Grading for the modern world

Dan Pink extensively talks about motivation and purpose.  I don’t disagree with the science he discusses, but I do wonder if it applies to most universities and the particular type of students we work with.


There are colleges in the US that don’t assign grades.  Brown College hasn’t recorded failing grades since 1969.  At Reed College student’s are given letter grades that are recorded by the university, but the student doesn’t get access to them unless they receive a grade less than C.  Both Reed and Brown are prestigious schools and I don’t think the value of a degree from either institution is mitigated by their grading strategy.  In fact, I think the uniqueness of student’s transcripts requires evaluators to consider a more holistic view.

But Brown and Reed attract a very specific type of student.  Brown has an acceptance rate of 9%.  Students who attend have already shown that they are able to jump through hoops, follow directions, and get a good grade.  They’ve been trained to work inside a system and as high school seniors have the freedom to choose to work outside it.

I’ve talked about my nontraditional upbringing on this blog before, so I won’t go too much into it right now.  But I didn’t receive my first graded work until I took classes at a semester school at a sophomore in high school.  I totally bombed my first test because I didn’t know how to study.  Fortunately, I had great mentors and peers who modeled good studying skills, but I had to learn (at a much older age than most people) how to work within the system.  And as rough as it was, I am so glad that I did.

Despite our most radical ideas about how we should live in a completely intrinsically motivated world, it is vital that we teach our students to survive in the industrialized workforce that they will spend most of their lives in.  Although I think it’s changing (especially in the tech industry),  it is our job as educators to prepare students for what employers expect.  And, to be realistic, employers expect grades.


Disclaimer- extensive written evaluation is so important and so helpful.

Not-So-Hidden Brain

I’m actually a big fan of most NPR podcasts and I appreciate what Shankar Vedantam does in communicating social science to wider populations.

The excerpt from his book was appalling.  I hadn’t heard that story, but I wish it was more surprising to me.  It is a good example of several social psychology principles: bystander effect, groupthink, etc.  But I think the reason we read it for this class is the idea of implicit biases.  I am sure that the color of Deletha’s skin implicitly influenced some of the crowd to think that she had done something to deserve what was happening to her.

The psychology department hosts diversity and inclusion discussions quite regularly and even has a non-academic certificate that students and faculty can earn.  If you’re interested, HERE is the link  to the schedule and information.

HERE is a piece from Hidden Brain about how black Judges rulings are more often reversed on appeal than white judges.  Talk about implicit bias!  HERE is another piece that talks about discrimination in AirBnB and Uber. As much as we try and prevent biases and stereotypes, that are hard to get rid of.

Of course, I think it’s interesting to think about the neuroscience of implicit bias. THIS awesome review from Nature Neuroscience discusses what we know about the brain and race.  They discuss four brain regions associated with judgements implicitly or explicitly associated with race.


Because implicit biases are notoriously difficult to eradicate, however there are some newly emerging strategies to address it.  THIS study shows that meditation can attentuate racial and age biases on an implicit association test (IAT).  If you’ve never taken an IAT you can do so HERE.  I think that neurofeedback could potentially treat implicit biases by requiring people to adjust their thoughts, rather than their behavior.

Lots of work still to be done, but I’m glad that implicit biases are being talked about!



Digital Learners Makes Me Think of the Sims

I really wish we had some empirical scientific readings for this week.  James Paul Gee has some great references in his introduction ( love Pinker’s 1999 article in the New York Academy of Sciences), but they were all pretty out of date and cognitive psychology has come a long way since the early 2000s.  I don’t know anything about gaming, so it’s difficult for me to evaluate if any of Gee’s hypotheses about the future of video games have come to fruition.

Luckily, there are a whole bunch of recent articles testing his hypotheses about learning in video games:

Unsworth, N., Redick, T. S., McMillan, B. D., Hambrick, D. Z., Kane, M. J., & Engle, R. W. (2015). Is playing video games related to cognitive abilities?.Psychological science, 26(6), 759-774.

Green, C. S., & Bavelier, D. (2015). Action video game training for cognitive enhancement. Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences, 4, 103-108.

Theng, Y. L., Lee, J. W., Patinadan, P. V., & Foo, S. S. (2015). The use of videogames, gamification, and virtual environments in the self-management of diabetes: A systematic review of evidence. Games for health journal, 4(5), 352-361.

Video games for managing diabetes?  What?!

In a somewhat related note, I am currently working on a project using an augmented reality system and neurofeedback to improve emotion recognition in people with autism. I don’t know the first thing about the augmented reality part, but apparently the motivation is that by making it more like a game, our participants will be more invested  in the intervention.  I’m interested to see if and how it works!

Also slightly related to the Carrie article, I did model UN in college and it really reminded me of the Reacting to the Past method he talked about.  I love the competition and team aspect, but I learned a lot about geopolitics and history from doing MUN. I would definitely be interested in learning more about this method (especially quantitative analysis of its effectiveness!).

I think there is a fine line between engaging students and putting on a show for them.  My worry with these types of “learner centered processes” are that they put the onus of the student’s engagement on the teacher and not the student.  I very much believe that if a student is not ready to tackle classes with fervor that they should take some time off until they see the benefit of taking a class.



Sims, Freddie Fish, and Pajama Sam.  Classics.



Who Am I?



I have genuinely struggled to find my “authentic teaching self.”  Now that I have four semesters of teaching behind me, I can absolutely say that I’ve become more comfortable in the classroom and am (hopefully) a better teacher, but I don’t know if I can say I am fully myself when I’m teaching.And who’s to say that my authentic slef is a good teacher, anyway (see Cameron Diaz, above).

Then again, I often feel like I’m not fully myself around groups of peers or people of authority.  Am I more “my authentic self” when I’m in a meeting with my advisor?  Or when I’m with my closest friends?   I would say friends, of course.  But then again I’m different around my friends than I am with my family.  Which one is more authentic?

In psychology and sociology there is a theory called “role strain.” It basically is the idea that is is often difficult to maintain all the conflicting aspects that make up one’s role in society.  For example in retail there is often role strain between employees being expected to connect to the customer and make them feel appreciated and the expectation that they move as quickly as possible through the line of waiting customers.

I think the idea of role strain is important to remember is our discussion of teaching.   Of course, Deel might respond that by being more authentic to herself she reduced her role strain and stress associated with teaching, but I think that by telling young teachers that not only must they be engaging, fair, and knowledgable, but that they must manage to find all of those things within their own “authenticity” is overwhelming.


When we started watching Ken Robinson’s TED talk in class I was astonished about the similarities between what he was saying and the way I was raised.

I don’t come from a traditional education.  I was homeschooled from age 8 through high school.  This was mostly my choice.  As an eight year old I hated school lunches and waking up early.  I loved to read and play outside and asked my mom if I could be homeschooled instead of returning for fourth grade.  My parents believed in actualizing their children’s requests and acquiesced.



Southpark gif


Although I was required to do math every day after lunch and we followed a literature based curriculum for history, most of my education was inspired by “unschooling.” This autodidactic educational philosophy postulates that children will learn what they need to learn in order to meet their goals.  I a lot of ways this worked out for me and my peers.  When we wanted to put on a production of the Hobbit, we had to learn how to summarize great works of literature, type scripts, make copies, manage people, sew costumes, etc. When my friends decided they wanted to build trebuchets they learned physics and wood building.   When we made our house into a restaurant and invited 50 people over for lunch we learned how to plan a menu, customer service, and how to make change.  All in all, I had a pretty idyllic childhood.  When I decided I wanted to go to hippy boarding school in the woods I had to learn how to study for a test and do homework.

I don’t disagree with Ken Robinson. I also am not shocked by what he’s saying or the points he makes about the issues with contemporary education.  For someone raised the way I was, it all seems pretty obvious.

What is most interesting to me and makes me question Robinson’s understanding of alternative education is when he says that the issue is that we are training our children to be college professors.  At least 50% of the 10-15 children I grew up with in my homeschool group have gone on to get masters or doctoral degrees.  This is well above the national average of around 12%.  I’m not sure what I’m trying to say, but it seems obvious to me based on my personal experience that going through life, according to Robinson, being trained to be a college professor is not a requirement to becoming a professor.

Which I think even strengthens the argument that he’s trying to make.   Our education system isn’t even doing a good job of the job it’s trying to do.



Coalescence, convalescence, and contemporary pedagogy

In the first 14 drafts of my statement of purpose to get into graduate school I had the words coalescence and convalescence mixed up.  They’re both fancy words that sound similar and I thought “the convalescence of my deep interest in stories and the brain” sounded like something a graduate student would say.  Fortunately, my mom (who is way smarter than me and taught me everything I know.  For real.  More on being a recovering homeschooler later) caught the error. The sentence still sounded pretentious and was poorly written, but at least I wasn’t talking about how being an invalid should qualify me for graduate school.

Two morals from this story:

  1. Always have your mother (or someone, anyone) proofread anything you write.
  2. Sometime you mean what you say even when you don’t mean to.

I’m already almost to 150 words.  Shoot.

I started reading the “Why We Need a Why” unit on Connected Courses.  I started thinking about my why for teaching.  I thought about how broad and overused the term “critical thinking” is.  Because of course that’s my why.  I got distracted and checked facebook.  And right there on my wall was a post from a friend from college who just graduated from seminary was a post with a link to an Inside Higher Ed article about a letter from the President of University of Chicago telling students not expect “trigger warnings” or “safe spaces” at their school.

Man, I love it when my worlds coalesce (see what I did there).

That article led me to another article on IHE about the importance of students feeling safe before they can be challenged or made uncomfortable. Because I think (and I might be wrong) but most pedagologicalists would agree that in order to learn, really learn, there has to be some degree of discomfort or stretching (but maybe not. I’m not a pedagologicalist).  In this article, Warner discusses the importance of safe spaces and informing students of the context of your class (the WHY, if you will) before expecting them to expose themselves and take risks.  Because, Warner argues, we are all convalescents (full circle, right?) and recovering from our own wounds and personal experiences that color our views.  Students (and faculty) need to know why we’re being made to listen to opinions that hurt those still raw injuries (whether it be sexual assault, racism, or even common sense) before being expected to engage with classmates or course material.

So maybe being a convalescent should have been in my statement of purpose.  Too late now, I’m already here.


Rejection sucks. But it’s OK.

I submitted my first first-author publication in June.  It was a great start to the summer and it felt great to finally get something under review.  My advisor and coauthors were excited about the manuscript and I was super proud of it.  It seemed perfect, a year prior the editor of the journal we submitted to had come up to my poster at a major conference in my field and asked me to write up the poster and send it to him.

So I did.

And then on the first week of my amazing honeymoon in Costa Rica (more on the stress of planning a wedding and being in grad school later), I got the rejection letter.

Fortunately being in the beautiful foothills of an active volcano with a private hot spring and a swim up bar made it sting a little less.  It wasn’t until this week when I finally had to step back into the academic school year and weekly meetings with people who expect me to get stuff done did I actually have time to pause and reflect about how much rejection sucks.  But how good it is for someone like me.

At the request of some of my friends I finally took the Strengthsquest assessment (if you have a email address you can take it for free here).  I consider myself a neuroscientist and although I occasionally dabble in questionnaires, I do NOT use personality tests in my research.  Like at all.  If it weren’t for teaching Intro Psych I wouldn’t be able to name the Big 5 personality traits.

I enjoyed taking the assessment, mostly because I like talking about myself and my strengths (even if it’s just to a computer algorithm).  And my results were pretty consistent with how I see myself and how I like to portray myself (for a review of issues with online personality tests click here).

My top 5 strengths were:

  1. Input
  2. Learner
  3. Connectedness
  4. Achiever
  5. Futuristic

As anyone who knows me would expect, both input and learner are characterized by continuously wanting to improve and be the best.

I like being right.  I like being good at things.  And, for the most part, I’m able to regularly do the things I excel at and ignore and avoid the things I’m bad at.  And it’s rare that I put myself in situations where I even have a chance at being rejected and told I’m not good enough.

So this academic, completely non-personal rejection was new for me.  And I know it’s something I’m going to have to get used to as an academic.  There are a myriad of issues with the way that academic publishing works and I sincerely hope that I can be part of the movement to change things.  But, regardless of how things will change, peer review and discrimination in what information gets published is important.

And sometimes it’s good for you.

Revise and resubmit elsewhere, baby.