ESS 115: Tips from a Professor
As your first classes at UC Berkeley approach you might be wondering how to: have a successful first semester, get the most out of studying, or use office hours wisely. Earlier this summer I sat down with Terry Johnson, an associate teaching professor of bioengineering and he spent his time on the podcast answering those questions and more!
Take some time to listen to the tips that Terry offers to make the most of your time at Berkeley. He has a reputation among peers and students for his enthusiasm for teaching. As one former student put it: “If every professor were like [Terry Johnson], people would never want to leave college.”
- Terry Johnson’s website
- Terry Johnson’s advice for 1st year engineers
- Terry Johnson’s advice for 3rd year engineers
LAURA VOGT: Hi, my name is Laura Vogt I’m the Communications and Events Manager in Engineering Student Services for the College of Engineering. I’m really excited today to have Terry Johnson with us. Terry is an associate teaching professor of bioengineering here at UC Berkeley and in 2013 he was the recipient of the University’s Distinguished Teaching Award. Terry received his M.S. in Chemical Engineering from MIT and has taught course on a wide range of bioengineering topics from biomechanics to biological mass transfer to ethical and social challenges and translational medicine. Beyond the classroom, Terry is the author of “How to Defeat Your Own Clone, A Guide to the Biotech Revolution for Scientists and Nonscientists alike.” The reason I’ve asked Terry here today is his reputation among his peers where he stands out for his enthusiasm for helping students both professionally and academically. As one former student put it: “If every professor were like Terry Johnson, people would never want to leave college.” Hi Terry and thank you so much for sitting down and talking with me and our incoming students. Is there anything else you’d like students to know about you?
TERRY JOHNSON: No, just thank you for having me.
LAURA: You have an entire section of your website devoted to advice for students and we’ll link to it on welcomengineer.berkeley.edu. Most professors don’t take time to include success tips for students on their website. So what motivated you to create that advice page?
TERRY: I just seen it there were a subset of questions that I would get a lot from students and I thought this would be just an opportunity for me to collect a FAQ for a lot of the really common questions that student students have including graduate students but the sorts of different questions that students have or issues that students have at different levels. So was their first or second or third year.
LAURA: In your advice for first year students you write that working hard and being productive are not the same thing. And I know advisers have this conversation with students all the time, that the students feel like they’re spending hours studying but they’re not seeing a pay in their better grades. So what exactly does it mean to be productive versus just working hard.
TERRY: The first thing to do is to avoid what I call virtue grind. That’s work that makes you feel better but doesn’t actually help. A lot of times I will see students, where things aren’t working out. They’re not getting the kind of grades that they want, they’re not getting the kind of understanding out of the class that they want, so they just doubled down on what they’re doing. So I’m going to do it. I’m going to do what I’m doing that’s not working and I may do it twice it’s hard. I think that one of the most common things that happened in the first year is to try and do what worked in high school. And when that doesn’t work to just do more of it. Where I think successful undergraduates typically have a shift where they start approaching the work here in College very differently from the way that they approach at a high school.
LAURA: What is a common mistake that you see you see students making in their study habits?
TERRY: I think that there are the most common mistake by far is working alone. If you’re not working with other people you are missing out on a significant amount of not just what you can get out of the class, but the Berkeley experience. There’s a lot of anecdotal evidence that I can talk about and research in teaching, demonstrating that peer to peer learning is really important. A lot of learning happens with students talking with other students. In some respects you can look at the professor not as the source of knowledge in the class but as the coach who’s trying to arrange the class in such a way that they focus those peer to peer conversations on the things that they think are most important or valuable.
LAURA: How do you, as a student, if you’re nervous or scared to approach someone… do you have any advice for how they can get into these study groups and make those connections?
TERRY: Here in Engineering Student Services, there’s lots of opportunities to sort of help you find study groups. And I understand it’s difficult. It’s not easy especially when you feel like you’re behind in a class to get together in a group and you feel like you’re revealing how behind you are. But practically what happens is that if you have a group of five students working together one student will see one of the other students say Well I think the answer is this and they will assume everyone at the table knew that but they did. And that person when another person comments thinks the same thing. And the reality is, is that in any group that you’re working together with over a semester, you are going to have opportunities to help the group forward and you’re going have also lots of opportunities where the group is going to help you move forward.
I think the other mistake in this is maybe a good segue to that is to treat the work in the class is about getting the homework done as opposed to figuring out why the professor wrote the homework that way. When one of the most valuable things in terms of working with the group is less about getting to the right answer because I’m sure most of the people listening to this on the Internet realize that the right answer is often very easy to find on the Internet but that doesn’t help you on the exams. And there’s some paper that I actually talk about in my classes where copying homework will get you, in a physics course that they tested at, one point three standard deviations below on exams which is you know a really significant shock. Many like a shift in letter grade. The purpose of the study groups is partially to get the homework done. But a lot of it is just, so what about this class of problems? Why did Terry ask the question this way, instead of this way? How would we change it? Why is this important? Why is this not important? And what you’re getting are not help toward getting the answer but you’re getting an idea of how the other students that you work with with their perspective on the problem. What is the point of view at which they approach the problem. If you work with other people on a regular basis you add those points of view to your skill set. And you look at any problem you can go – Well I think of it this way and that’s not working out, but Jane thought of it this way maybe I’ll try that. And you know John thought of it this way and Jamie thought of it this way and I don’t know I’m stuck on “J” names, but the other people that I’m working with are all thinking in terms of the problem in different ways and you want to actually learn how to other people think about problems so that you have a multi-modal approach to a problem that comes to you in graduate school or medical school or in industry
LAURA: Because it’s not necessarily just one way to get to an answer.
TERRY: Exactly. And and sometimes the approach that you are particularly comfortable with or just know because of previous experience is really useful sometimes but not always useful other times.
LAURA: We’ve heard that students are intimidated to go to the faculty or GSI office hours. Can you describe what typical office hours look like for you?
TERRY: Yes, come to office hours, come to office hours, come to office hours, please. Office hours are actually a great way to find other people to work with. In fact, a lot of times especially for my larger classes, if I have a very busy office hour, what will happen is that I will spin people off into groups based on what problem they’re working on or what questions that they have. And I’ll basically try and lead the groups. So to go back to the first by getting to a really good opportunity. It’s also, you know we want people to come to office hours. We put the time on our schedule where we’re devoting that time to setting things up in such a way that you will get the most out of our lectures which is the reason why we’re here. Just come to office hours. I think that my my main advice for you know how to get the most out of office hours…Office hours are more than just about classes. So if you have a question that’s career based or class based that’s fine. I think read the room if it’s the you know the day before the midterm, people are probably going to be really focused on the course material. But when there’s a quiet time don’t feel like you’re limited to asking questions about the homework.
LAURA: When you go into an office hour it’s not just a one on one person sitting and talking with you? Usually it’s a group of students and they are at the same time?
TERRY: It can be, it depends on the size of the class and the focus of the class.
LAURA: OK. And do you have anything that you would suggest as students do before they go down this hour or like what’s a big don’t if they are walking into office hours?
TERRY: I think it’s probably a good idea to spend just a little bit of time trying to narrow down what your questions are. If you have a very specific question trying to spend a little time formulating that. Sort of like if you’re writing an email you wouldn’t want the email to kind of circle around, you maybe go through your notes and actually write down, I have this question, I have this question, I have this question, I have this question. Having said that, a lot of times when you don’t understand something it’s very hard to formulate the question. So don’t feel like if if you’re I’m just not sure about this but I’m not sure how to express it yet. We’ll help with that, right? I mean that’s part of diagnosing when a student has a lack of understanding about a particular thing and usually what that actually is is that the student understands 98 of the 100 things that they need to understand to get this thing and we need to figure out what are the two things that are getting in the way of you understanding why this thing works this way or why the physics is this way.
LAURA: Many of our students ask about doing research and I know you encourage freshmen students to wait a year and then apply in their sophomore year for a research position. So do you have advice for students and how to approach the faculty to get a research spot in a lab?
TERRY: Yes, if you are interested in research I will reiterate, don’t feel like you need to have research coming when you’re in your first semester. I have a lot of students that feel like they’re missing out on research. Most of our students, at least in bioengineering, have no research until their sophomore year and the last time we checked they graduated with on average around four semesters of research including Summers, which is a lot. So you’re going to get more out of research when you are prepared to put a lot into research. Spend your first year figuring out what is college like, how do I organize my time so that I have a sense that I will have time to do research. Doing research really requires I think a minimum of about 12 hours a week. Some people would say more, like around 15, because you’re going to get trained in totally new techniques and then you’re going to need to apply them. So what you don’t want to do is come in and say I’m going to take 18 units and then I’m going to do research and have it all be done not as well as you’d like it to be. If you spend at least a semester and I usually prefer a year just going – I know what a 16 unit semester is like, with three technicals and one humanities course. I know what the time constraints will be. I am confident that I will be able to do this research. And I’ve also taken those first year courses that prepare me in many ways to do some of the basic tasks that you will see in a research program.
LAURA: Do you have the same idea for transfer students should they take a semester to get used to how different Berkeley is going to be for them?
TERRY: I think that for for transfer students it’s slightly different. I think that there there’s definitely no issue with taking that first semester. I would say during the first semester getting used to the transition to Berkeley, but also during that semester kind of scoping out who they’d like to maybe work with and starting to forge relationships even if they don’t start doing research actively in their first semester is probably the best move.
LAURA: OK. What are the qualities that you think make a successful engineering student?
TERRY: Oh let’s see. So you want to be curious. You want to be willing to put in the work. And I say work, not the time. And I think you need to genuinely be interested in solving a certain class of problems. A question that I commonly get is which type of engineer should I be? Right, like Civil, Nuclear, Electrical. And I think that people tend to focus on classes, like oh I really liked this class. Right. So I should do this. That’s part of the decision, right, in that that class might represent part of your day to day experience working in that field. But you know, you take a class for 14 weeks and your career is going to be many decades. So what you want is to be sure that the kinds of problems that a civil engineer solves, the kinds of problems that a bioengineer solves, I am deeply engaged in being part of the solution for those kinds of problems because that’s really going to be the motivating factor. Do I want the end of my career when there’s a retirement party and there’s a cake and a gold watch and all that stuff and then people tell stories about you. What do you want them to say about you. That you were part of solving this problem, creating a device that diagnosis this, making this more efficient, generating renewable power. What are the sorts of things that you would look back upon a career and go thumbs up. I’m really glad I did that. That will help guide the sorts of things that you do
LAURA: That makes a lot of sense. We talked earlier with Tiffany Reardon and we were talking about what to do over the summer to prepare to come to Berkeley and one of the things that she suggested was actually study your major and find out what exactly is it that you’re signing up for and what the classes are for and so that goes hand-in-hand with that of being able to not just plan ahead but what are you thinking of when you’re looking back.
TERRY: I can tell you a secret.
TERRY: My background is chemical engineering because there was no bioengineering when I was in school. And I chose chemical engineering because I couldn’t choose between math and physics and chemistry. I enjoyed all those things. And I I thought well it looks like chemical engineering is some mixture of those three things and it’s totally different from that. I chose my discipline with very little information but I kinda got lucky, in that, once I got into it, I was like – oh I actually do really like this. But it’s not uncommon I think for students to not have a clear picture of exactly what the core of their discipline is. Like what brings people to this discipline it keeps them in there. And a lot of what you do in the first year, I think go to seminars, go to talks. Find out why the faculty in your department do for a living. What the alumni, if they come to give talks, so people that have graduated from your department, what do they do to get an idea from these talks. You don’t have to go to, no one’s grading you, but they’re really useful in sort of giving you an idea of what doors this particular discipline opens.
LAURA: And your advice for 3rd years you had some notes on their social media presence and how to put yourself out there. So is social media something that students should be aware of from the beginning of their Berkeley career?
TERRY: I think so. Your your future employers, the people who are considering accepting you to a lab in graduate school, whatever you wind up doing, are very likely to you. So keeping that in mind, I think, is important. If you want to have a social media presence that is private, I think that that’s an option and it’s one that is worthwhile looking into. But yeah, I think that what you write on the Internet will be there when you graduate and are looking for a job.
LAURA: Is there anything that you wish you could go back and tell eighteen-year-old Terry Johnson as he began his academic career?
TERRY: So this podcast would have to be thirty seven hours long for me to cover that subject. I think that one thing…I’m trying to narrow it down. I’ll pick something that I and many students that I’ve talked to share and that is overwhelming anxiety about making the right decision at all times. Right. So if you have the opportunity, there are two labs that you could work with and there’s a sense that one you know works on subject A and the other one works on subject B, and what if I choose the wrong one, it doesn’t matter. You will never know which is the right one. There is no right one. There’s no like at the end of a videogame level it tells did you act optimally. You never know. Right. And any experience that you have is going to inform the things that you do in the future. No matter what it is. So at best, you can choose the opportunities that seem most interesting to you at the time. And that assumes that you know what your goal is. The reality actual situation is, you have a goal, the goal is constantly changing as you learn things right. And as a result, you never know whether you made the right decision to get to a moving target. Initially this should seem a little terrifying. Right. But if you think about it, it really does take a lot of the pressure off. Right. You you don’t have to. Well what if I make the wrong decision? I’ll never know. I should just make a decision. Most important thing is, as you are deciding what to do next or you need to take this class versus this class, research here research there, go to this club go to this other club. Is that all of the things that you’re doing are moving you in the direction that you’re interested in and that if you become more interested in another goal you will allow yourself the freedom to reorient yourself.
LAURA: Oh yeah. You need to be able to adjust and go. You don’t just have to be on one path.
TERRY: I am a chemical engineer who has worked in environmental engineering in the automotive industry, went back to graduate school to do traditional chemical engineering, and ended up doing a bioengineering style project, teaching computational chemical engineering, And I now teach bioengineering. I’ve done that as a combination of all that seems like the most interesting thing that I can do next and pure unadulterated luck.
LAURA: That’s fantastic. That’s you’ve done so many different things and you’re happy with what you’ve done. That’s very cool. So as we wrap this up and we’ve got both our frosh and transfer students listening, do you have any words of advice on how to have a great first semester?
TERRY: Work with other people, talk with other people. Sleep, eat, exercise. Don’t overload yourself. Be willing to try something and if you don’t like it give it up. If you go to a club and you go to a club meeting and you know you’re not really into this. Feel free to experiment. When I talk with people that are coming in and another source of anxiety is the size of Berkeley. That is a bug and a feature. It is a bug in that you are going to have to look to find the things that you want because the campus is so large. It’s a feature in that they’re probably here. If you are interested in doing a particular thing there’s probably a group on campus, a core of students that have similar interests. So it’s rare that you’re going to find yourself alone in wanting to do a thing but because the campus is big you will have to invest the effort in finding that. The best way to find is to talk with as many other people on campus who are doing similar exploration and searching the space with them. If you are just upfront like – I’d really like to be more involved in a maker lab or I really want to you know do more video games, I’d really like to you know whatever you want to do. Talk with lots of other people tell them that you’re interested in those things. That’s how you find clubs, that’s how you find friends, that type of research, that’s how you find resources. It’s a dirty word, they call it networking. But the reality is that the most networking is just talking to other people about things that you’re interested in and you do that often enough you will find other people who are interested in the same things.
LAURA: That is some awesome advice. Thank you so much for taking your time today and coming and talking to us and thank you everyone for tuning in. We’ll talk to you next week.