Teaching Tuesday: teaching tools ecologists find effective


As an antidote to last weeks challenges to teaching ecology, here I’ve collected all the responses to the question: What teaching tools do you find most effective in ecology courses? As before, text in italics is quoted from responses.

It was somewhat heartening to me that the most common effective teaching tool used by ecologists is the outdoors. Field trips were mentioned 55 times as the best way to teach ecology and they are also frequently used in courses.

field trips 2field trips

Now I know that all ecology isn’t field-based but getting outside seems to be a good way to inspire students and getting them thinking about the world around them in a different way. On this general theme, laboratory exercises and hands-on-activities were also frequently mentioned. There were also a couple mentions of using videos as an effective teaching tool and if you are thinking about incorporating videos into your classroom you should stop right now and head over to Dynamic Ecology. There you will find an amazing list complied by Meg Duffy of all sorts of ecology/evolution videos handily categorized by subject. Videos can be also be a way of “getting outside” in courses where this is tough to do by giving real world examples of ecological phenomena.

 A second theme to emerge was “active learning” techniques. Active learning basically refers to any technique that involves a more student-centered approach than straight lectures. In part, the involvement of labs and field exercises for ecology courses and the importance that most place on these activities already adds active learning to an ecology course. However, there was this little gem of a comment to remind us that our job as teachers is to create an integrated course with a purpose to the various activities: Making sure lecture and lab are well integrated. But it also seems that ecologists are finding it useful to break-up or replace lectures with active learning activities like clicker questions, think-pair-share, and the like.

Clickers—some love them, some do not and it seems that most ecologists do not use them. Meg Duffy also has a pair of posts on why she uses clickers in her courses (Part 1 and Part 2) with some links to pedagogy behind them (found in part 1). As you can see below, Meg is quite the maverick in the field (only 12% use clickers sometimes to always) but there is a growing acknowledgment that these kinds of teaching tools can be highly effective for teaching (e.g. this article in Science is behind a paywall but you can listen to the podcast for free). And here’s a glowing account of clickers in science classrooms. Another suggested TopHat, which is a platform where you can use cellphones, computers or tablets instead of buying a particular clicker system. But, of course, it is important to remember that it is all about the questions you ask using clickers and that to be effective these need to be thoughtful. Unfortunately, we are at the stage where most of us aren’t using clickers, so there is not a resource of questions that you can modify for your course.


I also want to share this anecdote of one person’s experiment with how to change up a lecture. It highlights some of the pluses of engaging students during lecture time—it can be more fun, tell you about where the student’s understanding is at and demonstrate to the students what they do and do not know. As the author suggests, there are probably many ways that this kind of engagement can be involved but the game show style seemed like a fun idea. I find that it’s easy for students to sit in lecture and think they understand a concept without knowing that they don’t really get it. This year I started having 3 students at a time come up to the board and I’d ask them a question (e.g. draw a graph of productivity and how it would be influenced by different levels of disturbance). They could get help from their “fans” behind them (1 student from the left, 1 center and 1 right were chosen so their audience behind them was their fan base) so there wasn’t so much pressure on the selected students up front. It was actually a great way for me to find out what they knew. For instance, the first time I did it I learned that nobody in the class knew how to draw standard error bars… If I had just drawn it, I think they’d all just nod and think “oh yeah, I knew that” but when they were pressured to stand up and do it themselves, even with help from the fans, nobody could do it. It showed me that I had a different expectation of what they knew than what they did know (I just assumed everyone in their Junior year of college would know how to draw standard errors). Later in the class I asked them a density dependent question and they all got it in under 10 seconds – I was so surprised! I thought that one would stump them. I think the same thing can be done with clickers, I just haven’t taken the time to figure out how to get clickers to work in my class (and frankly the game-show environment of the 3 contestants up front is sort of a fun way to break up the monotony of a lecture.

In direct contrast, there was the following comment: I have tried lots of alternative techniques but students like straight lecture the best. I think there is a real issue here; whatever the teaching tool or technique you use, you need to make it work for you. We are all different in our teaching styles and there is no one solution fits all. And not to pick on this one commenter, there are a number of potential reasons for this problem. It might be that the teacher likes to lecture best and therefore puts more effort into that activity, stacking the cards for lecturing. Or it might be that they never got training on how to make the alternative techniques they’ve tried effective. Whatever the reason, this comment also made me ponder whether we should care what students like best. Of course it is nice (and sometimes very important) to get back good student evaluations of your teaching and course. However, if we are in the business of teaching and care about it, than we should be more concerned with whether students learn than how much they liked how they were taught.

Discussions can be a useful way to get students thinking about the material and gaging how well it is understood. Think-pair-share is a basic technique where students first think about a question, then discuss with their partner/neighbour and then the results of these discussions are shared with the class. I suspect even the person who commented that they didn’t know what this was, has some idea of it in practice. But even general class discussions were frequently mentioned as useful to teaching ecology.

Flipped classes are an approach where students learn content at home (via video lectures, reading, etc) and do “homework” in the classroom. Class time is then used to interact with the instructor and fellow students, rather than passively listen to lectures. One person answered by saying that they wanted to do this more and it is what I imagine you’d see in Terry’s classes. I plan to do some more of this next spring for my Ecological Methods course. I have been slowly shifting from the lectures that were given in the past in this course to more active techniques, in part because lectures on things like quadrat size and shape tend to be dry for both the students and me.

Ecology is a science, and many suggested that the best way for students to learn is by doing. Everything from reading primary literature to designing experiments to writing proposals to conducting studies/experiments to analyzing data to presenting findings, basically teachable versions of what ‘real’ ecologists do was suggested as a useful way to teach ecology. I hope that every student walks away from their ecology courses at least knowing how scientists study ecology.

Finally, a number of people suggested particular tools or sites that they find useful.

TIEE, Teaching Issues and Experiments in Ecology, was brought up twice as an effective teaching tool and I can personally second the use. Last year, I revamped the diversity section of the course I am involved with teaching (Ecological Methods). Instead of using a made-up dataset that had been used in previous years, I tried the lab on diversity in tall grass prairie. Students really appreciated being able to relate the diversity estimates to real data and I think it was a useful way to approach the subject before they collected their own data.

Simulations of ecological processes are an alternative to running labs and field exercises. SimUText got this this endorsement “Love it!” and the associated EcoBeaker was also recommended. Judging from the answers to the question: “What tools would you like to be more available for use in teaching ecology?” cheap affective computer simulations are one of the top requests. Clearly there is a desire to use these tools, especially as resources for courses diminish and lab/field components seem to be under increasing pressure.

Although directed at high school students, one person suggested this site for good activities for non-majors. When I was a TA for a biology major required evolution course, we also used the activity for demonstrating natural selection. So in some contexts these might also work for entry-level majors courses.

And then there was this: chalk (seriously). There is definitely something to be said for writing things out for students to follow your process.

This is a class I would like to attend: I prepare 2-5 slides/lecture about news stories or papers I’ve read since the last lecture that are relevant to the course, to make the point with the students that what they’re learning has relevance to the rest of their lives, and that my goal is to make them educated voters, citizens, taxpayers. A high goal but one I certainly hope that we can achieve through our teaching.

Next week: How do ecologists teach and are there barriers to change?

Teaching Tuesday: What do ecologists find difficult to teach?


by Amy Parachnowitsch

Today I begin in earnest a series stemming from results of a teaching survey I sent to higher education people teaching ecology (introduction here). In describing the results, I decided that the best place to start was in the middle. In later posts I will include more information on the analyzable data that came from the survey and, although it is definitely interesting, some of the most revealing information was found in the free-form answers. So to kick off the series, I summarize what people find most challenging to teach and in following weeks we’ll explore some of the tools and techniques people use to overcome these challenges.

The exact question that the following responses answered: What ecological concepts do you find are commonly misunderstood or difficult to teach? Here I am pulling together all of the verbal responses to the question (was a voluntary question answered by 138/220); anything in italics is quoted from individual response.

I’m sure it is no surprise that mathematical concepts ranked high on people’s minds as a difficult/misunderstood component of teaching ecology. Statistics and modeling (with many mentions Lotka-Volterra) figured prominently in the answers. Roughly 45 responses involved mathematical/statistical concepts suggesting the prevalence of the issue. As a particular component of statistics one person mention the philosophy of null hypotheses and the general concepts of variability, uncertainly and probability can be problematic. Probability is also a fundamentally misunderstood concept in terms of risk and risk assessment or genetic drift/evolution. And more basically, data interpretation is a stumbling block for many.

The following quotes nicely summarize the general feeling that many have about the resistance to math:

  • Anything involving mathematics, which many biology students consider an unfair imposition. Students who like science but not math seem to believe that by choosing a biology program they have entered into some unspoken pact whereby they will not have to look at equations again. With this Theoretical ecology comes up against a brick wall (and an enduring one – how many theoretical ecologists do you know that actually came through a biology stream?).
  • My students struggle with anything that involves even algebra. They come from high school thinking ecology is all about memorizing biomes and are not ready for the quantitative aspects of ecology.
  • anything involving math and modeling; students want to solve equations rather than understand them
  • And about pre-med students: they think that Ecology is a class where you think about your feelings about trees and flowers

But it isn’t only about the math itself. As three further responses suggest, we also have a hard time getting students to translate the statistical/mathematical concepts to anything ecological. One specifically referred to understanding statistical interactions in ecological terms, another talked about the difficulty of getting students to relate graphical interpretations to the underlying ecology and another mentioned the difficulty of relating models to ecology. These problems can than translate into students (in this case, senior undergraduates) that still struggle when discussing primary literature and relating it to common ecological concepts.

So we as teachers are up against the perception that ecology is easy and about facts that can be easily memorized. That means that students are not only challenged by the mathematical concepts presented to them but can be resistant to learning them as well. As an undergraduate I think I came into my first ecology classes with a similar perception, although honestly it is tough to reconstruct how I thought then. But I do distinctly I remember my first mid-term exam in Animal Ecology with Larry Dill at Simon Fraser University (BC, Canada). It was a transformative moment for me—all of a sudden I was asked to think and understand, rather than memorize. It was incredible and tough. I can’t remember how I did on that exam but I remember a stern talking to the class by Larry afterwards. Looking back now, I’m pretty sure this was a practised speech that he gave almost every time he taught. This course (followed by those taught by some other great people at SFU) was the beginning of me understanding what ecology was really about. For me, I never looked back, but our challenge as teachers is to get all our students to understand what ecology (and science in general) is, whether or not this turns into a life-long pursuit.

From a more topic centered approach, biodiversity, along with its alpha, beta and gamma types, was frequently mentioned. Competition and species/trophic interactions, population dynamics/growth, life tables, and the niche where also mentioned more than once. Nutrient cycling is a difficult subject, perhaps because it is drier than other aspects of ecology and requires memorization (as was mentioned by two commenters). So some students seem to want to only memorize facts rather than understand, but not when it comes to the nutrient cycle or taxonomy (another person’s comment). But at a basic level, students are misunderstanding basic concepts. For example, where organisms get their energy and the idea that ALL living things respire and produce CO2. So photosynthesis and respiration also showed up in the answers. Overcoming the concept that there is a balance in nature and therefore what ecosystems are and are not is also challenging. For myself, growing up in a hippy, back-to-the-land, part of Nova Scotia certainly coloured my perception of things like herbal medicine. Along the way, I had to face my own inconsistencies and now when I’m visiting old family friends, I have to decide when to get into those discussions about homeopathy or the like. But these kinds of attitudes are not unique and you don’t have to be surrounded by hippies to have them. Knowing whether these ideas are prevalent in your students can only increase your ability to reach them.

There was two topics that were consistently brought up that maybe difficult to understand/teach in and of themselves but can also be political issues: climate change (11) and evolution (19).

For those students who think that they can avoid evolution in ecology classes, the number of responses involving evolution suggests otherwise. Four responses were “natural selection” and fifteen involved evolution/genetic drift/adaptation/population genetics. Of course as an evolutionary ecologist, I’m excited to see that many are including evolutionary concepts in their ecology courses. However, it is a challenge that so many find this difficult both to understand (student’s perspective) and to teach. I am guessing that cultural context plays a role in the difficulty of teaching evolution as expressed in one response: evolution is difficult to teach without being seen as preachy or offensive. Interestingly, not all comments that suggest teaching evolution is challenging/misunderstood came from that large country with issues of teaching evolution in schools, highlighting that evolution can be a difficult subject in its own right. Further, the connections between ecology and evolution are often misunderstood such as the fact that species interactions evolve as well as the relationship and scale of ecological and evolutionary processes.

Teaching is an interaction in itself. Therefore the difficulties can come from either side of the equation. Many responses spoke of student-centered issues that impact learning.

  • I find the human-centric and animal-centric bias among our students to be a barrier to learning.
  • I feel that some simply have developed effective study skills and some have not.  As always, the latter seem to have trouble “knowing what they don’t know” – they feel as though they have mastered content when they really haven’t.
  • And on not doing homework: Many students do not read the assigned reading which also limits their learning. And from another: Difficult to teach: Discussion seminar when students haven’t read the literature.
  • Math is not the only thing student’s think they can avoid in Biology: scientific report writing (Students often take Biology as they do not want to write).

But others acknowledged their own role in the teaching equation:

  • the less well I personally know an ecological concept, the harder it is to teach.
  • I find diversity patterns especially hard to get across, partly because I have trouble myself linking them to biology.

Since every class is a unique combination of students and teacher this likely plays into why challenges vary from year to year.

As a counter to all the individual topics people have difficulty teaching: No individual concept is commonly misunderstood or difficult to teach in my opinion, but making connections across concepts is difficult for students and is challenging to teach. These two further comments speak to the complexity of teaching ecology: anything complex and all complex and therefore counter-intuitive issues, which, however, are quite common in ecology.

I want to note that not everyone had a particular difficulty and there were a few answers that said as much, as well as the many who chose not to answer. The wording of this self-assessment was amusing to me: misunderstood = evolution; difficult to teach = none. Sometimes it would be nice to have that kind of confidence but I certainly find some subjects more challenging to teach than others. And it seems that I am not alone.

So the moral of this story is that there is no magic bullet concept that once solved will make all ecology teaching smooth sailing. No surprise there. Although I wasn’t surprised by the diversity of answers to this question, seeing what they were has been very interesting. It seems many of us have a lot of challenges when teaching ecology, both from our students and ourselves. I hope these challenges don’t set a negative tone to the series and in future posts I will explore how ecology teachers overcome these hurdles.

Up next week: effective teaching tools in ecology.

Ps. After I have completed these posts, I will provide a link to the data for anyone interested in accessing it.

Teaching Tuesdays


by Amy Parachnowitsch

This isn’t a real post but rather a heads up for the coming weeks.

As a part of a course on scholarly teaching I took last winter, I began to think more deeply about teaching styles and techniques. I was finding a stark contrast between what I was discovering about effective teaching and learning and the experiences I had as a student or a part of the teaching team. So for my project in the course, I decided to ask ecologists about how they were teaching and why. I created a survey (link still active here if you want to add your voice: teaching survey) and sent it to as many ecologists as I could reach through various list serves, facebook and twitter. I summarized a portion of the results (from Swedes) for a teaching conference at my university in the spring but haven’t had the chance to share the dataset in its entirety with the ecology community and especially those that so kindly took the time to answer the survey. This blog seems to be the perfect venue to share the results. And so I begin a series called Teaching Tuesdays. Over the coming weeks I will share the insights into ecology teaching and practice I’ve gleaned from the survey. Hopefully I will succeed in summarizing the data into some digestible chunks.

Before I start the series, I want to acknowledge all the people who took the time out of their busy schedules to fill in the questionnaire. I truly appreciate the generosity of the ecological community. Without you this would not be possible!

Next week: What do ecologists find difficult to teach?

Please don’t hold out-of-class review sessions


Some professors are so dedicated to the success of their students that they are generous enough to hold review sessions before an exam, outside regular class hours.

This is a tremendously poor idea, for one big reason and one smaller reason.

The big reason is that it is inherently unfair to the students. Not every student is equally available to make it to an additional session outside class hours. Holding a session that not all students are available to attend confers an advantage to the students who are more available for the times designated for a review session. (This rationale is similar to the one fort why we shouldn’t offer extra credit.)

Students are aware that these review sessions are a moment of the big reveal about what is going to be on the exam, where professors give hints about what is important to study and what is less important. Even if this isn’t true, this is the widespread perception. I know that when I was a student, not attending one of these sessions was a huge disadvantage.

Therefore, students will go to all extremes to attend a outside-class review session. I know students who have skipped out on their work obligations to make such a session, and I also a student that once missed an important and difficult-to-schedule medical appointment for this kind of session.

A standard lecture course at my university has about 45 contact hours. If that’s not enough time to cover the curriculum and prepare students for exams, then the solution isn’t to add another hour of optional class. Instead, the curriculum, or how it’s taught, should be fixed so that everything that students need for exams can happen within the time scheduled for class.

Students who might feel that outside-class review sessions are unfair are likely to not complain. Such a complaint would arouse the ire of fellow students, would be particularly upset if the gift of a review session were revoked because of a spoilsport.

I ask: why is such a review session needed? It is because the students haven’t learned as much as they needed to prior to the exam? If that is the case, it is the result of deficiencies on the part of the instructor or of the students. If it’s the deficiency of the students, then those who didn’t invest as much as others don’t need an extra boost, just like they shouldn’t receive extra credit. If the failure of students to be adequately prepared for the exam is the fault of the instructor, then adding extra optional class time isn’t a professional way to fix pedagogical shortcomings.

The smaller reason to not hold out-of-class review sessions is that this practice increases the emphasis on high-stakes testing and further drives students to obsess about what is on the exam rather than learning the material comprehensively.

Let’s face it: students who attend these sessions and ask questions are, predominantly, focused on discovering what questions will be on the exam. They may very well be seeking knowledge and understanding about the course material, but their focus is to do well on the exam rather than to learn. Moreover, I believe that’s the focus of faculty who offer such sessions as well, to help students do well on the exam by providing even more preparation. That’s an admirable goal, but all students deserve equal and fairly distributed access to such opportunities.

So, what’s the harm with offering a review session that gets students to study more than they would otherwise? Here’s the harm: it gets them studying for an exam. If students are cramming for an exam, they’re not learning in the long term. Instead of spending time focusing our teaching on getting students to jump through the hoops of exams, we could design our classes for substantial and long-term engagement with the material. The more we freak students about exams and focus on them, the less they will engage in genuine, self-driven, inquiry.

Remembering what it’s like to be a college student


When working with others, it is good to respect differing perspectives and values, even if we don’t understand them. Professionals maintain this respect even when the behavior of others is overly selfish or inadequately respectful.

When I have read about how some of my colleagues at other universities regard their undergraduate students, I’m reminded of the saying, perhaps originally from W.J. King of UCLA:

A person who is nice to you but rude to the waiter, or to others, is not a nice person.

Likewise, a person who is nice to you, but not nice to undergraduates, is not a nice person.

It’s never an easy task to get inside someone else’s head. There is no universal change that happens as a 20-year-old evolves into a professor. But change definitely happens. I think back about my priorities when I was in college, and it’s hard to imagine the processes that resulted in the me-of-now evolving from the me-of-then.

The me-of-then is a not a model for my own students. Nonetheless, if I can imagine what I was like back then, it helps me keep a more open perspective when my students seem irrational to me. While I recognize that people can differ in their values and priorities, seeing the fact that my own perspective changed radically over time makes me sensitive to differences of opinion with other people.

Here are two literature-based examples. Before senior year of (private, male, Catholic) high school, we were assigned three fat books to read. One of these books was John Fowles’s The MagusI didn’t get into it, and gave up, and just didn’t do well on the exam on the first day of school. But then my friends told me what a cool book it was, so when I had the chance, before starting college, I read it. It blew me away, in a couple different dimensions. The protagonist (Nicholas Urfe) gets his mind messed with by a bizarre, kind-of-conspiracy, and so does the reader along for the ride. I felt sorry for Nicholas and felt like I related with him in some way.

Last year, I re-read the same book, more than 20 years later. It still was an amazing book, but wow, was I myopic the first time I read it! Nicholas is self-centered, small-minded and overestimates his own understanding of the world. While he didn’t necessarily create his problems, he was a partner in their making. On this re-read, l still felt sorry for the guy, not because of what he experienced but because of who he was. I was sorry for Nicholas because he was a pretentious womanizing oaf and didn’t know how to not be one.

Back then, I was oblivious. I don’t think the me-of-then would have appreciated hearing about being so fundamentally wrong about Nicholas’s character. (Maybe the me-of-the-future will think that the me-of-now is wrong.)

Here’s the second example: I was also required to read Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. This book has over a thousand pages of transparent characters and inane plot, designed as a vehicle for Ayn Rand’s infantile “philosophy.” (Why is it that a high school requires this book is whole other issue. As I learned at my high school reunion, my class did end up producing a gaggle of Paul Ryanesque economic predators.)

This is how messed up the me-of-then was: I didn’t think that Atlas Shrugged book was a massive piece of shit. Moreover, I read the whole thing! Any reasonable person would give up within a few hundred pages, because the book drones on about the same selfishness-is-good pablum over and over and over and that’s pretty much it. I haven’t re-read that book since then, but I remember how monotonous it was. With hindsight I see that a variety of young men of that age have a flirtation with Ayn Rand, so at least I wasn’t alone.

I don’t judge my students for any foolishness they might harbor with respect to Ayn Rand, though the topic is unlikely to emerge in the classes that I’m teaching. However, if one of my students manages to say something unwise in any other aspect, I can remember a time when I was fool, and be open to the prospect that I might be one at this moment.

If I liked Atlas Shrugged, and didn’t realize Nicholas Urfe was a pretentious prat, then I was a straight-up misanthropic fool. Or maybe I was just immature. Or maybe the two are the same.

Regardless, as a professional in the classroom, I need to give everyone the same respect that the me-of-then felt that he deserved. It is foolish to publicly complain about dealing with the occasionally foolish actions of our students, when being unwise on occasion is par for the course for anybody. If someone is going to learn a lesson from a poor decision, that lesson won’t be received any better when spiced with negativity and judgment. If a student does something slightly foolish, such as emailing their teaching assistant a simple question that could be answered by reading syllabus, that student still deserves respectful treatment of the instructors of the course.

It’s our job as college instructors to work with college students. They are adults. We need to expect them to act like adults and treat them as adults.

Keep in mind, though, that plenty of well-seasoned adults have ridiculous expectations, bizarre biases and are outrageously self-centered. If an undergraduate acts this way, it’s not because they’re an undergraduate, but because they are human beings.

If our students act toward us in a way that isn’t professional, then we need to respond with tolerance and establish an environment that minimizes the negative aspects of these interactions. It is nonproductive to assign blame to people who make poor choices.

In short, we need to treat the undergraduates in our courses with the same professionalism and respect that we show to our colleagues.

In case you’re wondering, this post is a rebuttal to something that I read last week.

Friday Recommended Reads #2


Quotes of the week from Joan Strassmann:

In my current biggest class there are 52 students… No one should email the professor or the teaching assistants more than three times in a semester. If you have already done that, there is a problem. Have some consideration. We have a lot to do.

I might suck it up and just deal with it if it only impacted me, but I get cranky when my wonderful teaching assistants agonize over their overflowing in boxes. They need every second of their time to learn how to teach, how to mentor, and how to do research.

If you haven’t seen it yet, an XKCD from last week was breathlessly gorgeous and poignant.

A non-link I’m providing are the academic job wikis. I don’t know if these are common knowledge. Because search committees are so slow to let candidates to know the outcome of searches (sometimes for reasonable reasons), applicants have taken the matter into their own hands by creating wikis in which people can list the status of searches on a big master template. This is actually a good place to find out about open jobs, and not so much for accurate information about the status of searches.

In the politics of publishing, Mick Watson just resigned from an academic editorial slot in PLoS One, because the journal took a few months to handle an appeal to a rejection one of his manuscripts.

More on the politics of publishing, Çağan H. Şekercioğlu published a little piece in Current Biology about the academic cost of the Rejection-Resubmission cycle. It reads like a blog post but it’s found in the pages of a for-profit Elsevier journal. It’s interesting how often posts about papers, like this one about another post about the Şekercioğlu piece, seem to garner more attention than the papers themselves.

Even more on the evolving publishing landscape: Some of the new, huge, journals are not discipline-specific, and the discipline-specific ones with good readership are now becoming far more selective than they used to be. So, papers on a specialized topic, designed for a specialized audience, might have trouble connecting to that specialized audience. This could be a problem, and this blog post at the Computational Evolution Group asks some good questions.

There’s an overt piece about “belief” versus “knowledge” in the context of science education over in the Sci-Ed blog (my favorite site about informal science education). Even more interesting and useful is the classy and substantial response by Holly Dunsworth who was interviewed for the Sci-Ed piece in which her words were used selectively in a way that misrepresented her.

There was a great comment from Steve on this week’s post on undergraduate mentorship in R1 vs. SLACs. He pointed out that SLACs may create more doctoral students because their students are a lot less likely to be aware about what the day-to-day life of a grad student is like. (This is also another important reason for undergrads to become friends with grad students.)

The last item is more than three years old, so might have seen it already. If you are particular about type, then you might not be a big fan of Comic Sans? You might want to see what Comic Sans has to say for himself. Beware, he has a potty mouth.

Advising undergraduates on applications for grad school


Now’s the time of year when prospective grad students need to get serious about applying to graduate programs.

Students are probably relying on their professors to guide them through the process. While professors are generally well informed, we have to be careful to not overestimate how well we can steer our students.

Please remember a few facts:

  • The grad school application process varies dramatically, even among subdisciplines.
  • Procedures vary greatly among different universities, and many are idiosyncratic.
  • Personal experiences with the grad school application process >5 years ago are outdated.

Undergraduates typically have misconceptions that are particularly difficult to dispel. After all, telling our students a set of facts doesn’t necessarily make them understand how important these facts are.

Undergrads are often very surprised to discover that the process is haphazard, and how their personality and professionalism affect the outcome. Even if you tell them about it in detail before they start.

What is the fix for this? Undergraduates should be getting direct advice from current graduate students who are just a little further down the same road. Ideally these students are alums from your lab or your institution, but if you need to stretch further to find grad students to advise your undergrads, it’s worth your while.

In addition to talking with grad students, it’s not hard to find quality contemporary advice to share with your students, like this post by Christine Boake. Be careful to provide information germane to a particular field, because sometimes it’s not obvious that what appears to be written as generalized advice may work really well only within certain disciplines. If you are in ecology, for example, here’s another great post about the grad school application procedure from Dynamic Ecology. If you know of others that you want to share, please post them in the comments. (You can do it anonymously.) I wouldn’t even know where to start for physics, chemistry, computer science, cell/molecular biology, and so on.

While you’re at it, please don’t give generalized advice to students wondering whether to do a Master’s or Ph.D.