Category: Academics

Photo courtesy of Scouting NY

As I discussed in the last column in this series, Columbia’s heavy reliance on the lecture is a disservice to its students– the ‘learning’ happening in a traditional lecture isn’t translating to long-term memory. Evidence going back over a hundred years tells us that the typical memorize-and-regurgitate approach most students employ to get through a lecture course is an astonishingly bad way to learn – when tested six months after completing a typical lecture course, students have reliably forgotten ~95% of the information they learned.1

While completely replacing lectures with core-sized classes is the obvious suggestion, it’s likely too expensive to execute, even for a well-endowed school like Columbia. Instead, I’m going to focus on easy, relatively cheap, and scientifically effective ways to improve the lecture-based classroom by using what we know about how humans form memories.

While there are few different kinds of memory, the type most relevant to higher education is declarative memory – that which can be consciously accessed. This long-lasting memory we’re going after involves four steps: encoding new information, storage, retrieval, and forgetting. Over the next four columns, we’ll be exploring each of these areas in detail, starting with how we initially process new information.

The standard Columbia lecture requires you to pay attention to the lecturer speaking for 75 minutes straight, often followed by short break and yet another 75-minute information deluge if you, like me, have the misfortune of back-to-back lectures. Empirical research into attention span during lecture courses suggests that students pay attention for less and less time in ever-shortening cycles. The longer a lecture goes on, the less students pay attention, and the bigger each lapse in attention gets.2

Here’s a common story that plays out in lectures across Columbia. You walk into a lecture ready to learn, pay attention for fifteen minutes…and then spend a minute checking Facebook. You tune back in, maybe for only ten minutes this time, only to be distracted for a three-minute stretch by your group chat. By the end of the lecture, you’re only spending two or three out of every ten minutes actually listening, and the rest of it distracted and hoping the lecture ends.

The neurological reason for these lapses comes from the ‘top-down’ way your conscious brain focuses on a single thing for an extended period of time. Your prefrontal cortex, which is physically located on top of the rest of your brain tells the lower, more primitive parts of your brain to shut up and allow you to focus on a specific task. That’s what lets you listen to your professor while tuning out all irrelevant stimuli, like your phone buzzing in your pocket, your stomach rumbling, or that siren wailing past on Broadway.  

This kind of conscious selection is necessary to even hearing new information in the first place – if you’re not paying attention, you won’t be able to recall the information later. But forcing your brain to do this for an extended period of time comes at a steep neurological cost. Overuse of these suppression mechanisms leads to mental fatigue – effectively preventing your brain from focusing any more. Any further attempt to focus only makes it worse, and you’re prone to completely tuning out and giving up on paying attention at all.3 The 75-minute lecture is excellent at causing just this sort of dangerous mental fatigue,4 and far from being the best, it’s possibly one of the worst ways of introducing information.

Instead of using time in-class to relay new information, students would benefit most from having control of their initial information encoding. Students could choose the type of input they prefer, whether that be pre-recorded lectures, readings, compellingly explained visuals, interactive formats, or a combination different methods. Imagine if you could take a pause when your attention slips, going back over difficult concepts a few times, and skim quickly those you already understand. The idea of doing this sort of learning as ‘homework’ has a number of other benefits.

The idea of doing initial learning before class is called flipping the classroom, and it’s one of the most scientifically-supported ideas for improving lecture courses.5 To solve our lecture attention problem, the best idea may be to trust the intelligent and motivated Columbia students to learn at their own pace and think about the material first, before even walking into a classroom.

By flipping the classroom, we’ll be able to better pay attention to new information, and therefore be better prepared for the next stage of memory formation. Importantly, it frees up valuable in-class time to use more interactive teaching techniques, which is necessary if we want to improve the storage and recall phases of memory.  

Stay tuned for the next column, where we’ll talk about how to most effectively use time spent physically in the classroom to help Columbia students actually learn from their lecture classes.

Uniquely Human runs alternative Mondays. To submit a comment or a piece of your own, email submissions@columbialion.com.

References:

  1. Deslauriers, L. & Wieman, C. (2011). Learning and retention of quantum concepts with different teaching methods. Physical Review Special Topics – Physics Education Research, 7.
  2.  Bunce, D., Flens, E., & Neiles, K. (2010). How Long Can Students Pay Attention in Class? A Study of Student Attention Decline Using Clickers. J. Chem. Educ., 87(12), 1438-1443.
  3. Ishii, A., Tanaka, M., & Watanabe, Y. (2014). Neural mechanisms of mental fatigue. Reviews In The Neurosciences, 0(0).
  4. Aron, A. (2007). The Neural Basis of Inhibition in Cognitive Control. The Neuroscientist, 13(3), 214-228.
  5. Roehl, A., Reddy, S., & Shannon, G. (2013). The Flipped Classroom: An Opportunity To Engage Millennial Students Through Active Learning Strategies. Journal Of Family & Consumer Sciences, 105(2), 44-49. http://dx.doi.org/10.14307/jfcs105.2.12

 

Hey Barnumbia baes! ‘Tis the season for midterms, and that means all-nighters, anxiety, tears, and possible existential crises. It’s getting rough, and some of you, like me, might be doubting whether you’re truly qualified to be here.

I personally came from a small town where it was fairly easy to be at the top but also coming from a low-income family I always felt like I needed to “succeed” to atone for my parents’ sacrifices. So settling into the Ivy League environment was a bit of a shock for me as I realized I’d built so much of my self-esteem upon the shaky foundation of my academic success.

Here at Columbia, I’m surrounded by people who are not only intelligent and motivated and enormously involved, but also compassionate, open-minded, and welcoming. So to all you beautiful Barnumbians, I wanted to remind you that you are so bright in so many ways and have so much to give to the world.

The rigorous admissions process did not make a mistake. Sure, others have done more than you, but past achievements do not tell the whole story. In context of your upbringing, Barnumbia saw so much potential and brilliance in you. You absolutely belong here because you are going to set the world on fire. Getting a poor grade on one midterm, or even three, does not change that fact or doom your bright future. It just means you are getting settled in to a new life and are still adjusting.

Love and forgive yourself. Even if there are others who seem to be above you, remember that there will always be someone better, no matter how smart you are, and the fact that you have come this far should give you great pride. Your value is not derived from inborn talents or a grade on a report card, but by your love and compassion for your neighbors and for humanity and by your willingness to use your talents to make the world a better place.

And you’ve been doing great so far! Keep believing that you will continue to shine. Drink coffee and stay up if you must, but remember to give yourself time to rest and recover as well.

“Your very flesh [is] a great poem,” as Walt Whitman wrote, so read it well and let the words dance off your lips. Just keep going and soon you will look up and marvel at what you have done.

The Lion is the only Columbia publication with an open-submissions policy. To respond to this op-ed or to submit one your own, email submissions@columbialion.com.

While Columbia courses are advertised as mostly intimate and discussion-based, walking into your second (or even third, or fourth) lecture of the day is disturbingly common. Some courses, such as Introductory Biology, consistently reach over 200 students per section. Personally, 54% of my courses (by credit value) in the first two years have been large lectures.

In the engineering school, the percentage of time spent in Havemeyer 309 or Pupin 301 increases, with a close friend with a typical Biomedical Engineering major courseload spent a whopping 81% of her initial coursework stuck in a lecture hall. While humanities courses may admittedly have fewer lecture courses, a significant number of Columbia STEM students spend the majority of their time in lecture courses for their first few years here.

The central role that lectures play in today’s system of higher education cannot be overstated. Ever since parchment was precious and reading a skill reserved for the exclusive elite, any hope at educating the populace relied on the lecture for information transfer. The core format of the lecture would be recognizable to a medieval instructor, while the dramatically changed world outside would entirely unrecognizable.

The reality of a 21st century world makes information not only overwhelmingly available in written form, but also in new, innovative, and interactive formats. As creative ways of learning proliferate at an exponential pace, it is well past time for this ivy-league world-renowned institution of higher education to seriously reconsider consider the ineffectiveness of its most overused workhorse.

Columbia owes it to both its students and itself as a leader to take into account the increasing consensus in neuroeducation research that there is a better way to teach than through lectures. When considering the best way to teach students, we should be thinking about how people actually learn, especially when implementing neuroscience-based changes would hardly cost more and would simultaneously increase both professor and student satisfaction with our Columbia-brand education.

Over forty years of scientific research shows that a student can hardly pay attention to a lecture past its first twenty minutes, when Columbia teaches in 75 minute blocks, that interactive learning is over twice as effective as passively listening, and our nobel laureates could be better put to use actually interacting with the students they teach instead of being kept at arm’s length. Lectures are simply incompatible with the way we’re wired to understand our world.

There is a better use for Columbia’s highly-esteemed professors than wasting time repeating the same information semester after semester to half-empty classrooms of bored and distracted students. There are better uses for its bright and energetic graduate students than re-explaining the material to confused undergraduates.

It’s ironic that some of the best research on learning, the very research that shows how ineffective lectures are, is coming from the labs of Columbia professors who have to turn around and continue to teach in this outdated style. Our diplomas cannot only be valuable on the merits of Columbia’s history; there must be true learning behind our degrees.

Isn’t that why we came here, to learn from the best and brightest, to learn for the rest of our lives and not just for the next exam? In the next few columns, we will be exploring how recent research on attention, learning, memory encoding, and recall can redesign the Columbia classroom. Columbia has always been at the forefront of societal change; it only makes sense that we should be leading the revolution in higher education as well.

Uniquely Human runs alternative Mondays. To submit a comment or a piece of your own, email submissions@columbialion.com.

Want to find out who your Core Professor will be before their name becomes publicly visible on SSOL/Courseworks?

Starting a few weeks before classes, you can easily find your Core Professors using Columbia University Libraries’s Course Reserves system. Here’s how to do it:

1) Visit http://library.columbia.edu/find/reserves.html
2) Under “For Students” click “Reserves List”
3) Log In (using your UNI and Password)
4) View Your Professor’s Name

This trick has been successful for the last few semesters and likely will not change anytime soon. Good luck with the start of the semester!

Photo Courtesy of Trevor Rukwava
Meet Trevor. Trevor, originally CC’19, has been suspended from Columbia College for the upcoming 2016-2017 academic year. We sat down with him to learn more about his situation and to understand how Columbia works to help students facing adversity and where it needs improvements.
What is your intended major?
I have always wanted to be pre-med. I was planning on doing neuroscience and behavior. I kind of wanted to do engineering but my parents talked me out of it, saying there are no engineering jobs in Africa. I had this dream of making electric cars, and an airplane with an emergency parachute system which deploys out of the top of the plane—the engines will be detached from the plane for weight management. However, my poor performance in the past semester pretty much kills my chances of doing medicine. I was considering switching to political science, or something. Not that I would be able to make a viable career out of it in my home country. I really don’t know at this point, but I’m trying to figure that out. It would be great if I could become a neurosurgeon.
When did Columbia notify you of its intention to suspend you for the upcoming academic year?
On June 8, 2016, Dr. Lavinia Lorch—my academic advisor—emailed me telling me that my case was going to be reviewed the following day. She told me that I was at risk of suspension because of my grades. She asked me if there was any information I wanted the Board to know. I received the notification of my suspension from CSA [Center for Student Advising] on the 9th of June. I read both emails on the 9th, so I did not have time to provide Lavinia with the information she requested. I was also under the impression that she knew my whole story.
Why do you believe Columbia choose to suspend you for the upcoming year?
According to Lavinia, “A suspension is not a punitive measure but actually an opportunity for you to make up credits back home (at an accredited 4 year institution) so as to ensure that you will graduate in a timely manner.” I think Columbia (or Dr. Lorch, I do not really know who made the decision) wanted to “help” me by giving me a forced gap year of sorts, to handle my stuff. After much persuasion, Dr. Lorch convinced me to take a medical leave of absence—which I could return from at any time. I agreed to this because, I was having a rather tough time and wanted a break. I also thought it would be more convenient if I did the paperwork while I was in America, so I would not have to fly to and fro again. The fact that I was expecting a medical leave, made the suspension more confusing, since I could not really differentiate the two.
As for the actual intentions behind the suspension, I can only make assumptions. Perhaps they didn’t want me to fail again and have to be considered for academic suspension, ironically, or expulsion. I had an almost nonexistent work ethic and motivation because of my mental condition, because they probably assumed that allowing me to return would lead to another bad semester. I may not be allowed to progress to the following semester if I don’t complete enough credits. I only completed 3, from one class. I failed 2, and dropped another 2—in order to avoid failing them. It was bad. I guess Columbia doesn’t have room for subpar performance, so I had to go.
How transparent has Columbia been throughout this process?
Well, they gave a day’s heads up. They also told me explicitly that I was suspended, and that I needed to take a year of classes and reapply. They also cancelled my I-20, which made it very clear that I wasn’t coming back.
How will this potential suspension impact your academic and personal goals?
I do not think that I can do medicine anymore. Perhaps I wasn’t cut out for it? My parents won’t hear it however, and have pushed me to apply to other universities in southern Africa. I must become a doctor, they say. Since I cannot do it at Columbia, I should do it back home. They never really liked America, and would call frequently to ensure that I had not been shot by police. The recent news has only made my parents’ resolve stronger. I made my own way to Columbia, and America at large. If I give up on Columbia, then I’m essentially giving up on the United States. However, I told Lavinia this information, which is why she said, “credits back home.” I am pretty sure that if I get into one of the two universities in my country, I will not be permitted to go back to America. Time is of the essence! My parents rejected the notion of a medical leave when I got home, claiming that my mind would rot if I stayed at home. I understand where they are coming from. They don’t want me to become like my older brother who was expelled from university because of drug addiction. He has turned to a lot of antisocial behaviours to feed his habit, including gradually taking everything I own. I doubt that I will still be in possession of the laptop on which I am typing by the end of next month. My parents suspect him every time the house is robbed, and he has been caught red-handed a few times. There is a lot of drama, which I would really rather not be in the middle of.
I do not think I will be allowed to switch to the engineering school, because of the suspension. Perhaps I’m mistaken.
Politics is not really something one can talk about where I’m from, for a number of reasons that I can not talk about because of the reasons themselves. It’s rather cyclic.
Do you think Columbia’s current academic suspension processes are fair? If not, how do you think they should be improved?
I do not think that the suspension policies are fair. I was given a single strike-out opportunity, and I did not even know that that was the case. If getting kicked out of Columbia is that easy, they should at least warn you beforehand. I tried very hard to ask for help, but my depression and history made it difficult. I did not know how to ask for help. I didn’t think that I was worth helping—depression talk. Perhaps, I was suspended because I said that Columbia sucked, I really didn’t want to be there, I was having the worst time of my life, and I felt like nobody cared about me. I said these things because that was how I truly felt, and they were multiple cries for help. I strongly suspect that this depression talk made my advisor think that suspending me was a favor, and I don’t blame her. However, these “issues” started at home and being home triggers a lot of them. I don’t have a therapist here for whatever reason, and I just kind of absorb the things that come my way. My cousin’s sickness and death, for example.
I wish Columbia had given me more support during the semester. I only got disability services help at the end of the second semester. At which point, my grades were so bad that my professors practically told me not to bother writing finals.
Do you have any advice for other students who may be in your position? For those who are also fighting depression?
To other students fighting depression, it is hard. People don’t understand how hard it is. They may tell you to ‘man up’ or fix your issues. They may assume that the illness is just an attitude problem. It doesn’t make sense to them, why someone would want to kill themselves when everything is ‘fine’. They don’t know how much harder it is to get out of bed and get things done when you are questioning the value of your existence. For most of second semester, I told myself not to think. I drowned all of it out with music; some people use other coping mechanisms. But being at an institution like Columbia requires you to think, and learn, and perform; to jump through hoops. I thought people didn’t care even though I didn’t really give them a chance to care. It took too much energy, when all I wanted to accomplish each day was survival. People do care. They may not always show it, but people care. Appreciate every person in your life, and know that you matter. Your life matters.
As for suspension, don’t let it get you down. I don’t really know what to say, because this is a problem that I am yet to overcome.
Have you faced issues at Columbia in regards to mental health and/or threats of suspension? If you would be willing to talk about your story (anonymously or publicly), email us at team@columbialion.com.