Defining your own undergraduate education

Fresh out of high school and going directly to a four-year university, I had not yet defined what an undergraduate education meant to me. Just like most of my peers in the same situation, I embraced the common belief that all I needed was to just get by enough to hopefully get a diploma in four years. I believed that the diploma itself would qualify me and set me up for work straight out of university. Naturally, I adopted short-term strategies that helped me pass exams through pattern recognition rather than content mastery.

Fast forward to 2020, with five years of undergraduate experience and several years of higher education still ahead of me, I have begun to transition toward content mastery as a pillar of what my undergraduate education means to me. Currently, my undergraduate education is about developing a foundation of knowledge and professional learning skills, all while developing personal relationships with peers and faculty to reach my own interpretation of success based on a timeline of my choice.

Therefore, I have also had to consider how I would define success in the context of my present and future. For me, a successful life means being able to provide for my family and I, financially, mentally, and physically. Financially, I would like to earn enough money for my family to be safe, comfortable, and not feel severely limited in opportunity due to lack of money. Mentally, I would like to disassociate stigma from vulnerability and provide a supportive environment that promotes individual growth. Physically, I would like to be present and available to spend time with my family. If I could afford to extend some of these qualities to my students as well, I would also define that as a success.  

We Are The Living | A crazy couple's epic quest for awesomeness!

But how did I go from just wanting a diploma to defining higher education based on my goals and values?

Having been at Davis for 1.5 years and at Foothill for the next 2.5 years, many times along the way I began to question if my inevitable 6+ years pursuit for an undergraduate degree was worth it. The process was painful, and with each failed quarter my pursuit for a diploma became less appealing. Hearing the stories of fellow students similarly questioning their fit and expectations in higher education, I too began to question my own role in my education. With help from my professor Jeff Anderson, I realized that if one did not come to university with a specific goal, the university would give one the empty goal of graduating within four years. However, I wanted to make my education about serving my values and goals rather than about graduating within a time limit.

Can the value I seek in my education be efficiently replicated through an online-only experience?

No, the personal relationships that can be attained in person are not as equally developed via online. Lectures are already an inefficient system, and over the internet there are more barriers for student engagement. Although, these barriers can be overcome, I could not suggest that online and in-person classes are of the same value. Although, I applaud the effort of students and faculty who are doing the most with what they can, but I am still glad I have chosen to take this quarter off. Perhaps in the past I would accept whatever position I was forced into, but now I am willing to advocate for myself and argue that my experience in education should be determined by me and what I find most beneficial for my education.


Write Down Your Goals

Your level of motivation is very important in determining how hard you work and what type of learning you do. Sadly, strong motivation cannot be purchased nor can it be built in an instant. Instead, motivation is something that you need to grow on a daily basis. One powerful way to cultivate your motivation is to develop and revise goals you have for your future. In this post, I help you explore your current goal-setting habits. I also discuss some steps of a larger framework for organizing different types of goals you might have as you craft a vision for your future. This is the first in a series of posts to encourage you to harness the power of your motivation by creating and refining your goals.

Continue reading “Write Down Your Goals”

Asking Questions (Simple, but not easy.)

Why is asking questions important?

Learning is too often associated with answering questions, but the bread and butter of learning comes from creating and asking questions. When drafting a question, we become conscious of what we do and don’t know, this helps us navigate and expose our assumptions, vagueness, and errors. Learning requires a deep focus on the matter at hand, and creating questions naturally leads to a deeper and more intimate experience with what one is trying to learn.

Instead of being aimlessly confused, questions point us in the right direction as they narrow down what is missing and what needs to be learned. George Polya has a great system on problem-solving based on asking the right questions, but more on that in a later post. I would not have had the opportunity to come across Polya’s work if I had not been engaged in conversations with and asking questions to my professor and math-enthusiast Jeff Anderson. 

The shame and resistance attached with asking questions

Students and professionals alike too often believe that they will look dumb for asking questions. Ironically, we further our ignorance on any subject by trying to hide it when we could have exposed it and addressed our confusion right away. Knowing this, however, being vulnerable and putting ourselves out there is still difficult. So how do we develop the confidence to challenge the status quo and put ourselves out there with the pressure of imposter syndrome? From my own experience, I have gratefully been taught and have adopted the mindset that any professor and institution is lucky to have me, for I can work just as hard if not harder than anyone else. Believing in one’s self is crucial, but I too can attest to a time when I was attempting to go through the motions of higher education without knowing if I could truly succeed.

Building an academic support team was vital to my confidence in navigating higher education. Having constant reassurance from friendly professors, peers, and counselors when I felt like a fraud masquerading as a university student helped me develop the foundational confidence that has put me on my path to a doctorate degree. Once we ourselves understand how great our potential is, and even if we aren’t yet aware of it, begin to challenge(politely) everything and everyone in order to learn, that includes our professors. It is okay to be intimidated, but trust that we are worthy enough to ask questions and decide what we do and do not know regardless of the influence of others. Speaking out and asking questions instead of sitting idly is more work, but it is transformative as we no longer pretend to know more than we do.This implies being vulnerable and honest. Even if as a result we are looked down upon by a peer or professor, we will have gained information and addressed our confusion and perhaps addressed the confusion of other peers who were too afraid to ask. By asking questions, we can help set the tone for the lecture and even encourage others to also ask questions and thus give them more control over their own learning experiences!

Quarantining our Learning Needs

I’ve had incredibly good luck meeting the people I’ve met at Foothill College, SJSU, and at OpenStax – but having a good experience with higher education shouldn’t be a matter of luck.

“There are students so afraid of what the emancipatory practices are, so afraid of being able to live freely, so afraid of having a voice, so afraid of pursuing agency – that they would rather be normalized into a system of oppression”

Chris Emdin, at Teachers College of Columbia.

I am currently integrating teaching praxis, a year’s worth of research – without meriting my 8 years of hospitality work experience – in productivity, learning science, and critical race theory in my embedded learning assistant role with 30 students of the TechCORE Science Learning Institute program at Foothill College. I am helping my students feel like they belong, cultivate motivation, develop learning habits, exercise study skills, and most importantly, leave them feeling like computer science is learnable – even though our 3 week long summer crash course is quite demanding as the timeline suggests. In times of disequilibrium and unrest, the challenges to learning what we’re being asked to learn in college are perpetuated and magnified. 

My STEM instructors, particularly in an online learning setting, often assume that students have both the content-specific prerequisites and the necessary general learning skills “handled.” There are massive consequences to these assumptions, especially when professors do not have policies or practices in place to guide students to address any apertures in their knowledge and motivation. This kind of college culture is oppressive in its very nature. It’s sort of like throwing someone who’s never swam before into a body of water where their toes don’t touch the bottom. In order to “swim” – to learn the information the professor is delivering – students need effective & efficient learning habits and skills – so they witness how to learn what they are being asked to learn. But what about the students who might not have the same foundation of learning skills as those with college-educated parents, or those who went to rigorous well-funded high schools? Many students who’ve struggled with finding their academic identity have negative emotions when learning what they are being asked to learn.

The “just go figure it out” attitude is unrealistic and unendurable. Only ~20% of San Jose State University’s 1st generation STEM students graduate in 5 years. Some people in positions of power act like these achievement gaps are okay, are the norm – but I refuse to allow myself and my peers to be a part of this manufactured reality. The reality and narrative we work towards producing here at The Learning Code is that anything is learnable, and we’re going to empower students so they can articulate for themselves: what they are learning, why they are doing so, and how to go about that studying process – step by step. No flawed assumptions that ultimately turn into dehumanizing assertions onto a students’ belief, hope, and faith in the future.

Movements can change how we think and how we see the world, creating more evolved social norms. What was once accepted and thought to be normal may become unthinkable. What was marginalized or dismissed becomes honored and respected. What was suppressed becomes recognized as a principle.” Paul Hawkin from Drawdown.

Think about a time when you had to learn how to do something new, and you felt lost – maybe because the pace was too fast, there wasn’t a psychologically safe space for genuine inquiry to happen, or there simply was not enough feedback. When I started working at In-n-Out burger (and my 7 other jobs throughout the years) as an associate, there were times I certainly felt like this. I felt like there were principles to obey that were hidden and never explained thoroughly to me, so I was just to put my head down and work. That type of culture and environment is okay, but it’s really just that – okay. And at In-n-Out, the managers are paying me. This is not the case in college. When I’m paying my leader to teach, but there’s so little guidance and feedback, namely in the STEM fields, I sometimes feel cheated out of this education. I’ll be writing posts in the future on the assumptions and assertions by my professors, which lead to self imposed oppression on the students. 


Working at In-n-Out before COVID

When STEM leaders in academia teach theory so abstractly that only the most advanced learners and the most privileged get to understand that theory, it feels dehumanizing. The few students who are excelling in TechCore this summer all have either a large amount of prior programming experience, spend a ton of time outside our 10am-5pm days, 5 days a week self-learning because they are genuinely curious, or a parent who does their assignments for them. When professors assign so much to students who do not have strong learning skills (the how) and understand why they’re asked to do this work (the why) this leads to students just keeping their heads down and trying to get through the course, without ever even defining what they are solving or learning. It’s no wonder so many students lose faith in themselves; this is by perceptive design – unconscious incompetence: you don’t know, what you don’t know. Many of those students will think that this style of taking classes –  where we disregard the learning process (of ourselves and our peers) in the pursuit of grades –  is the norm. Then, students leave with the mindset that learning is something that people should just figure out on their own. And no, telling students to form study groups when you grade on a curve and give a limited amount of A’s, is not enough to address students’ learning needs. 

We maintain inequalities and inequities if we assume that all students must have skills we never explicitly teach. Just think about any time you had to learn something you ultimately felt really proud of. There was most likely some resource along the way that guided you in that process. Right now, those resources in an institution are office hours, tutoring, classmates, and study skill workshops; all of which are great, but fall short in meeting the students who need the most help where they are at. Teaching and learning must be considered as a legitimate science if we really want to empower more students; pedagogy must be considered an art form and skill just as much as content knowledge. Think about the art and skill of asking good questions. When the majority of students ask questions that make you facepalm yourself, this is not a coincidence. It is because we never taught many students how to ask critical questions.

As we invest and experiment with more distant & online learning, we need to think about how to make students truly feel like they can learn what they are being presented, by teaching learning habits and study skills, to level out the playing field with the advanced motivated learners in the class. When students are paying to inhabit a new space – higher education – we should help them learn the requisite skills and mindsets instead of telling them to “just go figure it out.” This advice only serves the most privileged in the system.

We have to ask: what are the essential skills that students of varying backgrounds are deficient in? Should they just figure it out, should I just point them to resources, or could I find ways to do better, such as making transparent the process of learning lectured material, and the long term value of getting grades, all while rewarding the peculiar curious head and heart developed along the way. This is not hand-holding – this is literally how learning works. There’s mountains of scientific literature published on this idea, if you would like me to point you to some. Susan Ambrose introduces her principles from her book How Learning Works here. Learning is demanding, as we all know; we have to rewrite the code of our subconscious and our beliefs all while healing from the trauma we all have due to an educational experience. However, what if we were to incentivize and motivate students to get work done outside of class so in class it becomes an active review session (assuming the professor is using a traditional lecture content delivery model). This is what I’ve found advanced learners in my classroom do for themselves, so we might actually want to teach that process and learning skill! 

I have the utmost respect and empathy for my instructors, but when instructors have the beliefs & attitude that “prereq is not my problem – learning how to learn is not my problem – scheduling is not my problem – motivation is not my problem – making the material engaging is not my problem,” students will believe that they are “not enough”. This is a travesty in the short term, and a source of major eminent societal problems in the long term. This type of leadership in the business world has led to problems like rank and yank, shareholder supremacy, hitting arbitrary quarterly projects while sacrificing the community, and mass layoffs.

A goal of my advocacy work with The Learning Code is to train embedded tutors and learning assistants to meet students where they are, and bring about some transparency behind what learning means, why we need to help students cultivate motivation and understand context, and how learning works. The work I’ve done in helping students cultivate motivation, learning habits, and study skills has become even more relevant in this time of disequilibrium and unrest, when challenges to learning are perpetuated and magnified.

If we cannot incentivize overworked and under-appreciated professors to think about pedagogy more critically, I know we can train fellow students as embedded tutors and place them in the classrooms to address the challenges that inevitably arise. Then and only then will we have more equitable classrooms – when learning in college can feel like learning how to ride a bike. With our safety pads on and our training wheels in place, we’ll be willing to make the investments we’ll need to make, to learn complex high-stakes content – all while beginning to experience the relevance and joy behind the process of learning, because we’ll see how to go about that journey. As Andrew Huberman, a neuroscientist from Stanford said here, “urgency and focus must converge for deep work and flow to happen, so we must accept the periods of high stress and agitation in these high focus states.” So we might actually want to teach students how to accept those challenging times, to give them the agency they need be able to navigate out of them. 

I’ve worked in hospitality long enough to see the commonalities between shady business practices and what I’m experiencing in the education system. Students are being taught to be grade-centered, AKA product-driven.

“This similarity may be surprising to those with a vested interest in education systems remaining as they currently are, but it is one that powerfully exposes the role that business models, neoliberalism, and capitalism play in structuring what count as normative relationships, pedagogies, assessments, and learning outcomes in education. And when we dig deeper, as many students and faculty inevitably begin to do during budget crisis, we’ll quickly begin to unpack just how invested higher education systems are in predatory banking and lending practices, the accumulation of personal wealth at the expense of community wealth/resources, etc. Especially as is the case in the UC system where many of the regents are quite literally millionaire bankers, investors, etc.” – K. Lee, my academic mentor.

This gets to an idea that is larger than grades and funding. It’s an idea of who gets to construct truth. Right now in college we are not always taught how to seek truth, and it is difficult to speak out about how we feel when we are in these classes. But if we’ve learned anything from the recent events in 2020, it’s never been a more important time to reimagine and reinvest in communities. In our academy, that means the community of each and every class. Tutoring centers, success centers, and office hours are transformational spaces for the students who know how to navigate them, but they’re not so friendly to the students who haven’t yet been taught how to decode the what, why, and how of learning.

“These days I find myself filled with a strange dark kind of hope. When times grow dark the eyes adjust, what I see stirring in the shadows is people realizing that they neglected their communities, in an age of magic and lost. All around I see people awakening to citizenship. For decades we imagine democracy to be a supermarket where you went in whenever you needed something, however now we remember Democracy is a farm… where we reap what we sow.”

— Anand Giridharadas

The sooner we can guide students to refocus their attention and behavior on the process of learning by leading them how to do so, the closer we will be to fulfilling our mission and equity statements. Helping students learn is not too touchy feeling, artificially incentivizing, or coddling if done properly. Students need tailored, individual guidance, and an embedded tutor learning assistant who is trained with the skills and mindsets while working symbiotically with the professor can act as that untapped asset which rewards everyone involved with deep pockets of humanity and generosity. Students are looking for a learning roadmap that is understandable and transparent. Before we can help students master the discipline, we must engage and inspire them to do so. As so often in teaching and learning, we may end up having to pick up the lock (motivate students) before we understand how the key (student) fits into it (the discipline).

Transformational Tutoring

by Henry Fan


Tutoring and receiving tutoring has enabled me to be a much more well rounded student, but more importantly, a well rounded adult.

“Anyone who thinks they are too small to make a difference has never tried to fall asleep in a room with a mosquito” – Christine Todd Whitman

Tutors often think they are too small to make a difference, but I trust if tutors can be equipt with the authentic skills of collaboration (down below) they will begin to see just how much of a difference they can make… Natalia Menendez, my tutor training professor invited me to think about how to critically understand some of the fundamental differences between a collaborator and evaluator. Without understanding those differences it is really challenging to be an effective tutor, but perhaps more importantly an effective adult. During tutoring sessions there are the tangibles and intangibles.

The tangibles are: getting the thesis statement, getting to the answer, or solving the problem. The intangibles are: true clarity behind the thesis statement, the values behind the answer, or the mission in solving the problem. When I reflect and study the distinctions between collaborator and evaluator, I position students and myself, to achieve the tangibles as well as intangibles throughout our treasured time together on this planet.

Acts as an interested reader

This means as a tutor we show that we really want to know more about the topic they are covering, the prompt, the assignment, whatever question it is that your student is bringing to you.
Corrects Immediately

No discussion No context
No questioning
Ask for clarity

Ask meaningful questions when your student is struggling to explain their thought processes. Generally this means slowing down the process of conceptualization or internalization for your student by guiding and modeling for them what it means to slow down. Without lowing down your student may not have a chance to hear, catch, or correct their own mistakes in understanding.
Points out Errors / Diagnose Problems

this does not get the student to think for themselves which leads to them fixating on correcting the mistake instead of thinking through ideas. Mistakes will then be repeated because they will not understand why or the impact they have
Be curious and patient

It is going to be okay if you do not resolve what they want you to resolve
Get the answer

Bye Felicia, Bye
Help your student(s) reimagine themself(s)

Guide them to see themselves as a catalyst for change. Ideas such as clarification, revision, and re-doing are all seen as positive and should be rewarded as such. Use your words & emotions expresses to reward them

Proofreaders, editors, only ones with authority and ‘value’ in the dynamic
Effective Confrontation

Articulate your FBI: Feelings (F), Behaviors (B), and Impact (I) to your student. In no particular order.
short ex. When you are on your phone (B) that makes me feel sad (F) because that means I am not helping you learn what you need to learn, and I should quit my job (I) get specific and creative with your FBIs
Ineffective Confrontation

You’re Wrong, do this way, but actually I don’t care if you do it your way. I’m not going to teach you the right way to do it the first time, figure it out like I had to
Use Mirroring

Paraphrase to your student by reflecting back to them what you think they are saying.
Check and (curiously, authentically, genuinely) ask if that’s what they wanted to say.
short ex. This is a really strong argument because you cited clearly while introducing your citation and reflecting on it all within this paragraph
Does Not Empathetically Listen

Compliments paper with specific Evidence & ReasonsStatements judging Worth of tutees work
Uses I pronoun

Never uses, “you should _” instead use “I did _”.
For example “I see your clear summary here, but this sentence here seems to _” or “I was wondering what you meant my this, may you help me understand your thoughts?”

Do not say “I think you should do ___”
Uses You Pronoun

“you need to fix this error here”
Frequent use of a programmed answer and non-specific feedback (such as yes or no questions)


I find it increasingly important to be a collaborator as I work towards earning my undergraduate degree.

The results of a collaborative mindset leads to the student becoming more of an initiator. This means that the student is empowered to ask meaningful questions, willing to self-think (as opposed to think just because the tutor said so), search for evidence, write and develop sense of self as scholar who wants to communicate specifically and clearly. Students will seek to understand then to be understood. They will be willing to revise for clarity and accuracy.

Students in Evaluator paradigm becomes more of a respondent, who mainly agrees with instructors. This leads to passive and defensive learning which does not promote the idea of becoming self-directed learner. Students also then do not know how to necessarily understand what to revise, why to revise, or how to go about doing so independently.


I actively look for ways to strength my collaboration skills inside of school and arguably more importantly, outside of school. Communication might be one of the more nuanced activities we as humans engage in daily, so the sooner we can begin treating communication with more care and realizing just how powerful of a tool communication is, the sooner we can reap it’s benefits.


See if you can begin exercising these collaborator techniques in your daily communication. Pick 1, such as “asking for clarity” and try it today. Let me know your thoughts through your own wordpress post, a video, or a comment below!

Mission to Refocus: How to Learn and Why?

by Henry Fan

I Can & I Will – Extended Opportunities Program Summit. Led by Adam del Castillo, Jahmal Williams, and Joshua Kas-Osoka

“Give ordinary people the right tools, and they will design and build the most extraordinary things” – Neil Gershenfeld, American professor at MIT focused on physics and computer science

As a student that has access to many educational materials, I hesitate when I hear people diving head first into making educational resources “free.” The larger problem I experience and witness each day as a student is the grand challenge of turning information presented to us into our own knowledge. Combined with the uncertainty about why we should bother doing so, this is the tool that we lack to create significant learning experiences in our lives. Working to “pass” a course designed by people who I don’t know, and can’t seem to fully trust, to earn a degree that sometimes seems to have increasingly less value in a student’s mind than what the world seems to be marketing to us… I question the authenticity of a college degree’s value from time to time. 

Missing these fundamental “tools”, the nature and skills to learn, is the biggest issue facing students in college. When classmates tell me they don’t feel the need to invest in course materials because they’re not worth the price, that is a small piece of the larger issue – organizations may be able to fix this problem by providing affordable and accessible materials. However, when a student does not understand how the paid or included course material(s) will help them in learning what they are asked to learn, because they are already overwhelmed with all that they are juggling, AND don’t have the skills to learn the material that is necessary to pass, that’s a problem that will necessitate a larger change in mindset to equip students with effective and efficient learning tools. 

I recognize the skeptics and opposing viewpoints may argue that it is up to the student to develop the study skills, tools, motivation, and reasoning behind why they are a student in the first place… but I think we shouldn’t be so harsh on students, the customers of education, if our mission is to sustain and enhance a democratic society to empower students to achieve their goals as members of the workforce as global citizens.

I’ve seen that for many of my classmates that I have tutored and mentored, and for many of my co-workers from low income jobs in construction, In-n-Out, and Nordstroms, their hopes and dreams to bring their family out of poverty ends up coming to an abrupt end due to lacking the mindset, skills, and tools necessary to learn in a traditional college setting. This is the brutal reality that many professional educators and students experience each and every day. The difference is that students usually have a unique set of challenges professional educators do not have in their lives. Succeeding – let alone thriving – in college is not intuitive for many learners, however, I am hopeful because I know we are all on the same mission, and we can be the solution. 

One of the most important factors for myself and my friends, I don’t see being addressed thoroughly enough in college is how to differentiate information from knowledge. While students can get their hands on seemingly more information than they possibly seem to need, it’s never been harder to turn that information into knowledge. The Mission Critical Problem is the unclear understanding of the “why” should students bother creating significant learning experiences, and the “how” to do so, which is heavily reliant on the privileges and study skills, also known as tools, necessary for someone to be able to learn. Everyone reading this right now has skin in the game. We are invested, we want the most optimal outcomes, and not surprisingly to us, we are the solution. Without teaching & coaching students on how to navigate the “why” and the “how” to learn, we will all fall short of our mission to sustain and enhance a democratic society to empower students to achieve their goals as members of the workforce as global citizens. No matter how affordable or accessable our resources may be, when we don’t equip our students with these essential tools, we will fall short of our mission, “Time After Time” as Cyndi Lauper beautifully sang in her song.

In 2020, and moving forward, the design and development of (e)textbook business models have become increasingly important to learn and discuss to resolve affordability and accessibility in education. There are fundamental reasons textbooks require a system and model for them to exist in a competitive market, however I see many challenging problems in the processes of generating and publishing textbooks. Namely the fact that too many students lack the effective tools to turn information into knowledge. The scholars I interacted with at the Open Ed ‘19 conference and the CA STEAM Symposium ‘20 shared many insights with me about the future of textbooks and the future for publishers. I understand that the textbook publishing industry is transforming, which may significantly change how schools and teachers assign their resources for their students. I recognize this change will influence how publishers profit and how students obtain course materials. I have seen this paradigm shift being portrayed by physical textbooks turning to digital course materials; however, this shift does not encapsulate all the underlying changes in how course materials arise. Studying the decisions that professional educators make, which may be influenced by textbook models, have become a critical part of designing meaningful and accessible solutions for many generations to come. However this raises the question: whether or not accessible resources will actually critically address the mission critical problem of students not having the ability and skills to learn. The problems of educating students about “how” and “why” they will be able to learn what is asked of them, so that they can become the critical thinkers and decision makers afterwards, is the true mission we are all on. If we think otherwise, if we think our mission is solely introducing our students to concepts and ideas inside the discipline of course, without any focus on addressing the students ability to learn, then we will fall gravely short of our mission, “Time After Time.”

One of the themes I heard was the concept of subscription-based resource models for students, but I think this is off target of the mission critical problem, which is the how and why students are learning. At first glance, I saw the benefits of such subscription textbook models, but I know I own physical course material that I would not be able to afford to be “subscribed” to. For example, if I know I will be referencing my data structures and algorithms computer science material for many years to come, I would not want to pay a monthly fee just to be able to have access to this information. Not to mention the idea that not everyone has access to electricity, connectivity, and all the other requirements of online resources. This is the case for many of my tutees and peers. This particular circumstance creates a sour situation for consumers and generators. Not only is my investment in this subscription-based resource no longer sustainable, but it also no longer provides meaningful value to me. I understand the idea of being invested in our education, and that the fact that we’re paying for what we’re supposedly learning, makes us more effective. However, many of my peers, including myself, struggle with understanding how to turn already accessible resources into our own knowledge all the time. I have tutored students who can’t compose a single English sentence or solve a algebraic equation, and never did they come to me with a subscription based resource to solve their problem. I find it challenging to see how adding a daily fee to have access to resources will address our demands and challenges of learning: how to learn the material and continue learning from it. 

As my Foothill Community College professor Jeff Anderson articulated, “students have to believe what they do in the class truly matters in their lives. Therefore I will deliberately work to transform the learning we do in our classes to become part of how we think, what we want to do in our life, and what we believe is true about ourselves, as well as what we value.” Having shaper tools such as textbooks that cater directly towards the most meaningful learning objectives in a course is important – but if we don’t help the students understand how to use these tools, we will be missing the mark.

A page from my professor, Jeffrey Anderson’s linear algebra syllabus on his website: inspired by the book Creating Self-Regulated Learners by Linda B. Nilson

We must address the issue of students who aren’t successfully learning what we’re asking of them. Yes, in theory, students who preview course material before lecture, generate critical questions for themselves throughout a lecture, actively review key ideas from lecture within 24 hours of the event, go to office hours to get those questions answered, have mastery of prerequisite knowledge, have their lives in line to be able to learn etc., should be able to learn just fine. But have we really taught or modeled for our students how to do those steps meaningfully and thoughtfully? I certainly haven’t been taught any of those essential steps I just mentioned, besides from my professor Jeff. Even though Jeff has students who obtain A’s in the class, he refuses to let the majority of his class go through their academic journeys without equipping them with these tools. He refuses to think of his class as a gatekeeper to higher education, because he values his students dreams and aspirations, as well as their learning journey. I’ve heard opposing viewpoints about how students have to figure that stuff out on their own – but many don’t have the tools or the resources. I agree that professional educators also lack resources and time – I can’t imagine how much goes into their work. But without the prerequisite study skills, tools such as scheduling and setting specific measurable achievable relevant and timebound goals, it can be really difficult to learn critically and with purpose. I’m sure we all can empathize with that idea here, right? Even with the assumption that the information we are consuming is credible, vetted, accessible, and academically & peer-reviewed, this does not mean this information turns into knowledge in a student’s mind. And no, not all students should figure this out by having to fail or receive a C- in their class. I trust we can do better. This is where I would like to see a larger investment on: equipping students with tools like mindset, scheduling, lecture note systems, study skills, and understanding the reasoning behind their learning. In my next blog post and at the CreatorFest, I will be sharing platforms where my team and I look to address this issue thoughtfully. 

My math instructor Jeff Anderson, a Foothill Community College professor who has a PhD in Mathematics, has been tackling this “mission critical problem” a phrase he re-coined for me and my peers, by critically studying how learning works, cognitive psychology, public speaking, and neuroscience all while equipping his students these essential study skills and tools. Not only has he demonstrated this by publishing study skill activities and videos on his website, he has also conducted workshops, group office hours, and hosted activities on uncovering what it means to learn. I have shared these resources he has created with my tutees of many different majors, and witness them change their perspectives to learning dramatically during our year long tutoring journeys. 

“Leadership isn’t about being in charge, it’s about taking care of those in your charge” – Ryan Hawk.

My professor Jeff takes care of his students beautifully, by not solely completing a mathematical lecture according to the curriculum “standard”, or by “holding our hands”, but rather by doing his best to create significant learning experiences for his students and slowing down whenever necessary, so the majority of his students may be reminded of the how, which are the fundamental tools of learning, and the why, which is the reason I’m learning significantly in my life. This is a professional educator who has developed deep awareness as well as mindfulness, and has taken action to address the mission critical problem, of students losing hope because their tools are broken, in academia each and every day. 

Jeff’s significant learning experiences that he preaches and practices to his students, inspired from Creating Significant Learning Experiences by L. Dee Fink who he has met at Foothill College, and Make it Stick by Brown, Roediger III, and McDaniel.

I have also experienced Dr. Anderson cater his course material directly to his students by generating his own writing, math, and notation to support his lectures and our learning. This is someone who is willing to get down and dirty to help students connect to the material. What was inspirationally fascinating about this type of work was that the student learning outcomes in the class seemed to have been quite positive, because the sheer fact that students were able to (1) save money as the professor offered these materials for “free”, (2) witness the work and effort put in by the professor who shared his work with his students and articulated what it takes to compose that level of work, (3) help his students understand the concepts in his classes from first principles, which means understanding the how and why and (4) focus on material that directly align with the the outcomes of the class. I realize that asking all teachers to generate their own materials from scratch is unrealistic, because many educators are underappreciated and overworked; however, I do think it’s valuable for me to share this experience, and for teachers to begin thinking about how much of their assigned material for students is really being utilized in a meaningful way. It’s also important to ask how much of the resources they are requiring or suggesting their students to use is even accessible? One immediate step I know students could benefit from is a call to action on study skills and tools they need to succeed. For example: how to stay motivated, how to refine your goals, creating your weekly schedule, creating a lecture note system, organizing your course materials, utilize suggested problems. While trivial to the students who earn the A’s in the course, I would say the vast majority of students struggle with these fundamentals. The irony is that these fundamentals are what’s truly transferable toward their lifelong learning journey and future lives. 

I conducted some research on the Affordable Learning Solutions Immediate Access Program which I was directed to by a student assistant, Jenifer Vang, at San Jose State University’s Library. While this program has yet to be implemented here at SJSU, it has been at SDSU. The program gives student’s instant access to digital course materials until the drop deadline. This is a program that may resolve some issues of students not being “day one” ready. While I do not believe this program is essential nor sustainable for the ecosystem of all (e)textbooks, I think it does shine some light on the issues of whether resources are vital to student success. However, I know we have the skills and ability to develop and model the fundamental tools & resources for our students. I never forget the experiences I have had with those who don’t truly know how learning works (more than just do it), and just how transformative of an experience it was for them when I introduced these ideas tendered by Jeff. 

During my investigation, I came across an inclusive access model that Barnes & Noble College designed which is called First Day™. This is where digital course materials are included as an additional course charge for a particular course or program. This model is convenient for student use, as it provides an affordable option, and supports students to be prepared for the first day of class. How about we generate an inclusive access program that equips our students with the essential tools and mindsets toward learning?

What is not so promising is that textbook costs are still on the rise. According to the Financial aid and Scholarship Office of San José State, students spent an average of $2,002 on textbooks and supplies for the academic year 2018–’19. Previously, it was an average of $1,948. The rising cost of textbooks concerns students and faculty as it proves to be a barrier to student success. Initiated by the CSU Chancellor’s Office, the Affordable Learning Solutions campaign was created to provide access to inexpensive, accessible, and high-quality alternatives. However, I see the cost magnified when we have resources at our disposal, and we can’t seem to turn those resources into our own knowledge. 

Affordable Learning Solutions Principles:

Choice: Enables the discovery of course content, including commercial publisher content, library resources, and a wide array of open educational resources (OER).

Affordability: Technology and partnerships that reduce the cost of learning for students and the CSU.

Accessibility: Every student is entitled to high-quality education with access to all learning materials.

I learned from SJSU’s Archivist Carli Lowe, that the Affordable Learning Solutions (AL$) is operated by the University Library as it provides information on how to lower the cost of classroom materials for students by offering faculty a variety of low and no-cost educational resources known as Open Educational Resources (OER). Other resources include ebooks owned by the library, digital textbooks, open courseware, publishers’ repositories, the book rental program and textbooks on reserve in the library.

SJSU AL$ is made possible in collaboration with our campus partners: Center for Faculty Development, Accessible Education Center, Provost’s Office, Spartan Bookstore.

What is promising is that we are in the middle of a shift of traditional textbook models to innovative ecosystems of resources for students, all in support of our mission; to sustain and enhance a democratic society to empower students to achieve their goals as members of the workforce as global citizens. “Knowledge should not be in the domain of the privileged few,” Amanda Coolidge, associate director at British Columbia Campus. If we, students, faculty, staff, administrators, legislators, publishers can collaborate together to develop and provide meaningful and accessible solutions, such as addressing the why and how behind learning in this ecosystem, then we are solving the mission critical problem. I’d like to emphasize that creating these solutions requires more than Jeff. Engaging in making resources more affordable may feel like we are moving the needle, but regarding the mission critical problem I trust we can deliver more. Our values of lifelong learning must align to the resources we create, market, and maintain. As the journalist Anand Giridharadas observes, a couple of decades ago, businesses had monopolies on steel, now there have been monopolies on our mind and what we consume. Our students are desperate for real change to feel mobilized and actualized in traditional education. Whichever textbook model we may be invested in or are considering… whichever resource we are pointing our faculty and students to… whichever way you are conducting your work in supporting our mission: I encourage all of us to critically think about if those materials and approaches truly align with the student learning objectives. Only then will these resources provide significant meaningful value for all parties involved, and move the needle. 

Thought Activity Below: Where in the Life Cycle of A Book, can you make a difference?