Category Archives: Uncategorized

Thinking about Vacations

Summer is when most people take a vacation. The weather is usually nice, so there are many options for most people. And of course, children are usually home from school for a few months so families tend to take a vacation during this time. And even people without children probably still have a residual rhythm to the year that was forged during their own childhood and school time. Those early patters leave their mark.

I’m fascinated by how people choose to spend their vacation time. When I was a child, growing up in rural Pennsylvania, we tended to spend most if the summer at home since my mother was a schoolteacher. But we did go away on vacations. They tended to be road trips to stay with family in other areas of the country and we’d take in attractions like the Grand Canyon, the White Mountains in NH or the beach in North Carolina along the way. One year, we visited family in Northern Virginia and spent some time at the Smithsonian Museum. I was 12 and younger siblings were 11 and 8. I remember we had to all wear the same bright yellow Pittsburgh Steelers t-shirt so that my parents would not lose us in the crowds. I remember being embarrassed but don’t remember the crowds.

Crowds are bigger these days

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve really started notice the crowds more. As an example, my famliy and I often spend time on the Bruce Peninsula in Ontario. There is a wonderful national park and fantastic hiking along the Niagara Escarpment. The first year we visited, 2004, the place seemed so remote, so pristine. But ever year, the crowds have steadily increased. So much so that one of the most popular attractions, “the Grotto” has summer restrictions now. It can only be accessed you are given one of the parking passes that are handed out at 7:00am each day. When the passes are gone, the park is closed to anyone without one. The Grotto is magnificent, but hard to enjoy when it’s teeming with people.

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A quiet evening on the Bruce Peninsula, looking out over Georgian Bay

The traffic at the big American parks (Yosemite, Smokey mountains, Yellowstone) is legendary and a growing problem, In some parks, campgrounds are so popular that some entrepreneurs have set up permit bots to buy the site permits when they are available and resell.

Personal preference

So what makes some people crave a vacation in a crowded area and others choose solitude? Some people plan for big crowed locations like Disney, Las Vegas, or a music festival like Coachella or Osheaga. And of course, some events are crowded by nature, such as a ball game. I tend to want to avoid crowds (an ideal vacation is winter camping…crowds are low).

Maybe it comes down to what you want to get away from or back to? I work at a large research university and teach classes up to 200 students. With 30,000 students enrolled at Western, I find that I’m always in a crowd. I suppose the last thing I want to do to recharge is be in another crowd. But if you tend to work in a less crowded place, maybe the fun of being in a bigger crowd on the beach or a park is what you enjoy.

Vacations are needed

Regardless of whether you like a crowd, a beach, the city, or solitude, we all need some time to get out of our comfort zone (or sometimes time to get back into it). Project:Time Off tracks research on vacations and the general message is that we’re not doing it enough. I I hope you are able to get away for a few days. Unplug. Reconnect with your friends or family. Or head to a big crowded festival if that’s your thing (I won’t see you there…). Either way, enjoy your vacation!

 

 

 

Taming My Distracted Mind

There is mounting evidence that digital devices, screens, smartphones are a real roadblock to productivity. The very tools that are supposed to make us more productive might be robbing us of that ability.

The Modern Worker

I’m a psychology professor at a large research institution. This means that although I do spend some time teaching in a large lecture hall, mostly I’m in my office writing, reading, doing email, attending meetings, and planning…that is, spending my time like many other modern workers. I’ve been at this for a while and I can still recall a time when not everyone had an email address, when research articles had to be printed, when submitting my work to a journal meant actually mailing four identical copies of the manuscript to the publisher. But nearly all of that is now done on line. I sit at my desk to do email, to read, to analyze data, to access research papers, to grade assignments, comment on student work …everything. And lately this has expanded to me writing and managing email at home, at breakfast on my phone, reading email in a faculty meeting on my phone, in bed on my phone…in the bathroom on my phone. An really…why am I doing my work in the bathroom?

What’s more, everything is being carried out on a device or a browser that is also used for recreation media consumption and social media. I read news, play games, and watch baseball games on my laptop. I watch sports on my laptop and tweet about the game at the the same time.

What this means is that my workstation is essentially also a playstation.

A Tired Mind

Lately I’m finding that a week of desk/computer work leaves my mind feeling like mush. Much more cognitive fatigue that there used to be. I’m less able to focus on my work. I can’t read the whole way through a paper. I’ll start and email and write two lines and then my attention wanders. It did not used to be this way, and it’s not just because I’m getting older (I’m a few weeks shy of 47). I think my work habits have begun to tire me out.

Meditation does help in this regard…I can meditate for 10–15 minutes with little difficulty. And running helps too: I can run for an hour without getting bored and feel refreshed (not tired)

But the minute I’m at my desk I slide right back into the habit of having 10 browser tabs open…each one vying for my attention.  No matter what I try, the second I sit down at my university office or home office to write, I lose my ability to concentrate on my work. It starts with email, and then 10 minutes of local news, maybe twitter….some more email. And back and forth and them I’m still working on the same email.

Some remedies

I’ve started taking steps this week to create some “digital distance” at work. Small habits to try to improve my work experience. None of this is scientific: I’m just trying to retrain. And I’m not so much interested in being more productive…just less tired.

  1. I’m printing more and screen reading less. This goes for articles, student work, and editing my own work. (don’t worry: I’m recycling the paper by printing on the back of other used paper!)
  2. This is big one: After many years of running everything through a browser and Gmail, I’m switching back to an actual email client (Spark Mail App for mac). That way, when I decide to do email, I’m ONLY doing email and not tempted to read FB, Twitter, news, etc. in another tab. Gmail or Outlook webmail was killing me for that because “hey you already have Chrome open, just leave a tab open for twitter”. So Chrome is closed when I’m responding to email.
  3. My lab and my graduate students are now on Slack (not email) so that when I’m doing project management, research planning, and advising, I can concentrate on that and nothing else. I close can Chrome and email
  4. I’ve turned all the notifications off on my smart phone, except texts/calls from my wife & kids, and their school.
  5. No posting to social media in the morning, because I’ll just be thinking about whether not there are hits. This is another big one. I’ll post something at breakfast or comment and then keep checking.I’ve already completely deactivated Facebook to make this even easier. My students and I are even carrying out a research study on this specific topic (more detail on that later..when the data are in).

I’m curious if others are finding similar things. Do you think that your productivity has waned? Do you think that working all day on a screen is reducing your ability to concentrate? Have you taken steps to correct this or retrain your mind? I’d be interested in hearing.

Le biais de confirmation: The story of the Bilingual Advantage 

The newest salvo in the psychology’s “reproducibility crisis” is not in social psychology, but is hitting the field of psycholinguistics. In this case, the evidence is mounting that the so called “bilingualism advantage” may not be an advantage after all. Worse, it may be something like the Mozart Effect for psycholinguistics…That is, an effect that is plausible and desirable enough (and marketable) that we all believe it and ignore reputable counter evidence.

Full disclose, our children have attended a French Immersion school, and as we live in a country with two official languages, I think it’s important to know some of both. But I’m not bilingual myself (6 years of German in high school and university, but I no longer speak it). So I like the idea of a second language. And I like the idea of the bilingual advantage too. I’ve assumed that this advantage is present and measurable, but now I’m not so sure. This controversy is worth paying attention to.

The Bilingual Advantage

The story goes like this. People who speak two languages fluently are constantly switching between them. They have to inhibit one language in order to respond in the other. And because switching and inhibition are two of most well-known and well-studied aspects of the cognitive control system known as the executive functions, it’s assumed that bilinguals would be especially adept at these behaviours. And if they are good and switching and inhibiting within language, they may have a general executive functioning advantage for behaviours as well.

Ellen Bialystok at York University and others have investigated this claim and have produced quite a lot of data in favour of the idea that general executive functioning abilities are superior in bilinguals relative to English speaking persons. The advantages might also persist into old age and the may guard against cognitive decline in aging. Dr. Bialystock’s work is extensive has relied on many different measures and she’s arguably one of the towing figures in psycholinguistics.

Does this work Generalize?

An article in Feb 2016 in The Atlantic has suggested that recent attempts to replicate and generalize some of this work have not been successful. Specifically, the work of  Kenneth Paap, at San Francisco State has argued that there is no general advantage for bilinguals and that any advantages are either very local (confined to language) or are artifacts of small sample size studies with idiosyncratic groups. Systematic attempts to replicate the work have not been successful. Reviews of published studies found evidence of publication bias. And other psychologists have found the same thing. In other words, according to Paap, whatever advantages these groups might have shown in early studies, they can’t really be attributed to bilingualism.

The Battle Lines

By all accounts, this is a showdown of epic proportions. According to the Atlantic article, Paap has thrown the gauntlet down and said  (paraphrased) “Let’s work together, register the studies, collect good data, and get to the bottom of it.” Even a co-author of one of the most well-cited bilingualism advantage papers is now questioning the work. My colleague at Western, J. Bruce Morton, is quoted as saying:

“If people were really committed to getting to the bottom of this, we’d get together, pool our resources, study it, and that would be the end of the issue. The fact that people won’t do that suggest to me that there are those who are profiting from either perpetuating the myth or the criticism.”

But proponents of the advantage are not interested in this, suggesting that the Paap and others are not properly controlling their work and also pointing to their recent work with brain imaging (which gets away from the less than idea executive functioning tasks but also could fall prey to the Seductive allure of Neuroscience…which is another topic for another day).

This is, I think, a real scientific controversy. I think we should get to the bottom of it. If the advantage is robust and general, then it’s going to show up in these newer studies. If it’s not, then it becomes an outmoded idea (like so many in psychology and in science). That’s progress. There is the risk that inherent appeal of the advantage will allow it to persist even if the science does not back it it, and that’s problematic.

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.