Musings on Education

I’ve been teaching at the college level for a long time.  My first class was a statistics class taught to marriage and family counselling students (masters level) at Pepperdine University in 1984; since then I’ve taught exclusively at the undergraduate level at both state and private colleges. Here I address a change that I have noted in recent years.  I  believe that this reflects a sudden change–not a gradual shift.mnemonics

Students are far less willing now to take chances in the classroom. I routinely ask students to answer questions as we cover new material.  These questions require thought, guided by the material under discussion. The questions are not difficult; in many cases there are multiple possible answers that could be correct. The purpose is to get the students thinking.  Over the past two years or so, maybe even more recently than that, it has become clear that students are not willing to answer.

I don’t think that the reluctance is the result of ignorance, or fear of being wrong. Instead I believe that it reflects the students’ lack of experience with this kind of situation. K-12 education is so focused on standardized testing, on ensuring that students get the right answer, that students have not learned to think. Memorize facts, demonstrate that the material has been learned by answering multiple choice questions… that approach does not foster an ability to think. It does not foster an appreciation for the possibility that there are varied ways of thinking about a problem, or even that thought might be brought to bear in a productive way.

I am sad about this. I am sad not only because it impacts the students’ (and my) experience in the classroom, but also because it adversely affects their test performance.  My tests (and I am not alone in this among my colleagues) typically ask students to apply what they have learned. It is not enough to memorize material–they have to understand concepts. Students are less capable of doing this now compared to a few years ago. Many students have asked for study guides before exams; by this I now understand that they mean a list of facts that they need to know. I do not offer such guides, for two reasons. First: the guide would suggest to students that its content is all that they need to know; on my tests all the material that we have covered might serve as the basis for a question–how can I offer a study guide that includes everything that we have covered? And second: life does not offer study guides–students need to learn to filter, organize, and extract the relevant material for themselves.

Beyond that, I am sad because few of these students, if they cannot overcome this tendency to want to be given facts rather than to think, will succeed in positions where they are expected to synthesize material and generate original ideas. I tend to think of the next step for many of my students: graduate school. Until they learn to think, and recognize that answers are not always available, many of my students will face serious problems in graduate school. The few current students who are willing to think stand out as exceptional. That is unfortunate–they should all be willing to think.

And a final note to students:  If you have read this far, take heart! There is hope. Begin by asking questions. Ask your professor an absurd question related to the material under discussion. Listen to the answer; listen as s/he reasons away the absurdity and explains why the question is unanswerable (or ridiculous – depends on the professor). You will learn from this.  You will see the thought process in action, and you will overcome your hesitancy to ask questions. Over time you will recognize that you, too, could probably have offered that response. Realize that you are capable of thought, despite not being encouraged to do it in the past. And you will learn.


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“Wisdoids” from Dick Thompson

At the 2015 Pavlovian Society meeting in Portland, OR we honored the memory of Dick Thompson, who had died one year earlier. Ted Berger (USC), who had worked with Dick, offered a list of what he called “wisdoids” that he thought had guided Dick’s work and life. Good advice – I thought I should share them.thompsonwisdoids

See Thompson’s Google Scholar citations here.

11950444_926385115003_536873470409616527_o (1)
11145233_926385100033_8757878482478694365_o 12030424_926385075083_7516618340180417436_o


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Bathroom Wars

Edit, 4/12/16: OK – I’m even angrier now. Michigan’s Dept of Education is considering mostly reasonable guidelines suggesting how schools deal with transgender kids. A conservative state legislator is introducing legislation to preempt this.  It “would require Michigan students to only use bathrooms and locker rooms matching their birth gender.” [All quotes in the edit are from the legislator’s web page.]  The legislator’s expertise in issues related to gender? Well, he “worked for 27 years in his family’s log trucking business” and has won numerous awards from the lumber and timber industry (… what would Freud say?).  Seriously, gender is determined by the brain, not the genitals, and nobody is checking the gender of the brain at birth. And the brain has almost certainly settled on its gender at birth. So let people be guided by their brains, and do not judge them based on their genitals.  No, I should say, “Do not judge them.”


I’m getting angry about the so-called “bathroom laws” that are currently in the news and being considered or enacted by various state legislatures. I recognize that some parents might be concerned for the physical and psychological well-being of their children, who must be protected from all realities of life that differ from the cocooned existence that mommy and daddy have provided. OK, I recognize this, but don’t accept it as valid—little Johnny and Susie need to learn that not everyone is like them; or in many cases, little Johnny and Susie need to learn that their own struggle with the gender to which you have assigned them is real and is shared by others.

Photo Credit, Serene Lau, Innovation Storyteller, Garfield Innovation Center

Photo Credit, Serene Lau, Innovation Storyteller, Garfield Innovation Center

But what really pisses me off (that metaphor seems appropriate in this context) is that the state legislators are clueless about the biology of sex and gender. The result is laws that are ambiguous or meaningless, and that will open the door to many easy challenges in the hands of reasonably intelligent attorneys. Let’s take a look at a few (my source for much of the information about the laws is a USA Today piece published in our local paper on 2/28/2016):

  • South Dakota’s law says that students must use the bathroom or locker room corresponding to their “chromosomes and anatomy” at birth.
  • Virginia’s proposed law requires that bathrooms and locker rooms be used by people “whose anatomical sex matches” the gender designation of the facility.
  • Oklahoma’s law would require use of a facility that matches a student’s gender at birth.

Here are some of the problems with these approaches:

  • Chromosomes are not the deteminants of gender or biological sex. You probably learned in high school biology class that females have XX sex chromosomes and males have XY. Typically true, but not always. The gene that pushes the developing mammal’s gonads to be testes rather than ovaries is usually on the Y chromosome, but this gene can jump to the X. The result is an organism in every way male except that he has XX chromosomes. Conversely, the XY individual can lack the cellular receptors for androgens, resulting in an organism that is in every way female except that she has testes and XY chromosomes.
  • What is meant by “anatomical sex” or “anatomy at birth?” Almost certainly what the law-makers mean is the appearance of the genitals: penis, it’s a boy; no penis, it’s a girl. However, the genitals don’t determine one’s gender. Maybe the legislators mean the sex of the brain: more cells in the Sexually Dimorphic Nucleus of the preoptic area in males; more estrogen receptors in the ventromedial hypothalamus in females. These anatomical features are much more likely to be responsible for gender than are the external genitalia. Or perhaps the law-makers were referring to whether the Mullerian or Wolffian system had developed (not terribly important to gender as far as we know).
  • And to refer to “gender at birth” is problematic. One’s gender identity might well be established at birth (psychologists are still working this out) but is most typically described psychologically (and appropriately) as “one’s sense of oneself as male, female, or transgender” (American Psychological Association, 2006)—this clearly cannot be determined at birth, before the person is verbal and can thus report a sense of self.
Via University of Bristol LGBT+ Society, , source URL: , see:

Via University of Bristol LGBT+ Society

I would love to see an attorney challenge a law that specifies bathroom use based on chromosomes by asking a school how they know that the chromosomes of the students using a facility match the “gender” of the facility. Were chromosome tests done on all of the kids? Or in the case that anatomy must match the “gender designation of the facility,” ask a school if they have determined that the brain anatomy of the students using a particular restroom is more typically male or female, and how they know. Or are school officials simply checking the genitals of the kids before they let them pee?

I can’t offer a solution that will appease those who confuse genitals with gender.  And I can understand some level of discomfort—I felt it myself when a female (I should probably say “an apparently female”) attendant cleaned the urinal next to the one I was using in Poland. But the reality is that gender is not black-and-white (or male-and-female), and we must stop forcing people into behavior that does not align with their sense of self.

Let’s either allow people to select the bathroom that matches their gender identity or do away with segregated facilities and allow anyone to use any bathroom. This will not be a problem if we all treat each other with respect, or in the words so valued by many who are opposed to a less genitally-based view of the world, “Do unto others….”


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Free Papers via a Pirate Website


Sci-Hub offers free access to more than 47,000,000 scientific papers. Many of these papers are not readily available to the public for free. Should we use this self-described pirate website or not?

I’m a strong supporter of free and open-source software, and I think that scientific journals should be open-access.  I have no doubt that I will use Sci-Hub, but I remain uncertain about whether such use is morally supportable. Is it theft to access published articles that are locked behind pay-walls? Consider this question with the certain knowledge that if you lived near the right library you could get the paper for free, or that if you contacted the author s/he would gladly send you a copy (with some presumed delay).

Science relies on information. The information in many (probably most) of these papers was derived through studies funded by public money. Should the information thus be publicly available?  I see this as the direction that scientific publishing is taking; in 20 years, maybe sooner, all articles will be freely available. Until then, should sites like Sci-Hub be tolerated, encouraged, or shut down? Email me with your thoughts on this (wjwilson AT albion DOT edu) or comment on this post on my Facebook page ( SLASH jeff.wilson.33234).

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January, 2016: Welcome Back

I reprise an earlier post that seems appropriate. Follow the link to some guidelines for success as a student (and in life).



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Dishonesty in a Scientific Film

I’m a science geek.  I love films about science, and am especially fond of old films related to psychology and neuroscience. Today I was reminded of a segment from Zimbardo’s 1990 Discovering Psychology series in which Dick Thompson explains his research.  Thompson very nicely explains his discovery of a region of the cerebellum where the memory responsible for eyeblink conditioning resides. In rewatching it, I noticed something — the computer trace illustrating the lack of a conditioned eyeblink after the interpositus nucleus had been lesioned looked oddly familiar.  Sure enough, it was the same trace that had been used 40 seconds earlier to represent the absence of a conditioned blink before learning had occurred. Sadly, and for reasons that we can only imagine, the produce of the film chose to reuse the pre-learning trace rather than showing the actual post-lesion trace that Thompson was describing. My conclusion that this was a decision of the producer and not a deception of the part of Thompson is based on two factors: 1) while we hear Thompson’s voice describing the post-lesion trace, we do not see his finger pointing at the features that he describes (something that he had done as he presented the pre-learning and CR traces); and 2) Dick was a friend whom I knew to be totally honest and above-board with regard to his science.PreTraceDuplicte

Lesions of the interpositus do, as Thompson described, eliminate the memory of the learning, and prevent future eyeblink conditioning. It is unfortunate that the reuse of the pre-lesion image might raise doubts about this conclusion in the minds of scientifically curious (and especially observant) people who do not know this literature. Science is based on the honest and free exchange of information; film-making is based on entertainment, and honesty sometimes takes a back seat.

I will continue to show this segment to my classes, but will each time be saddened by the thought that, with regard to the post-lesion trace, Thompson was describing an image that we do not see.

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Thoughts following SfN 2015

Thoughts as a result of the recent SfN Meeting (relevant Abstract Number is in parentheses):

Monarch butterflies use at least three cues for navigation: the sun (coupled with an internal clock), polarization pattern in the sky, and the earth’s magnetic field. This is determined by tethering the butterflies in a flight simulator, manipulating these cues, and watching them fly. (269)


Albion students with Catharine Rankin, U. British Columbia.

Maybe we should think about habituation in a totally different way. Thanks, Cathie Rankin, for suggesting this.  See her abstract for details. (630.10)

Pavlovian-to-Instrumental Transfer… I need to think more about this when I teach Learning, and when I plan my earthworm studies. Vinn Campese triggered these thoughts. (694.10)

Earthworms have sex. To what extent is this behavior dependent on hormones? (Not sure why I started thinking about this. Maybe it was the always-entertaining Neuroendocrine Social.)

Rats solve the Travelling Salesman Problem. (535.22)


Debra Bangasser (Temple U) meets with Albion students.

Rats can show emotional contagion (one rat acts afraid, and rats that observe the scared rat do, too), but the observers are not learning to be afraid. (Ewelina Knapska 465.03 and the talk that preceded hers)

It’s great to see worthy people receive recognition. My friends Julio Ramirez and Debra Bangasser received awards from Women in Neuroscience—Julio (Davidson College) for his extensive and successful mentoring of women (in fact, he is an equal opportunity mentor) and Debra (Temple U) for her already-proven potential as an excellent scientist.



Julio Ramirez (Davidson College) receives a mentoring award from Women in Neuroscience.

Albion students and alums rock!


L->R: Amanda Blaker, Eric Clark, Nicole Ferrara Clark, Amy Salmeto-Johnson, Emily Stephens, Jeff Wilson, David Marmion, Megan Anderson Brooks, Tony McCoy, Angela Panzica, Samantha Ely, Eric Brink, Brandon Johnson.

See all of my photos from the SfN meeting here.

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Thoughts about Degrees of Freedom


A colleague asked me recently how I explain “degrees of freedom*.” This got me thinking; here’s a story that might help to clarify the concept.

Imagine that you must determine the average number of children to be picked up at each stop along a school bus route. There are 20 stops along the route. This particular bus serves areas of private residences and apartment complexes, so you are pretty sure that there will be variability in the numbers.

In a perfect world where all data are readily available, you would simply count the kids at each stop. This would yield an answer without error. You set out to do this, but at the end of the route you realize that you have only 19 data points—hard to believe, but you must have dozed off at some point and missed a stop. You now have all but one of the data points necessary for an errorless answer; if you use these 19 points to estimate the average, how far off could you be?

The missing point (in fact, each data point) contributes 1/20 of the information that factors into the final True Answer. The missing data point accounts for 5% of the total information, but you have 95% of the information—surely your answer must be close to correct.

The answer is that you don’t really know. The missing data point could have had any value. However, reason and common sense suggest that it is not very likely that the missing number would be lower than the smallest number that you recorded, or larger than the largest number. It might be, of course, but if you were to randomly exclude one of the 20 points (which is essentially what you have done) there is only a 1 in 10 chance that you would exclude either the lowest or highest number—you can be 90% sure that the missing point is not an extreme. If you use the average of the 19 points as your estimate of the True Answer, and if you excluded the lowest number, then your estimate will be too high by (the difference between your estimate and this lowest number)/20, and if you excluded the highest number than your estimate will be too low by (the difference between your estimate and this highest number)/20. The divisor of 20 is there because each of the 20 points contributed 1/20 of the estimate. You are therefore 90% sure that the True Answer lies in the range

[Your Estimate – (Your Estimate – Lowest Number)/20] < True Answer < [Your Estimate + (Your Estimate – Highest Number)/20]

Algebraically this reduces to a 90% chance that the maximum error is YE/10 – (LN + HN)/20**.

This represents the amount that the true answer is free to vary from your estimate when 19 of the 20 values were free to vary. Once you decided to accept the mean of these 19 as the average for the entire group of 20, the data point that you missed could no longer vary – its value was fixed at the mean of the others. This estimate, then reflects a situation with 19 points free to vary: 19 degrees of freedom.

Now repeat this thought experiment, except that this time you collected your data after an especially rough night of little sleep. At the end of the route you realize that you have only 1 of the 20 data points (it was a really hard night!). If you decide to use this single data point as an estimate of the true average for all the stops, how far off will you be? The missing values represent 95% of the information that you need—you have only 5% of the information. Surely your answer must be way off. In this case only one value was free to vary—19 were determined when you decided to use the one recorded measure as the mean for all of them. Here you had only 1 degree of freedom.

Finally, consider an intermediate situation – you miss 10 of the 20 stops. You have 50% of the information, and lack 50%, The average of your 10 data points will be far more likely to be close to the True Answer than would the “average” of the 1 data point following the rough night, but not as accurate as the estimate when you have 19 of the 20 data points. Here there are 10 points that are free to take on any value: 10 degrees of freedom.

Each missing data point allows the estimate to vary from the True Answer. The more missing points, the more the estimate will vary. Each missing point represents a lost degree of freedom: therefore the more missing data points, the fewer degrees of freedom. If there is only one missing or unknown value, there are many degrees of freedom. As the number of missing values increases, the number of degrees of freedom will decrease. With more degrees of freedom, your certainty about the accuracy of your answer increases; another way of saying this is that with more degrees of freedom, the range within which the True Answer could fall decreases.

In more general terms, the extent to which you estimate some of the statistics that enter into your ultimate answer, the fewer degrees of freedom that you have, and the more likely it is that your ultimate answer will deviate from the True Answer.

I appreciate comments.  Please email me at, especially if you want to point out errors in my logic or my algebra. They likely exist.

* If you don’t know the term just imagine a concept essential to your job but difficult to explain to newbies and poorly understood by most everyone, even you.

** (YE – LN)/20 + (YE – HN)/20 = YE/20 – LN/20 + YE/20 – HN/20 = YE/10 – (LN + HN)/20


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Thoughts on the 2015 Pavlovian Society Meeting

Just back from the 2015 meeting of the Pavlovian Society – a scientific society founded 60 years ago and going stronger than ever. Here are some “random” thoughts:

~ Science is cool! Scientific studies of learning theory are among the coolest.

~ There were not enough studies of pure learning at the meeting.

~ Studies of the neuroscience of learning are also real cool! There were plenty of those.

~ The opportunity to interact with old friends is always welcome, and I have many friends in the Society.

~ Meeting new friends is also welcome, and I had the opportunity to do that as well.

Dick Thompson had a profound influence on the field. I’m glad to have considered him a friend.

Nick Mackintosh’s book is viewed by all of us older members of the Society with the same reverence. Younger students of learning should get a copy.

~ Judging by the vitality of the younger attendees and the quality of their research, the future of learning is secure.

~ Few if any members of the Society view Donald Trump as anything more than a fear-inducing stimulus.

~ Alcohol facilitates scientific discussion.

Mt. St. Helens, seen from our hotel.

Mt. St. Helens, seen from our hotel.

~ Mt. St. Helens is remarkably close to Portland.

~ I am glad that a few others in attendance work with small crawly things, even if those things aren’t earthworms.

~ I want to come up with the earthworm equivalent of Kim’s robo-raptor.

~ I could easily spend a week and hundreds of dollars in Powell’s.

~ Next year’s meeting can’t come soon enough.

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Reprise: A New Academic Year

[Reposting this, with slight modifications, from a year ago.  I offer useful information for students who want to succeed.]

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.

Four principles that will serve you well (from another prior post):

  1. Show up.  Woody Allen said that “80% of success is just showing up.”  This is certainly true. Attend class regularly, and you’ll be 80% of the way there.
  2. Be prepared.  “Chance favors the prepared mind,” as Louis Pasteur said.  By doing the assigned readings and coming to class having thought about the material you will find the favor of which he spoke.
  3. Be open.  True education requires a level of openness that we do not all possess.  There is, however, a balance that must be maintained: “By all means let’s be open-minded, but not so open-minded that our brains drop out.” – Richard Dawkins
  4. Confront your ignorance.  You don’t know everything, nor do I.  Recognize the material that you don’t understand and ask questions about it. “What the mind doesn’t understand, it worships or fears.” – Alice Walker

Looking forward to a great semester as we grow together.

(Now – begin to confront your ignorance: if you do not recognize the people I have quoted, get to work.  Knowledge is only a Google away.)

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