Saturday, October 18, 2008

Does Pavlov's Dog Evolve?

Habits are interesting things to ponder.  Once formed, they are hard to break.  But why do they form to begin with?  Do we subconsciously make repeated decisions habitual to free up some mental bandwidth for the non recurrent stuff?  And, if so, are those habits determined in some optimal way – to an economist that means looking at the recurrent situation as one big choice problem and asking what’s best in that case?  Good habits, perhaps, can be considered from that point of view.  Bad habits, obviously, are sub optimal, perhaps pernicious.  I, for one, have some of both. 

I’m particularly interested in learning about changing habits – either deliberately breaking bad habits and replacing them with something else, or getting habituated to some new behavior where there had been no habit previously. 

On a personal level, recently I’ve tried in two different dimensions to deliberately change my habits and have a few observations based on that.  First, I’ve tried to reduce my caffeine consumption, particularly after noon.  Now if I go to the coffee place in the afternoon I will be conscious of the issue and order a decaf Americano.  Flavor-wise, straight decaf coffee doesn’t make it for me, at least how it’s made at most places around here.  The Americano is better, sometimes very good, other times a little metallic but not too bad.  It’s a little bit more expensive than the ordinary decaf, but for the time being I’d rather pay for that than have decaf coffee or do without entirely.    I do still drink a lot of regular coffee in the morning.  So I’m not sure there is a big effect overall.  But maybe it reduces that burnt out feeling in the late afternoon.  And maybe it will let me start trying to reduce the coffee in the morning in the near future. 

The other area is exercise where for the last few months I’ve tried to increase my activity level and push myself to get a good workout.  So I’ve combined the stationary bike (low impact on the knees which is a big deal for me) with lightweight dumbbells, to give the arms some full motion activity, and then that’s interspersed with some other leg exercises while standing.  I’ve reached the point where I rely on that as an important part of my day, just like checking email in the morning is part of the routine.  While I’m on the stationary bike I watch DVDs from a TV series (right now I’m on 24 season six) as distraction and as a way to time myself.  I do between one and two shows per sessions.  I used to jog and am noticing some similarities.  Fifteen years ago when I jogged regularly I’d do between four and five miles – not very fast, about 9:30 per mile.  After the second mile or so with the heartbeat elevated, a euphoric feeling would begin.  It would sustain pretty much through the rest of the time unless I’d get too dehydrated or something would start to hurt.  But it doesn’t happen until about two weeks in of regular jogging – at least 5 times a week.  That’s the same with the bike.  That sense of euphoria makes it easy to keep going once it sets in, but you need to do the exercise regularly in order to experience it.  And what I’ve concluded about making exercise a habit is that it becomes easier to get started, when there is no euphoria and there is some stiffness until the muscles warm up, and for those first two weeks where it’s work rather than play.  If exercise weren’t a habit, I’d opt out most of the time.  So in this case habit formation is there to overcome my personal inertia. 

It’s easier for me to make new habits, there is is some invention in that and I value invention, than to try to get rid of bad habits, which for me are mostly about binging, particularly in the food department.  On that score, I’m better off when on the road, especially if there is nothing in the refrigerator in the hotel room.  I don’t need the junk food at all, but have a tough time resisting when it’s there.  This is an area where economics breaks done, because it doesn’t distinguish between choice, on the one hand, and will on the other.  My choice is to do without but my willpower is nil. 

This has been a lifelong battle.  In the summer between undergrad and grad I lost a substantial amount of weight by going on a one meal per day self-imposed diet for 10 weeks.  For about 20 years after that my weight stayed at around the same level and I looked more or less normal – jogging was a regularizer and my binges were not too out of control.  That summer 1976 marked a revolutionary change in my life.  I was a different person afterwards than before.   It’s instructive to note that I had essentially no obligations that summer until I headed out to Northwestern.  So I could go on the severe diet without concern for how my disposition would affect my working with others, because I wasn’t doing that.  Twenty years later when my knees got too bad to jog regularly I had that midlife crisis I mention in the About Me segment in the sidebar, I started to revert to my old self.  In the mid ‘90s, when the weight started to climb, that process was evolutionary and took place over several years.  Now I’m wondering whether the process can reverse but still in an evolutionary manner.  Can I get the desired results through modest changes, akin to changing my caffeine consumption in the afternoon?

* * * * *

In this piece I’m mostly concerned with changes in intellectual habits.  We learning technologists don’t talk about this much if at all when we discuss how we support teaching and learning.  But clearly, much “instructional design” is aimed overtly or implicitly at affecting the intellectual habits of students.  The expression “learning habits” is odd and uncomfortable coming off the tongue.  The expression study “study habits” is familiar.  But I will stick with the former in what follows.  I hope to make clear why. 

And I will focus on large classes where there are special challenges for the instructor in keeping students engaged and focused on their learning.  There are two technologies, in particular, that have become the mainstay of such large class instruction.  First, there are clickers.  Second, there is the quiz system that is part of the learning management system.  In my college, and I believe across Campus as well, these technologies are intensively used.  Both of these technologies offer ways to hold students accountable for their efforts.  We know from a study we are doing on a blended learning class that clickers positively affect class attendance (we don’t know the magnitude of the effect).  In this sense the clicker is the modern day equivalent of the Delany card.  Of course, clicker technology can do more than that.  But when you ask students if they go to lecture, the reluctant ones mention the clickers while the willing ones don’t.    The instructor understands this and uses the clickers, in part, as an incentive device. 

Likewise for the quizzes in Learning Management System, which serve not just to test the students’ mastery of the concepts, but also serve to encourage the students to prepare so they can do well on the quizzes.  This incentive “works” in that the students do put in effort to get a good score.  The motivation is provided 100% by extrinsic reward.  Students get course points on the quizzes in proportion to their score.  Likewise, students get participation points for answering clicker questions. 

Instructors giving out points for performing a task is like Pavlov’s technicians ringing a bell.  The dogs drool at the sound of the bell.  The students put in some (perhaps nominal) effort when there are points on the line.  This is a habit that we have created.  The question is whether there is any real mental nourishment as a result of the habit.

The most immediate way to measure whether that is the case is by looking at exam results.  Do students do better on exams as a consequence of this Pavlovian conditioning with quizzes?  When the quiz pool of questions is the same as the exam pool, the answer is yes, it works.  This is the ultimate in teaching to the test.  But for that very reason, one must be suspicious about whether any real learning is going on.  A better way to measure would be for the two pools to be independent and for success in the exam to require students to be able to transfer what they learned from the quizzes to an essentially novel setting offered up in the exam.  When I used to teach intermediate microeconomics, for a time I would write parts of my midterms this way.  My teaching evaluations suffered as a consequence – “test us on what we know,” that sort of thing.  Ultimately I caved on that.  But I also came to realize that this too wasn’t measuring what I wanted to.  Students who had lots of math modeling experience (engineering students, for example) were at a huge advantage.  In other words, this didn’t measure what they learned as much as it measured what they knew beforehand.   As I’ve written elsewhere, the best tests are oral exams.  The questioner can become well acquainted with the student’s conceptual understanding of the topic.  But, this type of testing doesn’t scale well.  That’s why it is used so infrequently and not at all in large classes. 

On occasion I would do presentations with Stan Smith for new faculty in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.  Stan taught Chemistry for many years, one of prime content developers in Plato and then later with WebCT.  Invariably he’d demo one of his quizzes with video of lab experiments.  Then he’d present survey data of the students that would show they overwhelmingly “liked quizzes.”  I can’t recall if he had any open ended responses where they explained why.  But I can guess at the type of things the students would say. 

This would be in accord with the student view that learning in academic courses is mostly about exercising discipline – putting in the time to master the subject.  The students wouldn’t know whether they’ve mastered it or not.  The quizzes gave them that information.  (In the ‘90s when we did evaluation of software such as Mallard, one of the big benefits we observed was that the system gave feedback to students in a way that didn’t personalize their failures, so it allowed them to learn from their mistakes without getting stigmatized in the process.)  To that, we have to add consideration of the deadlines, which the technology enforces very well.  Students have trouble with time management.  The deadlines force them to (perhaps at the last minute) put in the effort.  I don’t think it a stretch to say the students feel that they lack willpower and the technology as aid is a substitute for that lack of willpower.  Is this starting to sound familiar?  Anyway, that’s my story for why they report liking the quizzes.

To sum up students, who are extremely instrumental about their College education, view classroom learning as a matter of discipline and have been trained from grade school to respond in a Pavlovian manner when course points are on the line.  In turn, instructors who teach large courses leverage the technology to get students to “participate” and “do their homework” and on that score the technology use seems effective.  It may also seem effective from the perspective of exam scores, where these type of interventions do seem to provide performance improvement or, at worst, do no harm. 

My fear, however, is that we’re deluding ourselves and that students are getting “intellectual junk food” this way but pretending it’s a real meal.  And the habits that are developed in this process are bad ones; the instrumentalism can produce cynicism, anger, and end up blocking more open attempts at learning.  So, the question in my post title is about whether there is a way to evolve away from this habit to something else that would be more supportive of learning.  Then, stretching the metaphor to to its limits, the question to ask is: what sort of mutations would cause this evolution to occur? What should we be looking for and what changes might we encourage?  I’d like to ask these questions both from a within course perspective as well as considering the student maturing going through the curriculum.  For the latter, it’s clear that the student is more likely to be in these high enrollment classes as a Freshman or Sophomore, since these classes are apt to be General Education courses or introductory courses in the major.  Does the bad habit, once acquired, persist through the rest of the student’s coursework?  Or does the student’s behavior change as the classes come smaller and presumably have more human interaction?  And how might we encourage the one instead of the other?  Those are the issues. 

Now an aside that will help frame these issues.  The last couple of weeks I’ve been attending a seminar on community based learning.  The core idea is that by putting students in a different setting, one with needy members of the community, the students can benefit these community members with their efforts and at the same time intellectually advance in the subject matter that they are studying.  We did a series of breakout groups and had those who’ve got experience with community learning talked about the successes and the impediments.  A theme that came out repeatedly was that the nature of the student mattered.  Some of the students are self-starters capable of doing productive things without direction.  Others seemingly are willing to sit around until they’ve been told what to do.  But the community organizers and teachers who’ve set up the community based learning activity can’t be everywhere at once and don’t have enough time to provide detailed instructions for the students on a regular basis.  So the self-starters succeed and the other students do not. 

The questions, then, are whether students are self-starters about their own learning and if not whether they can be encouraged to become self-starters. For me being an intellectual self-starter means having a path into the subject matter that is pursued on its own accord, quite apart from any “points” or other incentives provided by the course. 

In some cases, the students will have an independent path, unrelated to the course.  The blended course I mentioned previously is an introductory Finance class, focusing on Corporate Finance.  Given the events of last several months, you’d have to be living on another planet to not know that Finance issues have been dominating the news, so most everyone has an independent path on this subject.  But having been provided with the path is not sufficient.  Are people actively pursuing that path, making sense of what’s going on through their own inquiry?  And are they pushing themselves intellectually to figure out what’s going on?   Or do they settle for what’s spooned feed to them, on CNN, the Daily show, or other lowest common denominator outlets?  

When students do have an independent path into the subject instructors can help the students in several different ways.  But there is a delicate question to address first.  What, if any of this, should be subject to assessment, via clickers or quizzes or some other way? And what should be advanced in a softer way, merely as as suggestions for students to do with what they will, with some students undoubtedly asking that death march to the instructor, “Will this be on the test?”

I believe most if not all of this should be done as suggestion.  If the underlying goal is to get the students learning habits to evolve, sticking with multiple choice assessment is not good.  That many students won’t come along for the ride should be anticipated but ultimately ignored as long as some do.  Let’s focus on those students.  We can worry later about how to swell their ranks.  For now, let’s ask what we can do for them that are willing. 

One idea is to direct their reading by suggesting authors, columnists, bloggers, anybody they should pay attention to because the writer has a strong and well articulated point of view to which the students may not have been exposed at all or only partially so.  Directing student reading down a non-course related path may seem extraneous.  But for our intellectually curious students, it’s a value add.  It’s a good way to help them make connections. 

Another idea is simply to offer framing questions.  We all gather data, information from new sources, ideas that others are spewing.  But we may miss the forest for the trees or even if we make out some glimpse of the big picture, we may still miss significant pieces.  Helping others on how to consider things is potentially an enormous benefit.  If they get to the “Aha!” they will have learned something substantial.  Further, they are likely to be very appreciative and then there is the potential to leverage that appreciation. 

A third idea is to model what traversing the independent path looks like.  Keeping a blog on the instructor’s sojourns down the path with links to sources and commentary provided by the instructor and encouraging students to do likewise, sharing these writings with other students, is perhaps the best way to walk the walk.  More students will read the instructor’s blog than will start their own, but remember these are suggestions only and the aim is for them to choose for themselves how involved they want to get. 

Regardless of the way the approach is made, an obvious intellectual puzzle will be created.  How does one tie what is learned by going down the independent path from what is being taught in the course?  Where are the connections in the ideas?  How does knowledge of course content help to illuminate the way moving down the independent path?  Many students may only pose these questions implicitly.  But having done so, their learning habits will change.  They’ll no longer be Pavlov’s dog.  They will have become instead a self-starter for their own learning.

Actually, I don’t think it’s that simple.  I argued that way because it’s easiest for putting forward the ideas.  A more complex, though still rather simple way to consider the issues is to the view the students as self-starters in some dimensions but as Pavlov’s dog in others.  Not everything is independent inquiry even among the most thoughtful people.  Some things you do out of obligation while other things you do purely for the credential it will generate.  In college, I’d like it to be the case that all students have some aspect of self-started learning that drives them.  If we had that, I’d be quite OK with the students being instrumental about their learning in other areas.   In other words, we’re all both self-starters and Pavlov’s dog and the question in each particular case is which is it?  Then we can think of these instructor provided suggestions as a kind of intellectual marketing.  That in itself is not sufficient to cause a fundamental change in the student’s learning habit.  But it can serve as a spur for student efforts that do cause such a change.

It’s also important to keep in mind just how fragile things are when in that transition phase where the learning habit is subject to change.  Why start down the path? Because something tickled the intellectual funny bone and the student wants more of that.  If those early encounters don’t pique the curiosity, it’s a no go.  Even if those early encounters seem exciting, other things may get in the way.  Students who do have will power regarding their studies tend to knock off their known obligations first.  Following an interest that won’t impact a grade may simply get lower priority – if there’s time fine, but if not c’est la vie.  Pavlov’s dog is a highly ingrained habit.  One shouldn’t expect it to disappear at moment’s notice.  The charisma of the instructor likely matters as a counter weight.  Students will try things because they are inspired to do so.  For those of us instructors who aren’t charismatic, we can at least show our passion for the subject.  That might help in getting some students through the transition. 

Students who are already self-starters will carve a path for their own when an independent path doesn’t present itself.  They’ll work problems not assigned, do independent readings, make small experiments that are of their own design, pleasing themselves only, not trying to serve another master.  This blurs the work-play distinction.  Learning is as much about wanting as about doing.  We want to play because it’s fun.  We don’t play because doing so is productive.  Carving an independent path is not a matter of will power.  It’s a matter of self-expression.  It fills an inner need. It is the source of deep learning but the self-starter is not being instrumental in carving the path.  The activity is valuable for itself. 

The question is whether those things can be taught or if only some students are capable of acquiring the self-starter perspective.  I don’t know the answer, but here is my hope.  I believe many students can learn this and would in fact do so if they came to be that was expected of them, first, and that they’d get something out of it (akin to the euphoria after strenuous exercise for a period of time) second.  The instructor is probably not in a good position to teach this – there is too much of a chasm between the instructor and the students.  Good students who are in the same classes as their more ordinary performing peers also likely can’t teach this to those peers, especially if those labels of good and ordinary have been cemented in.   Again, the so-called ordinary student will feel a chasm that blocks the change in behavior. 

The best chance, it seems to me, is for ordinary students who’ve made the leap teach their more junior peers.  They’d have credibility precisely because the distance between them and the students they aim to teach is not so great, mostly a gap in maturity, not in orientation.  This is why I’m so high on peer mentoring of this sort.  I think it can have a profound effect on the learning habit, by encouraging the more immature students to start carving their own paths.  If Pavlov’s dog is to evolve, this is likely how it will happen. 

The learning habits of our students should be a profound concern to us as teachers.  Unfortunately, we often don’t get past the more mundane factors – Do they students come to class?  Do they do their homework? Do they do a decent job on the exam?  Pavlov’s dog can do all of that.  We should want more for the students. 

1 comment:

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