Tag Archive | education

Commencement 2020

SO a couple years back, GG made up a fake commencement address for scientists, thinking he was safely insulated from such tasks. Apparently these are desperate times as he was asked to give the address to his department’s virtual commencement. (Why we blew the chance to get some big name to Skype in for cheap remains a mystery).

Anyways, the old draft wasn’t really going to work given our situation, and so GG went a different direction when push came to shove. What do you say when lives have been so disrupted? Here for your amusement is the address as written (note it was prerecorded so campus could put in subtitles)…

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Higher Ed or Wi-Fi Ed?

Obviously the abandonment of the physical classroom has led many to propose that tele-education is here to stay. But in what form? What is it really? While the New York Times had a nice piece exploring this (confirming that students and faculty are pretty unhappy with what did in fact emerge to replace in-person teaching), one paragraph kind of stands out as potentially highlighting the misunderstandings and mistaken motives that might push this along:

Universities should consider this semester an experiment to see which classes were most effectively delivered online, he [Dr. Vijay Govindarajan, a professor at Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business] said — big introductory courses better taught through video-recorded lectures by faculty stars and with online textbooks, for example, which could be shared among institutions to lower the cost.

OK, class, reread that paragraph. What appears to be the primary motivation? Is it high quality education? Is it a cheaper education? What criteria might be applied? You might consider the affiliation of the expert quoted.

Aside from motivation, do we know if superstar lectures actually produce better learning results? Consider a more prosaic change in teaching style, so-called flipped classrooms where, in a sense, lectures are viewed as homework and actual student work is done in the classroom. Studies have shown these result in a greater mastery of material than traditional classrooms–but they also show that students feel they learned more from the traditional lecture. Could it be that superstar lectures are seeing the same effect on steroids?

Earlier in the story, a VP of online education points out that ‘real’ “online education lets students move at their own pace and includes such features as continual assessments so they can jump ahead as soon as they’ve mastered a skill.” This is certainly NOT what was going on on college IT networks the past month and a half. Indeed, it isn’t really a good fit for the traditional term of lectures/homeworks/labs punctuated by exams. So to the degree that faculty have been shoved (many with a lot of screaming) into the “online education” pool, arguably they landed on the steps to the shallow end, not really the deep end at all. So what might we have learned?

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Will All Learning be Distant?

One of the late night hosts joked a week or two ago that students from Harvard would now be receiving degrees from “just another online university.” There are articles out there claiming that the novel coronavirus will finally push all us dinosaurs from the physical classroom and bring on the age of online education. Oddly enough, GG has some opinions on this.

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Educational Tension

GG has taught a lot of classes over the years and generally does somewhat below the departmental average as measured by a questionnaire filled out by students in the last weeks of the term, here termed an FCQ (Faculty Course Questionnaire).  Does this mean GG was the worse instructor?

It turns out that something relevant has shown up in studies of different forms of teaching.  So-called active learning has been found in multiple studies to result in greater comprehension of material than a standard passive lecture. But active learning isn’t as widespread as maybe it should be, and part of the reason is that professors say their students don’t like it.  This has been confirmed by a study that both shows that students think they learn more from a lecture, and that they actually learned more from an active learning class. While there are many facets to this, part of it is that a well constructed lecture is apt to sound so simple that students think they have mastered some concept even though actually trying to implement that concept might reveal less mastery.

The point being that asking a class how much they think they learned is probably an exercise in self-deception.  We already knew that such evaluations were tied to the mean grades in a class and have long suspected that personality plays an important role in student happiness with a course. None of that reflects the actual success in teaching.  The problem is that finding a tool suitable for measuring learning is hard.  Physics in some ways has it easier: the concepts are quite clear and the material is pretty well circumscribed.  There are a lot of physics learning inventories that are pretty well vetted out there. In earth science the available tools are fewer and far less comprehensive.

So do lower FCQ scores mean GG is a less effective teacher?  We don’t know.  Quite possibly the answer is yes, but in not knowing we run the risk of keeping less effective instructors in classrooms and moving more effective ones out.

Does Education Make you Stupider? Pt. 2

Well, the first post didn’t quite have that name but that was kind of the message.  In a nutshell, that post discussed research showing that a better basic understanding of science made for more intense partisanship. Now a short article in The Atlantic describes a somewhat similar exercise generated by More in Common, but this time directly addressing partisanship itself. Basically, this summarizes a study asking people questions about the beliefs of their political opposites.  And once again, more education seems to make people misjudge reality.

Honestly, this is discouraging. But wait–it gets more bizarre.

Basically Democrats lacking a high school education had a pretty firm fix on the opinions of members of the Republican party, correctly estimating what fraction of Republicans agreed or disagreed with certain policy statements. But as you go up the education ladder, Democrats get worse and worse.  Republicans, on the other hand, are pretty much the same at all levels with no discernible correlation with education.  The study claims this is because graduate-educated Democrats have few or no Republican friends.

Now there are a number of other interesting correlations that are probably less surprising. The more you consume political news, the more you vilify your political opponents. And the more you share political news on social media, the more you vilify your opponents.  Basically, the farther in the echo chamber you go, the more you think your political opponents are utterly hopeless.

So there you go. Media consumption and education make you more ignorant. So if you ever wanted an excuse to become oblivious to the news, here’s your excuse.

Generalists and the PhD

A PhD is somebody who gets to know more and more about less and less until he knows everything about nothing.

That bromide (a variant of others) gets passed along quite frequently about academics, and a new book by David Epstein seems to confirm the implication that super-specialization is not useful. As described in an excerpt in The Atlantic, when narrowly focused experts try to make predictions, they fail spectacularly in comparison to predictions made by generalists. One example is the conflicting forecasts of Paul Ehrlich’s “population bomb” versus the counter-prediction of continued economic improvement made by Julian Simon; both missed the mark in different ways, but both continued to double down on their forecasts. Following many others, Epstein compares the two groups to hedgehogs and foxes. So why on earth should we make hedgehog PhDs?

On its face, a PhD is generally trying to untie one small knot in our universe of knowledge. When did the Rio Grande Rift start extending? What is the power law exponent for sodic feldspar if deforming by dislocation creep? Just how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, anyways? If all we do is train somebody to continue, arrow-like, on that initial trajectory into some byzantine corner of human knowledge, then we have failed. So what then would be success?

Success should be learning how to identify problems worth solving that are solvable and then defining a course of action that will yield that solution. In short, a PhD should be an exercise in learning these skills and applying them in one place to demonstrate mastery. Why would this lead to deeply entrenched viewpoints seemingly unchangeable by evidence?

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Grad School Roulette (+ bonus advice)

Science had a little news piece recently noting that a number of graduate programs were dropping the requirement that applicants for graduate school take the GRE (Graduate Record Exam, which nobody calls it). In a breakdown by discipline, nearly half of well-regarded molecular biology programs have dropped the GRE, but all of the geology programs continue to require it.

GG is not sure why geology would be so impervious to dropping the exam; perhaps it is because we recruit from all kinds of undergraduate majors, and so face a wide diversity of backgrounds (students with music degrees have been admitted as have physicists and biologists)–something uniform across all these majors can help in comparing such diversity. But we also admit students with a wide range of GRE scores; frankly, GREs aren’t a great measure of the skills needed in a good field geologist.

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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.

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.