Category: Barnard

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

 

Photo Courtesy Abhinav Seetharaman (CC ’18)

All of us likely remember the moment we got into Columbia. We anxiously opened our emails, rushed to the admissions portal and got surprised by the video pop-up with congratulations. We made it. On May 1st, we all walked down our high school hallways with smiles as big as can be dawning Columbia gear and singing “Roar, Lion, Roar.” It felt like nothing could stop us. Those four years of studying every night, leading school clubs, trekking on service trips, and preparing for anticipated careers culminating with admission to one of nation’s most selective schools. We were in that 7%.

On NSOP, many of sat smiling next to our parents and guardians feeling that nothing could stop us. But eventually we hit some roadblocks.

After that initial month and a half, our rose-tinted glasses started to fade. And with that came the reality that Columbia was not going to be as much of a breeze as high school and that things were not easy. A lot of us joked that even though we got into Columbia, it felt like all we faced was rejection. From not getting that board position you wanted to not doing as well on that “Easy A” class as you thought you would. Many of us had to come to terms with the fact that life wasn’t getting easier — it was getting much harder.

Even on the internship hunt. Many of us expected “I have Columbia on my resume. I’m a shoe-in.” Instead, a lot of us received multiple emails and calls with the same dreaded line: “We had a lot of applicants this round and at this time we’ve decided not to move forward with your application.” It seemed as if Columbia wasn’t all that it was cracked up to be. For the school we all adored and felt was going to give us all that easy one-way ticket to Managing Partner, it was anything but. But that’s the point.

At the end of the day though, having “Columbia University in the City of New York” on your resume doesn’t mean much if you don’t have anything to show from it. When Columbia admitted us, Dean Marinaccio wrote on the admissions portal  “We saw the spirit of a Columbian in you.” When we were admitted, Admissions Officers spent weeks looking at our accomplishments and seeing what we chose to do, how we were stretching and challenging ourselves, and how we actively sought to make a positive effect around us. And sadly, it feels like many of us have forgotten this.

Instead, a lot of us like to sit back and do nothing. How many times have you marked that you were going to an event and then an hour before decided against going, just because “you didn’t feel like it?” How many times have you made a commitment to a project only to drop out of it because “you just didn’t care anymore?” While this is by far not the case for everyone, it is the case for a lot of people. And I get it. Columbia is a challenging place with so many things to do and what feels like way too little time. But, at the same time, that’s why so many of us came here and why admissions officers fought for us to get in. They saw in us students who were willing to take a risk. Students who no matter how they felt about something were going to get it done and get it down well. And above all, students who cared about helping others and making a difference. They saw Columbians in us.

This year, more than 94% of people who will apply for admission will receive rejection letters. Many of these people will likely be qualified, passionate students who saw an opportunity to make a change with a Columbia education. As students here, we need to continue those ideas we all wrote about with passion rather than sit idle and rest on the laurels of Columbia’s name. This school only got to where it is because of the students and faculty here who overcame apathy and worked as hard as they possibly could to make a change. Now, it is up to us to continue that.

The Lion is Columbia’s only open-submissions publication. To respond to this piece or to submit one of your own, email submissions@columbialion.com

In an email to students this evening, Dean of Barnard College, Avis Hinkson, announced the rollout of the new P/D/F policy effective immediately for Barnard students. The major change of this new policy is that students will now be able to uncover grades from classes that they initially chose to Pass/Fail. This brings the new policy in line with the current standards in Columbia College.

The full email can be found below:

Dear Barnard Students,

I write to inform you that, effective Fall 2016, the College will implement a new policy regarding Pass/D/Fail.

This policy, passed by a vote of the Faculty on May 2, 2016, will replace the old policy for all students.

The major change that defines the new policy is the removal of the restriction against uncovering grades. Effective Fall 2016, all students who elect P/D/F will be able to uncover their grade until the program filing deadline of the semester following the one in which P/D/F was elected.

The new and current policy may be found at http://barnard.edu/registrar/barnard-coursework/pass-d-fail, and additional important details are outlined.

The Committee on Instruction (COI) and the Faculty are pleased with these changes and look forward to implementing the new policy.

Thank you, and have a wonderful semester.

Respectfully,

Avis Hinkson
Dean of the College

Someone recently posted on the Columbia/Barnard Class of 2019 Facebook page with Benjamin Sweetwood’s argument “Republicans at Columbia are scared to admit who they’re voting for”, asking for thoughts.

I have so many thoughts on this that I figured I’d write an opinion piece in response.

To me, it is definitely an issue when a group of students feel voiceless or unwelcome/unsafe speaking up on campus and in class. I think it is an issue that people, and especially people in power (like professors who have power in a classroom setting) can be dismissive of views students have just because they can be categorized as “conservative” or “republican” views—or as any “type” of view, really. It can definitely create further issues when a community or campus becomes in an echo chamber and is not considering outside views.
While I believe professors, who are in positions of power, should be welcoming to all ideas, or at least conversation about all ideas, this is obviously not always the case. For an in-class-related situation, I believe professors should take time (whether during or outside of class) to respond and analyze the students’ views and—if they don’t agree with their student—respectfully explain or discuss how their views and their reasoning differ and to explain why they’d dismiss the comment a student made in class. Maybe the professor fundamentally disagreed with the student and had no patience for outside ideas—that’s bad teaching. If the professor fundamentally disagreed with you and had time constraints for their lesson plan, which they wanted to get through with the whole class that day, but are willing to talk with you and/or whoever else is interested outside of class to dissect your comment further—that’s good teaching. Granted, if the school community seems hostile towards conservative or unfavorable or unpopular views, it’s understandable a student might not feel as safe going to office hours to discuss an issue further with their professor or to discuss it with peers outside of class. And that’s an issue the community may definitely want to address.

That being said, political views can be very heated and polarizing, inside or outside the classroom. Sometimes rather than starting a meaningful and healthy debate about why we hold different values and beliefs on specific issues, it’s easy for people to respond by dismissing the other side’s views or by mocking it. (You see this problem all over the media, and I believe this is a HUGE issue in this country, one which truly drags our national discourse further and further down and away from meaningful, substantial, healthy debate.) Especially when every time someone hears an opinion from the other side than theirs and then does have a debate, if everyone usually stays on the same sides after the debate, people can find that process both discouraging and infuriating. Why put themselves through that again? This is why people often avoid mentioning politics altogether and why some families decide to make political conversations taboo during holidays. Though I recognize this as a strategy of self-preservation, I think it’s unhealthy when everyone goes back inside their own echo chambers. Especially in an academic setting, I believe there is definitely a need for spaces where people can speak freely and openly and talk with people who see the world differently than they do.

Okay. So, let’s check in here. I feel like most people can agree with everything that’s above this line. But the world isn’t so neat and reasonable. Here’s where this issue gets more muddled:
As I’ve said, people can get very heated and passionate and divided over political views. Now, in this 2016 presidential election, there is a LOT to be heated and passionate about. I personally feel that on so many issues in this specific election—with all that Donald Trump has said dealing with minorities (Mexicans, Muslims, immigrants, African Americans, women, small business owners, etc.) and with the violent suggestions and dismissive ways Donald Trump has dealt with people who HE doesn’t agree with—to many people, hearing that someone would vote for Trump is like saying that person agrees with Donald Trumps views in that arena. Now, if you support Trump, that literally means you support him and want to see Trump—who holds and represents these views—in charge of your country. It doesn’t necessarily mean you are as racist or sexist or xenophobic or anti-free speech as Trump. It doesn’t mean you agree with EVERYTHING that that man says. But I think there is a good argument that it means you are at least privileged enough to vote for him anyway, despite those hateful things he stands for. And that might be why you’re getting targeted in class and on campus. Which I’m not saying is okay, because it’s not a crime to be privileged. You shouldn’t be made to feel unsafe on campus. But I think it is an issue to be privileged and ignorant of how your privilege affects the rest of the world. Or at least, the United States, which is the country/presidential election we’re talking about here. And that’s how you’re coming across to a lot of your classmates.

Honestly, I personally do not understand how people can vote for Trump, knowing how he treats people and what he stands for. I am curious, though. I know some people from my hometown—not from the Columbia community—who would vote for him because they don’t want to see Hillary Clinton get elected. And I still don’t fully understand their point of view, either. (I haven’t decided completely who I will vote for yet. I am dissatisfied with my choices). But at least I can talk to the people who do or do not want to vote for Hillary about it! At Columbia, I don’t know who I would talk to for the conservative or Republican view, because that voice definitely does seem silenced and taboo here at this very liberal campus. I honestly suspect part of that might be because at this very liberal campus of ours, a large percentage of people here value the lives of minorities and less privileged communities enough to be horrified that the Republican party nominated Trump for president, and maybe this highly educated campus doesn’t have enough Republicans who are so strongly committed to their beliefs as to look past these huge faults of Trump. I imagine that Republicans exist here who do not support Trump, but I don’t know them personally either. This divide may have happened on campus before Trump, but it certainly hasn’t been helped by him. I can’t speak about my experience (or lack thereof) with Republicans on campus for years before this election, because I only joined this community last fall.

Let me say, Donald Trump has said things that I totally agree with! Not many, but a few. The thing is, he says whatever the hell he feels like with no regard for the consequences. And though I sometimes admire people who are like that, that is not a quality I look for in a leader, especially not in the leader of an entire country. Especially when he doesn’t take himself seriously—he mocks and ridicules people’s responses. I believe the most change happens on local and state levels, but I am honestly rather fearful of how he would treat this country as an elected president. I am fearful of what that represents about our nation. I am already horrified by how he is treating our country today and by how poorly he has treated local businesses in my home state of NJ in the past, not paying small-business contractors and getting away with impunity.

To summarize:

  • I do think that it is problematic that Republicans, as a minority on this campus, do not feel safe expressing their views here. I want students to feel safe and welcome on this campus. I also think some professors could probably do a better job addressing conservative views, especially those brought up by students.
  • Because many students feel unsafe expressing Republican or conservative views, the whole community loses a chance to have meaningful conversations about both sides of these political issues.
  • -At the current time in our country right now, the elected leader of the Republican Party represents a lot that I cannot support. I can value Trump supporters as people worthy of respect and love, but honestly, I don’t know or interact with any Trump supporters, at least not in settings where we’re talking about politics. Probably because #1, I’m picky with my friends and who I surround myself with and I don’t think anyone who shares my core values could in good conscience vote for Trump. (My father and siblings are liberals or independents. My mother, however, has been a Republican at least all my twenty years of life, and with this election she quit the Party. She cannot and will not support Donald Trump.) And #2, the second reason I don’t know many Trump supporters is because I go to a very liberal school where Republicans apparently feel silenced. It’s not a good thing. I would love to talk with a few Republicans who support Trump. Maybe I will make an effort to find some this year. But will I spend my energy trying to make Trump supporters feel more welcome on campus? Honestly, no. I will spend my free time and energy on working towards bettering the lives of people who are less privileged than Trump and his supporters.

Those are my thoughts. Thanks for sharing this article, and your viewpoint. I honestly appreciate it, and wish there was better, more respectful dialogue on campus and in our national media.

Grace is a sophomore at Barnard College studying Urban Studies with a focus on Education Studies and Chinese/English Translation.

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

In an email sent out to the Columbia community earlier today, Columbia has announced that starting in a few weeks, Columbia ATMs will be switching from Citibank to a new system supported by Santander Banking.

The full message can be found below.

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