Monday, March 27, 2017

Getting Started With Your PhD

by Kristina, Academic Life Histories:

Five steps for finding your feet as a new PhD student

​I just started my PhD around 6 month ago and especially in the beginning I felt quite insecure.

Everyone I met was asking: “What are you going to do for your PhD? “ I had no clue myself, so I turned red and mumbled something like “Um … study the behaviour of blue tits?” Honestly, I often felt like an idiot and wished the ground would open and swallow me up.

But, despite all these insecure moments I was highly motivated to get into this new area of research! Beginning with something new is always tough and this is probably especially true when starting a PhD. In this post I summarized five points which I think are really important in the first weeks/month of your PhD and I hope they might be helpful for some of you.

1. Self-confidence

For your PhD you might move to another country, meet a new research group and maybe you are even unfamiliar with the research topic itself. A few weeks before I started at the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology I suddenly became very unconfident. “Am I tough enough for a PhD?”, “Am I good enough to work in a world class institution?”

During the first days at my new workplace this feeling got even worse … I had the impression that everyone else was way smarter and more experienced than I am. The turning point came during a “teaching” week in which all new PhDs participated and we talked exactly about this feeling - self-doubt. It turned out that everyone else felt exactly the same! So, my message here: Get rid of your self-doubts! No one is perfect and there is a reason why you got the PhD position in the first place. 

2. Read, read, read

Especially when you are new to a certain research area: sit down and rummage through the literature. This will help you to get familiar with the area and most important it will provide you with information about what might be interesting to investigate during your PhD. In the beginning this can be a frustrating process as you discover that all your potential ideas already got published. But, at the end you will find a niche which is interesting to do research on.

To avoid getting lost in this huge amount of literature it is very important to find a good way to store and organize it. This will also help you a lot later on when writing your research proposal or your first publications (see 4).

Another hint: Do not stop with reading papers across your entire PhD. Even though you might have already finished your proposal this is really important to keep up to date! By the way, reading also helps you in getting more confident and clarifying your ideas, that way you won’t feel like an idiot the next time someone asks you about your research. 

3. Talk, talk, talk

To your supervisor: Depending on the type of supervisor (some might be present frequently, others you barely see) it can be difficult to approach them. Nevertheless, it is very important to talk to your supervisor about your research and progress! She/he is usually an expert in the field you are doing your PhD in and thus they are a very important source for guidance and inspiration! To make the meeting efficient for both of you - come prepared! Supervisors have very limited time. So, you could send around a list of points you would like to discuss or make a little presentation. She/he will definitely appreciate that!

To your colleagues/friends: Be social and talk to as many people as possible about your research. This will not only provide you with valuable feedback for your own research but open opportunities for potential collaborations. This is also true for non-biologists or friends working in a different field of biology! I experienced that they often ask very basic questions which you might have completely overlooked while digging deeper and deeper into your research topic. 

4. Write a research proposal

During my first weeks, members from my cohort complained the most about writing a research proposal. “I still have no idea about what to do”, “Planning experiments? If that ever worked!”, “All the chapters will change again during my PhD!” etc. Indeed, writing a proposal might seem to be senseless and is definitely not easy when you just started a PhD. Nevertheless, I think this was one of the most important tasks for me.

You might already have a vague idea about the questions you would like to address during your PhD and the experimental setups. However, writing it up properly and embedding this into the current knowledge of research helps to determine what your research questions and goals will be, and in particular why your research matters! While doing so, a good literature review will be of huge value! 

5. Time management

Time is one of the biggest issues during the PhD and will pass faster than you might think. You will probably encounter situations where people ask you “How is work? What did you do last week?” and you simply don’t know. How is it possible that I can’t remember what I did for one full week!?

Honestly, I still have to struggle with this but according to more experienced PhDs and Postdocs this is completely normal. Nevertheless, it is important to make a rough timetable for your PhD and to set yourself specific millstones to reach! For example, every 6 months you set yourself a specific goal: In the first 6 months you might want to finish your research proposal, after one year finish your first experiment, and so on.

Further, time management also means a good work-life balance. I won’t go into detail here about this but what I would like to say: There is also a life outside of your research and breaks are really important to stay motivated and creative! So, go out every now and then and have a beer with your colleagues and friends!

Why Even Great Teaching Strategies Can Backfire and What To Do About It

A famous study found that when preschool children were incentivized to draw they no longer chose to do so when they had free play time.
by , Mind Shift:

Educators often look for classroom inspiration from instructional strategies that 'work', focusing on how many students improved based on a given strategy.

While that’s important and helpful, focusing only on how a strategy works, without examining why it didn’t work for some learners, is a missed opportunity.

Examining the conditions when a strategy is ineffective or unintentionally misleads students doesn’t necessarily mean teachers should abandon that strategy altogether, but it does help them plan ahead for how it might backfire.

“What seems to be a great way to learn for the teachers, the students, the instructional designers is often a great way to learn,” said Daniel Schwartz, dean of Stanford’s Graduate School of Education, at the Learning and the Brain conference in San Francisco. “But sometimes it’s a horrible way to learn.”

There are many examples in education of ideas implemented as though they were gospel backfiring because educators lost sight of the nuances. Rewards are a commonly misapplied tool in education, for example. Simple behavior theory predicts that rewards produce more of a desired behavior, while punishments yield less undesirable behavior. But a famous study by Mark Lepper, David Greene and Richard Nisbett found that misapplied rewards can have disastrous consequences for intrinsic motivation.

For their study, Lepper, Greene and Nisbett first observed a preschool classroom for baseline observations and found that drawing was one of the most popular activities. They wanted to test intrinsic versus extrinsic rewards, so they put out felt-tipped markers (a big treat) at the art table and told one group of students that if they chose drawing during free play time they would get a certificate with a gold seal on it. A second group was not told about the reward, but after making art they received one. The third group was neither told about the rewards nor received one. After a week or two, the researchers again put out the felt-tipped markers and observed from behind a one-way mirror what activities the children chose to play with on their own.

Children in the reward condition chose to draw much less during a three-hour play period than either of the other two conditions. What happened? “The [certificate] replaced the satisfaction of drawing,” Schwartz said. “When there was no more reward, the kids didn’t want to draw.” And, interestingly, when kids were being rewarded for their drawings, they produced less creative work.

Another example is the commonly believed notion that treating each case as unique is a good problem-solving strategy. But this, too, can be misapplied. “Sometimes you design instruction that leads students to inadvertently do the wrong thing,” Schwartz said.

In one study done with college undergraduates, physics students were learning about how magnets affect electric current. They were given three cases of how a magnet interacted with a lightbulb attached to a wire loop. In Case A, the magnet moved right and the lightbulb lit up. In Case B, the magnet moved up and the lightbulb did not light up. In Case C, the magnet was flipped and the light went on.

Students were asked to come up with one account that could explain all three cases. They were placed in two groups, one of which was asked to use the “Predict-Observe-Explain” (POE) strategy, common in science education. This is a difficult problem and only about 30 percent of the control group got the correct answer: the lightbulb lights up with a change to the x-vector of the magnetic field. However, only one student was able to get the right answer in the POE group.

The researchers found that when students used POE, they treated each case as separate and weren’t looking for patterns across the cases. Schwartz said another way the each-case-is-unique idea can go wrong is when students are doing problem sets. They often treat each problem separately, instead of thinking about how they relate.

This is an example of what Schwartz calls a “learning frailty,” or things students are likely to do and that teachers can predict and plan to circumvent. To do this, teachers often have to explicitly tell students what the frailty is and advise them not to give into it. “You have to address what you want them to do, but also what you don’t want them to do,” Schwartz said. 


Schwartz wanted to know whether he could teach students to seek constructive feedback and to explore a space before prematurely settling on an idea, both strategies found to improve learning. He inserted an intervention into the setup of design thinking activities that 200 sixth-graders were doing in math, social studies and science. Students went through a design cycle where they were told to explore materials and ideas, generate solutions, create prototypes and reflect on the process.

One group was told that at each stage of the design process, they should seek constructive criticism on their idea. They were also told to avoid the learning frailty, “we like to hear what we have done well,” in favor of criticism that would help them improve. The other half were told that at each stage of the design process they should resist the temptation to settle on the first idea (the learning frailty), and instead to try multiple ideas before picking one.

Measuring whether these interventions taught the students to use the strategy on their own was tricky because Schwartz and his team were interested in whether students would recognize the value in the strategy and choose to use it on their own when they weren’t explicitly told to do so. They needed a way to measure choice, not knowledge, so they chose a game format.

Screenshot from Schwartz' feedback game. Students could choose to either hear positive or negative feedback on their posters.
Screen shot from Schwartz’s feedback game. Students could choose to either hear positive or negative feedback on their posters. (Courtesy Dan Schwartz)
The seeking-criticism group played a game in which they are hired to make posters for booths at a school fair. The game offers various tools kids can use to create the posters, and then students present their first draft to a focus group of animals that provide feedback that includes praise as well as constructive criticism. Students read the feedback, make changes to the poster, and then see how many tickets they sold.

Researchers were looking for how often students chose to hear more feedback from the focus group and made changes to their posters as part of their process.

“The more feedback you choose in this game, the more likely you do well on the California standardized tests,” Schwartz said. He also found that lower-achieving kids weren’t using this strategy before the intervention, but after the design thinking project they recognized its power and did use the strategy more. Kids who were already high achievers were already using this strategy, so it didn’t make much difference.

Similarly, Schwartz designed a game for the group that was asked to design in parallel instead of choosing the first idea they had. In the game, students are photographers with a variety of settings on their cameras. The game measured how many different camera settings students tried before settling on their final version. And, once again, kids who had not previously used the “exploring the space” strategy did improve.

“You want to teach students what to do and what to avoid. And acknowledge why you’d want to avoid it,” Schwartz said. Another common learning frailty is to do the thing that takes the least time. Teachers can try to circumvent the frailty by explaining why a better strategy, while more time-consuming, will pay off in the end.

Schwartz is wary of anyone who says teachers should never lecture, or never give rewards because it is “bad pedagogy.” “The key here is understanding that these instructional moves are good. You just have to figure out when,” Schwartz said. Rewards work well to incentivize something students don’t like to do, but educators have to be careful about unintentionally reinforcing the idea that whatever is being rewarded is work and therefore not fun.

Similarly, some educators argue that telling students information is wrong or anti-constructivist, but there is a time and a place for telling students information, a relatively efficient way to transfer knowledge. Schwartz and Bransford completed a study in 1998 showing that when college students analyzed contrasting data sets from classic psychology experiments and then read a text or listened to a lecture about why those experiments were important to the development of psychology, they were more prepared to understand and contextualize the new information. The students were then better able to grasp the outcomes of a similar set of data a week later, as compared to students who had summarized the information before the lecture. The analyze-and-lecture condition also predicted more accurately than students in a condition who analyzed the data twice. 


Ultimately, Schwartz’s warning about unintended consequences of instruction is a rallying cry for teacher professionalism. “The science points out what’s necessary; the trick is making instruction where that component sits in an environment that’s sufficient for learning,” Schwartz said. For example, scientists can prove that overwhelming students’ cognitive load is bad. But reduce cognitive load too much and students are bored. That’s why teachers are so important; they are the investigators carefully taking note of how different students respond to strategies in the classroom, and are constantly tweaking ideas to improve them.

“The scientists can give you certain laws about learning, but they can’t put it together into instruction,” Schwartz said. They understand the neuroscience, not how to translate it into a classroom environment. That’s why Schwartz believes the most important thing for good instruction is for the teacher to be an “adaptive expert,” someone who is constantly reflecting, and learning from what he or she has tried in the past. Adaptive experts have growth mindsets about their teaching, whereas “routine experts” get good at one way and repeat it over and over.

“You develop a great deal of expertise by designing instruction and looking at the outcomes of the instruction,” Schwartz said. “You as the teacher need to think about this as a creative endeavor.” Observing how students interpret a lesson and thinking through what learning frailties may have led them in the wrong direction is one way to try to avoid unintended consequences of instruction.

This discussion of instruction misfiring may feel frustrating for educators looking for tried-and-true research-based strategies, but it also reaffirms the importance of educators’ expertise in the classroom. The one guideline Schwartz offers is that often when the rationale for an instructional strategy is to save time or be more efficient, the likelihood of an instructional backfire is high. Resorting to only telling students things, rewarding them for doing what you want them to do and oversimplifying are all ways this can happen.

Friday, March 3, 2017

Does Your Classroom Cultivate Student Resilience?

photo of a proud young womanby Marilyn Price-Mitchell PhD, Edutopia:

Over 100 years ago, the great African American educator Booker T. Washington spoke about resilience:
I have learned that success is to be measured not so much by the position that one has reached in life as by the obstacles overcome while trying to succeed.
Research has since established resilience as essential for human thriving, and an ability necessary for the development of healthy, adaptable young people. It's what enables children to emerge from challenging experiences with a positive sense of themselves and their futures.

Children who develop resilience are better able to face disappointment, learn from failure, cope with loss, and adapt to change. We recognize resilience in children when we observe their determination, grit, and perseverance to tackle problems and cope with the emotional challenges of school and life.

The Capacity to Rebuild and Grow From Adversity

Resilience is not a genetic trait. It is derived from the ways that children learn to think and act when faced with obstacles large and small. The road to resilience comes first and foremost from children's supportive relationships with parents, teachers, and other caring adults. These relationships become sources of strength when children work through stressful situations and painful emotions. When we help young people cultivate an approach to life that views obstacles as a critical part of success, we help them develop resilience.

Many teachers are familiar with Stanford professor Carol Dweck's important work with growth mindsets, a way of thinking that helps children connect growth with hard work and perseverance. Educator David Hochheiser wisely reminds us that developing growth mindsets is a paradigm for children's life success rather than a pedagogical tool to improve grades or short-term goals. Simply put, it's a way of helping children believe in themselves - often the greatest gift teachers give to their students.

Resilience is part of The Compass Advantage™ (a model designed for engaging families, schools, and communities in the principles of positive youth development) because the capacity to rebuild and grow from adversity is a key factor in achieving optimal mental and physical health. Linked by research to happiness and the other abilities on the compass, resilience is one of the 8 Pathways to Every Student's Success.

Compass with Resilience, Self-Awareness, Integrity, Resourcefulness, Creativity, Empathy, Curiosity, and Sociability as compass points
Image Credit: Marilyn Price-Mitchell, PhD

The ability to meet and overcome challenges in ways that maintain or promote well-being plays an essential role in how students learn to achieve academic and personal goals. Resilient young people feel a sense of control over their own destinies. They know that they can reach out to others for support when needed, and they readily take initiative to solve problems. Teachers facilitate resilience by helping children think about and consider various paths through adversity. They also help by being resources, encouraging student decision-making, and modeling resilient competencies.

Five Ways to Cultivate Resilience

1. Promote self-reflection through literary essays or small-group discussions

Short written essays or small-group discussion exercises that focus on heroic literary characters are an excellent way, particularly for younger students, to reflect on resilience and the role it plays in life success. After children have read a book or heard a story that features a heroic character, encourage them to reflect by answering the following questions (see the Heroic Imagination Project for additional resources and videos).
  • Who was the hero in this story? Why?
  • What challenge or dilemma did the hero overcome?
  • What personal strengths did the hero possess? What choices did he or she have to make?
  • How did other people support the hero?
  • What did the hero learn?
  • How do we use the same personal strengths when we overcome obstacles in our own lives? Can you share some examples?

2. Encourage reflection through personal essays

Written exercises that focus on sources of personal strength can help middle and high school students learn resilience-building strategies that work best for them. For example, by exploring answers to the following questions, students can become more aware of their strengths and what they look for in supportive relationships with others.
  • Write about a person who supported you during a particularly stressful or traumatic time. How did they help you overcome this challenge? What did you learn about yourself?
  • Write about a friend that you supported as he or she went through a stressful event. What did you do that most helped your friend? What did you learn about yourself?
  • Write about a time in your life when you had to cope with a difficult situation. What helped and hindered you as you overcame this challenge? What learning did you take away that will help you in the future?

3. Help children (and their parents) learn from student failures

In her insightful article Why Parents Need to Let Their Children Fail, published in The Atlantic, middle school teacher Jessica Lahey touched on a topic near and dear to every teacher's heart: How do I teach students to learn and grow through failure and setbacks when their parents are so intent on making them a shining star? The truth is that learning from failure is paramount to becoming a resilient young person. Teachers help when they:
  • Create a classroom culture where failure, setbacks, and disappointment are an expected and honored part of learning.
  • Establish and reinforce an atmosphere where students are praised for their hard work, perseverance, and grit, not just for grades and easy successes.
  • Hold students accountable for producing their own work, efforts from which they feel ownership and internal reward.
  • Educate and assure parents that supporting kids through failure builds resilience - one of the best developmental outcomes that they can give their children.

4. Bring discussions about human resilience into the classroom

Opportunities abound to connect resilience with personal success, achievement, and positive social change. Expand discussions about political leaders, scientists, literary figures, innovators, and inventors beyond what they accomplished to the personal strengths they possessed and the hardships they endured and overcame to reach their goals. Help students learn to see themselves and their own strengths through these success stories.

5. Build supportive relationships with students

Good student-teacher relationships are those where students feel seen, felt, and understood by teachers. This happens when teachers are attuned to students, when they notice children's needs for academic and emotional support. These kinds of relationships strengthen resilience. When adults reflect back on teachers who changed their lives, they remember and cherish the teachers who encouraged and supported them through difficult times.

Do you have a teacher who played this role in your own life? What do you remember about him or her?