Wellyopolis

December 30, 2009

Technological fixes for terror

The response to the Northwest 253 attempted terrorist attack has been interesting. As after 9/11 and the Richard Reid shoe bombing attempts, one of the distinctively American response has been the reach for the technological response.

A common lament has been that if only there had been a body scanner or an explosive puffer, then Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab would not have gotten his flammable underpants onboard. Another lament, one I am more sympathetic to, is that if the data matching was better the existing screening system would have worked. After all, his name was in the big watchlist database, and then Abdulmutallab purchased a one way ticket with cash and showed up without any luggage. But again the lament is that technology will save us. Data matching is just another fallible technology. The fact that this suspect's names matched in some databases alerts us to one aspect of this case that could have been handled better with technology. But the next terrorist might have different names in different databases and elude easy matching. Americans seem to like technological fixes to their problems. In New Zealand the more common response to problems is that the government should do something, pass a law or establish an agency.

The response has also been interesting in that the technology and organization of suspicion that is encapsulated in screening airline passengers is pretty widely accepted by Americans. But the same logic that makes it OK to screen airline passengers also makes it OK to stop drivers to check for drugs or alcohol, install red light or speed cameras, or impose restrictions on gun use. But few of these interventions which would also save lives are politically acceptable in the United States.

Posted by eroberts at 3:13 PM | Comments (0)

December 21, 2009

A tutorial (discussion section) attendance policy that worked (for me)

Tutorials (discussion sections, but referred to as tutorials throughout because it's shorter) are an important part of university education. Done well, students come away knowing and understanding a topic. Also, students make friends in this form of class. This is a non-trivial benefit. Done badly, they are excruciating in their silence and stupidity, and make a Catholic mass seem short. I refer here to discussions in the humanities and social sciences rather than focused problem-set oriented classes in sciences. The format is often that students have read some documents, perhaps a whole book (at graduate level), or some articles or chapters at undergraduate level. Questions about the readings are posed, and discussion is meant to ensue. But that discussion doesn't always happen in practice.

Done well the students get a great deal of benefit from preparing for the tutorial, and then add to that with their peers' contributions and different perspectives. A large part of the success of a good tutorial comes from a critical mass of prepared students who show up. The question is how to motivate good preparation and high attendance, while also respecting that university students are young adults who can make their own good or bad choices about whether to show up or not.

There are many models for how to motivate preparation and attendance. But I was not satisfied with policies I'd used previously. For example, many of my colleagues in New Zealand have a policy of requiring attendance at 8/11 tutorials during a semester. Missing more than 3 tutorials means that students have not met "mandatory course requirements," and are not permitted to complete the class. It's not uncommon in American colleges for 5-20% of the class grade to be for "participation and attendance."

What I tried this year in my second year (sophomore) social history class was the following policy for motivating preparation and attendance. It worked well.

  1. There were 10 tutorial sessions in the (12 week) semester, and a final week of student presentations in lecture and tutorial time.
  2. Five of the 10 tutorials (labeled "starred" tutorials) and the week of presentations had penalties for non-attendance
  3. Attendance was recorded at the starred tutorials by students submitting at least half a page of notes on the week's readings (1-3 journal articles or chapters, 30-60 pages of reading)
  4. Non-attendance was penalized with the following deductions from the final mark
    • 1st missed tutorial/presentation: 4%
    • 2nd missed tutorial/presentation: 8%
    • 3rd missed tutorial/presentation: 16%
    • 4th missed tutorial/presentation: 32% (highly likely fail)
    • 5th and subsequent missed tutorial/presentation: 64% (definite fail)
  5. Students were encouraged to be responsible about letting me know if they could not make a tutorial for a legitimate reason (sickness, other university event clashing), and that if they handed in their notes they would not have marks deducted.

It looks way more complicated than it really was. Since it was a policy that differed from the standard ones in our department (and cognate departments in the humanities and social sciences) there were some questions about it. But the students understood it without any problems.

With this policy, 27 of a class of 31 did not lose any marks. In other words, 90% of the class attended (or demonstrated their preparation if sick or otherwise legitimately absent) for all the tutorials they were responsible for coming to. One student lost 4% and another 8%. Two students failed after missing 4 tutorials.

So, the policy had a very beneficial impact on student attendance. Most students prepared for class by taking more notes than required, and class discussions went very well as a result.

The policy seemed to work well for the following inter-related reasons


  • I eliminated the common "mandatory course requirement" of (x-3) out of x tutorials that just permits absences from 3 tutorials. These absences are often concentrated around the deadlines for other classes, and especially at the end of semester. Students are busy and they reasonably prioritize things that are graded, or are fun. Wishing they loved learning more, and exhorting them to do so, just leads to disappointment.

  • The sharp break in the "mandatory course requirements" approach between the penalties for missing 3 and missing 4 tutorials is unfair, and not well designed to motivate consistent preparation and attendance.

  • The severe level of the penalties for frequent absences got students' attention, as it meant failing

  • The policy did not require me to grade participation per se. The burden on me in implementing the scheme was minimal (less than 5 minutes per class to scan the notes that were submitted and record who didn't submit notes).

  • A realistically small level of notes submitted for attendance (half page) was meant to achieve two goals


    • It was meant to be, and was, seen as a realistic amount for students to achieve.
    • I also encouraged the students to try and be concise in their note-taking, developing the skills of summarizing an article in a few lines -- that sometimes less is better for them. It was much nicer being able to tell students that they had somewhat over-prepared and discuss how they could do less work (but more effective!) next time.

  • I did not try to compel perfect attendance, but designated some tutorials as more important than others. 6 weeks in which attendance was rewarded seemed to strike the right balance between encouraging work on this class, and recognizing that there can't be something due every week. The "starred" tutorials were mostly in alternating weeks.

  • In the alternate weeks I ran practical workshops to help students with their research for the class. These were sometimes structured (worksheets on various aspects of the research), and sometimes an open computer lab. Clearly, not every class would need computer labs. The general idea was to do a more practical session where the success of the session did not rely as much on student preparation or attendance.

  • In practice (this being the winter of the swine flu) I was understanding of student absences, when notes were submitted. Students seemed to view the policy as reasonable. The policy did the work of motivating students to prepare. I did not have to exhort students to do the reading and prepare for class because there was an objective penalty for not doing it. This freed up my emotional energy for more important things in the class.

The policy seemed to have a positive effect on classroom relationships, as well as motivating preparation and attendance. The awful tutorials where people attend without having done the reading, and the discussion proceeds slowly until the instructor realizes students haven't done the reading. The instructor then gets cranky at the students for not preparing for the class, and the relationship between students and instructor suffers.

All in all this was a low-workload way of motivating student preparation and attendance, and it seemed to improve student outcomes. By making the penalties for not preparing and attending explicit I respected students' abilities to make their own decisions about their time. Attendance was not compulsory, but it was valued.

By penalizing non-attendance and preparation rather than grading participation and attendance I did not have to grade students' contributions to discussion. This meant the discussion atmosphere was relaxed, because students who attended had prepared, but knew they weren't being evaluated for what they said and did once in class.

The details of the policy would vary in other classes, but the key features I would replicate are


  • Preparation and attendance at about half the tutorials was valued

  • Other tutorials were less dependent on student preparation/attendance

  • Attendance was measured by a reasonable amount of non-graded work that nearly every student was able to regularly exceed

  • Penalties for non-preparation and attendance were small at first 'miss', but increasing.

Finally, I must gratefully acknowledge my colleague, Alexander Maxwell, who suggested aspects of this to me, but disagrees with some of my adaptations.

Posted by eroberts at 4:25 PM | Comments (0)

December 2, 2009

Predicting the future is hard

Now that Obama has given his big speech on Afghanistan we get the predictable debate between people who think that the June 2011 deadline is arbitrary and signals to the enemy how long they need to wait for America to leave, and those who think that's too long.

Really I sympathize with the idea that withdrawing from Afghanistan should be "conditions based" but there are few areas of human activity where open-ended commitments are a good idea (marriage is somewhat of an exception, but that's for another discussion).

People respond to deadlines. Although, as a professor, I get a regular stream of amusing excuses for why students haven't met deadlines, the striking thing is that most students meet most of their deadlines. Obviously there's a huge gap between a student assignment and the "world peace" scale problem we have in Afghanistan. The time it should take student assignments to be done is predictable; they've been done before and they are quite small. Afghanistan is a large problem we haven't met before.

Quite obviously the July 2011 deadline for U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan is arbitrary. There is no previous Afghan war the deadline can be based on.

Deadlines, however arbitrary, concentrate the minds of the people affected by them. An open-ended commitment to war is good for defense contractors, but bad for everyone else, including the Afghans. If the U.S. said it was staying for some unspecified time, and withdrawing based on some concept of progress there would be fewer incentives for Afghans to take over their own security situation. The trick is that in situations like this—complex and unique—there has to be some flexibility in the deadline. Who knows if 18 months is long enough? The future is unpredictable. So it's no surprise that the morning after the speech the White House appears to be saying two things, there is a timeline for withdrawal, and that the timeline is flexible.

Sticking rigidly to a timeline or having no timeline at all are not strategies that work in any other area of 'complex' human activity. The timeline that can be altered is the only realistic way forward.

Posted by eroberts at 4:38 PM | Comments (0)