November 12, 2010

is there any validity in academic testing?

Now that I'm getting ready to apply for jobs and graduate programs, I've have to come into contact with my transcript more than I would have liked to. Over the past four years, I've had my share of abysmal grades. And I'm not being dramatic, some semesters have been just as atrocious as you can get. When I think back to the courses in which I had received such poor grades, I realize that the classes were based almost solely on exam grades. You do poorly on an exam or two, and you don't really have an opportunity to help yourself. Is that really fair? Grades, after all, are supposed to be indications of how well a student is understanding the course material, not punishments for inadequate or misguided study habits.

I get that "intelligence" or "knowledge of a subject" needs to be operationalized somehow in order to make comparisons. While an exam is a way to numerically gauge how much a student has retained about a subject, it almost never truly displays their understanding of it. When you see a student cramming for an exam - whether it be biochemistry or history - you see them hunched over a notebook full of facts and figures, attempting to jam their head full with as much as possible, with the hope that come exam time, they will be able to regurgitate enough to form cohesive answers.

If exams really did a good job of assessing knowledge of a subject, why do students dread cumulative exams so much? If we had truly gained an understanding of material we were previously tested on, we would prefer a cumulative exam, which would allow us to integrate across material of multiple exams. If professors are going to really use testing to assess a student's understanding of material, they should make exams cumulative, because to me, mastery of a subject requires integration, rather than being able to report on bits and pieces of material.

While standardized testing has been continually lambasted for being an inadequate measure of how prepared a student is for college or graduate schools, there is not much more of an option. However, once you're at school, professors have an entire semester to gauge their students' understanding of the course material. By spreading the grade out over a variety of assignments, some of which are subjectively graded by the professor, not only will students who consider themselves "bad test-takers" feel that they have equal opportunity to do "well" in the class, but there will be much less extrinsic motivation and would most likely spur students' interests in the course material itself. Isn't that what college courses are supposed to be about anyway? Spending four years consistently worried about grading and cramming could potentially be a big precursor for giving students a propensity to dislike fields they would otherwise be interested in.

It would be interesting to perform some kind of meta-analysis comparing students who take classes in which grades are overwhelmingly based off of exam grades and those who receive grades more based off of presentations/papers/integrative assignments. Not only would it be cool to see how GPAs differ, but to see which students pursue careers directly correlated with what they studied in college. How satisfied were they with their collegiate experiences? How do they perform on other, non-academic based, integrative and/or memory tasks? Are there really such people as "bad test-takers"?

November 4, 2010

two key aspects to successful comparative psychology research

This semester, I'm taking a seminar on Comparative Psychology, and have found myself to be repeatedly frustrated with an overwhelming majority of the studies we have read. Maybe I'm becoming too opinionated of a reader, but it seems to me that two fundamental things are missing from a lot of the studies. When trying to understand whether or not non-human subjects possess specific psychological abilities (e.g. theory of mind, self-recognition, reciprocal altruism), you must keep two things in mind. First, animals may not perform the behaviors we are looking for without adequate motivation to do so. Secondly, completely novel situations may provoke an animal to react in a way in which they would not customarily react. Therefore, it is important to provide situations that are somewhat familiar to ones they might encounter in their day-to-day lives in their natural, environment to which their species has adapted (unless, of course, using a novel situation removes a bias in the experiment).

(1) Experimenters should provide adequate motivation for the subject to elicit behavior: In an attempt to ascertain whether or not chimps possessed the ability to display the most efficient search technique available using logic (Call & Carpenter, 2001), the experimenters baited one of three tubes with a reward and gave the subjects opportunity to search for it. They called systematic/exhaustive search techniques "inefficient", but without any time or disciplinary motivation, why shouldn't the subjects perform exhaustive searches? As a human, it would be smart to do so. If there were no costs for me to check every option for a reward 2-3 times, why wouldn't I? After all, why should I assume there is only one reward? Maybe if I only had a certain amount of time before my options were taken away, I would be forced to employ a more efficient strategy. Perhaps in this study, after 60 seconds in each trial, the experimenter should have covered the apparatus, thus ending the trial. Eventually, the chimpanzees would realize they had limited time to make their best attempt at finding the food reward, and begin employing more logical/"efficient" strategies. If they did not, then perhaps we could assume they do not have the potential to do so.

(2) Studies should provide situations that are relevant to the natural habitat of the subject species: A study in 2005 (Hattori & Kuroshima) attempted to decipher whether or not Capuchin monkeys possess the ability to cooperate with one another to accomplish a common goal. The results of their study asserted that the monkeys spent a significantly greater amount of time looking at their partner when they needed help on a task. This result conflicted with previous studies (Visalberghi 1997; Visalberghi, et al. 2000) that had failed to provide any evidence of communication during cooperative tasks. The difference here is that the 2005 study used a task that was more intuitive for Capuchin monkeys, whereas the earlier studies used more unfamiliar scenarios. In the earlier studies, the monkeys may have just been more confused about the task in general, and did not fully understand that it required their partner's cooperation. In the end, laboratories are only logistic necessities, and it is more useful to understand whether or not animals can perform in their natural environments.

Basically, in order to conclude that a subject with whom you cannot communicate with does not possess specific mental abilities, you must design an experiment that will do its best to elicit it. Only then can you conclude that the subject does or does not have such capabilities.