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Redesigning my Graduate Seminar

I’m writing this to crowdsource and to get advice on course design, so this might not be the most interesting blog entry I’ve ever written. But if this is the kind of thing that intrigues you…read on!

I teach a graduate seminar on cognition every two years. It’s one of the required courses for our cognition graduate students (Master’s and PhD) and covers the fundamental issues in the field, and also to help prepare students for the PhD exams. I usually have a few students from other areas in psychology (e.g. social psychology) as well as student from other departments (philosophy, neuroscience, and business). I’ve run this class since 2007, and I’m thinking of overhauling some of the topics for the Fall 2015 session. An example of the most recent syllabus can be found HERE.

The basic course

The official description of the course as it stands now is as follows.

“This course aims to provide graduate students with exposure to classic and current research in cognitive psychology. We will read and discuss articles on the major topics in the field, including high-level perception, categorization, attention, working memory, knowledge, language, and thought. The readings will encompass theoretical approaches, behavioural research, computational modelling, and cognitive neuroscience. Meetings will follow a seminar format, in which students will discuss the readings for each class. To frame the discussion for each meeting, the instructor will provide background and any needed tutorials. Marks will be based on participation and written work.”

The class has a midterm, a final paper, and discussion papers. I cover topics like:

  • Viewpoint Independent vs. Viewpoint Dependent Theories of Object Recognition
  • Theories of Working Memory”
  • Inductive Reasoning: Similarity-based or Theory-based?
  • “Categorization: Prototypes vs. Exemplar models”

This is all pretty standard graduate seminar material. But I’m thinking of updating some topics and in particular  updating the way the course is run. I’m not sure the standard format is the best, and the last time I ran a seminar (not this one, but a class on “Concepts and Categories” ). I felt that it was not working well. Discussion did not flow, I talked too much, there was a lack of enthusiasm. This was not due to the students, but I think was a result of my not leading it well, and the limitations of the standard seminar format.

A new format

I’m planning to keep some the topics, but add in new newer ones that could be challenging or debate-worthy. For example

  • The Dual-Process Approach of Thinking
  • What are Mental Representations and Are They Needed for a Theory of Cognition?
  • Cognitive Heuristics: Helpful or Harmful”.
  • Is Vision Strictly Visual: Vision as Action, Evidence from Blind Echolocation, and Visual imagery

Each class would have around 4-5 papers assigned which would be a mix of classic, standard papers, and new perspectives on that issue. If possible, I will assign readings that cover two sides to an issue. In the past, there are usually 10-15 people in people in this seminar, and it meets for three hours, typically two 1:15 sections and  short break.

Here are four possible ways to run a class. I’ve usually used  the first two…Sometimes it works well, sometimes it works less well.

1. The Standard Seminar. Each class is a discussion of the central issues. I provide 3 or 4 central questions (or maybe a brief outline) that students can prepare for. Rather than discuss each paper in detail, we will try to answer the central questions but will use the assigned readings as a guide.

2. Student-led Discussions. Each class can have one student assigned to be the discussion leader. Alternatively, I act as discussion leader, but there is one student assigned to present each paper.

3. The Debate Team. Each class is framed around a debate and there will be two teams. Each team consists of a leader and two panelists. They will face off and the remaining students will asses and judge the winner and provide feedback. A three hour class could have one or more debates. Throughout the course of the class, there will be several opportunities to be on an debate team.

4. The Shark Tank. This format is like a debate, but one team is selling the idea and the other team is an antagonist. Students make a 10 min presentation of the paper, theory, or idea and then defend the ideas in the paper, and the the sharks question and critique the ideas. Sharks decide to accept the idea and invest, or pass. The rest of the class participates by assessing the performance of the sharks an the presenters.

Ideas?

So if you were taking a course like this, which if these formats would you enjoy most? Which format do you think might promote the best mastery of the material, the best engagement? Are there other ways to run a graduate seminar that I have not tried?

Maybe I should use a mix of formats? Some classes will be standard discussion while others will be debates?

I’d welcome and appreciate any suggestions, critiques, and ideas.

Grade Inflation at the University Level

I probably give out too many As. I am aware of this, so I may be part of the problem of grade inflation. Grade inflation has been a complaint in universities probably as long as there have been grades and as long as there have been universities.

Harvard students receive mostly As.

But the issue has been in the news recently. For example, a recent story asserted that the most frequent grade (e.i. the modal grade) at Harvard was an A. That seems a bit much. If Harvard is generally regarded as of the world’s best universities, you would think they would be able to asses their students on a better range. A great Harvard undergrad should be a rare thing, and should be much better than the average Harvard undergrad. Evidently, all Harvard undergrads are great.

One long time faculty member, says that “in recent years, he himself has taken to giving students two grades: one that shows up on their transcript and one he believes they actually deserve….“I didn’t want my students to be punished by being the only ones to suffer for getting an accurate grade,”

In this way, students know what their true grade is, but they also get a Harvard grade that will be an A so that they look good and that Harvard looks good. It’s not just Harvard, of course. This website, gradeinflation.com, lays out all details. Grades are going up everywhere…But student performance may not be.

The University is business and As are what we make.

From my perspective as a university professor, I see the pressure from all sides, and I think the primary motivating force is the degree to which universities have heavily embraced a consumer-driven model. An article The Atlantic this week got me thinking about it even more. The article points out, we (university) benefit when more students are doing well and earning scholarships. One way to make sure they can earn scholarships is to keep the grades high. It is to our benefit to have more students earning awards and scholarships.

In other words, students with As bring in money. Students with Cs do not. But this suggests that real performance assessment and knowledge mastery is subservient to cash inflow. I’m probably not the only one who feels that suggestion is true.

And of course, students, realizing they are the consumer, sort of expect a good grade for what they pay for. They get the message we are sending. Grades matter more than knowledge acquisition. Money matters more than knowledge. If they pay their tuition and fees on time, they kind of expect a good grade in return. They will occasional cheat to obtain these grades. In this context, cheating is economically rational, albeit unethical.

Is there a better system?

I am not sure what to do about this. I’m pretty sure that my giving out more Cs is not the answer, unless all universities did this. I wonder if we really even need grades? Perhaps a better system would be a simple pass/fail? Or Fail/Pass/Exceed (three way). This would suggest that students have mastered the objectives in the course and we (the University) can confidently stand behind our degree programs and say that our graduates have acquired the requisite knowledge. Is that not our mission? Does it matter to an employer if a student received an A or a B in French? Can they even use that as a metric when A is the modal grade? The employer needs to know that the student mastered the objectives for a French class and can speak French. Of course, this means that it might be tricky for graduate and professional schools to determine admission. How will medical schools know who admit if they do not have a list of students with As? Though if most students are earning As, it renders moot that point.

In the end, students, faculty, and university administrators are all partially responsible for the problem, and there is no clear solution. And lurking behind it, as is so often the case, is money.

The Fine Print in the Syllabus

The end of July brings the realization that that I’ll be teaching graduate and undergraduate courses again in the fall, and that I need to prepare readings, lectures, and an official course outline for each course. In addition to being distributed to students on the first day of class, these outlines are archived and publicly available on the web. For example, here is the outline for the summer distance course that I am teaching this year . Here is the outline from the last time I taught the Introduction to Cognition course. My graduate courses use a similar format, and here is the outline from last fall’s graduate seminar on cognition. As you can see, there is a lot of information about the course, but also a lot of slightly silly stuff directing them to websites about other policies.

Fine Print

Every year, when I send these course outlines to the department’s undergraduate coordinator, I am informed that I have used the wrong template or have forgotten something.

For example. Last year, I forgot this:

“Computer-marked multiple-choice tests and/or exams may be subject to submission for similarity review by software that will check for unusual coincidences in answer patterns that may indicate cheating.”

Do the students need to know this up front? Is it not enough that we tell them not to cheat? Can they file an appeal if they were caught cheating and did not know that I was going to check ?

Not So Fine Print

Every year the list of non academic information that is required gets longer and longer. For example, this year I forgot to include a mental health statement. According to the university, I need to include the following statement in all course outlines:

“If you or someone you know is experiencing emotional /mental distress, there are several resources here at Western to assist you.  Please visit:  http://www.uwo.ca/uwocom/mentalhealth/ for more information on these resources and on mental health.”

I think this is a very strange thing to have in a course outline. It has nothing to do with my class. Surely students already know about non academic services, like mental health services?  And why stop there, maybe I should also consider a referral to the student health services if they or someone they know is experiencing a pain in their foot? Or to the gym if they are experiencing weakness in the upper torso? Or to a cooking class if they are malnourished. We have not yet been asked to issue “trigger warnings”  but I know that’s probably coming…

What is the intent here? I’m not suggesting that student not be informed of all the options available to them in terms of university life. I just wonder how relevant it is to the course outline. I id not think this kind of information belongs in my course outline.

Is it about control?

I think much of this is about the university exerting top down control. Requiring a series of statements for each course outline is a subtle power play. Academics sometimes like feel immune to the “TPS report” mentality, but we get it, and it gets worse each year.

In 2003, when I began teaching at Western, I created a syllabus, handed it out, taught the class, turned in the grades. Now, 11 years later, I use information from an official template for the syllabus, I send it for “approval” by the undergraduate office (it might be sent back), I sent it to IT to be posted, I  teach the course, I approve alternative exam dates at the request of the academic counsellor, when I turn in the grades, these are checked also to make sure they are not too high or too low. Ten years ago we had a chair… Now we have a chair plus 2 1/2 associate chairs (I was one of them for 4 years). Ten years ago, departments ran nearly every aspect of their own graduate programs, Now we have a central authority that has control over how exams are run, the thesis, and even the specific offer of admission. The letter that we write to students to offer admission to our graduate program is from a template, and any changes must to be approved. This letter gets longer and more confusing each year. It’s our TPS report. One of many TPS reports.

University, Inc.

The university is a business. I know it, everyone knows it.

Every year, we are informed  that we need to meet targets for enrolment, to put “bums in seats”. We are required to continually be seeking external funding and grants, to teach courses that will have appeal to student registered in different programs, to attach more graduate students. We’ve been asked to “sex up” the title of a course to see if more people will sign up. We now need to report on “internationalization” activities. That’s a buzzword, folks. We’re doing buzzword reports.

I’m not naive, I know the pressures. I’m just disappointed. And worried that it’s getting worse each year.

 

Music and the Mind

As I am sitting down to write this blog entry, my younger daughter is practicing her piano lessons for the week. She will put in twenty minutes of practice, paying extra attention to counting (her teacher really likes her students to count). In the short term, she will progress to being able to play more complicated pieces, to play music (rather than just notes) and our living room will be filled with the sounds of elementary piano music.

Hearing our children play music is an undeniably wonderful thing.

But in the long term, there is increasing evidence that the time she spends on music instruction may have long lasting and beneficial effects on cognitive function, social behavior, and academic performance. That seems to be the conclusion of much of the contemporary research on the effects of music on the brain and mind.

Full disclosure, although I study cognition and thinking, this is not my area of expertise. I’m interested as a psychologist, but also as a parent and music lover. So I’m not endorsing anything in my professional capacity, I just find this work really fascinating.

The study music and the mind had a dubious moment of fame in the 1990s, and everyone has heard of the “mozart effect”. The idea, which was wildly over interpreted by many, was that listening to music (specifically to the music of Mozart) will “make you smarter”. Of course, the original paper did not make this claim, and the authors were clear that these were short term effects of listening to a piece of music and subsequent  performance on spatial reasoning tasks. But  the public was so enamored by this finding that a whole industry was spawned (“Baby Einstein” DVDs) and the governor of the state of Georgia actually set aside money to make sure that every baby that was born in that state was given a classical music CD.

Although the idea that passive listening to classical music would make babies and kids more intelligent and more creative is erroneous, interest in music and the mind has not disappeared, and a few weeks ago, I came across several popular science articles that suggest a renewed interest in the topic. And this time, the claims are more credible and the possible benefits much more long lasting.

But what effects does music–either listening to, or playing–have on the mind?

There is robust evidence from Glenn Schellenberg’s lab at the University of Toronto that music instruction is directly linked to higher IQ scores. A paper from 2005 summarized this work, and found that music instruction was correlated with improvements in spatial, mathematical, and verbal tasks. He writes , “Does music make you smarter? The answer is a qualified yes.” The reasoning is that music instruction seems to have these effects because it is school-like, requires attention, is enjoyable, and engages many areas of the brain. Learning about music also requires and encourages abstract thought.  The suggestion here is that a person can identify the same tune even if played in a different tempo, instrument, or key because that they have processed it as an abstraction. The  “qualified yes” is that it is not clear if music lessons are the only way to get this improvement and Schellenberg suggests that other kinds of private lessons (drama, for example) might show similar cognitive  benefits.

But other research has begun to track the academic performance and brain function of students who engage in music instruction. A longitudinal study being run by Nina Kraus at Northwestern University is looking carefully at long term benefits of school-based music curricula (as opposed to private lessons as in the Schellenberg study). In essence, music instruction in school seems to improve children’s communication skills, attention, and memory. Kraus’s team is also examining the neural correlates to these benefits and even finds that the auditory processing advantages and neural changes that come from music instruction are robust into adulthood. In other words, if there are cognitive and perceptual enhancements from studying music as a child, these changes may persist long after music instruction is over.

Finally, a recent editorial in the New York Times asked “Is Music the Key to Success?” The author notes that many very successful people benefited from extensive music training.  Allen Greenspan, Stephen Spielberg, Larry Page, Paul Allen, Condoleezza Rice, and others were (and are) trained musicians. This is not to say that piano lessons at age 6 = future Secretary of State, and of course the Op Ed  asks “Will your school music program turn your kid into a Paul Allen, the billionaire co-founder of Microsoft (guitar)? Or a Woody Allen (clarinet)? Probably not.” But the correlations are there, and the evidence (including the more rigorous studies above) is compelling.

The message is: Learn to play music,  or have your children learn an instrument.

Obviously, there is no evidence that instruction in music will produce negative effects. None. So why do schools and school boards sometimes look cutting to music and arts programs as a way to make ends meet? Just this year, the Toronto school board decided (controversially) to make some severe cuts to its music program, and this problem is province wide (though thankfully, not our kids’ public elementary school…we have a great music program).  And this problem is not unique to Ontario, of course. California has seen its school music program decimated.

This is not a good idea.

My point is, there is ample evidence—even when viewed with a skeptical eye—that music instruction has tangible benefits and there is literally no downside. If anything, I’d argue for more music instruction in schools. We’ll likely see wide-ranging cognitive and academic benefits as a result. But if nothing else, we’ll maybe create more musicians.