Tag Archives: Teaching

Reflections on the brilliance of Jim Flynn and my own teaching this week.

27 Sep


I’ve just finished watching an excellent new TED talk (above) from one of my intellectual heroes, Jim Flynn, and it’s made me reflect both on the brilliance of Flynn and on my our teaching experience this week. (For anyone interested in rational thinking Flynn’s work show be required reading).

In the video Flynn presents his work on the phenomena of IQ increases across the 20th century and it’s consequences in his usual thorough and engaging style, and without the aid of any of the technology that we ‘modern’ teachers have come to rely on. This made me really think about my own teaching experience this week. I taught the first session of my rational thinking course this week and had one of those disaster-ridden days when the IT provision decided not to work. Whilst I hope it didn’t effect the students experience too much I found the whole session fairly stressful. On reflection , it wasn’t the teaching that stressed me, but rather the absence of my technological ‘crutch’.

It’s intriguing that ‘chalk and talk’ has become something of an insult in modern higher education pedagogy and yet Jim Flynn demonstrates that you don’t even need the ‘chalk’ for perfect teaching. I’m not sure that any of this will completely ween me off my technology addiction, but at the very least then next time a teaching a session that involves just me talking and the students listening I wont be ashamed of it.

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More on teaching controversial topics

20 Jun

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A few weeks ago I wrote about teaching ‘the psychology of religion’, and why universities might avoid it in undergraduate programmes. A newspaper story in the British press this weekend has made me think about another ‘controversial topic’, domestic violence.

Newspapers over the weekend were full of what appeared to be an incident of domestic violence between he leading British modern art collector Charles Saatchi and his celebrity cook wife Nigella Lawson. Fortunately my personal experience of domestic violence is second-hand. Many years ago I worked closely with a woman who was a victim, and to my shame it took me nearly three months to realise it. However, even this passing experience made me contemplate my initial reaction to the pictures. I should confess that Nigella Lawson is close to the heart of the British middle classes (I bake her Christmas Cake recipe every year !!!!), but I was still surprised at how shocking I found the pictures. My initial reaction was along the lines of ‘why would she stay with him ?’. This shock was compounded by reading that Charles Saatchi has referred to the incident today as ‘a playful tiff’. I’ll leave you to make a judgement for yourselves on whether the photos look ‘playful’. So, the person who spends his life banging on about ‘rational thinking’ had an entirely intuitive response to a major news story !

All of this is a roundabout way of saying that domestic violence seems like a topic that ought to be addressed by every psychology degree programme, and indeed I’d like to think that all graduates ought to have some exposure to the topic. We cover domestic violence in an optional Forensic Psychology module, but I’m going to try to convince the same lecturer to cover it with our 1st year undergraduates.

I know that some of my colleagues worry about teaching topics that might raise issues for some students, but the more I think about it the more I’m convinced these topics engage new students, and are thus exactly what is needed for last 1st year classes

(A brief web search produces this interesting piece on reasons victims stay with their abusers)

Improving university teaching (Is it possible ????)

29 May

A very quick post, as I’m in the middle of the biannual marking-hell. I’ve had a couple of discussions with colleagues over the last few weeks about improving the quality of university teaching, and having just read a great article on the subject I thought I’d record my views here.

1) Most university teachers work on the basis of mirroring the style of teaching that they feel benefited them most when they were an undergraduate. The logic of this approach is clearly ridiculous. By definition, academics are likely to have been at the very top of the distribution of abilities in their undergraduate classes, and thus by modelling teaching on what worked for them it is likely that we are excluding the 95% of undergraduates who don’t end up in academia.

2) Students recognise good teaching more than we think they do. Ever year I ask students who have been at university for around seven weeks to tell me about examples of ‘bad presenting’ that they have witnessed. Every year, in addition to producing some embarrassing revelations, this exercise produces a list of what makes for a good presentation that would not be out-of-place in most ‘How To….’ books. In the past I have had quite senior colleagues tell be that poor teaching actually benefits students because it forces them to become independent learning. Hopeful with £9000 per year fees in the UK now, this defence has had its day

More thoughts on this when I have got the exam scripts off my desk

What makes for a good university teacher ???

13 May

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A few weeks ago I received an award from the students of my institution for ‘Most Innovative Lecturer’, and since then I’ve been thinking about what makes a good university lecture, and whether anyone can do it. I’ve always been of the opinion that what I do isn’t ‘rocket science’, and that with a small amount of instruction most university teachers could deliver engaging lectures.

All these thoughts were bought into focus yesterday as I watched a brilliant BBC documentary celebrating the anniversary of the birth of Richard Feynman. I suspect that if you’re reading this Feynman will need no introduction, so I limit myself to saying that he was unusually a genius both in his chosen discipline of physics and in teaching. Watching clips from the Feynman lectures again made me realise that ‘innovation’ isn’t what good teaching is about at all, after all Feynman gets by with chalk and a blackboard. The whole trust of the documentary was that what made Feynman a great teacher came from within him, it was simply the desire to pass on the spirit of inquiry to others and it seemed like this personality trait had been fostered by his own father.

What’s intriguing here is that if you look at how universities go about trying to improve the quality of teaching it’s all about technique. It’s course on ‘How to use PowerPoint’ or ‘How to work with Moodle’. In reality, I now wonder whether much of this is worthwhile. If someone isn’t motivated to teach no amount of instruction is going to make them an engaging lecturer. British institutions have a particular issue, in that staff receive ‘tenure’ very early in their career and subsequent career progression is focused much more of research than teaching, thus UK university teachers have little external incentive to produce engaging lectures. Of course, for those with an internal motivation to be engaging (like Feynman had) none of this matters.

So, where does all that leave my initial thought about engaging lectures not being ‘rocket science’. Well, I still think that most university lecturers could deliver engaging lectures. However, the question now seems like ‘do they want to’ ? I end up with a question for university managers, how do we provide external motivation for those who don’t have Feynman’s internal desire to explain ???

As ever, please leave comments below, I’d love to know what people think

Why do we shy away from teaching the psycholgy of religion to undergraduates ???

30 Apr

I’ve been thinking this week about why we don’t teach the psychology of religion to undergraduate students. A few things conspired to send me in this direction, a colleague of mine is looking at ‘the teaching of controversial topics’, I’m heading for the end of the academic year and so I’m thinking about new material for next year and finally, I read an excellent article in ‘The New Yorker’ by Gary Marcus on Psychology and Religion. It’s difficult to think of a universal human behavior that we don’t address an undergraduate level, which makes religious belief even more conspicuous by its absence from our curriculum. I’d did think about whether my own institution was odd in some way, but a quick Google search threw up only one undergraduate module at a UK HEI, what sound like a really interesting course at Newcastle.

So, if undergraduate psychology courses are avoiding ‘religion’, why might that be the case. Well , I think you can discount the idea that it isn’t very interesting to psychologists, after all it’s difficult to think of a more universal and persistent human behavioural trait. This seems to leave ‘fear of causing offence’ as the most likely explanation for its absence. Given that over the last year I’ve discussed evolution, evil, conspiracy theories and terrorism in lectures without causing obvious offence it makes me wonder why religion should be such a taboo topic.

Having given it a lot of thought, in my own case I think the avoidance of teaching ‘the psychology of religion’ is a product of an interesting piece of cognitive dissonance. I spend a lot of time encouraging students to think about everyday issues in a ‘scientific’ manner (i.e. weighing all of the evidence, reading original sources etc etc) and yet some of the very scientists I encourage them to emulate seem to bypass thinking ‘scientifically’ when it comes to religion. The most obvious culprit here is Richard Dawkins. Dawkins’ enormous contribution to science is obvious, and yet when it comes to religion he seems  increasingly to exhibit the same ‘fundamentalist’ tendencies that  he rails against in others. Most recently he has said that he has never read the Quran, but this is OK as he didn’t need to read Mein Kampf to understand that the Nazis were evil. Avoiding for a moment the lovely example of Godwin’s Law, this line of argument might work in a ‘pub’ discussion and indeed might have logical validity, but in a scientific discourse surely ‘I haven’t read the primary source material but I know your wrong anyway’ wouldn’t stand up.

SO I’m left with the ironic situation that the reason I don’t teach about ‘the psychology of religion’ is that the one of the prime examples of exactly the sort of thinking I want students to develop (Dawkins) doesn’t use that sort of thinking when it comes to religion. I’d love to know what other people think :

Is an avoidance of teaching ‘the psychology of religion’ widespread ?

Could you teach ‘the psychology of religion’ without causing offence ?

Am I right that it could be Dawkins’ ‘fundamentalism’ that is putting me off ?

Leave a comment below, I’d be really interested to hear what people think

Laptops in Lectures – Help or hinderance ?

18 Apr

I’ve just come across a paper that seems like a great way to stimulate class discussion, and to encourage students to think rationally. Get a group of academics together and you will find wildly differing opinion on student use of electronic devices during lectures. Some will see this as ‘the future’ and not worth trying to hold back the tide, whereas others will see is as an excuse for students to play ‘Angry Birds’ or update their Facebook status, and thus something to be banned from lecture rooms. Students will undoubtedly have equally vehement views on the use of laptops/iPads in lectures. This alone ought to be a good prompt for debate, but it becomes more interesting when you throw in some research.

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This is a recently published piece of research suggests that use of laptops in lectures is actively detrimental to learning. It would be interesting to give this to students and see what they make of it. Two things immediately jumped out at me when I read the paper this morning. Firstly it was done with a very small class size (I wonder how easily it would replicate with 300 students ?) and secondly the participants had no incentive to be learning the material presented in the study (so can we really extrapolate to ‘real world learning situations ?).

This paper ought to appeal to students irrespective of the discipline they are studying, and it would be interesting to see what they make of it. I have to admit to secretly worrying what my less technically literate colleagues will make of it 😉

Reflections on teaching the ‘Psychology of conspiracy theories’

8 Mar

Just finished another really interesting teaching session looking at the psychology of the belief in conspiracy theories. A number of things came out of it that seem worth of discussion here :

1) The prevalence of belief in at least one conspiracy theory

Initially it was quite surprising how widespread belief in at least one conspiracy theory was amongst my students, and how many of them seemed to have quite detailed knowledge of some of the ‘evidence’ supporting conspiracy theories. However, when you look at recent research things become a bit more explicable. Swami & Coles’ (2010) paper in The Psychologist is a nice summary of the research, and talks about recent studies finding relationships between ‘Big-Five’ personality traits and conspiracy theory belief particularly ‘Openness to experience’. You’d hope that students were high on ‘openness to experience’, and thus maybe their overt interest in conspiracy theories isn’t as inexplicable as it initially looked.

2) Cognitive Dissonance Example

I’ve previously written about US Republican politicians getting themselves in all sorts of trouble when talking about abortion as being a great example of cognitive dissonance at work. I had the chance in this lecture to show students the examples I’d collected. Both videos seemed to work well to illustrate what a very powerful effect cognitive dissonance can be.

3) Historical Background knowledge

Academics make a lot of implicit assumptions about the background general knowledge that their students have, and on more than one occasion this year I’ve questioned quite how reliable these assumptions are. In yesterday’s lecture I showed the ‘Zapruder’ film of Kennedy’s assassination, and was surprised by the number of audible gasps of shock that it elicited. I think it’s pretty safe to say that most academics would assume that this film is so ‘well worn’ that everybody would have seen it many times, and yet yesterday’s evidence would suggest that this is not necessarily the case. It does make me wonder about how many more assumptions we make might be flawed. Sometimes I think we forget that events like the fall of the Berlin Wall occurred 23 years ago i.e. long before the birth of undergraduate students !

4) ‘Conspiracy Theories’ are a great way to engage students in rational thinking

I written before about the habit of some ‘scientists’ of cherry-picking evidence to suit their own pet theory, and conspiracy theories seem like a great way of getting students to see that you have to consider ALL of the available evidence.

All in all it seemed like a really successful teaching session to me, although final ‘proof’ will have to wait until next week’s mid-module feedback and May’s exams !

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