Category Archives: self-development

Think freakier

The authors of Freakonomics have now written Think like a Freak. Their stimulating perspective is an invitation to think in even more original ways.

Steven Levitt is an economist at the University of Chicago who became famous for his book Freakonomics, in which he applies logic and mathematics in original ways to both longstanding and novel problems and issues. The book’s co-author, Stephen Dubner, is a writer who can turn dry statistics into page-turning adventures.

Freakonomics

One controversial topic covered in Freakonomics was the cause of the decline in the US crime rate in the 1990s. The authors presented the idea that the legalisation of abortion nationwide in the early 1970s led to a significant decline in the birth of children in disadvantaged circumstances, and as a result the crime rate went down 15 to 20 years later. They cite statistics and references to back up this hypothesis. Freakonomics looked also at why teachers cheat, the economics of drug dealing, and fashions in naming children, among other topics. Levitt and Dubner later extended their popular treatments of unorthodox perspectives in SuperFreakonomics. As well, the authors run a blog and a radio programme.

Steven Levitt
Steven Levitt

Because of the huge sales of Freakonomics, it is not surprising that Levitt’s research findings have come under considerable scrutiny, with some data and findings contested. As well, it is debateable whether the topics covered should be considered part of the economics discipline.

Most recently, Levitt and Dubner have written Think like a Freak, aiming to explain their approach by using engaging examples to motivate general comments. This book is my focus here. Learning to think in unorthodox ways can be worthwhile even if the results are sometimes questionable.

Think-like-a-freak

In Think like a Freak, the authors tell, for example, of Takeru Kobayashi (nicknamed Kobi), a slightly built Japanese man who became involved in competitions to eat as much as possible in a short time. After some initial successes, he entered the biggest event in the field, Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest in Coney Island, New York. The annual contest involved eating as many hotdogs as possible in 12 minutes. Other competitors followed the then conventional wisdom, which was to train by eating as much as possible. Kobi, though, decided to train in a different way: he experimented with different approaches, for example eating the sausage separately from the bun and soaking the bun in water so it could be swallowed more quickly. Going into the competition, Kobi astounded the field by winning and by smashing the record, eating nearly twice as many hotdogs as the previous highest number.

takeru_kobayashi_2006_07_04
Takeru Kobayashi, 2006

From this example, Levitt and Dubner highlight a few key points. Kobi didn’t just accept the conventional approaches: he tried out new approaches, tested them and practised them. Another thing was that Kobi focused on how he ate, namely applying the methods he had developed as well as possible rather than comparing his performance to previous efforts by others. In this way he was not held back by the expectation that records can only broken incrementally. Finally, Kobi developed a mental technique, including his focus on process, that allowed him to enjoy the process of gorging himself, despite the pain and discomfort involved.

Levitt and Dubner pursue this path of presenting simple ideas that, when applied in unorthodox ways or to unexpected topics, lead to potential breakthroughs. One chapter is “Think like a child.” Of course they don’t mean always think like a child, but in some circumstances children can cut through conventional ways of seeing the world, conventional for adults that is. A magician friend of the authors told them he was hardly ever caught out by an adult, but quite a few children could see through his tricks, for a variety of reasons: they were less focused and hence harder to distract, they were more attentive to details adults wouldn’t notice, and they were shorter and could see things that adults couldn’t because the tricks were designed to be seen from above.

Child-think

Freakier

Levitt and Dubner describe meeting with David Cameron just before he became Britain’s Prime Minister. They pointed out some ways to make the National Health Service more efficient by introducing charges for service, a perspective that comes naturally to an economist. But Cameron switched off: the NHS was not to be tinkered with.

Levitt and Dubner here subscribe to conventional rationality of planning by elites, those who supposedly know best. But there is more to decision-making than rationality. Part of the picture is involving citizens in the decisions that affect them, thereby enabling far better uptake of policies. Cameron instinctively knew he could not implement major NHS reforms, even if he wanted to, without winning over the population. (Incidentally, the US fee-based health system is hardly a model of rationality.)

Levitt and Dubner advocate going to the roots of problems, not just treating symptoms. They tell the now-familiar story of how Barry Marshall and Robin Warren discovered that ulcers are caused not by stress and spicy foods but by a bacterium that can be eliminated by antibiotics. They had to fight the medical establishment for recognition. Marshall and Warren, now Nobel Prize winners, had addressed the cause of ulcers. So far, so good.

Then there is crime, a favourite topic for Levitt and Dubner. In reprising their studies of abortion and crime, they point out that some measures, such as more capital punishment and tighter gun laws, do not reduce the crime rate. They instead prefer to focus on something deeper, children’s upbringing.

There are other ways to look at crime not examined by Levitt and Dubner. One is to point out that nearly all crime appearing in US police statistics is by people at the bottom of the social pyramid. Those who are poor, with less education and few opportunities, are far more likely to commit the sorts of crime that result in arrests and imprisonment. However, available evidence suggests that the biggest criminals are at the top of the social hierarchy, including white-collar crimes by individuals and major crimes by corporations and governments. Pharmaceutical companies, for example, have been fined billions of dollars for crimes leading to the deaths of tens of thousands of people, but few executives are ever called to account. So crime statistics should be treated as an artefact of a class-based approach to criminality: most of the big boys (and girls) can cheat and steal with impunity, while those further down the hierarchy are subject to far greater scrutiny and punishment.

The sociologist Randall Collins wrote an insightful chapter presenting an unfamiliar perspective on crime. He argues that all societies need to define some activities as deviant, and those considered most deviant are criminalised. So crime rates reflect deeper processes of social stratification and exclusion. In this case, thinking like a freak may not get you as far as reading some sociology.

Collins-Sociological Insight

Levitt and Dubner write about a study by Jörg Spenkuch of German Protestants and Catholics that found people living in Protestant areas earned a little more money on average than people living in Catholic areas, although their hourly wages were the same. One factor was that those in Protestant areas worked longer hours. Is the lesson from this, as suggested by Levitt and Dubner, that kids should be encouraged to be more hard-working like Protestants? An alternative lesson is that by working fewer hours, Catholics are increasing their well-being: it is well documented that higher incomes have a minimal impact on happiness compared to spending time with family and friends.

Persuading people

Levitt and Dubner include a useful chapter on how to persuade people who don’t want to be persuaded. They make some useful recommendations. One is to give credit to the other side’s strong points, because an opponent is unlikely to engage in debate with an obviously biased perspective. In studying numerous scientific controversies over the years, my observation is that it is rare for a partisan to give a fair summary of the opponent’s argument. In the Australian vaccination debate, each side presents its strong points and criticises the other side’s weak points. There’s very little persuasion going on.

Another recommendation made by Levitt and Dubner is not to insult the opponents, for example by calling them ignorant, foolish, dupes or crazies. Going by past behaviour, many vaccination partisans won’t be following this advice.

The authors use climate change as an example, pondering the difference between the scientific consensus about the reality of human-induced global warming and the considerable scepticism among the US public. However, they omit one important factor: in the US, there is a powerful fossil-fuel lobby that does everything it can to create doubt about climate science. In many other countries, climate sceptics have low public credibility. So perhaps Levitt and Dubner could make another recommendation: have on your side a powerful and wealthy group that intervenes in the debate.

Stephen Dubner
Stephen Dubner

Levitt and Dubner use a different example to good effect: driverless cars. These are getting better technologically, but to argue for them, they say it is wise to acknowledge possible dangers, for example that a driverless car could plough into a preschool, killing lots of kids. They provide the figures to show that dramatic events, reported in the media, give an unrealistic picture of technological dangers. Cars (with drivers) are the big killer of kids in rich countries, and if driverless cars reduced the road toll even a little, many more kids would be alive and uninjured.

However, there is another way to look at the issue of driverless cars, which is to ask by so many billions of dollars are being devoted to a slight improvement in a transport system that is inherently unsafe, as well as being damaging to the environment. For decades, critics of the car have been advocating for a range of alternatives: walking, cycling, public transport, and design of cities to make walking and cycling safe and attractive. Recognising such alternatives does not require thinking like a freak, but rather being open to possibilities that clash with the powerful road and auto lobby in the US. Thinking about transport like a freak in Copenhagen, where commuting by bicycle is commonplace, would be different than thinking like a freak in Los Angeles.

The final chapter of Think like a Freak is titled “The upside of quitting.” They say that quitting has an unfortunately bad reputation, often being associated with failure. They note that quitting a project, a job or a relationship can have many advantages, but quitting often is not contemplated because of sunk costs and lack of consideration of opportunity costs.

yup-i-freakin-quit

They describe tech companies that try out lots of ideas with the aim of testing them promptly and, if they don’t measure up, quitting without investing a lot of money. It makes sense to spend some time and effort, but no more than necessary, determining whether something is a bad idea.

Levitt and Dubner even set up an online operation that offers to flip a coin for people to make decisions, for example whether to leave a job or a relationship. This has attracted tens of thousands of participants who are asked to report on the outcome of the process. Despite some intriguing outcomes, I have reservations. There is research showing that people systematically misjudge what made them happy in the past and what will make them happy in the future. Indeed, there are several illusions involved in people’s explanations for their current state of mind. So while I sympathise with Levitt and Dubner’s encouragement to see the positives involved in quitting and failure, actually measuring the consequences of choices can be challenging.

Think like a Freak is engaging and informative. It is written as a set of stories, and the authors are well aware that story-telling is a powerful technique for getting a message across. The book concludes with some modest comments.

All we’ve done is encourage you to think a bit differently, a bit harder, a bit more freely. Now it’s your turn! We of course hope you enjoyed this book. But our greatest satisfaction would be if it helps you, even in some small measure, to go out and right some wrong, to ease some burden, or even — if this is your thing — to eat more hot dogs. (p. 211)

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au

Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner, Think like a freak: how to think smarter about almost everything (Penguin, 2015)

Marking blind

When marking an essay, it can be better not to know who wrote it.

As a university teacher, one of my regular tasks is to mark assignments, and I want to be as fair as possible to the students. One method I use is to “mark blind,” namely without knowing the name of the student whose work I’m marking.

anonymous student

Most teachers try to be fair and say that knowing the identity of the student makes no difference to them. However, there’s plenty of research about in-group favouritism, where the in-group can be based on family, religion, age, ethnicity or viewpoints, among other possibilities. Teachers are likely to be affected by all sorts of unconscious bias, including expectations about how good a student is.

Students create impressions on their teachers. Some students are more articulate, engaging, humorous or astute in their comments. Then there are the effects of appearance, dress and demeanour. Maybe a student really tries hard, creating a favourable impression of diligence.

Wine tasters evaluate wines without knowing their origin. Vintages can vary considerably from year to year, so it’s better not to be influenced by previous perceptions. Similarly, the quality of a student’s work can vary from class to class and from assignment to assignment, and teacher expectations can affect evaluations.

Even a student’s name can influence perceptions. Male or female? Ethnic? Pretentious-sounding or ordinary? Stereotypes abound and can influence attitudes. If you know a student well, in-group favouritism is a risk; if not, then stereotype bias is a risk. When marking and knowing the student’s name, it’s therefore likely that some mental image of the student will be present, and it’s likely this has an effect on the marker.

A-plus

My way of limiting this bias is to mark assignments without knowing the student’s name. I ask students to list only their student number on the assignment, not their name.

f-minus

I find this changes my attitude while marking. My focus becomes to comment on the work done, with less concern about the relationship of the comments or mark to the student. I don’t worry about a student who comes across well in class doing poorly or about a seemingly lackadaisical student doing well. After finishing marking all the assignments, I go online to recombine student numbers with names, and send my comments to the students.

One good aspect of marking blind is that I can say honestly to students that my mark is on their work, not on them personally. They can be more confident that if they receive a good mark, it is a reflection of good work and likewise that if they receive a poor mark, it is not about who they are.

If only more essays

Practicalities

In recent years, I have had my students submit their work electronically, either directly to me by email or through an online forum. Usually this means I can see their names as well as their student numbers – but only temporarily. I put the submitted files into a folder, with each file having as its name the student’s number. By the time there are a few files in the folder, I have forgotten which one is which.

Sometimes, when marking an assignment, I recognise the student. Perhaps it’s because we had talked about it beforehand, or the student gives some revealing personal detail, for example being from Finland when there’s only one Finnish student in the class. More commonly, though, it’s because the student includes their name somewhere in the assignment.

Whatever the reason, I put that assignment at the bottom of the pile and turn to another one. Usually after marking ten or so assignments, I’m on automatic pilot in terms of applying the assessment criteria, and knowing the student’s name is less important.

Sometimes, when marking an assignment, I think I know which student did it, but if I’m not absolutely sure, it helps me switch focus from who did the work to the quality of the work. I want the mark to be appropriate whoever did the work.

If I want to give feedback specifically for a student, supplementary to my comments on the student’s assignment, I can add this after reconnecting student names to assignments.

grading-2a

The pitfalls of familiarity

There’s an inherent tension in any system in which teachers mark their own students’ work. Teachers in such circumstances have two conflicting roles. One is to provide guidance, support and feedback to assist learning. The other is to provide an assessment of the student’s performance.

The trouble is that the assessment role can inhibit the support role. If students are worried about what mark they are going to get, they may be cautious about exposing their ignorance, thereby reducing opportunities for useful feedback. They may also try to curry favour with their teacher.

The way around this is to separate teaching and assessment roles. This occurs with research students in the Australian and British systems. The supervisor supports the student to produce a satisfactory thesis. Then the thesis is assessed by independent examiners. At the University of Wollongong, there are strict rules to ensure independence. At the PhD level, for example, examiners cannot have worked at the university in the past five years, nor have collaborated with any supervisor or the student, among other restrictions.

In years gone by, supervisors were examiners for their own students’ honours theses, but this was open to abuse, with some supervisors becoming advocates for their favoured students while some unfortunate students, who had clashed with their supervisors, were treated harshly. The rules were changed to prevent supervisors being examiners, though in some parts of the university there was resistance, with supervisors insisting that only they had the expertise to judge their students’ work.

One year, I made an arrangement with a colleague at another university: he would mark the final assignments from my undergraduate class and I’d do the same for him. This enabled me to be a support person for my students, giving them feedback on drafts before marking by my colleague. I thought the system was worthwhile, but it seems that few academics are receptive to this sort of exchange. My colleague never supplied me with the essays from his class. My guess is that he did not feel comfortable relinquishing his control over marks for his students. If, instead of needing to mark the work of 90 students in a semester, the figure was closer to 40, I might try again to arrange an exchange with a colleague or with one of the other tutors in my classes.

grading-2b

Other biases

Blind marking can limit biases due to knowing who did the work, but it doesn’t eliminate other sorts of biases. One of the most common is ideological: if students say things you agree with, they are more likely to create a favourable impression than if they challenge your beliefs. If you’re teaching on topics where there are strong differences in opinion, for example addressing abortion or biotechnology, being fair can be difficult.

There’s another problem too. Students are very sensitive to the views of their teachers, and many students will say what they think their teachers want to hear. This is probably more damaging and insidious than teacher bias itself.

Many years ago, I taught a course on environmental politics and used case studies as a basis for understanding theory. Many of the students were doing an environmental science degree, and most of the students thought of themselves as environmentally conscious, and it was hard to get them to think critically about their own beliefs. When nuclear power was the case study, nearly all students were opposed to it, and few students had the confidence to present pro-nuclear arguments. Furthermore, the students knew I was an opponent of nuclear power.

Then I introduced fluoridation as a case study. Some students asked me during class, “What do you think, Brian?” I’d respond that I was studying the controversy as a social scientist and didn’t have a strong personal opinion. This answer frustrated them: they obviously wanted to know my view so they would know better what to write in their assignments.

Furthermore, there was no standard environmental view about fluoridation, and different class members had different views on fluoridation, leading to more stimulating discussions than on other topics. The students had to think for themselves rather than regurgitate a standard line or say what they thought I wanted to hear.

On just one occasion, I used one of my books as a text. I didn’t like this, because I felt students were inhibited. Personally, I would have liked to hear their criticisms of my ideas, but few students have the confidence to question their teacher’s well-formed views. Basing teaching on your own research means you have greater knowledge, but does it help students learn more effectively?

Zits.20091222-grades

Conclusion

Fairness is just one consideration when marking. Ultimately, the goal is helping students to learn and to become independent, critical, ethical, self-motivated learners. How to do this is a continual challenge for which there is no single answer. I recommend trying blind marking to see what it’s like and to see how students respond.

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au

Thanks to Anne Melano and Caroline Colton for useful comments.

Subject outlines illustrating how students can be instructed to submit blinded assignments.
CST228, 2015: see pages 11 and 15
BCM390, 2015: see page 17

See also: Marking essays: making it easier and more fun

What’s on your mind?

People have the capacity to be able to figure out what others are thinking. But there are lots of traps involved, according to research reported in Nicholas Epley’s book Mindwise.

Personality-icon

For most of my life, I thought I was no good at guessing what other people were feeling. I marvelled at the capacity of friends who, through their powers of intuition, could understand other people.

Then a few years ago I was a subject in a research project on “personality coaching.” After taking a comprehensive psychological test, I met with a coach, had a look at my personality profile and decided what if any aspect of my personality I would like to change. Many other subjects chose to reduce their anxiety or depression, but I scored very low on “neuroticism.” Instead, I chose understanding others’ feelings, something I thought I was poor at. Over ten weeks of coaching, I was encouraged to think about and practise some ways to improve.

I’m not sure whether I actually improved, but I discovered I was better than I had thought at picking up on the emotions of people I knew, for example when talking on the telephone to my PhD students.

Mindwise

Now I’ve read Nicholas Epley’s illuminating book Mindwise (Penguin, 2014) and learned that my original view was probably more accurate, namely I’m not that great at deciphering others’ emotions. However, my view of others’ skills was skewed. Most of them are probably not very good either. Epley reports that those who are poorest at understanding others are the most overconfident in their abilities.

Epley is a professor of behavioural science at the University of Chicago and does research on what he calls “mind-reading.” This is not extra-sensory perception but rather using our senses to understand — in the words of the subtitle of his book — “what others think, believe, feel, and want.”

Mindwise is an engaging treatment of research findings in the area. Epley uses a variety of examples, including from his own life, to illustrate insights. He has packaged this material into a logical framework, progressing through various dimensions of mind-reading. The book is the best sort of popularisation: it conveys key ideas in an understandable, engaging way while being faithful to the original research.

Knowing yourself

Compared to understanding others, it should be far easier to know our own thoughts. But actually it’s not.

strangers-to-ourselves

A book that greatly changed my thinking is Timothy D. Wilson’s Strangers to Ourselves. Wilson reported on research showing that there are parts of our minds that we cannot consciously access. He recounts a famous experiment in which young men acted on the basis of an incorrect assessment of their own emotions. Wilson concluded that, in some circumstances, the person sitting next to you knows as much about what you are feeling as you do yourself! It’s hard to believe, but the research is convincing.

Epley, covering some of the same ground, devotes a chapter to “What you can and cannot know about your own mind,” offering numerous fascinating observations about a key shortcoming of the mind. When you feel happy, for example, you usually know, but you seldom know why you’re happy, and systematically make incorrect assumptions about the reasons. Epley says we know what mental products are like as completed products but don’t have a clue about how they were created. Therefore, to make sense of our thoughts and emotions, we manufacture a plausible story and “we’re left with the illusion that we know more about own minds than we actually do.” (p. 30).

When pollsters ring to ask about your voting intentions, they now ask who you would vote for if the election were held today. In doing this, pollsters draw on psychological research. They don’t ask who you would vote for in a few weeks or months, because most people do not know their own minds well enough to accurately predict their future preferences.

Then there is the issue of bias. People assume that others are biased, not themselves, and hold fast to their own illusions. Not understanding one’s own mind in this case leads to mistakes in reading the minds of others.

adam-goodes
Adam Goodes

Take the case of Adam Goodes, Australian rules football star and former Australian of the Year. For the past two years he has been subject to booing by spectators every time he has the ball, something unprecedented in persistence. Many commentators attribute this to Goodes being an Aborigine and, furthermore, outspoken in opposition to racism. Those who boo or otherwise criticise Goodes say they aren’t racist. However, it’s quite possible that they do not understand their own motivations. To justify their beliefs and behaviours, they come up with rationalisations, such as that Goodes has been playing unfairly, a view that conveniently ignores the dozens of other footballers who play the same way. Hardly anyone these days admits being a racist. In this case, others may be able to read the minds of those who defend booing better than they can themselves.

Dehumanising others

One of the most serious flaws in the human mind-reading system is caused by proximity. The part of the brain engaged by the system is the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC). People close to us stimulate greater activity in our mPFC: they are seen as having minds. By the same token, those who do not trigger mPFC activity are seen to be mindless and hence less than human. This psychological distancing is the source of mistaken judgements and underlies many crimes and atrocities.

mPFC

People from other cultures are harder to understand and are candidates for dehumanisation. Have you ever gotten to know a terrorist? Those who haven’t are prone to systematically misinterpreting their thinking and motivations. Epley says that terrorists are not psychopaths, but rather have an overwhelming empathy for their own group, connected with a contempt for other groups. “They act out of parochial altruism, a strong commitment to benefit one’s own group or cause without regard for the consequences for oneself” (p. 53).

When dehumanisation can be countered, the benefits can be enormous. Epley recounts the well-known story about a General Motors plant in California that was closed in 1982 due to abysmal productivity and quality control. Then GM entered a partnership with Toyota. The new Japanese management reopened the plant, rehired most of the same workers and started treating them as mindful humans with intrinsic motivations rather than as mindless ones interested only in money. Before long, the plant became a top performer. Despite this well-tested insight about the value of intrinsic motivation, bosses in workplaces around the world continue to treat workers as mindless drones who can only be motivated by fear or financial rewards.

Nummi-plant
Nimmi auto plant in Fresno, California

Because of inadequate understanding of the minds of others, most people are apprehensive of striking up conversations with strangers. Have you ever sat on a bus or train and noticed how people will space themselves out, avoiding sitting next to strangers? In one experiment, commuters were asked whether they would prefer to sit alone or talk to a stranger, and nearly all said sitting alone. Then they were asked to talk with strangers and nearly all found it more enjoyable. This shows that people are mistaken about the likely responsiveness of strangers and about their own emotional responses.

Minds when there are none

The capacity of humans to understand the minds of others can sometimes be deployed when it’s not appropriate, in what is called anthropomorphising, namely seeing things as having human qualities. Have you ever seen someone berating their computer, saying “Why do you keep causing me trouble?” This is anthropomorphising: the computer is attributed will or motivation.

cuckoo

Epley reports that inanimate objects are more likely to be seen as human when they are unpredictable. The computer that sporadically plays up is seen as more wilful than the one that always works – or never does. When something needs to be explained, we are more likely to infer the existence of a mind.

Another reason for attributing minds is appearance, for example a face. The animated feature film Cars is more engaging because the cars have big eyes and mouths, so the fiction that they can think and talk is less jarring. A feature titled Rocks showing expressionless rocks would be less likely to attract audiences.

Cars_2006

Epley writes that the process of anthropomorphising is not mysterious: “Forming a connection requires you to consider another person’s mind, to adopt his or her perspective, to do your best to get into his or her head” (pp. 78-79), and this can occur with non-humans. He notes that musicians often form a personal bond with their instruments, even giving them names. I guess my mind-reading sense is unlikely to be triggered in this way. I’ve been playing the same clarinet for 50 years and never thought of giving it a name.

clarinet
Someone else’s clarinet

It’s all about you

When trying to figure out what others are thinking, one of the biggest challenges is getting over egocentrism, in particular the assumption that others think the way we do. People were asked their views on a range of ethical choices, for example “Is it ethical to call in sick to get a day off?” Then they were asked how they thought others would answer, namely to estimate the percentage of others who would agree with them. On this question, 71% answered that it is ethical, and these subjects estimated 66% of others would answer the same way. So far, so good: 66% is close to 71%, so mind-reading seems to work. However, 29% answered that it is unethical, and these subjects incorrectly estimated 64% of others would answer the same way. On a whole set of questions, people thought the majority of others agreed with their answer, even when they were in minorities as low as 10%. This illustrates that, in the absence of specific knowledge about others, the usual assumption is that they think the same way we do.

self-centered-300x300

Most people overestimate their own contributions to shared tasks, for example housework. They also overestimate their role in negative interactions, taking more than their share of responsibility for starting arguments. An excess of self-centredness leads to paranoia.

Another aspect of self-centredness is that most people think they feel emotions more strongly than others. This is because we feel our own emotions very strongly but have only indirect information about others’ emotions. On this particular aspect of self-centredness I can plead not guilty, because for most of my life I’ve assumed I don’t feel emotions as strongly as others (which, of course, could be true).

Another aspect of a self-centred bias is called the “curse of knowledge”: once you know something, it is very difficult to imagine what it’s like not to know it. The result is that highly knowledgeable people are sometimes poor teachers. Studies show that someone who has just learned how to use a mobile phone can teach a beginner more quickly than can an experienced user. The curse of knowledge is especially relevant to me as a university teacher. I try to counter it by setting up conditions for students to learn from each other. One of the counter-intuitive implications of the curse of knowledge is that I may be better at helping students learn when I haven’t previously taught a subject.

Stereotypes

stereotype_map_by_pokemonarenaart-d6kp9vb

When you don’t know much about a person, it’s convenient to assume they fit a stereotype, about being a woman, an Egyptian, a plumber or a redhead. Epley describes research showing both the strengths and weaknesses of stereotypes. Most stereotypes accurately portray differences between groups. For example, those on the political right are more likely to support bosses against workers than those on the left. The shortcoming of stereotypes is that they give an exaggerated idea of how great the differences between groups are. The differences between right and left on many issues actually are fairly small, maybe 1/10 as great as the stereotypes might suggest.

Stereotypes thus can lead to clashes between groups that don’t really differ very much, because each group operates on the basis of its exaggerated idea of the views of the other group.

This is one reason why deliberative democracy has more potential than you might imagine. Put together a randomly selected group of 12 citizens (a so-called citizens jury), give them information about some subject, say genetic engineering or climate change, and have them try to reach consensus on a policy. It sounds like it wouldn’t work, but hundreds of actual citizens juries show that it usually does. When people are brought together, get to know each other and exchange ideas, stereotypes give way to more realistic perceptions, and usually there is more commonality than initially imagined.

Actions

Most people are susceptible to “correspondence bias.” When someone acts violently, we may assume they are angry or aggressive. Many people in the US assume that the 9/11 terrorists hated America and wanted to destroy the American way of life, despite explicit al Qaeda statements about their real motivations.

why-do-people-hate-america

Correspondence bias can reflect an assumption that other people’s actions are internally motivated rather than conditioned by the environment. If your friend Lauren walks by without saying hello, you may assume she is unhappy with you when actually she was just preoccupied and didn’t see you. Epley notes that people in collectivist cultures, such as in Japan, are more attuned to the existence of environmental influences and are less likely to be subject to correspondence bias.

Correspondence bias can have serious consequences. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina hitting New Orleans in 2005, officials assumed that those who had not been evacuated didn’t want to leave. The officials didn’t take into account the factors that constrained the desires of residents. Epley says “They didn’t need convincing, they needed a bus” (p. 151).

How to read minds

When someone looks to the side while talking to you, does this mean they’re lying? When they fold their arms and keep their distance, does this mean they’re resisting your views? A lot has been written about body language and how to interpret it. Despite reading several books on the topic, I have always thought I was poor at interpreting body language. According to Epley, I’m not unusual: it’s very difficult to learn a lot from it. If you’re going to try, it’s better to listen to someone’s voice rather than watch them.

Then there is perspective-taking: imagining yourself in someone else’s shoes and thereby gaining insight into what they think and how they feel. I always thought this was valuable, but Epley cites many studies showing it is subject to serious shortcomings. We can imagine ourselves in someone else’s circumstances, but often this isn’t accurate at all.

There’s one method for figuring out what other people are thinking that is usually pretty helpful: ask them, and carefully listen to what they say. It seems obvious but, as Epley notes, in many cases people are overconfident in thinking they already know the answer, so they don’t bother to ask. A boss assumes a worker needs higher pay to work harder, or arrives late due to being slack, and doesn’t ask for the worker’s explanation.

The key to getting an honest answer is to reduce the threat of repercussions. Epley tells how he used this approach with his son. Performance appraisals at work are useless when employees fear reprisals for being honest.

Nicholas-Epley
Nicholas Epley

Mindwise is filled with insights. If figuring out what others are thinking is important to you, it could be one of the most useful books you’ll ever read. An important message is that most people are overconfident about their mind-reading abilities. As Epley concludes, “Sometimes a sense of humility is the best our wise minds can offer, recognizing that there’s more to the mind of another person than we may ever imagine” (p. 184).

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au

Thanks to Don Eldridge for useful comments.

Dealing with information overload

information-overload

How well are you coping with the flood of information produced and distributed these days? A common malady is “information overload”: more information is coming in than you can process properly. For some guidance, read Daniel Levitin’s book The Organized Mind. It’s a big book. More information! But it has many useful perspectives and tips.

Levitin is a neuroscientist. He starts with how the mind makes sense of the world. A key process is making categories. Levitin tells about this through simple examples, such as “vegetable” being a broad category and “potato” being a more specific one. Then there are types of potatoes.

You may already be impatient. What’s the punch line? What’s the key to surviving the information onslaught? So here’s Levitin’s central insight: externalise your mind. Rather than trying to remember everything, you should set up systems to hold information vital to you, in ways you can easily manage. And do it in a way that takes advantage of the way the mind deals with categories — like “vegetable” and “potato.”

A classic example is the to-do list. A daily list of things to do, preferably in priority order, addresses information overload in a simple way. Rather than try to make decisions about every new call, visit, message or thought, you consult your to-do list and concentrate on proceeding through it. Once you set your priorities, the endless succession of messages, including advertisements, communications from family, friends and workmates, and all sorts of electronic enticements, can be subordinated to your own agenda.

to-do-list

Active sorting, namely putting things into piles according to their importance, enables you to focus on what you’re doing:

Active sorting is a powerful way to prevent yourself from being distracted. It creates and fosters great efficiencies, not just practical efficiencies but intellectual ones. After you have prioritized and you start working, knowing that what you are doing is the most important thing for you to be doing at that moment is surprisingly powerful. Other things can wait — this is what you can focus on without worrying that you’re forgetting something. (pp. 34–35)

Levitin has a bigger agenda than simply being efficient at getting things done at work, a topic that has already been capably analysed. Levitin addresses cognitive overload, and how to deal with it, in several key domains: at home, social life, time management, life-and-death decisions, business and teaching children. Information overload is a problem in each of these areas, and so is a related problem: decision overload, namely having to make too many decisions.

Daniel-Levitin
Daniel Levitin

Priorities and tasks

A key insight from neuroscience is that “The decision-making network in our brain doesn’t prioritize” (p. 6). What happens with overload is that there are too many decisions to be made, and the brain gets tired in the sense that willpower is depleted. If you haven’t prioritised what’s important, you will be worn down making trivial decisions and won’t be well placed to deal with the important ones. This is why dealing with electronic messages — Facebook, texts, email — can be undermining. You have to decide whether to read a message and then what to do with it: remember it, file it, act on it or, more likely, skip it or delete it. All those little decisions exhaust willpower. This is overload in action.

Levitin notes that people think they are being more efficient when doing more than one thing at a time, but actually, “ironically, multitasking makes us demonstrably less efficient.”

Multitasking has been found to increase the production of the stress hormone cortisol as well as the fight-or-flight hormone adrenaline, which can overstimulate your brain and cause mental fog or scrambled thinking. Multitasking creates a dopamine-addiction feedback loop, effectively rewarding the brain for losing focus and for constantly searching for external stimulation. … Just having the opportunity to multitask is detrimental to cognitive performance. Glenn Wilson of Gresham College, London, calls it infomania. His research found that being in a situation where you are trying to concentrate on a task, and an e-mail is sitting unread in your inbox, can reduce your effective IQ by 10 points. (pp. 96-97)

information-overload-1

Life-and-death decisions

Levitin encourages readers to organise the information relevant to their life in a more efficient fashion and to develop skills for making decisions. This is more than just paying attention to what’s important. One of the skills Levitin promotes is using fourfold tables to work out probabilities. Suppose you’ve taken a test for a rare cancer. The test returns a positive result, and naturally you panic. But wait: what’s the chance you actually have cancer? You need to know some figures first. If the cancer occurs in one in a million people, and the test has a 10% chance of a false positive, then most likely you don’t have cancer. Many doctors don’t understand the probabilities and will recommend treatments that are more likely to cause harm than reduce it. Levitin provides examples for working out the figures.

If the chance of being struck by lightning is one in a million, what is the chance of being struck by lightning twice? To calculate the answer, you have to know whether the two events, namely getting struck by lightning, are independent. Often they are not. This basic insight about probabilities applies to many areas. What is the chance of having your house burgled twice? What is the chance of two global financial crises within 20 years?

At home and work

In organising things at home, Levitin offers suggestions on the use of categories, and recommends having a “junk drawer” for the miscellany of things that don’t (yet) warrant a category of their own. In organising your time, he addresses the roles of sleep, noting that most people don’t get enough, which means they haven’t set the right sort of priorities for use of their time. In organising your social life, he points to the cognitive challenges involved in an ordinary conversation, given that both literal and implied meanings are nearly always involved. To maintain relationships, you need to take both into account.

hand-in-papers

In looking at being organised in the business world, Levitin notes that highly productive executives have an advantage over the rest of us: they have assistants who organise their files, their time and their interactions. They don’t have to worry about whether the activity they are doing right now is the most important: they know their assistants have arranged that it is. This helps explain why they can be so focused in meetings: they are less distracted by worries about other things they need to do.

This is an example of Levitin’s central point. Given that memory is fallible and making sense of a cacophony of information inputs is cognitively draining, the key to being organised is to put parts of your mind outside your body. You may not have personal assistants, but you can use computers, phones, diaries, apps and even one of Levitin’s favourites, 3-by-5-inch index cards.

Index-Cards

Managing your time

To give a sense of the wide-ranging nature of The Organized Mind, consider the chapter “Organizing our time.” It starts off noting the importance of the prefrontal cortex in time management, addresses the biological importance of time and the rise of precise time measurement (which is pretty recent in human history), considers the mental challenges of temporal frames and planning in a wide variety of tasks (from watching television to the invasion of Normandy), examines the many roles of sleep, looks at what is called flow (immersive engagement in an activity), and addresses reasons for procrastination. Within the procrastination section, Levitin considers various topics including attention deficit disorder, delayed gratification, and beliefs that facilitate procrastination.

Also important is to disconnect one’s sense of self-worth from the outcome of a task. Self-confidence entails accepting that you might fail early on and that it’s OK, it’s all part of the process. The writer and polymath George Plimpton noted that successful people have paradoxically had many more failures than people whom most of us would consider to be, well, failures. If this sounds like double-talk or mumbo jumbo, the resolution of the paradox is that successful people (or people who eventually become successful) deal with failures and setbacks very differently from everyone else. The unsuccessful person interprets the failure or setback as a career breaker and concludes, “I’m no good at this.” The successful person sees each setback as an opportunity to gain whatever additional knowledge is necessary to accomplish her goals. The internal dialogue of a successful (or eventually successful) person is more along the lines of “I thought I knew everything I needed to know to achieve my goals, but this has taught me that I don’t. Once I learn this, I can get back on track.” The kinds of people who become successful typically know that they can expect a rocky road ahead and it doesn’t dissuade them when those bumps knock them off kilter — it’s all part of the process. As Piers Steel would say, they don’t subscribe to the faulty belief that life should be easy. (p. 200)

If you can organise your time well enough to spend ten minutes per day reading The Organized Mind and implementing some of Levitin’s suggestions, you can become even more efficient, focused and mentally calm, and also assist your children and others in your life to thrive. It’s worth the effort, because all the signs suggest information overload isn’t going away. Instead, it’s likely to become worse.

Organized-Mind

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au

Learning: how to do it better

We continue to learn our entire lives. Research shows ways to do it better, but this means changing our habits.

keep-calm-and-never-stop-learning-5

Learning — we do it all the time, when reading messages, hearing the news, starting a new job, and in a host of other circumstances. Then there is formal learning, in classrooms and when studying for assignments.

Most people learn how to learn when they are young, and continue with the same methods for most of their life. What if there are better ways to go about it?

Benedict Carey is a long-time science writer, and since 2004 has written for the New York Times. Gradually, he became interested in research on how people learn, and set out on a quest, contacting leading researchers on learning. He was surprised to find that, according to the latest research, what he had done during high school, long sessions of concentrated attention on study topics, was really not all that effective. In his book How We Learn (Random House, 2014), Carey provides an accessible guide to key practical findings from learning research.

How-we-learn

Carey makes his account engaging by telling stories about pioneering researchers who developed ideas taken up later. He then spells out the implications for learners, whether they are in schools, universities, jobs or everyday life.

The spacing effect

Which is better: studying for two hours in one session, or for two sessions of one hour each on two different days? The answer is clear: two separate sessions are better, whether you want to learn facts or skills. This shouldn’t be news. In athletics, where learning techniques make the difference between winning and losing, training is normally spaced out. Runners do not postpone training until the day before the race.

Yet generations of students have crammed for exams and other assignments. As an undergraduate, I stayed up all night on several occasions to write essays. It was the only time in my life that I drank coffee! The trouble with cramming is that nearly everything learned is quickly forgotten. Spacing out study is more efficient: you can learn more in less time and retain it longer.

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But what’s the best sort of spacing? If you have two weeks to learn the names of the bones in the body, and want to spend a total of two hours studying, is it better to use two sessions of an hour, twelve sessions of 10 minutes, or some other breakdown? And how should the study sessions be spaced? Should one be just before a test? Or, if long-term retention is the goal, what’s the best option? Carey examines what is known about spacing. In general, more spacing is better, but there is still much to be discovered about the optimum spacing for learning different sorts of material.

The testing effect

If you don’t know anything about a topic – for example, Chinese history in the 1700s – then surely the best way to learn about it is to start studying. Actually, though, you’ll learn more efficiently if you take a test on the material before you start, even though you just guess at the answers. Somehow this primes the mind to pay more attention when you do start studying. This is a really strange research finding.

Educationists commonly talk about two types of assessment. Summative assessment measures learning whereas formative assessment is designed to improve learning. Actually, though, all assessment is formative to some degree: it is a method of learning.

Roediger+&+Karpicke+(2006)+Graph+of+Testing+Effect

Formal assessment is designed by teachers. But there’s another type of testing: self-testing. When you’re studying, you can test yourself regularly. Or you can try to explain the topic to a friend. Testing yourself can overcome the fluency illusion, in which you have the incorrect belief that you know something because it seems familiar. Carey writes:

These apparently simple attempts to communicate what you’ve learned, to yourself or others, are not merely a form of self-testing, in the conventional sense, but studying – the high-octane kind, 20 to 30 percent more powerful than if you continued sitting on your butt, staring at that outline. Better yet, those exercises will dispel the fluency illusion. They’ll expose what you don’t know, where you’re confused, what you’ve forgotten – and fast. (p. 103)

Incubation

Many students think they’re learning only when they’re studying. Therefore, it doesn’t matter when they study, even if it’s at the last moment. It’s just necessary to put in enough hours. The spacing effect shows that something can happen in between study sessions: the unconscious mind engages with the material, and you don’t even notice it happening. There’s another aspect to this process, called the incubation or percolation effect.

Here’s the trick. When studying a topic intensely, it’s actually better to interrupt the process before finishing, and leave the mind to chew away at it before the next session. In terms of writing, this means not finishing an essay, but instead leaving it incomplete for the time being.

incubation-effect

When a task isn’t complete, the mind won’t let it alone, so in the long run you learn more by being interrupted at odd times while pursuing a task. Carey:

… we should start work on large projects as soon as possible and stop when we get stuck, with the confidence that we are initiating percolation, not quitting. My tendency as a student was always to procrastinate on big research papers and take care of the smaller stuff first. Do the easy reading. Clean the kitchen. Check some things off the to-do list. Then, once I finally sat down to face the big beast, I’d push myself frantically toward the finish line and despair if I didn’t make it.
Wrong.
Quitting before I’m ahead doesn’t put the project to sleep; it keeps it awake. (p. 147)

The incubation effect is used by great creators who bore away at a problem for weeks or months and then take a break – and this is often when the best ideas pop up. The challenge is to trust your own mind and treat interruptions to significant tasks as opportunities rather than sources of worry.

Interleaving

The usual way of learning is to concentrate on a particular task until it is mastered, and then go on to the next task. It sounds logical, but actually there’s a more productive technique, which is to mix up the tasks.

Carey describes the technique of interleaving. Here’s a typical research protocol. One group of students learned artistic styles by looking first at six paintings by one artist, say Braque, and then six by another, say Mylrea, and so on through twelve artists. A different group of students saw exactly the same paintings for the same length of time, but mixed up in a random sequence. At the end, students in each group were shown paintings they had not seen before and asked to name the artist. Which group did better? It was the ones who saw the paintings in a random order.

This outcome has been reproduced in numerous studies involving discrimination. During the learning phase, students exposed to interleaving don’t feel like they are learning, but actually they improve faster.

interleaved-blocked

“That may be the most astounding thing about this technique,” said John Dunlosky, a psychologist at Kent State University, who has shown that interleaving accelerates our ability to distinguish between bird species. “People don’t believe it, even after you show them they’ve done better.”
This much is clear: The mixing of items, skills, or concepts during practice, over the longer term, seems to help us not only see the distinctions between them but also to achieve a clearer grasp of each one individually. The hardest part is abandoning our primal faith in repetition. (p. 164)

Athletic coaches long ago figured out that exercising a particular muscle too much at a time is not productive, so they mix up training, switching between different muscle groups. The studies of learning artistic styles show that mixing things up is a more general learning strategy, with applications in many areas.

Other factors

Carey also discuses other factors that enable faster and longer-lasting learning. These include perceptual learning, which happens without having to think about it, and the role of different sleep cycles in consolidating learning.

Sleep-Helps-to-Form-Memories
Sleep helps to form memories.

It is fascinating that there are ways to speed up learning in a wide range of contexts, for example pilots comprehending the implications of different instrument panels or language students learning Mandarin.

It is tempting to think that it would be possible to take advantage of several of the techniques described by Carey and quickly become a much more efficient learner. If you are in the hands of one of the researchers or skilled practitioners using one of the techniques, such as interleaving or perceptual learning, then you have an advantage. But to take the initiative to adopt these techniques on your own is another matter.

One of the key considerations is habit — and many people’s learning habits are deeply entrenched. It can be quite challenging to replace one habit with another, though there is good research on how to do this.

To better understand the challenges of adopting some of the techniques presented by Carey, here I’ll discuss how they relate to the high-output writing programme I’ve been using for several years.

Writing

Robert Boice, a psychologist and educational researcher, addressed the problem of low research productivity. Many of his important studies date from the 1980s.

Robert-Boice
Robert Boice

He observed newly appointed academics and noticed that most of them struggled in the demands of the job, but a few were highly productive in research and furthermore were less stressed than their colleagues. Boice thought the techniques used by these productive new academics might be taught to others, and he showed how this could be done.

Advice for new faculty members

Boice’s approach was elaborated by Tara Gray and turned into a twelve-step programme. The core of the approach is doing some writing every day or nearly every day, but not too much. Boice advocated stopping while still fresh, in order to have energy and enthusiasm to continue the next day. A central theme in Boice’s approach is moderation, to overcome the syndrome of procrastination and bingeing.

Gray says to start writing from the very beginning of a research project. For example, in doing a PhD, you should start writing the first day, rather than spending a couple of years first reading and collecting data. The slogan here is “write before you’re ready.”

P&F2e_OSFC

How does the Boice-Gray approach to writing measure up in relation to the techniques described by Carey that enhance learning? First is the spacing effect: it’s more productive to space out learning sessions. That is actually the foundation of the writing programme: it is designed to overcome the usual approach of procrastination and bingeing.

Second is the testing effect: it is productive to use testing as a form of studying. In the writing programme, daily writing is done without looking at texts or stopping to look up references. You might have a few dot-point notes, but otherwise everything has to come from your head. In effect, it is a type of testing of your memory of what you want to say. For example, if you’ve read some articles the previous day, you write about them without consulting them: it’s a test, and a powerful learning tool.

Third is incubation. This is central to the writing programme. In between writing sessions, the unconscious mind is going over what to say next. In one of Boice’s studies, he looked at the number of creative ideas produced by academics in three conditions: no writing, normal writing (bingeing) and daily writing. No writing was worst for generating new ideas, normal writing was twice as good and daily writing was five times as good. The writing programme might be seen as turning the incubation process into a routine.

Another facet of incubation is that you learn more when you interrupt your study before finishing. This happens every day in the Boice-Gray programme, and can be enhanced by a simple technique. At the end of your daily writing session, finish in the middle of developing an idea, perhaps even in the middle of a paragraph or sentence. This incomplete expression of an idea serves to stimulate thinking, and often by the next day your unconscious mind has come up with a way to complete the thought.

Tara-Gray
Tara Gray

Fourth is interleaving: learning about a range of different topics at the same session. This is not usually part of the writing programme, but could be incorporated into it. Usually I write about the same topic from one day to the next, gradually writing the draft of an article or chapter. But sometimes I feel a bit stuck and switch to a different project and topic, coming back to the other one when I feel ready, which can be days, weeks or months later. No doubt interleaving can be used in other ways to improve writing productivity.

Fifth is mixing up learning contexts: you can consolidate your learning by studying in different surroundings and times of the day. The idea is to embed your learning in different environments. This is different from what’s usually recommended in the writing programme, which is to have a routine and stick with it. I think this difference points to an important factor not addressed by Carey: how to motivate continued effort at learning.

The practice of doing just a small amount of daily writing is designed to reduce the barriers to beginning a session. To add pressure, Boice asked academics to report to him weekly with a log of the minutes they had written each day and the number of words they had produced each day. This accountability process made a huge difference. Daily writing combined with reporting a weekly log to Boice improved productivity by a factor of nine compared to the usual procrastination-bingeing approach.

The technique of varying the learning contexts is worthwhile if your writing habit is well established. But few writers seem to have such a solid habit. Writing while travelling would seem like an ideal opportunity to vary contexts, but Gray reports that when travelling, away from the usual routine, writing at all is a challenge for her, and many others have told me the same.

Writing-while-travelling

Conclusion

The message here is that the techniques described by Carey are highly worthwhile and should be investigated by anyone for whom learning is important. However, a key consideration is how to turn a new learning approach into a habit. If you can do this, you’ve truly learned something worthwhile.

Benedict-Carey
Benedict Carey

Meanwhile, generations of students are carrying on in their usual approach, and so does most teaching. There is important research being done on learning, and Carey has pointed to some of the most practical findings. When these will affect schools and training programmes is another matter. Not soon, I suspect. So read How We Learn, pick one or two techniques relevant to your needs, and become a more efficient learner – and enjoy it too!

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au

Thanks to Don Eldridge for helpful comments.

The benefits of face-to-face

Relationships can be highly beneficial in people’s lives. For best outcomes, they need to be face-to-face.

women-rapports

In the past 20 years, there has been a boom in research on happiness, sometimes called wellbeing or flourishing. A range of behaviours and mental patterns have been shown to improve happiness, including being physically active, expressing gratitude, being optimistic, helping others and being forgiving. For some of these topics, authors have written entire books explaining the research and its implications.

Among all the methods of improving happiness, one of the most often cited is relationships. Research shows that positive interactions with others can make a huge difference to people’s lives. This includes family members, friends, neighbours, co-workers and many others, even extending to casual acquaintances and people met in commercial contexts, such as hairdressers and salespeople.

A few years ago, in the happiness course run by Chris Barker and me, the vagaries of timetabling meant that part way through one of my classes, my students and I had to walk across campus to get from one classroom to another. We carried out observations and  informal interventions during these walks. One of them was to observe the other walkers we saw on the way, and notice whether they were smiling or otherwise seemed happy. It was striking that those walking and talking in groups nearly always seemed happier than those walking alone.

If this topic interests you, I recommend Susan Pinker’s new book surveying research on relationships, titled The Village Effect. The subtitle gives a convenient summary of the main themes: How face-to-face contact can make us healthier, happier, and smarter. She provides a wealth of examples, case studies, findings and patterns to make the case for the benefits of personal relationships.

Village-effect

She tells about communities in the mountainous regions of Sardinia, where life is traditional and exacting, where people have rich personal connections and where they live far longer than would be expected going by other lifestyle factors such as diet. Pinker uses this as an extended example, also citing much other research on the effect of relationships on longevity and physical health.

The Sardinians are an exception, for they have maintained traditional patterns of village life in the face of incentives to “join the modern world.” There is a deep irony in aspects of contemporary economies. Higher standards of living can improve happiness, but also undermine it.

The irony is that most people want greater happiness, yet the way they go about it can undermine it. An example is seeking a higher income. There is plenty of research showing that, above a certain level, greater income and more possessions make only a marginal difference to wellbeing, certainly far less than alternatives such as expressing gratitude or being mindful. Yet many people, in search of improved happiness, will take on a second job or move to another city at the expense of time with their family and friends.

Face-to-face versus screens

In the past few decades, there has been a big shift from face-to-face interactions to digital connections using email, texts, Facebook and host of other platforms, not to mention the long-standing attraction of television, partly supplanted by video games. It might seem that social media, because they are interactive, are superior to the mass media of radio and television. Pinker quotes research about the advantages of face-to-face contact compared to digital contact.

The irony is that parents who spend their hard-earned cash on gadgets so their children will have immediate access to communication networks may also be facilitating their girls’ feelings of social exclusion. Girls with televisions, computers, and cellphones in their rooms, for example, sleep less, have more undesirable friends (according to their parents), and are the least likely to get together with their real buddies face-to-face. Yet, according to this study too, it is exactly these face-to-face interactions that are most tightly linked to feeling happy and socially at ease. If North American girls spend an average of almost seven hours a day using various media and their face-to-face social interactions average about two hours a day … then many girls are spending most of their spare time on activities that make them feel excluded and unhappy. (pp. 163–164)

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Such findings have significant implications in a range of areas. Children are especially in need of personal interaction to stimulate their developing minds, yet digital tools are proliferating and being used at ever younger ages. When it comes to formal education, face-to-face contact with teachers turns out to be crucial. Investments in better teachers appear to be far better for improving learning outcomes than investments in advanced technology.

Many Australian universities, being squeezed for cash, have cut back on class contact. Small tutorials, with maximum interaction between teachers and students, are made larger, and sometimes tutorials are abandoned in favour of lectures, or replaced by online interactions. Evidence cited by Pinker suggests that it would be better to get rid of the lectures and retain the tutorials — at least if learning is the goal.

For example, in one study, almost a million US students in grades 5 to 8 were surveyed about media use, while their school results were monitored. “With the advent of home computers, the students’ reading, writing, and math scores dropped, and they remained low for as long as the researchers kept tabs on them.” (p. 190)

susanpinker-by-susie-lowe
Susan Pinker

Is there any alternative?

Given that there are numerous ways to improve happiness, are relationships really so fundamental? There may be some loners who can be perfectly happy because they are great meditators or have found an activity that provides a satisfying experience of immersive involvement. Surely they can be happy with low levels of face-to-face contact.

Pinker addresses this, for example noting that although people on the autism spectrum have very poor relationship skills, they can still benefit from improving those skills and interacting more. However, I would not assume this is essential. No doubt even the most ungrateful person can become happier by becoming better at expressing thanks, but this is not the only way to become happier.

More generally, Pinker devotes a chapter to the negative aspects of relationships. Face-to-face connections can be highly damaging in some contexts, with fraudsters taking advantage of the trust engendered by social similarity.

Pinker’s overall message is to try to maintain face-to-face connections. Talk to the colleague in the next office rather than sending an email; take time to visit friends; have meals with family members, in the same room!

Face-to-Face-Logo-300x128

However, wider trends are working in an opposite directions. Individuals can improve their own lives by building their personal connections, but must do this in the face of the relentless encouragement to use digital media and to pursue careers at the expense of time with friends and family.

Technology to the rescue?

According to Pinker’s argument, much of the decline in face-to-face interaction is due to displacement by technology, especially the ever-present screens in people’s lives. So technology, while making interaction at a distance far easier, is reducing something valuable.

For me, there remain further questions: are some sorts of technologically-mediated interaction considerably better than others, and could future media simulate being in a room with someone?

The loss of personal connection accelerated with the rise of television, so people watched screens with which they had no interaction. Watching television with others in the room offers the possibility of some live discussion, but it is increasingly common for each member of a household to have their own screen in their own room.

The telephone offers a far more interactive experience. Voices are incredibly rich with meanings independent of the words spoken, so there can be a personal connection at a distance, though visual and tactile dimensions are missing.

face2face21

Texting and email are more abstract forms of interaction — but at least they are personal, unlike television. Prior to email, people used to write letters, which include a tactile component, and a personal one when handwritten. But letters took a long time to arrive compared to a text. How do these media compare?

Then there is Skype, providing an aural and visual interaction much richer than either telephone or writing. Does it partially substitute for the real thing?

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The next stage is virtual reality, in which avatars interact with each other in realistic simulated three-dimensional spaces. Virtual reality technology is available today, but not widely used to mimic face-to-face interactions. In principle, it could eventually simulate nearly every aspect of human contact, even including touch and smell. It will never be exactly like physical presence, but will realistic simulation compensate? Not if people aren’t honest about themselves. Pinker cites research on online dating showing that 80% of people misrepresent their age, weight, height, appearance, income or other attributes.

Rather than look to technology to solve a problem exacerbated by technology, the alternative is to reassert the importance of physical presence. Pinker notes that affluent parents are now giving their children the advantage of schools and teachers with more personal interaction.

There is a certain irony in efforts to recreate the benefits of face-to-face interaction. Many of the poor people in the world live in extended families and in small communities where there are numerous routine personal interactions. They have the benefits of what Pinker calls “the village effect.” Do they have to pass through an isolating development transition, or are there ways to “develop” that maintain the advantages of face-to-face?

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au

Thanks to Don Eldridge for valuable comments.

Rapid learning

You can become pretty good at a new skill in just 20 hours by following Josh Kaufman’s advice.

josh-kaufman
Josh Kaufman

Josh Kaufman is a busy man. He has three children, runs a business and is a writer on the side. Yet he wants to do more. He wants to acquire new skills and to learn them as quickly as possible.

There’s an enormous body of research on learning. There are millions of teachers in schools and universities, not to mention private teachers and coaches on every topic from driving to playing the violin. Despite this wealth of knowledge and experience, Kaufman was looking for something different: how to tackle a completely new skill and become competent as rapidly as possible, fitting it all into his busy life.

So Kaufman developed his own system, based on 10 principles of effective learning. Being a practical person, he drew on his experiences in developing the principles, and then tried out his approach. And he’s written a book about it: The First 20 Hours: How to Learn Anything … Fast (Penguin, 2013).

First 20 hours

Expert performance and rapid learning

There’s a growing body of research on expert performance, the sort of high-level competence that would make you a chess grandmaster, a piano virtuoso, or a famous scientist. The research suggests that achieving this level of performance usually requires at least 10,000 hours of practice. Furthermore, not just any sort of practice will do: it has to be what is called “deliberate practice,” during which you concentrate intensely on improving, typically by working on the most challenging tasks for your level of performance. A swimmer, for example, needs to be pushing most the time during training.

Kaufman respects those who seek this level of performance. His goal is something different: to become as good as possible in a short time. It is quite compatible with deliberate practice. Indeed, it could be seen as the beginning of a journey towards high-level performance.

Anders Ericsson, the most prominent researcher on expert performance, notes that in learning a new skill most people improve rapidly to start with, but then their performance level plateaus. For example, most people learning to drive improve steadily because they are putting themselves in ever more challenging situations. But as soon as they are reasonably competent, they stop pushing themselves: they are driving but not improving much. Race car drivers, on the other hand, need to keep challenging themselves to achieve much higher level skills.

dog-driver

Kaufman is interested in this early skill acquisition stage and how to make it really efficient. No messing about attending classes for him.

So how good can he get in just 20 hours? Kaufman’s 10 principles for rapidly acquiring skills seem plausible, but how to apply them is what counts. To illustrate this, he offers six case studies in which he personally set out to learn a new skill in just 20 hours. These case studies take up most of the book. They are fascinating and are powerful recommendations for Kaufman’s approach.

Typing: learning it fast

Kaufman was already a good typist. Using a standard online test, he could type 60 words per minute. But he felt he was moving his fingers too much and so wanted to learn to type using a different, more efficient keyboard.

The standard keyboard is called QWERTY, after the first six letters in the top row of keys. Nearly all keyboards are laid out this way, and nearly everyone who learns to type learns this system. So why would anyone want to change?

QWERTY_keyboard_layout
QWERTY keyboard

QWERTY was set up in the days of manual typewriters and designed so the moving keys wouldn’t get stuck. But in terms of finger movement it is not ideal. For example, a highly efficient key arrangement would have the most common letters, E and T, on the middle line of keys, so less finger motion is required.

Kaufman set himself a goal: in 20 hours, he would seek to learn to type using a different keyboard, up to the same speed as before, 60 words per minute. So how did he proceed?

If deliberate practice is the key to skill acquisition, then you might guess that Kaufman spent 20 hours practising using the new keyboard. This is only partly right. One of the key insights Kaufman provides is that it is vital to figure out the best way forward. Time spent doing this is at least as important as deliberate practice.

First he had to choose the alternative keyboard he wanted to learn. He investigated several options and chose Colemak, one that suited his circumstances. He figured out how to change his computer so that when he pressed keys, they gave Colemak rather than QWERTY outputs. He then purchased some key covers and set up his keyboard in the new configuration. Now he was ready to practise typing using Colemak.

colemak
Colemak keyboard

Deliberate practice is the key

How to practise? Kaufman searched the web to find training programs, and compared the ones he found, choosing one that suited his purposes. Then it was time to begin. He used the program for an hour every day, practising in the evening to that his new skills would be better cemented into his mind through sleep.

After just 20 hours total — comprising choosing the keyboard, setting it up and practising using it — he achieved his goal of typing at 60 words per minute in Colemak. Along the way, though, he did a little experiment that is one of the best advertisements for deliberate practice I’ve seen.

While learning the new typing system, Kaufman couldn’t just drop all his regular correspondence. He still needed to type. So as soon as he was competent, even at a slow typing speed, he used Colemak. But doing his correspondence wasn’t deliberate practice, because he was concentrating on what he was writing, not on improving his typing speed.

I wonder: What if I drop the deliberate practice for a while and just continue typing e-mails and surfing the web? I’m two-thirds of the way to my target performance level of sixty WPM [words per minute] after only fourteen hours of deliberate practice. Can ambient practice carry me the rest of the way, without additional focused effort?

I decided to do an experiment: I’m going to suspend my deliberate practice for thirty days and set what happens. I’ll continue typing normally in Colemak, without switching back to QWERTY. With as much time as I spend on the computer, I should be able to get enough ambient practice to hit sixty WPM, right?

After thirty days, I retook the typing test. Want to guess my typing speed?

Forty WPM. Zero improvement.

Even though I was typing quite a bit, I wasn’t actively focused on improving my skills. Ambient practice wasn’t enough to improve.

If you want to improve a skill, you need deliberate practice, at least in the early stages of skill acquisition. Lesson learned. (pp. 151-152)

Other skills

Kaufman describes his efforts at learning a variety of skills using his approach: yoga, computer programming, the game of go, and windsurfing. In some cases, it’s an advantage to be able to pay for good equipment, as in the case of windsurfing. Kaufman tells how he searches for information about the most suitable equipment for his purposes, yet at a moderate price. And he does this all within the 20 hours.

To my mind, his most impressive achievement was learning the ukulele. Musicians will tell you that the ukulele is one of the easier instruments to learn. In 20 hours you can only make a start on the violin or oboe. Although the ukulele is relatively easy, Kaufman set himself a performance target that most people would find impossibly daunting.

He was invited to give a talk at a conference to tell about his approach to rapid learning. It was just 10 days until the conference and he thought, “Why don’t I demonstrate my approach by learning the ukulele in 10 days and performing on it as part of my talk?” And so he did. He practised hard during those 10 days, but also, as usual, spent a good portion of the time ensuring that he adopted the most efficient approach to practice. The response to his talk, and the accompanying ukulele performance, exceeded his expectations.

Kaufman-playing-ukulele
Josh Kaufman on the ukulele

What happens after 20 hours and a reasonable level of competency? Kaufman makes it clear that this depends. In some cases he wants to keep going: he continues to use Colemak for touch typing. In other cases he decides not to do any more. He became a decent beginner at the game of go, but decided not to continue playing the game. After all, if he learns too many skills, he’ll run out of time to deploy them, much less to continue to improve at them.

If you have a desire to learn any of the skills Kaufman took up, for example computer programming, the details he provides about how he learned will prove helpful. Even if you want to learn something quite different, the case studies are inspiring. They show how to approach a completely new area and make the task manageable. In the age of the Internet, this has become far easier than it would have been a few decades ago.

Implications for learning

Kaufman is a learning addict: he loves learning for learning’s sake, as well as for the satisfaction of using skills. Could his approach be applied to schools and universities? In many courses, students in a semester spend more than 20 hours attending classes — at least if they attend as they are expected to — and are supposed to devote many additional hours in study. Yet, based on Kaufman’s account, my impression is that few students learn as much in 100 hours as he does in 20.

There are several reasons for this. Kaufman’s first principle of rapid skill acquisition is “Choose a lovable project.” Many if not most students take courses primarily because they want a diploma or degree. They might enjoy some of the topics, but study is commonly seen as onerous, whereas Kaufman sees it as part of an intensely absorbing challenge.

Another factor is that Kaufman is in charge of his learning process. He chooses what to learn and how to learn it. Students seldom have this autonomy.

Kaufman pushes himself really hard. He designs his deliberate practice so it is maximally effective in achieving goals he has set himself. Most students are driven to study not by their own desires but by targets imposed externally, by their teachers. Kaufman set himself a goal of performing the ukulele before an audience. Students have a goal of passing an exam set by their teacher.

20 hours, but not so rapid

Kaufman wants to acquire skills rapidly. Is it possible to learn efficiently but not so rapidly? I decided to apply a variant of Kaufman’s approach. I acquired some juggling balls and the book Juggling for the Complete Klutz, and started to practise. But rather than doing it intensely, I decided to practise only five minutes per day. After a few months, I could juggle three balls with two hands or two balls with one hand without too much difficulty — in less than 20 hours of practice. I discovered that the key is practising every day, even for just a couple of minutes.

Juggling

While learning, I demonstrated to myself the importance of concentration. If my thoughts wandered for even a second or two, I would inevitably drop the balls.

I’m not as brave as Kaufman: I’m not going to juggle in front of an audience, at least not yet!

Kaufman versus textbooks

A typical textbook tells about subject matter, whether philosophy or physics. What it doesn’t tell is how to go about learning in a really efficient fashion. Educational researchers know a lot about learning, but this is seldom translated into practical guides for high-speed learning. So it takes someone like Kaufman, not a professional educator, to provide an original, inspirational guide. If you really want to learn, enjoy it and get better quickly, then spend a few hours learning from Kaufman’s example.

But there is no substitute for practice, a point that Kaufman reiterates.

If you want to acquire a new skill, you have to practice. There is no other way.

You can prepare. You can research. You can eliminate distractions and alter your environment to make it easier to practice. You can find intelligent ways to make your practice more effective or efficient. But, in the end, you must practice.

What feels like the long way is the shortest way. Zero-practice shortcuts don’t exist. No practice, no skill acquisition. It’s as simple as that.

Why don’t we practice? Simple: we’re busy and we’re scared. …

The major barrier to rapid skill acquisition is not physical or intellectual: it’s emotional. Doing something new is always uncomfortable at first, and it’s easy to waste a ton of time and energy thinking about practicing instead of practicing. …

One final thought: the only time you can choose to practice is today.

Not tomorrow. Not next week. Not next month or next year. Today. (pp. 257-258)

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au

Marking essays: making it easier and more fun

It’s worthwhile discovering methods to make marking more enjoyable. The same methods can be used to tackle other dreaded tasks.

libraryPapers3

Sitting on your desk is a pile of essays that need to be marked. There might be just 10 or 20, or maybe 50, 100 or more. For most teachers, this is not an eagerly awaited task. Is there some way to make marking easier and more enjoyable?

I’ve been marking undergraduate essays for over 25 years and have tried out various methods to make the task less onerous. Gradually I’ve discovered ways that work well for me. You may or may not want to adapt these for your own circumstances. In any case, I encourage you to undertake your own search for better methods. If you’re looking ahead at 25 years of marking, surely it’s worthwhile to explore better ways to go about it.

Pacing

Because marking is generally seen as unpleasant, it is very common to postpone starting. Doing other things, such as reading a book, checking emails, searching the web or even doing housework, suddenly seems more appealing. After all, it really won’t matter much if you start tomorrow. Days and sometimes weeks go by until it becomes urgent to do the marking. Then it becomes a matter of long exhausting hours of mental labour. It seems like a marathon, and only goes to prove that it really was something to be avoided.

The habits of procrastination and bingeing are deep-seated. Most teachers learned them when they were students, cramming for exams or doing all-nighters to write essays.

desk-and-papers

The solution to the syndrome of procrastination and binge marking is simple: tackle just a few essays each day. If I have 80 essays and need to finish marking them in two weeks, I set myself a target of six every day. Six essays seem much less daunting than 80.

The hard part is getting started. It’s best to begin marking the very first day or, if some essays come in early, before the due date.

Robert Boice researched the habits of highly productive new academics, and found the secret of success was working in moderation. Academics who did a little every day — research, writing, class preparation — were vastly more productive than those who waited for big blocks of time to complete tasks in lengthy sessions. Furthermore, the ones who worked in moderation were less stressed.

I can’t tell you how to change habits of procrastination and bingeing; you can learn a lot from various self-help books. All I can say is that it’s one of the most important things you can do to make marking easier.

keep-calm-carry-on-marking-essays-2

Staying fresh

My goal is to approach each essay feeling fresh and positive. Doing only a moderate number of essays per day helps. So does taking breaks. After marking one or two essays, I’ll take a break: a stretch, a snack, some research work, some reading, perhaps the dishes.

If I’m doing only an hour’s worth of marking per day, a break may not be needed. For anything longer, breaks are vital.

Marking requires mental effort, and the mind behaves like a muscle. Do too much and it gets tired and cries out in pain. Do the right amount and it gets stronger day by day. This is another reason for pacing: marking gradually becomes easier. So often it’s better to start with a few essays on the first day and increase the daily target later.

stressed teacher

Going faster

How long does it take to mark an essay? A few teachers I’ve met may spend an hour or more, reading and rereading the essay, writing lengthy comments and agonising over the mark. My goal, though, is to go faster while maintaining quality.

Many people read at 200 to 300 words per minute. Yet it is possible to read several times this fast while maintaining comprehension. To do this requires practice, going a little bit faster until it seems natural, and then pushing to go faster still.

Going faster is similar to progressive training of the body, with greater speed or strength developing over time. It’s also similar to typists who train so they can achieve amazing speeds with great accuracy.

My aim is to be fresh and to maintain concentration so I need to read an essay only once and retain a short-term memory of it, perhaps jotting down a few notes along the way. I then type all my comments. If I feel a need to read the essay again, it usually means I haven’t maintained concentration. Time for a break.

Marking less

Even the most efficient marker can be daunted by the prospect of hundreds of essays. If you have some control over assessments, then there are ways to cut back on the marking load.

One option is to simply reduce the number of assignments. Students are often overloaded with work, and could do a better job on fewer assignments, putting more effort into each one.

Another option is to mark some student performance during class. I used to have students do short oral presentations. With a simple template, I would scribble feedback on a sheet of paper and give this to the students at the end of the class. One advantage for students was getting feedback promptly, which seldom happens with essays.

Yet another option is to have frequent small assignments, but only mark some of them. For example, in one class students had to write eight mini-essays, one per week. However, only two these were marked, in weeks chosen randomly after weeks four and eight. Some students complained that they wanted all their submissions marked; I responded by saying that marking just two of them was equivalent to having an exam in which only two of eight possible questions were asked.

Another source of essay marking overload is writing too many comments. I discovered that some students were discouraged by too much red ink. Others never bothered to read my comments at all. In one case a student – one of the weakest in the class – glanced at the mark and immediately deposited the essay in the rubbish bin. All the effort I had put into commenting on strengths and weaknesses was for naught.

red-ink

For final assignments, some of my colleagues have a policy of asking students to say in advance whether they want comments. Students who don’t ask just receive a mark.

Years ago, I used to correct spelling and grammar as well as give comments on content. But I don’t teach English composition, so why become a proofreader? So I stopped giving detailed feedback on expression, and concentrate on content.

grading+essays

My current system is to write brief comments on each assessment criterion, mentioning strengths and ways to improve, and to supplement this with “general comments” that are generic for the whole class. The general comments explain my expectations and elaborate on how essays could be better. I say in my feedback that if my specific comments don’t say anything about a particular aspect of the assignment, then the student should look to the general comments. This approach avoids the need to write the same comments on essay after essay.

Varied assignments

Monotony is a great source of pain in marking. If there are 50 essays each answering the question “What are the factors behind the rise of social media?” the task quickly becomes tedious. If you are marking essays for someone else’s class and have no control over essay questions, you have my sympathies. Luckily, I’ve usually been able to set my own assignment topics. One of my goals has been to make it interesting for me to mark essays — even the ones that aren’t so good.

Thinking up assignments that are stimulating for students to carry out and for me to mark is not easy, but it has been worthwhile. Two ways of doing this are to give students quite a bit of choice in their topics and to invite or require them to use unconventional formats.

In an environmental politics class, we covered a series of topics such as sustainable development and the precautionary principle. Each week I asked the students to write a comment on that week’s environmental topic using a randomly chosen political, economic or other theory or framework, such as liberalism, militarism, feminism or Buddhism. Then for the final assignment, students had to write a dialogue between two characters, as in a script for a play, with footnotes as appropriate. Each character had to represent or embody some theory, for example Mao Tsetung for Marxism and Gandhi for pacifism. The characters had to discuss some environmental topic. So one possible dialogue would be between Mao and Gandhi discussing sustainable development.

For marking purposes, this assignment was delightful. Every submission was different, and many students were creative in their choices. One student crafted a discussion between Thomas the Tank Engine and Percy the Small Engine. Percy was a Rastafarian and used rasta slang; footnotes explained unusual terms.

When designing such unorthodox assignments, it can be challenging to explain to students exactly what is expected. I’ve found a fairly good method: with students’ permission, I post top assignments from previous years on my website. These show the format expected, for example a dialogue, and by demonstrating really good work can provide an inspiration to do well.

Designing an assignment that is interesting to mark has a spin-off effect. It can change the mode of covering the content. In many cases, I’ve found it effective to let students investigate topics themselves rather than me delivering lectures. For the environmental politics class, we had an excellent textbook for the environmental topics, and I let the students (many of whom were doing an environmental science degree) look up topics like liberalism and Buddhism on their own.

To some, this might seem to be abdicating a teacher’s responsibility to provide authoritative perspectives on content. For me, it is part of encouraging students to learn on their own, including finding relevant readings, understanding concepts and applying them to case studies.

In making marking more enjoyable, I also hope to make learning more enjoyable for students. By getting students to do more work on their own and tackle unorthodox assignments, I hope to encourage student creativity and initiative. I remind myself that for the teacher to work hard often is not all that relevant to student learning. Students learn more when they work hard, and they are more likely to work hard on an interesting assignment. When the assignment is interesting to both students and the teacher, it is a win-win solution.

posting-on-fb

Other applications

If marking can be made reasonably enjoyable, what about other dreaded tasks? What is dreaded depends on the person, and might be paperwork filing, housework, gardening, tax returns or practising the violin. Often it’s whatever you’re avoiding. Whatever the challenge, the same sorts of principles can be applied.

1. Work in moderation, a little bit each day, rather than procrastinating and bingeing.

2. Remain fresh and alert by taking breaks when needed.

3. Practise going a bit faster while maintaining quality.

4. Aim to do what’s good enough, not at perfection.

5. Redesign the task to make it more interesting.

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au

Further reading

Robert Boice, Advice for New Faculty Members: Nihil Nimus (Boston: Allyn & Bacon, 2000): on moderation as a philosophy for academic work.

Charles Duhigg, The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business (New York: Random House, 2012): a fascinating account including advice on changing habits. (See Brian’s commentary.)

http://www.bmartin.cc/classes/: subject outlines and outstanding student work illustrating unusual types of assignments.

Acknowledgements Thanks to Paula Arvela, Don Eldridge, Kathy Flynn and Anne Melano for helpful comments.