Programming: building blocks


Being competent vs. appearing competent

I was speaking to a colleague, recently, who mentioned how frustrating it was to train a new research assistant (RA) at the lab I work in. We were both training this new RA in different tasks that occur in the lab and we found an interesting attribute that truly detriments training.  The new RA seemed to be afraid of appearing incompetent.  This makes sense. This new person probably wants to ensure us that she was the correct hire.  However, this makes it really hard on us as trainers.  Because of this fear, she never asks questions to clarify anything that might be confusing.

My colleague and I get the feeling that she doesn’t quite understand all of it, but she insists that she does (which is possible, but its best to ask the questions now, just in case).  Another problem with this fear is that the new RA does not seem to contribute much individual thought (most likely in fear of saying something that is incorrect).  Without these contributions, its hard to judge whether she will perform ok on her own, unsupervised.  What if something comes up that needs to be solved?  We have no way of knowing if she will be up to the challenge because it seems as though she only responds well to directions.

From the trainer’s perspective (which is probably close to the employer’s perspective) its better to admit incompetence and actively try to achieve competence than act competent.  We really just can’t tell if she is learning anything. Whatever competency level she is at, it doesn’t look as though it will improve anytime soon.

Take an Active Role in Your Education: Play Games

The worst thing about education today is that it is a gift.  Teachers provide and students receive (usually in a lecture format).  Students rarely take an active role in their education and, if they do, it is a small role.  By active role, I don’t necessarily mean “initiative.”  What I mean is, “action.”  Homework, doing a problem in class, or debating in a class discussion are a few examples of what I mean by “active role.”

From my own experience, I have found that I must take a very active role when I am trying to process information.  Merely listening to a lecture is usually not enough.  If it isn’t stylized as a discussion or if there isn’t a problem to be solved, most of the information escapes me before the end of class.  Upon further reflection, it became clear that the best way for me to remember classroom content is to process the information and the best way for me to process  information is to have a reason to.  For example, in discussion based classes, an argument is constantly being formed.  As the teacher talks, I analyze why the teacher’s statements make sense (or don’t) and then prepare an argument for my analysis on the presented topic. By vocalizing out loud, I hear my words and can confirm (and occasionally deny) the sense and completeness of my own sentences.  In classes where there are problems to solve, a similar thing happens, I obtain information from the teacher, attempt to apply it on paper and, as the teacher goes through it, I confirm or deny my thoughts and hypothesis about the information I just received.  However, sometimes when teachers use practice problems in class, they give step by step instructions and I passively copy it down. (I would like to note, however, that traditional lectures are enough to receive an A in the course, and/or write decent papers on the topic.  The problem I am stating is, though I receive information, I am not learning much from it.  I cannot apply it, but I think it would definitely be useful for trivia night).

This may be because I am a lazy student and its my fault for not paying strict enough attention to the material coming out of the teacher’s mouth.  However, I think it has more to do with the fact that I am trying to listen so hard or taking notes so ferociously that I don’t have any time or brain space to understand the information.  In my attempts to gather all of the information presented in class, I accidentally lose it all.

However, by making information processing (which I will define as making sense of ideas through problem solving) a priority and giving information gathering a more passive role, learning will be much more natural.

This problem solving/information processing aspect is what makes games so engagingly addicting compared to school work and lecture.  Any good game is intellectually stimulating and challenging, which is one of the main reasons why it is so fun (to those who call video games brainless, read this article).  In games, there is always a reason to think.  In lecture, the primary goal is to hear and focusing on hearing, which often makes me think more about hearing and how it works, or how incredible it is that humans developed such complex and useful language skills.  Even in the most interesting lectures, I occasionally get distracted.  In games, the level of focus is extreme.

Although I would say that I am more of a gaming enthusiast than others (for me personally, I am including videogames, card games, boardgames and puzzle games), I don’t think my addiction to them is an odd phenomenon.  I think many demonstrate  symptoms for this addiction and those that don’t haven’t exposed themselves to the germ enough.

Try this: MinecraftEDU

Learning Without Obligation

I am currently in a very enjoyable class. There are no tests and no papers. We are not evaluated in any way for the knowledge that is presented in class. Where do we get our grades from? We are responsible for three presentations in front of the rest of the class: the first is on a chapter in the book, the second is on a research paper related to one of the chapters in the book, and the third is a group project based on a chapter in the book.

Despite having no obligation or responsibility over the material, I have never paid stricter attention than in this class. So, in terms of educational gains, I am learning a lot.

How could this be? Shouldn’t I be relieved and proceed to space out? There are a couple of factors that prevent this:

1. Technology use is forbidden: I can’t play computer games.
2. We have to evaluate our peers’ presentations: there is a minimum amount we need to pay attention to (alternatively, we could just make up our evaluations without penalty, but I don’t and I doubt my classmates do either).
3. There is discussion in the second half of class: there’s a possibility of sounding stupid during this part.

The above factors are not very strong but subtle enough to get the most important factor going:

As it turns out, this class is interesting

Without the obligation of needing to “learn” (or shall I say, “memorize”) terms, when they fit, when they don’t, when its used in a tricky way, or other ways it might be tested, I spend less time taking notes and straining to catch every word and more time relaxing, listening, and making eye contact with the speaker. The amount of effort used to stressfully “learn” is enough to tire anyone to just retreat, chat online instead, and cram later (at least you only have to do it once, instead of multiple times a week).

We run into some problems of course. How can we assess whether a student has learned anything? According to the current syllabus, it is obvious whether or not a student has learned their designated chapters according to their presentations. There is also some evidence that a student has learned according to their participation in the discussion. The second, however, is not guaranteed factual learning like a test might be.

However, what do we want out of a class?

Ask any student and they will tell you that for most tests, they cram hard and almost instantly forget everything they just “learned” once the test is over. Rather than memorizing the facts, perhaps it is more important to learn how to think in context with the subject. How do we solve problems in this field? How can we think about this? What are some strategies to tackle these problems in this subject? In order to answer these questions, facts are naturally needed and learned along the way (and it may encourage individual and extra research from the student). Although, a student may not be able to reproduce every single detail of the class, but is that really important?

Projects are the best way to demonstrate and practice thinking within a subject. Whether it’s an engineering design project, writing a short story, performing a literature review, or conducting a presentation, a student must have a grasp of the knowledge of the class and must know how to use it (which is arguably the important part) in order to produce a good product. Projects that are shared with peers often encourage even better results as their is an added responsibility for students to represent themselves well.

Bonus about projects: it allows a student room to go above and beyond the class’ expectations.

Publishers take ownership of research papers, instead of authors

Research, an essential part of a university and its faculty, could be at odds with legality. In a presentation at The Conference on Higher Education Pedagogy at Virginia Tech (2013), Robert Turner, a Librarian at Radford University, and Scott Turner, an associate professor of Computer Science at UNC Pembroke, brought to light the issue that many professors are probably illegally distributing and using content in their classrooms according to copyright laws on accident.

When a paper is published to a peer-reviewed journal, depending on the agreement that a researcher signed, that paper could be owned, 100%, by the publisher. This means that if a colleague was interested in your work, you might not be legally entitled to email him a copy of the PDF. However, the publisher may be kind enough to offer the author 20 or so copies to share with his peers. When teaching a class, a professor might not be able to even upload his own paper to Blackboard, Scholar, or whatever other online organizational medium his institution uses, which leads to the first tip to avoid trouble:

TIP #1

Use a direct link from the online journal instead of a PDF from your computer.

This works because it gives control of the distribution to the publisher. Of course, this comes with all sorts of inconveniences, such as: your colleague or students do not have access to the journal.

But this seems like a big Catch-22: to legitimize research, the author needs to submit it for peer review and then publish. However, once published, the author can’t even truly access their own paper because they no longer really own it. Credit is given to them, but they can’t distribute it if they wanted to. This is strange when, one of the major reasons to publish research in the first place is to improve upon previous research and suggest where new research should be conducted–essentially, we need to read each others work. So what can you do? Universities spend hundreds of thousands of dollars for access to all of these journals when their employees, the professors and creators of these research papers, are not getting reconciled for their work. (Actually, review board members don’t really get paid either). The only people who get paid are the publishers. As most things are online already (and many people prefer them to be online), there is little to no cost for them “publishing” the work. So, here comes tip number 2:


Forget “publishing,” share your work freely with peer-reviewed open source publications, such as PLOS ONE.

Publishing it to a paying journal doesn’t make it any more legitimized and hides research papers making them inaccessible or inconvenient for the people who need it. We might be repeating a lot of work and wasting time. Information, is more powerful and important than the money (which really only goes to the middle-man anyway).

A list of other open source, peer reviewed journals:

A successful strategy to avoid the “Why?”

Parents often hate answering the question “why?” when their children suddenly become obsessed with that word around the age of 4 (when they’ve gained enough vocabulary to understand and to express themselves fairly well).  Parents usually find it annoying: children ask that question constantly–to even the littlest things–AND it lasts forever:

“Why is the game over when the Jenga tower is knocked down?”
“Because it’s the object of the game.”
“Because it says so on the box.”
“Because its hard to pull out pieces.”
“because…don’t you have something else to do?

Over the summer, I visited my cousin’s family where they have a 4-year-old son.  There I learned the magical wisdom of

how to avoid it:

“Why is the game over when the Jenga tower is knocked down?”
“Why do you think, Johnny?”
“Because when it is knocked over you can’t play anymore?”
“Yes, Johnny! That’s exactly right!”

The important difference here is to ask the question back.  Chances are, the child either already knows the answer (or at least knows something very close to the answer) or can figure it out.  In learning, it is important to clarify the answers that the child provides to his own question.  This can be done by asking bonus questions:

“Johnny, why do you think the Jenga tower would get knocked down?”
“Because its hard to pull out the pieces without it falling over?”
“Yes, Johnny! Why might it be hard?”
“Because when you pull one from this side, the other side gets tipped over?”
“That’s right! It gets tipped over because the tower is out of balance. See? Its uneven.”
“Why is it uneven?”
“Why do you think?
“There are less on this side than that side?
“That’s absolutely right! Great job, Johnny!”

Bonus questions = bonus points for parenthood: Now the child has some knowledge of basic mechanics.

Elementary School Model Better Than Middle Schools?

Recent research suggests that middle schools are not the ideal model for students.  Students who participate in K-8 elementary schools do much better in math and reading.  Why might that be?

by Scotty Reifsnyder

by Scotty Reifsnyder

An article called Do Middle Schools Make Sense? by Mary Tamer, highlights recent research in Florida middle schools. The article explains that children who go through the transition of middle school lose ground in math and reading. These kids are also a lot more likely to drop out by 10th grade. The study suggests that this might be due to the corresponding social transition that occurs:

“kids tend to say they feel safer [in K-8], so there is less of a Lord of the Flies environment at a critical stage when they are “navigating through social currents. For many kids, it’s distracting.”

K-8 school children also experience a drop when they enter Highschool. However, the drop is quickly recovered and they come back up by 10th grade. Children who go through middle school experience a sharp drop and continue to decline through middle school–some even into Highschool. This implies that its middle school, not just the transition, that is affecting students. The question that remains is, why?

When assistant principle Joseph Bumsted stated,

“The things that make it especially difficult moving from grade five to grade six is the students go from a self-contained, supportive atmosphere where they have one teacher they know … to sixth grade and they are confronted with seven different [teachers’] personalities. They don’t know how to handle it,”

I think he noted a very important distinction between middle school and elementary (K-8) school in a way that he might not have intended. Perhaps, the elementary school model is better from a student perspective because of the reasons he stated: “supportive atmosphere where they have one teacher they know.” This allows a student to have a very individualized education. Teachers only have to handle 30 students per year, instead of more than a hundred. Teachers get to know each of their students rather than just their favorites. With this in mind, teachers in a K-8 school can easily adjust their curriculums and teaching styles to fit each of their students.

Another benefit is that there are no set time constraints per subject as there are in middle school, where every class is held for about 50 minutes. In class with one teacher who teaches all of the subjects, the teacher can adjust how much time is spent on each subject in reference to how much time the teacher’s individual class needs. So if the class understands fractions easily, they can spend less time on it and more time on understanding geology. This also allows the teacher to set time aside for a free period, as needed, where students can work in groups and ask the teacher questions.

However, one major setback to having one teacher is the problem of expertise.  The major benefit to requiring students to switch classes every 50 minutes (in Highschools with block scheduling, about 1.5 hours) is that they get to experience a teacher who is an expert in the field.  One single teacher probably cannot teach physics while teaching other subjects as well as a teacher who only teaches physics.

Is there a way to integrate the specialized teachers from Highschool and the individualized structure of elementary schools?