NPR (KUAF) Interview

INTERVIEW April 15, 2010 with Lynn F. Jacobs and Jeremy S. Hyman, coauthors of the book Professors' Guide: The Secrets of College Success.

Kyle Kellams: You write in your book that this is the best time to go to college in the past 500 years. Why would you say that?

Lynn Jacobs: There is much more awareness now of the importance of going to college than there was even 10 years ago. And there are so many more people going to college--19 million, at last count. Especially here in Arkansas, we see a lot of people who are the first person in their family to go to college. And we see a lot of people coming back who didn't finish college -- never got around to going to college. With globalization, and with the realization that people in this country need to have more advanced skills in a lot of areas (otherwise their jobs will be shipped out and outsourced), college assumes much greater significance. On the other hand, from the college side there is tremendous awareness that faculty need to really think carefully and rethink the way they train the students, and the services that they provide students.

Kyle: When you think of the investment that a family or a student will put into college -- and to some degree, the investment the college puts into each student -- it makes sense that professors work to get the best out of their students that they can.

Jeremy Hyman: I think professors are funny animals. One the one hand, professors would really like students to do well, to learn well. But professors are really reluctant to give the recipe for doing well. Now there are a variety of reasons for this. Sometimes professors simply haven't thought about it. Sometimes professors don't want to waste valuable class time --after all, there are only 40 or 50 classes available. But sometimes professors think that students are supposed to learn this on their own. That's part of what going to college is. Part of what going to college is learning to do the hoops of college. This is something students are often badly equipped to do, we've found.

Kyle: Well, you list for the students who would be reading this and getting ready for college some nuts and bolts, including just the idea, hey, sometimes grading is outsourced. And that can be a surprising thing for an 18 year-old to find out sometimes.

Jeremy: It's true. In many universities, our university, for example, half the courses are taught by non-regular faculty. You have graduate students teaching, you sometimes have adjuncts or visiting professors. This issue is going to change both the nature and the community of college. It used to be that there was a core of people who formed an interest group. Now often the students are more transitory, there are a lot of transfer students, there are a lot of transitory faculty. The other thing, though, is the community has expanded. A broader community is, in many ways, a better community.

Kyle: You do write -- I think one of the best pieces of advice in the book is that you, the college student, you're in charge.

Jeremy: There is much less advising in college. Colleges are understaffed. But the other thing is, with the rise of the Internet, a lot of this stuff is being done online. In the past, students would go see a faculty adviser. Now, often they go to a Web site, they pick their courses, and that's the program they have. Much more self-service. This is where I think the opportunity for self-help comes in. This is where having experienced professors like Lynn and myself to give advice fits very much into the university culture.

Kyle: One bit of advice you offer is that it's never good to procrastinate. Why is this so important?

Lynn: I think we all need to know this because things never get better. The longer you delay, the worse it gets. And a lot of students really misestimate the amount of time it takes to do a task well. And so, I always get a flurry of people right near a project due date, coming, running in, and you can tell they haven't gotten nearly as far as they should have been at this point. Procrastination really leads to a lot of work that just isn't as good as it could be, and it's a shame because, of course, students have wasted opportunities to learn because they've put it off to a time when it's really not possible to do a good job.

Kyle: A lot of what is discussed in The Secrets of College Success is communication -- whether it's face-to-face communication with a professor, whether it is via email, or office hours, or after the lecture -- that's kind of at the heart of this, isn't it?

Lynn: Yeah. I think that is so important in the university because a lot of the problems in education are really disconnects in terms of communication. This is a basic problem when you're trying to have one person talk to a group of people. This does not work nearly as well as a one-on-one. And so, in any group of students, you could give the simplest advice and there will be people in the room who just don't get it. I was just grading a set of papers and I had given, I thought, the clearest instructions you could possibly give. And I'm reading paper after paper where nobody's doing it. So I went back to the assignment and I said, Maybe I forgot to put that in. And, of course, it was all there, clear as the light of day.

But it's difficult. And sometimes what happens is a student has patterns or habits of doing things and you come in and say, 'This is the way I want it done,' but the student just doesn't connect and reverts to his or her habit. And hence they really don't improve or develop intellectually. And so that's why we really emphasize for students to try to go talk to their professors in some way or other. Either e-mail, coming to the office hour or Skype if a professor is using it, or through a Facebook page. These are all ways that the communication can improve, and with it, the quality of a college education.

Kyle: What about electronic research?

Jeremy: College is about information -- the transmission, the sharing, the discovery of new information. Often students, the modalities they use to do this are too basic. A student given a research paper might do a Wiki search, a Google search -- and the depth of information, the targets, the destinations they reach often are not the right ones. It's very important, I think, and one of the focuses of our book, is to train them and offer quick tips in how they can locate the relevant information.

Kyle: You write in your book that there is a student 'bill of rights.'

Jeremy: A tongue-in-cheek 'bill of rights.'

Lynn: But certainly students do have rights. They are paying for their education -- often big bucks -- and they deserve to get a good education. And one of the things that we want students to do is to demand a good education. Unfortunately, if you look at sites like, you find that what gets a good rating is how easy a class is. And this isn't something we think is good. We think students shouldn't be happy with easy courses. I keep always saying, 'Suppose you hired a personal trainer, would you be happy -- would you go, 'This is a great personal trainer. He just lets me sit on the couch, eat cookies. He doesn't actually make me work out.'

Jeremy: Not to mention the dreaded chili pepper. Do you know about that?

Kyle: Oh, yeah. How hot your professor is. But, seriously, shouldn't professors care about their teaching?

Jeremy: Professors, no matter how they look, should be concerned about how they present the material. Students are used to brief bursts of content, the 140 character Twitter feed, the two-minute YouTube video. Professors, on the other hand -- and we talk about this in the book -- have lectures set up as 50-minute units, divided into two or three or four different sub-units. With the result that the student who is zoning in and out, looking for brief bursts of content, is likely to be disappointed and to miss important course content.

Kyle: But whose responsibility is it there? I mean if you're, I don't know, discussing photosynthesis, should it be the professor's responsibility to find those bursts'

Jeremy: Well, I think that, since it's the professor's job to teach the students where they are, this has to be a joint enterprise. I think that if students are used to getting content in different ways, at different lengths, with more pauses, with more redundancies, the faculty ought to be addressing that. Some faculty are a little slow on the uptake.

Kyle: Are there any other issues that the proliferation of technology has raised for college students?

Lynn: Yeah, the issue of attendance at all. One of the main tips we always offer up in all our presentations and books is the tip, 'Get your ass to class.' And you wouldn't have thought that this would be a salient issue, but it turns out it is, especially now that students can, for example, see selected courses on the web, can have their friends record their classes, bring home audio recordings. I think it's an open question and a challenge to universities what value does the in-person lecture afford students? What's the takeaway value for me hauling my ass out of bed at 8 a.m. to get to class when I can watch a video on the web that evening at my convenience and perhaps learn better? And this is exacerbated or ameliorated (depending on how you see this) by the MIT OpenCourseWare program, which has put the whole university, all the courses on the web. This, I think, is an important thing, about how the new information age will affect college teaching and what value accrues to the in-class experience.

Kyle: One of the things I really like about the book is, here are 15 things to do the week before your college experience begins. They're sensible, they're straightforward, but, you know, there are people who don't have these in front of them, don't know about them, and it does make the college experience better.

Jeremy: I think for many students, the transition, the leap from high school to college requires a tremendous amount of reconfiguring. At high school you have someone to stand over you to give you quizzes, to give you tests. For example, my son gets grades every day on the web. He can look up how he's doing. The constant tracking and monitoring is totally absent at college. Professors might have four, five, six hundred students in an intro class and they just can't track them one by one. And even the early progress reports that are sent out if you're doing badly in a course--in the sixth week, you get a report back saying you're not passing the class -- six weeks out of fourteen, the class is half done.

Kyle: The book will be available when?

Lynn: July 26th, wherever books are sold. It's published by Wiley Publishing. It's at a good price, too. $15.95 is the cover, but it's been pre-announced at major stores like Barnes and Noble and Amazon, at slightly over $10. Which if you think about it, is the price of a medium pizza.

Kyle: With toppings. People can go to Facebook or Twitter to find out more.

Lynn: Or our own web page,

Kyle: Alright. What else should we know? Anything else?

Jeremy: Yeah. There is one other thing to say about the tips. The 640-odd tips in the book -- students often might think that the book is itself a hurdle to be overcome. But each of the tips stands on its own. If a student reads through the book and decides to implement three tips from the book--tips that will work for them and make up for deficiencies they might have --they'll see results.

Kyle: Thanks very much for coming on.

Lynn: Thanks for having us.

Jeremy: It was fun.