Post 4: Scientific Competence

As I was putting my syllabus together it occurred to me that while I had designed the PSY 397 Advanced Lab course to build research skills, it would also be good to reflect on the higher purpose of the course. Only a tiny percentage of students want to be psychological researchers, an even smaller number want to be cognitive researchers, and it is unlikely that anyone will use the exact experimental designs I’m teaching in their future job. But, all of them will work in fields that use or rely on the principles and methods we’ll be discussing, and every single student will benefit from the critical thinking skills and broad understanding of “how things work” behind the scenes.

While thinking about this, I couldn’t help but notice that CNN was playing a report about a certain science-denying creationist building a replica (or what he believes to be a replica) of Noah’s Ark in Kentucky. Controversy has arisen because this clearly religious organization has received millions in tax breaks and free land from the government despite the fact that there is absolutely no science – nor any logic or common sense – to back up their positions. I don’t want to get too far into the details, but this person believes that the earth is about 6,000 years old, and that a 600-year-old Noah built a boat that held two members of every species for 40 days. He also requires all employees to sign a statement disavowing homosexuality, same-sex marriage, pre-marital sex, and accepting what they call a “literal” interpretation of the bible.

I’m sure anyone reading this could look up the details on their own and figure out that these claims and ideas are nonsensical and incorrect. Or could you?

After seeing the news article, and to prepare to write this blog post, I imagined I knew nothing about this issue and googled “how old is the earth”. To their credit, the search engine had – in a big box at the top – the correct age of Earth, the Milky Way, the Moon, and Mars, all accompanied by pictures, statistics, and a link to Wikipedia. But…the next two results were from creationist websites that contain a mix of incorrect information, pseudoscience, propaganda, and nonsense. In fact, of the 11 results on the first page: 4 were creationist propaganda, 3 discussed the supposed “controversy” and gave the impression there is some debate, and 4 gave the correct answer (including the box at the top and the same Wikipedia entry listed again far down the page). If I was a high school or college student or politician who was uninformed about the issue, I would certainly get the impression that there is a controversy.

This is pretty sad. How does such clearly incorrect information get so much attention? More importantly, how can this be fixed?

Without education in scientific research methods, I don’t think it is possible. Even a smart person without training in critical thinking and the scientific method would have a tough time figuring out that one position here is completely and totally incorrect. To any person who has learned the scientific method, it is perfectly obvious.

Luckily, education is mostly moving in the right direction. In this particular case the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) clearly supports the science of the age of the earth, as well as the fact of evolution, and encourages not caving to pressures to teach non-science or fallacious “arguments” against evolution. The reasoning is simple. Science starts with an idea and tries to disprove it. After trying time and time again to disprove their idea, with every possible thing you can think of, if the idea still survives then it is probably correct. Non-science starts with an idea and tries to PROVE it. It is all too easy to find or twist evidence to support a claim, and if you start off “knowing” the conclusion in advance then you will always find reasons to support your idea (even if they are wrong or silly). In fact, it is pointless to even investigate if you’re determined to have your idea work no matter the evidence. Of course, the NSTA has members who are educated in science. It is somewhat more difficult to reach people who haven’t had this education. All scientists should think about reaching those people, but in the mean time we should make sure that our students are highly proficient in the scientific method and logical reasoning so that they don’t fall victim to propaganda or pseudoscience.

And of course, it isn’t just the age of the earth or evolution. Right after the CNN story I saw a commercial for a product “made with 100% ground beef”. Now does that mean it is 100% beef – even though logic and critical thinking would suggest that there are at least spices in there that make it less than 100% beef – or does it mean something else? There is currently litigation about whether 100% Grated Parmesan Cheese is made with 100% Parmesan Cheese or if it just means the product is 100% Grated. These are smaller things, but they are examples of issues that every single person faces every day, often without even knowing it. This is not to mention the false or misleading claims from drug companies that are often loosely based on science, or that fact that I live in Pennsylvania where everything is labeled “All Natural” even though that phrase is meaningless. Only scientific competence can help people make decisions about these things that are in their best interests.

So, I suppose the conclusion is that, though there will be very advanced and technical methods in my course, the main goal will be to create liberal arts graduates who are scientifically competent and can distinguish true facts from falsehoods. My course is particularly well suited because it looks at metacognition, including your ability to reflect on your own certainty in any belief.

Finally, I would note that the actual story of Noah, and the stories in all religions, and even deceptive advertising, have great value. There are morals and themes that can be tremendously informative in many classes including my own. But, they should not be used as an excuse to “not believe” in the factual truth of science or to be critically lazy. As the Dalai Lama said of his religion, “If scientific analysis were conclusively to demonstrate certain claims in Buddhism to be false, then we must accept the findings of science and abandon those claims”. He has even done so, moving from being intolerant of homosexuality to having a more nuanced (though still not fully correct) view based on science. And indeed, most mainstream religions accept science as fact. Unfortunately, though, too many people – some with good intentions, some with bad – simply do not have the knowledge and skills necessary to distinguish fact from bias, science from falsehood. We should do all we can to fix this, because it would in turn fix many of the issues our society faces.

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Resilience as Odyssey

I have been reading Paul Tough’s book, How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Gratitude, and it’s a really captivating read. I find compelling Tough’s argument that success has more to do with character and one’s having skills like perseverance, curiosity, optimism, and self-control than it does intelligence and high standardized test scores. His model of telling stories of children growing up in poverty, many of whom are also contending with enrollment at malfunctioning schools, neglectful parents, bad decisions, and so on (i.e., stories of children who appear to have virtually no chance to succeed), is one that I plan to emulate to the end that I can include among my Synthesis students’ assignments 15 blogs (one for each week of the semester) that reveal their reflections on the attributes and experiences that helped people in the past master change successfully and bounce back when the tough got going. Five of the blogs will focus on historical figures from the ancient past as a means of students’ probing the ancient roots of resilience; another five will highlight examinations of literary characters who show grit as self-manufactured painstakingly over time by working through problems and challenging experiences; and the last five will be stories they share of people they know who have exercised the ability to face life’s difficulties with courage and patience, never refusing to give up.

The blog assignment will be aimed at challenging my students to identify recurring qualities in the resilient people they read, think and write about as a means of creating a theoretical framework for determining the thing that changes in a person’s life and inclines him or her toward the idea of hard work and success.

In my efforts at thinking about how best to organize my students’ readings such that I can guide them most effectively into different ways of asking the question, what are the building blocks of resilience?, I have been re-reading Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, one of the course’s required texts. The idea of literary quest and its concomitant ties to resilience draws readers’ attention to its mysteries and riddles that ask to be solved. In fact, as early as page three of Song of Solomon, Toni Morrison introduces the idea of quest as inextricably linked to the devotion to duty manifested in Mr. Smith’s (the town insurance agent) farewell note in which he conveys his decision to “take off from Mercy and fly away on [his] own wings.”

The symbolism of flight elucidates Morrison’s treatment of the quest and inevitably raises the central concern that forms the novel’s basis—the search for identity and, indeed, freedom. Morrison’s portrayal of flight as the premeditated decision to escape confining circumstances turns historical fiction into more than a means of moral instruction and racial affirmation. The novel includes those intentions, of course, but it reverberates as well a rarely discussed subtext: a search for faith and the opportunity for transformation that originates in Africa and spans four generations. Such considerations will lay the groundwork for a mindful reaching back in time in an effort to clear space for open, ethical and pluralistic class discussions about what it means to find one’s own path.

As I guide the students through our exploration of Song of Solomon, my plan is to frame the novel through a series of questions about the ways in which the various members of the Dead family define human acts of fortitude and how these definitions confine or liberate their behavior and judgments. The questions we consider will lead right into the question of what makes the quest of an ordinary (wo)man possible or even extraordinary.

While the mysteries in Song of Solomon are not solved simply, they raise as many questions as they answer. That Morrison advances multiple forms of resilience manifesting as the development of self-discovery, knowledge and good character, she also presents circumstances in which resilience is exercised as a vice. It will be important for us to examine closely trans-generational attitudes toward personal responsibility while simultaneously culling textual evidence of the kind of consciousness that spawns resilience as virtue and the circumstances that result in resignation.

My personal, intellectual odyssey of organizing this new course thus far has encouraged my exploration of the ways in which cultures from around the globe (in Song of Solomon, Africa figures strongly) as well as the myriad subcultures within America’s borders have influenced American society in its efforts at surmounting seemingly unbridgeable cultural divides.


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What makes us resilient?

What does it mean to be resilient? What does it mean to have grit? What makes us resilient, and what is the cultural value of resilience? How does an oppressed population envision a hopeful rather than a hopeless future? How does one “come back” from personal or communal tragedy? As an African Americanist, these are questions that drive my research and teaching.

For the past two years, I have been conducting research on grit–a term used in positive psychology research circles and fitness program titles and literature. My initial research was driven by my persistent work on a twice submitted NEH Enduring Questions grant application for which I was not awarded funding, unfortunately (perhaps Paul Tough is right in his argument that the secret to success is failure!). The fundamental question with which I have been grappling is: what does it really mean to be resilient? Although the question appears simple at first glance, the answers are complex. In fact, my explorations of resilience thus far have involved my reaching back over the centuries to locate the earliest source/notation/stories of resilience.


In the process of that reaching back, my readings, though initially humanities-centered, led me to new encounters with influential thinkers and writers in the fields of history, philosophy, religion, and psychology, which spawned an ah-ha moment. That moment revealed to me that if my research could lead me to reach significantly beyond my expertise as a scholar and teacher, I might be able to shape my new knowledge thoughtfully and pedagogically such that I can effectively challenge and encourage junior and senior students in a Synthesis capstone course to reach significantly beyond their expertise in their various majors. The more I considered this possibility, the more interested, hopeful and committed I became, particularly since so much of my mentoring, research and teaching focus on identity, character building and the radical gestures that convey the extent to which ordinary people have persevered thereby influencing the culture, institutions, policies, and politics of our world.


Of great concern to today’s college students are the questions of how we define, assign value to and pull off human acts of fortitude. Such considerations inform the basis of this new course and lead directly into the supplemental questions that extend from the core inquiry. In addition to asking, what makes us resilient?, I will guide the students, at a basic level, early in the semester’s course work into a historically organized exploration of the relationship between resilience and character. To that end, we will aim to find out if there is any cultural value in resilience? Other additional questions are crucially important.

How do we “come back” from personal tragedy? How does an oppressed population envision a hopeful rather than a hopeless future? How might ancient and modern thinkers and writers contribute to readers’ development of self-discovery, knowledge and good character? These big, persistent questions imply resilience as an ethically complicated category of inquiry and form a springboard from which students can trace the historical emergence of and moral discourse on mind habits that create bridges to a better future.


The texts that form the focus of the proposed course readings foreground resilience and the desire to know which are of the utmost pedagogical and social value. Motivated by my desire to fill a historical gap in my existing pedagogical approaches and African American literary scholarship and to (re)energize my teaching in order to ensure a more current sense of interest among Albright students, I find exciting the opportunity to frame the class as an enduring query while simultaneously situating humanities thinkers in explicit conversation with ancient philosophers and positive psychologists. With its quest for a documentable past, the course has the distinctive potential to challenge existing paradigms and produce new explanations that will help bridge the chasm that has often ensnared even the best of my pedagogical intentions.


In Teachers as Intellectuals, Henry Giroux argues that it is the responsibility of teachers to practice a critical pedagogy that directs student attention not only to the text but also to the process of production of cultural meaning and to the politics of the educational institution (86-107). The texts that will form the focus of the new course readings foreground resilience and the desire to know which are of the utmost pedagogical and social value. My desire to stretch myself and be stretched beyond my own disciplinary concerns and interests while simultaneously anticipating my students’ concerns is aiding me in examining carefully the critical connections between historical eras and the formation of narrative.


In my subsequent blogs, I plan to detail the structure of the course along with its readings, which I believe will enhance and strengthen the newly envisioned general studies curriculum as well as the college’s Strategic Plan both of which give high priority to greater internationalization of our campus and courses.



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Post 3: Fostering Metacognition

My main area of research is metacognition. Sometimes this is defined as “thinking about thinking” but really it is a much deeper skill. It is your ability to monitor and control your mental states. That is, to become aware of what you’re doing, what biases you might have, and how confident you are, and use that information to make better decisions.

Recently my colleagues and I showed that metacognition takes up a lot of attention and executive processing, meaning it is one of our most sophisticated abilities that takes a good bit of concentration to pull off. But, the good news is that if you practice enough you can learn to monitor yourself somewhat automatically, so that it doesn’t take much of that (exhausting) attention and effort but you can still make better decisions.

This is similar to the concept of wu wei in Taoism, which sometimes defined as “effortless action”. But, like metacognition, there is a somewhat deeper meaning. The idea is to do sophisticated mental processes in a way that is perfectly natural and without that (exhausting) attention and effort. Basically, to become such a master at something that you move it from a difficult concentrative exercise into an automatic thing that you do perfectly without worrying about.

The metaphor I often use in class is that of a dancer. A child dances, and it is perfectly natural and beautiful but not really “good”. No one would pay money to watch it, but they smile when they see it. So you send the child to dance class, where they learn the “correct” steps and choreography. But, of course, now they are horrible dancers. They move like robots or off beat because they are trying so hard. (In our terms, they are using all their mental resources on monitoring and concentrative effort, leaving little left over to actually dance). This is why many parents agonize at the thought of going to a child’s dance recital: They can see the children are learning, but they are not real dancers. Finally, after many years of practice a dancer might become a master. Now, they dance perfect choreography but it is also natural. It appears effortless, and it is, though of course a lot of effort was required to get to that point. They are childlike, but not childish. They’ve mastered the technique so thoroughly that it now “just comes natural” to them, and they can focus instead on the expression and meaning of the dance.

So, how do we teach this in class? The paradigm I’m developing for my class this summer explores metacognition in exams. I talked about it on this College Info Geek podcast that provides undergraduates with useful tips to succeed. Basically, while taking an exam, I require my students (and research subjects) to rate how confident they are in each of their answers. They do this on a 1-5 scale, with 1 being “not at all confident” and 5 being “very confident”. I’ve done some research on this, where I found that students are generally pretty good at judging how well they will do on each question, but not very good at estimating their overall grade on the exam. This rating processes helps to improve their scores, and students who want to review their exam afterwards can kind of see whether they could improve their metacognitive “calibration” (how well their estimates match reality). However, I haven’t yet explored whether it is possible to build this skill by rating and reviewing for several exams, or perhaps for several practice exams.

Thus, what I’ve been working on the past week or so involves designing a way for individual students to rate and review each exam and quickly calculate their metacognitive calibration. The main difficulty is that the calculation involves Goodman-Kruskal gamma correlations, which most (probably all) students have never done before. I’ll need to develop some instructions and lab exercises to teach them this technique – both the underlying statistics and the actual steps to calculate it using a computer program – so that they can quickly do it after each exam.

The specifics are still up in the air. I may have the class do this themselves on several of their own exams/practice exams, or I may have them recruit subjects and analyze their results for several exams to see if there is improvement. Maybe we could even have a group of seniors in my class “tutor” some struggling students for the semester and teach them this technique while tracking the results. Some of this I’ll leave up to the students.

In the end, hopefully they achieve or at least will start down the path toward wu wei. The ultimate goal would be to have them automatically – as an effortless natural process – metacognitively monitor themselves during exams and during all decisions in life. A huge literature has shown that metacognition is beneficial in education, in the business world, and in basically any endeavor that involves memory and decision making. If they achieved this, they would be true masters of life and would perfectly exemplify a liberal arts education. Even if they just start down the path it will be well worth it.

Of course, I also have to teach the class all of these concepts, including the psychology of metacognition, the underlying assumptions of Taoism and wu wei, the statistical concepts I mentioned above, and several other methodological things. Should be fun!

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Post 2: Programming is Hard

Imagine you want to add one sentence to a book. But the book is written in Chinese, which you barely understand. And this book is hidden somewhere in a library filled with Chinese books. And the library uses an organizational scheme you’ve never seen before, which is in Latin. Unfortunately you don’t read Latin, and in fact don’t even know if it goes left-to-right, right-to-left, up-to-down, or what. That is essentially the situation that I’ve been for the past few days.

The sentence itself is relatively simple, in my case adding a simple code to delay a computer program. No problem, I can Google the translation and paste it in. But how do I find the right page in the right book? Of course, no one has ever added this particular sentence to this particular book before, so there is no simple tutorial.

Step one was to stare at the computer code for about a day hoping that I would somehow recognize what I was looking for. That didn’t work. But, to extend this metaphor even more, I learned a bit about how the organizational scheme of the library (even though I didn’t have a clue what anything was).

Step two was to read up – and YouTube up – on the basics of how other people added somewhat different sentences to somewhat different books. The difficulty here was finding something similar enough to what I wanted to do. It took some searching, but I finally found something. The organizational scheme I’m using is called Unity and the library is called C# (pronounced “C sharp”).

Step three was learning how other people solved similar problems. I was trying to add a line of code to one file (i.e., one book) in C#, which would communicate to Unity that I wanted to add my delay.

I suppose I should say that I was experimenting with “augmented reality”, which I plan to use for my course. Basically, you put on a headset where you can only see two video feeds (one going into each eye). In my case, the video comes from two cameras mounted on the outside of the headset, basically in the same position as your eyes. See here for a little schematic. If all goes well, you see exactly what you would see normally – regular 3D vision that you use whenever your eyes are open – just in video form. Not really a big deal. But, unlike normal vision, you can alter things to change your perception.

In this case, I wanted to delay the visual information by a few hundred milliseconds so that, if you were to look at your hand and make a fist, you would see your fist closing just a little after you did it. Or if you clapped, you would feel it and hear the sound just before you saw your hands come together. This makes it very difficult to do coordinated things because your performance depends on constant and correct visual feedback. Messing that up can reduce your sense of self-agency, something I have explored in the auditory domain previously. This would be a great thing that an undergraduate course could use to test things like sports performance, rehabilitation from physical injuries, consciousness and cognition, empathy, and many related phenomena.

Anyway, I eventually figured out how to add my sentence. Unfortunately, it turns out that adding it broke the rest of the book. After extensive trial and error over a few days, I eventually found a work-around and was able to achieve what I wanted! In the end, it turned out that it was easier to write my own book than it was to add a sentence to another. Actually, I kind of sidestepped the programming issue completely – I’m reasonably good at programming but, like I said, not in this language – and found a solution using a combination of programs that already exist. Still, it felt great to have done something that no one has done before and something that will be helpful for my students.

The class will now be able to use delayed visual feedback, as well as a variety of other visual distortion effects that could simulate medical disorders, drug states, and even the effects of aging.

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Post 1: Learning to Learn

I am developing a course called PSY397 Advanced Lab, for the Psychology Department. The goal is to create a situation in which senior psych majors can – in small groups – design and run an experiment. This involves coming up with an idea, doing background reading, creating the actual experiment, running human subjects, analyzing data, and creating a research article and/or conference presentation to present the results. It is quite an undertaking for them.

In my case, the experiments will explore metacognition, or your ability to “think about thinking”. This involves monitoring your thoughts and using knowledge about your own mind to influence your decisions. It has been linked to self-awareness, consciousness, self-control (click here for a news story in which I briefly talk about that), understanding the emotions of others, and many other sophisticated mental processes. Many disciplines have begun to apply metacognition to their work, notably including clinical psychology and education (e.g., teaching students to learn how to learn).

I originally began testing metacognitive processes in rhesus monkeys, exploring their ability to use self-reflective information to adjust their behavior and even to report on their own actions (a phenomenon I discovered in them, called self-agency). Like us, they seem to have a reflective mind that can think in ways that, in humans, we would identify as conscious processes.

The goal of my summer project is to develop a few human paradigms that will be engaging, fun, and rigorous tools to help students learn about metacognition. One paradigm I’ve used in the past involves students tracking their confidence during college exams, a metacognitive process can help improve decision-making and identify cognitive biases. Of course, I’ll leave it to the students to decide how this could be adjusted, applied to different areas, assessed in different cultures, or “spun off” in any number of ways.

Another paradigm I’ve used and will be developing over the summer allows people to monitor their actions and experience different mental phenomena using virtual reality. One of my students at Albright, Gwen Birster ’17, recently showed me this video of people using virtual reality (or, strictly speaking, augmented reality) to simulate migraines. I will be using basically the same technology in class, and so one of my first tasks will be attempting to create something similar that allows people to put themselves inside the mind of someone who has a disorder.

But, there are many questions that I need to figure out: Should students learn to program the software and create simulations themselves? It could take a whole semester just to do that part. Should I make a few simulations (or use pre-made programs available for the Oculus Rift headset) and train them to collect physiological/psychological data? Or should I let them decide which aspects of the task they want to do? And of course, how should I go about giving lectures, demonstrations, and moderating discussions in the course so that they can make informed choices? To answer all of these questions, the obvious first step is to determine for myself what can be done in virtual reality that can directly test metacognition, empathy, self-agency, and related abilities.

I also have a variety of related technological marvels that I need to play around with, and I will try to update this blog whenever I find something exciting.

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Final Blog: Reflection of Learning Experiences

Reflection of Learning Experiences:

My original proposal for producing seven demonstration videos for FAS325 CAD I class has been successfully accomplished in regard to Summer Teaching and Learning Grant.  I am very satisfied with completion of my proposal for the Teaching and Learning Grant because I have produced seven demonstration videos that are uploaded in Moodle for the FAS325 CAD I course and documents which will assist students and colleague for their reference. Many aspects of this course (FAS325 CAD I) involve technical know-how to manipulate the program.  With practice and skill development outside of class, both students and the instructor will be able to collaborate in more meaningful and comprehensive ways.

Learning Camtasia and Kaltura webhosting software was a goal and the Teaching and Learning Grant project helped me accomplish my goals of learning the software as a learning tool and be able to use the final products of video demonstration as a teaching tool.  In addition, I like the idea of creating these learning demonstration videos with Camtasia and webhosting Kaltura, which make that possible to enable me to spend more time with students on developing the aesthetic part of design in class rather than spending class room hours explaining residual technical information. I am thrilled and excited that I am able to utilize my video demonstration videos in my class in the fall of 2015 and be able to assess to help gauge the knowledge and skills of both students and instructors. Lastly, I also want to include some of challenges to learn software in my blog so that future teaching and learning recipient wants to use these program.

Leaning Experience I: Learning editing tools

 One challenge faced is that learning new Camtasia 8 software is both invigorating and frustrating. Taking an online course for Camtasia was the first step, writing scripts to work out the layout and format, particularly the order of events to support the production of seamless videos.  The Camtasia software is very helpful and useful to edit the videos, but requires practice in order to be able to edit them professionally. Especially “zoom-n-pan tool”, not only allowing a screen to make bigger or smaller in order to deliver to students the focused information, but permitting to produce the video with a professional look.  The other tool that I particularly enjoyed is “Callouts tool” which enable to insert written information into the specific video clip in support of communication with students directly on the screen.  The last tool is “Library”, in which I indexed many clips for my tile pages and easily accessed them to bring into the track.  There was a total of over 60 hours invested in producing these videos using this software.

Leaning Experience II: Produce and share

Once the editing is done, the recording has to be saved as Media Player (PC) format that requires a few steps. First click “Produce and Share” button on top of Camtasia screen and it displays a dialogue box. Dialogue box allows picking different types of formats that are compatible with software and devices that you are working with. Media Player 4 only (up to480p) is the format that will work well with Kaltura’s Video Package for Moodle.  Select Media Player 4 only (up to480p) and click next open up to the file saving dialogue box.       The last step is to save the file.  Create the file for the final videos and it is ready to upload in Moodle by using webhosting Kaltura’s Video Package for Moodle.

I have enjoyed the opportunity to produce demonstration videos for my class with Camtasia 8 software and Kaltura webhosting program. I have also enjoyed producing documents that might help other instructors who want to utilize software that I have used for my project.  The final assessment will be conducted at the end of October.

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