Sunday, November 24, 2013

The next IACCP Summer School coming up

It has been a while in the making, but finally we have the first details for the next IACCP Summer School. It will be the third installation of a programme that started in a very informal way in 2009 during the Cameroon Regional IACCP conference and since then has grown and matured. The Summer School is open to students at PhD and MSc level and is sponsored by the International Association for Cross-Cultural Psychology (IACCP). The goal is to provide specialized training by experts in topics of importance and relevance for studying psychology and culture in context.   In addition to its educational benefits, the programme is designed to facilitate cross-cultural contact and understanding among future academic leaders and to broaden their academic vision.  The next Summer School is conducted in association with the 22nd IACCP conference to take place in Reims, France. 

I am super-excited about the programme and the streamleaders that we have managed to get for this next version. Here is a quick overview of the three streams, the experts leading each stream and some ideas for improvements. A poster advertising the Summer School can be found here (print it and pass it around your department).

Culture and Human Development: Methodological and Conceptual Perspectives

Developmental trajectories reflect the interaction between individual abilities on the one hand, and the ecological and socio-cultural niche in which one grows up on the other hand. Informed by bioecological models, I will provide an overview of how different ecological niches have produced varying childrearing values and strategies, which in turn have created variations in the contexts in which developmental trajectories evolve. The workshop will be in two parts. In the first part, I will dedicate a significant amount of time to discussing how cultural and contextual factors influence development. More importantly, I will discuss conceptual and methodological approaches that need to be taken into consideration in order to adequately study human development in context. I will highlight issues of measurement, sampling, and analysis which are of importance in (cross) cultural developmental psychology. Lastly, translational behavioral research is gaining more prominence in psychology. We will discuss ways in which we can design studies that inform practice and policy.In the second part, students will be placed in small working groups based on earlier submitted work to discuss research ideas. Each working group will aim at developing a research plan with achievable milestones, for them to implement as a concrete outcome from participation in the workshop.

About the Stream Leader

Amina is associated with the Centre for Geographic Medicine Research, KEMRI/Wellcome Trust Research Programme Kenya; Department of Cross-Cultural Psychology, Tilburg University, Netherlands; Department of Child and Adolescent Studies, Utrecht University, Netherlands; Department of Psychiatry, University of Oxford, UK.Dr Amina Abubakar studied Educational psychology at Kenyatta University in Kenya, before proceeding to study Developmental Cross-Cultural Psychology at Tilburg University where obtained her PhD in 2008. She currently works at the Kenya Medical Research Institute/Wellcome Trust Research Programme, in Kenya.

Dr. Amina Abubakar is a Psychologist whose research concerns three broad areas: the sequelae of various childhood diseases, neurodevelopmental disorders, specifically Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) and contextual predictors of psychological well-being across cultural context. Her main interests are in the study of developmental delays and impairments among children exposed to various health problems such as HIV, malnutrition and malaria. Her main focus in this regard is on developing culturally appropriate strategies for identifying, monitoring and rehabilitating at-risk children. In addition, she is also interested in examining the prevalence of and risk factors for neurodevelopmental disorders, specifically ASD, within the African context. Lastly, alongside collaborators from more than twenty countries, she is developing a line of research where we investigate how various contextual factors (familial, school, peer and cultural) impact on wellbeing (mental health, life satisfaction and identity formation) of adolescents across cultural contexts.

Cultural Genomics: Understanding Gene-culture Coevolution from the Molecular Evolution Perspective

In this stream, I will introduce the basic concepts about human evolution, molecular approach to recent natural selection, data sets such as the HapMap and 1000 Genomes Projects and the Beijing Genes-Brain-Behavior Project, and ways to navigate, download, and analyze the data. Participants can select particular genes to examine their evolutionary history and current behavioral correlates.

About the stream leader

Chuansheng Chen is Professor of Psychology and Social Behavior and Professor of Education at the University of California, Irvine. He was trained as a developmental psychologist (Ph.D., 1992, University of Michigan) interested in cultural variations in developmental trajectories. Over the years, he has integrated multi-disciplinary methods into his work through extensive collaborations with developmental psychologists, anthropologists, molecular geneticists, and cognitive neuroscientists. His current work focuses on the intricate relations among genes, brain, and behavior through both molecular and evolutionary genetic methods and brain-imaging techniques (fMRI and ERP).

Contextualizing Acculturation: Multi-level and Multi-group Perspectives

As today’s societies are becoming increasingly diverse, cross-cultural research on contact and acculturation increasingly focuses on diversity and its outcomes, which are not always positive. This workshop starts from the question to what extent and when diversity is an asset for immigrant minorities and for societies at large. We will investigate how minority and majority group members experience culture contact in organizations or societies with different diversity climates (e.g., norms, values, ideologies …). To this end, students will be encouraged to engage with multi-level (at the level of individuals, organizations and societies) and multi-group (minority and majority group perspectives) approaches, data, and methods.

About the stream leaders

Karen Phalet (PhD 1993 University of Leuven) is full professor at the Centre for Social and Cultural Psychology, University of Leuven, and a senior research fellow of the European Research Center On Migration and Ethnic Relations, Utrecht University. Her cross-cultural research is broadly concerned with the psychological dimension of cultural diversity across immigrant minorities and European societies. She has published extensively on processes of cultural transmission, acculturation, self and identity, and their consequences for minority adjustment, acceptance, attainment, and political voice. Current comparative research lines investigate religion and acculturation among European Muslim minorities, as well as minority identity and acculturation in ethnically diverse schools and organizations.

Gülseli Baysu (PhD in 2011 from University of Leuven) is an assistant professor at Kadir Has University. Her main research interests concern minority perspectives on intercultural relations and minority outcomes, ranging from political mobilization to academic performance. She is well-versed in the full range of cross-cultural research data and methods, including cross-national (web)surveys, experiments, and multi-group, multi-level, and longitudinal analyses. Her main publications focus on how positive and negative experiences of culture contact affect minority acculturation and achievement across different migration contexts. In addition to continuing this line of research, another research line extends her earlier work on social identity and political mobilization to Turkey.   

Endorsement by Previous Participants

Hi, I am Dr Humera Iqbal and was lucky enough to be part of the first ever summer school in Istanbul. This was a wonderful experience for so many reasons. I met excellent young researchers with similar interests, some of whom I have continued to collaborate with. I was taught by some of the best minds in cross-cultural psychology and learned so much from them. The group discussions we had allowed me to think about my own research in a novel way and the articles we examined really helped in writing up my cross-cultural research. I also made some amazing friends. If you are doing your PhD in anything cross-cultural (at whatever stage), I really encourage you to apply for Paris 2014.

Hi, I am Saija Kuittinen. The IACCP PhD winterschool in Stellenbosch South-Africa (2012) was a great opportunity to meet fellow PhD students and senior colleagues from all around the world who share the same interests in cultural issues and psychology as I do. During the few intensive days of group work, besides learning more about conducting cross-cultural research, I also enjoyed the casual networking and talking about relevant issues - especially since I am the only one doing this line of research back in my home university.

New Ideas for Reims 2014

We have looked at the feedback and comments from previous years and are working on making it an even more enjoyable, educational and fun event. One suggestion was to provide an opportunity for members to briefly present their research work. We think this is a brilliant idea. Our current plan is to have some mix of Pecha KuchaTed-Talk and Three Minute Thesis Presentation. The current idea is that each member has 3 minutes and some combination of 1, 3, 6 or 9 slides (with no animations) to present his or her topic and research interests to the group on the first or second night. We are still ferociously debating whether we should include some important presentation rules like that you have to have at least one photo of you as a baby  plus one picture of the place where you grew up (after all, the summer school is about connecting people and increasing your understanding of cultural diversity - and baby pictures are highly relevant to at least one stream ;) 
Furthermore, people were keen to get more of an overview of what is happening in each stream and what each stream-leader is going to focus on. Hence, we have decided to add a few more lectures to provide a better overview of the various topics and streams. 
We also hope that all members will form their research groups and start reading and discussing their plans well before getting to Reims. We will ask for volunteers in each stream as facilitators that can work with me and the stream-leaders to getting the discussion and learning going early next year. 
If you have any thoughts or comments or suggestions of how we can make the summer school better, please get in touch.


The cost for the summer school will be 200 Euro for participants from high-income countries (as per IACCP fee structure) and 150 Euro for participants from low income countries. The fee includes accommodation, welcome dinner, lunches and coffee breaks. This is pretty damn good value for a three full day workshop with world leaders in the field of psychology and culture, providing you with cutting edge skills and material. 

The Schedule

Human development
Cultural genomics
Contextualizing Acculturation
March 20
Application deadline
March 31
Decision on applications
Beginning of work in study groups (reading, discussing & exchanging ideas)
Finalizing study groups (each group to select a contact person)
Preliminary ideas submitted to stream leaders
Arrival in Reims (informal get-together in the evening)

Lecture 1 (SL 1)
Lecture 2 (SL 2)
Lecture 3 (SL 3)
Work in streams
Work in streams
Work in streams
Your research topic in 3 min (Presentation on PhD/MSc research by all participants)

Work in streams
Work in streams
Work in streams
Lecture: Cultures are different, p < .05? Thinking about research beyond significance values
Work in streams
Work in streams
Work in streams

Work in streams
Work in streams
Work in streams
Lecture: TBC
Work in streams
Work in streams
Work in streams
Presenting your research proposals

Joint workshop: Writing for publication
Wrapping up
Transfer to conference

Application and Further Info

You will be able to apply here, the link is now active. If you have any questions about the programme, the leaders or the general procedure, please do not hesitate to contact me. The poster with all the relevant info can be found here. Print it and pass it on to your friends and colleagues!

Happy to answer your questions and look forward to seeing you all in Reims in a few months!

J'espère te voir bientôt!

Sunday, November 10, 2013

The Evolutionary Puzzle of Extreme Rituals

These are my notes for the introduction of the recent Science Express Event on Extreme Rituals at Te Papa, sponsored by the Royal Society of New Zealand Wellington Branch and supported by the Centre for Applied Cross-Cultural Research, Wellington.  Many thanks for all those who came and engaged in a really interesting and stimulating discussion. There will be a podcast available soon, till then here are my typed-up notes for the introductory presentation.

Collective Rituals

I am interested in collective rituals. Many of us here have been to support the All Blacks, Hurricanes or the Wellington Phoenix at Westpac Stadium;  have been to a concert, watched a theater play or have been dancing in one of the bars. Collective rituals are common. 
Why do humans do this? There are no obvious evolutionary functions to these gatherings. They do not help us to get food, ward off predators or to create more offspring (although there may be a bit of  'that' going on after a good night out or when the All Blacks smash the Wallabies ;) 
We could say these rituals just serve pure entertainment purposes and are a byproduct of our big social brains. Obviously it does not hurt to sit and watch grown-up guys chase after an odd-shaped ball or sit through a 1 hour lecture at Te Papa. 

Yet, there are collective rituals in many societies and cultures that are painful, uncomfortable or may even injure or harm participants. It is difficult to convey the suffering that some people inflict on themselves during some of these events  in a talk like this. People chose to walk over glowing hot coals of 600-700 degrees that burns paper within seconds. Others walk over burning hot asphalt for hours in the midday sun without drinking or seeking shade while balancing a hot pot of milk on your head; they hit their face or back with swords, chains or sharp objects till they bleed profusely. Can you imagine hobbling on knees large distance and then circle churches or temples on your knees, over a period that takes a few hours. Most of us would feel uncomfortable sitting on our knees after a few minutes. There are collective rituals where people drag heavy wooden carts hooked into their skin over a distance of 6 km, a feat that takes 5 or more hours. Would you want to pierce your tongue or face with a number of random objects, needles, skewers, metal rods, swords, guns, tree branches or giant beach umbrellas?

Why do people do these things? The British anthropologist Harvey Whitehouse has argued that these more extreme rituals are the historically more ancient types of rituals. But what is the evolutionary purpose and why have such rituals survived over the millennia till today?

These are difficult questions to answer. There is much speculation and many attempts to explain such events by observers and social scientist.  But it is important to test these ideas more rigorously. I have joined forces with a dream-team of scientists to tackle these big questions in the field. 

Separating Collective from Individual Benefits

These rituals may have benefits for both individuals and communities and it is important to separate these effects.
There have been speculations going back more than one century all the way to Darwin and Durkheim that extreme ritual may act as a social bonding devise at the community level. Extreme rituals are thought to increase prosociality and cooperation in the community. They signal commitment to the group:  behaviour speaks louder than words. Groups with strong rituals are more likely to survive. Colleagues and friends such as Joseph Bulbulia, Bill Irons, Richard Sosis and Joe Henrich have written extensively on these theories. How can we test these mechanisms in modern societies?

Extreme Ritual: Studying Social Bonding Effects in Mauritius 

In one study with Dimitris Xygalatas, Joseph Bulbulia and other colleagues, we decided to study an extreme ritual in the small island of Mauritius. Our aim was to study the social aspects of extreme ritual by studying groups of individuals that differ in their involvement in the ritual (see this blog by Matthew Rossano on the larger context). We measured their behavioural responses – how much money are they giving to the community depending on the ritual they participate in. We used a considerable sum of money to ensure that we can tap into real prosocial motivations, where helping the in-group really hurts your own pocket. We studied individuals who participated in a low ordeal ritual, people who watched the high ordeal ritual and those individuals who engaged in what objectively appeared to be rather painful acts (such as piercing themselves with needles, skewers and rods, carrying wooden shrines on their head or pulling them through the streets by attaching hooks to their skin). Supporting the prosocial theories of extreme rituals, those in the high ordeal ritual gave more money to their temple. More importantly, the perception of pain helped us to explain the pattern  – the more pain you perceive, the more prosocial and charitable you become! It is the amount of perceived pain that binds the group together!!!!!

Extreme Ritual: What might be the motivation for the individuals? 

But what is in it for the individuals that perform these rather extreme actions? Why should I care that my group is tighter and more cooperative if it means that I have to hurt myself?
Let's examine one potential mechanism: By committing acts in a ritual that is important and central to the community, I can increase my status and prestige in the community. It signals my commitment to the group and therefore increases my social standing within the group. I become a fully fledged member and can benefit from the support and help of other group members in the future.
To test this social status mechanism I went to Thailand to study another extreme ritual. I again compared groups of individuals – high ordeal devotees who pierced themselves with all sorts of things, assistants who supported the high-ordeal performers and spectators trying to get the blessing of the high ordeal devotees. In order to measure the motivations of individuals, I measured their values (as motivational goals) in life. High ordeal devotees were much more oriented towards getting ahead in life – they are motivated to perform these actions to achieve some level of status and power in the group. In short, for individuals performing these actions is one possible mechanism to move up the social ladder. Often the more disadvantaged and marginalized group members engage in the more audacious acts. Bringing it back to our society, you may just  want to look at who are the boldest and best sports players in a lot of contexts. Often it is minorities that use sports (soccer, rugby, athletics, etc.) as a mechanism to achieve status in a society that values these sports.
Although these rituals may seem bizarre or extreme from an outsiders perspective, they involve universal human characteristics. It is a human universal: we want to be included in our groups. At the same time, we needed strong groups to survive in history. Bringing these threads together, it becomes clear why extreme rituals are appealing to individuals and why these rituals have survived for so long in our history. After all, these extreme rituals are just another expression of our shared humanity.

I hope I have convinced you that it is possible to scientifically study extreme rituals to address interesting questions about us humans. It is amazing to me that despite the popularity and widespread participation in quite extreme collective rituals the world over, we know very little about what is happening to individuals and communities involved in these rituals. I look forward to hearing your comments and reactions and an interesting discussion.

******end of my typed out introductory notes*******

Closing thoughts: Damn, it was a really interesting and fascinating discussion that we had at Te Papa. Many thanks again to everyone for asking questions and sharing their thoughts and experiences. Let's continue the discussion and even more importantly, let's do empirical work on this fascinating aspect of human experience. 

Friday, October 25, 2013

Extreme rituals in transition: Some reflections

I just returned from a turbulent five days in Phuket, Thailand. Although many people associate Phuket with beach, sand and holidays, it is also one of the biggest centres for a Buddhist religious festival, which in all likelihood is one of the most extreme rituals still existing in modern societies. The rituals have a long 5,000 year history, going back to pre-Chinese rituals (see work by Margaret Chan). The ceremonies arrived in Thailand with Chinese groups that worked in mines during the 19th century. I will share some brief impressions of my short visit. I could talk about what I saw for ages, so this is just a quick rambling of thoughts and observations. The purpose was to collect some data on the values and personality of participants in this fascinating ritual and to examine health and well-being effects of a ritual like this. Watch this space for the results coming soon...

The Processions

The festival lasts about 10 days and involves thousands of worshipers from Thailand and the region. It starts with the raising of a lantern pole which invites some Emperor Gods to descend from heaven.

In the following days, believers who act as mediums go into trance and impersonate various gods and warriors. These mediums will walk over heaps of glowing coal and climb bladed ladders (both events have specific religious significance and are performed on days before important events of the larger ritual). The most impressive show of these mediums are the processions though. Starting in the early hours of day, believers will go into trance at the temple which will sponsor and organize the procession of the day. Supporters will dress the mediums (once they are in trance) with the characteristic Chinese style garments and hand them artefacts that show their heavenly power (typically some flag with Chinese inscriptions and a whip with a snake-shaped grip).

Depending on the spirits that possess them, a good number of the believers will engage in piercings and acts of self-mortification. The piercings in some cases can be hard to stomach for outsiders. It ranged from needles and skewers to guns, beach umbrellas, metal saws, swords, tree branches, basket ball hops attached to a car tire, beads and any unimaginable object. I asked how people decide what objects to drive through their cheeks. The answer was that they dream it (the spirit telling them what to do). Apparently, the greater the pain, the more blessing for the individual and the community because this wards off evil spirits (many of the mediums are supposedly fierce warriors that battle evil).

There was blood, sometimes lots of it. Some were cutting their tongue on swords or hit their back with sharp objects. There were moments when I thought it went a bit too far (I remember one moment when I was wondering whether the weight of the object inserted into a person's cheek would rip off the skin completely from his face - well, it did not and I was glad about that. I spare you the photos...). The mediums parade through town in a procession that lasts several hours (covering up to 20 km in distance). They walk barefoot over hot asphalt in the tropical heat.

Onlookers invite them to bless them, their family and their house. In order to increase the torment, firecrackers are thrown on these mediums, with the belief that the more noise being made, the more fortune for the family. Despite all the goriness of the piercings, the throwing of the firecrackers leading to war-like scenes left probably the most impressions on me. I felt transported into a war zone between aliens from a different planet.

The smoke from the firecrackers made breathing difficult. Visibility was reduced to a few meters, only the light of the firecrackers able to break through the fog. The sound of the firecrackers echoing back and forth between the buildings in the narrow streets. Transported into an apocalyptic war zone, the best protection of my face was to hold my camera and shoot back (photos against firecrackers). It was hard to imagine how people were able to endure this for hours. Trying to shoot photos, I got a few hits from firecrackers. The physical sensation of a firecracker exploding on your back, in front of your face or your bare feet (call me well-prepared for venturing out in sandals) is not to be underestimated.

Once back at the temple, the piercings were removed by priests and other participants in the ritual and the spirits were asked to leave (ie. exorcised) in a small ceremony in front of the shrines inside the temple. Soon after the procession, there would be more rituals... a non-stop chain of religious rituals and a kaleidoscope of passion, devotion, shared food, blood and ritualistic suffering.

The other extreme: Silence

In addition to these spectacular extreme rituals, there are other ceremonies that oscillate to the other extreme of tedium and stillness. One of the rituals called Propitiation of Seven Stars involves the warrior mediums in trance guarding a platform structure where more mediums assembled. The temple community is crowded around in silent prayer. One individual beats a drum monotonously for about half an hour. There is not movement and no sound except the tiny dingdingdingding of this drum for the whole period. Unfortunately, I could not really got more information on what is happening during this ritual beyond some general vague stories. But the contrast between extremes could not have been stronger.

Transitions: Between Ancient Traditions and Modernity

Transitions and change were notable. For one, tablets, cell phones and cameras were everywhere to document the extremities. Often it appeared that friends and family of the medium were documenting every single step of the medium, as if to document the suffering to document for posterity. What are these people doing with these documents? Many of the mediums would stop and pose for photos - what is the purpose of this exhibitionism? 

There is a line of research that argues that costly rituals bring communities together and increase the status of individuals who engage in the most extreme forms (see for example work by my colleagues Joseph Bulbulia and Markus Frean). Are these documents used later to increase the status and prestige of the individuals who engage in these activities? Is the posing for pictures a mechanism to increase one's self-esteem? Is the greater shock value of extreme acts translated into social capital within the community?

The extreme nature of some of these piercings was striking. I had seen some postings of such piercings before on the internet, but seeing it in person is different from seeing it from the comfortable safety of your computer. There seems to have been a shift towards more extremes. We did some work on Thaipusam last year in Mauritius (a major field site for studying rituals in the field, directed and organized by Dimitris Xygalatas). In conversations with Temple leaders, they commented that piercings and size of the kavadees that believers carry has increased over the years. An interview with a medium from Phuket posted on the internet came to similar observations. The choice of piercings is supposedly dictated by spirits during dreams.... To me it nearly seemed like a ratcheting of extreme actions (think of the 'keeping up with Joneses' effect). To what extent is the posting of extreme piercings, sensational violence, and all sorts of other evidence of self-inflicted harm on internet and global media leading to a 'spiritual arms race'? 

Yet, at the same time, other changes led to changes in the rituals. Blade-walking and bladed ladder climbing used to be a significant part of the ritual. Yet, these practices in the times of HIV are dangerous and can infect a large number of participants. For this reason, a number of temples have abandoned this practice. 

Some changes were also quite cute. It was fun to see how kids and youngsters went through some of the more boring parts of the ritual by secretly using their cellphones and tablets for entertainment. Some of these folks had devised ingenious techniques for entertaining themselves while pretending to be good believers. 

In many ways, these simple observations of human reactions during a period that felt so extreme punctuated the humanness of it all. The pained expressions of bystanders, the open eyes in awe and disbelief of some of the suffering that was displayed, the innocent attempts to ward off both shock and boredom revealed the human aspect. It is these small observations that brought it home to me that through the extremity it actually shows the universality of what it means to be human. There will be people who go to extremes for all sorts of reasons in all cultures. There will be pain and boredom in all places. And it is the reaction to these universal elements that reveals our shared humanity.  

I am glad I went. Many thanks to Janpaphat Kruekaew for introducing and opening this fascinating world for me. Quite often when I was too tired to continue, she tirelessly continued asking people and getting interviews and responses from participants. It was a humbling experience working with her. I am looking forward to going back and getting a better understanding of the minds of some of these people, those who go to extremes and those who just stand by and watch the procession unfold in front of them.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Sexy, hot and easy! Should we trust student evaluations of university courses and teachers?

How should we rate the effectiveness of university teachers and university education in general? This is a million dollar question that is hardly ever been questioned, yet determines the course of countless lives on both sides of the divide (student and teacher). 
Teaching evaluations are treated with suspicion by profs and teachers, but are loved by university bureaucrats and administrators. Students may often not realize, but these evaluations, specifically the mean numbers that come out after some basic number crunching often have a huge impact on the careers and success of academics. A rather small difference between a 1.9 and 2.5 can determine whether somebody gets promoted, is hired or gets a bonus. In extreme cases, a teacher may lose a contract. So how much evidence is there that these numbers provide good evidence of teacher effectiveness? And are teachers who do get higher ratings actually those teachers that help students succeed in other courses?

A number of recent studies cast some big doubt on the usefulness of these criteria. Let's start with a fun example. 

Quality of teaching or just easy and 'hot'? 

James Felton, a Professor of Finance at Central Michigan University and colleagues examined the evaluations submitted to There are a couple of different criteria that students can rate their professors on. The two core areas are 'helpfulness' (how helpful and approachable a teacher is) and 'clarity' (how organized, clear and effective is a teacher). These two are averaged to get a rating of overall teaching quality. There are two more evaluations though. The first one is 'easiness', meaning how easy or difficult the classes are and how much work is needed to get an A. The second is 'hotness', a simple rating of whether a student thinks that a teacher is hot or not. Obviously, we would want to have teachers that are effective and helpful, but these perceptions should not be driven by how easy a course is or how attractive a teacher is. When looking at the data from ratings for 6,852 profs from 369 institutions... the answer is that the hotter you are and the easier your course is, the better are your evaluations. The correlation between easiness and quality is a whopping .62, whereas hotness and quality correlate .64. 

They offer this explanation: 
We see Quality as a function of Easiness, but it could be argued that Easiness is a function of Quality, where professors who are skilled in the classroom take difficult material and make it seem easy. We wish that were the case, but we see Quality as a function of Easiness the majority of the time for two reasons. First, as stated previously, (2004) defines Easiness as the ability to get a high grade without having to work very hard. Second, professors with high Easiness scores usually have student comments regarding a light work load and high grades. Similarly, we see Quality as a function of Hotness, but it could be argued that Hotness is a function of Quality, where a brilliant professor, regardless of physical appearance, is considered sexy by his or her students. Again we wish that were the case, but most student comments point toward Quality as a function of Hotness when they focus on physical characteristics of their professors that could be captured in photographs.

The lesson that might be learned from this correlational study is that it does not hurt to dumb down your lecture content and hit the gym (well, the latter would be good regardless). 

Lecture fluency or welcome back, Dr Fox...

Now, let's enter study number 2. Shana Carpenter and colleagues from Iowa State University in a study recently published showed students a short video of the same teacher presenting the same material. The major difference was that in one video the prof acted in what was called a fluent way: upright, confident, with eye contact and speaking fluently without notes. In the other condition, the prof acted disfluent: slumped, looking away, speaking haltingly and relying on notes. In two experiments, students were tested on how much they actually learned and ratings of the prof were also obtained. The results very clearly showed that the fluent prof was rated much better (surprise surprise), but also that students thought that they had learned more and would remember more from the fluent prof compared to the disfluent prof. However, when later tested, there were no differences between the two groups. This means instructor fluency increases perceptions of learning but not actual learning! There were also some curious smaller findings. For example, for the disfluent group -when given the opportunity to read the transcript of the lecture, students who spent more time rehearsing had higher test scores. This was not the case for the fluent group. It is an ambiguous finding, but could indicate that fluent lectures may decrease the attention paid to study material when preparing for an exam. Not sure whether this is desirable.

This really sounds like the famous Dr Fox effect.  Talk nonsense as long as you are dynamic, engage the audience and are make jokes...

Some disturbing findings when using random assignment of students to profs

The most concerning study though used a controlled random assignment of students to courses that overcomes a lot of the shortcomings of previous studies (including self-selection of students to courses and professors). Scott Carrell and James West studied student achievement and course feedback as students moved through mandatory classes in maths, science and engineering. The unique aspect of their study is that professors rotated in sections of the course, assessment was not done by the professors themselves and students were randomly allocated to professors (but all studied the same content). A first finding that is of practical importance is that less academically qualified instructors got students more (erroneously?) interested in the topics which resulted in better immediate student performance, but then led to lower scores in follow-on related courses. More experienced and qualified professors in contrast had students that did not well in the introductory classes, but those students than excelled later on. Those students were able to build on what they had learned during the initial courses. 

What is even more important is that professors who were rated positively by students did better in the initial courses. However, the rating of the effectiveness of the professor did not predict later performance! In fact, in a number of cases the correlation flipped - students studying with the more highly rated professors did worse in half the courses than those who studied with a prof who was not rated as highly (note: only one of these correlations was significant - the point remains the same though: ratings of teacher effectiveness does not predict long-term student achievement). As Carreel and West argue:
'Since many U.S. colleges and universities use student evaluations as a measurement of teaching quality for academic promotion and tenure decisions, this finding draws into question the value and accuracy of this practice.' 

Are there alternatives? Yes! 

The reliance on student evaluations for courses and teachers is problematic, if these evaluations are not considered in a larger context of what is achieved in a course. In the business world, this has been long realized. Teaching is effectively training. In the organizational world, Donald Kirkpatrick developed a famous four stage model of training evaluation. The four criteria for the evaluation of the effectiveness of training are:

  1. Student reactions - this is essentially equivalent of student evaluations, assessments of students thought they had learned and how they felt about the course/the teaching
  2. Learning - this is measured by the increase in knowledge or capability after the course, we could consider the test performance in a test or exam as a good measure of this (of course only if the assessment is independent of the teacher - see above the problem with the easiness of a course)
  3. Behaviour change - this refers to the changes in the behaviour outside the teaching environment that are a result of the teaching, including applications of what has been learned to new situations outside the teaching/training context
  4. Results - this is the effect of the teaching on the business or the larger environment that results from the performance and the behaviour changes induced by the teaching/training
The 3rd and 4th points are what universities (and society) should be concerned about. There has been a lot of questioning of the value of tertiary education recently (see for example here, here and here). These criteria can help in re-adjusting both the focus of universities as well as criteria that are used to evaluate professors. 

Students and society deserve better, not just the profs ;)

Comments are welcome as usual :)