Higher Education, The Science of Learning

Evidence and Higher Education

Today I am going to repost an article that I wrote about four years ago. This is a preface to what I will be writing about next week: rational thinking.

One of the real challenges I face in trying to convince people that there are better ways to approach education is an attitude towards evidence that I don’t understand. I was talking to one educator about the evidence from psychology about how to motivate students to engage in their academic studies. Her response puzzled me, but it is something I have heard before and since. She said: that’s all right if you believe in that kind of stuff. When I asked about the stuff she was referring to, she said she was referring to research, as (according to her) we all know, researchers can find any outcome that fits their agenda.

Needless to say, that was an extreme example of the dismissal of robust evidence, but certainly not a rare one.

In my research methods class, when I used to talk to the first year students about rational thinking and evidence, I used an audience response system to poll the students about various aspects of their understanding. One of the questions I used to ask was:

Should the major decisions in our society be based on (a) solid evidence gathered using the best research methods available, or (b) feelings, beliefs and just “knowing” when something should be a certain way?

As it was during a lecture on rational decision making, of course I would get 98% responding with “a” as the appropriate response.

I then showed the following slide.

During this slide, I explained to the students that a placebo-controlled randomized study is about as good as it gets in the clinical scientific world and that the homeopathic society was saying that the best science couldn’t measure the effects of homeopathic medicine. I then repeated the question:

Should the major decisions in our society be based on (a) solid evidence gathered using the best research methods available, or (b) feelings, beliefs and just “knowing” when something should be a certain way?

To my surprise (the first year I did this) those responding with “a” dropped to about 55%. These are students who enrolled in University to obtain a BSc in psychology from one of the top three psychological research departments in the UK. Suddenly, there was something they wanted to believe in, and the idea of using science to answer a question wasn’t that important to them.

I have always hoped that by the time the students graduated with their degrees, they would, once again put science and evidence back into a premier place for answering questions in about the world. And yet, I have my doubts.

The Right Answer

Roger Shank wrote something that I think is worth looking at:

Math and science are meant to teach thinking (or so it is said). They could actually teach thinking of course, but when the scientific questions are given to you, and the right answers are taught to you, science ceases to be about observation, experimentation, hypothesis creation, and reasoning from evidence, and becomes memorization to get good scores on multiple choice tests.

Does constantly coming up with the right answer mean that we don’t learn to think. I can expect individuals who are uneducated to undervalue the power of rational thinking and the scientific method; evidence, to the uninitiated, is nothing better than opinion. But an education, at the very core, should about thinking, rational thinking, and critical evaluation of evidence. If a person has been trained to understand the process and rigor that accompanies the proper application of the scientific method, and the strength of properly obtained evidence, how can scientific findings be something that you can simply dismiss as though they were nothing more than opinions?

Scientific discovery has laid the foundation for much of what we enjoy in the world today. However, conservative influences in society, just as in centuries past, use whatever power is at their disposal to ensure that science only supports the worldview that is already established. Delivering well educated, thinking individuals is needed to counterbalance the anti-scientific influence that has arisen in recent years. Unfortunately, well educated has come to mean great memorization.

Our obsession with content and getting the right answer has meant that rational thinking has become an optional extra in HE.

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