Saturday, January 20, 2007

Distribution of Intelligence and Demographics

There is an interesting debate going on right now in the blogosphere over the writings of Charles Murray (famous for writing "The Bell Curve"). It is mentioned in "Confessions of a Community College Dean" (LINK) and in "Uncertain Principles" (Link).

Charles Murray claims the intellectual highground of the objective academic reporting the numerical results and deducing the rational consequences. By design or by mis-chance his writings come across as "stealth racism" and the intuitive hackles of many academics have been raised.

Murray has more recently been writings essays for the New York Times:

Murray Link 1
Murray Link 2
Murray Link 3

There is summary of Murray's position by Eric Johnson in the comments for the post in Uncertain Principles that to my eyes seems a rather dispassionate distillation:

"There is such a thing as absolute, objective, quantifiable intelligence (whether what we call IQ measures it or not, and whether it can even be described by a scalar period)

That intelligence is a relatively fixed quantity in any individual

That the distribution of intelligence is described by a normal distribution curve.

That the current political/cultural climate mandates an egalitarian approach to education that ill-serves all but the 40% or so around the middle of the curve.

That those on the lower end of the intelligence spectrum would be better served by an educational system that was less disparaging of 'practical' (i.e. 'vocational') learning

That the economic, cultural, and intellectual 'health' is in the hands of the relative few in the rightmost tail of the curve and that we should be doing more to ensure the vitality of this population in particular

That an egalitarian approach to choosing what to teach is detrimental. This seems to be a stab at the so-called multi-cultural, morally relativist, academic left's (straw-man) view that diversity is strength"

This is all a long set-up for my comment. The financial and political reality of the modern University is that in order to pay the bills all universities must enroll far more students than they expect to graduate. To my eyes the ratio of students capable of graduation to students that have been mis-lead into hoping to get a university diploma is about 1 : 1. This academic cannon fodder has the important role of keeping the numbers up in the University so that the students capable of graduation do not bear the financial burden alone. Until the system changes (and the only change that would address this issue would be the creation of an intellectual elitist University system where the education was free but the student would have to matriculate in) we have to realize that an important part of our jobs will continue to be:

a) accepting the intellectual tension of having a student body with a wide spectrum of intellectual abilities.
b) accepting the responsibility of respecting the weaker student but faithfully and gently failing them.
c) realizing that the time spent with a student that is failing and may drop your course is not "wasted" or "lost" but showing respect for the money they spent for their education and hoping that some knowledge will remain so that the general population will understand what we do.

Friday, January 19, 2007


There was a cogent post over on FemaleScienceProfessor a while back about the crafting of course syllabi.

Link to post on FSP

In our little school we are currently dealing with the issue of wireless devices and at this point the University is allowing each professor to set their own policy as long as it is clearly stated in the syllabus."

I was indifferent to the whole issue except as an avenue for cheating until I had occasion to sit in a large undergraduate class during a lecture where a significant number of students were "taking notes" on their laptops. I realized two things:

1) For the most part the students with computers were not using them to take notes but were engaged in email exchanges and surfing the internet. Several students were playing games.

2) It was not just the students with the computers that were missing the point of the lectures but there was a clear "Cone of Distraction" that spread out behind each student using a computer in class.

If you have students using computers in your class I strongly recommend that you simply place a monitoring camera at the back of the room to see if there is a problem. On a certain level I could care less about the deadhead student that chooses to ignore my lecture (although I honestly do not understand why such a student would bother to come to class where the attendance is not recorded). My concern is the weak to average student that is easily distracted by the computers.

I know that this will place me in the Luddite / dinosaur class of professors but this is what I have in my syllabi now:

"Course Policy on Wireless Devices: The nature of the course content and the evaluation of the individual students knowledge requires that this course have a strict policy on wireless devices (laptops, cell phones, PDAs, handheld computers, pagers and all similar devices). In general, students should not bring wireless devices to any class, tutorial, laboratory or examination. Students found to be in possession of a wireless device during a quiz, test or examination will be given an automatic mark of 0% on the quiz, test or examination even if the device is turned off and a subsequent examination of the devices connection log reveals that the device was not used during the quiz, test or examination. This policy will extend to all students in a group that include a student found in possession of such a device (where they are being evaluated in a group activity). Exemptions from this policy may only be given to students that have a documented reason for requiring the device. Such exemptions MUST be granted before any device is brought to a course evaluation event."

The Problem of the Modern Science Student

"Education is what remains when what has been learned has been forgotten"
B. F. Skinner

Students that are the product of the modern education systems almost all suffer from the same problem that continues through their educational career up through University. They have all been carefully taught that there are no consequences to forgetting material that they have learned.

Almost all the public education models build up the student as a person by affirming that what they have learned is sufficient and that large concepts can be broken down to testable smaller concepts. Such education models have effectively produced legions of students that are like computers with huge RAM memory but tiny hard drives. The consequence is that they can memorize huge amounts of information for short periods of time but they can also completely forget the information when they "turn off the computer".

Thus, any topic in which knowledge is truly accumulative, where the degree depends on a sequence of courses that require intimate knowledge of material previously taught, will be left only to the naturally adept. These programs, such as the languages, mathematics, engineering and the physical sciences will all suffer (and are suffering) not because they have somehow failed to adjust their programs to fit the new students but because the actual nature of what graduates must know cannot be negotiated.

It is my opinion that interest in Chemistry has not decreased but the disciplined / trained ability of students to accumulate content / knowledge has eroded. This more than anything else results the in the dramatic drop - fail rates in our introductory courses.

About Me

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For a while it was all about research and then it was all about teaching and now it's all about trying to find a balance while teaching at a small liberal arts and science university.