Looking at Learning Through an Evolutionary Lens

3-Star learning experiences

The idea for this blog is based on Chapter 2 from ‘Standing on the Shoulders of Giants’.

Mirjam Neelen & Paul A. Kirschner

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Why are some things so easy to learn and why do we struggle with others? Why are we motivated to learn one thing, but dread the next? Why do people prefer talking to each other instead of focusing on (sometimes difficult) stuff they need to learn? These are all interesting questions. David Geary (2008) sheds light on the answers to them by looking at learning through an evolutionary lens. This lens helps us understand why we can learn certain things so ‘naturally’ while others require blood, sweat, and tears.

We humans have evolved to create culture (e.g., a common system of beliefs that facilitate cooperation, a division of labour, formal and informal expectations for the behaviour of in-group members, as well as the sharing of…

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Again: gender and cultural bias exists against teachers at university level

I would like to say that this study is something new, but sadly enough: it isn’t. We’ve seen this over and over again in other studies: students are more likely to rate male university teachers higher than their female counterparts. Now it has been shown to be the case in Australia.

From the press release:

The study, published today in PLOS ONE, examined almost 525,000 individual student experience surveys from UNSW Sydney students from 2010-2016 across five faculties. It is the first study to examine the interaction between gender and cultural bias.

“These results have enormous flow-on effects for society, beyond education, as over 40% of the Australian population now go to university, and graduates may carry these biases with them into the workforce,” said Associate Professor Yanan Fan, lead author on the study and statistician from UNSW Science.

The study showed that in Business and Science, a male teacher from an English-speaking background was more than twice as likely to get a higher score on a student evaluation than a female teacher from a non-English speaking background. In Engineering, there wasn’t a significant swing against female teachers, except male English-speaking teachers were 1.4 times more likely to get a higher score than teachers in all other categories. For Medicine, local students were more likely to give lower scores to female teachers from non-English speaking backgrounds.

“In the Business and Science faculties in particular, male English-speaking teachers have the highest probability of getting the highest possible grade at six, out of six possible scores,” Associate Professor Fan said.

In Arts and Social Sciences, there was no statistically significant bias against female teachers. The results suggest that where there is a larger proportion of female teachers, such as in Arts and Social Sciences, there is less bias. Bias was observed, however, against male non-English speaking background teachers when evaluated by local students.

“The results show universities must be models of equity and diversity in order to breakdown inequalities that persist in even the most progressive of workplaces,” said Professor Merlin Crossley, UNSW Deputy Vice-Chancellor Academic.

“We regard student experience surveys as essential, but we have to know how to interpret the results in order understand unconscious bias and how we can bring about change. UNSW is driving a strategy that embraces diversity and we believe these biases will diminish over time. Diversity is a great strength of UNSW and we must keep celebrating it,” said Professor Crossley.

Professor Crossley pointed to unconscious bias training, one of the key initiatives of UNSW’s Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Board, as a program that tackles often hidden beliefs and attitudes about gender and culture.

In 2017, UNSW appointed Professor Eileen Baldry as UNSW’s first Deputy Vice-Chancellor Inclusion and Diversity. One of the key objectives of the role, and of UNSW’s 2025 Strategy, is achieving gender equity targets at all staff grades.

Associate Professor Fan said there was growing evidence to suggest that all aspects of employment, from hiring to performance evaluation to promotion, are affected by gender and cultural background.

“Reducing bias will have great benefits for society as university students represent a large proportion of future leaders in government and industry,” said Associate Professor Fan.

Dean of Science at UNSW and co-author of the study, Professor Emma Johnston, says encouraging more women at the professorial level, in leadership positions and in membership of key committees will help shrink these biases.

“We need to continue to support women at all levels of academia in STEM across Australia, in order to smash stereotypes that create the partiality that exists within our community.”

Abstract of the study:

Gendered and racial inequalities persist in even the most progressive of workplaces. There is increasing evidence to suggest that all aspects of employment, from hiring to performance evaluation to promotion, are affected by gender and cultural background. In higher education, bias in performance evaluation has been posited as one of the reasons why few women make it to the upper echelons of the academic hierarchy. With unprecedented access to institution-wide student survey data from a large public university in Australia, we investigated the role of conscious or unconscious bias in terms of gender and cultural background. We found potential bias against women and teachers with non-English speaking backgrounds. Our findings suggest that bias may decrease with better representation of minority groups in the university workforce. Our findings have implications for society beyond the academy, as over 40% of the Australian population now go to university, and graduates may carry these biases with them into the workforce.


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Funny on Sunday: Standards

I’ve mentioned this cartoon the past week too many times in meetings, so it had to become a funny on Sunday:

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Multitasking increases in online courses compared to face-to-face (and yes that is a bad thing)

We can’t multitask. But… when you are doing an online course it’s so tempting to do something else at the same time. So this Kent study won’t come as a surprise to many people, from the conclusion:

Students reported significantly greater multitasking behavior in online versus face-to-face courses (Table 2). Specifically, students were more likely to send text messages, email, visit online social networking sites, watch videos, use the Internet for purposes not related to class, play video games, listen to music, and talk with friends in online courses than in face-to-face courses (|Z| ≥ 1.95, p ≤ .05). Only doodling (i.e., scribbling absentmindedly) was a more common multitasking behavior in face-to-face courses than in online courses (|Z| = 5.54, p ≤ .001). After comparing individual items, the total online and face-to-face multitasking scales were compared (Table 2). Again, results demonstrated that students reported greater multitasking behavior in online versus face-to-face courses (t = 16.541, df = 289, p ≤ .001).

This press release gives more background information:

… (the) phenomenon of multitasking across three or four internet-connected devices simultaneously is increasingly common. Dr. Lepp and his colleagues Jacob Barkley, Ph.D., and Aryn Karpinski, Ph.D., of Kent State’s College of Education, Health and Human Services were curious to know how often this happens during online education, a method of delivering college and even high school courses entirely via an internet-connected computer as opposed to a traditional face-to-face course with a teacher physically present.

Nationwide, millions of students take online courses each year, and the trend is increasing rapidly. Dr. Lepp and his colleagues wondered if students multitask more frequently in online courses compared to face-to-face courses.

“This question is important to ask because an abundance of research demonstrates that multitasking during educational activities significantly reduces learning,” Dr. Lepp said.

Dr. Lepp, Dr. Barkley and Dr. Karpinski, along with the help of Kent State graduate student Shweta Singh, surveyed 296 college students. Each student surveyed had recently completed an online, for-credit college course and a traditional face-to-face college course. The survey asked students how often they participated in common multitasking behaviors during their previously taken online courses as well as their previous face-to-face courses. These behaviors included texting, using social networking apps, emailing, off-task internet surfing, talking, doodling and other distracting behaviors. The survey also measured students’ preference for multitasking and their belief in their ability to self-regulate their behavior.

Results of the study revealed that students’ multitasking behavior is significantly greater in online courses compared to face-to-face courses. Additionally, in online courses, the students who prefer to multitask do indeed multitask more than students with less of a preference for multitasking; however, in face-to-face courses, the students who prefer to multitask do not multitask more frequently than students with less of a preference for multitasking.

“This is likely because in face-to-face courses, a physically present teacher and the presence of conscientious students help to enforce classroom policies and behavioral norms against multitasking,” Dr. Lepp said.

Finally, students who were confident in their ability to self-regulate their behavior multitasked less in face-to-face courses when compared to students who were not so confident in their ability to self-regulate behavior. However, in online courses, even those students who believe they are good at self-regulation could not resist multitasking. Indeed, they multitasked at a similar frequency to other students.

“This suggests that how we teach students to self-regulate for learning applies well to traditional face-to-face courses, but perhaps it does not apply well to online learning,” Dr. Barkley said. “Because multitasking during educational activities has a negative impact on learning, it is important to develop methods for reducing this academically disadvantageous behavior, particularly in the increasingly common online learning environment.”

The researchers say that students can learn to be more singularly focused and to minimize multitasking.

“For example, during online learning and any other educational activity, put all distractions away, including smartphones and tablets,” Dr. Lepp said. “This should become habit. This can even be practiced during leisure. For example, when watching a favorite TV show or sporting event, focus on the show and don’t get distracted by texting friends and posting to social media.”

For students struggling with multitasking in required online courses, Dr. Karpinski suggested that students try taking the course on a computer in a quiet part of the library where there are already norms in place which discourage many distracting behaviors.

“Additionally, as universities increase their online course offerings, even for students already living on or near campus, these same universities might consider computer labs dedicated to online learning that are proctored in an effort to keep students on task,” Dr. Karpinski said.

This study is very relevant, but would have been even better if they had examined the results. To be expected next time, I guess.

Oh btw, did you multitask during the read of this post?

Abstract of the study:

This study compared college students’ multitasking in online courses with their multitasking in face-to-face courses and explored the significance of potential predictors of multitasking in each setting. Students taking both online and face-to-face courses completed surveys assessing multitasking in each setting, self-efficacy for self-regulated learning (SE:SRL), Internet addiction, multitasking tendency, age, and sex. Multitasking was significantly greater in online than face-to-face courses. Internet addiction was positively associated with multitasking in online and face-to-face courses. Multitasking tendency was positively and age was negatively associated with multitasking during online courses only; SE:SRL was negatively associated with multitasking during face-to-face courses only. In conclusion, multitasking was greatest during online courses. Furthermore, there were different sets of predictors for students’ multitasking in online courses compared with face-to-face courses. This implies that multitasking in online and face-to-face courses are different phenomena and therefore may require different pedagogical methods to successfully minimize multitasking behaviors.

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A short video on surveys: Why do respondents’ answers sometimes differ by mode? (e.g. phone vs online)

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The Grand Scam: The Economy’s Turned Around But Where Is the Praise for Schools?*

It’s hard to believe this post is that old…

Larry Cuban on School Reform and Classroom Practice

Why is it that now with a bustling economy, rising productivity, and shrinking unemployment American public schools are not receiving credit for the turnaround? In light of scathing criticism of poorly performing public schools, the question sounds foolish. It isn’t if you consider the Great School Scam of the 1980’s.

For the last decade, U.S. Presidents, corporate leaders, and critics blasted public schools for a globally less competitive economy, sinking productivity, and jobs lost to other nations. The United States, as one highly popular report put it in 1983, had educationally disarmed itself in a hostile economic war. “If only to keep and improve on the slim competitive edge we still retain in world markets,” the report said, “we must dedicate ourselves to the reform of our educational system.”

And school reforms have spilled over the country since the early 1980’s. States legislated higher graduation requirements, a longer school year…

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Funny on Sunday: the best guitar sketch ever

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25 ways to stimulate learning

Found this via Tim Surma (do follow him!), check the source here.

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A week in replication, some failed, some successful: Big Five, note taking and stereotype threats

The past week I read several replication studies with mixed results:

First, although direct replications (using methods from Mueller and Oppenheimer 2014) yielded longhand-superiority effects, the effects relevant to the encoding function of note-taking were small and did not reach conventional levels of significance. Such outcomes do not support strong recommendations about whether students should take notes longhand or by laptop in class. Second, based on their evidence, Mueller and Oppenheimer (2014) hypothesized that the higher word count and verbatim overlap for laptop groups were in part responsible for diminished performance for laptop users. However, when combining results across the direct replications, differences in word count and verbatim overlap were large, whereas differences in performance were small (and not statistically significant). Thus, differences in word count and verbatim overlap do not appear sufficient to produce performance differences between longhand and laptop groups.

The effects of gender stereotype threat on mathematical test performance in the classroom have been extensively studied in several cultural contexts. Theory predicts that stereotype threat lowers girls’ performance on mathematics tests, while leaving boys’ math performance unaffected. We conducted a large-scale stereotype threat experiment in Dutch high schools (N = 2064) to study the generalizability of the effect. In this registered report, we set out to replicate the overall effect among female high school students and to study four core theoretical moderators, namely domain identification, gender identification, math anxiety, and test difficulty. Among the girls, we found neither an overall effect of stereotype threat on math performance, nor any moderated stereotype threat effects. Most variance in math performance was explained by gender, domain identification, and math identification. We discuss several theoretical and statistical explanations for these findings. Our results are limited to the studied population (i.e. Dutch high school students, age 13–14) and the studied domain (mathematics).

In both examples of failed replication it’s not the case that we should abolish the theories as such straightaway. It’s rather that these new studies show that it’s more complicated than thought maybe due to regional and age differences (stereotype threat), maybe due to maybe differences in personal experiences (note taking).

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Stop using long words to look smart or thrustworthy

I have been reading a lot lately and there is something I need to share. It’s an older study by Daniel Oppenheimer, but it seems a lot of the authors didn’t hear about it yet. The title of the study? Consequences of erudite vernacular utilized irrespective of necessity.

Oh you, didn’t get that? The subtitle will make it much more clear: problems with using long words needlessly.

I summarized this also in The Ingredients for Great Teaching:

If you are a speaker, it is obviously of vital importance that the people listening to you can understand what you are saying. There is no point in blinding your audience with the eloquence of your words. Nowhere is this truer than in the classroom, otherwise you run the risk that the pupils will stop listening. While research has shown that intelligent people are more inclined to use difficult words, it is ironic to note that other research suggests that the use of difficult words makes you seem less intelligent (Pennebakern, & King, 1999)! In three simple experiments, Daniel Oppenheimer (2006) has demonstrated that fluent texts with simple language are more positively assessed by readers. This does not mean that you should never learn jargon or must eliminate difficult words from your vocabulary. But the more easily a reader or listener is able to digest your message, the more highly you will be regarded as a speaker or writer.


  • Pennebaker, J.W., & King, L.A. (1999). Linguistic styles: language use as an individual diffe- rence. Journal of personality and social psychology, 77(6), 1296.
  • Oppenheimer, D.M. (2006). Consequences of erudite vernacular utilized irrespective of necessity: Problems with using long words needlessly. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 20(2), 139-156.

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