Exam Prep I: "Do I have to know this...?"

At this time of year, students are starting to prep for exams, which is good. How do I know students are prepping? By The Question I get asked. The Question is: "Do I have to know this...?" This is not a stupid question. I'd love to say that there are no stupid questions, but one like "Is this going to be on the exam?" is close. Er, why don't I just give you a copy of the exam so you can see what's on it?

Sorry, sorry. Sometimes I get snarky when that one comes up. Don't take offence at my snarkiness. It's just that I'm tired of answering certain questions over and over. That's why I've decided to write a post about it--so I don't have to answer it over and over. I hope.

And don't think that I'm writing this post because you were the one who asked me The Question. Lots of people have asked me The Question over the years. And lots have asked it already this term. In fact, I planned on writing about The Question this week a long time ago. So get over it.

I know what's happening when The Question starts to form in a student's mind. They're reading the textbook and increasingly getting overwhelmed by all the names and dates in the first chapter. There so much stuff--most of it not even mentioned in lectures. "Gosh, I'm getting tired. It's going to take me a long time and a lot of effort to commit all of this information to memory, and to understand all the different names for things. Hmm, maybe I'd be wasting my time learning about all of this. I better check with the instructor and see." Aaaand The Question is born, and gets sent off through the Intertubes to me, landing in my inbox. Ping!

Can you see my frustration with The Question? There are a couple of things. First: No, there will not be exam questions on everything--that's impossible. I cannot test every single concept presented in the textbook and in lectures. The test would be thousands of questions long. The best I can do is take a random sample of those questions. If you've learned everything in the course so far, it shouldn't matter what content the questions address. On the other hand, if you've been a bit...intellectually lazy and skipped over things that were long, complicated, or hard, there will be gaps in your knowledge. Exams should be designed to reveal those gaps, in order to differentiate among students' learning.

Second, the little vignettes and stories at the start of every chapter will not be on the exam. But that doesn't mean you should ignore them. Why did the textbook author spend time writing them? To help you understand the context and reason for the chapter? To illustrate an important concept? So, do you need to know that specific story or not? Probably not. But by reading it, you'll better understand the concept it's trying to teach you.

Third, names and dates. Yes, I'm deliberately wasting your time, sir. Or, wait. Am I? Is an important part of learning about psychology to know the contributions made by philosophers, scientists, and psychologists? To know their names? And to know when in history those contributions were made? If you want to become a psychologist, is all of that important? In the science biz, the way that we refer to important research is not by where it was done (although the media love to report the institution for some reason), but by who did it, and when. One psychologist will sling around names like "Smith, Shoben, and Rips", "Treisman and Gelade", and "Ramachandran and Hubbard, '07" and another psychologist will know instantly what the other is talking about. But then, psychologists know all about psychology and you don't. Not yet. You get to know a lot about psychology by reading and remembering it, not by skipping over a bunch of it. On the other hand, from a pedagogical standpoint, is there value in evaluating students on their ability to rote memorize what seems like a meaningless string of names and numbers?

So, in answer to The Question, "Do I have to know this...?"

No. No, you don't.

You also don't have to pass the course, or get an A. Students who do, will know...

Why aren't you studying?

The Syllabus Poll - Results

The results (from last week's poll) are in. It looks like the majority of you like to have not only the online PDF of the course syllabus, but also a hardcopy. OK, that's good to know. The last time I ran this poll, the results looked a bit different. Only 7% wanted online only, 6% liked hardcopy only, 80% preferred both (and there were 6% who were psychic--yeah, right). There are interesting trends: decreasing preference for paper and an increasing trend towards preferring soft copies online.

There is also a caveat: out of the approximately 600 students in my classes this term, less than 100 votes were cast. A possibility is that those who were strongly motivated to vote were the only ones who did so. That is, this sample is not representative. *sigh* Any stats majors out there care to do an analysis?

Still, maybe I can use these numbers to show that some students do want to get a piece of paper handed out in the first class. And maybe they can find some funds. (How 'bout if I put the exams online? That would save a ton of paper.)

Why aren't you studying?

The Syllabus Poll

Because of the University’s recent budget woes, the Dean of Arts has “strongly encouraged” instructors to post their syllabi online. This will 1) save money, 2) save trees, and 3) “save face”. (I think that last one means “move into the 21st century, already!”) It’s not like the copying budget has officially been cut; that’s for individual Departments to decide. (I haven’t heard of any policy changes from the Faculty of Science, but Psychology is mostly funded by Arts.)

I’ve been posting my syllabi online for, well, a while--ever since the third course I taught, in 1995. That’s not a big deal. But cutting out a hardcopy syllabus...I don’t know.

This year, I decided to help out my Department--I went to Staples to copy and pay for the syllabi myself. (Meh, it’s no biggie: it took an hour and $140.38 for about 600 syllabus copies across three courses.)

So, I’ve continued to provide a hardcopy of the syllabus on the first class. But is it still necessary? I’d like to get your opinion on this. Is it good enough if I just go over the syllabus in detail in the first class (which I do now anyway)? Or do you think it’s still valuable to have a piece of paper to look at on that first day?

I'd like your opinion (but, please, vote only once):

(Poll is now closed. Thanks for voting. Results are here.)

In January, 2010, I ran an online poll asking my students about their preferences. I don't want to give the results here, because that may bias the voting. I'll post those numbers after I close the current poll.

Why aren't you studying?

The September 11th

I remember September 11, 2001. My wife was out of town with her sister, and I was alone at home working on (what else?) lecture prep. I don’t turn the TV or radio on when I’m working--don’t want any distractions--but I was working on the computer. I needed to get some information, and went to Google.

I distinctly remember an unusual thing on Google’s home page: a picture of the World Trade Center towers on fire, and a link to more information. I followed the link, thinking it was a promotion for a movie or something, but then I quickly realized what was Really Happening. That’s when I turned on the TV...needless to say, I didn’t get any more work done that day. And I was much relieved when my wife got home that evening.

I recently found a screenshot of Google’s actual home page on 9/11. It did not have a picture of the towers, but it did say, “Breaking news: Attacks hit US” and there were links to several news sites. How could I have misremembered something that seemed so clear to me?

Many people report having very vivid memories of a highly emotional event--not just of the event itself, but also of their personal experience (where they were, what they were doing, who they were with, etc.) when they first heard about the event. (These are called “flashbulb memories”, as if these memories are seared into our minds by the bright flash of emotion.)

But research has shown that these memories are not as veridical as we feel they are. 9/11 provided a unique opportunity for psychological scientists to do a sort of natural experiment on flashbulb memories. For example, Dr Elizabeth Phelps and her colleagues found that people did remember significant things about the 9/11 event quite well (80+%, even though these eroded over time), but only remembered about half of their personal details surrounding the event correctly. This means that you would swear you saw a picture of the burning towers on Google’s home page even though that never happened.

Incidentally, I did have a class to teach in the late afternoon of 9/11. I went and taught the class and didn’t say a word about the attacks. I felt that, as long as students were showing up, I’d teach them; I’d do my job. If they hadn’t heard about what was happening, I didn’t want to be the one to tell them. I imagined that would make it hard to concentrate for the rest of the class.

Now that I have children, though, I think I would handle things differently. I’d probably cancel my classes, take my kids out of school/daycare, and just hug them for the rest of the day. In fact, I think I’ll go hug them right now.

Why aren’t you studying?

What I Did on my Summer Vacation (2011 edition)

In no particular order, here's a random assortment of my summer experiences...

  • On a sad note, one of my teaching assistants from last year, Matthew Ian Helgesen, died suddenly over the summer. My condolences to all his friends and family both here and back in Minnesota.
  • Took the family to Calaway Park for the first time ever. Was it fun? Well, if you like going on the Egg Ride over and over and over... The weirdest activity is the fishing pond (barely mentioned on their website), where you can catch real trout, have them cleaned, and take them home. Yup, at the end of your day of going on rides, seeing magic shows, and eating cotton candy, you can take a dead fish home. Has Disney heard about this!?
  • Calgary Zoo again. You know, I’d really like to see a polar bear one day. Just sayin’.
  • Oh, and Sylvan Lake of course. Sadly, there seems to be less and less beach every time we go. (Maybe it was just all the snow melt this year?) At this rate, there won’t be any beach next year and I’ll just have to sit in the Big Moo drinking iced cappuccinos. Which, come to think of it, doesn’t sound too bad.

  • Festivals, of course. But it’s tough to plan, say, going to the Heritage Festival when someone (not to name names) has to take a nap in the middle of the afternoon. Sustainival at the Fringe was something new. And I learned two things: 1) my eldest daughter loves the Tilt-A-Whirl, and 2) it makes me nauseous. Really nauseous. Where’s the iced coffee?
  • Which reminds me: Had way too many of those $1 iced coffees from McDonald’s. There must be something, like, addictive in those. I mean, apart from the sugar, cream, and caffeine.
  • Swatted mosquitos. A lot of mosquitos. Had to mow the lawn wearing heavy jeans, long socks, T-shirt, jacket zipped all the way up, and a hat--then sprayed Deep Woods Off all over. And: not a single bite! But when I went inside to take a shower what happens? A mosquito lands on me. Slap! Grr!
  • Got a new custom desktop computer. (Geek alert: ASUS P8Z68-V PRO, Core i7 2600K, 8 GB 2000MHz DDR3 Kingston RAM, EVGA GTX 570, 2TB Seagate Barracuda HDD, 240GB OCZ Vertex 3 SSD. Not cutting edge, but then I’m not Fatal1ty.) On the plus side: SSD (Solid State Drive--kinda like a hard drive made up of flash memory) is wicked fast; on the minus side: SSD drive caused BSODs (*sigh*). Flashing the firmware was a bit hair-raising, but it fixed the problem and I didn’t even lose any data.
  • Was so impressed with the SSD, I installed one (OCZ Vertex 2) in the empty drive bay of my laptop (Geek alert: Dell XPS 17 L701x). It didn’t work--the BIOS wouldn’t let me change the boot drive from HDD to SSD (*sigh*). Called tech support (How’s the weather in Chennai?). They didn’t know how to change the boot order either, so I had to tell them: the boot drive has to be the one in drive bay 1. They were very grateful for the info. I didn’t even charge them.
  • I’d like to get a new computer for my office now. My current Core 2 Duo E6400 is a bit slow. (I know there’s a budget crunch, but if UAlberta can afford $250,000 for a new website, can’t I get a new computer every 4 or 5 years? Please? I’ll install it myself--no charge.)
  • Ate a few of Fat Frank’s cheddar jalapeno dogs, tried Filistix’s pulled pork bun, and had an Eva Sweet waffle--all on campus. Allowing food carts on campus was a great idea. Will they still be around in January?
  • Oh, and I made cake pops. And a cherry pie--with cherries from the Evans cherry tree in our backyard. And avocado-lime ice cream. (How was it? Meh. Green. See below.)

  • And of course, did a lot of work, including: went to seminars on Moodle and i>clickers, enhanced the branding of each course website for greater consistency and esthetics, and went through all my lectures to improve the flow and increase understandability.
  • The branding I did means that each course will have a consistent visual style, from website to syllabus to exams. Getting everything to look right on my Website was the most difficult. Although I downloaded some cool Javascript to render custom fonts, I couldn’t get the font drop shadow to work inside of a rounded-corner/drop-shadow CSS3 element. I banged my head against the wall for a week or so on that until I gave up. Still, I think it looks OK (example here).
  • Got Honour Roll with Distinction (modestly) for teaching the two courses I taught in Spring Term. No separate post for that because I don’t think I did the best possible job with one of the courses. I updated my lecture notes extensively, but my Web notes didn’t match the PowerPoints in class a few times. I’ll do a better job next time.
  • Analyzed the research data I collected earlier this year. Hmm, looks like using ebook-textbooks shouldn’t have a negative impact on your grade
Yeah, that’s all. Now I’m craving an iced coffee. What did you do over the summer?

Why aren’t you studying?

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