Are Swedish Universities heading for another “Pisa” collapse – in response to a Swedish Editorial. Consider the teaching.

The other day, there was a somewhat alarmist editorial in one of the Swedish National papers (written by two professors, one here in Lund), considering the state of Swedish Higher Education. There has been some alarmist commentary about its status in the papers (in part prompted by some of our universities no longer cracking the top 100 list – never mind the measurement problems with those lists), and some recent task-force that has visited Stanford and Berkeley, compared our universities to them, and found us Wanting.

The article in DN brings up 3 points where they think the Swedish Universities are wanting (compared to Stanford and Berkeley): The university is not led by top-researchers, Swedish universities have a tendency to “grow their own”, that is, the lecturers and professors are people who have spent their entire higher education career at the same university, from undergrad to pension. The third point is related to that, and has to do with a promotion reform that was just done, which has resulted in a possible lowering of status for the title (many professors are, supposedly, invisible in the international research community). This makes (possibly) for dull, derivative research.

What they didn’t bring up in this editorial, but which was lifted up in the report comparing us to Stanford and Berkeley is that this report claimed that one of the hallmarks of these world class universities (both in the Bay-area, California, on either side of silicon valley) is that they value teaching much higher than the universities in Sweden. This made me go seriously Hmmmmm. Of course, I never went to either Berkeley or Stanford, but I did go to the little bear in the UC system – UCLA. It is a while ago (early 90’s). I don’t have anything to complain about when it comes to education really. I had some really stellar teachers, especially in the smaller courses. I also had some “meh” teachers. All the big topic classes – intro psychology, and introduction to topics like developmental, social, cognitive, neuro were done in huge lecture halls (about 300 students) accompanied by smaller sections of about 20 students led by a Teaching Assistant. All of these exams were multiple-choice. Other types of exams were given in other areas.

What I’m reading now from colleagues in the US (via twitter) is how teaching is more and more de-valued. Classes are taught by adjuncts who don’t have job-security. Universities are looking into creating MOOC’s so they can save even more on the teaching staff. Teaching is not what brings you fame and fortune, but I’d suggest you follow Rebecca Schuman for this discussion (this article on the Soul of the Research University is also very interesting, as both Stanford and Berkeley are Research Universities – and the UC system is figuring in this discussion). Teaching is no more valued there than here.

But, let’s see if there was something that I think the universities I went to did differently than what Lund does, and keep in mind this is a very amateurish case-study from one single observer at a particular department in Lund (a department I like very much).

At the three research-universities where I have obtained my education, undergraduates taking the introductory psychology course were required to participate in experiments – the participant pool. Anything from 3 to 4 experiments. Other courses also used research participation as a means of getting extra credit. In part, this benefits the researchers, of course, but it also has a great deal of educational value, which is why we have it. It is a win-win situation. Of course, you cannot force people to participate in experiments, so there is always an alternative for those who absolutely do not want to participate.

Why is it educational? Because experience is educational. When we teach psychology to our students, what we teach them are based on findings from thousands upon thousands of experiments and studies, upon even more participants, painstakingly trying to understand how the human psyche works.

I did my intro psych at a community college, and therefore was not required to do any participation. The first time I did, it was an eye-opener. The actual experience of participating – the task I had to do (and I have since done many) – seemed rather removed from the kinds of conclusions I had been reading about. There were also a number of varying experiences that I had that is not generally discussed in papers or books, but may potentially be important to consider. In one case I had to respond to a dot that was flashed on a computer screen. It was terrifically boring. But, what they were trying to find was if they could measure how fast a signal is sent across the corpus callossum. You need a lot of data-points for that.

In another experiment, I had to classify faces and words. This was working well for about two of the blocks, and then I was losing concentration and making a lot of misses. When you run a test, you have to consider that after a while people get bored and fatigued. If your experiment or your set of questionnaires is too long, the responses towards the end become meaningless for what you are trying to answer because the responses will be indicative of something very different from what you are asking. I have answered questionnaires where the questions seem to not make sense (but I can understand why someone wants them answered).

I know, first hand, from circling Likert scales, that they really are ordinal, and that the intervals between the numbers really are meaningless, because it is clear to me that I can’t make a difference between a 7 and an 8 on a 9 pt scale. I have experienced the kind of jolt you get when you get an “error” message for having misclassified something, and wondered how that may influence my next response.

I have filled in a State Trait anxiety scale at a time when I felt happy and content, and I very strongly felt I had no interest in letting anybody know that I have had past instances of anxiety and depression that is possibly more indicative of my slightly pessimistic base state – and I did this post getting my PhD, knowing full well how researchers interpret the data, and realizing how many additional factors that play a role in any one individuals current state that can influence how you interpret the data.

I don’t get this as strongly from creating my questionnaires and experiments, because then I’m focused on the research question at hand. Reminding myself how it is to be on the other side is invaluable for my ability to design experiments, and for my ability to interpret research, based on how it was conducted.

Now, simply doing a lot of experiments is of course not enough, and it was never meant as this. You pair it with the theoretical teaching, and with lab work, in order to make sure your student has insight into all parts of the research cycle, and can be properly skeptical, but also properly accepting.

I see it as akin to how we require psychologists to go through therapy themselves before becoming therapists. And, there are plenty of anecdotal stories from doctors who became patients and had their eyes open to suggest that this would be a good exercise for everybody.

When I got to Lund, this did not exist. It does now, in a limited way, in that we have the option to let students do experiments as their compensation for missed obligatory seminars. Limited, of course, as there is always a reason why you want something in your course to require obligatory participations – usually because this is something you cannot acquire from simply reading books and articles and write a paper such as laboratory exercises or presentations, or discussions, or other empirical exercises. Let’s replace something empirical with something else empirical, should you have the misfortune to become ill.

There were a lot of discussions about this before we could implement it, and it is only a handful of courses that take advantage of this possibility, but I was astounded that asking students to participate in experiments were even questioned. Presumably you want universities to do both research and teaching, because you think there is a synergistic relationship between them, not an absolute separation.

Still, you have to keep in mind that participating must just be an option, that there are other ways of doing completions, or of fulfilling your requirements (in the version where it is part of the course), and there are.

But, there is a clear pedagogical reason why you want psychology students participating in psychological research even as participants and canned experiments just are not the same thing.

Another thing offered by the universities I attended, was being a lab-assistant for course-credit. In fact, at one university, this was the requirement that earned you a Bachelors of Science rather than a Bachelor of Arts.

This doesn’t exist, although we are working on it, considering that our international Masters, as well as other international exchange students are asking for it. As it is, some researchers with funding can pay you to be a research assistant. In other cases, students can work as research-assistants in exchange for a certificate stating that they have this experience. It is actually very valuable, especially for those that want to continue doing a PhD. But, working in a lab is generally valuable experience, even if you don’t plan on becoming a researcher. Currently, there isn’t a really clear path for students on how to get experience as researchers. This is short-changing them, and this is an area where at least some American research universities are better at integrating teaching and research.

Now, I don’t know if those were the areas that the report considered, but I think it is something that Swedish universities have to consider. Don’t keep research and teaching apart. Work on the synergy. That is a win-win situation.

About asehelene

... because if I'm in a room with a second person, I want to be reasonably sure I'm the crazier one.
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