Thursday, January 14, 2021

The three golden rules of academic success

As the new academic year starts and with it the New Year’s resolutions too I thought it would be good to share the advice that I have been giving to new students every year for the past fourteen years. Mignon Nolte Smit told me these were the three pieces of advice that her dad gave her when she first went to university.  Over the years I have been reflecting on them, and while I initially thought it quite humorous, I have come to realise that they are, in fact, the three golden rules of academic success – in the following order:

  1. Make the right friends.
  2.   Get to know your lecturers.
  3.   Do a bit of studying.

The joke lay in the fact that he put studying last; but the fact is that University is a process of growth intended in creating your future, and not acquiring a bit of knowledge and skill. Nevertheless your aim upon entering university should be to get a distinction, not to pass: The higher your grade, the better your return on investment. So many students write appeals to me asking me to let them have that one mark that will change their result from 48 to 49 so that the computer will automatically adjust it to 50%! They are missing the point. The aim is not 50%; the aim is 100%. So let’s take the three golden rules one by one and see how they can lead to that distinction.

1. Make the right friends

How many times have you heard people say of a university dropout – “S/he got involved with the wrong friends”? Your friends can make you or break you.  I remember, at school, being told not to go to the ice rink – because that’s where they sell drugs.  Believe me, the ice rink is perfectly safe.  Most addicts get their first fix from a friend. Don’t make those friends.

Your friends are the centre of your network. They are your business partners and your connections for the rest of your life. They are also the ones who will call you in the morning if you overslept after pulling an all-nighter before a final exam. They are the ones who will lend you their notes for a class you missed, and you will both end up in the dean’s office for getting the same questions incorrect in your test.

Make sure you curate your friends properly.  You need those who will push you, challenge you, criticize you and support you.  You need to have some friends who are much cleverer than you, so that they can help you with things you don’t understand.  You need some who struggle so that you can help them, and get to know the work much better as you teach it to others.

Above all, though, remember the old truism that if you are the brightest person in your group, you are in the wrong group.

2. Get to know your lecturers

Your lecturers are the stand-ins for your future clients and bosses. They are there to challenge you, to support you and to help you grow. They are not there to remind you of deadlines and dry your tears. One of the complaints that cross my desk most about lecturers, is that they are inconsistent.  What Lecturer A will give a distinction for, Lecturer B will fail.  Now what? The point is – you have to get to know very quickly what they want. The obvious place to look, of course, is in the assessment rubric. If there is no rubric, ask for one – it is your right.  In academic life there should be no surprises – neither good ones, nor bad ones.  If you did better than expected, or worse than expected, then the outcomes were not properly explained. If the rubric doesn’t tell you, then ask.  First ask your friends, then ask your class rep, and then ask your lecturer.

Do not be afraid of approaching a lecturer directly. Remember – your fees pay their salary. And when I say ask your lecturer, I really mean ask anything.  Ask for an explanation of where you went wrong. Ask if you may fix and re-submit. Ask for an extension if you have to. Why you can even ask for a bonus mark. The worst they can do is say no. The best that can happen is that they get to know you. Don’t worry if they get to know you for the wrong reasons entirely.  Six months down the line they will remember you and not the incident, and when an opportunity comes up and they are asked to nominate someone, they will nominate someone they know. And ten years down the line when you are rich and famous, they will tell their grandchildren “I taught them in first-year you know.”

3 Do a bit of studying

One of the most common mistakes that students make is not setting priorities. You need not learn everything. You need to learn the underlying principles. You must learn to learn. Any assessment is designed in such a way that any student should be able to get 50%.  Then it gets progressively more difficult to get higher grades. So, the way to approach a written examination is to provide a tentative answer to every question.  Then go back and do the ones that you know you can do well.

Do not leave a single question unanswered.  If you don’t know the answer at all, then paraphrase the question and write that down as the first sentence of your answer. Then guess a second sentence.  Then go on to the next question.  That way if the lecturer needs to find that one mark to get you to 49% so that the computer can give you 50%, they can put a one next to your nonsensical answer. Nobody will know, but if you write nothing, we can give you no mark. Here is a simple case study.  You get 45%.  Unbeknownst to you, the whole class does poorly and we decide to increase the grades by five percent. Now you get 47,25% and you qualify for a re-assessment.  Or better still, we decide to increase the grades by 10% - now you get 49,5% and the computer gives you 50%!  If you got 0, then 0 x 10% remains 0.

The same goes for assignments.  Never miss a deadline, ever in your life. Ever. Just don’t. A non-submission is a zero.  Submit your rough work. Submit an outline of what you would have done if you had the time. Submit a picture of your granny if you must, but submit something. It is much easier to ask for an opportunity to improve on work that you submitted than to ask for a late submission. Better still: Be the first to submit.  In my experience the students who submit first are also the ones who do best.  Think of it, the best runner of a race is the one who finishes first.Besides, if you keep on submitting first, your lecturers will get to know you.

Finally, don’t be scared. The biggest reason students have for dropping out of university is that they are scared of dropping out of university. You open the book and you see how much work it is. Now you are so scared that you close the book again and go and do something to take your mind off it. Tomorrow when you open it again, the work has not grown less, but the time has.  And your panic increases. So what do you do?

My friend Dr Kobus van Wyk once asked us “How do you eat an elephant” – and we gave the standard answer – “One bite at a time”.  To which he responded: “If you do that it will rot long before you have finished”. Then he shows a picture of a few lions and a few vultures around an elephant’s carcass and he gives his answer: “You invite your friends!”

Which is the reason for the first rule.


Footnote:

Here is a comment from Mignon Nolte Smith, posted on my Facebook Page soon after I posted this. Amazing to learn more of the man who originated my talk!

My dad is 81 this year... he still gives me amazing advice. Hendrik Nolte has a M.Sc in Biology, was a lecturer at the University of Pretoria. He was the builder of the Merensky Library on Campus. He raised 5 children, still married to his highschool sweetheart. In his life he was a farmer, still is, a headmaster of an agricultural school in Perderkop. He wrote debating speeches for many national winners - including myself that won Tuks redenaars in 1990. He wrote two books, one on stories of the people he knows and one on research of the Nolte Family. His other books are academic, textbooks... i will have to look it up! He is a cabinet maker, an now spends his time making oxwagons on scale - to the Johanna van der Merwe - that was standing at Tuks at the Merensky for many years.

He was the Tuks lecturer who threw a student out through the class window for blowing smoke into a microscope. He was in the Rapport Newspaper and the Landbou weekblad for succeeding with a business venture in times when everyone was failing. He had the right friends... but he never had many friends.

If you are in the Mpumalanga area visit his amazing historic Anglo Boer War museum which he has collected over 20 years.

I have never seen my father depressed, down or even moedeloos... he is the only person on earth I know who has mastered the magic authors like Victor Frankl writes about.

Always a brighter day ahead, always something more to love for, something to do, someone to help.

Thank you prof Johannes for this amazing memory I really appreciate it!

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Learning incomes and learning subjectives

I am sitting in a deep and meaningful conversation with Prof Liezl Nel of the University of the Freestate and our joint doctoral student, Fred Mudavanhu, and Fred has introduced two new words that emerged from his research.  These are learning "Incomes" (as opposed to outcomes) and learning"Subjectives" instead of learning objectives.
Now well this resonates with my concept of collectionism...
Learning "Incomes" are those items that are added to the collection.
Learning "Subjectives" are the choices made by curators of their collection of learning assets.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Advice for an unsuccessful prospective student

This morning I received yet another desperate email from a student looking for placement (or a job).
He has been struggling for four years since matric to gain entrance to a university or to get a job.
I am dumbfounded by how bad his attempt was.  Do students get NO life skills advice at school?

Here follows his email (censored to protect innocent people involved) and my reply.

---------- Forwarded message ----------
From: XXXXXXXXXXXXXXX
Date: Wed, 25 Jan 2017 22:43:51 +0200
Subject: Fwd: my file
To:XXXXXXXXXXXX

to. whom it may concern

my name is Paul XXXXXX  and I would to be considered to study at cput for space in any faculty please resume my certificate.. i'm in desperate need for school

---------- Forwarded message ----------
From: XXXXXXXXXXXXXXX
Date: Tue, 24 Jan 2017 11:43:55 +0200
Subject: my file
To: XXXXXXXXXXX

please find attaches file of my certificate

---------- Forwarded message ----------
From: XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX
Date: Thu, 17 Nov 2016 19:08:10 +0200
Subject: My application for a job vacancy at webhelp sa
To: XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

To whom it may concern

Please find here with attaced file of my resume for a job vacancy with webhelp SA

I would love if my application would be successful and expect a call or email from you soon..

Kind Regards
XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

---------- Forwarded message ----------
From: XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX
Date: Thu, 3 Nov 2016 09:32:22 +0200
Subject: my cv...
To: XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

Please here with attached file of my CV...

Regards
XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

And my reply

Dear Paul

Thank you for your email requesting a place to study.  Unfortunately my Faculty cannot accommodate you at this stage and neither can we appoint you in a position.  However, since I sense your desperation and frustration, and since I care, may I offer you some "fatherly" advice - since my age allows it.

Always address an email seeking a position as a student or an employee to a specific person.  You know that I am Prof Cronje, so address me as such, and not as "to whom it may concern".  If you don’t show enough care to name the person you are addressing, then why should that person care to give you a position?

Always use appropriate capital letters.  You probably sent this email from your cell phone. That is no excuse for careless writing.  If your email is careless, how will the receiver know that the rest of your attitude is not also careless?

Use full stops after full sentences.  Once again - if you cannot even write a full sentence, how would I know you can write an essay?

If you apply to a university you need to apply to a specific course.  We cannot simply put you in any "space". We need to know what your interests and aptitudes are.  I suggest you visit a public library and use their public access computers to do a free online aptitude test to see what kind of area would suit you best. You can find one at this link: http://blog.mydreamcourse.co.za/2012/01/02/free-career-aptitude-tests-that-everyone-ought-to-take

Delete all previous emails in a chain. The receiver of a message should at least think that he or she is the only recipient.  Why would I want to give you a position if I can see that three other people would not?

Go back to night school and re-do Mathematics and Physical Sciences to obtain at least 50%. I know it is hard, but there are many NGOs out there who will help you get that result and with Maths and Science being such scarce skills even a 50% will be a way into a better life.

Learn to spell and to use the correct words:  "um" is not a word.  You mean "I'm", and you should write "I am".  Resume means "to start again" you mean "receive" or "review".

You can find some good advice about how to start seeking for a job here:  http://www.careerplanet.co.za/10-tips-for-first-time-job-seekers

Finally, I include in this email Mr XXXXXXXXXXXXXXX an excellent doctoral student of mine.  If you need good advice about how to get to the top, contact him directly and if you are ever in Cape Town, buy him a coffee and talk to him about how to do it.

I wish you success in your future.


Best wishes

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Collectionism as an approach to Instructional Design

It was the emergence and rapid growth of Pokémon Go, and a number of “Badge Breakfasts” in Johannesburg and Cape Town that first sparked the idea with me.  I want to coin a new word for the phenomenon of micro-credentials in the world of learning and teaching. Pokémon Go muscled in on the phenomenon that people like to collect things.  The same way we collect souvenirs on our travels, pick up shells on the beach, or collect credits towards the next free coffee at our local coffee shop, we like collecting. In the field of elearning this phenomenon has also been recognised both by the open badges community and by the rise of SCORM and Experience API.
So I was looking for a term that would cover the phenomenon of collecting bits of learning and stringing them together to form a portfolio, or maybe even a qualification.  I was looking for a word that would resonate with Seymour Papert’s Constructionism. So, I looked first at collectivism, which describes the fact that knowledge rests in the collective – and I like it, because it resonates with Rhizome theory. But collectivism is about people working as a collective, it does not describe the act of collecting.  Then I found a word that had no definition in Google’s online dictionary – “Collectionism”.  I found one use of the word as hoarding. So I want to propose the use of the word Collectionism in the design of teaching and learning as a way of leveraging our natural tendency to collect things, and using that as a basis of developing a knowledge base.
Collectionism would then form the basis of what I want to call asset-based teaching and learning – where the learner is seen as someone collecting assets to construct an own skill-set, rather than as an “empty vessel” with a deficit that needs to be filled or corrected. The concept of collectionism will resonate with librarians, who are, by definition, builders of collections. So from the librarians one might borrow the act of classifying and categorising assets.  Of course in dealing with assets one is already borrowing from economists, and thus it would be necessary to find some way of classifying the assets that are collected.  This definition of assets can already be seen in the way that metadata is imbedded into badges. One could define assets by their size – in other words the amount of knowledge that is contained in a unit, or by their duration – in other words, whether they are permanent assets, such as degrees, or whether they have expiry dates – such as drivers’ licences.  .  Are they cardinal or ordinal assets – did you get them for achieving a stated learning objective, or did you win them in a contest? One could also define assets in terms of their tangibility or otherwise in other words, can the asset be “traded” in the form of a course and certification.  I could be trained as a life coach and based on that asset, I could coach, or even train other life coaches.  On the other hand, in intangible asset would be the fact that I was voted the best life-coach in the district, and thus could charge more for my services that someone else.

So that is my opening gambit.  How can we develop a system of assets and recognise them so that they can form the building blocks of all our learning? 

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Outline of a Masters or Doctoral Thesis or Dissertation

Ok, so two days ago I posted Chapter 4.  I didn't think of posting the others, because they have been on my website for years.
But then again, not everybody visits my website, which is at https://sites.google.com/site/johannescronje/ , and there may even be people who still don't know about my "Free online doctoral programme" which is at https://sites.google.com/site/johannescronje/doctor-doctor

For all of you then, here are the links, first to the "Logic of a thesis" and then a brief sketch of what goes into every chapter.

The logic of a thesis

So there you have it.  Now spend the weekend and just populate it.  Then you can submit on Monday.




Tuesday, February 3, 2015

How to write up the findings chapter

I don't know why I have taken so long to describe the findings chapter. My "Free online doctoral programme" has been up for three years now, but still it is silent on the most important chapter. So, here goes.

In a traditional five section thesis, the findings make up section four, Introduction, Literature survey, Methods, Findings, Conclusions and Recommendations. Nevertheless, it is really the first chapter that you will write out completely. It is the most important chapter of the thesis the most exciting one, but also the most difficult one to get started with.

The most common mistake that people make is to write the chapter as an inventory of what the instruments told them.  They would start unpacking the demographics of the participants, and then launch into the questionnaire from question 1 to question 100, providing all the relevant statistics, and generally boring everybody to tears.  So how is it done?

The first thing to do is to orientate the reader regarding the research.  Do not be repetitive, but explain briefly the purpose of your research and why you followed the methods that you did. Then explain how you will structure the findings chapter.  Two structuring principles are important here.  Your theoretical or conceptual model and your research questions.  The questions are structured as they are derived from the theoretical or conceptual model.  A simple example would be if one were to use a system as a conceptual model.  So the conceptual model will say that there is an input, there are processes, there is an output and there is a feedback loop to ensure sustainability. From this the questions will be derived.  What is the input? What are the processes? What is the output? How is sustainability achieved? And that is how the chapter will be structured.

So after brief description of the research and the participants you launch into the story of your research.   The rhythm is this:

The question was...
The reason for this question was to determine...
The instruments used to get to the answer were...
The instrument that gave the best information was...
This is the information that the instrument gave (in narrative form)
And here is the evidence of that information (statistics, quottionss, screen captures, embedded video clips, transcripts)...
These instruments supported the answer in this way, and here is the evidence.
These instruments gave contradictory evidence (if any) and this is it.
So my tentative answer to the question is ...
This supports the literature that says... and contradicts the literature that says... and adds the following to our body of knowledge.

And so you go on, question by question question.  Of course, you start with the sub-questions and the lesser questions so that they all add up when you finally ANSWER THE MAIN QUESTION(S).

And that's it. You  have presented your findings.  Now write Chapter 5 the way Tjeerd Plomp suggests. Then tidy up the other chapters and ensure they are completely aligned with Chapter 4. Then submit and have a happy life.
 

Monday, February 2, 2015

Don't be tense about tense

Prof Alta van der Merwe asked me to write up something about the use of tenses in a thesis, so that she could get her students to cite me.
I can resist anything except temptation, so, for the sake of citation, here goes, Alta!

Use the simple present tense for things that go on indefinitely. Use the past tense for things that have just happened, and the past perfect for things that had already been completed by the time the research took place.

Chapter 1 - Introduction
This thesis describes   research that was conducted to determine if there had been a significant improvement in the results of a given treatment.

So to explain more clearly.  If you are writing about the thesis itself, then you use the simple present.  Chapter One deals with the introduction, rationale and research method of the study. Chapter Two reports on the current literature. Chapter Three describes the methodology.  All in the present tense, because those chapters fulfil those functions right now, and always will.

Chapter 2 - Literature survey
The literature survey is written predominantly in the present tense.  Smith and Jones say: "We don't know what we are doing but we publish it anyway" (2014 p. 67).  Note that Smith and Jones are two authors, so they say.  But the article by Smith and Jones says, because it is just one article.  If, however, you are telling the story of Smith and Jones and their research, then it is in the past tense. Smith and Jones conducted research in the 1990s, and found numerous instances of people publishing in fields that they know nothing about. As their article puts it (present tense) "People publish for the sake of seeing their name in print, rather than to contribute to knowledge" (Smith and Jones, 1990 p. 27).

Chapter 3 - Research methods
Here you use mainly the past tense.  You are describing what you did.  If you have to follow up on things that had already been done, then you use the past perfect, and if you have to cite and author to substantiate what you did, then you use the present tense.
Questionnaires were distributed among the participants who had already viewed the movie and they were asked to complete a four-point Likert scale,  Johnson (2013) suggests that a Likert scale should have an even number of points to prevent participants from taking a mid-point position.

Chapter 4 - Findings
All in the past tense.  It is what you found.  Even if you found things that will hold true indefinitely, it still remains in the past, because that is when you found it.  Yesterday I found that the sky was blue. The fact that it is blue today, and will probably be so tomorrow is irrelevant.

Chapter 5 - Conclusions and recommendations
Conclusions are written in the present tense.  The conclusions are your contribution to the body of knowledge.  It was found that some people did one thing and other people did another. The conclusion is that different people do different things.
Recommendations are written in the imperative.  More research should be conducted to determine the circumstances under which people do what they do.

So that's it. No need to be tense about tense.  Just tell it as it happens.