Adonis Diaries

Graduate students: Liars, cheaters, and procrastinators

Posted on: November 2, 2010

I created a new graduate course for students about ready to start finding a PhD proposal.  The idea was to facilitating the task in matter of topics that a student might feel more inclined to selecting for further investigation.  The purpose was initiating graduate students to openly extending feedback to their colleagues and to learn asking the right questions.  The method was getting aware of the various scientific methods available in approaching and resolving problems.

The course intended for each student to researching four topics, among peer-reviewed articles:  Two in different engineering or scientific disciplines and two in social sciences fields of study.  Each topic will be followed up by another supporting or related subject article to be presented in each session.  The final two sessions were reserved for the presentation of a definite topic that students have decided for submitting draft proposals.  That proposal had nothing to do with the advisor’s line of research, but the student would greatly benefit if he shared his interest with his advisor.

There are a few graduate students who directly resume and build upon their MS thesis, saving many years of searching and suffering.  Those particular students were welcomed and encouraged to enroll in the class:  The only condition is that the “potential proposal” presented in the last two sessions should be different from the proposed thesis.  The rational is for a graduate student to learn flexibility in focusing on several topics of research:  The opportunity for that kind of research diversity and availability of alternative perspectives will be rare to come by in a “professional environment” later on.

I got the phone numbers of students and did call them during the semester to follow-up on their academic progress and behaviors.  Students were not forbidden to calling me up:  I lack time and resources for additional tasks that end up within the psychological domain of expertise.

For example, two days after each session, I would reserve an hour to calling up the students with sample questions such as: “Did you find an article? What is the title? You don’t remember the title then you may fill me on the subject matter.  You cannot because you had no time to browse through the article?  What if the day before the session you realized that the title was misleading?  What if the article does not involve any experiment?  You have a few more important courses to focus on?  Define me what is “more important”….

In the first session, I distributed sample articles in many fields, disciplines, and experimental methods.  The articles were distributed in random to students.  I select one student to read his selected article to class.  Actually, every session requires a student to reading to class.

The next session is basically a “looking dumb” experiment:  First, all students were confused explaining new topics they were not familiar with; second, they had no idea what kind of questions to ask that made sense to them; and third, the most important factor, every student was considering the backlash of the other students when his turn comes to present his article.  The student is saying: “If I ask corny questions then, the other students will get their revenge and harass me pretty good.  Let me go through this course in the most advantageous peace of mind.”

Fact is, most students have not be exposed to any kind of “experimental design” courses; they had no idea what is meant by dependent variables, independent variables, control variables, or confounding variable…  The students manipulated equations for years but have no idea what they are manipulating and how to discriminate among the variables.  Students sat in lab courses and still have no idea of experimental methods.

The students are smart, but the logic for designing experiment and controlling variables or factors is not familiar to them:  This logic requires training and frequent initiations.  I tend to believe that knowledge of designing experiments is the basic common denominator method in sciences, whether hard or soft sciences.  I am bewildered that most engineering and scientific fields do not require a single course in the logic or philosophy of designing experiments.  How can any professional comprehend articles outside his domain if he is not initiated to designing experiments?

I gave more weight to social sciences articles because they were sources of demonstrating the far more complex experiments that social scientist are confronted with:  The hundreds of human variables to control in order not to end up with confounding results that ruin months of assiduous work.

Most probably, my course was designed to initiate students on methods of designing experiments before it is too late when approaching their thesis:  It is a way of encouraging the students to enrolling in “design of experiments” courses, even if not required (which was generally the case in engineering and sciences).

I used to retain two students after each session and give them each an article to read.  The following session delivers what I expected:  half the follow-up articles were identical to the one I handed the two students with comical excuses of how they related to their original topic.

The third session was meant to overcoming barriers erected between the presenter and the other students.  Anyway, one of the main objectives of this course is asking openly the right questions with the purpose of comprehending another topic and learning to focus on the presentation instead of worrying on “when is my turn and how stupid will I look?”  This objective must be the hardest to achieving and the most useful, if successful, to a professional career.

Note:  This post is a fictional short story on teaching methods.

2 Responses to "Graduate students: Liars, cheaters, and procrastinators"

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November 2010

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