Stay on target: Healthy habits for grad students

Stormtrooper workout

Even stormtroopers find time for exercise.

It’s easy, especially in times of stress, to slip into unhealthy habits – but a few steps down the dark path doesn’t mean it must forever dominate your destiny! With some planning and self-awareness, you can enhance your academic performance by maintaining your physical, social, and emotional well-being.

Never tell me the odds: Eating well

It’s a common myth that eating healthy is expensive, but this isn’t necessarily true.  Here are just a few ideas for saving money while properly fueling your body:

  • Plan ahead. Make a meal plan for the week and buy what you need – avoid grocery shopping when hungry.
  • Buy most of your groceries from the outer edge of the grocery store, where whole foods like fresh vegetables, nuts, and fruits are located.
  • Avoid the temptation to “stock up” on packaged, processed foods. In general, stay away from anything with more than five ingredients or ingredients you can’t pronounce!
  • Consider joining a community garden. Use the American Community Gardening Association’s website to find a garden near you. Alternatively, you can contact your County Extension Office to connect with community-supported agriculture resources.
  • Visit local farmer’s markets (often plentiful in university towns) for fresh, affordable produce that is grown locally. Local Harvest offers an online tool to find farmer’s markets near you.
  • Invest in a crock pot. Make a couple of meals at the beginning of the week, then refrigerate or freeze in jars until you need them.

Do, or do not. There is no try: Fitness

As a student, you’re lucky enough to have access to more fitness resources than the average person – so take advantage of them!

  • Some university fitness centers are free (others offer discounted memberships for students).
  • Many universities offer free or low-cost fitness classes through student wellness programs.
  • If you don’t enjoy working out in gyms, or your schedule doesn’t make it possible, borrow workout DVDs from the library, or find strength training and stretching videos on YouTube. These are great ways to fit a workout into the toughest schedule (even if it’s 2 a.m.)!
  • Find inexpensive exercise equipment at yard sales. Look for yard sales when summer starts, when many students are emptying apartments. Resistance bands and weights are inexpensive, apartment-friendly options. I once found a great, compact elliptical machine at a garage sale for $20!

Luminous beings are we – not this crude matter: Stress management

Graduate school can be a stressful time, but like any other stressor, it’s all in how you manage it.

  • Practicing meditation, yoga, and mindful breathing can ease common complaints like anxiety and insomnia. Visit Meditation for Beginners to get started.
  • Know yourself. If you have a history of unhealthy coping mechanisms like substance abuse or disordered eating, be self-aware and monitor yourself. Consider making an appointment with university counseling services, and sign up for information about support groups or stress management workshops.
  • Don’t give up your hobbies. Whether you’re a musician, artist, athlete, or you brew your own beer at home – maintain those hobbies.  Stress doesn’t disappear after graduate school, so learning how to establish a work/life balance now will help you to develop as a well-rounded, healthy scholar.
  • Make time. Your social and emotional wellness shouldn’t always take a back seat to your academic responsibilities. Make time for your relationships, for laughter, and for fun!

In my experience, there’s no such thing as luck: Medical care

It’s easy to take our health for granted – but sick happens.  “I’m too busy” is never an acceptable excuse to avoid taking care of yourself!

  • Establish a relationship with a primary care physician or university health center as early as possible so you can feel comfortable calling for an appointment (and know where medical resources are located) if you get sick.
  • Don’t put off regular dental, vision, and health checkups. Likewise, don’t forget to schedule preventative health screenings.  Taking care of yourself is your responsibility, and being proactive can help prevent costly visits to urgent care centers and emergency rooms!
  • Keep important phone numbers handy. Store numbers for your physician(s), dentist, and other health services in your contact list, post them on your fridge, or keep them in your wallet.
  • Keep your health records on file. Monitor your cholesterol levels, blood pressure, allergies, medications, screening tests, surgeries, and chronic illnesses.  This will help you track progress toward health goals and allow you to recognize any changes you should discuss with your doctor.

Taking care of yourself doesn’t have to be a luxury that you only squeeze in when you have time.  Build healthy habits into your lifestyle now – the future you will be grateful!

Here are some other resources to help you get started:


Lucas, G., Kurtz, G., Ford, H., Fisher, C., Hamill, M., Jones, J. E., Guinness, A. Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment, Inc. (1977). Star Wars: Episode IV, A New Hope. Beverly Hills, CA: 20th Century Fox.

Kurtz, G., Brackett, L., Kasdan, L., Kershner, I., Lucas, G., Hamill, M., Ford, H. Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment, Inc. (1980). Star Wars: Episode V, The Empire Strikes Back. Beverly Hills, CA: 20th Century Fox.


Too Old to Begin the Training? Making the Transition from Work to Grad School


Yoda: Jedi Master, or Academic Advisor?

It can be daunting to go back to school after a long absence.  In my case, I worked for eight years on the staff side of a small university before deciding to pursue doctoral study.  It was a tough choice; I had worked hard to establish my career. I was comfortable, and it felt good to be respected for my expertise.  Am I ready to start over as a newbie?  Will everyone be younger than me?  Do I even remember how to write?  What am I thinking??

In difficult times of transition, I do what any self-respecting geek would do…I take courage from the sage wisdom and guidance offered by one of my favorite movies: The Empire Strikes Back.

Mind what you have learned. Save you it can.

No disrespect intended to the motivated students who take a straight and direct course from bachelor’s degree through Ph.D. – but having work experience may give you some advantages over your younger classmates:

  • Control! You have learned control. You’ve learned to sit patiently through meetings and to handle tense situations with tact and diplomacy.  Let’s face it – in every job, you sometimes have to work with strong personalities.  Academia is no different.  Work experience teaches us that we need to put egos aside for the good of the project.  These skills come in handy when you’re working on a group assignment, or as part of a research team.
  • You finish what you begin. In most workplaces, projects must be completed on time and under budget – there isn’t a great deal of flexibility.  This means that you not only know how to meet your own deadlines, but to respect the deadlines of your colleagues. 
  • Like a Jedi, you have the deepest commitment. Leaving the workplace to return to school – especially after a long absence – isn’t something that’s done lightly.  Taking the GRE is enough to strike fear into anyone’s heart, but it can be particularly scary for someone who’s been out of school for more than a few years.  You’ve put a great deal of thought into your decision, and are making sacrifices in order to take this next step.  This demonstrates a deep and serious commitment to graduate study!
  • Like a Jedi, you have the most serious mind.
    • You know how to manage stress. Graduate school is stressful, but (at least in my experience) not all that different from a high-responsibility job. You’ve learned to balance multiple priorities – family, friends, fitness – with work.  You can bring the self-awareness and stress-management skills you’ve developed in the workplace to your graduate career.
    • You’ve written self-evaluations. Being able to assess your own strengths and weaknesses, and to write about them, will be an asset when you put together materials like preliminary exams, teaching evaluations, and other components of your graduate portfolio.

You must unlearn what you have learned.

On the other hand, returning to school full-time does require some adjustments.  Here are a few things you may need to unlearn:

  • Keep your mind on where you are, and what you are doing. Outside of academia, efficiency and speed tend to be highly valued. While efficiency is certainly important, grad school also involves maintaining a sustained focus; your research will likely require that you stay engaged for a slow and careful analysis. So don’t rush it.
  • Always in motion is the future. The fluid schedule of school can feel a bit strange when you’re used to a fairly regular work week. Know yourself: if you struggle with self-motivation, do some preparation to set yourself up for success.  Set aside a specific amount of time for studying (and assistantship work), prioritize tasks for each week, and keep long-term goals in focus.  Think about how strategies from the workplace can be adapted for your graduate school endeavors.

Like Luke, you’ve already learned much – and you can leverage that knowledge to inform your graduate school experience.  It’s okay if you’re afraid.  And if you’re not…oh, you will be.  You will be 🙂

Here are some additional resources to help you make the transition:

Kurtz, G., Brackett, L., Kasdan, L., Kershner, I., Lucas, G., Hamill, M., Ford, H. Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment, Inc. (1980). Star Wars: Episode V, The Empire Strikes Back. United States: 20th Century Fox.

Everything is Awesome

In our #MAETEL1 summer program, students participate in a series of Quickfire activities. Quickfires are intended to get students to quickly work on a creative project involving technology, within a specified time limit. This discourages the creative process from being stifled by perfectionism, or from being too focused on the technology-selection process.

BUT…Quickfires tend to frustrate students (especially high achievers). Our cohort created a Vine today to capture the spirit of our Quickfires THROUGH our own Quickfire. How META! (or is that Mehta?)

MAETEL1: Day 1

Day 1 of the East Lansing MAET Summer Program: The BIG Questions

Michigan State University’s summer Master of Educational Technology (MAET) program in East Lansing welcomed 22 students from across the globe today who were ready and eager to learn and play.

MAET East Lansing 2015

The instructors were excited — and so was Sparty!

Instructor Selfie

After a warm video welcome from Galway by Dr. Leigh Graves Wolf, the #MAETEL1 cohort started our first day by exploring some pretty big ideas.

Who are we as a group? What talents/expertise do we bring to the cohort?

We began by asking the question “What is your sentence?” inspired by this video from Daniel Pink. Students drew from a variety of image-creation tools to put together some beautiful and creative graphics that capture who they are — their sentences.

Lisa, for example, came up with this comic-book inspired graphic describing how she replaced textbooks with games:

Lisa's Sentence

Image by Lisa Musgrave

And Chelsea created this graphic to describe her classroom homage to Dead Poets’ Society:

Chelsea's Sentence

Image by Chelsea Edwards

Expanding on these images, students provided more context in their initial blog posts for the class. Hayley described the image she chose by explaining how bungie jumping sums up a lot about who she is as a person — including her willingness to take risks. David wrote about how he inspires students to better themselves and the world around them.

What do we believe about learning, technology, and learning with technology?How People Learn

We used the Visible Thinking Framework to analyze our reading from How People Learn (by Bransford, Brown & Cocking, 2000) with a sentence/ word/ phrase activity to identify the most powerful, resonant ideas in the first three chapters. Some key ideas emerged, including: engaging students’ background knowledge before introducing new ideas to support learning and understanding; considering learner-specific needs, the role of metacognition, and the importance of promoting deep understanding.

Finally, students explored three connected ideas of learning, understanding and conceptual change. We discussed the ideas about reimagining learning contained in Richard Culatta’s powerful TED Talk before settling into individual writing time. The questions we asked the class to explore were:

  1. What is learning?
  2. How do the learning processes of experts and novices differ?
  3. What teaching methods support learning and its related concepts — understanding and conceptual change?

Alan’s essay reflected the sentiments of many of his classmates: drawing upon the work of John Dewey, he pointed to the need for a dramatic shift in education in recognition that, in Dr. Seuss’ words:

“It is better to know how to learn than to know.”

MSU Serious Games Program: Learning Expectations

Another episode from the Serious Games Certificate program at MSU, in which we talk about current game projects (and I make silly faces):

Valiant Hearts and “Big G” Game Qualities

I’m a big fan of the game Valiant Hearts, which was released by Ubisoft Montpelier last summer. It’s a game about WWI – but not an exclusively combat-oriented one. Based on my experience, Valiant Hearts falls under what Jim Gee calls “Big G” Games. “Big G” games are more than just software; they involve the social interactions and creative spaces that surround and extend from a game.  Since this is a game and a content area (history) I care about, I thought I’d go through the list of qualities of “Big G” games and comment on the ones that stand out in VH.

  • Valiant Hearts - Mercy Dogs

    Valiant Hearts

    Collective Intelligence: The affinity space around the game includes social media communities and other resources. For example, players can explore more perspectives via Apocalypse 10 Lives, a companion to the game, which is an interactive animation that combines comic book art and documentary archives.

  • Crowd Sourcing: parts of the game (for example, the artifacts used in the mini-game) were crowd sourced in development. Artwork and other creative expressions inspired by the game are shared via social media channels.
  • Convergence: This game draws upon multiple media, including historical artifacts, photographs, and diary entries based on primary sources. Then of course it also includes the interaction of the game, and its visuals, accompanied by rather haunting music.
  • Literacy: Historical details (terms, technologies, popular songs, games, etc.) that contextualize the experiences of the war are earned as the game progresses. Each informational detail is accompanied by a real WWI era photograph. Encouraging players to interact with evidence may introduce some players to the practices of “doing history” as well.
  • Producers/Fabrication: There’s been quite an impressive wave of fan-created art and music videos inspired by the game.
  • Preparation for future learning: There are a lot of really important, big ideas that can be taken away from VH – and since it’s a thoughtful game (and most likely appeals to thoughtful players), it seems likely to have a positive effect on preparation for learning. For example, the idea that war is more than combat, more than a real-life first person shooter. The history of a war is about more than just the brutality of the battlefield – this is emphasized by the game’s focus on the importance of non-combat roles and the many ways in which people can be pulled unwillingly into war.
  • Art: This is a big aspect of the game. The way the world and its characters are rendered artistically, as well as the way they speak (somewhat in gibberish in actual dialogue, but also through letters, cut scenes, etc.) inspires a new way of visualizing or thinking about a complex and devastating war. In a sense, the game designers’ decision to render the game world, characters, and story in a more abstract way (vs. the more common gory realism prevalent in war-themed games) makes it more powerful, and encourages more nuanced interpretation.
  • Cultural models: By providing multiple, intertwined narratives and different perspectives (including those representing marginalized characters), the game challenges the idea that there is one master or meta-narrative, one set of black and white “facts” that explains history fully.
  • Identity: This game plays with identity by offering players the ability to play from more than one perspective. Players enter the game experience through the role of Emile, a French dairy farmer drafted to fight for his country. Then play transitions to the character of Karl, Emile’s son-in-law, who is conscripted into the German army and reluctantly leaves his wife Marie and their young son behind. As Anna, a Belgian student-turned-medic, players rescue wounded civilians and soldiers while searching for her lost father. Playing as Freddie, a Creole-American, players learn his backstory and motivation for voluntarily enlisting in the French Foreign Legion. The characters are linked by the war itself and also by Walt, one of the many mercy dogs dutifully serving on the battlefield.

I should note that the game doesn’t do everything well; its linear narrative may limit replayability and player agency. The puzzles aren’t always tied to historical content in the most meaningful ways. But it would be difficult — if not impossible — for any one game to cover all of the “Big G” qualities Gee mentions. But VH pulls off a valiant effort (see what I did there?) with many of them, in addition to deeply engaging the player in an emotionally-rich narrative.

In the next few months, I’ll be conducting qualitative research involving multiple-perspective play in Valiant Hearts, at which point I can share more insights about its affordances for learning. For now, I’ll continue to simply enjoy it.


Gee, J.P. “Affinity Spaces.” Games for Change Festival. New York University. 20 June 2012. Keynote Address.

Ubisoft (2014). Valiant Hearts: The Great War [Videogame]. Montpellier: UbisoftGroup.

MAET Bridge Webinar

I was honored to participate in the MAET Bridge webinar last month with my talented MSU colleagues. Topics for the webinar included digital games, online teachers, and aesthetics in education. Check it out here:

Special thanks to Dr. Leigh Graves Wolf, Dr. Michelle Schira Hagerman, Brian Arnold, and Rohit Mehta for a fascinating discussion!

What’s in a name? What’s in a game?

I find the “game vs. not-a-game” debate to be problematic and unproductive; yet it’s a discussion that crops up time and time again. It has been argued, for example, that stories cannot be games because they lack interaction; and toys cannot be games because they lack player goals (Fullerton, 2008).

Immediately a question forms: how do those strict definitions account for the surprising and novel ways that play can emerge? Can’t we interact with stories, build upon them, respond to them, and rearrange them in different ways? Isn’t interpretation a form of interaction? And what about toys – how often do we see children interacting with toys in unexpected (maybe even “gameful”) ways?

It seems more interesting to keep our definitions broad — and perhaps, to focus on the experience of play and less on drawing firm boundaries or categories for what is a game and what is not. This approach seems to focus more on the player, and her interaction with the game, than on the game itself. A broad definition seems better equipped, therefore, to leave space that accounts for player-side emergence, subversive play, and the fact that people don’t always follow the “intended use” of…well, anything 🙂

For games that seek to encourage meaningful play, it seems important that designers be open to the wide-ranging, varied, subjective experiences players may have instead of limiting their own perspectives with rigid definitions.

As Ferrara notes in Playful Design, “If designers didn’t conceive of games in broad terms, we wouldn’t have so many diverse ways to play” (2012, Loc 465).

Serious Games: The Commercial

Here I am, talking about the amazing Serious Games program at MSU with some of my classmates:

It’s the writing that teaches you: affordable writing resources for grad students

“It’s the writing that teaches you.” ~ Isaac Asimov

For the sake of transparency, let me be clear: I’m making three assumptions about you as a grad student. You’re busy, you’re writing a lot, and you’re on a budget. So here are some tools for students who want to brush up on academic writing skills, need quick citation help, wrestle with writer’s block, or could simply use some inspiration. An added bonus: they will neither take up a great deal of your time nor make much of a dent in your wallet.


They Say I SayGraff, G., & Birkenstein, C. (2010). They Say / I Say: The Moves that Matter in Academic Writing. New York: W.W. Norton & Co.

One of the highly scientific benchmarks I use to judge a book is, “Will it fit in my purse?” They Say / I Say – what you might call a pocket guidebook for writing – meets that standard and many more. The authors approach their subject as a means of entering academic conversations. In entering those conversations, students must first cultivate awareness of, and acknowledge, what has already been said (“they say”) to effectively frame their own arguments (“I say”). Graff and Birkenstein employ a variety of templates to scaffold readers through these and other key rhetorical moves in persuasive writing, maintaining a sense of transparency regarding the assumptions underlying the book’s strategies. Informed by the authors’ teaching experience, the template strategy enhances (rather than hinders) creativity, providing a launching pad for effective writing practices. The key rhetorical moves are illustrated through a series of examples drawing from a variety of disciplines, and the book also includes a helpful repository of words and phrases for transitions, ideas for capturing authorial action, and suggestions on how to entertain objections. But this book isn’t just about explanations of writing rules (they’re more like guidelines, anyway): it’s also about how and when to subvert those rules for impact.

Cost: less than $10 to buy your own copy (I found a used copy of the second edition for $6). Also available at the MSU library (call # PE1431 .G73 2010).

Writing Down the BonesGoldberg, N. (1986). Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within. Boston: Shambhala.

As a graduate student, most of your writing will likely be research-oriented and relatively formal in nature.  This can feel a bit stifling at times. Some professors are more open to imaginative approaches than others, but even if you aren’t able to get too crazy with your academic assignments, it’s important to flex those creative writing muscles from time to time.

Writing Down the Bones is like “writing yoga.” I use it to strengthen my core. Just as strength training results in benefits for the entire body, the effects of Goldberg’s exercises and inspiration will have a positive, lasting impact on all of your writing, whether you’re able to implement them into your academic writing now (peer reviewers will thank you), later in your career, or in your spare time as a slam poet or songwriter.

Cost: less than $10 (as inexpensive as $4 on eBay) to buy your own, or free at the MSU library (call # PN145 .G64 1986).


The Purdue Online Writing Lab (OWL)

OWL was my go-to website for MLA formatting help when I was an undergraduate, and has become equally invaluable as an APA resource during doctoral study. Need to know how to format a citation for a piece of software, a film, or a piece of clip art?  Boom.

Bookmark it. Just trust me.

Cost: free.

70 Useful Sentences for Academic Writing and Academic Word List

Similar to They Say / I Say, the suggestions on these sites may help to jump start your writing – particularly when you feel stuck. Sometimes a little boost is all you need to get that pen moving (or that keyboard clacking)!

Cost: both free.


WorldCat hosts a vast online network of library resources – you can use it to find physical copies of print and media near you, explore digital content, and obtain research assistance from librarians. I also use it as a quick citation tool: just search for a specific title, then click the Cite/Export link to copy its citation in the appropriate format (or export to your citation manager of choice).  There’s no need to log in (although you can set up a free account), and with such a huge catalog, WorldCat has just about everything.

*It goes without saying that the MSU Library’s online catalog is an equally useful resource. WorldCat just has a slight lifehacking edge in terms of speed and success rate when I need to quickly find a properly formatted citation.

Cost: free. Account optional.

MSU Libraries Selected Ebooks

I’m a big fan of the Ebrary and EBSCOhost ebook collections. They’re free (although you do have to make an account) and have a surprisingly large selection of academic books available to either view through your web browser or temporarily check out using a client like Adobe Digital Editions. Some ebooks even allow you to export chapters and selections to PDF.

Cost: free. MSU account and separate Ebrary or EBSCOhost accounts required. The Adobe Digital Editions client is available free for download.

Thumbnail images are employed in this post, without monetary gain, under fair use.