Teaching to the Test

phd101008sI’m now (perhaps later than most) recognizing the problems caused by the practice of assessing education and basing teachers’ pay and promotions on standardized test performance by their students. I want educated people to be capable of solving a problem, of taking information and applying it, of seeking out solutions. Many current students, the products of 12 years of pre-college education in which their success is judged by their ability to provide the correct response to a standardized question, expect the same gauge of their knowledge to be applied in college (and perhaps in the rest of life).  There was a time when the question, “Do we need to know this for the test?” meant, “Do we need to understand this material and be capable of applying it?”  Now more often than not it means, “If we can repeat this phrase will we get an ‘A’?”phd120310s

Success in graduate school or in a job will come not through parroting information back to a mentor/supervisor, but through extending the available information to learn something new, to answer some new question, to solve an unanticipated problem.  I don’t now how to teach students to do this; all I can do is to encourage and reward those who make efforts in this direction.  Sure, there will be some questions on my exams that can be answered correctly with a memorized phrase, but there will also be many questions that require thought.  Let’s work to encourage thinking.

[I posted this after I was asked by students to hold a review session before the next exam, because even though I tell them that they need to know it all for the exam, they want me to tell them what they need to know (could I be any clearer?).  To attempt to address their request for clarity, I have created a web page that I will update every day with some of the questions that they should be able to answer if they understand the material from that day's class.  To me this feels way too much like teaching to the test, and in fact offers them nothing that they could not offer themselves if they thought about the class material.  We'll see how it goes.]

Behavior’s Relevance Acknowledged

Photos: D. Bishop, UCL and Kavli Institute, NTNU, CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons - I got he image from www.nobelprize.org

Photos: D. Bishop, UCL and Kavli Institute, NTNU, CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons – I got the image from www.nobelprize.org

The announcement today that O’Keefe, Moser, & Moser would share the 2014 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine was great news for those of us who study behavior.  The work done by these scientists and their many students and collaborators has done much to elucidate how the brain determines and tracks our location in space.  Working together, the Place Cells of O’Keefe and the Grid Cells of Moser and Moser map our location onto a neural GPS system.  The image below provides a brief overview, as does this TED talk by Burgess.

Here I want to address a consequence of this announcement that might be lost on many: this Nobel Prize asserts the importance of behavioral studies.  The Place and Grid Cells could only have been discovered in studies of behaving animals; no amount of work at the biochemical, neurophysiological, or anatomical level alone could have told us anything about the function of these cells.  Behavioral research is messy: lots of variability, many factors to control, the vagaries of living, behaving animals with which to deal.  Scientists who conduct behavioral research are often doing the hardest part of the job of determining how the brain works.

from www.nobelprize.org

from www.nobelprize.org

Despite this, behavioral work is often undervalued.  In 1990 (or so) the Society for Neuroscience hosted a gathering at its annual meeting at which the topic was “Is there a place for behavior in neuroscience?” [Note that I no longer have programs from that meeting and I cannot find them online, so I am reconstructing the title and the year of this event from memory.  Please email me at wjwilsonATalbion.edu if you can provide the details.] This was seriously discussed, and there were people present who argued that neuroscience no longer needed behavioral studies.  Neuroscience as a discipline had originated at the boundary (or perhaps at the overlap) between psychology and biology, but by 1993 behavioral studies were in the minority at the meeting, with many papers and posters devoted to biochemistry, physiology, anatomy, genetics… all important, but all reductionist to the point that they cannot explain behavioral phenomena without additional studies at the level of behavior.  The decision by the Nobel Assembly to recognize the work by O’Keefe, Moser, & Moser reinforces the importance of behavioral work.

Many young behavioral neuroscientists, concerned about the need to publish several papers in order to get tenure, leave behavior in favor of physiology or anatomy because those studies are easier and publications can come faster.  Perhaps this Nobel Prize announcement will convince some to maintain at least an aspect of their research program squarely focused on behavior.  After all, the need to behave in response to environmental cues is probably the reason we have a nervous system in the first place.


Dick Thompson – In Memoriam


Dick Thompson with his granddaughter (I think) at the 2005 Pavlovian Society meeting in Anaheim.



Thompson with Elizabeth Loftus at the 2005 Pavlovian Society meeting in Anaheim, CA.

Behavioral Neuroscience lost a giant last week; Dick Thompson died at home in California just before the 2014 meeting of the Pavlovian Society was getting underway in Seattle. It is safe to say that few scientists over the course of the past 60 years have had an impact on research into the neural mechanisms of learning and memory matching that of Dick.  Rather than recounting his scientific contributions here, sweeping and significant as they are, I prefer to focus on his human side — in particular how he touched me and my students.


At the 2011 Pavlovian Society meeting in Minneapolis. Amanda Blaker, Charisa Giddings, Thompson, me.


With Albion neuroscience students at the 2004 Society for Neuroscience meeting in San Diego.


Dick’s sense of humor was apparent in his talks. Here he suggests what one of his experimental rabbits might be thinking (hard to see – the photo shows the rabbit imagining Thomson in an eye-blink experiment).


Dick with Robert Rescorla, winner of the Pavlovian Society’s Gantt Medal (2005).


Dick with Albion neuroscience students at the 2007 SfN meeting in San Diego. Cindy (Cardwell) Fast, Megan (Roberts) Langford, Mieke (Verhoeven) Hovey, Paul Beach, Thompson, David Wreschning, and unlabelled person in front.

My first encounter with Thompson’s work came in my second year of college, in my Intro Psych course. We used his book for the segment on what was then called “Physiological Psychology.”  That book and Earl Thomas’ teaching hooked me.


Thompson with other past and future Pavlovian Society Presidents, 2006. [From left: Rick Servatius, Dick Thompson, Lou Matzel, Michael Domjan, Ralph Miller, Tracey Shors, Bruce Overmier, Joe Steinmetz, Michael Fanselow]

Although I am sure that I heard him speak at UCLA while I was there as a grad student, my first personal encounter with Thompson came (I think) at a Psychonomic Society meeting in Atlanta in 1989.  I presented a poster and Thompson came by, looked it over, and had a few kind words to say about it (probably out of pity for this poor, misguided young scientist).  At that same meeting I recall seeing him with Elizabeth Loftus, having drinks at the hotel bar; “Wow,” I thought, “Two really important psychologists and they know each other!” (Kind of along the lines of finally realizing that your elementary school teachers have a life outside of the classroom.)

Fast forward many years. Although I had followed Thompson’s work and heard him speak, I had no further contact with him until I started attending the meetings of the Pavlovian Society in 2001.  Thompson presented there (Richard F. Thompson, USC   “Mice, the cerebellum and memories”) and I know that I spoke with him, but I have no specific recollection of our discussion.  I was emboldened, though, by having interacted with him at the meeting, so I asked him if he would meet with Albion  students at the 2004 Society for Neuroscience meeting in San Diego.  He graciously agreed, and our students gained his insights into both research and a career in science.  He met with us again in 2007.

Thompson’s reach was very broad; an examination of NeuroTree today (9/22/2014) though hardly complete, indicates 35 direct scientific decendants (PhD students and post-docs) and 247 scientific grandchildren (we all know that NeuroTree can list people in various places; some were counted twice, but others were never entered, so I’ll go with these numbers).

As I became more involved with the Pavlovian Society I got to know him better, and interacted with him closely in planning the 2005 meeting that he hosted in Anaheim.  I did not know him as well as many who had collaborated directly with him on research, but I considered him a friend, and felt enriched by our friendship.  He had achieved a level of recognition in science that surpasses that of nearly all of us, yet he was always willing to talk with junior colleagues, and especially with students (many of whom did not realize his important contributions at the time).

r0100039 r0100030 IMG_3893 IMG_3945

Thanks for the great science, Dick, and for your friendship.

Neurophysiology Research

How fast is that signal that travels through your neurons?  It’s an important question, in part because we are quite literally unaware of the time it takes for it to happen (you were touched on the hand when you felt it, not before).  We feel as if we experience the world instantly, react instantly, but we don’t. We feel and react only as quickly as our nervous system can respond.

Later we’ll measure the speed of signals travelling through the nervous system with fancy electrophysiological equipment; here we do it with a meter stick and a stopwatch.  We measured how long it took for a squeeze to travel around a ring of people holding hands, then cut out a length of axon (the part of the nerve cell that caries a signal over a long distance) by having the squeeze go to the next person’s shoulder rather than hand.  The difference in time between the long loop and the short loop represents the time necessary for the signal to travel through the removed axon.

Our answer:  somewhere between 9 and 30 meters per sec (depending on which of our two lab groups you choose to believe).  Others have determined the speed in these sensory axons to be on the order of 30 – 75 m/s, so we were pretty close (certainly order of magnitude close).

The fact that signals take time to move around the nervous system has profound implications.  We live in the present moment, but the present moment that we experience actually occurred a few fractions of a second earlier. By the time we are consciously aware of something, it’s old news.  We are unaware of the delay — it cannot be otherwise. You cannot know that something happened until information about it is processed in your brain; you cannot process information in your brain before that information gets to your brain.  There is no possibility of experiencing the world in real time, or for that matter of reacting to the world in real time.

Think about it.

A New Academic Year

To all of our returning students, Welcome back!

And to the new faces on campus, Welcome!

It’s time to get serious about learning.  Here are links to a few blog posts that I have written over the past few years in which I offer some guidance to students about how to succeed.  I tend to think beyond immediate success in a course; these posts address issues related to doing what you need to do now so that you can get on with your life after college.the_difference

And to students who haven’t yet figured this out: professors are here to help you learn. Ask us questions, come to our office hours, view us as your allies in the quest for knowledge. If you want to understand something, we will work hard to make that happen.  If you want a good grade we can’t do much for you.

A desire to understand will lead to good grades; a desire for good grades will not lead to understanding.

It’s not plagiarized ‘cuz I changed the words!

Blue - original; yellow - copy. Click for entire annotated file.

Albion Alum Cindy (Cardwell) Fast

Here’s a blatant example of plagiarism. gleaned from the interwebs thanks to my friend and former student Cindy Fast.  Cindy is a co-author on a recent study that suggests that obesity is a cause rather than a result of laziness.  Rats on junk food diets became obese (no surprise) and thereafter were lazier than the control group.  Nice study – see a UCLA news release about it here.

As is often the case, internet news sites have picked up on the study – it clearly has some appeal to the general public – and here’s where the fun begins.  Cindy noticed a web site that posted an article about the study (as I view it right now the Breaking News at the top of the page says “KATE UPTON POSED IN SEXY BIKINIS AT BOEING-727 WITH ZERO GRAVITY” – clearly a high-quality site).  What Cindy also noted was that the article on this www.dailynewsen.com site was essentially identical to the UCLA news release, with some synonyms replacing words from the original.  Now I understand that the purpose of a news release is to get the word out about something, and I know that these releases are frequently used verbatim by the media.  This case is different it seems to me, because daileynewsen.com modified the release, often butchering the meaning and the English language, presumably to disguise the fact that they simply copied from the news release.

I found their attempt remarkable, and sad, because of its similarity to what I sometimes see in student papers.  Many students do not realize that “putting something in your own words” does not mean “substituting synonyms for the words in the original.”  Plagiarism detection software is often fooled by this, but a reader with even minimal acumen can detect it quickly without access to the original; sometimes words just seem wrong or out of place when they are substituted in place of someone else’s words.

So, I annotated this, and I post it here, for your education and your viewing pleasure.  Students: please understand that you should not simply change the words of someone else’s writing — this does not make it yours. And to those students who have a paper due in my class in two days: make whatever changes are necessary, and quickly (or should I say “and fast”).

P.S. How did Cindy notice the word substitutions?  The copying web site substituted a synonym in one of the most obvious places that a co-author whose work is  being described might look — they listed her as Cynthia D. Quickly.

Backyard Brains – Spring 2014

Students in the Neurophysiology for Beginners course welcomed Tim Marzullo, co-founder of Backyard Brains, to our lab9_8msec recently.  Tim and his partner Greg Gage founded Backyard Brains to make neuroscience equipment available at low cost, hoping to jump-start the neuro revolution.  By putting neuroscience tools in the hands of students earlier in their careers, Backyard Brains hopes to bring more people into neuroscience and thereby increase the number of people working to fix problems with the brain.


Coming to Fruition

John Bingham

In the Summer of 2010 I decided to switch my research focus from mammalian learning to learning in earthworms.  The reasons for the decision are still not entirely clear, even to me. Experiments with rats were starting to require more paperwork and approval, slowing the process and making student-drive projects in the time frame of a single semester nearly impossible… Rats are expensive (~$30 each) and money is tight…  I felt at a dead-end with regard to my rat studies… Whatever the reason, I wanted a change.

One of my first psychology studies ever (during a 6-week psychology segment in high school – thanks Mr. Bingham!) involved training earthworms to turn left in a T-maze.  It worked, sort of – the worms achieved about 70% accuracy, as I recall.  This was in 1972 or 1973 – around the time that Rosenkoetter & Boyce were publishing their work showing that T-maze learning research in earthworms was flawed, and essentially putting an end to instrumental learning studies in earthworms.  As a poorly-read high-school student, I knew nothing of their work.

Maybe it was a memory of this early study that brought me back to earthworms, but whatever the reason, I made the change.

Many enthusiastic student researchers later (two summer FURSCA students and 11 other students who have contributed to presentations at meeting), the research is clearly paying off.  First sign of this was an invitation to present at a symposium in 2011 associated with the Society for Neuroscience meeting in Washington, DC.  Now two papers related to my earthworm work have been published:

PeerJ  (with three Albion alums!)

Advances in Physiology Education

So what good will come from this line of research?  Well, if I’m being really optimistic, I’ll tell you that we’ll gain a better understanding of how learning and memory work at a neural level – not just in earthworms but in humans as well – with implications for cures for memory disorders.  If I’m being a bit less optimistic I’ll argue that we’ll increase knowledge about this particular animal, and basic knowledge in and of itself is a good thing.  But regardless of my level of optimism, I’ll tell you that the research allows many bright students to become better scientists, developing their research design, data analysis, and laboratory skills.  This is enough.

Fun with Dominoes

In Neurophysiology for Beginners we used dominoes to explore some of the basic principles of action potentials (all-or-none nature of the signal, temporal coding, etc.).  Of course, students couldn’t resist getting creative with them.

Click for gallery of Lytro photos.

 And here are some cross-view 3D images; cross your eyes until a fused image appears in the center and it will we 3D, like the old ViewMaster pictures.


Falcon’s-Eye View

Ever wonder what it would be like to be a falcon?  Suzanne Amador Kane, a Physics professor at my alma mater (Haverford College) and her student Marjon Zamani have published a paper based on amazing video captured by falcons wearing helmet-cams.  I do not want to be the crow.

From the video.


Now if only I could develop a helmet-cam for my earthworms…

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