October 2, 2015

First-Year Mathematics: More Methods, Less Madness

Just in time for your looming first math exams, here are some expert tips from math professors and graduate students on how to approach your work and improve your understanding of math:

Making Connections, Moving Past Procedures.  Let's face it: a monkey can plug numbers into a calculator; that's not your goal. You want to understand what you're doing.

The biggest difficulty is that students are often much more focused on a "plug and chug" learning that demonstrates they can put numbers into a formula and calculate an answer. But, hitting the right buttons on the calculator does NOT mean that you fully understand the concept and when/how it is used. That type of learning can be useful for quizzes, but does not prepare you for the conceptual understanding and applying concepts that is required on exams.

First-year Rutgers students have the advantage of taking courses with highly-esteemed mathematicians knowledgeable about the applications of content as well as the logic behind mathematical algorithms and procedures.  A conceptual understanding of mathematics allows one to make sense of the WHY's and HOW's of mathematical procedures for a more interconnected knowledge base of the discipline.  

Effective studying does require some advanced planning. Many mathematics instructors will include a list of suggested and required homework problems to complete in their syllabi. Take a look at the amount and complexity of homework problems that are assigned for the course. Use this list to gauge your competency with the material PRIOR to lecture and recitations so you will be ready to pose your most pressing struggles with the material. 

PRE-READING the section before attending the lecture helps you to follow along and will either give you more confidence or will begin to signal areas of difficulty.  Next, complete as many problems from a particular section as you can before preparing for the next section.  Keep note of the questions that you can't answer on your own and try to look them up online or in the solutions manual. 
EXAM REVIEW is essential to patching any holes in your understanding before moving forward. Review the exam and all problems that you got wrong; meet with your TA to review any errors that you don’t fully understand. The only thing worse than losing points for a mistake on the first exam is losing points on subsequent exams for the same mistake!

Getting Help. Once you’ve made a real effort,  go to office hours! If you're still not getting it, you will be able to ask questions about specific problems or ideas, and get more effective help from the TA. Even if you feel confident in your approach, office hours are a terrific opportunity to hear other students’ questions and deepen your understanding of mathematical content beyond what can be addressed in an 80-minute class period. Meet with the TA, professor, and/or tutor at the campus learning center prior to an examination (and throughout the semester).  Remember that tutoring is not just to learn concepts that you don't understand; it's also for really mastering material and seeing connections between concepts. It's about gaining conceptual – versus rote – knowledge.

For exam preparations, find out the structure of the exam in advance.  Is it proof-based? Calculator, no calculator, or half and half? These are valid questions. "What's on the exam?" is not. Practice problems under actual exam conditions.  Also, know when and where your exams are! Some exams are given in the usual classroom and at the usual class time. And others, generally called common-hour exams, are not in the usual time and place, so you need to pay particular attention to those details. After all, you can only be successful at a test that you actually take.

Additionally, the mathematics department posts samples of past examinations. Search the "CourseMaterials" section of the Math website to find review sheets and sample exams. YouTube or Khan Academy can be used for additional support, particularly in peer study groups. These sites may provide a new way of "seeing" a problem or concept with which you're struggling in understanding.

Keep in mind that math is a truly cumulative subject. With strong understanding of how basic concepts are interconnected, you can build higher levels and form a conceptual understanding of mathematics, but with a weak foundation, you'll struggle in your work as you move higher. 

Thanks to John Kerrigan, Alice Seneres, and Luis Leyva for the words of wisdom!

September 14, 2015

In Memory of Dean Paula Van Riper

Rutgers, the School of Arts and Sciences, and the SAS Academic Advising staff have lost a colleague and friend with the passing of Dean Paula Van Riper on August 20, 2015. Dean Van Riper was the Director of Advising at SAS and had been the heart of the Livingston advising center at Lucy Stone Hall since 1990 and the days of Livingston College. 

A gentle, but never weak, soul, Dean Paula Van Riper was a tireless student advocate. She welcomed students warmly and gave them a patient and knowledgeable response, even lightening the mood with gentle teasing. She was that favorite aunt who offered both sympathetic ear and gentle kick in the pants to get you back on the right path, particularly for those students who were struggling or confused. She took great joy in her students. Those of us who worked beside her reveled in her stories and characteristic good humor, maintained even in the face of professional frustrations and personal setbacks. We marvel still at how she never let her challenges affect her work. 

Diagnosed with Multiple Myeloma in 1999, Paula Van Riper fought cancer for 16 years, becoming a patient advocate and founding the Central NJ Multiple Myeloma support group. Just as she served students through her career, she served those in the Multiple Myeloma community -- with information, patience, good humor and a sympathetic and caring presence. As a friend shared of her at her memorial service, "Cancer may have killed you, but you never let it beat you." Indeed, as she explained to CureTalk about her reaction to her long battle with cancer: "I find time to laugh and enjoy my co-workers, friends and family each and every day. I truly do not ‘sweat the small stuff’. So much of life’s inconveniences are the small stuff." 

Paula was particularly a friend of the SAS Froshblog, and always wrote to acknowledge and celebrate a new post. She took particular joy in our silly colloquial expressions. A recent response that so completely demonstrates Paula's way of being in the world:

"Once again the Frosh Blog is written in a chatty, friendly manner, chocked full of sensible advice. Providing the pros and cons that most students are not knowledgeable enough to be able to articulate and nor should we expect them to do so.
Love the "obvi" - too old to know that current colloqualism. This blog info has a universal message....thinking about how the rest of us can apply it!
Stay warm and I am sure you are pleased it is - TGIF!
Miss you all, Paula"

So, it is on behalf of the thousands of students whose lives you touched and the colleagues and friends who have learned much from your example that we pause to thank you, Paula, for the gift of your love and friendship and service. Our world is sadder and darker for the absence of your light. But as we managed the usual hectic school opening this past week, many of us took solace in doing your work: offering students our best to help them achieve their best. 

We hope we've made you proud
Contributions may be made in Paula's memory to the International Myeloma Foundation, Miracles for Myeloma Central Jersey Fund

September 4, 2015

Carpe Diem, Rutgers! Advice from a Professor

Today's guest blogger is Dr. Charles Häberl, a professor in the AMESALL department, who offers five great recommendations about exploring your academic options at Rutgers:

Discover Yourself

You likely chose Rutgers with a specific major in mind. Don’t be alarmed, but history and experience tell us that you may throw out all those ideas before you even declare your major next year.

Remember, Rutgers is not just another four years tacked onto high school. Here, you’ll be exposed to entirely new experiences—many good, some bad—and through them, you'll likely find a bunch of new interests that you didn’t even know you had. Maybe you came here wanting to be a doctor, but now the sight of blood makes you squeamish. Perhaps your ambition is to be an engineer, but calculus keeps kicking your butt. You may plan to be the next Toni Morrison or Junot Díaz, but find you’ve got a terminal case of Writer’s Block.

No worries! If you keep an open mind here, you WILL discover your passion, and that will inevitably translate into better grades and a successful career.  Being a mediocre student at something you THINK will guarantee a job may make you miss out on your calling. In the "real world," your passion and your GPA will matter more than the subject that appears on your degree.

Challenge Yourself

Don’t take a course simply because it is required or you hear that it's a GPA booster. Let both your mind and your heart be your guides as you review the course listings and finalize your fall schedule. Part of discovering yourself is finding the courage to try new things and experience different perspectives on the world.

This may be your first experience away from your hometown and your comfort zone. At first, the myriad perspectives of your classmates and your faculty may seem odd or even alienating. Avoid opportunities to simply surround yourself with people with like minds, interests, and backgrounds. Learning how to navigate, tolerate, and even celebrate differences in people and ideas is probably THE MOST IMPORTANT SKILL you will learn at Rutgers.

A willingness to SEEK OUT new subjects to learn will serve you well. Your eight short semesters will be your best opportunity to be flexible. As you grow older and establish families and careers, you will find it more and more difficult to learn new things and tread unusual paths.

Study a Language (or two, or three, or…)

Rutgers is one of the most multi-linguistic campuses in the world, offering classes in more world languages than you can even imagine.  Hungarian, Sanskrit, Japanese, Swahili, Twi, Korean, German, Filipino, Italian, Polish…the globe is the limit!

Yes, learning a second (or third, or fourth…) language will open new scholarly and cultural doors for you and help make you a well-rounded adult. But, language fluency is also a path to a lucrative career.  The US Bureau of Labor Statistics has identified Translation and Interpretation as the 5th fastest growing career, particularly in the legal and medical fields.

Don’t delay, though: fluency takes time and practice! Ideally, you should start language study in your first or second year to enable you to build fluency. You also open the door to a possible Study Abroad plan or even a second major or minor in the language.

Embrace Electives
The best kept secrets at Rutgers are our electives: electives (those courses that are NOT just Intro-to-Your-Major) are routinely rated higher by students than required courses. You need 120 credits to graduate, and even after your SAS Core and major/minor courses, you’re still guaranteed to be a few credits short. Bridge this gap with electives. Not only will you likely enjoy those electives more than your required courses, but you might discover a new interest!

The course I remember most vividly from my own college experience was an elective course on Russian Fantasy and Science Fiction. It had absolutely nothing to do with my major, but twenty years later, I remember the professor (Alexander Levitsky), all the authors (Andrei Bely, Alexander Bogdanov, Mikhail Bulgakov, Nikolai Gogol, Fyodor Sologub, Ivan Yefremov… there was A LOTof reading), and the books (still found in a favored space on my bookshelf). I must have taken dozens of other courses, but none that I remember with the fondness that I do that one elective.

Read the Syllabus

READ THE SYLLABUS. Seriously. It’s THE strategy and FAQ guide to your course. Your professor has crafted it specifically to give you great information about the class. Most of the answers to your questions about the course are there - In the syllabus. If you really want to get your professor hella mad, ask a question about something that is covered in the syllabus. I don't recommend this, though…

Good luck in your journey at Rutgers!
Dr. Charles Häberl is a professor in the African, Middle East, and South Asian Languages and Literatures (AMESALL) department and instructor of the very cool, Languages in Peril course (013:305).

August 25, 2015

"On Wednesdays we park in the Scarlet Lot": A commuter's guide to fitting in at RU

Unless you work at Google or LinkedIn or another magical place where you work from home, when you have a full-time job, you'll likely drive to work, park, work, get back in your car, and drive home. That's just the nature of working for a living. 

For commuter students, that may be how you intend to approach coming to Rutgers: drive to campus, park, take the bus to class, sit through class, get back in your car, and drive home. It's expedient, but it's not much fun. And it's definitely not helpful in your transition to or experience of college life.
Ask anyone how commuter students should become part of the Rutgers community and you always get the same good answer: GET INVOLVED ON CAMPUS. Now whether the “get involved” battle cry elicits an eye roll or a “yea, that makes sense” from you, it's difficult advice to follow. Especially when it seems as though on-campus students are rolling deep from day 1, it can be hard to go to events (or even walk into class) alone. But alone you are NOT. There are about 1200 of you in the incoming class, and you are an important part of our community… so how to make it feel that way? Being involved looks different for everyone, according to your comfort level and your interests. To make things a little easier, here are some ideas for your first steps to joining the RU community and setting a strong foundation for success ‘on the banks’:

1. Attend OCSA (Off Campus Students' Association) functions to meet other commuters. These are the other people you see in the parking lot; there are more of you than you know, and you are ALL trying to figure out how to meet new people. OCSA has two events next week: Navigating the Banks (August 27) and the Commuter Reception (August 29). Check out all the Welcome Week activities! 

2. Once you've met a new friend or two at the OCSA events, plan to meet them at the Student Involvement Fair to discover all the clubs and activities at RU. 

3. Come to campus! REALLY! Attend other Welcome Week activities and sessions to help you find out more about your new home away from home. As a commuter, you have a leg up for the RUPA Scavenger Hunt because you have your own wheels to get around campus!

4. Attend an RU Football Game (even if you don't love football…sssh, we won’t tell). Students get free tickets to Rutgers sporting events, which is one of the best ways to feel school spirit and pride in becoming a Scarlet Knight. Coordinate with your new friends (see 1, 2 and 3 above) to go to the same game, then wear red, paint your face, learn our fight song and get loud.

5. Find the closest Rec Center and sign up for a fitness class. It's bonding through sweat and struggling, and you may recognize a face or two from your classes. Before you know it, you’ll catch on to the gym nicknames and tell people that you’re going to “Werb”! 

6. Mingle with residents. As a commuter you are welcome as guests in our residence halls for study groups, group projects and socializing. On the flip side, your access to the outside world can be a huge help to your residential friends…especially here in the land of malls and shoreline.

7. Resist leaving campus the minute your class is done. Go hang out at the OCSA lounge (Busch Student Center, Room 122B) and form study groups and find study space specifically on campus. Some of our favorite study places: the Red Lion Café in the CASC, the quiet study room and the Cove in Busch Student Center, the high tables on the 2nd floor bridge between the Livi Student Center and the Livi Dining Commons, and the wingback chairs in the NJC Lounge at Douglass Student Center.

8. Make campus connections on Twitter and Instagram – search #Rutgers to find offices and RU scenes, and follow @RutgersU @RUInfo, @DailyTargum, @RUOCSA and @SASadvising, as well as fellow students. Don’t forget to take and post your own travels around RU and give your friends a shoutout. 

9. Pick up the Daily Targum every day and keep up on all the campus news. Look for Targum drop boxes in all the student centers and many classroom buildings on campus.

10. Schedule an advising appointment for late September/early October to meet an adviser and discuss how things are going. Even if you feel like you don’t have questions, make the appointment! The adviser will ask you questions and help you think about your academic transition and plans. 

 Graduation seems a very long way away, but history has proven that the most successful students at Rutgers and beyond are those who don't just drive by, but who become part of this amazing community (Shoutout to Matt Ferguson & the New Student Orientation staff for the excellent reminder):

August 13, 2015

From Course Request to Schedule: A Magical Journey

Dean Frosh always hears the strains of the Schoolhouse Rock music when she contemplates how schedules are created. Just like Schoolhouse Rock's guide to how a bill becomes a law, your schedule is created in a multi-step, intricate dance of information, ideas and realities. While you're waiting patiently for the schedule reveal on August 20, we thought we'd take you on the journey of how your early academic ideas become a schedule. 

We happily, and noisily, welcomed many of you to an Academic Planning & Advising Day, where you spent a long day hearing about your requirements and course options and met with deans, professors and peer advisers. You completed a course request form: making some choices for your classes and providing us with information about your academic plans and aspirations. 

Some of you entertained us with pictures or notes of inspiration to make us smile when we were reviewing thousands of forms. Here are some of our favs...

We added your writing and math placements to the mix and made some adjustments. Then, AP scores arrive and we make more adjustments. We do it again when IB results and transcripts with college credits appear on our doorstep.

All of your reviewed choices and alternates get entered into a web-based system (some of you even did this yourself instead of using a paper form). This sectioning system runs ONCE, and only once. While we're adjusting course requests, the Housing Office is spending their summer making room assignments. These two processes intersect in late July, so your course requests connect with your campus housing assignments. That doesn't mean you won't travel to other campuses, but it attempts to minimize your time on the bus. 

Throughout May and June and in early July, we're also busy with your emails because you've changed your mind or are responding to questions we had for you. "Why are you interested in taking Calculus when your intended major doesn't require it?" is one of my favorite emails to send, fancying rescuing a student from my own fate taking Calculus as an English and Journalism major. 

The other largely invisible detail is that many, many Rutgers offices send us lists of those of you taking advantage of our special programs which impact your schedule: DRC, the RU-TV Broadcast Communication community and other learning communities, student athletes, ROTC cadets/midshipmen, etc. We also work hard to accommodate religious observances that impact course timing.

And then SECTIONING RUNS. Dean Frosh likes to envision it as a humongous lottery hopper where all the classes spin wildly in the air before setting into your schedule. This year, sectioning created 6086 schedules, 3437 for SAS students. And then we're done and can go on vacation for the rest of the summer, right? Well, not exactly. 

Much like the bill goes from sub-committee to committee to the Senate to the House, the schedules are real, but they're not done. All 3437 are reviewed for issues. By human eyes. Some come back part-time and need courses added, some are at waaay too many credits and need something dropped, and some include errors like Saturday or online classes. We also continue to make adjustments based on more APs and transcripts, summer courses, and cancelled classes. It all starts to look something like this:

All of these changes, tweaks, reviews happen up until the moment of schedule reveal on August 20 – and even after that we continue to adjust for APs and transcripts and time/travel conflicts. Plus, incredibly, new students are still completing their course requests, so we take a break from updating schedules to create their schedules. Sheer volume is one of the reasons we don't take change requests for classes in August. We just can't efficiently manage one-by-one requests for changes in any fair manner that would serve you all and get all of the tasks done correctly.

The other, and more important, reason is that as new students, you need to learn how to use webreg and how to manage your own preferences! Come November, you'll be doing all of your own registering online. So, on August 20, you will receive a good, but probably not perfect, schedule to get you started. And once you get to campus, we will be running sessions on Monday, August 31 to teach you how to make changes and use webreg. Look for dates/times on your Welcome Week orientation schedule and at the SAS Advising website.

We hope this little journey through the life of a schedule helps you understand the process involved in creating your schedule. Your deans and advisers are excited to welcome you to Rutgers and look forward to working with you, helping you, and answering all of your academic questions as you settle in to your life in college. And just remember...