The CCIS

Today, I went for a sneak-peek, behind-the-scenes tour of the new CCIS (Centennial Centre for Interdisciplinary Science) Phase Two lecture theatres. I couldn't resist--you know how much I'm into behind-the-scenes things.

(What, you think that just because classes and exams are over that I'm sitting at home in my pajamas, watching Oprah and drinking wassail? Oh no, my friend. I'm still on the payroll, so the work doesn't stop.)

Anyway, the good news is that some of the new CCIS lecture theatres are going to open next term. The bad news is that they won't be ready for the first day of classes. That means that classes are going to be moved over--during the term. Urgh.

I know it's hard enough to find your classes in the first place. But you ain't seen nothin' yet. Finding your way into the CCIS building is going to be quite a puzzle. (No, it's not a psychology experiment. But it would be a good test of wayfinding. Hmm.) And if you're in a wheelchair, or otherwise in need of a ramp, well...leave lots of extra time. Like half an hour.

Changing classrooms in the middle of a term--or, even worse, early in the term--is a nightmare. These lecture rooms are cutting-edge high-tech. Instructors are going to have to attend a class (!) to learn how to use the room. (Try and explain that to your grampa: "I have to learn how to use the room.") The rooms are outfitted with dual big-screen displays, computerized lighting controls, multiple cameras, motorized podium, in-room Wi-Fi, and more. In other words, there are a lot of things that can fail. Hey, if the classroom crashes in the middle of my lecture, don't blame me. How do you reboot a Smart Classroom anyhow? Maybe by slamming one of the doors really hard.

There are going to be 24 classes moved over to CCIS in Winter, 2010 term. Courses like CHEM 102, BIOL 107, and MICRB 265. But by far, the most courses are going to be psychology: nine classes in total. If some of your psych instructors look a little ragged on Monday, January 11, don't be surprised. Maybe you could even help us out. By pointing which direction to go to get to our class. Thanks in advance.

Why aren't you drinking wassail?

The Importance of Backups

How important is your term paper? Oh, that important. So you must be taking precautions against losing it, right? Right?

It's the time of year for term papers to be handed in, or for excuses to be given about why they're not being handed in. "The computer ate my paper" is an increasingly popular occurrence. (By the way, I'm going to assume that no one is lying about this. I like to assume the best about students, not the worst.) Here are a few suggestions about how to keep your term paper from getting vanished.

  • Save. Save save save. Don't just type away and then save your document right before you power down. Be compulsive about saving. When I work on my lecture notes, I have a Ctrl-S twitch that goes off about every couple minutes.
  • Make a local backup. This is easy to do: just copy your term paper to another location on your hard drive. So why don't people just do that? It can be a hassle. You've got to remember to do it every time you close down your word processor. And then it's still possible for your whole hard drive to crash.
  • Make a local backup to another device. This backup solution avoids the hard drive crash-problem. You could copy your file to a flash drive. You don't need a fancy 16GB drive to save your term paper; even 128MB will do, and those ones are going for $5. Or you could shell out a few more bucks for an external hard drive. But what about the remember-to-backup problem? Some external drives (and even some flash drives) come with software that automatically backs up certain files. A free software option for Windows is Microsoft's SyncToy using the "echo" option.
  • Make a backup to the cloud. Cloud computing is a big buzzword in computing right now. In this option, you send your data over the Internet to a distant server, where it resides. You might not even have a copy of your document on your computer. There are even some cloud services that won't cost you a cent.
    - Google Docs allows you to work on your document from any computer with a browser over the Web. If your Internet connection goes down, however, you can't get your term paper--unless you've saved a local copy to your hard drive.
    - Live Mesh is a free service run by Microsoft (works with Windows XP/Vista/7 and Mac OS X). It runs in the background and can synchronize any changes you make to a local document folder on your computer with its online cloud storage (up to 5 GB, which is enough for a couple of term papers, eh?). Again, you have to have an active Internet connection for this to work. Another downside it that if you've forgotten to save your term paper, any changes will be lost if you experience a crash.
Putting some thought into keeping your data safe will help you avoid the computer equivalent of "My dog ate my homework." (How do you keep your data safe? Write a post in the comments below.)

Why aren't you studying?

The $2 Reward

I hate it when a textbook contains an error. After reading a section I'll go, "Whoa, that doesn't make sense." The first thing I do is: Blame myself. I must not have understood it correctly. So, frustrated, I'll go back and read it again, and then re-read it again. At some point, I'll realize that I'm not wrong--the textbook is.

In the best case, I'll know what research or theory the textbook is talking about and I'll be able to spot an error immediately. But not always. And I hate that moment of not knowing--or more precisely, the moment of believing that I don't know. I imagine students feel the same way.

I've always asked students to let me know whenever they encounter an error in a textbook. But not many students did. So then I started offering a $1 reward as a sort of bounty for being the first one to find an error, and still got a low response rate. Then I started offering $2--and crossed some sort of threshold. Now I get quite a few emails from students sending me textbook errors. The response rate was also "helped" by recently having a textbook that had 47 errors. Another textbook by the same author has 31...and counting. (Yes, I am quite motivated to find errors first.)

Some errors are not a big deal--like a misspelling of a researcher's name, or saying that Halle Berry played Catwoman in the movie Batman (it was, of course, the movie Catwoman). But other errors are more serious, like explaining things backwards, or labeling parts of diagrams opposite of what they should be.

You'll see a list of errors posted on the main page of the class website. Any new errors have an "updated" tag beside them. (Make sure you pencil in the corrections in your textbook.) I also collect these errors to send them to the publisher of the textbook so the errors can be corrected in any new printings of the textbook. I figure it's the least they can do, especially when you consider the high cost of textbooks.

Interestingly, there's another way that my $2 reward can help students. If a student reads something in the textbook and it doesn't make sense--if it seems to be backwards, like the author made an error--I'll get an email asking me for a $2 reward. Quite often in cases like this, the textbook will turn out to be correct; the problem is in the student's understanding of the material. This is a great opportunity for me to directly help a student understand the material. So you won't get a toonie for a cup of Tim's, but you will get some free help in understanding a concept--and in overcoming that feeling of not knowing.

Why aren't you studying?

Time to Reflect

Recently, it has been time to reflect. On the past, the present, and the future. Of course, it was Remembrance Day last week. I hope you at least spared a thought for those people who, every day, risk (and give) their lives in the service of our country. We owe them an unrepayable debt of gratitude for letting us live a life of such comfort, safety, and freedom.

But it was recently another occasion that's made me reflect on things: the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of East Germany. I have many vivid memories of those incredible days in 1989 when events long considered impossible began to unfold. I don't know how I was able to keep up with my studying, because I was glued to CNN for about a week straight.

Now you have to realize that this wasn't just some symbolic thing happening on the other side of the world. My heritage is German--in fact, I am the first generation of my family to be born in Canada. Considering what happened in Germany after World War II, it's a bit surprising that I even exist.

My mother's family lived in West Germany. My mom, being a sophisticated world traveler, eventually found her way to Canada. (I wish maybe she had gone a bit farther--Hawaii, perhaps? But then, at least she didn't stay in Iceland.)

My father's family, on the other hand, lived in East Germany. My grandfather, having experienced the Nazi regime, wasn't too keen on going through something similar when the communists occupied his country. So he decided to pack up his family--wife and four kids--and get out. This was before die Berliner Mauer went up, but it still wasn't easy to just leave the country. And when the wall went up, it did indeed form a symbolic barrier between their old life and their new one. (My dad could never go to East Germany to visit. If he did, they were sure to "invite" him to stay--forever.) Although my grandfather lived in West Germany for a while, eventually he decided to head for new territory and new opportunity in Canada. (Opa, couldn't you at least have considered Hawaii? Selling pineapples, learning to surf, that sort of thing? No?)

So, well, one things leads to another, my mom met my dad, and here I am. So upon reflection, what are the odds that I exist? If the communists hadn't kept their grip on the Soviet Zone... If my grandfather hadn't gotten his family out... If my mom had stayed in Iceland...

But I also reflected on my relatives, the ones who were still in East Germany in 1989. And the ones who were in West Germany. And now they were all in the same country together, for the first time. That was a good thing--for families to be together, comfortable, safe, and free.

I hope that walls continue to come down in the future. (Yeah, North Korea, I'm lookin' at you.)

Why aren't you studying?

The Sick Note

Last week, the UofA's Registrar took the unprecedented step of rescinding the requirement that students provide documentation for any absence caused by influenza-like illness. (Although the memo at the UofA's H1N1 website mentions a "doctor's note," I, like most instructors, typically require a Medical Statement form to be completed.)

I have heard that students received email about this, which also specifies that you must contact your instructors as well as your Faculty's student advisor. Thanks to those of who who have already contacted me. Be aware that I will automatically transfer the weight of any missed midterms to the final exam, as stated in the syllabus. Sorry, but there's no way to offer makeup or delayed exams.

I just wanted to discuss a couple of other things.

First, do not abuse this situation. It may be tempting to get some relief from exams and assignments for a while if you're not sick. After all, you're not required to provide any evidence at all. But consider this: What if you falsely claim to have H1N1, and then you actually do get it later? I suppose you could lie again and claim you've now got the seasonal flu. But then what if, after that, you actually do get the seasonal flu? Or maybe you got your flu shots and you're confident you won't actually get the flu. At some point you're going to have to make up for lost work somehow. So, are you going to live your life based on telling lies?

Second, If you are actually sick with the flu, I sincerely hope that you recover quickly and fully. (Don't come back to class until then!) If you're experiencing severe symptoms like chest pain, shortness of breath, dizziness, severe vomiting, high fever and confusion, please seek medical attention immediately. It's one thing to tough it out through a cold, but these symptoms are serious. Just because you're asked not to get a sick note doesn't mean that you should avoid all contact with the health care system. Take care of yourself.

Why aren't you studying?

The Flu Shot

So, have you heard about this swine flu thing? Sounds a little scary. Just look at that graph over there, showing the number of flu cases in Canada (see Google Flu Trends for updates). But what are you gonna do, eh?

Well, you could go and get a free flu shot. The provincial government is picking up the tab not only for the H1N1 flu shot, but also for the seasonal flu vaccine. Woot!

Maybe you think you don't need to get the flu shot. After all, you're healthy right now, right? No pounding headache, no aching muscles, no runny nose, no fever. But just because you're not sick now doesn't mean you're not going to get sick--it doesn't work that way. What are you going to do when you get sick? Go and get the flu shot then? Um, no: first, it will be too late to help you. And second, they won't even give you the flu shot when you're actually sick.

Perhaps you're counting on Tamiflu. Yup, that could help you. So, is your strategy to wait and get really sick first, then go running around to see a doctor and get a prescription? What if (say, due to a pandemic or something) they're out of Tamiflu? Are you going to order some over the Internet? Ya, good luck with that.

Even if you don't get the H1N1 swine flu, you're still at risk for the good old regular flu. "Bah!" you say, totally unafraid of it. And you're right, people aren't freaking out over the regular seasonal flu. But you should still get a flu shot for it. Why? Take a look at the graph above again. The light blue lines show cases of seasonal flu over the past few years. Notice when the cases peak? There's one peak in mid/late December. Hmm, is there anything important going on in your life around that time? Let me think...oh, yeah: final exams. Do you want to be sick during finals? Do you want to defer all your final exams until maybe January or February? Really, that's not a great idea, considering you're going to have your hands full with a fresh batch of courses. The next peak is in the middle of February. Gee, that's around midterm time. See where I'm going with this?

Here, I'll even help. Alberta Health Services has a list immunization clinics near you.

(By the way, don't come to class if you're sick with the flu.)

Why aren't you studying?

The SQ4R Study Method: Review

The "SQ4R" study method is an evidence-based strategy to maximize the gains you get from studying. The name is an abbreviation, with each letter describing one step of the process. (And yes, SQ4R is an upgrade to SQ3R.) This is the sixth of a series of posts (collect 'em all!) that describe all six steps. So far, you've surveyed a chapter in your textbook, asked yourself some questions, done some reading, recited what you've read, and related it to other things you know. This installment: R (the fourth).

The fourth R is for "review." This does not mean that you frantically try to cram all of your notes into your short-term memory 10 minutes before an exam. This is called "cramming," and it's a poor learning strategy--it may even reduce your retention.

A proper review is done well in advance of an exam. For example, you can go over the questions I pose in lectures, as part of the objectives for every topic. You can answer practice questions that are commonly provided by publishers on a textbook's companion website. Or you can go back and think about the questions you asked yourself before you read the chapter. Can you answer these questions? Or (even better) how well can you answer these questions?

After assessing your learning, you should have a pretty good idea of the things you understand well, and, er...everything else. After identifying the material that's giving you problems, you can do the actual review. This may involve going back and re-reading certain parts of a chapter, or asking your instructor (or the teaching assistant) for further help. By the way, there's nothing wrong with asking for help. Think of it this way: Would you rather struggle with something you don't understand and get a below-average mark? Or would you rather summon up your courage and talk to the instructor, allowing him or her to help you understand something better, and get an above-average mark? Hmm?

(Inside secret: Instructors love it when they can help a student learn something better--whether it's in class, or one-on-one, it doesn't matter. It makes us think we're doing a good job, and not just wearing out our shoes walking to and from class every day. We are resources for you to exploit! Wait, that didn't come out right...)

Why aren't you studying? reviewing?

The SQ4R Study Method: Relate

The "SQ4R" study method is an evidence-based strategy to maximize the gains you get from studying. The name is an abbreviation, with each letter describing one step of the process. (And yes, SQ4R is an upgrade to SQ3R.) This is the fifth of a series of posts (collect 'em all!) that describe all six steps. So far, you've surveyed a chapter in your textbook, asked yourself some questions, done some reading, and recited what you've read. This installment: R (the third).

This third R stands for "relate," and it's based on a fundamental aspect of human memory. When we learn and remember something, it's not like the memory gets plunked into a little mailbox. We learn by associating new things with things that we already know. The implication is that if you want to remember something, it's best to tie it into your knowledge structures.

Now, if you've just read something that didn't make any sense (don't worry, this happens to the best of us--er, I mean other people), it's going to be pretty hard to relate it to other things you know. Take learning the alphabet: alphabetical order doesn't relate to anything else you know, so you've got to learn a little song to help you remember its arbitrary order. This explains why it's so difficult to remember things that are complete gobbledygook--nonsense is impossible to tie into our existing memories. So, things have to make sense. Fortunately, the previous step of reciting has helped ensure that you know what you've read (see how things are getting integrated together so nicely?).

When you're reading and you really want to remember what you've learned, think of how the material relates to you personally. Fortunately, this applies easily to psychology, especially topics like memory, sleep, and learning. (OK, not so much when it comes to sociopathic behaviour or brain damage, I hope.) But even if the things you're learning do not apply to you, research shows that the enhancement of learning and remembering comes when you do the comparison. So if you're reading about sociopathic behaviour and conclude that that's so not you, you've just improved your learning. Bonus!

Why aren't you studying? relating?

The SQ4R Study Method: Recite

The "SQ4R" study method is an evidence-based strategy to maximize the gains you get from studying. The name is an abbreviation, with each letter describing one step of the process. (And yes, SQ4R is an upgrade to SQ3R.) This is the fourth of a series of posts (collect 'em all!) that describe all six steps. So far, you've surveyed a chapter in your textbook, asked yourself some questions, and done some reading. This installment: R (the second).

That's right, there's another R. "SQ4R" doesn't mean you read something 4 times. I guess that can't hurt, but we're looking for more efficient ways of studying and learning here, right? This second R stands for recite. Although you can do this step out loud, you might feel a bit self-conscious about it if you're studying in the library. (SHHHH!) So, a better thing to do is write it down. Write what down?

In doing the recite step, you should recite (or write) in your own words what you've just read. So for example, after reading a section, stop and pull out a piece of paper (or pull out your computer) and try to come up with a summary of what you've just read in your own words. It's important that you put things into your own words. In fact, if you don't put things in your own words, you're mostly wasting your time: you're just copying words from the textbook. If you are able to do this, you're actively organization and interpreting the information you've read.

Research shows that this approach is far superior to a passive approach, like copying sentences from the textbook or (shudder) highlighting. Also, if you are unable to put things into your own words, it reveals a problem with your understanding. This step isn't perfect, because you might put things into your own words that are wrong. Oops. So it can't help you detect a misunderstanding, just a lack of understanding.

At the end of this step, you'll have several pages of notes summarizing the chapter you've read. This is handy for studying and refreshing your memory before an exam. If you don't have time to go through everything you've written, that's OK. The learning takes place not when you re-read your notes, but when you write them down in the first place. Neat, eh?

Why aren't you studying? reciting?

The SQ4R Study Method: Read

The "SQ4R" study method is an evidence-based strategy to maximize the gains you get from studying. The name is an abbreviation, with each letter describing one step of the process. (And yes, SQ4R is an upgrade to SQ3R.) This is the third of a series of posts (collect 'em all!) that describe all six steps. So far, you've surveyed a chapter in your textbook and asked yourself some questions. This installment: R (the first).

This first "R" stands for read. Yup, it's OK to go ahead and read the--no, wait! Hold on just a second. Let me elaborate just a bit on that.

You should be reading to try and answer the questions you just finished asking yourself. This makes reading a more active process, as opposed to a passive one. But that's not all: you should also consider your reading environment.

Your textbook is open in front of you, you're checking your text messages, one of your iPod's earbuds is tucked into one ear, and the TV is on--is this you? If so, you're not reading. I don't know what the heck you're doing, but you're not reading. Your eyes may be moving across the page, but you're not letting your brain absorb the material because your attention is elsewhere. It's the myth of multitasking. So, turn off your gadgets, get away from distractions and interruptions, and find a quiet place where you can concentrate on what you need to learn. This is what's called "studying."

Why aren't you studying? reading?

The SQ4R Study Method: Question

The "SQ4R" study method is an evidence-based strategy to maximize the gains you get from studying. The name is an abbreviation, with each letter describing one step of the process. (And yes, SQ4R is an upgrade to SQ3R.) This is the second of a series of posts (collect 'em all!) that describe all six steps. So far, you've surveyed a chapter in your textbook. This installment: Q.

The "Q" stands for question. Here's a question: What do I question? Good question.

While you are surveying a chapter, ask yourself this question: "What question is this chapter trying to answer?" or "What's the point of this chapter?" And then be more specific, going into more detail, "What's the point of this section?" You should also ask yourself, "What questions do I have about this topic that this chapter might answer?"

You can try turning headings into questions. For example, when reading a section called "The stages of sleep," ask "What are the stages of sleep? How many stages are there? How are they different?" You can also turn things around and ask very broad big-picture-type questions like, "Why is this reading assigned?" and "Why is this chapter included in this book?" Asking yourself these kinds of questions is important to start you thinking about what you know (or don't know) and what you're about to read (yes, that's coming--be patient).

You'll notice that I've tried to help you with this step in my lecture notes. At the start of every lecture topic, I give the objectives for the lecture as a series of questions. This will help prepare you for what's to follow, and you can use my questions to help you review after I've finished the lecture. You're welcome!

Here's one last question:

Why aren't you studying? questioning?

The SQ4R Study Method: Survey

The "SQ4R" study method is an evidence-based strategy to maximize the gains you get from studying. The name is an abbreviation, with each letter describing one step of the process. (And yes, SQ4R is an upgrade to SQ3R.) This is the first of a series of posts (collect 'em all!) that describe all six steps. This installment: S.

The "S" stands for survey. Before you start to read a chapter of a textbook, take a couple of minutes to skim through it. Don't actually read it now (that comes later). Get an overall impression of the chapter, and try to understand the organizational structure. There will likely be introductory material, and also summary paragraphs or points (or both).

Well-written textbooks will have a hierarchical organization: major topics are presented first, followed by more and more detailed ideas after that. Knowing that your textbook is organized in this way will make things easier to learn when you actually start reading the chapter (no, don't start reading yet).

Check for a glossary at the end of the chapter; you'll almost always find a list of important terms there. Some textbooks put important terms and definitions in the margins or at the bottom of the page. You can come back to these later, when you read the chapter. (No--no reading! Just skimming. Skim!) Surveying gives you an overview of what lies ahead.

Why aren't you studying? surveying?

The High Cost of Textbooks (Redux)

Here's another "redux" posting (by the way, redux means "brought back," or "restored"), updating a previous post about the price of textbooks.

A few weeks ago, I sent my concerns about textbook prices to the manager of the Bookstore. He told me that the prices of textbooks reflect their "actual markup, which is 5 % above list price." (List price, again, is the manufacturer's suggested retail price. Key word: "suggested," not "required" or "obligated/") Armed with knowledge of the 5%-pricing scheme and the list prices given to me by the publishing company representatives, I started calculating what the prices on the shelf should have been (i.e., list price multiplied by 1.05). Result: they didn't match. According to my calculations, the Bookstore's prices were too high.

Again, I contacted the bookstore about this, and was now told that "shelf price is based on margin not markup. The calculation is the net price divided by .75 not the list price multiplied by 1.05."

When I talk to publisher's reps, I try to negotiate the best price for a textbook, attempting to keep the list price as low as possible. This, it now turns out, is a complete waste of time--because the price for the book on the shelf is based on the net price (how much it costs the bookstore for each book), not the list price. The manager also told me, "All of our reps are given this information so when they are quoting prices with the instructors they are passing on accurate information." Well, that didn't happen in this case. In fact, it seems reps (and instructors) are not aware of the Bookstore's formula for calculating shelf prices.

I hope this post will clear up this issue, and make things more transparent for everybody. But I'm still not happy about it.

Why aren't you studying?

- - - - - - - - - - -

Update: The UofA SU and the UofA Bookstore have jointly created CRAM: Canadian Roundtable on Academic Materials, focusing on making textbooks more affordable.

The Registration (or, "Can you get me into your class?")

I don't have any super powers. Really, I don't. Yes, it's true: I have no special powers over the registration system, Bear Tracks. Heck, I can't even do half the things students can in Bear Tracks.

To do lists? That's pretty neat. Swapping classes? Very handy. Watch lists that send notifications to your email or cell phone? Awesome! Of course, I don't need these features. Which is good, because I don't have access to them anyway.

I bring up my sad lack of registration-fu because all of my classes this term are full. Still, some brave souls come to each and every class in the hope that a spot will open up. They plead with me, "Superman, save me" or "Help me, Obi-Wan Kenobi. You're my only hope." Nope, sorry. You've got the wrong guy.

I don't have access to any back doors in Bear Tracks. I can't add you to the class, and I can't increase (or decrease) the size of the class. I know there are empty seats: that's because some students don't come to every class. (By the way, I'm fine with you coming to my class even if you're not registered, but there is one limitation. If there are no more seats left and some students are left standing, that is a violation of fire regulations. At that point, I'll have to ask those who are not actually registered to leave.)

The good news is that some students will sit through one or two of my lectures and will say to themselves, "This prof sucks," and they'll look for another class. That will open up a spot for someone else who, presumably, finds that I don't suck as much.

So, really, the only thing I can do is, well...suck as much as possible. That will weed out those who aren't really into the course, and will allow students who can endure me to get in. So maybe I really do have special powers after all: I can apply my special powers of sucking! (Wait, I don't think that came out right...)

Why aren't you studying?

The First Day of Class (Redux)

I've posted on the first day of class before, but I wanted to do another take on it. You probably noticed there's something I didn't do on the first day: Teach.

Considering the shortage of time I have, and the huge amount of things I'd like to talk about, it may seem odd that I didn't take advantage of whatever time was left over after going through the syllabus. But I have my reasons.

1. Time. After jabbering on and on about the course, there's not a whole lot of time left to start lecturing. It's nice to get a good flow going; it's not so good to get on a roll and then have to stop.

2. Practicality. Lots of you will print out the notes and bring them to class. But on the first day, very few of you will have brought them with you. Plus, a lot of students do some serious course-shopping during the first week or two of classes (not you, of course). Then there are the people who are still lying on the beach in CancĂșn. So, instead of creating extra hassles for everyone, I just decide to skip it.

3. Psychological reasons (what, you didn't see that coming?). What is the most stressful time of year? Right, it's final exam time (you saw that coming, I hope). OK, now what's the next most stressful time of year? That's right, the first day of class.

You collect your syllabi, buy your books, and look at this huge pile of work you're supposed to do in the next 4 months--and you turn and walk out the door, looking for that great party your heard was going on somewhere.

So, to save you from any additional stress (heaven forbid), I ended things early. Hope you used that time wisely.

Why aren't you studying?

What I did on my summer vacation

Went on a two-day holiday. Vehicle broke down. Turned into a four-day holiday. Ended up at Sylvan Lake on a long weekend (not part of the plan, but...oh well). Probably ate too much ice cream from Big Moo. Got caught in an amazingly horrible storm on the way home--but didn't get hailed on. Kid #1 watched a DVD through it all. Kid #2 slept through it all. (Check out photo of the "human zoo," as my wife calls it.)

Edmonton's festivals are great. Went to Heritage Festival on the busiest day ever. But didn't get caught in amazingly horrible storm there, like some people did. Where else can you get so much awesome food from around the world? Huh? E-town, baby. (Check out photo of, er, porta potties. Nice shot, honey.)

OK, another festival--Cariwest. Kids love parades. Kids of all ages, I mean. Yeah, another festival. If you're not in Edmonton over the summer, like, where are you? Seriously, if you're "going back home" at the end of April, you are so missing out. (See the photo of--is that former city councillor Michael Phair?)

Went to Capital Ex. Rides. Food that's so bad, it'll give your cardiologist a heart attack. And the highlight of the whole year if you're 5 years old. Which I'm not. But hey, I live vicariously. The worst thing was that I got beat at minigolf. The best thing was riding the little train that I haven't been on since I was 5 years old. (To be clear: not riding it by myself, or anything. Riding with the kids. Like I rode on the carousel--while trying to take a photo--whoa!)

Made jam. No, seriously. I made jam. From an actual recipe. By myself. (Well...with a little help from mom. And dad.) I've got an Evans cherry tree in my backyard. Some years, I get almost no cherries. This is not one of those years. So, I make jam. I end up giving it away to people I like. No, you may not ask for some. That doesn't mean I don't like you. You just are not allowed to ask for any. My jam, my rules. (Yes, those are jars of my actual jam.)

Oh, and (in case the Vice-Dean is reading this), I worked. I worked a lot. I read five books. I read a few dozen research articles. I worked on lectures for fall and winter terms (the synesthesia stuff is really cool). Revamped two courses which have new textbooks. Updated nearly every single Powerpoint slide for better readability. Put some cool Javascript tricks into my perception and art lecture. Discovered just how seriously dangerous it is to text and drive (for the love of puppies, do NOT text and drive). I've started tinkering with a perception and magic lecture (a beta version, just a work in progress--I hope to see more research on this so I can work up a proper lecture). And I've still got more work to do. (No photos of my work. That would be really weird.)

Why aren't you studying?

The Seminar

When I started teaching, this is what I knew about teaching: Nothing. Impressive, huh?

Fortunately, University Teaching Services puts on great teaching seminars throughout the year. These seminars are typically presented by my peers: other instructors at the UofA. They have helped immeasurably with my teaching--from structuring a course, to incorporating technology, to creating better exams.

The last seminar I went to a few weeks ago, however, was off-campus, and was sponsored by Nelson Education--a textbook publisher. Why would they want to improve teaching? Of course, they're motivated by profit. They were actually promoting a new concept called Nelson Education Testing Advantage, or NETA. They've hired an educational expert in testing and exam construction to help revamp the multiple-choice questions that are provided to instructors with textbooks. The seminar was a gentle marketing event which allowed Nelson to promote their textbooks. I say, "gentle" because it was not a hard sell. Rather, they flew in the expert from Brock University to tell us (about 75 college and university instructors from the Edmonton area) how to improve our own multiple-choice questions. Attending a lecture like this, presented by a renowned expert, is pure gold.

First, I got a lot of great information, which I'll use over the summer to revamp the multiple-choice questions I've written for use in my courses. That means rewriting some (most?) of about 500 questions. It could take a while. So I'm not just going to be sitting out on a patio with a cold drink all summer--no, I've got a huge list of things to do before classes start for me again in September. In addition to revamping my m/c questions, I also have to read two newly updated textbooks and modify my lectures to reflect changes in the content. I've also got a big digital "pile" of research papers that I haven't had time to read, because I've been teaching for the past 12 months in a row. I'm also a bit of a bookaholic, so I've got a pile of those to read.

The other great thing about attending a seminar is that I'm on the other side of the lectern, sitting in a classroom, listening to an instructor, and thinking about things that enhance (or detract from) the classroom experience. I am also instantly turned back into a student, a learner, and I realize that learning never stops.

For those of you who are graduating, the university experience is over--and you're now facing the Real World. Others are gearing up for more classes in Summer term. Some of you are working, and won't be coming back to campus until the fall. But for all of us, learning will never stop.

Why aren't you--well...you know.

The Donation

I've been buying Wired magazine since issue 1.1 back in 1993. For some reason, I decided to keep every issue instead of tossing it out after reading. I have every single issue, every subscriber-only special issue, every special supplement, and every issue of Test magazine (put out by Wired's test lab before Christmas for the past few years). Actually, I should say, "I had..." A few weeks ago, I donated all my Wired magazines to the UofA library.

You know, you keep a few issues of a magazine around and eventually they start to make some pretty big piles. Then you put them in a box and the box fills up. So you get another, bigger box. And then you'll need another box, and so on. Soon, your wife is bothering you about all those boxes of magazines you're collecting and are never going to read again. Right, good point. But it seems such a shame to just...throw them out.

A few years ago, someone sold their whole collection of Wired magazines on eBay. I heard they got over $700 for them. (The photo here is of that person's collection--I never thought to take a picture of all my Wireds.) Now, it would be nice to make some cash, but the shipping would be killer: those boxes weighed several hundred pounds. (I told you I had a lot of magazines--a 16-year collection of magazines printed on heavy weight paper adds up.) So, what to do?

I noticed that the UofA library had a partial collection of Wired, but there were some gaps--especially in the first year. Hmm, why not donate them? Now I realize that the contents of Wired are available online. But not everything is online; when you read the articles online, you're really missing the impact made by the radical (and award-winning) design and layout of the magazine, especially in the early years. They used bright fluorescent and metallic inks; the magazine really stood out from everything else. And the print ads are not available online--the dot.com-era ads themselves are worth the price of the magazine. Why not give back to the library, so that others might one day have the chance to flip through these actual dead-tree things?

So a few weeks ago, I loaded up all my boxes and took them to the Book And Record Depository (sadly, the magazines are not on the shelf on campus). I was surprised to find that I'm going to be getting a tax receipt for my donation. Score!

Now I have to ensure that my wife doesn't start eyeing my comic book collection. I have, er...about 10,000 comics.

Why aren't you studying?

The Evaluations - Comments

I've spent some time recently reading the comments made by students on the teaching evaluations done for my classes last semester. I'm happy to see that no one has criticized me for being lazy or uncaring. Say what you will, I'm not that. However, some of the comments are strange, bizarre, and even just wrong.

So I'd like to reply to some of them (mostly the negative ones). Check it out. (Warning: extreme snarkiness ahead--both on my part, and on the part of those writing the comments.)

From PSYCO 104: Basic Psychological Processes:

"Switched my major to psych - enough said"
Hey, don't blame me.

"...it was impossible to know everything from the book, so therefore, I think he should give us topics he wants us to know from the textbooks."
So I should tell you what things you should skip--the things that won't be on the exam? Seriously? Look, just come right out and ask for a copy of the exam.

"Practice questions available...might be helpful."
How about the ones on the textbook website? Or the ones on MyPsychLab?

"I felt he 'dumbed down' most of the course by speaking like we were in elementary...would have preferred 'neurotransmitter' to 'little tiny chemical messenger' as we had all been taught the correct terminology + should learn to use it. I felt almost less intelligent when leaving the class."
I didn't realize that my using these terms would result in such a profoundly negative experience on your part. Next time, I shall forgo the use of any and all colloquialisms in favour of technical jargon. Enjoy!

"He is...incredibly patronizing. So patronizing I felt this class exemplified everything that is wrong with contemporary university. An expensive textbook going out of date that is 'not his fault.' Crude jokes and entertain an absence of genuine understanding of themes. Instead he collects a group of discrete facts. But, mostly, I felt patronized by the method in which the class was conducted. I read a book suggest that university are daycare centers for adults, and this class epitomizes that phenomenon."
I fixed all of your many spelling mistakes. But I left your grammatical errors in. Didn't want to be too patronizing. Wow--I can't believe I actually succeeded in exemplifying or epitomizing anything. I want to thank my mom and dad, the academy, and everyone who voted for me!


From PSYCO 267: Perception:
"You were late by up to 15 minutes for every! class. I do not respect that at all! If you are here to teach and we pay for this course then we deserve your full attention for the full time each week."
I was not late for every class; that is false. I was late to this class by 15 minutes; I admit this is true. But I was not late for every! class. Did I have to cut out some lecture material? No. Any lecture material? No. Did I have to race through every lecture to be able to finish all the material? No.

"...the textbook was almost not worth reading because a) there was much overlap between the lecture and the text and b) the exams did not really test the text. Perhaps more exam questions based on the text."

"...exam content was based on [the textbook] and not lectures which made it seem like coming to class was useless."
Hey, would you like me to introduce you two? I think you'd have a lot to talk about.

"Assigned readings in the textbook would be nice."
Er, I thought I did that. In the syllabus. Where it says, um, "Assigned readings." Are you saying the fact that I put this in the syllabus was nice? Um, you're welcome.

"[Long verbatim quote from Hannibal Lecter to Clarice Starling, but with 'Agent Starling' replaced with 'Professor Loepelmann.' You can listen to the Lecter quote here.]
PS. You're so vain you probably think this questionnaire is about you."
They have all kinds of really great drugs that can help you. I hope you feel better. I sincerely do.


From PSYCO 365: Advanced Perception:

"The quizzes were helpful to keep up to date with the readings."

"...the weekly quizzes were a waste of time..."

"I enjoyed the quizzes because they helped my grade."

"I like the idea of quizzes and I did well on them but they were kind of stressful."

"M.C. [multiple-choice] component should be added"

"I was glad to finally have a psych course with long answer written exams."

"...the material should be made less abstract."

Can you see the trouble I have in trying to make everyone happy? It's impossible. How about I try this: I will structure my course in such a way that you'll be able to learn things, which you may--or may not--enjoy. This will mean employing means of assessment that you may--or may not--enjoy. I will cover material important to an understanding of advanced topics in the area of perception which might be philosophical and/or abstract which you may--or may not--enjoy.

"You rock! Don't change a thing..."
Well, now you're just confusing me.

Why aren't you studying?

The Construction

I don't know about you, but I'm getting pretty tired of all the construction on campus.

It's been going on since late 2006. Since that time, I've had to detour around the construction sites, walk through mud, choke on diesel fumes, and endure all sorts of loud noise--including that incessant beep-beep-beeping of the mighty machines (does that really increase safety if they're beeping all the time?)

Because my office is in the Biological Sciences Building, there's no way for me to get to any class (or anywhere else on campus) without going through the construction; I can't go around it. Sure, the new CCIS building will be swell and all, with its shiny new lecture halls and energy efficiency. But still: Tired. Of. Construction.

On rainy days, there's mud all over. And there is literally no way for me to get to or from my office without walking through mud. I've pretty much ruined my dress shoes, because I've had to repeatedly wash them to get the mud off (I'm not keen on tracking mud into my office). And it's guaranteed that I'll have to do a batch of laundry because of the mud on my pants. Argh!

How much longer will this go on? Until 2010. That means some students will have spent their entire 4-year undergraduate time here dealing with construction. Ah, what memories! In contrast, during my time as a student (10 years in total), not a single new building was put up north of 87 Avenue.

Why aren't you studying?

(Photo by Bill Burris.)

The Homework

Not a lot of posts lately, because I've had to do a lot of homework. (What, you think you're the only one?)

Part of my homework is normal course prep: creating, adding to, or modifying my lectures. But this term, I've also had to do a lot of other homework. Students this term have been really grilling me about the things I've been talking about in class. These questions have led me to stand and go, "Umm...hmm. I...er, don't know" a lot.

This kind of response is unsatisfying, both to students and to the little voice in my head which then tells me to go and find out the answer to the question. At this point, I wisely ignore the little voice and try to finish the lecture, gamely continuing on as if I really know something about psychology. Oh, but first, I mumble something about trying to find the answer for next class.

Promising to find the answer for next class is troublesome. Walking back to my office after class, I've found myself listening to the chirping birds, watching the mighty machines at the construction site surrounding Bio Sci, and otherwise forgetting anything and everything I promised to anyone over the past 70 minutes (give or take 10 minutes).

The other problem is that, even if I do remember, I've got to actually try and find the answer. For next class. Which is the next day. Because this is Spring term, when everything comes at you at 100 km/h and you don't have time to take a breath or listen to chirping birds and such.

So I spend an hour or so a day looking for answers to the (really good, intelligent, and insightful) question(s) I've been asked. I often have to go back and re-read research papers, which takes a while. Not that I mind, really. All of this work helps me to explain things better to students this term, and ultimately improves the course as a whole for future students. How? Homework.

If there's something that doesn't make sense in my lecture, or that doesn't mesh with what's in the textbook, I make a note of it, and try to fix the problem. That's part of my normal-course-prep homework. And there's an annoying little voice in my head that won't shut up about whether children or adults have better verbatim trace recall, so I better go look that up.

Why aren't you studying?

The Spring Term

OK, so it's not exactly palm tree weather in spring. But it's sure nicer than fall or winter term.

Spring term and Summer term together make up "intersession." If you've never taken an intersession course, this is what it's like: take a course that normally runs 14 weeks and concentrate it down by having class every weekday so it fits into 6 weeks. Add a bit of sunshine, and you've got intersession.

When I first taught an intersession course, my opinion was informed by 80s movies like, well, Summer School. That is, "summer" courses are filled with losers, failures, and screwups. Er, no. Like so many things taught to me by 80s movies, this was wrong. Students in intersession actually tended to be the better students--the ones who were deadly serious about learning (deadly serious, but wearing shorts and flip-flops). I started handing out little cards, asking students to tell me why they chose to take an intersession course. The reasons included:

  • I want to finish my degree early (!)
  • I want to take this specific course but it won't fit into my timetable in fall/winter.
  • I'm just interested in this material.
So, wow.

I'd like the experience students have in intersession courses to be as similar to that of fall/winter term as possible. But that's just not possible. I often assign CogLabs in the "regular" term. Unfortunately, there just isn't time enough in intersession to get 10 of these labs done in 6 weeks. Beyond that, I don't really do much else different: same lecture notes, similar structure of exams, same old jokes.

You've got to be highly motivated if you want to succeed in an intersession course. You've got temptations like sunny warm weather, jobs that pay money which is good for things like paying bills, and cool movies opening every weekend. But you've got to focus, because exams come every couple of weeks. Skip class one day, ignore the textbook for a couple more days, and suddenly you're way behind. It's time to put down the sunblock, finish the last of your margarita, and, well...

Why aren't you studying?

The First Day of Class

The first day of class is one of the most stressful days of the year--for students, and for instructors, too.

Students find out how impossibly much the instructor wants them to read and know by the bitter end of the term.

As an instructor, I have to be completely organized and ready. Got enough copies of the syllabus? (I hope so.) Remembered to get the secret codes that let me log on to the classroom computers? (Check.) Have the keys to unlock the drawer to get the keyboard and mouse out. (Yup.) Updated everything in the course for a new term? (Er, well, I'm working on it...)

Just the syllabus alone represents hours of work. It's the blueprint for the whole term, dictating deadlines for things like papers and exams. That means I have deadlines, too: I've got to get the exams to printing well before the exam date (weeks ahead during busy times of year, in fact). I've got to make updates to my lecture notes in time to put the notes online. (Yeah, I could just leave the lectures as they are, but then they'd get stale, like a day-old donut.)

Because of the stress on all sides, I don't start lecturing on The First Day of Class. I like students to have the lecture notes printed out first, for one. And even the textbook, if possible (even though you don't have to bring it to class). And then there's all the rampant course-shopping that often occurs. (I hate having to repeat my whole First Day of Class schpiel on the second day of class to people who won't be back for the third day of class anyways.)

After the exhausting First Day of Class, all that's left is...the rest of term.

Why aren't you studying?

The Marking

Just a short post to interrupt my marking. (Hmm, procrastination--another good topic a future blog post...)

Marking is not the most enjoyable thing. This fact has nothing to do with the quality of the answers. It's just awfully repetitive. I get to read answers to the same essay question over and over and over... This is by choice, mind you. When it comes to written/short-answer/long-answer I try to mark as many of the same question as I can, so that I can be as consistent in marking as possible.

So I get a fresh cup of coffee (hmm, coffee--another good topic for a future blog post...), put on some quiet music and concentrate on marking. This is difficult, as interruptions and distractions are many. Luckily, it's just me and the baby this afternoon. Awesomely, I've discovered the perfect music solution for both of us: Rockabye Baby!

These are baby lullabies of rawk songs, and improbably include songs from:

  • The Beatles
  • U2
  • Bob Marley
  • Coldplay
  • No Doubt
  • Metallica
  • Led Zeppelin
  • Radiohead
  • Green Day
  • Nine Inch Nails
  • AC/DC
  • and more.
You've never lived (as a parent) until you've heard American Idiot, Enter Sandman, or Highway to Hell played as a gentle, soothing lullaby. Insidious, bizarre, and just about the only way to simultaneously satisfy both a cranky 3-month-old and a cranky psychology instructor. (Country music fans, don't feel left out: check out Hushabye Baby.)

Why aren't you studying?

The Links

Now that lectures are over, it's time for learning to: continue. By now, being a student of psychology, you've seen just how broad this field is. Well, I'm a student of psychology, too. (OK, so I'm not officially a "student," but I love continuing to learn about psychology--which, really, is learning about ourselves.) I try to stay up-to-date on interesting and important research. A good way to get a general view of things is to follow a number of blogs.

Here are some of the blogs I read for education, for interest, and for entertainment. You might even see some of the things that are written about in these blogs appear in lectures.

  • Mind Hacks. Although this Mind Hacks is a really good book on psychology, the blog goes way beyond that. It covers topics from art and aesthetics to hard-core neuroscience and bogus science. Vaughn is the main poster; I don't know how he keeps up the pace. Consistently excellent.
  • Scientific American Mind Matters. Postings often include full-text articles from Scientific American Mind magazine. Eclectic and interesting, but a bit too much brain-focused. Still, there are many high-quality postings.
  • Discover Mind & Brain. A companion to the print magazine Discover. Not quite as good overall as the preceding two blogs. Postings do not occur as frequency either. Also very brain-centric, which probably helps to attract readers.
  • jnd.org. Usability "guru" Don Norman writes articles about design, science, and human factors/ergonomics. You can read his monthly column for Interactions magazine here, but there are lots of other neat things. One post made me run out and get a new stapler. Woot!
You can subscribe to all of the above blogs via RSS.

Why aren't you studying?

The Professor of the Month

The Undergraduate Psychology Association has very kindly featured me on their website as "Professor of the Month" for March. (Yeah, so there's only one more day of March. That's OK; the UPA is a volunteer organization--what have you volunteered for lately?) It's not an award or anything; it's an in-depth all-you-ever-wanted-to-know interview. Or at least as much as I could spew out in 18 minutes. (Thanks to Dan L. for interviewing me--and sorry I was in such a rush!)


I'm honoured that they'd want to interview me, even though I'm not technically a professor. Plus, I'm sharing billing this month with Dr. Peter Lee, whose answers to the interview questions are way better than mine. (Wow, one of his hobbies is brewing his own beer! Well, I make jam from the cherries that grow on the tree in my backyard...and I bake pretzels from scratch. Still not as cool as brewing beer, I know.)

This post is not about me promoting myself. Really, I'd like to plug the UPA. If you are serious about a future in psychology--which usually means getting an honours degree and/or graduate school--you should look into becoming a UPA member. Every year, they put on some really good forums on things like graduate studies, careers and volunteering, individual studies, and more.

Their website is full of great information, with a page of really useful info on graduate studies, plus professor and course of the month. The latter is great way to learn more about courses you might be interested in, and about some of your instructors. (And I can learn some secrets about my colleagues. Brewing beer? Hmph. I get my beer the same way my granddad did: I, er, buy it.)

Coming back to me, since this blog is all about me (what, isn't it?), I have to point out that a few years ago, my PSYCO 403 (now PSYCO 494) Human Factors & Ergonomics course was a Course of the Month. (Want to enrol? Sorry, for this fall, Bear Tracks says it's full. Already.)

Why aren't you studying?

The Textbook Change

I don't like changing textbooks. It's a huge hassle for a number of reasons. I like my lecture notes to be organized around the textbook I'm using. (Not to say that I repeat what's in the textbook, but minimally, I try to lecture on things in the same order as they are presented in the book.) So changing books means rearranging all my lectures. Plus, I'll have to rewrite the exams to reflect the material presented in the new text and take out questions based on the old one.


I'm also sensitive to students' concerns. If I change to a new book, students taking the class will not be able to find used textbooks to buy. Likewise, students who have taken the class will not find a market for their unwanted books. And, serving on the AASUA Teaching and Learning Committee, I've talked to Students' Union VPs about the issue of expensive textbooks--so I am trying to Be Booksmart!

But here's the problem: I want to use the best possible textbooks in my courses. Part of the usefulness of a book is its recency. But even a brand-new textbook is: obsolete. Why? After a research study has been completed, it takes up to a year for it to see print in a scientific journal. Next, it takes a few months--or even a year--for an author to write a textbook. By the time the book gets published, a few more months have passed. This means that research being done and theories being developed today are years ahead of the information contained on dead trees. And if I choose to keep using an old textbook, students can be 5 years behind the curve.

Publishing companies have caught on to students' tricks--they know about the used textbook market. So they regularly update their textbooks, ceasing publication of old editions. This means that I'm forced to switch to the new editions, and the process starts all over again. Which brings me to the decisions I'm going to have to make soon. I'm not going to switch to a different textbook, but I'm going to have to make a decision about adopting updated editions of a couple of textbooks I use in my courses.

The textbook I use in my PSYCO 104 course has been updated. It was a good book in the first place, and new edition improves upon it. Even better, it's cheaper than the competing textbook many of my colleagues have chosen--more than $20 cheaper. And there's more good news: I'm working with the company to have a custom-published version of the textbook. This will consist only of the chapters I use in my course (instead of all 18 chapters), which will save students even more money.

The notoriously expensive textbook in my PSYCO 267 course has also been updated. In working with the publisher, we've been able to get the price of the new edition to be $35 less than the old edition. I should switch as soon as possible, right? Choose the new textbook for my Spring course, right? Wait a second. What about all those students this term who want to unload their textbooks? If I switch right away, they won't be able to sell their books. And there won't be any used books available to students in spring term, so they'll have to shell out full price for the new edition.

I have a tricky balancing act to manage. If I stick with the old edition, some students--the ones who want to buy a brand new, unused textbook--will have to pay more. But, on the other hand, the students who buy (and sell) used textbooks will be able to save (and recoup) some money. Obviously, I can't please everyone. So I'll have to do the next best thing, and try to do what's best for the majority. But how many students buy new, and how many buy used? I don't know. So help me out--post a message in the comments telling me what you do.

Why aren't you studying?

The Question on Grade Inflation

In a recent open comment, Anonymous (A studious student) had some pretty serious accusations (sorry, sorry, “questions”!) about grades and evaluations. I’d like to address those questions--not just in another comment, but in full postings. In my last post, I discussed the possible link between grades and teaching evaluations. This post addresses the third of several claims/questions/concerns.

Question: “What is your thought on grade inflation?”

To the extent it exists, it sucks. But I don’t know how prevalent it is. In talking to my colleagues, I’ve found sentiment is universally against it. But then, like I wrote in my last post, maybe we’re all doing it subconsciously anyway.

Claim: “it is getting more and more difficult for me to set myself apart from other students...By 4th year, ~20% of the class is expected to receive an A/A+”

Going to GFC policy on approved grade distributions, it is expected that in 4th year courses, 37% of students are expected to obtain a letter grade of A- or higher, and 20% are indeed expected to receive either an A or A+.

What is this, officially prescribed grade inflation? I can’t speak for GFC, but I’ll give you my view. By the 4th year, there has been some weeding out. Students who have not been able to handle the material have changed majors, or maybe have even left university. So the students who are left are, in general, more capable than those in, say, first year. Also, class sizes at the 400 level are smaller, giving you more access to the instructor, which (I would hope) impacts grades.

So yes, it is literally harder for you to set yourself apart from other students--in terms of grades. But there are other things you can do to differentiate yourself. Talk to your instructors; show interest in what they’re teaching. I’ve formed great relationships with students over the years in part because they did more than just show up to class. In fact, I’ve been privileged to be able to help some of them advance their academic careers, too. (It’s been great watching people go from being undergrads to being practicing psychologists, or holding other positions of importance in the real world!)

Concern: “salary is partially determined by these evaluations (I think), so professors/lecturers have greater incentive to give higher grades.”

Yes, you are correct. Even though evals are not supposed to be the sole determinant of teaching, sadly, those numbers may be the only representation of teaching on my yearly review. I am not a number! There is an incentive to give higher grades only if there is a belief that doing so will result in better evals and thus performance increments. I can’t give you any statistics on this one, and I wouldn’t want to. I don’t want to imply that my colleagues are so shallow. Rather, in working with them on the AASUA Teaching and Learning Committee and in other groups, going to teaching seminars put on by University Teaching Services, and in talking with them one-on-one, I find them--to a person--to be hardworking, dedicated, and committed to doing the best teaching job they possibly can. This is not puffery; I am not stoking anyone’s ego. If the University of Alberta were not seriously interested in the importance of teaching, I would have thrown in the towel and left.

Claim: “Even to this day, most believe that Harvard grades are meaningless.” I have no data on this, and cannot speak to this. Even if the grades are meaningless, I know for a fact that a degree from Harvard is not meaningless. In fact, it can be a ticket to more money than I’ll ever see. I know your University of Alberta degree has value; there are too many people working hard for the reputation of the whole university go down the drain. And I don’t think that’s going to change.

To be sure, the issues you have raised are important ones, and they are being discussed and considered on campus (and on other campuses, too). I hope I have not dismissed your valid comments, concerns, and criticism. Instead, I’ve tried to pull the curtain aside and let you hear my thoughts and ideas. I’m impressed that you have been considering these issues, and have brought them forward for discussion. That’s what I wanted in this blog, and boy did I get it--thanks!

Why aren’t you studying?

Update 3/21/2009: Just found out about the website GradeInflation.com. Are instructors inflating grades, are students getting better, are teaching techniques improving, or is it something else?

The Question on Higher Grades and Teaching Evaluations

In a recent open comment, Anonymous had some pretty serious accusations (sorry, sorry, “questions”!) about grades and evaluations. I’d like to address those questions--not just in another comment, but in full postings. In my last post, I tried to make the case that I don’t always give out “higher grades,” although there is a tendency for higher grades to appear in some of my classes. This post addresses the second of several claims/questions/concerns.

Question: “Do you think your preoccupation about evaluations are one reason why you are willing to give out relatively higher grades?”

You know what people’s greatest fear is? Public speaking. So how would you like to teach a course? That’s what my graduate supervisor asked me one day. Now, it wasn’t a question. No, it was more of a prediction about the future: You’re going to teach a course. Gulp.

Back in my day, there weren’t any how-to seminars for graduate students to learn about teaching like they have now. The preferred method was to throw you in the deep end and walk away, leaving you to thrash around, coughing and sputtering, waving your arms frantically. This is, of course, terrifying. How are you supposed to improve? How do you know what you are doing wrong, or maybe even, doing right? The answer came a month after my first course ended: teaching evaluations.

The students I taught were very understanding, and gave me some really good constructive feedback on improving my teaching. Incredibly, the students who I had been trying to teach had ended up teaching me some valuable lessons of my own. (I know, this sounds like every Hollywood movie set in a classroom that’s ever been filmed. If anyone is interested in buying my script, please get in touch with my agent.)

So, obviously, reading evals is like eating chips--bet you can’t eat just one! Am I addicted? Am I so desperate to hear nice things about myself that I will pander to students by pumping up their grades?

Answers: 1) I dunno. 2) Geez, I sure hope not.

As it turns out, the AASUA’s Teaching and Learning Committee has been looking at the issue of the validity of teaching evaluations for the past couple of years. As it also turns out, I know this because I’m on this committee. So I have some actual (but general) answers--not just facetious ones.

Is there a statistical link between higher expected grades and evaluations of teaching? Yes. “Class-average grades are correlated with class-average student’s evaluations of teaching, but the interpretation depends on whether grades represent grading leniency, superior learning, or pre-existing differences” (Marsh & Roche, 1997, p. 1194). So what is the correlation? Unsurprisingly, there is a range, which usually goes from 0.10 up to 0.30; the “best estimate” is taken to be probably about 0.20 (Marsh & Roche, 1997). That’s a correlation, but it’s a pretty weak one. In terms of the overall variance in evaluation scores, grade expectations account for less than 10%. If an instructor decides to pump up his or her ratings by inflating grades (and risking his or her career), the payoff isn’t there--there are too many other things that influence the ratings.

Coming back to me, though (because it is all about me). Am I inflating grades to get good evaluations?

Answers: 1) I dunno. 2) Geez, I sure hope not.

I don’t want to know. I do a lot of statistics on the performance of my classes. (I’ll eventually post about how I use point-biserial correlations to analyze exam performance. Your eyes are guaranteed to glaze over! Woot!) I know, for instance, that student evaluations of me are positively correlated with their evaluations of the textbook (r = 0.498 last time I calculated). This is useful information: it’s really important to find a textbook students like. But, duh, I know that anyway. Why is this related to me, is it just spurious?

But I have not, do not, and will not calculate or correlate my evaluations with student performance. I’m not going to take any student rating of my teaching and compare it with the median, mean, or mode of the marks in any of my classes. Why? I don’t want to know. If I’m unconsciously, unknowingly giving out higher marks to get better evals, that’s one thing. But if I’m doing that willfully, consciously, that’s unethical--it’s just wrong.

It may look like I’m preoccupied with evaluations. I do mention them in class, and even put the evaluation date on the syllabus (we are supposed to tell students when evals are going to take place, ya know--I read the fine print). But telling you about how good my evals are, I think, makes my job harder: your expectations increase. In contrast, if I tell you that I really suck and then I kinda don’t, maybe you’ll be happy and give me a good rating.

So maybe it works against me. You think you’ve got this instructor who thinks he’s hot as snot, but turns out to be awful. So you burn me on the evaluations. I welcome that. As long as you tell me what I did wrong, I can still learn and improve. I can try harder next time. Maybe someday I can be as good as the instructors who inspired me to go into this psychology business in the first place, like my graduate supervisor.

I’ll address the remaining concerns expressed by Anonymous in my next post.

Why aren’t you studying?

References:
Marsh, H. W., & Roche, L. A. (1997). Making students’ evaluations of teaching effectiveness effective: The critical issues of validity, bias, and utility. American Psychologist, 52, 1187-1197.

The Question on Higher Grades

In a recent open comment, Anonymous made some pretty serious accusations (sorry, sorry, “questions”!) about grades and evaluations. I’d like to address those questions--not just in another comment, but in full postings. This post addresses the first of several claims/questions/concerns.

Claim: “...you also give relatively higher grades.”

So, relative to other instructors, I’m taking it? The University, specifically GFC, has approved grade distributions for different undergraduate courses. The fine print says this: “These distributions are provided for guidance in your grading. It is not necessary for the grades in a particular class to follow any of the distributions exactly.” (Unless an instructor is grading on the curve with the help of a spreadsheet, it’s impossible to get these exactly anyway. And I don’t grade on a curve.)

Instead, I focus on the expected medians for each course level:

1st year = B-
2nd year = B
3rd year = B
4th year = B+
If my classes don’t match these, well, I don’t know what happens. So far, nothing yet.

Anyway, here are the actual medians for the last 12 courses I’ve taught:
1st year: B, B
2nd year: B+, B+, B, B, B-, B+, B+
3rd year: B
4th year: A-, B
Any patterns? Am I consistently giving higher grades? It looks like the 100-level courses are a bit higher than expected. Why? Major components of that course (20% of the overall mark) consist of easy marks (Information Literacy, Research Participation) that boost students’ grades. These components are out of my hands; I don’t do any marking, I just accept the results as they are. So should I make my exams harder to compensate for these “free” marks? Of course not. Class means on my exams in that course are around 65%, and I don’t want them any lower than that.

Let’s skip to my 400-level course. Yup, I recently had a class earn a median of A-. They all deserved it. It was the best bunch of students I’ve ever had in that course, and I was really happy to give the marks I did. Their term papers were great, and their exams were outstanding. Didn’t even know the median was so high until it popped out of my spreadsheet when I was filling in the final grade forms. (And look, another 400-level class only got a median of B.)

It looks like there’s something funny going on in my 200-level courses. Yup, the grades are a bit high, tending to a median of B+, whereas GFC expects a B. That’s not a huge difference--in terms of the percent cutoffs I use, 72% is right in the middle of my “B”, whereas 76.5% is the middle of my “B+”. That’s a difference of 4.5%. Still, for a class of over 200 to have a grade that’s almost 5% “too high” is significant.

So, why the high marks? In my 200-level perception course, the textbook I used was extensively revised a few years ago, and the testbank of multiple choice questions that comes with it was really--how should I put it?--simplified. Because these questions make up about half of the exam, the marks went up by a few points. In my 200-level cognition course, the textbook I use is written by the same person who wrote my perception textbook. This textbook was also recently revised. Guess what the testbank is like?

It’s tough to rewrite dozens of exam questions, but I’m slowly working on it. Realizing that the marks have been increasing, I’ve also been slowly changing the percentage cutoffs for each letter grade. I don’t want to make huge changes all in one term--that’s not fair to those students. But it’s also not fair to give them inflated grades compared to other terms.

I’d like to think that my teaching improves over time--but is this reflected in students’ grades? If that were universally the case, wouldn’t instructors near retirement have sky-high marks in their classes, and wouldn’t graduate students teaching their first class have rock-bottom marks? Hmm, unless those sneaky novice instructors are inflating their students’ marks.

But that’s the topic of my next post.

Why aren’t you studying?

Find It