I don’t read students’ drafts. Should I?

Originally published 2016-05-16 at

I don’t read students’ drafts. Should I?

Lots of students assume I will read drafts of their work before the final assessment. They do this despite me not offering to do this, or even saying I won’t do it.

Although I’ve sympathy for the students, I don’t want to do it, for a few reasons.

A first reason is that it is unfair to do for some students and not all. It isn’t possible to do for all students, when I teach classes of 200. Or, more precisely, if I took the time to give feedback on 200 drafts then I would have to take the time away from some other part of the course, or from students on other courses.

Not only would this be unfair, I don’t believe it would be the most efficient use of my time as an educator. It wouldn’t be efficient because I know from experience that the feedback I have to give on assignments is the same for the majority of students. In fact, I try and incorporate my advice on how to write the assignment into how I teach the course.

Also, me giving feedback might give a student a false sense of security — as if I have read their work and approved it. The truth is, you can fix the main weaknesses of an assignment and still write a bad assignment.

Most importantly, I think my job as a Univeristy lecturer is to train students to be autonomous learners. This often means asking them to take more responsibility for their work than they are comfortable with. It feels like there is a trade-off between offering reassurance, even if it is of limited value, and helping students come to trust their own judgement.

Obviously, it would be insulting to ask students to complete work without guidance, examples, structures to practice within or feedback of any kind. I provide these things. I give feedback on essay structures and things like question choice, but I draw the line at reading full drafts.

Perhaps this is wrong. Other University lecturers have obviously made different choices in how they design their courses and structure their time. A-level teaching is also obviously orientated around looking at (multiple) drafts. Should I continue that practice, or is it okay to use my courses as somewhere to do things differently?

What do you think?


Cheap tricks for starting discussions in lectures

Originally published 2015-11-18 at

It is the beast all new lecturers fear, the crowd: a many eyed, many headed beast. A beast which will typically stare at you, unresponsive, as you stumble through your material.

The difficulty is that a crowd’s size reinforces passive behaviour. Why would any single student answer your question, ask their own question or join in a show of hands? No reason, especially when nobody else is.

A small group is something you can work with. Make eye contact. Get a response to a question. Sense a mood. But beyond a certain size the group you are teaching becomes a crowd. For me, a dozen people is a large group, but then at around 30 people the change happens. They’re all still individuals, of course they are, but it you can’t relate to them in the same way.

They won’t relate to you in the same way, and some inertial force takes over which makes getting a reaction incredibly difficult. Maybe I need more reassurance than most, but I like to hear from my student. I like to check they are with me during the lecture, and to engage them in what I’m talking about, even if only with a simple show of hands.

So, over the years, I’ve adopted a series of techniques which help me work with a large lecture group — which can mean a crowd of up to several hundred. As you’d expect from someone who lecturer in a psychology department, most of these tricks have some theory about human behaviour behind them, which I’ll try and explain along the way.

1. Discuss in pairs

I’ve heard discussing a question in pairs described as the “washing hands” of group interaction, something so fundamental that you should adopt it as a basic habit before trying to have any kind of group discussion. Allowing your students to discuss something before speaking out in front of the whole class breaks down the two fundamental reasons students don’t speak in class. The first is social comfort — nobody liked to stand out in social situation in which they don’t understand, where they don’t know the people. Sometimes we lecturers forget that not everybody finds lecture classes as familiar as we do, not everyone enjoys the same comfort and authority that we do with 100 relative strangers. By discussing an issue in pairs first, each student learns a little about their neighbour, which is essential for social comfort. What they also do is gauge how much they understand. Even if you’ve asked a question with an obvious answer, only the most comfortable confident will provide the answer. For most people, even though they’ll also know the answer and think it is obvious they’ll want to check in a way with less potential for embarrassment that this is what other people think too. Discussing in pairs allows this double-checking.

2. Hand signals for remaining time needed

I learned this from Alec Patton of High Tech High. Once you’ve given your class discussion time, you need to actively manage this. Usually I declare in advance how long they’ve got to discuss something, or I try and guess by watching if people are still discussing the issue, or if they’ve moved on to discussing what they did last night. Alec’s technique works by creating a simple feedback mechanism: you interrupt the discussion and ask everyone to show using their hand how their discussion is going: a number of fingers for how many more minutes they need to finish the discussion, a closed fist for if they’re done. It’s easy enough that you can get a clear response from everyone, rather than having to rely on catching mumbled answers or the shouts of a helpful minority.

3. No straight questions

A naive thought is that if you want students to speak out in class you should ask them an easy question. This is wrong. If you ask a question with a right answer then the fear of getting it wrong will, for many, loom larger than the pleasure in getting it right. An easy question will only magnify the anxiety about getting the question wrong. Even a student who is 99% confident they know the answer may be prevented from volunteering it if they weigh the potential embarrassment as 1000 times more serious than any benefit they may feel from getting it right (and let’s face it, speaking out in class has never been universally respected by students anyway).

In my classes I make point of principle never to ask a question with a single straight answer. This means “How could you criticise this experiment?” rather than “What is the flaw in this experiment?”, it means “What other theories might be relevant here?”, rather than “Tell me what cognitive dissonance theory predicts”, and so on.

Sure you can get my questions wrong, but they never come with a simple right answer. This diminishes the fear that there is a simple answer you’re not getting, and means that as long as you can think of a reason why your answer might be right, it is worth sharing. It also makes it more fun for me to teach because instead of questions resulting in me moving on, or being disappointed, I actually get to find out what my students are thinking.

4. Diminish responsibility

The famous “bystander apathy” effect is where someone in a public place obviously needs help, but nobody helps. One driver of the effect is diminished responsibility, whereby no individual feels like it is their job to help. In your lecture, if you ask a question, you have to overcome diminished responsibility where nobody feels like it is their job to answer your question (note that this combines with the social pressure to conform —nobody else is answering the question, so why should they stick out). It’s hard to overcome diminished responsibility. One way that is widely disliked by students is to pick specific individuals (this is what they tell you to do if you are in danger or otherwise need help in a public place — don’t shout “help”, point to a particular person and say “you need to help me”). This can work, especially if you have some rapport with your students (if I ever do this I give the students good warning that I will be picking on someone at random to answer, so they had all better be ready). Less severe is to try and merely narrow the focus, by identifying the kind of person you’d like to answer (“Now someone who doesn’t agree with this argument”, “Now someone in these three rows”, etc).

5. Positivity

When you have your answer, you have to confirm and extend the expectation that you will never belittle a student or dismiss their answer. Answering your questions has to be a positive experience (if you think that it is important that students are told they are wrong, you’re going to need a bigger stick to make their respond — like exam assessment — or a smaller group and more extended contact — like a weekly tutorial). There’s a subtle art to this, but it’s a worthwhile one to be able to take whatever someone says and weave it into a point that continues the direction of your lecture. In dramatic improvisation training, actors are taught to “Yes, and” rather than “No, but”. With a bit of practice you can learn to improvise off wrong — or at at least unexpected — answers to 99% of the time find something to say which you’d like to class to appreciate anyway.

To give flavour of this, if my question is “What is the capital of France”, this is bad:

Student: “London”

Me: “Wrong!”

This is better:

Student: “London”

Me: “Tell me why you think that”

But something like this is more fun for everyone:

Student: “London”

Me: “London is in fact the capital of England, which is absolutely right next to France, and — like France — an important western European nation which shares historical, economic and geographical ties with France”

Now my theory is that it doesn’t matter if the student knows you’re being generous in your enthusiasm for their answer. What matters is that nobody can think afterwards “Lecturer was displeased with the answer”.

6. Hand down, not hands up

This one really is a cheap trick. If you ask your students to put their hands up to indicate something then everyone who doesn’t put their hand up could either be answering in the negative, or just opting out of your question through laziness. You see this when you ask both options of a two choice issue (“Put your hand up if you came on Tuesday”, “Now put your hands up if you didn’t come on Tuesday”), and the total number of hands you see is less than the number of people in the room. In methodological terms, a show of hands has a response bias issue: the bias is towards not putting your hand up, which deprives you, the lecturer of information (and undermines your authority because people demonstrably aren’t following your instructions honestly).

I try and turn this situation on the head by asking everyone to put their hand up at the start. Now, with everyone with their hands in the air, I ask people to put their hands down if they can’t answer yes to my question. This changes the default choice to be participating in my poll, rather than ignoring it (apart from the really recalcitrant who won’t put their hands up in the first place, but they are unlikely to do this as they’ll stand out from the crowd. Conformity again).

7. A question document, and other technological fixes

This is a technological fix, which may not work for everyone. However good your rapport with a class, some people are just not going to want to speak out in front of everyone. One way of hearing what they have to say is to, before the class, create a Google Document with open edit permissions (meaning anyone who has the link can edit), then to visit which is a link shortener which use common English words, so you end up with a link you can shout across the room, something like (it works because links expire within 12 hours, so it never runs out of common English words). Then, in the lecture, I tell the class they can find the document via the shoutkey link. Before the end of the lecture I check the document and can answer any questions which anonymous students have left.

There a range of neat technological solutions which are becoming more and more plausible now that most places I lecture have wifi and most students I lecture have laptops or smartphones. Two which I haven’t used extensively but which seem to have lots of potential are and which are both simple ways for an audience with smartphones to provide answers to polls and the feedback the answers in the forms of percentages or graphs.

Like all the best digital technologies, these make the “real” experience more worthwhile, they don’t replace it with a “virtual” substitute.

There are many tricks, but these ones are mine

Now my lecturing experience is particular to me — and some of this advice may not travel. I know that students in different cultures may be more willing to shout out in a group. Because conformity and social comfort are such massive drivers of social behaviour, the history of a particular cohort of students can have a large effect on how they’ll respond in a lecture situation (so, for example, if they have been together for a year already half your job is already done).


Pressure Vessels

Pressure Vessels: The epidemic of poor mental health among higher education staff, published by the Higher Education Policy Institute in May 2019, reports an escalation of signs of stress among University workers. Using FOI requests about referrals to University counseling services and occupational health, the report finds, since 2009, widespread, ‘sharp’, ‘astonishing’ and ongoing rises in the number of staff referred every year.

The report describes University work as an ‘anxiety machine’, where pressure to support student satisfaction, workload intensification, work allocation models, performance management and casualisation all combine to ramp up pressure on individual members of University staff. (These issues are precisely those which are the subject of the current UCU dispute and planned industrial action).

Sheffield Hallam UCU used this report, and the underlying data, to identify these statistics for their University: between 2010 and 2015 a 56% increase in staff referrals to University counselling; between 2015 and 2016 a 240% increase in referrals to occupational health.

This is in line with the industry-wide pattern. Extracting the data from the report, I drew the graph of total reported referrals of University staff to counselling (red) and occupational health (blue):

The data is broken down by institution, so I can pull out the data for the University of Sheffield. Here referrals to counseling grew by 2700% (from 30 in 2009, to over 800 in 2016). The occupational health data is not complete, so a comparison is not possible.

Here are graphs for a few other Universities:

A few “data caveats”

  • The data are incomplete, so the total increase could be inflated by more institutions keeping records. Looking at the average figures reported each year, as well as these per-institution figures, shows that this possible confound is not driving the increase.
  • If anyone wants to make some more FOI requests and get data for 2016-2019, I’ll make the graphs
  • I have made graphs for all the institutions in the report. Look for yours.
  • There are large differences in absolute numbers between institutions. If I had the number of employees of each institution I would like to calculate the rate of referrals per employee to allow better comparison across institutions.
  • Many institutions have been making more effort to respond to poor staff mental health, however I think it would be wrong to view the increase in uptake of counselling as an entirely a positive thing – the bottom line is that increased uptake, and increased provision, are responses to the same underlying forces: unnecessary and unhealthy pressure on University staff.


academic Me

New academic website

I have made myself a new website for my day job. I used wordpress, and it was fantastically convenient. I’m also pretty happy with how it looks. Feedback welcome.


Notes for undergraduates

This has been in my email signature for the last year or so.

If you email me, please say your full name, level and, if relevant, which course(s) you are referring to. Although you know what “the lecture” or “the coursework” refers to, I may not. If you refer to an article, book or a webpage, please give the full reference and/or URL so that I know what you are talking about. Similarly, if you include a citation (surname, date) in a piece of writing, please include the full reference (in APA style) at the end.

It is important that you leave the University of Sheffield in the habit of writing formally to people. I may not be bothered by you not including an introduction to your email, or by you not signing it, but many people you write to will be. You should also make an effort to capitalise, punctuate and spell correctly in your email. Again, although I may not judge you negatively if you fail to do this, many people will, so you should practice the habit of taking care over these things when you write.

If you are a PSY241 student, please read this before emailing me

If you need a response by a particular time, it helps if you mention this in the email. If you have an urgent query (i.e. requires a response within 48 hours) email is not appropriate. Please call instead.

I do not read my email over the weekend, or after 5pm.

Answers to most of the questions I get asked are readily available, either in the Undergraduate Handbook or on the Departmental or University webpages. If you write to me with a question like this I will probably write back and ask you where you have looked already for the information. If you want to avoid this, please say in your email how you tried searching for the information you required before emailing me.

If we make an appointment to meet you must turn up on time. If you are late I may not be able to begin a meeting with you because it will infringe on other commitments. If you are unable to make an appointment, or are going to be late, please call to let me know, so that I am able to do other things with my time and am not waiting around like a lemon.

Finally, congratulations on reading this far. Here’s some good advice: “The way to get a first class mark is to answer a specific question by making arguments about theories and supporting those arguments with evidence”. Even if you aren’t aiming for a first class mark, you can still avoid getting a lower mark than you should by ensuring that you answer the question. We cannot give you marks for providing correct information which does not answer the question.

Bonus advice for 2012: If you want to get answers from busy people, ask simple direct questions. “Is today’s lecture at 12 o’clock?” is better than “When are the lectures?”, and may be more in line with what you really want to know anyway. Both of these options are better than something like “What do I need to know about the course?” which is so poorly specified that you are unlikely to get a swift and helpful answer.

academic Me psychology

Fundamentals of learning: the exploration-exploitation trade-off

The exploration-exploitation trade-off is a fundamental dilemma whenever you learn about the world by trying things out. The dilemma is between choosing what you know and getting something close to what you expect (‘exploitation’) and choosing something you aren’t sure about and possibly learning more (‘exploration’). For example, suppose you are in a restaurant and you look at the menu:

  • Fish and Chips
  • Chole Poori
  • Paneer Uttappam
  • Khara Dosa

Assuming for the sake of example that you’re not very good with Sri Lankan food, you’ve now got a choice. You can ‘exploit’ – go with the fish and chips, which will probably be alright – or you can ‘explore’ – try something you haven’t had before and see what you get. Obviously which you decide to do will depend on many things: how hungry you are, how good the restaurant reviews are, how adventurous you are, how often you reckon you’ll be coming back ..etc. What’s important is that the study of the best way to make these kinds of choices – called reinforcement learning – has shown that optimal learning requires that you to sometimes make some bad choices. This means that sometimes you have to choose to avoid the action you think will be most rewarding, and take an action which you think will be less rewarding. The rationale is that these ‘sub-optimal’ actions are necessary for your long term benefit – you need to go off track sometimes to learn more about the environment. The exploration-exploitation dilemma is really a trade-off : enjoy more now vs learn more now and enjoy later. You can’t avoid it, all you can do is position yourself somewhere along the spectrum.

Because the trade-off is fundamental we would expect to be able to see it in all learning domains, not just restaurant food choices. In work just published, we’ve been using a new task to look at how actions are learnt. Using a joystick we asked people to explore the space of all possible movements, giving them a signal when they made a particular target movement. This task – which we’re pretty keen on – gives us a lens to look at the relation between how people explore the possible movements they can make and which particular movements they learn to rely on to generate predictable outcomes (which we call ‘actions’).

Using data gathered from this task, it is possible to see the exploitation-exploration trade-off in action. With each target people get 10 attempts to try to identify the right movement to make. Obviously some successful movements will be more efficient than others, because it is possible to hit the target after going all “round the houses” first, adding lots of extraneous movements and taking longer than needed. If you had a success like this you could repeat it exactly (‘exploit’), or try and cut out some of the extraneous movement and risk missing the target (‘explore’). Obviously this refinement of action through trial and error is of critical interest to anyone who cares about how we learn skilled movements.

I calculated an average performance score for the first 50% and second 50% of attempts (basically a measure of distance travelled before hitting the target – so lower scores mean better performance). I also calculated how variable these performance scores were in the first 50% and second 50%. Normally we would expect people who perform best in the first half of a test to perform best in the second half (depressingly people who start out ahead usually stay there!). But this analysis showed up something interesting: a strong correlation between variability in the first half and performance in the second half. You can see this in the graph

This shows that people who are most inconsistent when they start to learn perform best towards the end of learning. Usually inconsistency is a bad sign, so it is somewhat surprising that it predicts better performance later on. The obvious interpretation is in terms of the exploration-exploitation trade-off. The inconsistent people are trying out more things at the beginning, learning more about what works and what doesn’t. This provides them with the foundation to perform well later on. This pattern holds when comparing across individuals, but it also holds for comparing across trials (so for the same individual, their later performance is better for targets on which they are most inconsistent on early in learning).

You can read about this, and more, in our new paper, which is open-access over at PLoS One A novel task for the investigation of action acquisition.

academic psychology

New paper: A novel task for the investigation of action acquisition

Our new paper, A novel task for the investigation of action acquisition, has been published in PLoS One today. The paper describes a new paradigm we’ve been using to investigate how actions are learnt.

It’s a curious fact that although psychologists have thoroughly investigated how actions are valued (i.e. how you figure out how good or bad a thing is to do), and how actions are trained (i.e. shaped and refined over time), the same effort has not gone into investigating how a behaviour is first identified and stored as a part of our repertoire. We hope this task provides a useful tool for opening up this area for investigation.

As well as the basic description of the task, the paper also contains a section outlining how the form of learning the the task makes available for inspection is different from the forms of learning made available by other ‘action learning’ tasks (such as, for example, operant conditioning tasks). In addition to serving an under-investigated area of learning research, the task also has a number of practical benefits. It is scalable in difficulty, suitable for repeated measures designs (meaning you can do it again and again – it isn’t something you learn once and then can’t be tested on any more) as well being adaptable for different species (meaning you can test humans and non-human animals on the task).

The paper is based on work done as part of the EU robotics project I’m on (‘I’M-CLeVeR‘) and on Tom Walton’s PhD thesis, The Discovery of Novel Actions

academic psychology sheffield

We’re hiring!

The Department of Psychology at the University of Sheffield is hiring! Due to recent departures and a forthcoming expansion we have 6 academic posts to fill, for lecturers, senior lecturers/readers and chairs. Perhaps you, or someone you know, is looking for a job or a change – here’s why you should apply to work with us:

The Department: One of the very best Psychology departments in the UK for research, consistently rated ‘excellent’ (i.e. the top score) in the Research Assessment Exercises over the last 20 years. In the last RAE the department ranked 6th in the UK in terms of Research Power (i.e., quality × quantity of research activity). We have a strong tradition of interdisciplinary research and you’d be joining at a great time to renew that tradition of cognitive science. We have smart and enthusiastic Undergraduate students, 80% of whom have AAA at a-level (ie the top grades). We have one of the largest number of postgraduate students for any UK psychology department, which includes taught masters courses (I teach on this one) and PhD students. The academic faculty are dedicated and collegiate, small enough in numbers to be friendly, large enough to be a resource for you in your research. We have one of the best staff-student ratios of any UK psychology department…All this, and you get me as a colleague

The University: Times Higher Education University of the Year 2011, and globally one of the best universities in the world. The University of Sheffield has academic departments covering all major disciplines and is a ‘research intensive University‘, meaning you wouldn’t spend all your time teaching.

The City of Sheffield. Ah, Sheffield! More parkland within the city limits than any other UK city. 7 trees for every person. The so called “largest village in England”, a city renowned for its friendliness, for its sporting links, creative industries and generally too many good things to list here. And it’s in the middle of the country, so you can get about easily – two hours from the capital, three from Bristol, four Edinburgh. And cheap – I live in a house which makes my London friends who can’t afford a flat sick with jealousy. I can walk to work, or round to friend’s houses. I’m talking quality of life here people.

So, please pass the word around that we’re looking for psychologists of all types to apply for these positions. If you want to get in touch I’m happy to talk informally to anyone who is thinking about applying. Not that I have any significant power over the hiring decision, but I’m happy to spill the beans over what we’re looking for and what the department is like. You can contact me by phone or email.

(In sad, but unrelated news, we lost our Professor of Development Psychology earlier this week. These job adverts are obviously quite separate from this sudden gap we have in Developmental Psychology and about which no plans have yet been made).

academic politics science systems

Trust in science

I’ve been listening to the CBC series (2009) “How to Think about Science” (listen here, download here). The first episode starts with Simon Schaffer, co-author of the The Leviathan and the Air Pump. Schaffer argues that scientists are believed because they organise trust well, rather than because they organise skepticism well (which is more in line with the conventional image of science). Far from questioning everything, as we are told science teaches, scientists are successful as expects because of the extended network of organisations, techniques and individuals that allows scientists, in short, to know who to trust.

Schaffer also highlights the social context of the birth of science, focussing on the need for expertise —for something to place trust in — at a time of military, political and ideological conflict. Obviously, our need for certainty is as great in current times.

Understanding of the processes of science, Schaffer asserts, is required for a true understanding of the products of science, and public understanding of both is required for an informed and empowered citizenry.

This last point puts the debate about open access scientific journals in a larger and more urgent perspective. In this view, open access is far more than a merely internal matter to academia, or even merely a simple ethical question (the public fund scientists, the publications of scientists should be free to the public). Rather, open access is foundational to the institution of trusted knowledge that science (and academia more widely) purports to be. The success of early science was in establishing the credibility of mechanisms for ‘remote witnessing’ of phenomenon. The closed-access publishing system threatens to undermine the credibility of scientific knowledge. Once you recognise that scientific knowledge is not the inviolable product of angelic virtue on the part of science, you concede that there the truth of scientific propositions is not enough — we need to take seriously the institutions of trust that allow science to be believed. The status of expert who cannot be questioned is a flattering one, but it relies on short-term cache. If we care about science and the value of scholarship more widely then open access publishing is an urgent priority.

Update: Romanian translation of this web page (by Web Geek Science)

academic advertising intellectual self-defence

Manipulation in Education

There is a fundamental power asymmetry in education. Teachers understand what they are teaching, learners do not. Learners, by definition, cannot have a full appreciation of what they are about to learn, of its value and of how it will change them. If they did, they would not be in the position of learners. The only way you can ignore this is if you are mislead into accepting the banking metaphor of education (education as information transmission, teachers as content providers, students as receptacles to be filled).

One implication of this power asymmetry is that the authority and responsibility of the teacher cannot be abdicated. Students should not be left to ‘decide for themselves’. Sure, students can pursue their own path of inquiry, but teachers should be there to persuade and guide them. For a teacher to pretend that they are letting students ‘make up their own minds’ is simply a denial of their role, an obfuscation. Of course it is important that people can decide for themselves, but students’ autonomy is not icreased by a lack of teacher manipulation of their choices. All our choices are conditioned by our past, our environment and by other people. Free choices are still conditioned choices.

A discussion of this in relation to the morality of manipulation is provided by Buss, S. (2005). Valuing Autonomy and Respecting Persons: Manipulation, Seduction, and the Basis of Moral Constraints. Ethics, 115(2), 195-235. doi: 10.1086/426304. Buss only touches on the topic of education in a footnote (no. 71) but the implications of the general argument for education are clear: we cannot avoid affecting other people, manipulation without informed consent of their free chocies is inevitable, and so we cannot pretend that it is possible for teachers to avoid making choices for their students, or that full informed consent of students in the content of their education is desirable or possible.

academic intellectual self-defence psychology

Orality and academia

Academia is a quintessentially literate culture. Studying is reading, the outputs of research are papers and books. Your are judged on your ability to express yourself in writing, and when you do this you must reference the written works of others. This is what defines scholarship. More than this, the habits of thought are patterned by literacy. Literate thought is analytic, dissective. The business of science is that of ordering into lists, breaking into parts, assigning subordinate and superordinate.

And yet there is also a non-literate part to being an academic, a part closely alighted with the praxis of the discipline. This is giving lectures, discussing in seminars, attending conferences. The paper outputs of academia can disguise this component, but it is essential.

In a high-education system dominated by production-line and consumption values, by a receptacle-model of education (students as containers, education as a substance) it is easy to denigrate the ‘live’ oral component of academia, but in doing so we deny students contact with an essential part of scholarly life. Additionally we deny ourselves a cognitive model which can augment literate thinnking.

Walter Ong (Orality and Literature, 1982/2002) has written convincingly about the psychological dynamics of oral vs literate culture. Literate culture encourages finished works, whereas the knowledge of oral cultures is always live, an act of telling rather than knowing. As such it is part of a commons, rather than copyrighted (and plagarised). Oral knowledge is situational, empathetic and participatory, rather than abstracted and objectively distanced, it is contested rather than autonomous and tends towards holism rather than the progressive analytic deconstruction of literate thought. Oral thought is thematic compared to literate thought’s ability to dictate strict chronologies and linear narratives / list structures (just think of the memory constraints on oral culture which lacks written aids to see why pure abstract lists are impossible).

It is clear that academia needs to take elements from both of sides of these distinctions. Oral cognition can be impressionistic rather than precise, conservative rather than innovative and amnesic rather the hypermnemonic. Nonetheless the lived aspects of oral thought are a vital part of disciplinary practice and exposure to them is essential if students are to get a true view of their subjects.

A similar thing is argued by Kevin McCarron, a English literature lecturer and part-time stand-up comedian who argues for the imporance of improvisation in teaching. He says that an overreliance on preparation (the script or text of the class) as getting in the way of the (living) interaction of student and teacher:

(article in the Times Higher Education)

“If we don’t put ourselves under pressure, nothing interesting or exciting is going to happen. How could it? In fact, what we’ve done is spent three hours the previous night making sure that it doesn’t happen.

“Then we have the gall to offer these hours of preparation as morally sound. Self-protection is being offered to the world as a moral value. That preparation has been done to protect the teacher from the students. Teachers spend hours and hours preparing because they are terrified of bring caught out.”

academic psychology

How do psychologists think?

I believe that the important thing about psychology is the habits of thought it teaches you, not the collection of facts you might learn. I teach on the psychology degree at the University of Sheffield and, sure, facts are important here — facts about experiments, about the theories which prompted them and about the conclusions which people draw from them — but more important are the skills which you acquire during the process of learning the particular set of facts. Skills like finding information and articulating yourself clearly in writing. Those two things are common to all degrees. But lately I’ve been wondering what skills are most emphasised on a psychology degree? And I’ve been thinking that the answer to this is the same as to the question ‘how do psychologists think?’. How does the typical psychologist[*] approach a problem? I’ve been making a list and this is what I’ve got so far:

1. Critical — Psychologists are skeptical, they need to be convinced by evidence that something is true. Their default is disbelief. This relates to…

2. Scholarly — Psychologists want to see references. By including references in your work you do two very important things. Firstly you acknowledge your debt to the community of scholars who have thought about the same things you are writing about, and, secondly, you allow anyone reading your work to go and check the facts for themselves.

3. Reductionist — Psychologists prefer simple explanations to complex ones. Obviously what counts as simple isn’t always straightforward, and depends on what you already believe, but in general psychologists don’t like to believe in new mental processes or phenomena if they can produce explanations using existing processes or phenomena.

I am sure there are others. One of the problems with habits of thought is that you don’t necessarily notice when you have them. Can anyone offer any suggested additions to my incoate list?

* I’m using the label ‘psychologists’ here to refer to my kind of psychologists — academic psychologists. How and if what I say applies to the other kinds of psychologists (applied, clinical, etc) I’ll leave as an exercise to the reader.

Cross-posted at