How to be Successful in Grad School


I spent a lot of time in grad school (with the loans to prove it), and I’ve been teaching exclusively grad students for the last 5 years.  So, I fancy myself somewhat of an expert on how to be successful in grad school.  Now that the new academic year is almost upon us, here are some tips for getting the most out of your grad school experience:

1. At the beginning of the term, make a calendar of important information. Don’t just put it in your phone.  Print out, purchase, or copy an actual, physical calendar.  Write in every class session, note when assignments are due, and – and this is the most important part – note which days and times you will need to block off for study and writing in order to get the assignments completed.  If you have options about which assignments you complete and when, select the assignments that give you the most balanced calendar.  If your instructor offers advance feedback on assignments, write in the due dates for that, too.  Now post it somewhere where you can’t miss it.  The physical act of writing this all out will help you better grasp and remember your workload for the upcoming term.

2. Prior to your first class session, read and annotate the syllabus. Write down questions in the margins, and ask the professor your questions during the first class session.  Under no circumstances should you arrive to the first day of class without having done this.  This is for YOUR benefit, so that you are confident about all class policies and procedures moving forward.

3. Make checklists. Chances are, for each class you’re taking, the professor will have his or her own set of requirements for composing and submitting assignments.  If your professor doesn’t give you a checklist of these requirements, make one for yourself.  This will save you the grief later of having to dig through syllabi and notes to find out if a professor wants your paper saved as a PDF or a DOCX.

4. Make yourself known, for the right reasons. Speak up in class.  Ask questions.  Arrive early and stay a little late.  Don’t be forgettable.  When the time comes for a letter of recommendation to be written, you want to have a whole bunch of professors who all remember what a hard working, professional, and personable student you were.  Think of your courses kind of like a long job interview; you want to make the best impression possible. Now, some students are very memorable for the wrong reasons.  They flip out over tiny things.  They grade grub. They constantly ask for special treatment.  They email the professor weekly to ask when things are due, even though it’s in the syllabus.  Don’t be that student.  Be remembered because you were a thoughtful, hard working student who participated fully in the class.  I write much better letters for B students who worked their tails off and asked questions than I do for A students who coasted through and never spoke up in class.

5. Don’t be afraid to take risks.  Ask your professors if you can assist with their research.  Ask if you can do something above and beyond the norm for an assignment.  Have you been assigned a paper? Ask the professor if you can submit a multimedia presentation instead.  If you can show value and rigor in what you want to do, many professors will allow it.  At worst, they say no.  At best, you end up creating something unique and memorable while still learning the content.

6. Be a leader. Be the one who puts a study group together, or creates a video tutorial for other students who are having trouble.  Volunteer for leadership positions in student organizations.  If an organization doesn’t exist, create it.  Take an active role in improving the educational experience for yourself and your fellow students.

7. Read all the things. Yes, really, all of them.  Be smart about your reading, though.  Has your professor given you a list of key questions for each unit?  Great!  Read those questions FIRST, put each one on top of a big index card, and as you read, jot relevant information down on the appropriate card.  As you read, also make note of any additional questions or connections you have.  When you’re done, on a new sheet of paper, summarize your answer to each question in one or two sentences, and then list your remaining questions and connections.  Bring that with you to class with the goal of having each of those questions answered.  If they don’t get answered in class, stay after and ask the professor to either help you or recommend sources where you can find answers.  Don’t commit the cardinal sin of grad school reading: skimming the text an hour before the class.  You might as well not even bother.  You might remember just enough to fake your way through a class session, but you won’t remember that information long term.  Showing up to a class without doing the readings is scary, but completing a degree program and realizing you don’t actually know all that much is even scarier.  So what if you haven’t planned adequately and are left without enough time to read properly.  Show up to class and get what you can from it, and if the professor asks, or if you’re placed in small groups, ‘FESS UP.  Apologize for not being prepared, and ask if someone can help get you caught up.  Then plan properly for the next week.

8. Give yourself enough time to do it right. Everyone works at their own pace, but here’s my starting recommendation.  Allow 1 hour of reading time for each 15 pages of academic writing you need to read (less for fiction or nonfiction books for the layperson).  Allow 1 hour per 2 pages of academic writing you need to produce.  You may end up needing far more or far less time, but I can guarantee you an hour right before class isn’t going to cut it.

9. Form a support network. When you attend your first class session, look for the other people who are on the right track.  They’re the ones who are sitting near the front of the room (or who are always looking at the camera if you’re online).  They’re the ones actively taking notes and asking questions.  They’re the ones who ask the professor if they can turn in work early for review.  Surround yourself with people who want to be successful and are serious about their education.  Exchange contact information, and consider pooling class notes or proofreading each other’s work.  Go to these people first after you miss a class session and ask what you missed; as a side note, never, ever go to your professor when you’ve missed a class session and utter these words: “Did I miss anything important?” YES, the whole class was important!

10. When you find a professor you click with, stay in touch!  You can still get a lot out of the professor student relationship once a course has ended.  Need a letter of recommendation? Looking for a job?  Encountering a particularly challenging problem in the field? Experiencing success because of something you learned in his or her class?  Reach out to your professor and share that with him or her!  There is nothing I love more than hearing from former students!

This is my best advice for you.  However, there are a lot of different programs out there, with a lot of different professors.  So if you do none of the other things on this list, do this.  On the first day of class, ask your professor:

“What are the top 5 things I can do to get the most out of your class?”

Don’t ask how you can get an A.  That’s an entirely different question!


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Why I don’t lecture


As a professor in the Rossier School at USC, I occasionally get a question from a student that goes something like this:

“I enrolled in this program so that I could learn from the top-notch USC faculty.  So why am I spending most of my time talking to my classmates instead of listening to YOU tell us what is important for us to learn?”

I appreciate it when a student asks this question, because I think it takes guts to speak up when you think a learning experience isn’t working for you, or isn’t being productive.  I think it is an important question to ask.  WHY, when I have a very expensive and hard-earned set of letters after my name, would I sit back and let my students teach each other?  Why am I not bestowing this wisdom upon them? How are they getting their money’s worth out of a prestigious program from USC, when the professor isn’t the center of attention? Shouldn’t I be lecturing about Bandura and Piaget as so many of my academic predecessors have done?  Lecturing is a time-honored tradition in academia, so why am I not honoring it?

Here’s why.  I am not honoring it precisely because this is a prestigious USC program.  I am not honoring it because I have a great deal of knowledge about effective teaching and learning.  I am instead choosing to honor something different.  I choose instead to honor the idea that intelligent, hard-working students, with the facilitation of a learned professor, can achieve greater understanding of the content than if I were to lecture at them for 2 hours.  I choose to honor the research-supported idea that my expertise is better used in designing high-quality activities and coaching from the sidelines as my students struggle through  (and eventually master) the concepts than reading from a PowerPoint.

Sure, I do a bit of lecture here or there.  I occasionally spend 5 or 10 minutes explaining a particularly difficult concept, or sharing an anecdote about my own experience (my game show failure – below – as an example of the critical difference between “identify” and “recall” in terms of cognition is a favorite of mine).

The focus of each class session, however, is my students.  To that extent, here is my process for designing a class session.

1. Look at my notes from the previous year/term.  If I’ve taught a class previously, I most likely have a solid set of notes that tell me what concepts students struggled with, and which were easy to grasp.  I draw this information from class sessions, but also from out-of-class assignments.  For example, in the behaviorism unit of my Learning Theories course, students tend to struggle with the concept of negative reinforcement, so I always make sure to put that on the list of things to highlight during class.

2. Review the objectives for that unit.  I’ve either done the advance work myself, or another professor has, of making sure that the learning objectives for a given unit are well written and focused around real-world applicability of skills and concepts.  So all I need to do is look over these learning objectives and refresh my memory about what I want these students to be able to accomplish by the end of the unit. I drop these objectives into a PowerPoint.

3. I spend a few minutes jotting down the main points from the unit immediately preceding this one, so that at the beginning of the course I can reference this previous content for my students, thus activating their prior knowledge and preparing them to make connections between units instead of seeing each unit as isolated. I drop these points into the PowerPoint.

4. I come up with 3-4 small group or whole group activities that directly address the learning objectives.  These activities run the gamut from watching and responding to a TED talk (one of my favorites here), to planning a lesson, to responding to discussion questions in a modified jigsaw format, and more.  I put all of these activities into the PowerPoint, and I may use all or only a couple of them during the actual class session, depending on how the session goes.

5. I think through what information students will need to be readily available during these activities.  I then, generally, put that information into easily accessible slides or documents that they can refer to during the activities.  For example, in my unit on Social Cognitive Theory, I make sure to include a slide with the triadic reciprocity model.  Prior to the activity, I briefly explain the slide and encourage students to use it as a reference during their small group work.

6. I think through what students will need to be aware of in terms of assignments for the next unit or even the next few units, and I put some reminders for them into the PowerPoint. I try to always comment on how this week’s content relates to what is ahead, to further reinforce that connection between the units.

During the class session, I follow a few rules based on both my own research and 5 years of teaching in this online setting.

  • Wait as long as necessary for students to respond to questions, and provide clarification if needed.
  • Anything I plan on saying that I feel is important should be written somewhere in the classroom – either in the PowerPoint, the chat pod, or the notes pod.
  • Directions for small group work should be explicit and written, so that groups don’t veer off task.
  • Spend small group time jumping from group to group to observe and facilitate.  Take notes during this time on what is working and what isn’t.
  • BUT, don’t intervene unless it’s absolutely necessary.  Let them struggle, and only step in if they haven’t realized something isn’t working, or if they ask for help.
  • EXCEPT to provide positive reinforcement when students are doing something really well.
  • When students are in small groups, communicate via chat pod first.  When the professor starts talking, the students stop, so the professor jumping into a room, camera and sound on, can easily derail a group.
  • In the whole group, a student’s response ALWAYS comes before my response to a video, task, question, etc.
  • Do what you need to do to meet the learning objectives.  If that means spending 40 minutes on an activity that was supposed to take 20, then do that.  If that means adding or scrapping an activity, do that.  If that means making a whole group activity into a small group activity, or vice versa, do that.
  • As the professor, my role is to guide the students in reaching their own understanding of the content, not to tell them what my understanding of the content is.  As long as they leave the classroom with a conceptually accurate understanding of the content, then the class session has been successful.

This whole approach can make some students (and some professors) uncomfortable.  Most of us have been indoctrinated into the idea that the professor is a font of knowledge from which we should fill our cups.  My perspective, instead, is that professors merely show us how to turn on the faucet, and make sure our cup gets filled.  I’m certainly not a perfect professor, and I have a running list of things that I am trying to improve upon in my teaching. However, I strongly believe, based on both my own experience and on the body of sociocultural, constructivist, and social cognitive research that supports collaborative and student-centered learning, that this is the approach most likely to result in deep, meaningful learning experiences for my students.  In a setting like the one in the MAT@USC, this collaborative, student-centered approach is even more valuable.  It isn’t at all out of the ordinary in our program to have a small group made up of a twenty-something teaching English in South Korea, a mid-fifties retired former LAPD sergeant beginning a second career in the suburbs, a mid-thirties teacher’s aide in the United Arab Emirates, and a mid-forties veteran classroom teacher in an American high needs school.  All bring unique and valuable perspectives to what is happening in the classroom, and if the class session focused around my experiences and education, those critically valuable voices would be lost.  Taking a student-centered approach makes every single class session unique, and catered to the needs of the students in that session.

Fellow professors of education, what approach do you take to teaching your preservice teachers?  Preservice teachers, what approaches to teaching and learning do you find to be the most effective?


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Thank You to My Students


As professors, how often do we thank our students?  No, really.  I tend to thank them at the end of the term (and I genuinely mean it), but I don’t tend to thank them when they’re actually in the trenches.  So, to my students who are currently halfway through a term:

Thank you for waking up at 5am to take a class before you head to work, or for taking a class in the evening when you’ve already had a full day.

Thank you for asking questions that make me think, even though I’ve been teaching these same courses for 5 years.

Thank you for challenging what you’re being taught.

Thank you for giving me feedback so I can shift my lesson plans and improve courses.

Thank you for sharing your experiences in class.

Thank you for sending your papers to me early for feedback.

Thank you for doing the readings! (Double thank you for this one!)

Thank you for trusting that you will still learn the content even if I don’t lecture to you for 2 hours.

Thank you for taking ownership of your own learning process.

Thank you for staying in communication with me, so I can help you be successful.

Thank you for taking risks.

Thank you for being creative.

Thank you for sharing the important events in your life.

Thank you for wanting to make change, and not just accept the status quo.

Thank you for entering (or continuing in) the teaching profession, in a time when it is fraught with such controversy; you are sorely needed.

Thank you for devoting time to your own education.

Thank you for being a model of lifelong learning for your children.

Thank you for saying “I don’t understand,” even when you feel embarrassed.

Thank you for treating this pursuit as worthy of your time and effort.

Thank you for trying to master the concepts, not just complete the tasks.

Thank you for understanding that I am balancing a family and a personal life with my work, just like you.

Thank you for taking part in something revolutionary in the field of education.

Thank you for consistently pushing me to be better.


5 Things I Wish People Knew About Online Learning


I’ve been teaching in a fully online setting through the MAT@USC for just about 5 years now.  It’s been an amazing experience, but I still encounter the same pervasive incorrect ideas over and over from people who haven’t experienced what online learning in the 21st century looks like (or should look like).  I’ve often wished that I could include on my business cards as a tagline “Online learning really isn’t what you think it is.”  So, here is my list of things I wish people knew about online learning:

1. Online learning is so much more than discussion boards and recorded lectures.  The standard assumption seems to be that all I do is grade papers and discussion boards, or that I never interact with my students.  This couldn’t be further from the truth.  The courses I teach are a blend of asynchronous and synchronous instruction.  That means I interact with my students over a webcam during regularly scheduled class times.  We see everyone at the same time, Brady Bunch style, and we have polling pods, multimedia, chat pods, and breakout rooms.  The online classes I teach are dynamic and interactive.  When students aren’t in class, sometimes they do watch videos or engage in discussion boards.  These aren’t your mother’s videos and discussion boards, though.  These videos have embedded interactive questions, and the discussion boards allow for sharing of multimedia content.

2. Online learning is equally, if not more, rigorous and effective than face to face learning. When you have the old model of online learning in your head, it’s easy to imagine online learning as being ineffective.  However, when you look at new models of online learning both in K-12 and in postsecondary settings, the preliminary research is showing that students are learning MORE in online settings than they do in face to face settings.

3. You can form strong connections with students in online settings. When I teach online, my classroom extends into the homes and offices of all of my students.  I see their children listening quietly on their lap.  We talk about the posters on their walls.  They show me the flowers their partner sent them for their anniversary.  They upload photos of friends and family.  They share links to favorite songs, movies, and books.  They do all of this in addition to the academic work that happens in the classroom.  There is no question that in my online classes, we are a community, not just a collection of strangers in the same virtual space.

4. It isn’t more work than teaching face to face, but preparation is key.  There was a time when teaching online meant grading reams of papers and discussion boards.  That time has passed; if it hasn’t passed for you, then ask your department WHY!  If you’re doing your job right when teaching face to face, then you are putting ample time into designing your lessons, providing feedback to students, etc.  The same things happen online, but teaching online is often teaching without a safety net.  You have to have your materials created and uploaded in advance.  You can’t expect to just throw a diagram up on the board with a dry erase marker; you need a high quality .jpeg to upload ahead of time.  This can take a lot of work in the beginning, when a course is first starting out.  However, once your course is created, your course can be cloned, and you can save your materials for future terms.  If you’re doing it right, it’s not more work.

5. All online learning is not equal. I’ve been teaching with this synchronous/asynchronous technology for the last 5 years, and during that time I’ve seen schools create and promote online programs that are using technology that was outdated 5 years ago.  Or (and this one really kills me), a program will pay for software and then only use a fraction of what it is capable of doing.  Don’t pay for Adobe Connect, and then only use it to broadcast lectures one way!  What works on the ground doesn’t necessarily work online, and instructors need to take advantage of the tools the software offers.  Use the chat pod! Share multimedia! Don’t stick to trying to recreate online what you have on the ground.  What you create online should be different from, but equal to or better than what you’re doing on the ground.  Additionally, there ARE online schools out there that are just diploma mills.  Do your research when choosing where to teach or learn.

So what have your experiences with online learning been like?  Do the programs you teach in or learn in follow a 21st century model of online learning, or are you stuck with flat technologies?

The most wired colleges in the US. WiFi? WiFi Not? Rankings | Unigo

WiFi? WiFi Not? Rankings | Unigo.


Wifi is a wonderful thing to have, as are the myriad other tech resources that the listed schools have.  However, access to resources is not the same as having faculty and administration in all departments on board with the technological revolution.  Tech is changing the very nature in which we communicate and the ways we gain and share knowledge.  Surely every school has a stake in seeing their faculty and students become technologically literate and not just exposed to technology.

via The most wired colleges in the US. WiFi? WiFi Not? Rankings | Unigo.


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