Archive | Education

The Nonsense Math Effect

Do social scientists and others with little mastery of mathematics find research findings more persuasive when you just add a little math? Yes, suggests this article by Kimmo Eriksson in a recent issue of Judgment and Decision Making. Eriksson gave 200 participants abstracts of two published papers. Half of these abstracts were randomly enriched with a sentence and equation from an entirely unrelated paper in mathematics (“A mathematical model (TPP=T0fT0df2fTPdf) is developed to describe sequential effects.”) The respondents were then asked to judge the quality of the research.

The bottom line of the findings is that those with degrees in math and the sciences were not more impressed by the abstract with the nonsense sentence but those with degrees in the humanities and social sciences and (disturbingly) the medical sciences are.

One can interpret this finding as stressing the need for more math training in the social sciences. Or one could emphasize that mathematically oriented articles have an undue advantage in the peer review process. These conclusions are not mutually exclusive. More math training could lead to less deference to pointless math. Unfortunately, the experiment does not allow us to differentiate between the humanities and various social sciences so we can’t quite be sure who is being fooled here (the mathematically minded economists or the historians?). I would like to see this replicated with a more homogeneous group of scholars evaluating scholarship in their area of expertise.

ps. My description of the participants as “scholars” is misleading. As pointed out in the comments, the participants were recruited via Amazon Turk and mostly have master’s degrees. An interesting study but at best a pilot study for drawing deeper conclusions about academia (as per the last sentences of my post).

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I have the least stressful job in America (duh)

I agree with Susan Adams that being a professor, at least the tenured variety, is one of the least stressful jobs in America. Really, how many jobs are there where you make a good salary, you can never be fired, you only really have to work a few hours a week, you get summers off, and you can take off almost whenever you want to be with your kids? And, did I mention the part about “you can never be fired”? If you work for the government it’s unlikely you’ll get fired, but you still are expected to show up to work every day (unless you’re a congressmember, of course).

In theory, the job-for-life thing doesn’t have to mean much: in lieu of firing the tenured faculty, the university could just make our lives miserable by lowering salaries, increasing the workload of teaching, grading, and advising, cramming us ten to an office, etc. But so far I haven’t seen this happening.

For untenured faculty, it’s another story, and Adams doesn’t seem to get the distinction at all. (She added an addendum to her article but still didn’t seem to get the point that life is a lot more stressful for professors that aren’t tenured (or who work at institutions that might go out of business).) And, yes, I realize that my job at Columbia is particularly easy, but even the more run-of-the-mill tenured prof gigs seem less stressful than the equivalent straight jobs.

Apparently some people got on Adams’s case for her professor-bashing but I think she’s basically right (and I don’t see it as anti-prof to point out that we have low-stress jobs, any more than it’s anti-exec to point out that business executives get paid a lot to do what they do).

The thing that Adams’s critics are missing, I think, is that she’s a journalist—-and journalism is the ultimate unstable job. Sure, she talks tough:

Since Forbes hired me [Adams] in 1995 to write a legal column, I’ve taken advantage of the great freedom the magazine grants its staff, to pursue stories about everything from books to billionaires. I’ve chased South Africa’s first black billionaire through a Cape Town shopping mall while admirers flocked around him, climbed inside the hidden chamber in the home of an antiquarian arms and armor dealer atop San Francisco’s Telegraph Hill, and sipped Chateau Latour with one of Picasso’s grandsons in the Venice art museum of French tycoon François Pinault.

But you know and I know that she knows that print is dead and online doesn’t pay the bills and, as a journalist, she’ll basically be playing musical chairs for the rest of her career. So, to her, yeah, the job of a tenured professor is enviable.

I feel very lucky to have had the opportunity to get this job. Still, I want to do more on Stan. Having a cushy job is great, but it’s just a means to an end (as, sadly, this guy didn’t realize until after his retirement.

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Should Harvard start admitting kids at random?

Now that the topic of discrimination in college admissions has hit the papers again, I thought I should repost this from the sister blog:

Ron Unz provides evidence that Jews are way overrepresented at Ivy League colleges, with Asians-Americans and non-Jewish whites correspondingly underrepresented. Unz attributes this to bias and pressure in the admissions office and recommends that, instead, top colleges should switch to a system based purely academic credentials (he never clearly defines these, but I assume he’s talking about high school grades, SAT scores, and prizes in recognized academic competitions). He recommends that Harvard, for example, get rid of preferences for athletes, musicians, and rich people, and instead reserve one-fifth of their slots based on pure academic merit and with the remaining four-fifth “being randomly selected from the 30,000 or so American applicants considered able to reasonably perform at the school’s required academic level and thereby benefit from a Harvard education.”

A lot would depend on where that lower threshold is set. . . .

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Changing times in education reform

In reading this article by David Denby on long-time education reformer Diane Ravitch, I was struck by how much things have changed. Around 1980, Ravitch was considered a conservative and was supporting the conservative cause of a national school curriculum. From the perspective of 2012, a national school curriculum doesn’t sound very conservative at all! France has a national school curriculum. On the right wing of the American conservative movement you have home-schoolers, charter-schoolers, and people who oppose public education entirely; on the moderate side of the conservative spectrum are the supporters of federalism and states’ rights. In an era in which it’s a rare politician who even admits to believing in evolution, it’s hard to picture a national school curriculum as a cause that conservatives would support.

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How to teach things we don’t agree with?

This discussion arose in the context of statistics teaching:

April Galyardt writes:

I’m teaching my first graduate class this semester. It’s intro stats for graduate students in the college of education. Most of the students are first year PhD students. Though, there are a number of master’s students who are primarily in-service teachers. The difficulties with teaching an undergraduate intro stats course are still present, in that mathematical preparation and phobia vary widely across the class.

I’ve been enjoying the class and the students, but I’d like your take on an issue I’ve been thinking about. How do I balance teaching the standard methods, like hypothesis testing, that these future researchers have to know because they are so standard, with discussing the problems with those methods (e.g. p-value as a measure of sample size, and the decline effect, not to mention multiple testing and other common mistakes). It feels a bit like saying “Ok here’s what everybody does, but really it’s broken” and then there’s not enough time to talk about other ideas.

My reply: One approach is to teach the classical methods in settings where they are appropriate. I think some methods are just about never appropriate (for example, so-called exact tests), but in chapters 2-5 of my book with Jennifer, we give lots of applied examples of basic statistical methods. One way to discuss the problems of a method is to show an example where the method makes sense and an example where it doesn’t.

But I imagine the same sort of thing must arise in political science courses all the time. Do any of you have the experience of having to teach something that you think is misleading or wrong? What do you think of the suggested strategy, “show an example where the method makes sense and an example where it doesn’t”?

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Classroom activity on poll tracking

Mark Foster writes:

I teach elementary statistics and regularly use the “Guessing Ages” activity from your book early in the semester. What I would like to know are your thoughts on a research project idea I had about a week ago involving the upcoming presidential election.

Students could collect polling tracking data from various sources for each state throughout the month of October. The object being to see if any perceived trends or patterns would be useful in making predictions. The results would be presented just prior to election day.

Another idea would be to collect voter registration percentages of Democrats, Republicans, and Others (all the rest lumped into one group) from each state. Based on previous turnout history information, calculate the winner of each state and who would ultimately win the election. (These numbers could collected from each state’s website.)

My reply:

If they’re going to do this, they should do senate or governor’s races where the data are more sparse and the results will be more interesting. Different students can do different states.

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Computers in The Classroom?

I am pondering banning laptops and tablets from my classroom. The upsides of this are obvious: avoiding the distractions that come with Facebook, Twitter, e-mail, and all the other wonderful things the internet has to offer. Research rather unambiguously shows that small distractions (such as checking e-mail) lead to considerable drops in levels of concentration and abilities to retain information. I am quite sure my classes are boring at times but students will have to find a way to deal with that without escaping to the Web’s temptations.

Yet the downsides of banning laptops and tablets are also considerable. I am less worried about note-taking (there is an alternative!) but my classes rely on lots of readings that are made available electronically. Banning laptops would force my students to print these materials, which rather defeats the purpose.

I would love to learn from readers’ experiences (both from students and faculty). Any feedback on bans? Are there policies that fall short of banning but still sufficiently discourage the web’s trappings? I wish my university had a possibility for locally turning off the wireless network but that does not seem to exist.

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Instead of learning statistics from a robotic professor, learn it from an actual robot!

Steve Kolowich reports:

In experiments at six public universities, students assigned randomly to statistics courses that relied heavily on “machine-guided learning” software—with reduced face time with instructors—did just as well, in less time, as their counterparts in traditional, instructor-centric versions of the courses. . . .

A total of 605 students were randomly assigned to take the course in a “hybrid” format: they met in person with their instructors for one hour a week; otherwise, they worked through lessons and exercises using an artificially intelligent learning platform developed by learning scientists at Carnegie Mellon University’s Open Learning Initiative.
Researchers compared these students against their peers in the traditional-format courses, for which students met with a live instructor for three hours per week, using several measuring sticks: whether they passed the course, their performance on a standardized test (the Comprehensive Assessment of Statistics), and the final exam for the course, which was the same for both sections of the course at each of the universities.

The study was conducted by William Bowen, Matthew Chingos, Kelly Lack, and Thomas Nygren.

I don’t have much to say about this. The results make sense to me: as long as students are willing to do the work, I’d expect that an online system would offer better feedback than the traditional one-size-fits-all homework assignments.

But I think this is a bit silly:

Engaging students, such as professors might by sprinkling their lectures with personal anecdotes and entertaining asides, remains one area where humans have the upper hand.

Sure, I’ve been known to share the occasional personal anecdote. But I think the real value of the professor is his or her depth of understanding of the material.

Also, I don’t understand the claims about the economics. Kolowich writes:

In terms of instructor compensation, the researchers estimated, a machine-guided course featuring weekly face-to-face sessions with part-time instructors would cost between 36 and 57 percent less than a traditional course in which a full professor presides over each 40-student section.

I’d think the savings would be much more. You’re comparing 3 hours a week of a full professor, to one hour a week of a part-time instructor. If the prof gets paid three times what the instructor gets per hour, then shouldn’t the cost savings be 89%? OK, not exactly, someone has to set up the computers etc., so maybe you would get cost savings of only 70% or 80%. But how do you get down to only 36-57% savings??

In any case, I think this sounds like a great idea. My challenge in trying to put together something like this for intro statistics classes (the programmed-learning-and-computer-feedback part, not the get-rid-of-the-instructor part) is that I’m still torn about how to structure the course material itself. I don’t really like the idea of giving students 14 weeks of confidence intervals, paired t-tests, goofy probability problems, and the like. I’m still struggling to organize something that makes sense.

Conditional on the material that’s covered in the course, though (and without tying it to getting rid of the professor) I think programmed learning is great.

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Correcting the Record on College Graduates and Job Prospects

The following guest post is from Nathaniel Beck, a political scientist at New York University.

We are obviously in the midst of the most serious recession since the Great Depression, one marked by the persistence of high unemployment. Young college graduates are particularly scared about the job situation they will face, and they should be. But parts of the media are painting a story of the world coming to an end for young college graduates entering the job market, a picture much bleaker than the numbers used to support these stories. A recent example is Frank Bruni’s New York Times column (Sunday Review) of April 29, 2012. After stating that college graduates, in general, have an unemployment rate half that of those with only a high school degree, he goes on to argue that this:

doesn’t capture the grim reality for recent college graduates, whose leg up on their less educated counterparts isn’t such a sturdy, comely leg at the moment. According to an Associated Press analysis of data from 2011, 53.6 percent of college graduates under the age of 25 were unemployed or, if they were lucky, merely underemployed, which means they were in jobs for which their degrees weren’t necessary. Philosophy majors mull questions no more existential than the proper billowiness of the foamed milk atop a customer’s cappuccino. Anthropology majors contemplate the tribal behavior of the youngsters who shop at the Zara where they peddle skinny jeans.

Bruni makes two claims: half of recent college graduates are unemployed or underemployed, and that those who fail to major in business, engineering or the sciences will end up only asking if a customer will like fries with that. Bruni is not alone in citing the 53.6% number and the plight of the poor humanities major. The statistics was the “Stat of the Day” on the Atlantic’s web page of April 23, 2012. The source of this data is an analysis done for the Associated Press as reported in various newspapers under Hope Yen’s byline for the Associated Press (e.g. see here). The analysis on which the AP story was written is based on research by Neeta Fogg and Paul Harrington of Drexel University in “Rising Mal-Employment and the Great Recession: The Growing Disconnection between Recent College Graduates and the College Labor Market” which appeared in Continuing Higher Education Review (2011, v. 75, pps. 51-65).

Before looking at the report itself, it is only fair to note that another post in The Atlantic by Jordan Weissmann notes that in 2000 this figure was “at a low of 41 percent, before the dot-com bust erased job gains for college graduates in the telecommunications and IT fields.” Obviously an increase from 41% to 54% of recent college graduates being unemployed or underemployed is hardly trivial, but only Weissmann seems to have provided the comparison which shows that even in boom times, 40% of recent college graduates have troubles in the job market. Note that the 2000 figure is from before the recession, when the overall unemployment rate was about 4%. Since the unemployment rate if 2011 was about 9%, 40% of the increase in the job market problems of recent college graduates is due to the overall bad state of the economy and has nothing to do with college or choice of major. This is not to say the current economy is great for first time job seekers, but that we have not gone from heaven to hell for first time job seekers in the space of 10 years.

Fogg and Harrington define underemployment (which they call mal-employment) as a college graduate not being employed in an occupation “which utilize[s] the skills and knowledge that are commonly thought to be acquired through a college education.” (p. 55-56). While that article does not specify what such occupations are, it does note that the occupations “generally include profession, technical, managerial and high-level sales occupations….” (p. 55). Of course many of these require an advanced degree, so recent college graduates under age 25 are unlikely to be eligible for such occupations.

Is the current recession a falling off of a cliff, even if a smaller cliff than headlines scream? Fogg and Harrington’s Table 1 shows a mal-employment rate for college graduates under 25 of 34% in 2000, 34% in 2007 and 39% in 2010. Unemployment was only 4.5% in 2007, so the increase in mal-employment from 2000 to 2010 is not simply a consequence of the current recession. Headlines make the United States look like Spain; the situation is not good, but we are far from Spain.

Are the mal-employed all art history and anthropology majors? Fogg and Harrington’s Chart 2 indicates the cost of being a humanities/liberal arts major may not be as high as Bruni claims. While the chart shows that about one third of humanities/liberal arts majors were mal-employed, about 30% of business/management majors were similarly mal-employed, and (is the glass half full or half empty here?) about 18% of engineering and math and computer science graduates were mal-employed. Here is the chart:

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