The Furlough Days

Today is the first of a bunch of "furlough days" at the UofA. So I will be trying really hard to not do any work, to show solidarity with my colleagues. Um, even though I already checked (and answered) email. And then I, er, started writing this blog entry. But from this point on, I will not be doing any course prep for next term, or answering email, or even--

Wait, scratch that. This isn't about having "days off" without pay. I can't just just take six days off and do no prep work at all--there's no way I'd be ready for the first day of class. It's about taking a pay cut, to help bail the University out of the great big, deep hole the administration dug, getting caught with their pants down with bad investments in the Great Recession. (Sorry about the mixed metaphor. Meh, I don't care--who's reading this anyway? Besides my mom.)

Anyway, I'll just pretend that I'm not doing any work. If you don't get an answer to your email, here are some classic posts that answer some FAQs:

  • Need some help getting into my classes, which are all currently full? I've got an answer for you.
  • Do you want to get your final grade "bumped up"? Just read this post from last year.
Why aren't you studying? (Like, for next term...)

The Eggnog Latte

Ah, a nonfat eggnog latte. It's a small indulgence that I allow myself every December after classes end. The caffeine keeps me going, because my kids are still conspiring to deprive me of sleep. The latte also helps get me into the holiday frame of mind--which is difficult, because I'm surrounded by so many term papers.

Don't get me wrong, I like these term papers. They're pretty interesting. But marking them takes up a huge lot of time. I do my best to prepare as much as I can beforehand: final exams ready to go, syllabi for next term completed, Christmas shopping done. I don't check my personal email, I don't read the newspaper, I don't watch TV. About the only thing that gets in my way is: snow. It does have to be shoveled. (Of course, it's snowed now for 5 days in a row, grr!)

What I'm trying to avoid is procrastination. I remember being a student and, after classes ended, getting the sudden and overwhelming urge to arrange all my CDs in alphabetical order. It's got to be done, right? Might as well do it now. Psychology Today has a list of 10 things to know about procrastination that you might want to check out--after you're done studying.

Why aren't you studying?
(I know, I know, you're going to ask "why aren't you marking?" Right? Someone else beat you to it. I beat you to it, too. It is OK to take a break--just as long as it doesn't last all day.)

The Copyright

You've heard about the expiration of the UofA's Access Copyright licence, right? It's been on ExpressNews and The Gateway, ya know. OK, here's the upshot, in bullet points (just like in class!)

There are a couple of important implications of all this. One affects coursepacks. As an instructor, I am not allowed to create a coursepack unless the UofA has a licence. (I could track down each copyright holder and negotiate with each directly, but, yeah, that's not going to happen. It's enough hassle to fill out the Access Copyright Log every term.) In January, I teach two classes that don't have textbooks--just coursepacks. So how will that work? In a clever bit of trickery, the coursepacks will actually be printed/published/assembled in 2010, so they are covered under the about-to-expire licence. Ha-HA! Take that, Access Copyright.

The second change is that required textbooks will not be available on reserve. A couple of key words in that last sentence are "required" and "reserve." Any recommended textbooks can remain on reserve. But if a textbook is required, it has to go on the regular shelves (or it will be sent back to whomever lent it to the library in the first place), so you can't take it out for an hour at a time to photocopy it, you naughty students! You can, however, er, take it out for three weeks and photocopy it. I mean, read it. In a typical 14-week class, though, only five students would be able to borrow the book. If students are fast "readers," more students could have access to the book, but even if it takes one day to "read" the book, only about 100 students could take it out. And my class is bigger than that.

Due to popular demand, I've put copies of textbooks for my courses on reserve. This term, it's been especially important for my perception course (PSYCO 267). I've assigned "Virtual Labs" that run off a CD-ROM that comes with every copy of the textbook. But if you bought the book used, it is probably missing the CD--and you can't buy the CD by itself. (You could buy the eTextbook which has access to the labs online, but that still costs about $70.)

In a stroke of good luck, however, I am onto a special opportunity provided by Nelson Education, the Canadian publisher of that book. An opportunity that could potentially save 60 PSYCO 267 students in my class next term quite a bit of money. And I might get the opportunity to do a study I've wanted to do for a long time, but on a much bigger scale than I ever hoped. But, I've probably said too much already...

Why aren't you studying?

The Gay Bisanz Memorial Turkey Drive

Dr Gay Bisanz taught me developmental psychology as an undergraduate. It wasn't a required course, but I took it anyway--I wanted to take as many psych courses as I could. It was a good choice. Sure, she taught me specific things about how people grow and develop, and general general things about science, psychology, critical thinking--but she also showed me the importance of giving back to your community. Sadly, Gay Bisanz died of cancer on June 1, 2005.

Gay started the Department of Psychology's now-famous Turkey Drive. People in the Department--academic staff, support staff, post-docs, students, and more--give money that is directed to CBC Edmonton's Turkey Drive for the Food Bank. But beyond that, some people bake cookies for sale, make jewelry, and donate items for raffle--there are a lot of very creative ways to part people with their money. Some instructors have volunteered to catch a pie with their face if their class contributes more money than any other class.

Last year, a total of $6,531.91 was collected. This year, the Turkey Drive goes from November 24 to December 8. Stop by the Psychology General Office (BS P-217) and buy a cookie, or a raffle ticket for one of the really nice gift baskets up for grabs. (The 2-for-$1 white chocolate and macadamia nut cookies are my personal weakness.)

Why aren't you studying?

The Exam Statistics: The Q Score

This is my final post on the topic of exam statistics. Previously, I described my use of the mean, difficulty scores, and point-biserial correlation. This time: the dreaded Q score. (Just to clarify: I'm not describing the other "Q Score", which represents the public's familiarity with--and appeal of--a person, product, company, or television show. That's not dreaded at all.)

The dreaded Q score is not a statistic that I regularly receive with all my other exam stats. I have to put in a special request. It's extra work for the people over at TS&QS, which means there's an additional cost that must be paid by the Department of Psychology. TS&QS has to go into their database of exam results for my class and perform a statistical comparison between two (or more) given exams.

Here's where the dread comes in: Why would I want to statistically compare two (or more) students' exams? If I suspect them of cheating, that's why. Sometimes, the cheating is blatantly obvious. The cameras in the classrooms (you know about those, right?) may clearly show one person peering over at the exam of another. Other times, it's not so obvious. Why is that guy jittering in his seat, looking everywhere except at his exam? Maybe he's nervous, or has exam anxiety. Why is that girl acting squirrelly, shifting her eyes back and forth? Maybe she drank too much coffee, has caffeine overload, and now really, really has to pee. Whatever the case, the exam proctors will not interrupt any student taking the exam. Nope. We'll just let you do what you do. If that's cheating, so be it.

However, at the end of the exam, the answer sheets from any suspicious students are set aside. (Think you can fool us by not leaving at the same time, or handing in your exams to different proctors? Tsk. You don't know how many eyes are watching, do you?) Those answer sheets will be analyzed, and I will get the dreaded Q score. I don't want to say too much about how it works, so suffice it to say that it gives a probability that cheating has occurred, compared to chance. Maybe I'll write more about how I have to deal with cheating in another post, but for now, let's just say it involves a lot of dread.

Although I have caught several cheaters over the years, I'm glad I've never had to deal with anything like what happened in Professor Richard Quinn's class recently. Yeesh.

(Cartoon by Frank Cammuso. It's important to give credit where credit is due. Otherwise, it's like, um...cheating.)

Why aren't you studying?

The Mouse

That's right, a mouse. I've got a mouse in my office. Well, it's probably not here full-time, but it does drop in and visit. Speaking of dropping, that's what's in the photo: droppings. See the two little black sesame-seed looking things? Mouse poop. On my desk. (Describing it with a food metaphor is kinda making me queasy. Bleah.)

A couple of weeks ago, there was a knock at my door. A couple of jolly fellows were putting mouse traps in everyone's offices in the Psychology wing. I told them I hadn't seen any mice, but they were quick to point out two little black grains of rice (bleah) on the floor. They didn't clean up the poop.

At this point, the lightbulb went off in my head. Oh, yeah. The chocolate bar that I left on my side table the other day. I came in to find it half eaten. I wasn't pleased as I threw the remainder away (Swiss dark chocolate!)--I figured the cleaning staff had seen it an gotten a bit hungry. Nope. Those must've been mouse teeth marks.

OK, so now: mouse trap. The problem is that it hasn't been working. I come into my office in the morning and regularly find more poops. On my desk. Of course you know, this means war! I don't want to get hantavirus. So yesterday I went out and got a couple of better mousetraps, put some cheese in them (this is what cartoons have taught me: mice love cheese), turned out the lights and left for the day. Heh-heh-heh, I laughed menacingly.

Today I opened the door to my office hesitantly. What would I find? Answer: nothing. OK, not exactly nothing. No mouse. No cheese. Yup, the l'il sucker ripped off my cheese. But at least the mouse traps were still there. This means I'm now helpfully feeding the mouse that's running around on the second floor. Dr Snyder, whose office is just down the hall, recently saw it looking at him from his bookshelf, but he wasn't able to catch it. In my office, however, the mouse prefers my desk. Evidence? Another poop. Probably left right after polishing off those two bits of cheese. Can a mouse be impertinent?

I suppose there's some joke in here somewhere about a psychologist and a mouse, but I'm drawing a blank. Do you know any good ones?

Why aren't you studying?

The Exam Statistics: The Point Biserial Correlation

I'm continuing my explanation of the reams of statistics I get about multiple choice exams. Last time, I explained exam item difficulty scores. (Fascinating, no?) This time: point biserial correlation coefficient, or "rpb". That is, "r" for the correlation coefficient (why, oh why is it the letter r?) and "pb" to specify that it's the point biserial and not some other kind of correlation. Like, um, some other kind.

If I've constructed a good exam item, it should be neither too hard nor too easy. It should also differentiate among students. But I can't tell how well it does that just by looking at the difficulty score. Instead, there's a more complex measure, the rpb. In general, I need a correlation index for a categorical variable with a continuous variable. More specifically, I want to correlate the categorical variable of a test item (i.e., whether a student answered the test item correctly or incorrectly), with the continuous variable of the student's percent score on the examination. Got that? I didn't think so.

Let me try again. Student A did well on the exam, getting 90% correct. Student B did not do so well, getting only 50%. If I look at any given exam question, in general, student A should be more likely to answer it correctly than student B. This is not the same as difficulty, because I'm not simply looking at what proportion of the class answered the question correctly. I'm correlating each student's score with their performance on each question. The key to all this is the word "should" in the sentence above.

If an exam item is poorly constructed for whatever reason, good students may do worse on it than students who did worse on the exam. That is, the better you are overall, the less likely you are to answer it correctly. That is not supposed to happen. The rpb gives me this information for each question on the exam. Experts in exam construction recommend that the rpb should range from 0.30 to 1.00. Anything question getting a rpb lower than 0.30 means that I will take a look at it and try to figure out why that's happening.

And if the rpb is negative,'s a negative correlation. That's the worst case I described: better students are doing worse answering this question; and poorer students are doing well. I won't use any questions getting a negative rpb again unless I can figure out why it's happening. Maybe I can tweak the question, maybe I have to rewrite it to ask about the same knowledge in a different way. Or maybe I'll just give up entirely, go and get a coffee, and check out some LOLcats.

Why aren't you studying?

The Exam Statistics: The Difficulty

In my last post, I discussed how I analyze the mean in my (multiple choice) exams. This time, I'm going to look at difficulty. This is not directly related to the mean. Huh? Isn't it the case that, the more difficult the exam, the lower the mean? Well, yes. But that's not the "difficulty" I'm writing about.

Among all the pages and pages of results I get from Test Scoring & Questionnaire Services is the "DIF" score or difficulty of each question. It's actually the proportion of the class who answered that question correctly. DIF=1.000 means that everyone got it right, but DIF=0.250 means that only 25% of the class did. But it's not really "difficulty," is it? If a question is really difficult, fewer people will answer it correctly and the number should decrease. So, really, it shouldn't be called difficulty, it should be called easiness. But, look, it's just called "difficulty," OK?

You might be thinking that I want everyone to answer every question correctly, right? Um, sorry to rain on your ice cream, It's really, really unlikely that everyone was able to learn absolutely everything in the course, and was also able to remember and apply that knowledge on an exam perfectly correctly for every question. What an exam should do is assess each student's learning of the material, and provide some way of differentiating among all students. If all questions are answered correctly, the exam itself has failed.

I went to a seminar last year at which a renowned expert in testing and exam question construction gave a talk. After it was over, I talked to him about DIF scores--specifically, what should they be? The general rule is that an exam question is doing a good job of differentiating among students if it's at least 0.300. That is, at least 30% of the class should be getting each question correct. There is no guideline for the upper end, but at another seminar, I heard an instructor say that she liked to put at least one DIF=1.000 question on each exam as a confidence booster. Yup, a gimme. I thought that was a pretty nice thing to do, so I try to include at least one high DIF question on every one of my exams, too.

So difficulty is related to the mean in that, the higher the DIF, the higher the mean on the exam overall. The mean is good for evaluating the overall performance of the class. But I also need to evaluate the questions on my exams, so I get the DIF score for each one. If the DIF is too low, the question either gets killed (*snff*), or rewritten to clarify it. Oh, and if I ever get DIF=0.000, it means I've keyed in an incorrect answer. Ooops.

Why aren't you studying?

The Exam Statistics: The Mean

With the first round of (multiple-choice) midterms over, I'm now swimming in data. I want to tell you about some of the stats I go through to assess and improve my exams. Unfortunately, I'm too late to celebrate (the first) World Statistics Day. But I don't feel too bad. At least statistics has a day. It's not like there's a "Psychology Month" or anything. Oh, look--yes there is. And I'm late for that, too. Moving on...

This installment is about the (arithmetic) mean, or, if you insist, the "average." I post the class mean of every exam because you demanded it! Really, though--what use is it to you? For classes that don't grade on the curve, you don't need to know the mean (or standard deviation) to determine your absolute standing in the class. Just take your percentage correct, and see what grade that corresponds to in the syllabus. Right?

Yes, that's important. But don't you want to know how everyone else did, too? Sure you do. "Did everyone think that exam was a killer, or just me?" We want to compare ourselves to other people. Some students even want to know what the top score was. "Did anyone get 100%?" "Am I the best in the class?"

The mean also serves another purpose, when there are multiple forms of an exam. In larger classes, multiple forms of an exam are used to discourage cheating (or at least, to make it more difficult). Typically, there is one form that has the questions arranged in order of topics (e.g., questions based on the first lecture and textbook chapter first, followed by questions on the second lecture and chapter, etc.). The other forms will have the questions in a random order. Are students who get the scrambled forms at a disadvantage? Or, put another way, is there a benefit to answering questions in a sequence that reflects the arrangement of the learning materials? If so, that wouldn't be fair, would it?

The data from every exam includes the means from each form. They are usually a little bit different. But is that difference a fluke, or is it due to the ordering of questions? Hmm, sound like a job for...statistics! The data also includes the results of an ANOVA (analysis of variance) that compares the means to each other. That is, are any differences statistically significant? The answer: No. I've never had a difference at p < 0.01 or even p < 0.05. That means any differences are small; they are due to chance.

The bottom line: It doesn't matter which form you get. Isn't science cool?

Why aren't you studying?

The Coffee

When I went to high school, it wasn't cool to drink coffee. Coffee was dark, scary, and bitter. Sure, my family would have Kaffeezeit ("coffee time") on the weekends, but I was just in it for the Kuchen.

When I started university, I drank a cup of tea with milk and sugar every single morning. Even though I had a lot of 8:00 classes (because they were good classes only offered at that time, that's why), one cup of English breakfast tea was all the caffeine I needed. Some of my friends became desperate around exam time, and dipped into the go-juice. It was hilarious to watch as the normally non-caffeine consumers' eyes got really big after having a big cuppa joe. Then, they'd study like the dickens. This proved that coffee was a dangerous, dangerous substance.

Then, I started graduate school. Sure, getting a graduate degree is pretty demanding. Maybe I'd have an extra cup of tea once in a while. But the sheer, stark terror of almost having to go into the Real World was enough stimulus for me--no coffee, thanks. Maybe just a bit more sugar.

Then, one term I was Dr. Dawson's teaching assistant. He made me come to the class (I dunno, to learn something I guess); because he was on my supervisory committee, it's not like I could say no or anything. The first day of class, I met him at his office and we went to the class together. But not before he poured himself a cup of freshly made French-pressed coffee. And then he insisted on giving me a cup. It's not like I could say no or anything. The worst thing was that the coffee was: black. As black as night. No milk, and certainly no sugar (isn't that freebasing?). After that, I brought my own mug and poured sugar into it first--milk was too conspicuous.

Now, I'm neither a connoisseur (yes, I drink instant--please forgive me), nor a coffee-hound. Usually, I get by with only one cup of coffee. But if I've had a bad sleep (which does happen), you'll see me toting a cup from one of the fine local purveyors. Not my usual mug-o-water; not tea; not vodka. I have gone over to the dark side. With lots of milk and sugar.

Why aren't you studying?

The Comics

Hey, who doesn't love comics? Not me! No, I don't not love comics. Um. Here are some of my favourite web comics.

PhD Comics is about grad.students who seem to have a problem finishing their theses. (Want to know how to drive a grad.student insane? Ask her if she's finished her thesis yet. Hee!) Even if you're not a grad.student, it's still pretty funny, poking fun at all kinds of academic matters. (This one made me LOL.) There are 3 comics per week (Mon/Wed/Fri).

xkcd isn't an abbreviation or acronym--it's just the title of a webcomic, aimed at people who have the ability to think. This rules out a lot of people who just won't "get it." Some gags require knowledge of science. Gasp! Conveniently comes out 2 times per week (Tues/Thurs).

Lab Bratz isn't just for lab ratz (er, rats). Has gags on academia, but doesn't require a degree to get the joke. Only 1 per month.

Do you have any favourite web comics? (To A.K.: Yes, I know about Salad Fingers, which is technically a cartoon. And yes, I read your blog!)

Why aren't you studying?

What I Did on my Summer Vacation (2010 version)

Went to Sylvan Lake, like last year. (Well, like every year, really.) Pros: No vehicle breakdowns this time. Cons: Smoke. *cough cough* The smoke drifting in from the forest fires in BC was so bad, it actually turned a sunny day into a cloudy one.

Next: Calgary. Yes, an Edmontonian can go to Calgary without being afraid to admit it. It's just important to leave Calgary again. The trip to the zoo was especially for my youngest daughter, so she could see real “tigas,” “elfints” and “zeebas”. Her big sister liked the playground best--no manure smell. As for me, well, I just went for the food.

I had my 25th high school reunion. It was a mindbending blast from the past, catching up with people I haven’t seen since high school. Others (like Eric in the picture), I lost touch with in the middle of undergrad years at university. Unfortunately, some old friends couldn’t make it to the get-togethers, but I was able to get in touch with them again via Facebook. (Yay, Facebook! Have you heard about it yet?)

Took my wife to the Lady Gaga concert. Had pretty lousy seats, but they were better than the ones that Calgary got. Bazinga! (Her tour didn't,um, stop in Calgary.) If you look really closely at the crappy photo I took using my crappy cell phone, you can see two blobs. One is Gaga, the other is the beautiful tongue of fire rising from her piano as she sang Speechless. Yes, I need a new cell phone.

Do I have to list all the Edmonton festivals I went to? Nah. You know all about those, right?

Beyond that, hmm, let's see: the usual collection of birthday parties, days in the park, BBQs with friends. Got an MRI on my knee. Woot! Sadly, it didn't leave me with any super powers.

And work, of course. There's always work (so, it wasn't completely a summer vacation, was it?). Instead of writing new lectures, I decided to improve the ones I've got. Although--I did come up with a new mini-lecture, by special request and...well, that's another blog entry.

Now, I've got a couple of questions: What did you do on your summer vacation?

Why aren't you studying?

The Awards: 3

The Department of Psychology's Teaching Honour Roll just came out for Winter, 2010. I'm happy to say that I (*modestly*) was placed on the Honour Roll with Distinction for all three of my courses. Woot! I also have to mention that 75% of instructors who taught in that term also got on the Honour Roll. Nice going, Department of Psychology colleagues! (But why the pic of the FIFA World Cup Trophy? Because...well, because. The World Cup is on right now. That's why.)

I also had the honour of winning two (!) of the inaugural Tolman Undergraduate Teaching Awards, or TUTAs. (Just say that out loud: toot-ahs, toot-ahs. Fun!) The two I won were:

  • “The adoption of fake accents for educational purposes” (blimey!) and
  • “Assignment most likely to results in a missing-persons report” (because of this assignment--but I've never lost a student...yet)
Why are they named for Tolman? He never studied/taught/researched at the UofA. It was the choice of the Associate Chair of the Department--she's got this quote in her email sig:
"Since all the sciences, and especially psychology, are still immersed in such tremendous realms of the uncertain and the unknown, the best that any individual scientist, especially any psychologist, can do seems to be to follow his own gleam and his own bent, however inadequate they may be. In the end, the only sure criterion is to have fun." (E. C. Tolman, 1959)
So, yeah, the "TUTAs" are tongue-in-cheek awards. But I'm still gonna frame them and hang them up somewhere. Maybe in my Awards Room. That's a good place for them. As soon as I get an Awards Room.

Finally, by popular demand, here are some selected comments from my courses in the Winter, 2010 term, followed up by the every-popular snarky responses:

Intro psych:
"[I] pay to be taught, not to read a textbook"
"Textbook reading should NOT be mandatory for exams"
(Why no love for the textbook? You rated it 4.1/5, which is not spectacular, but not bad either. Like it or not, you're going to have to read in university.)
"exam...focuses too much on [lecture] notes"
"Exam questions need to be better constructed & peer-reviewed"
(OK, I admit I do have to work on my exam questions. But peer-review? And usually, I get criticized for having too few exam questions from my lectures.)
"notes are too straight forward, you can't understand"
(Er, what? I should make them less they are more understandable?)

"not very helpful out of class"
(That's right: I'm not going to explain some theory when you run into me at West Edmonton Mall.)
"Your blog was very interesting & insightful"
(Thank you. That's a very interesting and insightful comment.)
"I missed a day and could not get the notes from the missed class"
(Did you ask me? All you have to do is ask me.)
"kept the class interested and attentive"
"tedious...class was very boring"
"repetitive...maybe try new ways of presenting information"
(What if you three were all trapped in an elevator for 41 hours?)
"I had no time to read [the textbook] since other psych courses also require textbook readings"
(OK, so it's the fault of those other courses. Those darn profs, making you read textbooks. Egad.)

Advanced Perception:
"would be nice to have a real textbook"
"readings were well chosen and definitely preferable to a textbook"
(There are no appropriate textbooks for a 300-level perception course. But that's OK, because you like the readings I chose.)
"quizzes were annoying...but in the end, I was thankful for them--it engages me & forced me to read [the assigned readings]"
"[quizzes] helped solidify my understanding of the main topics &...ensured I stayed up to date with the readings! It also taught me a useful study habit."
(See? Toldja.)
"I often left the class feeling as though he was talking down to us"
"was difficult to approach and was very short with me. I find him extremely snobby and condescending"
(I don't know how I screwed that up. I apologize, and I will honestly try to adjust my tone in the future.)
"forced me to work harder and think longer about the subjects covered" [in a positive context]
(Yeah, sorry about all that work and thinking.)

Why aren't you studying?

Where are they now?

For students who have completed their degrees, it's a time of endings--and of new beginnings. It makes me think of former students who've entered the "real world". I don't hear from many, but I have kept in touch with a few. Here's what's going on with them...

Colin got his Master's degree in counseling psychology and is working toward his official accreditation (you have to do a few hundred hours of work under the supervision of an accredited counseling psychologist, then pass some tests--piece of cake, eh? :-). He didn't go into graduate school right after his undergrad, but ventured into the real world first. It can be tough to go back to school after being away, but Colin showed that it is possible. The picture here was taken at a psychology conference last year. (Yup, he's standing next to esteemed psychologist Philip Zimbardo. How cool is that?) I wrote Colin a letter of reference for graduate school. He seems to think that helped him get in, but really, it was his own abilities that did it. (I have a parallel--a person who was a graduate student at the time asked me to write some software to help her with her research. That led me into doing research as an undergraduate. Without that experience, I wouldn't have gotten into graduate school and I wouldn't be where I am today. Thanks again, Linda!)

I also keep in touch with Sherry. She was a student in the first course I taught all by myself. Despite that experience (ha!) she took more of my courses and even was even my teaching assistant for a few courses. I encouraged her to go to, and she did. She's got a Master's degree, during which she got to work with actual astronauts. Again: astronauts. How cool is that? Now she manages grants for a research group here at the UofA. She deals with budgets in the millions of dollars.

Stephanie was a standout student, from the first course of mine she suffered through (ha!). She then signed up to suffer through a few more, totally shredding the courses, and getting the top grade. (Doing that definitely gets my attention and helps me to remember you.) Later, she also worked as my TA a few times--one of the best ever! I was happy to write her a reference letter for graduate school. She also took counseling psychology--one of the most difficult academic programs to get into, period. After working outside the city for a while, she's back in Edmonton again. She gets to apply her knowledge of psychology to help actual people. How cool is that?

I hope you get to use your psychology education out in the real world someday, too. If you do, drop me a line!

Why aren't you studying?

Update 8/19/2010: Marc Roy, a former TA in Advanced Perception in the mid-90s, dropped me a line. I wrote him a letter of reference, too. He entered the Clinical Neuroscience program at Simon Fraser University, earning a Master's degree. He eventually returned to Alberta to work at the Halvar Johnson Centre for Brain Injury in Ponoka, and has recently started a private practice in Red Deer. He also taught an Environmental Psychology course at Canadian University College, which is spitting distance from where I used to live (Lacombe, Alberta). And he's got two kids. Wow, great, Marc!

The Moratorium

Perception (PSYCO 267) was the first course I ever taught all by myself. That was in Spring, 1995. I went back and dug up my lecture notes from that first course. (Word processor used: Ami Pro. Operating system used: Windows 3.1. I'm gettin' all teary-eyed. >snff<) Then I compared those numbers to the current version of my lecture notes for that course (Word processor used: Word 2007. Operating system used: Windows XP. Not teary-eyed there at all.)

Number of assigned readings:

  • 1995: 12 chapters
  • 2010: 14 chapters + 1 appendix
Number of words in lecture notes:
  • 1995: 11,958
  • 2010: 28,580
It's not easy to do a direct comparison between these numbers. For example, I'm using a different textbook now than I was back in '95. In fact, my current textbook has 459 pages, the old one had 747. But look at the difference in the amount of lecture material: it's more than doubled. How (and why) can that possibly be?

First, back in 1995, I presented my notes using an overhead projector. I remember fumbling a lot with transparencies, switching lecture notes with colour pictures and figures on separate sheets. Now, almost everything is contained in PowerPoint. That's the second reason. Using PowerPoint allows me to go a lot faster through material, partly because there's no more fumbling, just clicking. But there are two further reasons underlying my increase in speed. 1. The Internet. I distinctly remember having to pause frequently to allow students to write down my long, wordy, overly long, dense explanations and definitions--and everything else. I didn't start putting my lecture notes online until the next year. In 1995, few students had Internet access. (I also don't remember getting a single email from a student.)

2. I'm better now. Um, I mean I'm a better instructor now than I was back then--a grad.student teaching only my second course ever. I'm sure my explanations were relatively poor, and I do remember having to answer quite a few questions from students in class. I like to think that now--knowing what concepts are difficult to understand--I can provide much better and more efficient explanations.

Still, the bottom line is: There is more in my course now than ever before. You might think this is unfair, especially compared to those students who had less to learn in the 90s. Or, you might be happy that you're getting as much as possible out of a course that is loaded with lots of relevant, contemporary research and theory. I like to think it's the latter case.

There are hundreds (thousands?) of papers, posters, articles, and books published and presented on topics in psychology every year. (A $2 reward to the first person to give me a reliable estimate of how many articles were published on psychological topics in 2009). I would not be doing the best possible job if I didn't stay current in the areas I teach: human factors & ergonomics, perception, cognition, and, well, introductory psychology. Which, er, means almost all of psychology, except for personality/abnormal/clinical psychology. (I'm proud that I even have two sources from 2010 in my perception course. That's about as current as I can get.)

But here's the problem: More isn't better. I can't just keep adding and adding to each course every year. I'll just have to go keep going faster and faster to cover it all. That's not doing the best possible job either. It's stupid to include a cutting-edge study at the expense of spending time explaining some concept that is core to the course. That's why I've decided to impose a moratorium on myself. I want to improve what I've got, to make sure that what I'm trying to explain comes across clearly, to smoothly transition between topics, to simplify overly complex things and add complexity back to things I've oversimplified. I've already started doing it. If you've noticed me scribbling on my notes during class, I've discovered something that I could present better...

Why aren't you studying?

The Best Job in the World

Or: The Best Jobs in America. This Bureau of Labor Statistics info (via this post) lists the top 37 jobs in America. At the top is systems engineer. But let's look a bit below that...

Coming in at number 3: college professor. Median salary: $US70,400; top pay: $US115,000. Hmm, I don't work at a college, and I'm not a professor. In the US, "college" means "university." In Canada, "college" generally means either a post-secondary diploma-granting institution, or a bachelor's degree-only community college. But still, it does specify "professor." I guess there's a lot of good that comes with tenure.

In the number 23 spot is clinical psychologist (and 24 is psychiatrist). Ooh, close, but that's not me, either. Clinical psychologists are the ones who see patients (whoops, I mean "clients") and help them with psychological disorders, as do psychiatrists. Interestingly, this listing is not for professional psychologists, which in addition to clinical psychologists also includes counseling psychologists. Anyway, let's check out the pay. Median salary: $US81,100; top pay: $US172,000. Wow, that looks pretty good! (Naturally, psychiatrists make even more--remember, they can make $500 per session in private practice.) I've heard that clinical and professional psychology programs are now the hardest to get in to--even harder than medical school. If you're planning on this as a career, you better have straight As, research experience, and probably some volunteer experience, too.

While I'm rattling off stats, here are some more psychology numbers, from an APS Observer article:

  • 6% of the 1.5 million bachelor's degrees earned by students in 2006-2007 were awarded in psychology
  • psychology bachelor degrees awarded rose 17.3% from 2001 to 2007
  • in the academic year 2006-2007, over 90,000 bachelor's degrees were awarded in psychology
  • 21,000 master's degrees were awarded in psychology
  • and just over 5,000 doctoral degrees were awarded in psychology
(Did I mention that I love my job? I really do. I think I do have the best job in the world. It sure beats working retail.)

Why aren't you studying?

Career Transition

OK, this is just what I don't want to see in my email: information specifically directed to CAST (contract academic staff: teaching) about "career transitions." In other words: What to do when you are canned. Wow, how classy!

This document was prepared by Employee & Family Assistance Program (motto: "Healthy people, healthy workplace"), which is a part of the UofA's Human Resource Services. (The PDF document properties actually includes the name of the person who created it, but I don't want to embarrass her. That would not be classy.) It includes a lovely pastoral scene of a road stretching off far into the potential with opportunity trees providing gentle, sun-dappled prospect shade. Although I can't quite see what's off in the distance. Is it possibility? Promise?

Let's go through this document. Hmm, "Resume Writing, Interview Preparation." (I don't have a resume, I have a curriculum vitae, thank you very much. Sniff.) "Financial Consultation Service," "Career Consultation Service." Oooh, hey, lookit, "Counseling Services." I get to talk to a counselor about losing my job! That will help with my well-being! Er, but only for 3 months. (I guess after that, I will have gotten a job. Or I won't be depressed any more. Right?)

Now, to be fair (which I don't have to be, whyshouldI?), the Career Transition & Job Loss web page does have similar documents to this for other constituency groups: Career Transition Services for Support Staff, Career Transition Services for Administrative Professional Staff, Career Transition Services for Academic Staff. But somehow I doubt that anyone else got sent a blanket email distributing their career transition resources. Just contract academic staff.

Needless to say, getting this document freaked me out. A lot. Is this some sort of hint? Like showing the chicken the hatchet? Or was it a just-in-case sort of thing? Maybe HRS realizes that CAST will likely be the first choice in many departments to get cut. Despite my oft-demonstrated superior teaching skills (toot! tooting my own horn, toot!) when it comes down to money, sorry bub, you're the low man on the totem pole.

I did go and talk to some people about this. What I heard was reassuring: they don't want to get rid of me (or other contract staff in the Department), and they're trying to find other ways to save money--but, of course, nothing is guaranteed. So, I'm going to be a bit antsy until (if!?) my contract is renewed at the end of the summer. Yeah, I have to wait that long. Hey, look what's in my email. A notice that MacEwan University is hiring a lecturer in psychology. Excuse me while I go and prepare my resume...

Why aren't you studying?

The End of Term

In one of my classes this term, I finished my lectures with time to spare. In the other two, I was so far behind, I had to skip content (which I hate to do) and talk really fast (which I really hate to do).

I try to make lectures fill the time available. That's not easy when I've got a new lecture: I don't know how long it'll take exactly. Maybe students will have lots of questions, or maybe my PowerPoint slides are confusing and I have to make up for it with a lot of top-of-my-head explaining. On the other hand, it could be deadly boring, and I'll rip through it just to put an end to everyone's misery.

One thing that helps is showing videos in class--for a number of reasons. They're great buffers. Running short of time? Cut the videos. Lots of time to spare? Show them all. Of course, I'd always like to show all the videos, because I believe there's some educational value in hearing people explain their theories in her own words. Especially if they're, er, dead now. I still have fond memories of some of the interesting videos that were shown in the classes I took as an undergrad.

Despite cutting out some videos, things didn't work out this term. But I know why: not all terms are created equal. For example, Tuesday/Thursday courses can have 25 or 26 classes during a Fall or Winter term. That's a difference of 80 minutes, which is a lot of lecture. It's even worse for Monday/Tuesday/Wednesday/Friday classes, which can have 36, 37, or even 38 classes--creating a maximum difference of 100 minutes.

Beyond showing videos, I really don't know how else to handle this variability. Should I create more lecture material and only use it some terms? But is that fair to the students who enroll in a different term and are "deprived" of some of my wonderful lectures? Should I just rip through it all when I'm short of classes in a given term? Or should I just try and fill the minimum amount of time, and then cancel any extraneous classes? (Why am I even asking this? Believe it or not, some students do not want profs to cancel any classes--they want to get as much of the time they paid for as possible.)

I'm looking forward to Spring term because the number of classes is always reliably the same. Although the amount of time I have to lecture in Spring is actually less than a Fall or Winter course. *sigh*

Why aren't you studying?

The Importance of Sleep, Again

I've written about the importance of sleep before, but I'm lecturing on sleep in intro psych so it's on my mind again. Actually, it's on my mind a lot--every day. That's because I haven't slept through the night in over a year. (This past week has been especially hilarious: the baby has actually had a few good nights sleep-wise, but on those nights, my other daughter has woken up in the middle of the night--needing Dada to help her get back to sleep. I totally get the irony of lecturing on the importance of sleep when I'm likely the most sleep-deprived individual in the room.)

What's worse is that I've been reading a lot of really good research showing just how important it is to get a good night's sleep. The Associated Professional Sleep Societies (APSS) has an annual meeting showcasing a huge amount of interesting work on sleep. At their meeting in June, 2009, one study in particular caught my eye (and the attention of some journalists and bloggers). It was found that sleep quality (not quantity, per se) was correlated with math scores. That is, the better your sleep, the better your scores on math exams. English scores went up, too. You don't think you can affect the quality of sleep you get? Sure you can: sleep on a regular schedule, don't pull all-nighters, and don't have a baby who wakes up every couple of hours. (OK, maybe that last one is a bit hard to do.)

Sleep also has been shown to aid memory: "Sleeping on it" may just be the best way to remember something. And in another widely reported finding, sleep quality turned out to be important for learning in general, and for learning vocabulary in particular. Ya, more gooder sleeps does to help your talking goodly-like and knowing the betterer words.

Ugh, I need a nap.

Why aren't you studying?


That's a picture of my baklava to the left there. To get my mind off feeling sick and miserable, I decided to make baklava. Sure, I could easily stop by Paradiso Pastries (11318 134 Avenue) on the way home. But there's just something about creating using your own hands.

I'm a fan of the blog dinner with Julie, written by a (*choke*) Calgary mom, cookbook author, radio personality, caterer, and (obviously) blogger. Coincidentally, she also made baklava recently (I made mine first). I've made a few of her recipes, but this time I just wanted to get rid of some phyllo I've had in the freezer since, well, er...since before my kids were born. It was still good, amazingly.

My recipe came from my main man, Alton Brown. I thought his recipe was interesting, using three different kinds of nuts. Instead of walnuts, though, I opted for cashews. Also, to put a Canadian spin on it, I added some maple syrup to the honey syrup. Yum!

How does this relate to psychology? Well, I am talking about the psychology of food and eating in my Advanced Perception course, and I'll be talking about hunger, eating, and weight in intro psych soon. Hmm, after eating all this baklava, maybe I go and weigh myself...

Why aren't you studying?

The Laryngitis

I'm sorry for the state of my voice this week. I know I sound like a frog with, um, a frog in its throat.

I was hit by a particularly nasty virus (picked up from my oldest daughter, via daycare or school, grr!) that decided to settle in my lungs, turning into a lower respiratory tract infection--likely pneumonia--activating my asthma, and giving me bronchitis. The result of all this was a cough that was so bad that my wife took her pillow and went to sleep in a different room. Wearing earplugs.

I started taking antibiotics for the infection, and maxed out on daily doses of inhaled steroids to open my airways. Unfortunately (I am coming to a point here, really; this isn't just about me describing my illness, honestly), one of the side effects is a hoarse voice. Or, in extreme cases, laryngitis: an inflammation of the larynx, which includes the vocal apparatus. Hence, my sounding like a goat that's eaten, um, a Smart Car. Wait, that doesn't even make sense. Did I mention I've got a fever, too? But look, you're learning all about parts of the body. Yay!

I always try my best to work through whatever illness I've got. It would be nice to put up my feet at home, and snuggle into an easy chair with a bowl of chicken soup to watch Oprah. But I don't see that as being professional. If I miss a class (or two, or three), that throws a monkey wrench into my schedule. Do I cut things out of the lecture? Do I just talk really, really fast to get through it all? Both of those are not fair to students--the paying customers. So, the show must go on.

Obviously, if my voice goes completely, I've got to give up. So complete laryngitis is one of the few things that will keep me out of the classroom. The others are explosive diarrhea and projectile vomiting. Of those three, I'd pick laryngitis.

So, what do you think? Should I stay at home with Oprah, or try and croak through my lectures?

Why aren't you studying?

Anatomy of a Lecture: Part 3

So far, I’ve talked about deciding on a new lecture topic, and the prep work that went into it. This time, I’ve got a collection of links to websites on synesthesia. I know I promised a “ridiculous” number of links, but these aren’t all the resources I used; I’m not going to link you to scientific journal articles, and, er, I can’t link to an actual book. Still, there’s lots of good stuff out there (and it’s not overly technical).

Tests: Think you’ve got synesthesia? Take one of these tests and find out for sure (the first one is a “real” test, the others are not so hot).

  • The Synesthesia Battery is David Eagleman’s rigorous, standardized test of synesthesia
  • Synesthesia tests has a number of different, um, synesthesia tests (unfortunately, it’s in poorly translated English)
  • Synesthesia Test assesses your grapheme → colour synesthesia (but if you simply click on the same colour over and over though, it hilariously thinks you have synesthesia!)
Simulations: If you don’t have synesthesia, it may be hard to imagine what it must be like. Here are some simulations of it.
Documentaries: Here are the best documentaries I’ve found--some from TV, some web-based. If you come across a particularly good video, send it my way.
  • I think the best one so far was produced by the BBC series Horizon, called “Derek Tastes of Earwax” (love that title). It also aired in the US as “When Senses Collide” and “When Senses Overlap” (available on YouTube)
  • ResearchChannel has another good one, called Red Mondays and Gemstone Jalapeños: The Synesthetic World (available on YouTube). BoingBoing has an abridged version as well (available on YouTube).
  • The Discovery Channel show The Real Superhumans and the Quest for the Future Fantastic has an episode on synesthesia (available on Disclose.TV).
  • Another Discovery Channel show, One Step Beyond, has a brief video on synesthesia that features interviews with David Eagleman and noted synesthete Sean Day (available on HowStuffWorks).
Magazine articles: (sorry)
Books/book authors:
Websites by/for/about synesthetes: Sometimes, it’s best to hear what synesthesia is like first-hand, from those who experience it.
Other good stuff: These links don't fit into any other category, but are worth a look.
Research groups/researchers: If you want more hard-core knowledge, you can find lots of peer-reviewed research articles here.
Qualia: “Qualia” is the term used by philosophers to mean our internal subjective experience--you know, do you “see” red like I “see” red? Synesthesia has been called “qualia becoming deranged.” If philosophy is your thing, here's some more about qualia in general.
And if that isn’t enough for you, Crétien van Campen has collection of over 50 synesthesia websites, and a bibliography of Synesthesia in Art and Science that's over 50 pages long. Is that ridiculous enough for you?

Why aren't you studying?

(08/22/2016: Links updated)

How to Get Free Marks

You want free marks? Sure, no problem--all you have to do is prove to me that I'm wrong.

It doesn't happen often, but it does happen. Earlier this term, Melissa T. asked me why the teaching assistant had marked an answer wrong on one of her assignments. She had written an alternative answer that sounded plausible to me, so I told her about my free mark policy. Melissa came back a couple of days later with a strong journal article supporting her point, and she ended up with a free mark! (To be fair, my TA stuck to the marking guide I provided, so it's not the TA's fault Melissa initially lost a mark. It's impossible to create a marking guide that covers every possible answer, and every variation on an answer. But that's another post for another day.)

You might have learned something in another one of your classes that contradicts what I say (or what the textbook says). This shouldn't be surprising--"facts" change all the time in science. (Like, old-time doctors used to prescribe smoking. And cocaine. Nice going, stupid old-time doctors!) The instructor of one of your other classes might be up on some brand-new study that hasn't worked its way into the textbook I use, into my lectures, and into my exams. So why should you be penalized for knowing more? Or, perhaps, for knowing something in more detail?

So, to get a free mark, all you have to is:

  • find an error in the marking of an exam or assignment (sorry, no free marks for correcting an error in the textbook--that is worth $2, however--and no free marks for pointing out an error in my lectures, although you will have my genuine gratitude)
  • find good (i.e., peer-reviewed) evidence to support your answer (sorry, Googling some random website or even finding empirical evidence cited in a textbook is not good enough--it's got to make it through the peer-review process)
  • find current evidence (sorry, digging up a peer-reviewed paper from 1847 may not qualify if subsequent research has undermined it)
This is a great win-win situation: you end up getting a free mark, and I end up with a exam or assignment question that's more relevant, up-to-date, and fair.

Why aren't you studying?

Anatomy of a Lecture: Part 2

(As you read in part 1, I've been working hard on a new lecture, on synesthesia.)

How long does it take to prepare (or "prep") a lecture? There's no simple answer to this. Different people will take different amounts of time. Some topics may take longer than others. And I don't think anyone actually keeps track of how long it takes (because that would take time, too; also, the final number would probably be a bit depressing). Plus, doing background research takes a certain amount of time, as does typing the lecture notes, as does creating the PowerPoint slides, as does creating the notes for the web. Do you count all of that time?

Looking around on the web, there are warnings to about how long it takes to prepare lecture material. A common one is that it takes 10 hours for a "new prep" (a course you've never taught before), and 3 hours to update a previously taught class. However, the book Advice for New Faculty Members by Robert Boice recommends that instructors try and reduce prep time to 2 hours for every hour of class, otherwise too much time is wasted, taking away from time doing research. I've also read recommendations that instructors should ask to borrow other people's lecture materials! (Note to anyone who's going to ask: The answer is No. Why? Aside from students, the sum total of my working life since 1995 is my lecture notes. Go do yours yourself.)

I haven't kept close track of how much time I spent on my new lecture on synesthesia. But I'd put it at over 100 hours. This includes listening to a whole bunch of podcasts, watching several documentaries, reading paper after paper after paper, reading (all or parts of) six books, and going to dozens of websites. I'm not telling you this to show off or anything. Maybe I'm a terrible instructor, and that's why it takes me so long. Perhaps somebody else could have whipped this off using the 2-hour recommendation: there are 3 hours of lecture to fill, so they would have spent no more than 6 hours of prep time. Yeah, I wish.

The synesthesia lecture I created is one of the largest I've created that focuses on a single sensory/perceptual phenomenon: 83 PowerPoint slides. Object Perception in PSYCO 267, in contrast, clocks in at 104 slides, but I've got a ton of image-only slides. Perception and Art in PSYCO 365 is a whopping 126 slides--but there are oh-so-many gorgeous pictures of fine art and not a lot of wordy words.

One of the hardest things to do when creating something is edit: deciding what to include and what to (*sigh*) leave out. I left out a lot of things about synesthesia, sometimes because they weren't directly relevant, and sometimes because they were just redundant with other studies. I felt obligated to talk about the current state of theories about synesthesia, and the evidence surrounding them--it turns out that research on synesthesia is exploding with the use of brain imaging techniques. In fact, from 2000-2006, there were 60 studies published (compared to less than 20 in the 1990s). I don't want to brag or anything, but I doubt there's anyone on campus who knows more about synesthesia than I do right now. Ok, I'm bragging.

If you have an interest in synesthesia, part 3 will have a ridiculous number of links to more info. Ridiculous!

Why aren't you studying?

Thanks for Nothing

When the provincial budget (slogan: "Budget 2010: Striking the Right Balance") first came out on February 9, there was cautious optimism on campus because there was a 0% increase in operating grants for post-secondary education. This was not unexpected, and was a whole lot better than facing a cutback.

Sadly however, tucked away behind all the announcements, there was a cutback of 4.5%, or $20 million. That might not seem like a lot, but it's a staggering amount, coming on the heels of a $59 million shortfall (or "budget gap") due to reduced provincial grants, and the recent tanking of global economic markets, among other things. (But hey, it's not all bad news for everybody in education--Alberta teachers are getting a 5.99% raise! Retroactive to September 1, 2009! Of course, it's up to the school boards to find that money.)

Here's the problem: there's not a lot of room to cut. Moving the UofA's email system to Gmail will save only about $1 million. Big whoop. How else can the gap be closed? Raising tuition as much as provincial law allows? Check. Introducing crazy new "fees" (*cough* CoSSS *cough*)? Check. Asking the staff association (AASUA) to take "furlough" days off without pay? Check-a-roonie. Let's just take a look at the latter one.

Academic staff will have the following days off: December 24, and December 29 to 30, 2010; as well as January 4 and 5, 2011. (In addition, there are holidays like December 25 and 26, which are observed on Monday, December 27 and Tuesday the 28th because the holidays fall on a weekend; the same goes for January 1 which is observed on Monday, January 3, 2011.) I now realize that I'm not paid for working on weekends! Wow! So don't expect me to answer any emails on the weekend. Also, I won't be answering emails on my furlough days. Mark your calendars! I shouldn't be doing any prep work for the upcoming semester, working on lectures, reading papers, that sort of thing. Of course, going back to work on Thursday, January 6th is going to be a helluva bitch.

So, where else can we cut? How about getting rid of some of the "fat cats" mentioned in some of the asinine comments following this story in the Edmonton Journal? Hmm, I don't see many people wearing three-piece suits puffing on cigars. Hey, maybe they mean tenured faculty? Ooops--nope, you can't just give a full Professor a pink slip. But the story in the paper talks about layoffs. Who could they going to lay off...? Who could they chop...?

Contract staff like me.

I'm not going to be sleeping too well unless/until my contract is renewed at the end of the summer. Sure, the classes I teach are full, with even more students wanting to get in. Sure, my teaching performance has won me awards. But how much does that count when it comes to the cold, hard numbers and cold, hard cash? In fact, my years of experience and awards may work against me: I'm more expensive than, say, a graduate student or someone with a shiny new Ph.D. So I might be getting a whole lot more "days off" than just six furlough days.

As students, you can expect higher tuition/fees (duh), almost certainly larger classes, and those classes may be taught by some really grumpy professors who've had their arms twisted to get them out of the lab and back into the classroom. (This happened before, in the 1990s as a consequence of the Ralph Klein cuts--there was a massive layoff of sessionals, class sizes grew, and some bitter close-to-retirement profs were forced back into the classroom.)

So thanks, Ed. Thanks for nothing.

Hope I'll see you next year...

Why aren't you studying?

Anatomy of a Lecture: Part 1

I regularly review the lectures in each course I teach. I ask myself, Am I presenting the current state of research and theory? Is it interesting and relevant? Is there something else I could (or should) be talking about?

Sometimes, I look at a lecture and decide that it's past its prime--either I have to revamp it completely or get rid of it. Either option is hard. It's not fun to completely redo a lecture; I've got to immerse myself in the current theories and read a whole bunch of research papers. On the other hand, because I've spent a lot of time developing a lecture, it's hard to retire it (it's one of my babies!).

Last year, I realized that my Advanced Perception lecture on motion perception was not keeping up with the times. (For example, I presented a theory that--although interesting--has been largely abandoned.) Worse, a lot of the lecture repeated the same information from my lower-level Perception course, making it repetitive and potentially even boring. But trying to get up to speed on the complex area of motion perception was daunting. So, out it went.

My motion perception lecture was followed by an extended look at the (controversial) ecological approach to perception. Why did I spend so much time on this one theory? No other theory got such privileged treatment, and I briefly talked about the ecological approach earlier in the course alongside the other major theories. Then I remembered that I originally developed the lecture to complement a chapter on the ecological approach in the assigned textbook for the course. Which I was no longer using. Oops. So, out it went.

This left me with a large hole in the middle of term that I would have to fill with a new lecture. Actually, I wanted to make room in the course so that I could talk about the strange phenomenon known as "synesthesia." Now I had room--lots and lots of room. Just really quite a large bit of room: 3 hours of lecture.

So I was faced with a new problem: Would there be enough known about synesthesia to fill out a whole lecture--and fill all that time? The answer: Yes. Oh, yes, indeed--as you'll see in part 2...

Why aren't you studying?

The Awards: 2

The Department of Psychology's Teaching Honor Roll just came out. These awards are based on teaching evaluations in Fall, 2009 term classes. I'm pleased to report that I was named to the Teaching Honor Roll for one class, and the Honor Roll With Distinction for the other two. This is a good news/bad news thing.

It's good news that, generally, students in two of my classes had a very positive experience. But it's bad news that students in the other class did not have a similarly positive experience. It's the first time since 1997 that I have not received Honor Roll With Distinction for an intro psych class. Looking back, I know what the problem in that class was: the room.

The room I taught in is dark. The walls are dark brick, and the lighting is terrible--sort of pot lights, creating dim little spotlights here and there. Making it worse is the fact that I have to turn off some lights so everyone can see the PowerPoint slides. Why is darkness a problem?

If you're (literally) in the dark in a public space, you feel anonymous. It's like you're the only one there and no one can see you. As a result, you might be more likely to engage in behaviours that you might not, if the lights were on. (Don't believe me? Check out this paper, titled "Good Lamps Are the Best Police: Darkness Increases Dishonesty and Self-Interested Behavior".) The behaviour in this case was chatting. I had some students chatting during the whole entire damn class, from the start to the end. In case you haven't guessed, this really pisses me off.

I'm trying my best to provide a certain in-class experience for students. To do this, I require the cooperation of everyone in the room. Now I don't insist on absolute silence or anything. I've got no problem with someone asking their neighbour for the last fill-in word they missed. But if you're talking during the whole entire damn class, why bother coming? I mean, really? What are you getting out of the class? Filling in blanks here and there on a printout is not the same as learning. In fact, it's not learning at all. Even worse, with your nonstop chatter, you're disrupting the other students all around you--the ones who actually do want to learn something. And it also throws me off, too.

If a pair of students continues to chat for a bit too long, I often stop talking and glare at them until they get the message and shut up. (This is not going to happen to you if you're occasionally getting fill-in words from your neighbours.) Social pressure can work wonders. However, if a classroom is dark, I may not be able to see who's talking. That's what happened last term. Although I did stop-'n-stare quite a few times, there were always other conversations that just kept going and going and going. It was so bad, I had numerous students ask me to do something about it.

So I gave my class a stern lecture about respect and taking their conversations outside. That didn't work. So I threatened to remove the talkers from the class if they didn't shut up (which I actually had to do once before). That didn't work; I couldn't see them in the dark. I grew increasingly frustrated, and dreaded going to each class. That's right: I had a class that I did not want to go to. For me, this is a worst-case scenario--disliking a class. And this was just due to a very small minority of people. With a negative attitude, I probably did not do the best possible job for that class. For that, I apologize.

The point of this rant is to get out the message that your behaviour has consequences, often beyond what you might expect. If you're excited to see one of your friends in a class, that's great. But if you want to catch up, do it after class. Go for coffee, or have lunch together. But do not spend the whole entire damn class chatting. Realize that you're not just bothering the other students within earshot, but you may also be disrupting your instructor, thereby affecting the whole class.

Why aren't you studying?

UPDATE: Here are comments from my evaluations in that noisy class:

"class are also often too noisy"
"[instructor] did nothing to actually stop [the class] talking"
"I appreciate you respecting students' desire to learn by reprimanding those continually talkative students. They were the only downside in this course."
"Thanks you for acknowledging the chatterboxes in our class and reprimanding them"
"It was a noisy class!"

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