Monday, November 23, 2015

Students don't know what is good for them

I have written about the problems with students evaluating classes previously, and about how it leads to a standard of pleasing students rather than challenging them. Today I found an article from last year that underlines the necessity of challenging students rather than pleasing them.

From the article:
Students are also not very good at recognising what helps them to learn. Instead, world-leading educational psychologist Robert Bjork from UCLA reports that students assess whether they have learnt something based on the ease with which they complete a related task.
That is why many students assume that reading or highlighting passages in their text-book, or merely listening to a lecture, is enough to produce learning. They mistake the ease of the task with greater knowledge. Time-consuming and effortful tasks, like self-testing their knowledge, are consequently seen by students as less efficient for their learning, despite the fact that the more difficult tasks produce the most learning.
This is a classic problem. If you challenge students into performing tasks they don't feel secure doing, they will blame the teacher if they don't perform well. Their struggles, which are actually signs of a potential learning process, become the teacher's failure when it's translated to the evaluation form. Best evaluation? Don't challenge them, and give them good grades:
As it happens, students who rated their current teacher most highly got better marks in their current course but did much worse in later courses. This confirms the fears of educators: students’ evaluations are linked with current grades, but also with students’ failure to learn things they need for the future. So, a student who is happy with their grade and teacher should worry — they may not have learnt that much.
This is a real problem, a trap that can ruin universities as educational institutions. While I think it is important to talk to students in order to identify some problems: too large or too small, old or irrelevant reading lists, teaching that goes well beyond the course, or does not happen at all (at one point it turned out the teacher had cancelled all classes, and nobody but the students knew), harassment, impropriety, confusion - the students are the ones who will notice it. But when that is covered and you have a decent teacher, the students may actually become destructive of their own learning process:
For students, it means it is important to discover what actually helps your learning and focus on that, and live with the fact that real learning takes effort. Poor marks probably do not mean you are stupid or the teacher is bad. It is more likely to mean you need to raise and/or redirect your effort.
Students should also pay less attention to student evaluations when choosing a university course — happy students may not be learning.
 And that is before we look at the teachers. Once we look at gender and ethnicity, other biases strike.

(Edited the last quote, thanks to comments!)

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Public displays of sympathy in the age of social media

We constantly dress to signal our relationship to the world around us. We dress up  for respect, we dress down for solidarity. We check the dress code before going to an event, and we try to aim for the point that hits just right, or at least in the ball-park without being embarassing. To signal beyond this we wear pins, buttons, badges, ribbons and all kind of more or less subtle symbols for others to recognize. Sometimes this is done just to avoid embarassment, or to show some kind of conventional connection. At other times it's done out of deep sympathy and respect. You wear your best to your friend's wedding. You wear black for the funeral. Don't mix those up unless you really want to send an oppositional signal.

So why are we so critical of people dressing up their avatars for this kind of signal? The reactions to the tricolor used after the attacks in Paris November 13th are harsh. They attack the people who change their profile picture for a while, then move on. Some are angry that nobody wore the Lebanese flag after the tragedy in Beirut.  Some claim it is to show support to a nationalist system that just increases the tension and maintains the terror. Some just rage against the fashion of wearing random symbols, only to forget the cause the next week.

True, all true. But what is the right dress code when you are grieving the horror of such a brutal attack on a place that is close to your heart? If I was to go to a funeral, I'd wear black, offer my condolences and walk home to change, and nobody would complain. The people at the wedding in the church 30 minutes later, already gathering in their dresses and finery wouldn't complain that we aren't celebrating their happiness. And I would certainly not demand that they dress in black. They are dressing for their life, I am dressing for mine.

So why does Facebook avatars affect us so strongly that it's necessary to write about how false the expression is, or be jealous about the lack of sympathy for others? Is it a kind of selfish grief, a stage of anger and self-absorption that insists that there is only one important feeling, only one right way to feel it, only your struggle is true? Other attacks on expressions of sympathy indicate this may be so, the anger of seeing a ribbon supporting the sufferers of an illness that is crippling you and your family, the signs of awareness from the unaffected and healthy apparently mocking you with their presence - I am not linking because I don't want to point to any one personal cause, I am sure you have seen this yourself. They are the blogposts or tweets accusing others of being false, not knowing, not understanding, because you own pain is so deep, your own burden so heavy.

So what should we do? Wear jeans to both the funeral and the wedding? Never change the profile picture at any one time? Buy no ribbons, have no feelings but those approved by the blogosphere, the twitterati and the Facebook sharers? I don't think you mean that. Not if we are face to face. Who ever you are, who have been so annoyed with all those avatars suddenly changing that you need to lash out in your own grief, you don't really mean that I should not be permitted to express mine. You just want to hurt somebody, because you are hurting too. You just want to cry with somebody, because you are crying too. And we don't get the right dress code. It's ok. Even if we didn't get it right, we are still here, trying to express something. Some pain. Some joy. Some sympathy. Some support. Some love. Take it, or don't take it. But please accept that the emotions are real at this end too, even if for an afternoon, a week, a lifetime. And we use our avatars like we use our clothes, in an attempt to express something we may be too clumsy to get just right.

Feedback to the good students - the dilemma

Feedback is one of those really difficult things, and sometimes we screw up. I have a model for feedback: Start with something nice. Address the real problems. Suggest a few changes. End with something nice. It normally works. Then suddenly it doesn't.

I think one of the most difficult things we do is to give feedback on good work. I know I tend to ignore it, except from pointing out it's good, then moving on to what needs to be changed to make it ever better. This, of course, leads to an over-emphasis on the bad stuff, but that's what we want to change, right? So I spend time sorting out the aspects that are acceptable, struggling to find the potential for growth, and highlighting the kind of material I want to see more of. And that's why sometimes my feedback on weak work may look better than feedback on the good work.

Of course, it's a problem if we never say anything about why a good work is good. Just a general gold star isn't enough, but there is perhaps not all that much to say when a student has done exactly what I have tried to make them do for a few months. And then some good student takes his "yeah, great, perhaps work a bit more on this. By the way, great work." feedback and compares it with a lesser student's "this part here is really useful, and I like how you have emphasised this, and you probably can work more on this, and the connection here is very useful." and don't realise that the other feedback is on a very different type of work. It's on something weaker, something that needs a lot more effort and attention from me, something that needs to develop. Because yeah, your work is good. Go ahead like this. Do what you have been doing. I don't have to turn over every phrase of your work to find the good parts.

So, here's my message to the good students.

Do you get good grades or short comments of praise, but feel under-appreciated? Do you feel that your efforts never take you anywhere? Do you feel like the teacher never sees you, and moves on to the next student to encourage them, leaving you hanging? Here is what the teacher is really thinking.

"Oh, this is great. I don't really have anything to add. This person got it, and is on their way to where I want them to go and beyond. They are learning. They are developing. I love seeing this. Not a lot to say here, beyond telling them it's good. I wish they could all be this good. OK, a beauty-spot here. Let's just try to fix that. Otherwise, I love this. Now, next paper. Oh shit. OK, time to get creative and try to help this poor person. I really wish they could all be like that previous student. What can I offer that can help this student to be like the previous one?"

So yeah, good students, we love you. We sincerely love you. Sorry that the reward for being loved is to also be trusted. I trust you know where you are going. I don't think I should try to derail you when you're on your way. Getting out of the way of students who have their shit together is important. And, good student, you have places to go and things to do. Go do them. Without my approval, because you don't need it, you just need to keep doing this.

The truth is though: I do approve. I smile when I read the good papers. I take a deep breath. My teaching gains meaning when previous feedback leads to a good effort. But I want them all to be at your level, so forgive me, now that you're safe, I am off to try and haul that other one to safe ground.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Where is the tipping point?

The simultaneously funny and bleak Twitter account Shit Academics Say or @academicssay also have a blog. Here they use a bit more than 140 characters. The blog post I want to write about today is about academic publishing, and how academic journals have become one of the most profitable businesses out there. Or as they say: The most profitable obsolete technology in history.

Academic publishing is an increasing problem to academic production. Positioned in a small university with a small library budget, I am totally dependent on the large library next door, or the wonderful Danish Royal Library. I spend a few days a month in their spaces, downloading articles from their access, in order to be able to do the basics of lit. reviews. The universities spend enormous sums to keep us all in articles, and I try to do my best to make sure it's worth while, but at the same time I think this money is spent very, very badly.

The main point about academic journals is that they are peer reviewed. And we all know that the peer reviewing is the burden of our peers, which is you and me. What academic publishers provide is proofreading (minimal), setting and editing, printing, distribution, and managing the money. We all know that if all the content of the journals were freely available online, from everywhere, we would be quite happy to forego the whole printed part of that process. That takes care of distribution too. We already do both the writing and the reviewing, and often we also do the editing. So what's left is some practical administration, some proofreading and copy-editing, publishing online and managing the money.

I don't know how much labour goes into running a prestigious journal, but let's say all the universities that really need those specialised mathematics journals sat down and discussed what kind of editors they would need in order to create their own journals. Then they just stopped buying them, and spent the money paying for editors and online publishing. Since there's no need to buy anything, a whole layer of administration is gone. The costs to paper and distribution is gone. There's no need to control access, as all access would be free. There are of course a few snags here. Universities would like to promote their own scholars. This could be remedied for instance by making certain that the reviewers are from different universities, and by putting in a board of editors from related journals run by other universities. Working out these details in order to make sure there's not even more playing of the reviewing process with this system than with the old one would take a while, but it would be worth it. The whole process needs to be shook up a bit anyway.

In this process, academic journals would get actual competition. They would have to review what is developing into a vicious, predatory practice. And knowledge would be free to all, not just those with a prestigious, exclusive library card. The ones who would really benefit from this would be students from all over the world! Having one or several active academic editors working in-house in the fields a university is specialising on would also be a tremendous boost to the centers and communities. It would bring the editors in closer contact with the actual development of research, and into direct discourse with the scholars they are supposed to support. Today's system, with the peer review, does not really ensure an outside perspective, so it would be better to acknowledge this and enter into discourse directly. Several existing university presses are among the best in their fields, so that isn't really a particularly good argument either.

If European universities managed to get behind the Pisa agreement to create a uniform system of degrees and grades, it should absolutely be doable to start in Europe and do this for the academic publishing. Until then, I'll do my best to keep supporting the less predatory journals out there., come here, have a hug.