We are well into the high-pressure digital age and the interconnected global economy, and those realities have affected education and how students learn.

However, some non-technological strategies still prevail as young people navigate their ways out of high school and college and into the workforce.

We look at a handful of areas that illustrate these dichotomies – from virtual reality and artificial intelligence in education and the increasing female presence in STEM classes to old-fashioned notions like taking handwritten notes in class. The upshot is that students who balance common sense with tech savvy often find success.

1. 1

Kenton Brice helps students in the Inasmuch Collaborative Learning Center virtual reality lab at the University of Oklahoma law school.
Photo courtesy OU Law

Keeping the Human Touch

Virtual reality and artificial intelligence, with strategic use, let students make significant connections with subject matter.

Virtual reality and artificial intelligence – two of the hottest technologies in education – may seem to take the humanity out of the learning process. However, as tools, they can immerse students on emotional, ethical levels that increase understanding.

Both technologies can superficially become the be-all and end-all of instruction, presentation and research, but, when used effectively, they allow students to reach educational depths they might not have otherwise considered.

The University of Oklahoma College of Law – with its digital initiative, center for technology and innovation, and Inasmuch Foundation Collaborative Learning Center – provides cutting-edge examples that link VR and AI with the human element.

“VR is the massive topic of discussion the past two years [and] AI is exploding,” says Kenton Brice, OU Law’s director of technology innovation. “There is a team of emerging technology pretty much everywhere on campus.”

Virtual reality

Brice says VR has helped students in an international human-rights class make visceral connections to Syrian refugees escaping years of civil war.

“They feel the plight of the refugees,” he says. “With VR, the immersive, 360-degree videos aren’t lectures. You can’t escape the content, so you capture students’ attention. You have to pay attention, so students develop a strong connection to what’s going on.”

Matt Cook, head of emerging technologies for OU Libraries, says undergraduates using VR “are more confident in their understanding of course material when they are able to interact with it.”

He says OU has incorporated VR into journalism, architecture, medical imaging, fine arts, anthropology, English, natural history and chemistry. It exposes students to difficult-to-access course content, like fossil specimens, chemical molecules and anatomical data.

On a practical, tactical level, VR also helps students overcome apprehensions and ignorance as they learn. Similar VR training is prevalent in schools and departments throughout OU and across the country.

“We’re creating our own 360 [-degree] training videos for moot court and mock trial,” Brice says, “so students can see themselves, the judge, the jury and the presentation of evidence. They learn what they can do to improve.”

He says instructors also “transport” students to remote places with virtual field trips, such as those to the Permian Basin for students researching energy law and water recycling areas in West Texas for those focusing on environmental law. Getting students to feel – albeit virtually – specific human, social and geopolitical consequences enhances what they have read for their classes.

“The next stop in VR is to take our trial techniques course and its staging scenery and turn it into 3D models of a crime scene or any scene with evidence,” Brice says. “Through photogrammetry [scientific measurement of exact surface points using photography], we will stitch together a process of documenting evidence so that when students become attorneys, they are familiar with how evidence can be admitted in court.

“We’ve seen 3D evidence in courts in Germany and China, but not in the United States yet.”

Artificial intelligence

VR may provide dramatic moments in a courtroom, Brice says, but AI is already changing the day-to-day operations of a lawyer.

“Just a year ago, the AI use cases were limited to brief analysis and research,” he says.

Students and inexperienced lawyers can have their legal writings critiqued with AI and get feedback on how to improve briefs, filings and arguments.

“Since then,” Brice says, “there’s a system based on IBM’s Watson for practitioners that will write legal briefs for you in certain jurisdictions, such as petitions and inquiries. For instance, AI can take a contract and point out trends or unusual clauses in it. It takes two minutes to do what normally takes a lawyer 8-10 hours to do, and it’s remarkably accurate.”

Tim Smith, interim head of web services for OU Libraries, says the university “has launched a registry for higher education institutions to share and collaborate on artificial intelligence projects.” OU Libraries even has a website chatbot providing assistance after hours and answers to basic questions.

Students accustomed to such integration can get ahead of their peers because, as professionals utilizing AI analysis in any field, they can leave nitty-gritty, “due diligence” work to highly intuitive machines while they focus on time with clients or other face-to-face interactions.

Old-fashioned handwriting

Going too far with any technology can take away from learning. Sometimes that involves bells and whistles that don’t supply much substance. In many other cases, it simply means setting aside laptop or tablet and taking notes by hand.

Years of research, such as comprehensive studies in 2017 by Princeton University, the University of California, Los Angeles, and the U.S. Military Academy, show that students taking handwritten notes – in class or during lectures or discussions – retain information and comprehend important points at a higher rate than peers taking notes on computers.

Computer screens often distract and pull attention away from the crux of the information being delivered or exchanged. Plus, even diligent note-takers on computers tend to focus on getting everything word-for-word instead of concentrating on big-picture ideas.

Brice is aware of these studies and welcomes what OU Law has done to address the findings. The college has given iPads with keyboards to law students for five years; since two years ago, when Apple added an electronic pencil that seamlessly integrates with any typed or graphic element, professors have encouraged students to take notes by hand.

“The bridge is right there between handwriting and technology,” he says. “We now even have some students wanting to write a brief in VR. We’re trying to create a keyboard and [integrate] handwriting into VR.

“Most of what I do is teaching students how to use technology in the legal system.”

And that’s what makes Brice’s job enjoyable.

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A Murky Comparison

International and American students have their own strengths and weaknesses, but assessing differences can be difficult.

How American students stack up with their global counterparts is difficult to assess because data and circumstances vary. Measuring strengths and weaknesses may not hold up because of the old “comparing apples with oranges” analogy.

In the broadest of contexts, international students, especially from Asia, tend to have superior math and science skills, while their American peers are good at oral and written communication, and logic.

The latest Program for International Student Assessment of 73 developed countries – released every three years, with the next one coming in 2019 – ranked the United States as 40th in the world in math, 25th in science and 24th in reading.

Singapore was No. 1 in all three categories, with China, Japan, South Korea, Canada, Switzerland, Estonia, Australia and New Zealand among the elite.

However, education systems in other countries often differ from what happens in the United States. In general, American students receive an all-around education before they begin college; in other countries, students, around ages 12-14, are slotted into specific tracks, based on abilities and interests, with many beginning college-level courses in those selected fields by age 16.

Also, U.S. colleges and universities are routinely seen as among the best in the world. Foreign students scramble to become collegians here and face numerous demands from their home countries.

“International students in America are in the top 25-30 percent of their respective classes,” says Tim Huff, director of Oklahoma State University’s Office of International Students and Scholars.

He adds that these students must meet three criteria before even applying to a U.S. school: high academic standing; proficiency to study and function in English; and money to pay full tuition.

“They’re not here on American tax dollars,” Huff says. “International students also can’t come to the United States unless their majors are already determined. These students have a definite mindset of what they’re going to do. They live with a great deal more pressure than American students.”

Michelle Morais de sa e Silva, Ph.D., assistant professor of International and Area Studies at the University of Oklahoma, agrees that socioeconomic differences muddy comparisons between American and foreign collegians.

“The sample of international students in America is not what they are in their own countries,” she says. “You’re getting students from higher income brackets; they are going to be higher students on average.”

Both Morais and Huff see international students sometimes struggle with deductive logic common in the American school system – but it’s also why they like coming here.

“American kids grow up with a logic-based system,” Huff says. “You don’t see much of that in the Asian world.”

Morais says international students may grapple with debating an issue in class because that may not be normal in their home countries, but their insights are invaluable because they could counter American students’ preconceptions.

“They offer another opinion and make American students think,” she says. “And when you add in the professor’s experience in the process, it’s a win-win-win situation.”

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A Louder Female Voice

Statistics vary on which STEM degrees and fields young women pursue. Regardless, Oklahoma girls are stepping up.

Pressures on today’s students to pursue degrees and careers in science, technology, engineering and math are difficult to quantify by gender. Regardless, young Oklahoma women have made their STEM voices heard.

The National Girls Collaborative, using National Science Foundation statistics, reports that women receive about 50 percent of STEM degrees from colleges, but those numbers skew heavily toward the biological sciences.

That’s reflected at the University of Sciences and Arts of Oklahoma, says Jeannette Loutsch, associate professor of biology at the Chickasha school since 2007.

“Our numbers in biology have increased dramatically the past three to four years,” she says. “Three-fourths of our incoming students in freshman biology courses have been women. Most chemistry majors at USAO are also female.

“A lot of them are looking at careers in veterinary medicine, human medicine, nursing, research and even the oil industry. These students have lab skills that make them desirable. They are critical thinkers. It’s all about problem-solving and procedures.”

Percentage of stem degrees earned by women

18%
COMPUTER SCIENCE

19%
ENGINEERING

39%
PHYSICAL SCIENCES

43%
MATHEMATICS

50%
BIOLOGY

The science foundation shows gender differences between those getting degrees in computer science (18 percent women/82 percent men), engineering (19 percent women/81 percent men), physical sciences (39 percent women/61 percent men) and mathematics (43 percent women/57 percent men).

Lydia Burger, a senior at Bixby High and captain of the school’s robotics team, says she’s concerned about those numbers and the so-called leaky pipeline of women who enter engineering fields but drop out after a few years.

“I don’t think my gender affects my ability to succeed, but the gender ratio has to change,” says Burger, who wants to major in biomedical engineering – with acceptances to Rutgers University and the universities of Michigan, Minnesota and Oklahoma, she awaits word from her first choice, Johns Hopkins University. “There’s something social that’s pushing women away once they get into engineering. But the attitude that ‘women can’t be engineers’ is slowly changing.”

Loutsch has similar observations.

“We have a lot more girls who think they can do science,” says Loutsch, who mentors elementary, middle and high schoolers. “We’ve had successful women who’ve graduated from here do outreach and that’s made a difference.”

Loutsch, happy that more women are in her classes, wants all students to be interested in science because it promotes inquisitiveness, reading and insight.

“Science is part of my normal life,” she says. “I’ve always been a science geek … ever since I was a kid. I encourage kids to ask tough questions and dig and keep digging and find answers.”

4. 4

Assaying the Essay

With written components of applications, students should offer genuine reflections of themselves not found in numbers and resumes.

The collegiate admissions process is often unpredictable, as selective universities create designer freshmen classes from enormous pools of applicants.

Essay Tips
The National Association for College Admission Counseling has suggestions for writing admissions essays.

Start early. This reduces stress.

Be yourself. One of the biggest mistakes students make is “writing what they think others want to hear.”

Be honest. Admissions officers have read thousands of essays. They are masters at discovering plagiarism.

Take a risk. Don’t settle for an essay that anyone could write.

Stay focused. Use the essay to help admissions officers know you as a person.

Revise … a lot. Don’t try to write a masterpiece on your first try.

Get feedback. Even best-selling novelists ask others to read their manuscripts before they’re sent to the publisher.

Proofread. Spelling and grammar mistakes imply that you didn’t take the time to check your work.

Take the process seriously. Put as much effort into an online essay as you would for one sent by email attachment or snail mail.

Manage expectations. The application essay is important, but it’s not the only element considered in an application.

Students with top-notch grades, test scores, extracurricular activities and accomplishments can find themselves admitted to only their target and likely schools, not their desired reach schools. The process can seem out of control.

However, one element that a student can control is the admissions essay. With it, misconceptions abound, from “It’s not read anyway, so it doesn’t matter” and “My child blew off his essay and got in just fine” to “Writing a good essay will get me in” and “Admissions people have a formula, so you just have to follow it.”

Admissions officers, taking a holistic approach toward a student’s application, consider grade-point average, standardized test scores, class rank, strength of academic schedule, out-of-class involvement, recognitions and the essay.

The essay rarely tips the scale either way. Most often, it provides a distinct view of the student as a person. Many admissions officers ask, “Will this applicant make a good roommate?” The answer often comes through the essay.

“You’re not writing a formal paper for English class,” says Brent Casey, director of college counseling at Holland Hall in Tulsa. “It’s a personal statement. If you’re a funny person, be funny; don’t try to be funny if that’s not you.”

Not everyone has a life-changing adventure to relate or a dramatic turn of events to reconstruct. But everyone has a circumstance that embodies the applicant’s essence. Casey suggests “writing small, not big” and uses the example of describing a part-time job. The student writer should focus not on tasks but on minute, real, important interactions with a specific customer.

“If you write it correctly – kind of unfiltered, but not in a profane way – then it will be authentic,” he says. “Authenticity is what admissions counselors look for.”

The formula, if one exists, is for students to present their genuine selves, not idealized versions that their parents want displayed. The Common Application has seven generalized prompts that allow anyone to write a unique, compelling essay.

For example, with No. 1 – describe a background, identity or interest that has such significance that your application would be incomplete without it – a student doesn’t have to write about an exotic genealogy or familial hardship. It could be something as ritualistic and peaceful as feeding farm animals before dawn each day.

For No. 3 – reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea – you don’t have to write about an “aha moment” with earth-shattering ramifications. “Time” is such a vague word that it could be a transitional period, so a student could write about how changing a routine or perspective has affected her life.

“Think about what you like and dislike,” Casey says. “Think about how you spent your summer. Think about what you did last weekend. How do you spend your free time when you have absolutely no obligations? Somewhere in there is a common thread that creates a story.”

Admissions officers have no preference on which prompt is chosen. What they want are error-free writing and fresh perspectives. They want a feeling for the individual beyond the resume. They want the real you.

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Anticipation Is Key

Identifying stressors as they arise, instead of waiting for them to accumulate into crises, helps students persevere.

College presents unique stressors to students, be they single parents rushing to night classes after feeding their kids or teenagers finding that their academic and time-management skills aren’t up to snuff.

Stress – unavoidable in college because of deadlines, demands and rigor – ultimately pushes students to accept delayed gratification and accomplishment. Managing the stress often leads to positive outcomes.

According to counselors and others in collegiate student services, the key is recognizing stressors before they overwhelm a student and damage academic standing.

“College seems to be an odd situation when it’s perceived that it’s all that you’re supposed to be doing,” says Jessica Heavin, director of wellness services at Tulsa Community College. “But really it’s a melting pot of stress and a weird spot in a person’s life when they’re taking in stress from all angles.

“We try to meet students where they are and try to address their stress before it causes bigger issues.”

Many schools, from community colleges to top-tier universities, have required “first-year experience” classes on time management, finances, budgeting, planning and getting help when academic struggles appear. Students learn what to do when stress increases.

There are also free or inexpensive apps that students can download to their smartphones to help them navigate through difficult times. Calm, Happify, Anxiety Reliever, Headspace, Breathe2Relax, Pacifica, Worry Watch, Rain Rain, Stress Doctor, Panic Relief, SAM App and others give feedback to circumstances that match a student’s experiences.

“An app is a student’s choice, gives them options and can assist them in chilling out when they feel stress,” Heavin says.

Every college or university offers counseling and academic assistance to struggling students. Many have staffers out and about with students in high-traffic areas to make their services visible and accessible. Health and wellness fairs are commonplace, too.

Heavin’s tips to stressed-out students are universal, regardless of circumstances: personalized exercise; proper nutrition; boundaries (don’t overcommit); and movement during study sessions or long assignments.

“You’re not superhuman,” Heavin says, “so these have to be practical for students. Just little changes can be beneficial.”

When students get overwhelmed, they need to resist isolating themselves. Instructors, licensed counselors and academic advisers frequently understand circumstances and offer suggestions on what to do.

Almost all schools track students who seek assistance and follow up with them to make sure they continue to get support. Plus, students can express their opinions on the process.

“Feedback is always appreciated,” Heavin says. “We want to know, ‘Are we teaching students to manage their stress?’”

6. 6

The Critical Year

Student performance in ninth grade statistically establishes a clear trajectory. Here’s how to make it an upward path.

The path of a student in Western culture, regardless of which side of the Atlantic one lives on, is often determined around age 14.

In Europe, students about that age often choose between academic, university-bound tracks or vocational/technical routes. In the United States, performance in the freshman year of high school statistically predicts an upward, downward or flatline trajectory.

Exceptions occur, but the results of the University of Chicago’s Consortium on Chicago School Research – a 2014 groundbreaking report seven years in the making – usually prove true.

“Everyone struggles in ninth grade, a transitional period to the workload and social settings of high school,” says Dan Mabery, assistant vice president of enrollment management at Northeastern State University in Tahlequah. “Acknowledging that difficult time is important. There’s a different set of expectations. If we keep relying on strategies from middle school, then we may not make a successful transition to high school.”

His four commonsense suggestions for having a successful freshman year, backed by numerous educational reports, are straightforward but challenging amid the myriad distractions (many tied to social media and mobile devices) that young people face.

“First, show up and limit your absences,” Mabery says. “Attendance is huge. Just being there allows you to understand the work, get instruction and build relationships with students, faculty and counselors who can provide a positive influence.

“Second, plan to get all the work done – prioritizing tasks and utilizing your mobile phone to organize and strategize. Make good decisions and develop a social network that includes academic support. Sometimes we think failure is imminent and graduation is impossible, so know the requirements and keep on track.

“Third, demonstrate good classroom behavior and meet expectations. Get into a routine.

“And fourth, actually do the work. Be prepared for discussions. Complete the assignments. Do the homework. It’s when you put more effort into other activities that planning and attendance start to suffer.”

Mabery offers hope to students whose choices have limited high school successes. All is not lost, he says, even in the senior year.

“You don’t have a lot of time, but you can buckle down, make a change and apply yourself,” he says. “For instance, prepare for and take the ACT. Even if you struggled in school, making a good score on the ACT will gain you admission at a regional college.”

At any point during high school, students facing academic challenges should not do so alone, Mabery says.

“Look for mentors who shoot straight with you,” he says. “You can’t underscore positive adult interactions enough.”