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Not-So-Standardized Testing

Controversy Surrounds Unconventional SAT Essay Prompt

March 16, 2011

Not-So-Standardized Testing

by Alexis Mattera

This past Saturday, one-third of high school students taking the SAT opened their writing sections and were met with a prompt that even the most extensive prep courses couldn’t have prepared them for. The topic? Reality television and its impact on its viewers.

While the prompt didn’t ask test-takers to cite specific shows or characters (as a New York Daily News headline suggests), SAT owner the College Board has been called culturally insensitive because the question assumes all students have a television, watch reality television and watch enough reality television to distinguish between them. Angela Garcia, executive director of the SAT program, responded that all essay prompts are pretested with students and then reviewed "to ensure that they are easily understood and that each student has an opportunity to respond, and is wide-ranging enough for a student to demonstrate their writing skills." Still, students, parents and school officials are equal parts distraught and confused, anxiously awaiting to see how answers to this question will impact scores.

Standardized testing – whether it’s about changes to existing exams or the decision to make submitting scores optional – is a hot topic as of late and now, we want to hear from you. Did you receive the reality prompt? How did you respond? Do you think you would have fared better if you were given a different prompt? Do you think the SAT (or standardized testing in general) is an accurate measure of a student’s worth?


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Social Media and the Job Market

Online Identity Matters to Potential Employers

May 9, 2011

Social Media and the Job Market

by Alexis Mattera

It’s that time of year again when the inboxes of hiring managers are overflowing with applications from recent college graduates looking to score that coveted first job. But today, in addition to reviewing resumes, cover letters and references, employers are taking candidates’ online identities into account when deciding who will receive an offer letter.

The National Association of Colleges and Employers’ most recent report on job studies, of the 46 percent of companies surveyed by CareerBuilder that are looking to hire recently graduated workers, 16 percent of them are seeking candidates who are adept at using social media. But there's a catch: While a candidate that's active on Facebook and Twitter is good, the one with proficiency in Google Analytics and knowledge about new industry developments is more likely to get an interview.

To make the best virtual impression, less is more says Steve Schwartz, executive vice president of consumer services at risk management company Intersections – not only will untagging unsavory photos and eliminating excessive personal information help boost your online image but it could also prevent identity theft – and Monica Wilson, acting co-director of career services at Dartmouth College suggests being more cognizant of what you post and when you post it. (This advice also translates to students applying to college.)

Recent or soon-to-be college grads, does your online presence require a little spring cleaning before you enter the job market?


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Oregon Students’ Nutty (and Delicious) Idea

Non-Business Majors Find Success with Peanut Butter Start-Up

May 10, 2011

Oregon Students’ Nutty (and Delicious) Idea

by Alexis Mattera

When dining halls are closed and hunger strikes, college students with limited funds find some pretty creative ways to prevent their stomach growls from waking their roommates. However, this is the most interesting way I’ve heard yet...not to mention the most lucrative and delicious.

University of Oregon students Keeley Tillotson and Erika Welsh found themselves in a quandary this past January when they ran out of peanut butter but instead of heading to the store for a jar, the pair threw some whole peanuts and other pantry items (raisins, chocolate and cinnamon) into their food processor. When the mixture elicited mmmmmmms instead of ewwwwwwws from friends, Tillotson and Welsh launched Flying Squirrel Peanut Butter into the universe. And it looks like it’s sticking around.

Tillotson, a journalism major, and Welsh, an environmental studies and Spanish major, claim they didn’t set out to create a business – “We’re filling a niche we didn’t know existed,” Tillotson said; adds Welsh, “We have so much faith in our product.” – but now their plans include full-fledged careers after college filled with cafés, ice creams and additional flavors of their signature product.

Have an equally creative idea that’s yet to take flight? Let Tillotson and Welsh be your inspiration! Learn more about Flying Squirrel here, here and here; just try not to drool on your keyboard.

P.S. I’m totally ordering some.


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What’s So Special About Specialized Majors?

Narrowing Your Focus is Both Risky and Rewarding

May 11, 2011

What’s So Special About Specialized Majors?

by Alexis Mattera

Starting college with a specific idea what you want to do with your life can make choosing a major, selecting classes and finding internships much easier than the decisions facing your undecided roommate. But is that specificity better? The answer is yes...and no. Well, actually, it’s a maybe.

With the increasing demand for expertise in narrow fields, some schools are putting programs in place to produce candidates perfectly suited for these niche jobs. SUNY at Albany, for example, has opened a College of Nanoscale Science to meet what The National Science Foundation estimates will be about 2 million workers with nanotechnology-centric backgrounds needed by 2014. The results so far are promising – even first-year students have already been offered summer internships with companies like Intel and IBM – but is this kind of specialization always wise?

To an extent, but career counselors, hiring consultants and academic officials think it’s more important for students to diversify their undergraduate years. Industry-specific skill sets may get a graduate into their chosen field faster but may severely limit career flexibility down the line. You may think you know your ideal career path but wait until you’ve taken a wide enough variety of classes to be sure...especially when employers report they value soft skills like effective communication, critical thinking and problem solving over precise training.

What do you think? Should you specialize right away or sample what your school has to offer before making a potentially life-changing decision?


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Full Internet Access During Exams? Ja, in Denmark

Danish University Hopes Strategy Will Quell Cheating

May 12, 2011

Full Internet Access During Exams? Ja, in Denmark

by Alexis Mattera

Here in the U.S., surfing the Internet during class is usually frowned upon and accessing the web during an exam could warrant an automatic failing grade. Overseas, however, Internet usage in these situations will not only be allowed but encouraged to – among other things – inhibit cheating.

The University of Southern Denmark has announced that by January 2012, all exams will be transferred to a digital platform and administered via Internet software. In addition to making it possible for faculty to create tests aligned with course content that would better assess students’ problem solving prowess, analytical skills and ability to discuss particular topics, e-learning project coordinator Lise Petersen said this program presented an innovative solution to academic dishonesty. "One way of preventing cheating is by saying nothing is allowed and giving students a piece of paper and a pen," she said. "The other way is to say everything is allowed except plagiarism. So if you allow communication, discussions, searches and so on, you eliminate cheating because it’s not cheating anymore. That is the way we should think."

Do you think Southern Denmark’s plan is an effective one or an approach that will breed more academic dishonesty? What’s your school’s stance on Internet usage in class?


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All Media Are Not Created Equal

Tablet, Smartphone Interest Soars While E-books Fail to Gain Traction

May 13, 2011

All Media Are Not Created Equal

by Alexis Mattera

With the popularity of wireless computing devices among college students, it would seem that e-textbooks would be just as attractive for this tech-savvy generation. Not so, according to a new survey: The printed textbook is still the big man on campus.

Student Monitor’s survey of 1,200 full-time students at four-year institutions revealed that although 54 percent of respondents owned smartphones, 87 percent owned laptops and nearly 50 percent reported interest in purchasing a wireless reading device, only 5 percent of respondents purchased access to an e-textbook this spring – and usually only because professors required them to. The proportion of students who rented at least one printed textbook, however, doubled to 24 percent from last spring. With campus bookstores and independent sites like Chegg.com making book rental easier and more available, the trend is only expected to grow: Thirty-six percent of underclassmen said they are either likely or very likely to rent at least one textbook next semester.

The main reason students are renting textbooks instead of buying the electronic versions? The savings, which were reported as about $127. With that kind of money back in the bank, students could splurge on their other "likes" the survey revealed...or maybe get a head start paying off some of those student loans. Which side are you on in the textbook debate – Team E-book or Team Rental – and why?


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The Unique Challenges Facing Online Students

by Alexis Mattera

For the past two years, I have attended college entirely online. For some people, the idea of going to school online is like wading into a swamp – terrifying even to contemplate – but for me, online learning has been a dream.

This doesn't mean, however, that online classes are for everyone. Quite frankly, those of us who are not self-starters are not suited for online schooling. E-learning has deadlines, exams and papers just like traditional learning but teachers don't always remind students when assignments are due as they would in a traditional classroom, since they assume students who choose to take classes online are responsible enough to keep up with the coursework. In addition, e-learning is difficult for students who learn by listening to lectures; for online classes, lectures are provided in a visual format and some people find the fairly lengthy notes difficult to read through. Finally, although most teachers are willing and able to address any concerns online students have, students are largely expected to overcome obstacles themselves. Consequently, online students are encouraged to be much more independent than traditional students.

For me, this sense of independence is both liberating and empowering. I have been forced to adapt to an environment where I have minimal supervision and am required to make my own decisions. My achievements as a self-motivated individual have transcended to other areas of my life, such as my interpersonal relationships. I have grown as a person and as a thinker as a result of being an online student and I am proud to say I have completed my entire associate degree online. Although online learning may not be for everyone, the rewards of being a self-motivated individual have far exceeded the costs of online learning for me.

Lisa Lowdermilk is a soon-to-be published author, an avid video gamer and an artist. Her first novel is a murder mystery for young adults set in the future. She enjoys watching thrillers, trying different restaurants and attempting to breakdance. Lisa completed her Associate of Arts degree entirely online and is now majoring in professional writing at the University of Colorado Denver.


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Dartmouth’s New Metadata Game Makes Tagging Archives Fun

by Alexis Mattera

If you have a Facebook account, you have probably been tagged in at least one photo. It could be an image of you participating in an extracurricular activity, attending a sporting event with friends or maybe even elementary school you sporting bangs that Mom cut with kitchen scissors but people looking at the picture will know who it is they are looking at. Many universities, however, haven’t had that same luxury in tagging their archives but a Dartmouth College professor is aiming to change that in order to make years of information more accessible to all.

Mary Flanagan, a professor of digital humanities who’s also an artist and designer, has created Metadata Games, an experiment in harnessing the power of the crowd to create archival metadata. Since many schools don’t have the resources to tag their archives as thoroughly as possible, Flanagan’s program turns what could be a tedious process into a game that invites players to tag images. Interesting, right? What’s more exciting is that this tagging process is working: During the pilot phase, players generated 6,250 tags and more than 90 percent of the metadata was useful. “Games are becoming more and more part of what people want to do,” Flanagan said. “What you’re doing in games matters. Games are meaning-making machines.” Plus, it’s a lot of fun!

You can learn more about Metadata Games here but based on what you’ve read so far, do you think this program is a useful one?


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Thiel Fellowship Pays Students to Leave School, Develop Ideas

by Alexis Mattera

Here at Scholarships.com, all of our resources are geared toward helping students prepare for and afford college educations...not leave them behind. That being said, this new award probably won’t be popping up in our database any time soon.

Peter Thiel, the co-founder of PayPal and the first outside investor in Facebook, announced the inaugural recipients of the Thiel Fellowship, a program that will bestow 24 students with $100,000 each to not attend college for two years and develop business ideas instead. The driving force behind the fellowship is Thiel’s concern about the “irrational” increase in cost and demand for college educations and his belief that certain students would learn more by leaving school than continuing traditional coursework.

Not surprisingly, heated debates have erupted in academic circles – William K. Aulet, managing director at MIT's Entrepreneurship Center, believes the fellowship is sending the wrong message, stating, "To say that you're better off dropping out of school is a gross generalization." – but the fellowship winners have a different outlook: At least two recipients have expressed interest in returning to school at the end of the fellowship and one prospective winner turned down the deal entirely to enroll at MIT, which signals traditional education is still valued.

What do you think about the Thiel Fellowship? Would you be more than willing to apply and leave school if selected or would you prefer to continue your education in the classroom instead?


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Automated Attendance Monitoring Proposed at UK University

by Alexis Mattera

On days like today, it’s hard to get out of bed, let alone head out to an early morning class. True, your professor may not notice you’re missing from their 8 a.m. 300-person lecture now but it could get more difficult to skip class in the near future.

Case in point: De Montfort University in Leicester, England is considering monitoring student attendance via electronic chips in their ID cards. Unlike attendance-monitoring programs introduced at other institutions, De Montfort’s would be completely automated and, according to the minutes from a recent meeting of the school’s executive board, combining Wi-Fi and RFID technologies would make for "the most foolproof way of monitoring attendance."

The National Union of Students warned that members would "balk at the prospect of being treated like inmates under surveillance" and I have to agree. Students don’t need to be monitored and penalized for lack of attendance; it’s their decision whether or not to go to class and their participation and overall grades will reflect that choice. Do you think this attendance monitoring system (or attendance monitoring in college in general) is a good idea or a bad idea and why?


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