Posts tagged: Success

An Open Letter to my RDA Students

Dear RDA Students:

I write as I contemplate the grades that I should record for each of you for your work this semester. As this is an open letter and people not familiar with me or with the class might read it, I should clarify some things.  First, Research Design and Analysis 1 is the first course that psychology majors take on the road to becoming true psychologists. Students learn the one distinguishing skill that characterizes all psychologists: the ability to measure, quantify, and analyze behavior. Second, although I have been doing these things professionally for nearly 40 years, this is the first time I have taught this course. [And to those few students who rose to the challenge of the course, attended class, and put effort into your work, read this knowing that I appreciate your efforts. This does not refer to you.]

At the outset of the semester you each received a syllabus that described the material to be covered and the work that you would be expected to complete. It also indicated the consequence of turning material in late: homework more than two days late would not be accepted; papers would lose 10% per day for each day past the due date. The grading scale was presented clearly: the value of each assignment was stated, with their total summing to the 1600 points possible.  Earn 60% of these points and you pass the course, 70% for a grade of C, 80% for B, 90% for an A.

In order to proceed to RDA 2 a grade of at least C (2.0) must be earned in this course.  A grade of 2.0 indicates an understanding of the course material that might allow you to succeed in RDA 2; a grade below 2.0 has in the past characterized the student who will struggle in RDA 2, hence the department-mandated restriction on who proceeds to RDA 2.

I had very hard decisions to make. If I assigned course grades according to the scale published in the syllabus, all of you would pass the course, but more than 70% of you would not move on to RDA 2.  I do not for a moment believe that the large number of grades < 2.0 reflects a lack of ability–no, what I saw was a lack of motivation, ownership, and caring:

  • Attendance was terrible, with many of you missing lectures or labs frequently. Poor attendance affected your performance on exams and lab quizzes–if you are not present when we work through examples in class it is no surprise when you cannot work through comparable problems on an exam.
  • Written work, when it was turned in, reflected a lack of caring and attention to detail. You were given explicit information about the format of papers (for non-psychologists, this format is mandated by the American Psychological Association, and is the standard for most written work done in psychology). As an example, more than 40% of you single-spaced part of the paper, forbidden in APA style and repeatedly corrected by me in your drafts.
  • Fewer than 40% of you turned in the required draft of the final paper on time, and about 20% turned it in three days late (I guess those 100/1600 points weren’t important to the 45% who never turned it in). Success in life requires stepping up, folks.
  • The median number of studies cited in the Introductions of your research papers, meant to review the literature on your topic, was 1. 1.  ONE.  A review of the literature citing a single study stretches the meaning of  the word “review.”
  • We spent the semester learning about statistical tests that inform decisions about the result of behavioral studies. Only 55% of you correctly reported such inferential statistics in the Results section of your papers.

So what am I to do? Rather than assign the grades earned, I decided to give you the benefit of the doubt: perhaps some of you would be capable of doing well with a professor who does a better job than do I of coaxing the work out of you.  However, I cannot in good conscience pass you along to RDA 2 if you are not capable of doing the work.  So, I decided to assign as your course grade the higher of

  • one grade level above the actual calculated course grade (e.g., if you earned a 2.3 this would be 2.7), or
  • your average grade on the exams and papers (ignoring homework, drafts, and lab quizzes).

This assumes (I think reasonably) that the ability to demonstrate an understanding of the material in exams and papers is important: if you can do that you can succeed in RDA 2.  Note that this exam/paper average resulted in NO penalties for those drafts of Paper 2 that were never turned in, as I did not include the grades on drafts in these calculations.  However, some of the lowest course grades were earned by people who failed to turn in the draft on time; perhaps the final paper would have been better if it incorporated my feedback on the draft…

Life requires participation; success requires ownership. Own your work; care about your work; treat your work as if it matters. If you can’t be bothered to put effort into an assignment in a class, why should anyone expect that you will put effort into an assignment given to you by an employer, or by a mentor in graduate school?   Why should a client expect that you will put effort into helping her get better?  Why should a collaborator expect you to do your share on a project?  Demonstrate that you are willing to put effort into a project and those around you will give you the benefit of the doubt.  You need their trust and support, as the world generally does not care about you.


Your caring and disappointed professor



Our psychology majors are typically headed for one of two careers: they want to help people as counselors or clinicians, or they want to extend out knowledge by becoming behavioral scientists.  Both routes are potentially rewarding options, and both contribute importantly to society.  Both also require ethics and integrity.

Rhythm Society Orchestra at the Bohm

Rhythm Society Orchestra at the Bohm

I’m thinking about this as I sit in a quiet office as our students enjoy Spring Break.  The need for integrity does not begin when you enter the the counseling center or the laboratory and end when you leave.  It’s a quality that you must possess and display all the time, or your work will not be taken seriously. Years ago a student explained to a a colleague of mine that she had to miss an important in-class exercise on the day before Spring Break (probably an exam, but it could have been anything) for a good reason (maybe an unchangeable doctor’s appointment, or a dead grandparent — the stated reason doesn’t really matter).  Then she posted photos of herself and some friends at he beach (or on the ski slopes, or wherever) with a boast about taking off early for Break.  Students left behind were none to happy about this, and of course the prof found out. She was thereafter known to us as Spring Break Girl — we doubted her word at every juncture, and I’m sure thought long and hard about offering positive recommendations on her behalf, as she could not be trusted.

I had a similar recent experience.  A student indicated that for transportation-scheduling purposes she had to leave early for Break, resulting in her missing a class.  Given that Break is scheduled at least a year in advance I am never happy about this kind of thing, but there’s little I can do about it (class is important, material covered is hard to make up, and attendance counts toward the grade, but students have their priorities).  So, I acknowledged that leaving early is not a good idea, but wished her a good Break. Then that evening, hours after the class, I attended a local concert and who should be in the audience but… her. I don’t know why she chose to lie about her reason for missing class, but I will remember this incident.

Students: the opinion that others have of you is important.  Academic success (doing well on exams, writing good papers, excelling on standardized tests) is important, and makes a difference to your future success. But so too does how people feel about you, and whether people trust you or not. I routinely ask myself one simple question before I write a positive letter of recommendation: “Is this student someone whom I could recommend to a friend?” Obviously if the student cannot write a simple sentence, or routinely fails exams, the answer is “no” and I will not write the letter. Similarly, no matter how academically gifted the student is, if the student has demonstrated that s/he is not to be trusted the answer is also “no.”  If you’ll lie about something as trivial as the reason for missing a class, what else might you lie about?  Therapy and science both require integrity; if you plan to go into either of these areas don’t squander the trust that others are willing to place in you.

Working Hard on a Paper

phd092111sWhat does it mean to say that you “worked hard on a paper?”  Consider these two hypothetical students writing about the nucleus accumbens:

Sue Perfishle:

  • Spent hours online finding a handful of full-text articles with the word “accumbens” in the title.
  • Read the abstracts to find the key sentences about what was done and what was found.
  • Read the introductions to find older references about the accumbens.
  • Searched for full-text versions of these older papers.
  • Sought sentences in the various papers that seemed to have something to do with the function of the accumbens.
  • Painstakingly cobbled together a 6-page paper by cutting and pasting these sentences, re-arranging them and substituting synonyms.


Anne Durstuhd:

  • Read the textbook to see what it said about the accumbens.
  • Read some of the articles cited by the textbook authors to learn more about the accumbens.
  • Formulated an idea about what the accumbens might do for behavior.
  • Sought articles related to this hypothesis.
  • Read more and revised the hypothesis.
  • Sought more articles and read them.
  • Came to a conclusion about the accumbens, and wrote about it based on the new-found knowledge.

The scientific content of the two papers might be comparable, if one judged solely on the basis of number of facts per page.  The scientific quality of the second will be far better, because it reflects a thesis; the facts presented are more likely to hang together in some relevant manner.

It’s also a safe bet that Anne could tell me about the accumbens — what we know about it and what it might do for behavior — without referring to notes, articles, or the final paper. Sue would struggle to do this, perhaps being capable of repeating some of the phrases from the paper but without understanding.

Don’t be Sue; strive to be Anne.

[Note – I found a draft of this on 11/24/2014, the evening before papers are due in Neuroscience I.  Not sure why I didn’t post it two years ago when I first wrote it, but I think I ought to post it now.]

Grad School Advice from Experts at SfN 2014


Washington DC Convention Center

Albion’s Neuroscience Concentrators (well, some of them) attended the 2014 meeting of the Society for Neuroscience in Washington, DC.  During the trip, students heard many lectures by senior scientists about cutting-edge science, attended cutting-edgier posters presented by younger investigators (typically grad students, post-docs, and un-tenured faculty), and networked with many other neuroscientists.  In conversations with some established neuroscientists (recent PhDs, assistant professors,
and famous full professors) over drinks or meals our students got some good advice about grad school; I summarize it here.


Albion neuroscience students with Jim Pfaus (center).

First, all scientists regardless of their level stressed the importance of research experience for people seeking admission to PhD programs in neuroscience.  Such experience demonstrates to potential grad school mentors that a student understands what science is all about.  One established professor who routinely decides between applicants to the lab indicated that she looks for evidence of failed research attempts; students with such experience understand that science is not all glamorous and are better prepared for life as a grad student.

Some Albion alums who have gone on to PhD programs suggested that knowledge of coding is important.  They suggested that computer science courses should be  part of an undergraduate neuroscience curriculum.  Physics courses were also identified as being important.  (My take on this is that physics is important for the student interested in imaging, perhaps less so for behavioral neuroscience.  And programming is an important tool for all scientists.)


With Sheri Mizumori (3rd from right).

Assuming that research experience is part of an applicant’s background, another respected scientist indicated that passion is critical.  He views passion as more important than grades; it’s a student’s passion that will see her through the hard days and nights of lab work, seldom for the big scientific pay-out and never for big financial reward. A student should not get a PhD as a stepping stone to what she really wants to do.  What she does on the way to getting the PhD is what she will be doing later. Grad school is a job in science that will lead to other jobs in science with more responsibilities; if what one does in grad school is not appealing, the rest of one’s career will not be appealing.

Many students hear this advice and decide that a PhD program is not for them, and that’s good. One must be certain that research is interesting, that unanswered questions are worth pursuing, that being the first (and for a while only) person in the world to know something is pretty cool, before undertaking a life of science.  I can tell you that when my student and I first found out that earthworms use the same neurotransmitter receptors for learning as do humans I was thrilled — soon the rest of the neuroscience community would know this, but for a while this new knowledge about the world was known only to those of us who did the science, and this was way cool.  If you would appreciate this first-hand experience with new information, then science is for you.


With Arik Nagel (left), Moriel Zelikowsky (front, 2nd from left), Robert Twining (peaking over Moriel’s shoulder), and Marieke Gilmartin (front, 2nd from right).

Among the people with whom we met were Sheri Mizumori (University of Washington), Jim Pfaus (Concordia University), Marieke Gilmartin (Marquette University), and Moriel Zelikowsky (California Institute of Technology). We also met with several successful Albion alums who have gone on to graduate programs or post-baccalaureate research fellowships in neuroscience.  In addition I know that many of the students spoke with other scientists and learned from those conversations.  All-in-all I am grateful to my colleagues in neuroscience, some old friends and some new, who were willing to share their advice.  I know the students appreciated it — those who will decide to go for PhDs as well as those who will heed the advice and recognize that grad school is not the life for them.


Current Neuroscience concentrators, with alums (A). From left: Kate Sears, Amanda Komur (A), Nicole Ferrara (A), Erik Brink, Katie Pickworth (A), Emily Stephens (A), Jeff Wilson, Ashley Glenn, Brandon Johnson.


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.]

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.

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.

Updating and Consolidating Grad School Info

I realized that there are several posts here that relate to gaining admission to grad school, so I’ve created a page on which I consolidate those posts.  (A link also appears in the menu bar above.)  As I add other relevant posts I will place a link on that page so that all of these grad-school-related materials can be found more easily than via a search.  Feel free to email me ( to let me know if my comments are helpful.

And of course, current students are encouraged to come see me at any time to talk about issues related to grad school (or about anything, for that matter).

Thoughts on Success – reprise

“If you are a student please realize that you can do well, but it will be your doing.  The community of scientists (and the world in general) owes you nothing, but will gladly recognize the hard work and effort that lead to success.  Go for it – find something that you love to do and become good at it.  It is not necessarily easy, but it is worth it.”

From my earlier post “Thoughts on Success.” Worth thinking about, especially if you’re trying to find your way in the world. This post might also be useful.

Starting Over

With the beginning of the Spring semester comes the opportunity to reflect on our purpose.  College offers an opportunity to expand one’s interests and gain additional knowledge.  These are admirable goals, and can be achieved easily if one follows these guidelines:

  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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