trying to determine which students will ultimately succeed and graduate. One, in particular, which might come as a surprise? Social media. According to one report from PBS NewsHour, some colleges are turning to social media data as an indicator of whether students were likely to enroll and graduate based on factors ranging from how many friends they made in online communities for applicants to whether or not they uploaded many profile photos.

The ultimate goal? To reap the largest yield with the lowest risk. Statistics also come into play here, with one university chief data officer telling NewsHour that each applicant is assigned a numerical probability of enrollment to help guide the school’s recruiting spending. The benefits, admissions counselors insist, are dual fold: schools get the largest ROI, while admitted students are more likely to be a good fit, stay on, graduate, and reap the lifelong benefits of a college or graduate degree.

Leveraging Data into Student Success

High turnover rates are costly to universities, but they’re also costly to students. As Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario Executive Director Harvey Weingarten told The Globe and Mail, “For students, leaving is a failure. There is a loss of confidence, there is a psychological cost of failure.” But the costs are far from just psychological. College dropouts also do worse than their peers across everything from lifetime earnings to health and wellness.

In refining the admissions process, predictive analytics based on demographic and behavioral data also supports increased graduation rates. This allows universities not just to admit more appropriate candidates, but to better support them once they’re enrolled. Said Weingarten, “You accepted a student into your institution because you believed they could succeed, they would grow, thrive and develop. When it doesn’t work, you have an obligation to figure out what went wrong here.”

In addition to allowing universities to more proactively help struggling students, it can also be used to help teachers do their jobs better. Because feedback happens more quickly, teachers can more immediately take teaching actions in order to ultimately provide richer learning experiences for students.

And these techniques are working. Take results seen at the U.S.’s largest public university, Arizona State. Two years after implementing a new adaptive learning platform designed to assess, remediate and re-assess student progress in math readiness, pass rates skyrocketed from 64 percent to 75 percent with 45 percent of students finishing early. Drop-out rates, meanwhile, decreased by 56 percent.

Keeping Big Data in Check

While the potential advantages of big data for universities and students alike are profound, experts are quick to warn of the potential dangers, too. And stolen data is just the beginning when it comes to safeguarding student interests — particularly in a world in which personal information — and the insights they lead to, thanks to big data — is just a few clicks away.

Posits Stanford News, “Consider, for example, what might happen if data show that students who fit a certain profile struggle in a core course. Could those students be prevented from taking the class or pushed down a different path just because the data say they should?”

Enter a coalition helmed by Stanford University and nonprofit education consulting firm Ithaka S+R aimed at protecting student through responsible use of big data and the implementation of a new standard of care. The group’s recommendation? That the opportunities represented by big data be accompanied by a code of ethics comprising four core responsibilities, including the recognition of the limitations of big data and data collection; transparency across the data’s collection and analysis process; the use of big data to improve teaching; and the harnessing of data-driven insights for the benefit of students.

Only with these measures in place, say the experts, can big data truly deliver on everything it promises to universities and their communities.

How the School Responds to Threats

Amid a wave of bomb threats directed at schools, with nerves frayed by fears of mass shootings and terrorism in San Bernardino, Paris, and Beirut, superintendents have been on the hot seat. When Los Angeles and New York City received similar emailed threats but made opposing decisions — LA choosing to close its system for a day, New York remaining open, calling the threats a hoax — it cast a spotlight on how school leaders make decisions, and whether there’s a right way or a wrong way to proceed in times of uncertainty.

Usable Knowledge asked HGSE Professor Andrés Alonso, former superintendent of the Baltimore City Public Schools, to talk about how things look from the inside.

As a superintendent, how do you make the decision to close schools or districts — or open them — in response to a threat?

First of all, a superintendent isn’t making a decision like this on his or her own, especially in large cities, where the school system is embedded in many other systems that are servicing kids and families. You make decisions about closing schools, in normal circumstances, with city hall, with the police and transportation department — as part of a team that is thinking about how the city functions. You’re changing the entire flow of what’s happening in a city on a given day.  A terrorist threat is not a normal circumstance, which makes it more imperative that you work as part of a team that is thinking about the entire city.

But the decision should be part of the same protocol that helps shape more ordinary decisions around closing schools. In every year, in every school system, you’re going to have to make a set of calls around closing or opening schools where you could be right or you could be wrong. Most of the time you’re going to have 50 percent of the people happy and the other 50 percent of the people unhappy. Whether it’s snow, water main breaks, Halloween pranks — no matter what you do, you’re going to have a sector of the community that thinks that you acted in the wrong way, because it impacted their lives in a negative sense. Here, the stakes are incredibly higher. If the protocols are off, then you compound what is already fraught and extraordinary.

What factors do you weigh when you make these decisions?

The safety of children always comes first. But because there are no guarantees, you are also weighing families and home care, you’re weighing children who are eligible for free and reduced meals and their access to food, you’re weighing issues with teachers and their travel and their ability to get to school and deal with their own family responsibilities in an emergency.

So there are going to be dilemmas. Normally, you have a bias toward keeping schools open and keeping kids in schools. That should be the default. Kids generally are safest at school. On the other hand, there are going to be some circumstances where that’s not true.

In every circumstance, you are going to go with your judgment — that it’s a hoax or it’s a prank or you’re only going to get three inches of snow instead of 12. Sometimes you’re going to be wrong. But I would always rather be wrong in a way that protects the safety of the children. The challenge, of course, is that you have a lot of parents and a lot of children who are counting on schools being open.

The type of decision facing Los Angeles and New York and other districts in recent days seems unique and new because of the threat of political, mass violence — and because it’s happening in a climate that is highly sensitized to that threat of violence. That makes it even more imperative that you’re making decisions in the context of a team of people who are making the best judgment at a specific point in time, with a specific set of facts, bringing expertise that you and your staff might not have.

Is there a right decision at times like this?

I don’t think there’s a right decision or a wrong decision. The wrong decision would be to open schools and have something happen that impacts the safety of kids. So much depends on the information that a police department or the FBI might have. You obviously can’t close schools anytime someone makes a phone call. But you have to weigh the evidence you have, consult with people who have the best information to make a shared decision, then go with your informed judgment and your gut about what has to happen.

How do you talk with your community about your decisions — especially if those decisions draw criticism?

You should always be in communication with your community about your decisions. You should be in constant conversation about the whys and the hows. It shouldn’t just be about these fraught situations when you have national attention focused on one decision. It should a part of everything that you do. If you’ve established that constant, two-way communication as a routine element of what you do, then you build trust, and trust is critical in these situations.

As a superintendent, how do you help parents and students feel safe?

I think there’s more of an imperative to have that kind of conversation if you actually close schools and then reopen them again. If you keep school open, you’re basically telling people that you already believe that they are safe.

Again, I think that this is part of a much wider conversation than just a school system. If there is potential for that kind of damage to schools, there is potential for that kind of damage to every other civic institution.

Unfortunately we are at a moment in time where we’re having to have those kinds of conversations. I was in New York during 2001, and part of what was interesting then was the extraordinary will on the part of the communities surrounding Manhattan to come back to a kind of normality. We had this inescapable proof that something really terrible had happened, that had cost thousands of lives, and yet the overwhelming feeling on the part of people in New York City and surrounding communities was that we had to keep going. I think now, it’s the sense that something might happen, and we don’t know what it is, that’s causing anxiety and confusion about the best way to act. I find the contrast very interesting. People in positions of responsibility are going to need to work together in order to make the right decisions.

Talk about how you managed similar decisions in Baltimore.

In Baltimore, we had protocols around the decision to open and close schools in relationship to a set of potential events — whether it was ice on the streets, snow, buildings that were too hot or too cold, a potential hazmat situation in a school, a lockdown of a neighborhood because of crime, or what have you. We dealt with all of these situations at one point or another.

We had a police department in our school system, and our police would get in touch with city police and fire. We had an operations department that was responsible for evacuating schools, for cleaning schools, for transportation – they were in touch with their city counterparts. If we were going to close the schools, we wanted teachers and principals to know in advance, and we had agreed on specific times for that to happen. We also had communication protocols in place for parents, and we had protocols around media and around transportation. There were public channels for communicating with the community, and there were school-specific communication trees.  The access to information in case schools closed was transparent, widely known, and clearly understood.  If we didn’t follow these protocols, we were taken to task.

We also had an established understanding that before we made decisions about closing and opening, the chief of police and the head of transportation and the mayor’s chief of staff were given a head’s up and an opportunity to be briefed on the decision. They had to brief other public officials.

If I had been the superintendent in Baltimore and we had gotten that threat, I would have been on the phone with the mayor, and in a case of such magnitude, I would have asked the mayor and the two police departments to involve the FBI right away, if they had not already done so. I would have relied on my team’s advice about communication and timing, and I would have relied on their best judgment about the reliability and the credibility of the threat, with an understanding that this is something we were going to deal with together. Then, based upon the information they brought to me, I would have consulted with the head of my board and with my union presidents. I would have communicated with the state commissioner of education, and I would probably have consulted with the surrounding districts, since any decision I made was going to have an impact on the surrounding counties. We shared teachers and in some cases kids.

It’s a highly complex decision, and always the safest course of action is to close. The risk is always on opening.

Some have criticized the LA schools for the decision to close. What’s your perspective?

Without having specific information or being part of those decisions, I think it’s irresponsible to criticize someone for choosing to close schools. Of course, you need to have the real-world understanding that you’re always going to be making these decisions, and you can’t close schools every day of the year because people are saying terrible things are going to happen. You would be surprised how often districts have to make judgments about safety, even if not to this degree of risk.

As a superintendent, you have to know that this is the kind of call where you’ll have a lot of backseat driving. People are always going to be responding to what you do after the fact. Hopefully, as in this case in Los Angeles, they are going to be responding when nothing has happened.

You’d rather take the hit and say, as I think Ramon Cortines did in Los Angeles, “I made the call to the best of my abilities, and as always, I’m accountable.” And if you’ve done your job in advance with the community and your partners, you’re going to have plenty of people who are going to be there with you saying, “The superintendent made the right decision.”