Thursday, February 26, 2015

Catching the technology wave

Today I have the pleasure of inviting Mary-Lynn Chambers, Assistant Professor of English at Elizabeth City State University, North Carolina, to PhD Talk. Dr. Mary-Lynn Chambers has her Ph.D. in Technical and Professional Communication from East Carolina University. She has taught English in Virginia and North Carolina at community colleges and universities. Her instructional focus is composition and literature, with a research focus in online education at HBCU schools. She enjoys interacting with her students and inspiring them to write better, think more critically, and love literature. This professor views the classroom as an opportunity to make a difference.

Have you ever been to the beach and joined the vacationers who are enjoying the entertainment that the ocean has to offer? If you have, then you will know there are times when you are hit with a wave that pulls you under and leaves you breathless and confused. During those moments, you wonder why you opted to enter the water in the first place. Then there are those times when you see the wave coming and you work with the wave to ride it into shore where you celebrate your success. At the beach, the difference between frustration and success is your ability to be able to catch the wave.
 A successful beach vacation can create a temporary euphoria, but when the vacation is over and we return to work, the stresses of teaching often eclipse our earlier fun when we faced the daunting waves and won! Well, it is time that we learn how to make our instructional endeavors less stressful and more like a vacation by learning how to ride the technology wave rather than fighting against the wave. A different vision and a few strategic steps will help you leave behind the frustration and floundering and join the instructors who are celebrating their technology success.

Technology is here to stay, so let’s reduce the stress that technology creates and figure out how to incorporate some of it into our face-to-face and online classrooms. Our students are seeking the inclusion of technology during instruction (Jones & Johnson-Yale, 2005), so let’s increase our influence by learning how to effectively incorporate technology into our teaching (Ahlfeldt, Mehta & Sellnow, 2005). There are a few technological tools that are easily navigated, yet their inclusion in a learning environment will have a significant impact on the learning process.


If you have access to an iPhone or iPad, then record an instructional component with one of these devices. You can video an important part of a lesson as you are teaching it in the classroom. Also, you can record an event or activity outside the classroom. When you have the opportunity, go back to the recording and click on it. Then click on the box that indicates you want to upload it. One of the options available will be YouTube. Select YouTube and follow the easy steps . With a little patience, the video will be posted to YouTube. At that point, you have the option of editing it and making it private or public. Also, there are other instructional YouTube videos available, and a well-chosen video for your class can be a welcome addition.

PowerPoint with Voice-Over

The PowerPoint is a common technology used in the classroom, but in order to make it more multi-modal in an online environment, let’s add the voice-over component. Once you have completed the PowerPoint, go to slideshow and click on record, then start recording. You can advance from slide to slide with the space bar. Once you are done talking through the slides, press the escape key. If you are happy with the recording, then make sure you save it. This tool can be added to an online class site where the students have the information on the slides as well as your voice explaining the information or process.


Most students enjoy playing a game, so why not incorporate an online game into their learning process. This game can be used in a face-to-face classroom or posted online. The Educational Technology Network website provides instructions regarding the use of the Jeopardy game through a PowerPoint. This tool can be used as a review for a test or to heighten their awareness regarding what they know and don’t know concerning a certain topic.

These three suggestions are a few simple solutions to help manage the technology challenge that can be overwhelming at times. If you still feel anxious about the incorporation of these suggestions, then type in your question to YouTube and watch an instructional video concerning how to do the activity you are trying to do. It is time to join the fun by riding the technology wave. Start simply by trying just one of these activities. If you like it, then use it in a few different ways before you venture to try another one. Continued pedagogical development with the incorporation of technology should be a practice shared by all instructors (Tharp, 2006). Pretty soon, you too will be stress free as you incorporate a technology into your instructional time.


Ahlfeldt, S., Mehta, S., & Sellnow, T. (2005). Measurement and analysis of student engagement in university classes where varying levels of PBL methods of instruction are in use. Higher Education Research & Development, 24(1), 5-20.
Howell, D. (2001). Elements of effective e-learning: Three design methods to minimize side effects of online courses. College Teaching, 49(3), 87-90
Jones, S. & Johnson-Yale, C. (2005). Professors online: The internet’s impact on college faculty. First Monday Peer-Reviewed Journal on the Internet, 10(9). Retrieved from
Tharp, R.G. (2006). Four hundred years of evidence: Culture, pedagogy, and Native America. Journal of American Indian Education, 45(2), 6-26.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Q & A: What should you already know when you start a PhD

Time to answer some more of your questions, folks!

Here's a recent submission from a reader (I obviously took out the personal details of the writer, and replaced these by Someone, Somewhere, My Field, and in Countries X and Y).

Dear Eva

This is Someone I am a new PhD student at Somewhere.

Actually I have experience in My Field because I was in Country X for 2 years before my PhD fellowship in Country Y but I am afraid of new techniques I will find in the new lab in Country Y I do not know much more about it before so do you think I am right with my fears or not ???

Should I know everything at my new lab. what they are expecting from me.




As always, let me break this question down into a few different elements.

I have experience in My Field

That's already great - not all new PhD students have had the chance to learn in different countries and build up some experience. Some might come into their program with a few years of work or lab experience. Others might be completely new to the lab work they will be doing (I, for one, was completely new to lab work when I started my PhD).

I am afraid of new techniques I will find in the new lab in Country Y

A PhD is a learning process, and learning new skills is part of that. Besides the new lab skills that you will learn, there is so much more that you will learn along the way in your program - academic writing is a big one for most of us, for example.

Do you think I am right with my fears or not

You are right to have your doubts, fears and more about starting a PhD - because it's a big project and it will take you some years to finish. However, the reasons why you are doubting and fearing shouldn't really be causes for fear.

Should I know everything at my new lab

They know that a new PhD student is an apprentice. The older PhD students might take you under their wing and teach you how to use the equipment in the lab, or the lab technicians might help you with that. As long as you keep an open mind and attitude, they will all be happy to help you out. Just don't take on an arrogant attitude, saying you know things and all that - just patiently listen and learn how things in the new lab work. And of course, bringing coffee and cookies to the other folks in the lab at some point is always a good way to win some sympathy, make friends, find a time to discuss and have a great break together.

What they are expecting from me?

That's a question I can't really answer - it depends on your project, your lab and your professor. If you have any doubts, if it isn't clear to you on which actions you should be devoting more time, then please speak up and ask them.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

23 Things Top Students Do - or Maybe Don't Do

I recently came across an article from Lifehack about studying efficiently. While I'm a big fan of productivity hacks, I don't think there is a one-size-fits-all approach to studying. Some people need to mumble out loud when they study. Others sketch, mindmap and doodle to see connections. Our brains are extremely complex mechanisms, and how we optimally learn is embedded deep within.

In the Storify below, you can find a few precise points of criticism I had on the Lifehack article:

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

PhD Talk Q & A: Research depression

Mostly unrelated - but, hey, here's a tucan :)
Dear readers,

I know I'm totally behind on replying questions in the Q&A series, but finally I'm back with a question I personally replied to a reader quite some time ago already.

Some time ago, I received the following message in my inbox:

I have read some of your blogs and they are really really good. They have helped me a lot in getting motivated for my research in masters. Actually i am doing my thesis in masters and now a days i am feeling very very down due to loneliness (i live in a hostel) and pressure of work. When some one gives me a motivational speech or i read some motivational stuff ( like i read yours) i am greatly motivated and promise myself to work hard on my thesis but after some time, the effect wears off and again I am back in that no motivation mood. Mostly I am locked up in my cubicle and doing nothing, and it wastes lots of my time. Most of the time I am depressed and I feel like I wont b able to complete my thesis. I am scared to do research. I only feel better when i go out of the room and meet people or socialize. But I can't do it all the time because it also wastes lots of time. I am suffering from very very low motivation and want to complete my thesis on time and submit it but I don't know i can't bring in the motivation to even open a research article and study. Sometimes i feel like i should seriously consult a psychiatrist. Sometimes negative thoughts like suicide also cross my mind. Mostly I can't even bring myself to get up and brush my teeth. I plan to go to library but even can't push myself to do that. I get up early in the morning to get ready and go to library but then i keep it pending and pending.I have wasted months i this process. Please help me. Please I seriously need help.

The first thing that came to my mind after reading this message, was that this student needs help. I'm not a professional mental health care taker, but we all know when somebody needs help, and this message spoke right to my heart. Even though it's hard to judge at a distance and I can only give a little bit of encouragement and a nudge to get help when you need it, there's always the tiny little support we can give. So I replied as follows:

Thanks for sending me your message through my blog.
Reading your message, I would like to suggest you to talk to a counselor of your university. All of us go through difficult times during our PhD, but for some people those difficulties at times appear to be impossible to overcome. From what you wrote me, I had the impression you’ve hit a really rough patch. Most universities have psychologists working for them, especially to help people in your case.

There’s no shame in asking for help when you need it. You’ll do much more damage to yourself and your studies if you try to keep up appearances, but crash in a few months from now.
I’ll write a longer post dealing with your cry for help, but in the meantime I already wanted to reach out to you and encourage you to seek support in your institution.

So remember, there's absolutely no shame in asking for help when you need it - even though in academia it might be considered as a failure. It's not - you'll only do more damage to yourself and your work if you stay in the same place where you are - a dark place where you'd rather not be hanging out for too long.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Student concrete competition of Ecuador

Last Friday, students from the Civil Engineering department of Universidad San Francisco de Quito, competed in national concrete student competition of Ecuador. My two concrete colleagues and I were involved as tutors of the two groups of students, and I'm very proud to announce that one team won the first place in the category of highest capacity to lowest cost for a beam reinforced with FRP bars. This achievement is even more impressive given that we only officially opened our tiny concrete lab in November, and we're missing way more equipment than we have...

The next step is to prepare for the international competition in Kansas City in the second week of April. Cross your fingers and send us some buckets of elbow grease, please!

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Predicting the capacity of the Ruytenschildt Bridge

Last December, a study day was organized on the topic of the proofloading of the Ruytenschildt bridge in Friesland, in which I participated. As my interest is the ultimate limit state capacity of reinforced concrete slab bridges, I was involved in predicting the maximum load necessary to cause the collapse of the bridge. The analysis of the results of the testing is still work in progress, but the prediction calculations were something that could be shown to the audience in December. Unfortunately, I was in Ecuador at the time, so my supervisor presented the work. You can find the slides of the presentation below.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

PhD Talk for AcademicTransfer: 10 Ways for more Efficient Teaching

This post is part of the series PhD Talk for AcademicTransfer: posts written for the Dutch academic career network AcademicTransfer, your go-to resource for all research positions in the Netherlands.

These posts are sponsored by AcademicTransfer, and tailored to those of you interested in pursuing a research position in the Netherlands.

If these posts raise your interest in working as a researcher in the Netherlands, even better - and feel free to fire away any questions you might have on this topic!

For the last year (and then some), I've been having a teaching load of 3 courses in the Fall semester, 3 courses in the Spring semester and no courses during the summer (when I go back to The Netherlands for research).

Preparing, teaching and managing 3 courses is a challenge if you still want to keep any time available for research, writing papers, catching up with the literature, service commitments and more. Preparing, teaching and managing 3 new courses, while keeping all of the above tasks up and running is brutal - and that was exactly the story of my first semester. By now, I have settled into a routine, and even though I'm still improving my courses in many different ways, I feel I got the hang of all the tasks related to teaching. Since my first semester was a swim-or-sink kinda experience, I had a very steep learning curve. Today I'd like to share some of the things that I learned.

1. Plan your lectures

Have an overview in the syllabus of what you'd like to teach in every course hour that you've been allotted. Try to avoid vague descriptions of "I will cover topics X, Y and Z", without really knowing how deep you want to dive into each topic. Having a schedule for the entire semester will help you prepare your classes - you'll know how to limit the amount of material you prepare based on the maximum amount of time you can spend on a given topic in class. On the other hand, your schedule can also work as a booster for your preparations - just like a good planning for a paper can give an impetus to the productivity of your writing.

2. Plan class preparation time

It might sound very obvious - but if you teach a lecture, you also need time to prepare for this lecture. The rule of thumb seems to be that you need about 2 to 4 hours to prepare each hour of lecture. For new topics, you probably need very close to 4 hours, just for class preparation alone, not taking into account the time it takes to develop homeworks, exams and to grade. Since your classes probably run on a fixed schedule on a weekly basis, it can be very helpful to schedule your class preparation time with a weekly template.

3. Plan time for grading

Preparing class might take quite some time, but whenever you get homeworks back, or exams, you will need at least some time for grading these. If you plan your week or month ahead, you can schedule time after the due date of a homework or after an exam to grade this material. I try to grade exams (and often homeworks too) within 24 hours after I receive the material - I consider it good practice to provide prompt feedback to the students.

4. Sort out the technical part before the semester

If you are going to play around with presentations on your laptop or tablet, it can be helpful to check the classroom in which you will be teaching in advance to see if everything is working fine. If you are going to use computer labs, make sure the computers have all the licences you need for teaching. If you are teaching a laboratory class, try to make sure you have all materials before the start of the semester.

This advice, however, is not something I have been able to live by. I've been changing classrooms a number of times - often needing to figure out how to hook up my tablet to the projector in every different classroom. Last semester, I started teaching a laboratory class, while the laboratory itself wasn't even in use and the equipment was being shipped from Italy. You can save yourself some stress by trying to get everything sorted out in due time.

5. Find your best teaching schedule

If your university allows you to give a suggestion for your class hours, it can be convenient to take your personal circadian rhythm into account. My most productive hours are in the early morning, a time of the day I set aside for working out and writing my papers. After lunch, I typically get a little sleepy, and teaching at that time (and being standing up and talking) is a perfect way to mitigate my post-food-coma. I would get way less work done if I'd spend that time behind my computer trying to solve some deep work problems.

6. Protect your data

As sad of a truth as it is, some students will go far in order to try to know the exam questions or even try to change their grade behind your back. Keep a watchful eye on your accounts and your data. (And yes, I hate pulling up this little curtain of suspicion, but I learned the hard way that not everybody is fully honest in those terms).

7. Ask for a TA

If you can get a teaching assistant to do your grading and supervise exams, go for it. It always takes some effort to delegate work to somebody else, but in the long run, having a TA can be a godsend. Once you know he/she is trustworthy, you can let go of your control, and just trust him/her with the work that otherwise might be taking up your precious research time (or, sometimes, unfortunately, the time you spend sitting in meetings).

8. Do you really need to grade every homework?

Ask yourself if you really need to grade every single homework. I've known professors who simply put a "1" if you submit a homework, and a "0" if you fail to submit. Other professors used to give us back the solutions of the homework, and tell us to grade it ourselves (I might have been even more strict on myself than the professor would have been). I'm currently trying out a combination between short homeworks that have as a goal that the students sit down with their coursebook and work through something, which are graded simply based on submission ("1" or "0"), and longer homeworks that I need to fully revise, to see how their understanding of the concepts is.

9. Highlight possible exam questions in the coursebook

One way to gather exam questions while preparing lectures, is to highlight possible exam questions in the coursebook while reading it. Once you are at the point of preparing an exam, you can simply go through these highlights and notes about possible questions, and pick a number of questions from the book in this way.

10. Print all your material at the beginning of the semester

I try to print and copy all material (homework assignments, syllabi, notes, homework solutions, additional material) at the very beginning of the semester, and then distribute this material as the semester progresses. Especially if your university complicates the process of actual printing and copying of materials, by, for example, sending you to a copy center, it can save you quite some time if you do everything at once at the start of the semester.

Pro-tip: Don't be a perfectionist!

I still see a lot of room for improvement in my courses. I started teaching without having nice PowerPoint presentations. Slowly but surely I'm now turning my class preparation notes into presentations for some courses. I sometimes wish I could write my own coursebook, or at least a bundle with examples that the students can use as material to prepare for their exams. The reality is that I only have a given number of hours in a day, and I will make these improvements and changes over the next few years. If you want everything perfectly prepared, you'll be spending way too much time to prepare a single lecture hour, and you'll be sick with exhaustion by the end of the semester.