Sunday, December 18, 2011

Soundbites: Surfin' Santa edition

Cool tool: Cross Validation is the Stack Overflow for statistics questions.

The utility of using neuroscience to understand art (e.g. "neuroaesthetics") is considered.

Cool: the Wounded Warrior Bill mandates cognitive testing of soliders before and after deployment. This can help screen for brain injuries and (in theory) get wounded soliders needed treatment. Not cool: this is not actually happening.

Ireland is considering a proposal to add lithium to the drinking water as a method for reducing crime. Lithium is a standard treatment for bipolar disorder. The proposal cites studies in Texas and Japan showing reduced crime in locations where lithium is present in drinking water (though it's not clear whether it was added on purpose, like fluoride).

Mind Hacks follows a new amendment to the US Controlled Substances act, adding a number of chemically synthesized cannabinoids.

"...the raison d’ĂȘtre of a college is to nourish a world of intellectual culture; that is, a world of ideas, dedicated to what we can know scientifically, understand humanistically, or express artistically. "

A beautiful critique of statistical cut-corners in the Freakonomics empire.

The Neurocritic discusses an interesting case: a child with a malformation in the prefrontal cortex and extreme behavioral problems. Can we assign a causal relation?

Friday, December 16, 2011

Who takes the responsibility for quality higher education?

This gives me chills: a professor denied tenure for using the Socratic method of teaching. Of course, there are two sides to every story and this article is rather one sided - I have been in classes where so-called Socratic methods are thinly veiled excuses for hurling insults at students - but if we are to take the article at face value, this is another story in a disturbing educational trend.

The Socratic method is challenging for students and requires preparation and engagement with the material. It requires being able to effectively communicate under pressure. However, I feel that learning involves a certain amount of discomfort. Learning means pushing past the boundaries of what we already know, and what we can already do. Most undergraduate courses I took were of lecture-style, teaching students to expect to be a passive audience in class. It's a much easier route and the student can hide lack of preparation, misunderstanding or having a bad day. However, these students cannot hide forever, and this under-preparation often comes back to haunt them at exam time.

As a TA in graduate school, I saw many freshmen having harsh wake-up calls when the first midterms came back. The typical story was "But I came to all the classes, and I read the book chapters twice! How could I have gotten a C on the exam???" The unfortunate answer is that the student mistakes being able to parrot back a section of textbook or lecture for understanding the material. When an exam forces the student to use this information in an analytic or synthetic way, the facade of learning crumbles. 

I don't know any instructor who wants to give a student a poor grade, but the integrity of the educational system depends on accurate assessment of mastery. If an instructor is fired, demoted or denied tenure due to the rigors of his/her course, this could spell the end of education. Sadly, this story is reminiscent of this case: a professor denied tenure for not passing enough students. I highly recommend reading this page because, if we are to take the author at his words, he took every reasonable action to enable his students to succeed.

Who is responsible for student success in higher education? Professors, of course need to be responsible for presenting learning opportunities to students in a clear manner, and to be available for advice and guidance at office hours. However, university students are adults and need to take responsibility for the ultimate learning outcomes. I am concerned by a culture of entitlement that has conditioned students to expect top marks for simply showing up. The expectations of the "self-esteem generation" and the incentives of professors to earn high student evaluations both play a role, I suspect.

I wonder sometimes whether the cost of attendance at American colleges and universities partially drives this phenomenon. Paying for education turns students and their families into customers, and "customers are always right". Perhaps subsidizing higher education would create a culture that divorces education from "service", leading to more honest evaluations and better learning.