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Slow Learning

A couple of news/opinion items the past week kind of coalesce around a peculiar notion: higher educational institutions are slow learners. This may not be obvious when you learn that the two items are an op-ed about how college isn’t for everyone, and the second about the use of student evaluations of teaching potentially being discriminatory.

Let’s take the last one first. The Boulder Faculty Assembly has now twice prompted the administration to revise how student evaluations are used in determining the teaching ability of professors. These assessments are made by students in the penultimate week of the term; in most cases only a fraction of the class actually completes the evaluation. At greatest issue are two questions on the questionnaire: rating the course, and rating the instructor–the two which are most commonly considered both by students considering which course to take and by promotion and tenure committees considering whether to promote a faculty member. For students, this is one of the few summary pieces of information available to them; for faculty committees though, this is a temptingly quantitative piece of information.

It has been patently obvious for decades (yes, literally decades) that these questionnaire results have little correlation with how much students learned. Read More…

Postdoc Workshop

In the movie Elf, the initial voiceover from “Papa Elf” (Bob Newhart) says that there are three main jobs for elves: baking cookies in an old hollow tree, making boots at night, and Santa’s workshop. When Will Ferrell’s human-adult-but-raised-an-elf character Buddy hits New York, his lack of useful skills outside the elf world becomes pretty apparent.

A report in Nature says that postdocs are kind of like elves, but without quite so many career options. The studies underlying this reporting basically find that employers are not so interested in the skills postdocs pick up, with the deadly quote from an employer being that postdocs “have all the academic science skills you don’t need, and none of the organizational skills that you do”. A solution mentioned is mentoring postdocs as entrepreneurs.

If not that, what are these postdocs doing?

By this GG means that postdocs should be writing grant applications supporting the science they wish to pursue (whether they get to be PI is a different matter). Plenty of businesses revolve around responding to proposal requests; this isn’t helpful?

Some postdocs are brought in to work on big projects, which is often to oversee work being done by grad students and undergraduates. Does this administrative responsibility have no use in the private sector?

Other postdocs work independently, which means to be successful they must be self-starters and persevere through challenges. Many times too they have to write up reports on what they have done and what progress they are making. This too has no use in the outside world?

GG is stuck; one of two things is happening: either “real world” recruiters are oblivious to the skills being picked up  by postdocs (and postdocs are at a loss to express those skills), or postdoc advisors are treating their postdocs like graduate students, not sharing any of the responsibilities and freedom that such positions should include. Either way, tremendous intellectual capital is being squandered.

Changing Subscriptions

Once upon a time, having a “subscription” meant that things would come to you until either the term of the subscription ran out or you cancelled the subscription. The stuff that had already come, whether issues of Teen Vogue, the record of the month or volumes of an encyclopedia, were yours to keep. But in the world of the academic library, that model is vanishing, and with it potentially are large parts of the academic literature.

In the paper past, an academic library’s subscription to a professional journal meant that the library got paper copies of the journal that they could then place on shelves and allow people to read. As budgets might tighten or interests wane, libraries would cancel subscriptions–but those journals they had purchased remained on the shelves unless purged to make room for other material. This model is essentially dead.

Instead publishers have shifted to the software definition of “subscription”–which isn’t really a subscription at all. Just as to use Adobe’s Cloud package of software requires you to have an active subscription, so does getting access to all the issues of Science that you had subscribed to over the years. And if the journal decides to go to predatory pricing? Your options are nil. That money you poured into the journal all those years means nothing. In general, libraries are not allowed to make local copies of all the content they are subscribing to.

In some ways there is an even worse side to all this.  Publishing once meant that there would be lots of copies of your work out there.  One library burns down, another is vandalized–it doesn’t really matter as there are plenty of other copies of the work out there. Now, there is essentially one. Admittedly there is more than one copy of all the work–most publishers subscribe to the LOCKSS model or the CLOCKSS model for preserving their materials–but the terms of use are still restrictive. An academic publisher might go belly up and have their archive bought by a private firm that then charges a fortune for access. Or maybe a vandal degrades all the copies of the works in the online archive. It takes little imagination to envision a wealth of knowledge effectively evaporating.

Arguably this is one of the best facets of a true open access policy: the freedom to copy materials means that there can be multiple archives.  University archives can legally maintain and share copies of work produced at their institutions. Research groups can maintain thematic collections of articles relevant to their focus. (Note that current open access policies do not necessarily allow this: much as you can view some movies online so long as you watch the ads, some open access materials could require you to access the original portal and, perhaps, see advertisements there).  In a sense, this can return libraries to their original function: instead of mere portals for providers, they return to being actual repositories of knowledge. So while we may have permanently lost the meaning of “subscription,” we can recover the true meaning of “library.”

Make it harder…

Rather inadvertently GG has recognized a pattern in some recent grumpiness; oddly enough it took an article about self driving cars to really crystallize it. Now of course the specific article GG saw has vanished, but this article covers the same ground. Basically, when something becomes easy, we don’t pay as much attention. Which means the ability to do a task atrophies. For cars, we are looking less over shoulders if the car is looking in blind spots-which means a driver of a car equipped with such technology won’t look when renting a car lacking that tech.

Earlier GG complained about hikers who don’t take maps and scientists who can’t use library tools–and these seem examples of the same issue. Basically, humans are slackers. Find the easy path and take it. This has GG wondering about the way we teach.

First, students will always complain about doing things the hard way. Why did I have to work through that problem when I could just look up the answer? So courses that train students by making them work are always at risk of earning negative reviews, which can lead to administrators deciding that course should change somehow. Allowing current students to set a curriculum is a disaster in the making.

But what of new learning approaches? The “guide on the side” and the flipped classroom? A blanket condemnation would be unwise-student engagement in solving problems should indeed be helpful. GG has not flipped a classroom but has spoken to those that have and the word back is mixed. In some classes many students find that they can skip the preclass prep and walk in cold and get by, either by assistance from classmates or simply dragging the instructor to go over material the student should have already examined. Those students would get a punishing homework grade in a traditional classroom but don’t in this environment.

There is a similar bar-lowering going on with content. Courses using group work, in class exercises and flipped classrooms simply cannot cover as much material. For advocates of these systems, this is good news as in traditional classes content retention can be awful. But what consistently gets downplayed is that less stuff is covered. Now for a survey course for non-majors, this is hardly a calamity, but for major courses this can be serious trouble. As universities demand more core activities, time in major courses only stays level at best. Material gets dropped from the major. Employers will start to notice (that new guy didn’t know about XYZ! Can you believe it?). Universities are not votech, but certain core capability is necessary for employers to build on.

Another article GG can’t find at the moment noted that research into popular learning styles shows such styles of learning are fantasy. This business of catering to visual learning or aural learning or what not is, in the absence of real disability, total BS. Catering to such perceived variability only kills time and keeps a student from developing a more robust ability to absorb information.

Here’s the deal. Learning is hard, failing can be good. You do a total face plant in class, you will work hard to avoid it in the future. Struggle is part of learning. The trick will be to get students to buy into that without hitting stratospheric levels of stress. It could be the dreaded firehose beats a tepid trickle.

The Inadvertent Replication Crisis

Many of you no doubt have heard of the lack of reproducibility studies in some scientific fields. This has led to condemnation of publications that have rejected or discouraged papers attempting to reproduce some observation or effect.

Now this is not such a big deal in solid earth science (and probably not even climate science, where things are so contentious politically that redoing things is viewed in a positive way). Basically, for most geological observations we have the Earth, which remains pretty accessible to pretty nearly all of us.  Raw observations are increasingly stored in open databases (seismology has been at this for decades, for instance). Cultural biases that color some psychological or anthropological works don’t apply much in solid earth, and the tweaky issues of precise use of reagents and detailed and inaccessible lab procedures that have caused heartburn in biological sciences are less prominent in earth science (but not absent! See discussions on how fission track ages are affected by etching procedures, or look at the failure of the USGS lab to use standards properly). We kind of have one experiment–Earth–and we aren’t capable of reproducing it (Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy not withstanding, there is no Earth 2.0).

No, the problem isn’t failing to publish reproductions.  It is failing to recognize when we are reproducing older work.  And it is going to get worse.

AS GG has noted before, citations to primary literature are become more and more scarce despite tools that make access to primary literature easier and easier. This indicates that less and less background work is being done before studies are moving forward: in essence, it is easier to do a study than prepare for it. The end result is pretty apparent: new studies will fail to uncover the old studies that essentially did the same thing.

Reexamining an area or data point is fine so long as you recognize that is what you are doing, but inadvertently conducting a replication experiment is not so great. Combine this with the already sloppier than desired citation habits we are forming and we risk running in circles, rediscovering that already discovered without gaining any insight.

The Mirage Of Knowledge

Are college administrators making graduates dumber?

GG is late to this party but got pointed this way by an Ars Technica review of Tom Nichols’s book on the death of expertise. But this dimension of his argument is pretty well articulated in an article he wrote last year for The Chronicle of Higher Education. It is an interesting and well-written article; the point GG Is moving from is Nichols’s indictment of colleges and universities treating students as customers instead of as students, which leads to intellectual laziness. There is much to ponder there, but let’s look at why GG is indicting administrators.

Here is what matters to administrators: butts in seats, dollars in endowments (and dollars in research accounts). Period. Why be this crude and casual? Because we see on a near-daily basis the advice we are given from on high and the actions accompanying it. One of the reasons college has gotten expensive are the accommodations; here at CU, there seems to be a constant renovation of dorms to make them more attractive. Nice dining facilities, all kinds of recreational activities, big new rec center–and CU is probably trailing the pack at that. Update the chemistry building? Don’t have the bond space right now because we’re building a better football stadium for, you know, the alums who we hope will donate money.

Read More…

Too Prepared?

One of the things that strikes GG as odd is the semester-long reading plan. Basically a week-by-week or even day-by-day list of pages to read, this has become so ingrained in academia that course management tools now actually can automatically build it into the syllabus. And with this is the temptation for the more driven student to try and read well ahead of the class.

Now to be clear in many cases there is little harm in this.  Maybe in a math class you might find a student wanting to short-circuit the more awkward and basic set of derivations or calculations in favor of the better stuff later in the class, but for the most part seeing the more complex stuff to come will have little impact on how the current material is being taught and learned.

But in other cases it seems like it can be a distraction. If the instructor is trying to lead the class through material through discussion, building on material just covered to lead the class to see the utility of the next section, knowing the inevitable outcome kind of forces conversation or exposition towards that next reading. Any sense of exploration of the material is damped if not extinguished by knowing precisely where you are going.  And the driven student? He or she might be lacking the context necessary to really know what the reading is about when reading it weeks before classroom discussion.  Too often students seem to approach a reading as a series of facts to digest instead of a logical argument to parse and evaluate and getting far in front of the class risks encouraging that sort of shallow comprehension.

And for the instructor? She or he is handcuffed–syllabi are gospel to students and you risk changing anything in them at your own risk.  So if you find that the class is lagging from your expectations or is progressing more rapidly, it is hard to adjust. Worse yet is if you realize there is a different facet of the material that you should explore.  You’ve put your class in a straitjacket.

So maybe reading lists should stay hidden through the term, or at least be clearly provisional.