Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Tutoring for Fun and Profit

Well do I remember my first tutorial – so many thoughts running through my veins and emotions knocking about my head (or some combination thereof). Primarily, I remember thinking: “I hope that I don’t vomit” and “Why, oh why, did I choose to wear a transparent yellow dress?”.

Now, with a bit of luck your first experience tutoring wasn’t, or will not be, like this. But first tute nerves, that rowdy student, and mental blanks are inevitable parts of tutoring. Fear not, however, gentle reader – it is my firm belief that tutoring can not only make you money but can also be enjoyable (or less unenjoyable)!

So first, let’s cover some ground. If you are thinking of going in to academia you should tutor. Tutoring is a stepping stone to lecturing – and yes, odds are that if you go on in a university YOU WILL be lecturing. Tutoring looks great on your CV (especially if you tutor across a variety of subjects) and gives you invaluable experience for the further teaching that WILL come (until, of course, you score that amazing fellowship that allows you to turn your back on eager young minds).

We are gearing towards the end of January now, and as such, you will be starting to think about what classes to nominate for tutoring, and I hope, reflecting on how you can get through the tutoring semester with the least pain.

So, do a little mental exercise with me if you will. Take yourself back to a tutorial when you were a wee little undergraduate student. There you are – sitting in the back, chewing on the end of your indelible ink pen, and thinking of England. What did you wish for in that tute? If you were anything like me, you were thinking “Please, please, please, please stop boring me”, followed by “I’m hungry”. As a tutor you may not be able to do anything about the second point, but as for the first, well there are a few simple things that you can do to make tutorials less boring for your students, and yes, for yourself!

Students, like animals, will respond to your mood. In short, if you are afraid, they will sense it. Tutors and lecturers who get positive TEVALs uniformly report that their most common positive comment from students regards their enthusiasm. Students want desperately to feel excited about their field of study – and as tutors you are often the only teachers who talk to them personally, and infect them with the psychology bug. Whatever you may be tutoring, think about what you love about psychology, and try to communicate it to the students. Maybe you are tutoring something that is traditionally dry (like stats), or in a course that you are not familiar with. But my money says that you can still find things there that will peak the students’ interest. For me, while teaching stats, I consistently think about the amazing findings that stats unearth. ANOVAs may be boring, but when I, the intrepid explorer, employ an ANOVA to unearth an amazing finding about human existence, suddenly ANOVAs are just that little bit more sexy.

Aside from enthusiasm, I always like to inject a little bit of unrelated fun in to my tutes (and now lectures). Add a picture or two to your slides, begin your tutes with music, and tell an amusing anecdote that relates to the content of the class that you are tutoring. You may feel like a complete dork in doing so, but odds are your students are dorky too, and will appreciate your effort. Students (like romantic partners) love to feel that you are going that extra mile for them.

So, to conclude – I hope that my little pep blog has inspired you to be the tutor that I (and Tony Robbins) know that you can be. I will now end with two of my favourite and most memorable tutoring moments:

1. 1. Leading my PSYC1030 students in an example relaxation exercises, one of my students got a little too comfy and let out the most gargantuan fart. The class erupted in giggles that quite literally lasted for 10 minutes.


2. 2. Feeling overtired, I wrote my meanest comment on a failing PSYC3020 essay that I ever wrote – I said “you and I both know that you can do better than this”. I felt terrible about it for ages – until, that is, I received this student’s second assignment in which they had taken the comment to heart, worked incredibly hard, and scored a 7!

Good luck guys, and happy tutoring!

Love, Fi Barlow

studying Psychology@UQ and want to contribute to theuqpsycblog??
Send Will an email to find out how: will.harrison@uqconnect.edu.au

Friday, January 22, 2010

What a day...

Today I have been through all the emotions: highs, lows, hunger, and fatigue. After conducting a year’s worth of research, I have spent the past few weeks writing a draft of a report to submit to a scientific journal. My co-authors and I met today to discuss my draft, but instead, I dropped a bombshell. I’ve been deliberating for about a week about what I was about to say, and just before the words leapt from my mouth, my heart first nearly leapt from my chest. I said, “We need to trash everything. We need to start all over again.”

It felt like the pain of having to say that to my colleagues was reflected by the looks on their faces in response. In retrospect, maybe I should have started the conversation with the justification for that statement, rather than hitting them first and then explaining why. So, let’s wind back and I’ll explain my thought process.

I’m determined to get published in a high impact scientific journal as soon as possible, and the research I’ve been working on could be the one that hits the mark. When writing the draft of the report, I had to get into the mindset of “this really is the best research ever”, to ensure that I conveyed the importance of our findings in the writing. And it worked - I drafted a very simple, convincing story based on a lot of previous literature, and I managed to emphasise the importance of what we were adding with our new experiments.

Unfortunately, regardless of any self-ego-boosting, I couldn’t convince myself that the way in which we conducted the experiment was optimal. In fact, some of our more interesting results were found by accident - after the first, main experiment, we realised that we lacked certain controls. We quickly designed a follow-up control experiment and collected some data. When we were looking at the new data, we realised that the control experiment didn’t really control for anything, but we found a new effect that hasn’t been reported by anyone else! Crazy!

But what would have happened if we included the controls from the beginning? Would the results be the same, or would they be completely boring? And this is the hurdle I just couldn’t climb over. If we did get this research published in a high-impact journal, other research groups would try to replicate our results, and if THEY employed controls from the beginning and didn’t find an effect, then we would be in a much worse-off place than when we started.

After a quick estimation, re-testing will take approximately 80 hours in total plus all the data analysis, and, after all that, the amazing effect we found might disappear. But now I have convinced myself this is completely necessary: I don’t want to be known for having reported something that doesn’t exist, and if the effect survives the re-testing, we know for sure we are onto something amazing.

Are you studying Psychology@UQ and want to contribute to theuqpsycblog??
Send Will an email to find out how: will.harrison@uqconnect.edu.au

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Dusting for Prints

In my PhD I work with police officers on the fingerprints they find at crime-scenes. But trust me, neither my work nor theirs is anything like CSI Miami. But occasionally exciting things do happen.

Last month I went to Queensland Police Headquarters and learnt to lift and photograph fingerprints. The officer teaching us probably thought it was mundane but Morgan and I were stoked. We used magnetic powder to dust Coke bottles, CDs and weapons. It was amazing seeing my own own fingerprints appear from nothing right in front of my eyes.  It's not too difficult but will take lots of practice to get right.

Like most PhD students I spend hours sitting in front of a computer reading basic psychology research and designing experiments. This makes it easy to lose site of the big picture. But times like the above give me some much needed motivation from the realisation that we researchers are working to solve problems that will affect people's lives, hopefully for the better ; )

Matthew B. Thompson

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Friday, January 15, 2010

Hard Work Has to Happen in the Learners' Minds

This week we were very fortunate to have renowned Harvard physicist, Professor Eric Mazur present three seminars at UQ. One hardcore academic lecture on optical physics (an area for which Eric is a world leader), and two seminars on teaching and lecturing style (another area for which Eric is a world leader). I decided to sidestep the optical physics lecture and attend the two teaching and lecturing seminars because effective communication of science is a skill I’ve recently become interested in.

Eric noticed that, while his students were passing his introductory physics course, most were only memorizing facts and not grasping the key ideas of his lectures. To show his students lacked conceptual understanding, he gave two forms of the same test, which were about content his students should have had a solid grasp; one test in traditional form that could be passed with rote learned knowledge, and the other test in conceptual form that required deeper understanding. What he found was that 40% of his students did really well on the traditional test, but tragically poor on the conceptual test. Only 10% of his students performed well on the conceptual test but, critically, they also performed really well on the traditional test.

Modestly, rather than assuming his students were stupid (a hard case to make about Harvard pre-Med students), Eric began looking at how he could change his teaching style to make it easier for his students to better understand those basic concepts. His eureka moment serendipitously occurred at a hastily-organised study session the panicked students requested after their dismal performance on the test they should have aced. Whilst trying to force the concept into his students’ brains with varying diagrams, some students who did understand the ideas were able to explain it to those who didn’t in terms they could appreciate.

The important discovery was that students who understand the content are also more likely to appreciate the barriers to understanding, having recently overcome them themselves. As an expert who had understood these ideas for more than 20 years, Prof. Mazur couldn’t remember what made them difficult to learn. He said “The longer you teach, the less qualified you become to teach.”

From this, Eric developed his Peer Instruction method, which can be seen
here. The method has become hugely popular in the US, where it has been shown to improve learning over twice as much as traditional lecture styles. We are now starting to see similar changes in how UQ lecturers think about teaching.

You can watch Eric’s lecture “Confessions of a Converted Lecturer” here and look at his slides here

- Morgan

Are you studying Psychology@UQ and want to contribute to theuqpsycblog??
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Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Gamblin' man

It’s no secret to those who know me (and now you) that I enjoy gambling. Why so many of us engage in this insidious behaviour has been a focus of psychology research for many years. Personally I like to think that my tendency to gamble arises from an interest in and basic understanding of statistics. You only need to be vaguely familiar with the concept of gambling or perhaps have access to a dictionary to argue that I’m a fool. In my defence, I’m certainly not the type who strolls into a casino thinking I can win a fortune. Casinos and betting agencies employ statisticians far more competent than me to ensure that they win and I lose.

So when to apply the statistical knowledge endowed to me by psychology for my own personal gain? Fortunately people in general are far less adept at identifying true statistical patterns and reasoning out statistical problems than casinos. Last week I was in a bar with a friend who remarked “I’m not sure I know anyone who shares my birthday”, immediately I saw an opportunity to make some money. I bet them that there would be two individuals in the bar who shared a birthday. Was this a good bet?

My friend and I estimated there were at least 30 people in the bar, and being offered 2:1 odds that I was correct, I jumped at the bet. Did I make the correct decision? To answer this you need to know if the return on my bet is better than the odds of winning. That is, how many people are required in a group for there to be a greater than 50% chance that two of them share a birthday? If the number of people required exceeds 30 then I have made a bad bet.

The problem becomes easier to solve if you work out the probability that no one will share a birthday. In a group of two people the chance of no match is 364/365. Add a third person and the chance they match the first is 1/365 and the chance they match the second is also 1/365. Therefore the chance the third person does not match either the first or second is 363/365. To calculate the odds we multiply the fractions, 364/365 x 363/365, which gives a 99% chance that no one in a group of three shares a birthday or a 1% chance that they do.

As each person is added, the odds do not increase linearly, but rather they curve upwards rapidly. If you continue to apply this logic for a group of 4, 5, 6 and so on, up until a group of 23 people, you find that there is a 51% chance two people will share a birthday. It turns out in a group of 30 people there is a 70.1% chance that two people with share a birthday.

Without out the aid of formalised statistical methods it’s difficult in this case to arrive at the correct decision. This is why I enjoy statistics, they can often show the seemingly improbable to be quite the opposite. However, I didn’t actually compute these odds at the bar; I knew of them prior to the bet and thus was essentially hustling my good friend...

Are you studying Psychology@UQ and want to contribute to theuqpsycblog??
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Tuesday, January 5, 2010

2009 Wrap Up!

Last year we launched the UQ Psyc Blog, and before we get too far into 2010, I thought I’d write a quick summary of what’s happened on the blog so far. We started the blog with the goal to share what it’s like to be studying psychology at the beautiful University of Queensland, and hopefully to share some of the cool things we’ve been learning along the way. In this post, I’ll share some of the blog data we’ve recorded so far!

In the 6 weeks Matt, Morgan, James, Stef and I have been blogging, we’ve had 204 different people visit the blog over 600 times! While most of our visits have been from Brisbane, people have read our blog in Canada, the US, England, the Netherlands, and even New Caledonia.

James’ post Genuine Magic or Supernatural Powers had the most views (60 people), while my post Things About the Brain You Don’t Really Need to Know, had the second most, with 47. (However, people stayed on my story for 30 seconds longer than on James’ – not that I'm competitive or anything.)

Over 50% of people who visit the UQ Psyc Blog arrived at the site via Facebook, most likely after having clicked on one of our self-promotions that we each share on Facebook every time a new blog post is written. On average, each visitor stays for about one minute and thirty seconds, which should be just long enough to read a single blog post.

As for 2010, we plan to have many more contributors, and we’ll continue to strive to post stories that will be of interest to everyone, regardless of their backgrounds or interests. As always, feedback is welcome, and if you have any suggestions, comments, or want to contribute to the blog, please write to me at the email address below.

Are you studying Psychology@UQ and want to contribute to theuqpsycblog??
Send Will an email to find out how: will.harrison@uqconnect.edu.au