Tag Archives: Single-case studies

Encouraging students to recognise their own skills

30 Apr

It can often be difficult to get students to recognise that they have acquired new cognitive skills, and that it is a skills that others might not possess. For the last couple of years I’ve been using an example aimed at demonstrating to students how unusual their rational thinking skills are.

In 2009 the world’s media picked up the story of a Belgium man , Rom Houben who had been diagnosed in 2006 as suffering from Lock-in syndrome, when for the previous 23 years he had been treated by doctors as if he was in a persistent vegetative state. Put simply, he had been conscious for 23 years, but un able to communicate with those around him. This story ran in the media around the world, including the USA, Australia, the UK and Germany.

What made the story particularly compelling was the quotations from Mr Houben, explaining how he felt during the 23 years of his isolation. The following is a selection of the quotes reported:

“Powerlessness. Utter powerlessness. At first I was angry, then I learned to live with it,”

 He told doctors he had “travelled with my thoughts into the past, or into another existence altogether”. Sometimes, he said, “I was only my consciousness and nothing else”.

“I’ll never forget the day that they discovered me,” he said. “It was my second birth”.

 “Just imagine,” he wrote. “You hear, see, feel and think but no one can see that. You undergo things. You cannot participate in life.”

At this point, having talked students through the story I stop and ask them what they think about it. The usual reactions are ‘horror’ at the impact on Rom Houben, and ‘anger’ at the medical profession for allowing it to happen.

At this point I show the students a video of the BBC NEWS report of this story, and ask them if they notice anything unusual. This is usually enough of a prompt that the students will ask about Mr Houben means of communication, in particular that he is using one finger to type on a keyboard, but that finger appears to be being directed by a health care work. This process is known as ‘facilitated communication’. I usually then give the students a break and invite them to see what they can find out about ‘facilitated communications’. 

Given that most students are in possession of at least one internet-enabled device, it doesn’t take long for them to begin questioning the validity of the quotations from Rom Houben. I then conclude by showing them an article from the BBC website some months after the first report, in which they retract the original story and say that sadly Mr Houben could not communicate after all, and that the quotations produced where coming from the health care worker involved.

All of this leads to two discussions with students, the impact on Mr Houben’s family of having their hopes raised and the dashed, and the fact that the students were able to recognise an issue that the BBC (and all the other media outlets) seem to have missed. Hopefully this excercise encourages students to realise that they are gaining valuable skills in learning to think rationally, and that these skills aren’t very widespread

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Newspaper headlines as an introduction

18 Apr

Getting students to realise that they can think rationally about material that is presented to them can be difficult when the material is from the discipline they are studying. Level 1 students seem to arrive at university pre-programmed to ‘record’ subject-specific information rather than ever ‘question’ it.

I have taken to using newspaper stories as a means of getting students to realise that they are able to question the material that is presented to them. During my first Level 1 lecture of the year I show students a range of newpaper stories and ask them to tell me what might be wrong with them. WIth very little prompting from me students are able to identify problems, even though they might not be able to attach an appropriate ‘label’ to the issue. I’ve set out a few of the examples I use below, but I always encourage students to email me new examples they come across.

I usually start with an obviously daft example to get them in the mood, i.e. this great story from the Daily Mail suggeasting that wine can turn you into a werewolf ! I don’t (usually) have to tell students that werewolves don’t exist, and with little prompting they come up with the idea of single-case studies themselves.

In the summer of 2009 the Daily Express produced a run of stories that provided good material. The front page story on the 5th July was Coffee cures Alzheimers’, and three days later on 8th July the front page story was about a pill that could add 20 years your life-span. A month later, on the 10th August the front page reported eye-drops that will cure blindness

These three stories allow me to start to introduce students to a range of ideas. The first story about coffee and alzheimers is solely work conducted on mice, the second story is frankly just a little odd. It usually provkes a discussion about ‘wouldn’t we have heard about this somewhere else’ and ‘wouldn’t the big cosmetics companies be involved in this’. The final story moves on from just mice as ‘participants’ to rats and then three human participants. The students can usually derive for themselves that the jump from three human participants to ‘WILL cure blindness’ is rather a large one.

At this point at least one student will usually suggest that these stories all seem a bit trivial and not much to do with psychology. However if you ask them to put themselves in the shoes of someone who’s partner is blind, or who’s parents (maybe grandparents) have Alzheimer’s and think about what their reaction would be, they rapidly see the point. This can also lead to a discussion of how enquires about such unproven treatments can tie up NHS GPs time, and allows me to introduce the students to the NHS’s web site addressing such stories.

The ‘Cuddle’ Drug

17 Apr

The Daily Mail recently ran an article suggesting that Oxytocin might be a better drug than Viagra for improving sexual satisfaction.

Andy Field often says that sex is one of the great topics for keeping students attention, and so this seemed like a good vehicle for talking about the perils of inferring too much from single case studies, and the general need for replication.

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