Taking tests means learning best

Test takingI was forwarded this article (entitled, To Really Learn, Quit Studying and Take a Test) as part of an ongoing discussion on active learning for STEM classes. The idea is that active learning is more effective than passive learning. Active learning encompasses a lot of things – but fundamentally switches the focus to the student’s learning by doing.

One way I understand active learning is in comparison to passive learning. Imagine the typical large lecture hall where you sit and passively listen to the professor tell you what you need to know. Have you ever felt your eyes drooping, or maybe even fell asleep during a lecture? The professor might think the information is interesting an engaging, but listening to someone talk at you for an hour can be exhausting. This is likely why even NPR has interludes of punchy music to break up the monotony of talk radio.

The active learning strategy discussed in this article is to have students take tests early and often. Students retained more information after taking several tests than after having one study session or even multiple study sessions. I have to wonder if the stress and adrenaline that accompany test taking for most people plays a critical role in solidifying information retention. There’s nothing like that jittery-about-to-take-a-test feeling – usually it’s combined with caffeine and lack of sleep for me!

When I prepped for the SATs in college and the GRE’s for graduate school, I took practice exams and prep courses in which we took more practice exams. Then I took the SATs 3 times until I got the score I wanted. I studied for the test by taking the test. So for me, at least, I see some merit in this strategy. I also see a downside though, one I am facing right now in teaching introductory statistics.

When you teach through tests, or even through practice problems designed to help students through tests, that is emphasizing that the purpose of the class is to pass a test. This is somewhat limiting. All of the example problems in the world may help a stats student ace the final exam, but they won’t help her design an effective data collection scheme for her class project. They won’t help her figure out how to choose the best figure to illustrate her data, or how to analyze the data. My point is that learning is not ONLY about information retention. It’s also about thinking critically and applying problem solving skills to problems where there isn’t a single solution. We need to start brainstorming more effective ways to have students practice using their creativity to solve important problems – lord knows the world has enough of them to go around.

 

 

 

 

Are college freshman prepared for STEM classes?

Grading has got to be the worst part about teaching, no contest. It’s so time consuming and, frankly, a bit depressing at times as well. As a teacher I genuinely want all the students to do well. I really want everyone to test well and score high. More importantly, I want to know that these young people are actually absorbing this information.

Right now I am teaching intro statistics for non-majors -a course in how to understand and interpret information. The material seems very basic to me, but I know that after so many years in school and doing research, it’s difficult to have perspective. I try to look at it with fresh eyes and remember it is their first time seeing this stuff. But often I find that there is more of an issue than the newness of the concepts.

One interaction made me realize that what I consider totally basic may be very advanced for some students – even in their first or second year of undergrad. I was in office hours, and explaining the difference between two measures of center – the mean and the median. We were calculating the mean of a bunch of numbers. This is stuff I remember learning in middle school, but here we covering it a bit of a different way – like when is it more appropriate to use the median or the mean in describing different datasets. After I finished my schpeal, the student asked me how you know when to round up or round down. Honestly, I was shocked. I think I hid it well and went on to explain the rules of rounding.

Several other students have asked me similar questions about fundamentals in math such as the order of operations (remember PEMDAS from high school or middle school?). One student even asked how to take the square root of something. These building blocks should have been mastered before starting college, but there is evidence that high schoolers are not well prepared.

What is my responsibility as a college instructor? Am I meant to fill in these gaps? Do I press forward with the material that is meant to be covered? Because of course there are many other students that are ready for all of coursework and then some. At some point a bar must be set.

6 UNsurprising sources of stress

Recently, the Washington Post published an article by Erinn Bucklan on 6 Surprising Sources of Stress – and how to do away with them. I think the word “surprising” must have been added for the sake of alliteration in the title rather than its meaning. There is nothing surprising about this list except that it’s only six items. In the article itself the author use a scientific publication for each item to bolster her arguments – which is a good start. I decided to take a closer look at a couple of them to see if I could round it out a bit.

Top of the list was clutter…I’ll pause while you get over your surprise. Barring those with mental illness (as anyone who has watched an episode of Hoarders knows), no one like clutter. A friend of mind used to say all the time, “messy room, messy mind.” But the jury isn’t out on what this means for workplace productivity. While some evidence suggests clutter can reduce your ability to focus (McMains and Kastner 2011, J. Neurosci), others show that one person’s “clutter” is another’s meaningful and comforting display of self-expression…like your workplace binky. Allowing meaningful personal displays has been shown to increase job satisfaction (Wells 2000, J. Env Psych). I’ve struggled with finding the right balance on my desk. Too tidy and I feel like it’s someone else’s desk. Too messy and I want it to be someone else’s desk. Your office (whether it’s 2 feet of lab bench space or the corner office) is your place, your territory. You have to make it your own to feel comfortable to do good work. Heck, even when I go to the library I make myself at home, so to speak, by spreading out my stuff. I think this is a case of confusing the consequence with the cause. The clutter comes from all the stressful work you are doing. Clearing the clutter may help set the stage, but it won’t empty your inbox or get your papers submitted.

Next was working with high strung people. That can be stressful? Shocker. I didn’t look into the literature for this one much, but I do wonder if the “empathic stress” that comes from working alongside stressball coworkers is as important as the stress that comes from the inevitable conflicts that arise while working with said coworkers. The other thing this made me think of was schadenfreude. According to Avenue Q, this is defined as happiness at the misfortune of others. Like the study cited for this list item, it’s German. Maybe I am a terrible person, but sometimes when I was in the muck and mire of graduate school, seeing my fellow graduate students become unhinged with stress from classes, quals, or just life in general had a positive effect on me. It didn’t necessarily make me less stressed, but it didn’t make me more stressed. More often than not, it gave me perspective. I could say to myself – woah – is that what I am like? I need to take it down a notch and stop taking everything so seriously! Time for a massage (sidebar – I desperately miss the massage places in Buford Highway. Where else can you get a 1 hour foot massage for $20!)

Apparently, being “too composed” can be stressful. The author recommends sharing your feelings with of anxiety or stress with your colleagues or superiors can improve your mood. Should you really be sharing your feelings with your boss? According to research, it depends on the feelings. Several studies have shown that men who express anger at work are conferred a higher status than men who express sadness. It gets even worse for women though. The chairman of the Republican National Committee asserted that Senator Hillary Clinton was too angry to be elected president (Nagourney, 2006). Expressing anger can hurt women’s chances in the workplace – more-so than it does for men (Buscholl & Ulhmann 2008, Psch. Sci).

I wish I had time for more today, but Miles has made a tunnel and he insists that I play too.

The tough transition to stay-at-home mom

A lot has happened since I last blogged on thephdmommy. A lot of life happens in four months. We moved from Atlanta, Georgia to Narragansett, Rhode Island. Four months after the move, and there are still rooms (garage, basement, attic, closets) filled with miscellaneous STUFF. Perhaps by the time we are ready to move again I will have tackled those piles. Another major transition was from working full time in Atlanta to staying home full time to take care of housework, cooking, and my (now) 2 year old, Miles. It only took a few months of that to realize that I being a homemaker is not for me…at all. THE END. So I want to describe why it is I feel that way, and why I might go ahead and do it anyway now and again.

First, I’ve never owned a small business, but I would imagine it is similar the experience I had ‘running’ a household (*that should probably read ‘running a household into the ground’). You are basically the boss. This has its perks, though not as many as it should. You set your own hours (unless you have a toddler that wakes up at 5am…then he pretty much decides when your day starts). You set the agenda (i.e. what food will be in the house, what’s for dinner, will anyone have clean underwear, I had a brief 10 days obsession with coupons that I could not sustain due to utter boredom). You decide the rules (these are the things your family members ignore and roll their eyes at you for reminding them). Oh, and the final thing – you don’t get paid. Homemakers and small business owners tend to have this in common.

I’m am sure many go-getter organizational genius types are GREAT at running a household. I am much more of the spacey academic gets-lost-in-thought type. I found the endless organizing of our moving boxes, endless cleaning, endless laundry, endless cooking to be WAY too much reality for me. I started to miss abstraction.

When I worked full time I thought that stay-at-homers had all the time in the world. I didn’t. I don’t know where the time went though – which was/is SO frustrating. I would be on my feet all day – cleaning this, organizing that, preparing lunches or snacks or dinners, or after dinner snacks (hmm…are we eating too much?), and then…I don’t know. At the end of the day I never felt like I had accomplished anything. I knew the next day I would do it again.

For me, I found being a housewife, stay-at-home mom depressing and unsatisfying. Of course, I then felt tremendous guilt as well for not relishing in my “great opportunity” to stay home with my son. This was my big chance to be there for him, and I felt like I was blowing it. I would think to myself – am I a terrible mother because I find this exhausting and I want to do something else? Probably not. But I know that I am a much better mother now that I have some other things in my life keeping me balanced. The time I spend with him and my family is richer because I am not the emotional equivalent of Eeyore (you know, the sad donkey from Winnie the Pooh).

So what has changed? Gradually, the piles of stuff were organized to an acceptable level (and what I couldn’t organize, I hid). I got a gig teaching statistics at the University of RI starting in January, so I now interact with adults two days a week (yippeee!). Recently, Miles transitioned to staying at school until 3pm – which gives me enough time to make tangible progress on projects instead of treading water! Case in point – I am writing this blog post!

I’ve been grappling with a lot of emotional issues and social issues during my somewhat brief tenure as a homemaker. I wanted to value my work at home in the same way that society values my husband’s work at his job. But it wasn’t society that was devaluing my time at home (although society didn’t send me a check in the mail either). I did that to myself. Whether because of my implicit biases on being a housewife or my explicit bias against laundry, I just did not feel useful. It was particularly difficult to come off of the experience of getting a PhD – which in some circles garners some amount of respectability. For months after we arrived in Rhode Island, whenever I met someone I was introduced as ‘Miles’ mom.’ It’s a hat that I wear proudly, but it’s not my only one!

I think it’s fair to want balance in your life. If I were suddenly asked to work full time and never see my family, I would rebel against it. I need to find the right balance – and I am still working that out.

I owe it all to Earl (Grey)

morning tea

Morning tea, by a.m.medina

A debt of gratitude and a certain amount of the credit for much of what I accomplish in this life, I owe to a rather mythical nineteenth-century figure, a man who knew a phenomenal beverage when he sipped it, and who appreciated tea flavored with the oil of the bergamot orange so much that he put his name on it: Earl Grey. (At least that’s how the story goes…)

Without a doubt, my eventual success in grad school was not quite, but almost entirely dependent on the amount of Earl Grey tea I had in reserves. I even dedicated a line to this mystical potion in the acknowledgments of my dissertation. Though, I do have a couple of other strategies up my sleeve. Some days, the only thing that kept me trudging through the 1,400+ brilliant, but long pages of Clarissa or drafting whatever ingenious, if obscure analysis of The Red and the Black was the knowledge that I would soon get up, stretch my legs and brew myself another cup of steaming hot Earl Grey embellished with a mesmerizing, swirling cloud of luscious half and half.  I also use enough stevia to make it taste like a rich creamy dessert. In this way, I indulge myself in the heavenly flavors and GET THE **** BACK TO WORK.

My cup of tea makes everything seem doable, even if it sucks, is boring, hard, pointless or annoying. How much work can you get done in the time it takes to drink the steamy contents of your insulated mug? Does it really matter? Tea is so yummy, who’s counting?

Not too long ago, spurred on by an implicit dare from my dear friend Andrea, I reluctantly went on a 10-day stevia hiatus to try to reduce my dependence on the mind-bendingly sweet herb. I don’t know how I made it through those days, in all honesty. I am back on the white powder now, though admittedly in smaller doses, but for 10 days, everything was so bland and unsweet. Grudgingly, I suppose I learned to appreciate the tea itself, blah, blah, blah, but I couldn’t wait to put an end to that little experiment. Everyone has a vice, or several, right? One of mine is a hopeless addiction the magical combination of Earl Grey, cream and stevia. And I own it. It’s like my signature. My students will most likely remember me affectionately as “that weirdo who was always going on about how Earl Grey was her hero. I don’t even remember what subject she taught – just the tea obsession.”

I also adore Earl Green, Lady Grey, permutations including lavender and/or vanilla, and even plenty of other non-Earl varieties of tea. In the summer, after the first hot cuppa Earl, to start the day off right, I switch to iced Earl. It took several years for this innovation to occur to me, but it is every bit as delicious as the hot version. The only problem is that my toddler also loves it and so we compete for possession of the insulated cup of iced tea, me trying to balance sharing with my greedy little tea monster while not letting him have enough caffeine to keep him up past his bed time. Bed time must be protected at all costs. Sometimes I decaffeinate the tea in order to circumvent this predicament.

My tea habit has had other effects on my young son. He recently went through a period of intense literary interest in The Bear Snores On, by Karma Wilson and Jane Chapman. The Bear Snores On is the charming account in verse of a hibernating bear who snores away while his wild gang of somewhat inconsiderate friends throw a party in his lair, finally waking him from his slumber only to leave him wide awake when they fall asleep themselves, weary from their gluttony. Here is a ridiculously cute reading of the book by a small hoard of adorable children:

Curiously, Ulysse’s fascination with this woodland tale was focused primarily on the movements of one of the few objects present in the bear’s lair: a white enamel teacup with a blue rim, like you might see on a camping trip. On every page, for several weeks and dozens of readings, he unfailingly indicated the location of the teacup with a shrill and enthusiastic “tea! tea!”

My cup brimmeth over simultaneously with pride and bewilderment. Pride, because that cup is all over the place! Almost every animal drinks out of it at some point in the story and then tosses it carelessly back down on the floor somewhere new, and Ulysse always finds the tea! (I guess animals are not that concerned with keeping things tidy in the lair or preventing the cross-species spread of germs.) Bewilderment, because a teacup is practically the only thing he cared to notice about the book for several weeks. To him, it was the amazing adventures of the great teacup! I never got tired of reading it to him because I am so fond of how the rhymes are constructed – very imaginative and playful, and I do enjoy word play. I suppose his fixation is owing to what he experiences in daily life, namely, a mother he spends most of his time with, who is rarely to be seen without her mug of tea.

I can think of a few less flattering objects to symbolize me in the eyes of my offspring…the red fleece robe Fab calls my Mother Christmas robe comes to mind, the Smartwool mid-calf length slipper boots I wear all winter with the aforementioned robe, the over-present and ever captivating iPhone…

I average three (more like four) cups of tea per day. That’s kind of a lot, I think, and I’m sure it’s unhealthy in one way or another (many.) If I dared to google, I’d probably find a long list of articles telling me about the evils of too much tea or the cholesterol in half and half. I know my dental hygienist cringes behind her face mask when she sees the stains on my teeth. Even my borderline paranoia about my teeth can’t dissuade me from my tea habit.

There’s a scene in Rousseau’s Julie or the New Heloise where Julie, the virtuous and pure heroine, describes her daily life (or Saint-Preux describes her describing). She says that although she loves coffee and has the financial means to drink it everyday, she only indulges every three weeks or so. That way she appreciates it that much more on these rare and special occasions. Does that sound like crazy talk or what? I mean, seriously. If you’ve got it, drink it!

Last year I bought a 5-pound bag of organic, fair-trade Earl Grey tea, which I drank almost on my own. I now realize that the few remaining ounces have lost most of that pungent bergamot aroma that used to fill the kitchen when ever I got the double-bagged stash out to refill my tin.

The lesson? Better to order fresh tea more often than to get the volume discount?

No, that can’t be it. It must mean I should drink more tea…

What’s your vice and/or coping mechanism?

Stepping out of indecision: questions on the work/life dichotomy

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I may be somewhat scarce for the next wee bit, as we are settling into our new home in Rhode Island after our move from Atlanta. Fortunately, I have the pleasure of introducing our first guest blogger, Parisa Rinaldi. I’ve known Parisa for 5 years, since she was an undergraduate in my former lab. I think she and her husband go down in history as the most mature undergraduates ever! Needless to say she has gone on to do great work and is a brilliant geographic information systems analyst, a talented artist, and one of the most gentle souls I’ve ever known.

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On the virtues of cardboard

Ulysse crawling the grounds of his kingdom.

It was a warm day in late June. Ulysse and I were playing on the deck with the fans on full blast to keep the heat and the mosquitos at bay. A pile of cardboard boxes sat upon the table leering at me. I had been collecting these boxes for no particular reason other than that they could possibly be used for something, which is my default philosophy about most things, to Fab’s eternal dismay.

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