Author Archives: WMillhiser

Posts: 26 (archived below)
Comments: 27

On traditional learning methods

On January 20th, two articles in the popular press reported new brain research that suggests certain benefits of note-taking by hand and taking tests.

  1. Write it don’t type it if you want knowledge to stick: Children and students who write by hand learn better than those who type, a study shows” by Richard Alleyne, The Telegraph, 20-Jan-2011.  (The print edition used a different title: “The pen is mightier than the keyboard as a teaching aid”.)
  2. To Really Learn, Quit Studying and Take a Test: Test-taking actually helps people learn, and it works better than repeated studying, according to new research” by P. Belluck, New York Times, 20-Jan-2011.

Of interest?

Posted in Uncategorized | Comments Off on On traditional learning methods

Quote of the Day

On notebook computers in the classroom:

Devices have become security blankets. Take the time to wean yourself. …  [L]eave the laptop behind.  In a lecture, you’ll only waste your time and your parents’ money, disrespect your professor and annoy whoever is trying to pay attention around you by spending the whole hour on Facebook.  You don’t need a computer to take notes—good note-taking is not transcribing. All that clack, clack, clacking … you’re a student, not a court reporter.  And in seminar or discussion sections, get used to being around a table with a dozen other humans, a few books and your ideas.  After all, you have the rest of your life to hide behind a screen during meetings.

—Christine Smallwood (source: “Ditch Your Laptop, Dump Your Boyfriend,”  NY Times, 26-Sep-2010, p. WK12).

Posted in Student Participation, Using Technology | 1 Comment

Academic Integrity in the Times

I’m certain many of you saw this: the New York Times ran four pieces on academic integrity in the last 30 days.  Interesting reading.  I especially recommend Alfie Kohn’s comments in the second article.

1. “To Stop Cheats, Colleges Learn Their Trickery,” by T. Gabriel, NY Times, July 5, 2010.

For educators uncomfortable in the role of anti-cheating enforcer, an online tutorial in plagiarism may prove an elegantly simple technological fix.

That was the finding of a study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research in January. Students at an unnamed selective college who completed a Web tutorial were shown to plagiarize two-thirds less than students who did not. (The study also found that plagiarism was concentrated among students with lower SAT scores.)

The tutorial “had an outsize impact,” said Thomas S. Dee, a co-author, who is now an economist at the University of Virginia.

“Many instructors don’t want to create this kind of adversarial environment with their students where there is a presumption of guilt,” Dr. Dee said. “Our results suggest a tutorial worked by educating students rather than by frightening them.”

2. “Room for Debate: When Did Cheating Become an Epidemic?” by M. Bauerlein, A. Kohn, A. Daines, M. Pease, NY Times, July 12, 2010.

Alfie Kohn asks,

Rather than counting the number of students who cheat, or figuring out how to catch (or deter) them, I’d prefer to ask two questions that rarely figure in these discussions: What kinds of teaching elicit cheating? And what assumptions and values lead us to define some acts as cheating in the first place?

By the way, I recommend Kohn’s book Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise, and Other Bribes (Houghton Mifflin, 1999).

3. “Cutting and Pasting: A Senior Thesis by (Insert Name)” by B. Staples, NY Times, July 12, 2010.

This represents a shift away from the view of education as the process of intellectual engagement through which we learn to think critically and toward the view of education as mere training. In training, you are trying to find the right answer at any cost, not trying to improve your mind.

4. “Plagiarism Lines Blur for Students in Digital Age” by T. Gabriel, NY Times, August 1, 2010.

Digital technology makes copying and pasting easy, of course. But that is the least of it. The Internet may also be redefining how students—who came of age with music file-sharing, Wikipedia and Web-linking—understand the concept of authorship and the singularity of any text or image.

“Now we have a whole generation of students who’ve grown up with information that just seems to be hanging out there in cyberspace and doesn’t seem to have an author,” said Teresa Fishman, director of the Center for Academic Integrity at Clemson University. “It’s possible to believe this information is just out there for anyone to take.”

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Thinking about presentation software

Did you notice that a software alternative to MS PowerPoint and Apple Keynote emerged from this year’s student presentations? It’s called Prezi ( If you haven’t seen it, the idea is this: instead of thinking in terms of slides, imagine arranging all your presentation information on a large canvas as you might on a white board. Then instruct the software how to zoom in and out of various regions of that canvas in a way that complements the story you want to tell.

An illustrative example is on the Prezi website; another is James Geary’s 2009 T.E.D. presentation, though so far the best I’ve seen so far comes from our students. Prezi is web-based and free if your file size is 500MB or smaller (due to a special offer for students and teachers) and was recently reviewed in the NY Times and an blog.

What does Edward Tufte say about the cognitive style of Prezi? Is it indeed more intuitive? Is it a fad? How does one create a traditional slide deck for clients? I don’t know.


Speaking of presentation software, did you see that there are now apps to control PowerPoint and Keynote remotely from your iPhone? Even though I already use a USB remote control, I am experimenting with the iPhone Keynote Remote right now. All one needs is an iPhone and computer on the same wireless network. Hold the iPhone horizontally (in landscape orientation) and you’ll see the current and next slides side by side, though most text is too small to read. Hold the iPhone vertically and you’ll see the current slide and notes.  Swipe your finger to advance slides. My hope is that this $0.99 app will buy more eye contact with students and less looking over my shoulder.

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Creating and Integrating Videos in the Classroom

At Baruch College’s March 26 “13th annual Teaching and Technology Conference” I led a session with the same name as this blog post. I’d like to share the basis of that talk for those with interest.

Disclaimer: When it comes to digital video, I am not the fountain of all knowledge. There are people all over CUNY (and NYU) doing rather innovative things with video—some of whom I had the pleasure of meeting in my talk. That said, technological innovations have made it so easy to weave video into a lecture that the question is shifting from whether you should adopt video to how you should do so. All you need is a $150 digital camera with a movie mode, namely, any camera on the market.  Your iPhone works great too.

Background: In my subject (operations management, a discipline that combines management, economics, statistics and engineering) video can demonstrate complex ideas in large lectures that are difficult to get across in words.  There also seems to be a growing understanding that large lectures benefit from small breaks and changes in the routine, video being an important option (e.g., see the paper here).

For now, I’m not talking about creating instructional video tutorials, but something relatively simpler. The focus is three types of video.

  1. Bringing the real world inside the lecture hall. I always carry a compact digital camera around NYC and shoot video and stills whenever I see something relevant to class: an interesting inventory system in a Soho retail store, the queueing system at Whole Foods, the supply chain strategy posted on the windows of American Apparel, etc. Students always sit up and listen when one shares these videos.  (Hint: it’s always better to ask first, film second.)
  2. Debriefing. My students also learn through games and simulations. I’ve started filming with my iPhone or compact digital camera to capture the students and their game boards as a game progresses. Lots and lots of little movie clips. I’ve begun interviewing during the games—like reality TV—to ask about the situations and choices students are making (one has to be careful to do so without distracting from their play). These efforts have added a level of richness and engagement to the post-game debriefing that I never anticipated.  (Hint: students seem a little less intimidated by an iPhone than a proper camera.)
  3. Improving presentation skills. I now film my students while they give project presentations. For their personal development, they view their presentation videos and give me a critique/reaction of what they saw. The  “iTunes U” is a good place to host such video, but more on this shortly.

Software: Regardless of shooting video clips and stills outside or inside the classroom, my favorite way to present these to a class is by uploading all the content to iPhoto and then dragging and dropping into Apple’s equivalent to PowerPoint called Keynote. Each still image gets its own slide, as does each video clip. It creates the modern equivalent of a slide show, except the slides that contain video play as movies. I prepare this on my Apple MacBook Pro notebook computer, close the computer, carry it to the classroom, open, plug into the overhead projector, and voilà… it’s that easy. (PC users: you can drag and drop stills and video into PowerPoint too.)

Sometimes I shoot a number of short videos that I want to stitch together to create a single video. In this case, Apple’s iMovie (part of the iLife software suite) is a good tool for the job. It’s relatively easy to use, and costs less than $100. PC users can do the same with Movie Maker, included free with Windows XP, Vista and 7.

What if you want students (or the world) to access the videos via the WWW? To restrict access only to students, the best option I’ve seen so far is “iTunes U,” which interfaces through Blackboard, and under the right settings, creates a place for your videos that only Blackboard course users can access (all users will need the free iTunes download). Contact Kevin Wolff in BCTC for details.  I like this option for student presentations. The students can see and critique their presentations in the safety of knowing that the rest of the world will not.

Public sharing options include Vimeo, Blip.TV, Flickr, YouTube, but you’ll need to be careful about obtaining consent of people pictured in your videos before posting to the web. Finally, if appropriate, consider BCTC’s video hosting options.

So… what are you doing with video?


Special thanks to Prof. Sara Rofofsky Marcus, Queensborough Community College for motivating this post, and to the folks in Baruch College Technology Center (BCTC) for the generous grant that allowed this.

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Multitasking, revisited

In my December 2 post I wondered about the appropriate role of mobile devices in the classroom. Since writing that column, I’ve discovered four relevant references that may influence one’s thinking on the issue.

1. PBS Frontline, “Digital Nation” (February 2, 2010, Season 28, Episode 3, What is the effect of media multitasking on society, education, brain development, and the economy? Interviews with researchers reveal what we now know about how badly the human brain multitasks and how some multitasking is impairing our ability to think deeply, even after the computer is turned off. In light of this research, the documentary challenges conventional wisdom about the role of technology in the classroom, yet perhaps most intriguing is the coverage of a Stanford study (see #2).

2. Ophir, Nass and Wagner, “Cognitive Control of Media Multitaskers” (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2009, vol. 106, no. 37). This study shows that students who think they are highly effective multitaskers are actually quite the opposite, or as Stanford’s Clifford Nass said in a BBC interview: “The shocking discovery of this research is that [high multitaskers] are lousy at everything that’s necessary for multitasking.” See additional coverage in Wired Magazine and The Associated Press.

3. Maggie Jackson, Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age (Prometheus Books, 2008). Jackson is another who argues that despite the cultural acceptance of multitasking, such practices are undermining our own attention skills; she cites more scientific studies that suggest that we have become so distracted by multitasking that we are losing the ability to think deeply about problems. In a video interview posted on her website (, she asks,

What are the repercussions for a democracy when citizens are surrounded by information and are less and less capable of creating knowledge or learning from that information?

Jackson says that the average knowledge-based worker in the US now switches tasks every three minutes, and about half of these are interrupting. If you are wondering about the financial toll of all this multitasking and disruption, you may be interested in this…


Posted in Instructional Technology, Students' Thinking, Uncategorized, Using Technology | 3 Comments

Thinking about large lectures

I’ve got a section of 120 students this semester. I’ve taught it before and always enjoy the group—there’s so much energy at 7:30 at night. Thinking about the class, I recently reread Joan Middendorf and Alan Kalish’s “The ‘Change-Up’ in Lectures” (The National Teaching and Learning Forum, 1996, Vol. 5, No. 2, pp. 1-5), a refresher of tricks to make large lectures more engaging.  Perhaps you’ve seen it.

My favorite quote from the article is this:

One explanation for the lapses in students’ attention is that the “information transfer” model of the traditional lecture does not match what current cognitive science research tells us of how humans learn. Research tells us that the brain does not record information like a videocassette recorder.

The full text of the article is on the web:

In the original printed version there is also this sidebar of tricks:

Tricks include the well-known “think-pair-share.” Have you ever tried the so-called “kisses and crackers”?

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Plus/Minus Grading Systems

Have you ever thought about the pros and cons of our plus/minus grading system versus the A-B-C-D-F system employed by other universities? The plus/minus system actually has several advantages—see for example the reasons RPI adopted a plus/minus system in 2004.

Despite the advantages, under a plus/minus system I’m finding it challenging to implement something I learned from Ken Bain in 2007.

In his 3-day Best Teachers Summer Institute, Bain leads a unit on assessment. In particular he asks educators, “What does it mean for a student to be an ‘A thinker’ in your discipline? What must students be able to demonstrate or do to live up to that standard? How would it be measured if there were no such thing as numerical grades?” Bain suggests that we share with students our answers to these questions to help them understand what it takes to be a so-called A thinker.

When I did Bain’s exercise, I learned that the definitions for A vs. B vs. C thinkers are not trivial, but doable. But consider this. Our plus/minus system has 11 grade categories whereas the A-B-C-D-F system has 5. It’s been 3 years, and acceptable definitions for each of the 11 brackets still elude me. What is it exactly that a C+ thinker can do that a C thinker cannot?

If you have found good ways to define plus/minus grades in the spirit of delineating what students demonstrate they can do (rather than numerical scores), I’d like to hear from you. What works for you?


Here’s another issue with our grading system that borders on triviality, but, well, I think about these things. Suppose in a jumbo lecture an instructor gives 3 multiple-choice exams, averages the scores, and (voilà) assigns final grades according to the chart in the faculty handbook. In our plus/minus system, if we assume the course scores are uniformly distributed between 50% and 100% (which they are not, but bear with me), then 10% of the students are expected to be a half-percentage point below a cutoff, inviting natural rounding up. That is, 1 in 10 students may be arguing for the next higher grade, a grade they technically didn’t achieve. Maybe the number is not exactly 10%, but it’s close for many reasonable grade distributions.

Certainly, there are all sorts of considerations when resolving the rounding question, but that’s not the point. The issue is the sheer number of “rounding cases” that our grading system invites. I recently taught a course where 21% of the final scores were less than a half point below a cutoff.

Happy 2010 everyone.

Posted in Assessing Learning, Grading | 4 Comments

More on Mobile Devices in the Classroom

This is a reply/follow-up to the November 9 post that raises important pedagogical questions about the role of mobile technology in the classroom.

I’d like to back up and ask a basic question. The number of students who now carry iPhones or Blackberries is noteworthy, not to mention those who text from standard cell phones. Given this level of potential distraction, has anyone developed a list of best practices for managing mobile devices in the classroom? What do you say in your syllabus? What is the appropriate response to a ringing cell phone? How about the student who sends text messages or the evening MBA who steps out to answer work-related calls? I want to give courtesy/respect, but the collective effect of 24 executives with 24 Blackberries is becoming downright disruptive.

Mobile phone jammers are illegal under the FCC’s Communications Act of 1934 (as amended by the Telecommunications Act of 1996). Scratch that idea.

I’ve been watching with interest Broadway’s struggle with changing etiquette. Did you see Hugh Jackman’s response when a ringing cell phone interrupted his late-September 2009 performance of “A Steady Rain”? According to the WSJ, Jackman is among a growing number of performers who are breaking from their characters to confront cell phone users, rogue photographers and videographers. How many times did you break from your script this semester?


Posted in Classroom Management, Instructional Technology, Uncategorized, Using Technology | 8 Comments

Excelling at Excel

Should all undergraduate business students study spreadsheet-based modeling?

For the past two years I’ve been thinking about this question, first as a member of the Provost’s Task Force for Quantitative Pedagogy, and now as a member of two follow-up efforts (the Weissman School’s “implementation committee” and the Zicklin School’s “quant group”). If you’ll bear with me, I’d like to share some of what I am hearing.

First, I asked young alumni as well as hiring managers who recruit Baruch’s BBA graduates.

They told me that to compete for the best entry-level professional positions, one needs spreadsheet fluency (some said that PowerPoint presentation skills and Access database skills are key too). And once on the job, according to Accountancy’s Harry Davis, young Excel and Access database “whiz kids” are receiving promotions earlier, especially at smaller firms where such skills are invaluable. Just yesterday someone told me that she perceives a double standard on Wall Street: all else being equal, Ivy League entry-level job candidates can say, “sure, I can learn MS-Excel visual basic macros” whereas a Baruch candidate would probably receive additional scrutiny over such statements.

Next, I surveyed our undergraduate BBA students (i.e., my MGT 3121 students.)

Students tell me that they want stand-alone courses in Excel modeling and they want Excel deeply embedded in business courses where it makes sense. I’ve heard this so many times that it motivated this article for my professional society’s monthly magazine.

Next, I asked Patricia Imbimbo and C. May Reilly at Baruch’s STARR Career Development Center.

They tell me that the need for spreadsheet and modeling skills are so great that they developed their own training program. The two-dozen or so students who qualify for the Financial Leadership Program (FLP; formerly called Wall Street Careers) receive three half-day Excel workshops on shortcuts, pivot tables, if statements, solver, vlookups and visual basic macro programming. In addition, Training the Street gives FLP participants additional modeling instruction. If our most promising graduates need such training, what does this say about the other 2000 BBAs who expect to graduate this year?


Posted in Analytical Skills, Quantitative Skills | 9 Comments