Tag Archives: New York Times

Read as if You’re Presenting: A Backdoor Argument for Oral Exams

In my experience, the best way to retain the material you’re reading is to be giving a presentation on said material. That might sound a little odd, but consider it for a moment. If you have to present on a topic, when you’re reading about that topic, you (should be) reading just a little bit closer and maybe a little bit harder such that when you’re up in front of a crowd, you’ll be more inclined to remember what you read.

It turns out, this anecdotal experience has been studied:

A recent study in the journal Memory & Cognition showed the effect that reading with intention and purpose can have. Two groups were given the same material to read—one was told they’d have a test at the end, while the others were told they’d have to teach someone the material.

In the end, both groups were given the same test. Surprisingly, the group that was told they’d have to teach the material (rather than be tested on it) performed much better:

When compared to learners expecting a test, learners expecting to teach recalled more material correctly, they organized their recall more effectively and they had better memory for especially important information.

Having a clear question in mind or a topic you’re focusing on can make all the difference in helping you to remember and recall information.

Intuitively, this should make sense. When some folks read “for the test,” they’re not necessarily reading with the intention that they’re going to remember the information after the test. Put differently, they’re almost always not reading the material for an oral exam. This reminds me of something I wrote a few years ago:

Presumably, the students could get through the entire semester and finish with an “A” in the class without having to say anything. I realize that a great deal of communication in today’s world is completed online and through writing, but isn’t our ability to communicating orally important, too? At least, shouldn’t there at least be some time spent on it?

In that post, I was suggesting that there be a rebalance from written exams to oral exams — in part — because in my experience, there’s a deficit in the oratory skills of students in university. Even if we ignore the epidemic of fear of public speaking, most students don’t get nearly as much time practicing their oratory skills as they do their writing skills.

As luck (?) would have it, should there be this shift from written exams to oral exams, not only would the education system be strengthening people’s ability to communicate, but there would also be an effect in having people better remember some of the things that they’re learning.


To be honest, when I sat down to write this post, I had no idea that I was going to be strengthening my argument for having more oral exams in university and that’s — in part — one of the arguments from the article I initially referenced:

Association is a peg upon which you hang a new idea, fact, or figure. When you know where the peg is located, it’s a lot easier to find what you’ve hung upon it. As you read and come across new ideas and thoughts, you’ll want to connect and associate these with familiar memories as a means of creating a bond between old and new. There are many different ways to create associations in your mind, from pairing new thoughts with familiar objects, to creating acronyms.

So, next time you sit down to read your saved article on Pocket, catch up on a book on your Kindle, or read the Sunday Times, consider that the best way to retain some of the things you’re about to read might be if you were to pretend you were going to be giving a presentation on the material.

Is the “Hollywood Model” Really Something New?

There was a great article in the New York Times the other week called: “What Hollywood Can Teach Us About the Future of Work.” The author uses Hollywood to make the case that this is how work is going to be in the near future for everyone (not in Hollywood):

This approach to business is sometimes called the “Hollywood model.” A project is identified; a team is assembled; it works together for precisely as long as is needed to complete the task; then the team disbands. This short-­term, project-­based business structure is an alternative to the corporate model, in which capital is spent up front to build a business, which then hires workers for long-­term, open-­ended jobs that can last for years, even a lifetime. It’s also distinct from the Uber-­style “gig economy,” which is designed to take care of extremely short-­term tasks, manageable by one person, typically in less than a day.

This method sounds really intelligent in that it would — theoretically — save a business quite a lot of money. However, as I was reading it, two things came to mind. The first: this method also sounds eerily familiar. Remember “SWAT teams” (in business)?

“In business, it means a group of ‘experts’ (often fat guys in suits) assembled to solve a problem or tackle an opportunity” says USC’s Logan.

Or what about “Tiger teams?”

A ‘tiger team’ is also a group of experts—specifically a bunch of tech geeks entrusted with curing your computer ills.

While it doesn’t perfectly map onto the Hollywood Model, both of these business “buzzwords” already seem to account for aspects of the Hollywood Model. It may be that the Hollywood Model will become another business fad in the same way that SWAT teams or Tigers teams was/is. Or, maybe the Hollywood Model will have staying power and it will live beyond a fad and become something as normal as the idea as working in a full-time job or a part-time job.

The second thing that came to mind upon reading about the Hollywood Model: Project Management. Granted, the last time I had formal education in PM was almost three years ago, but I don’t remember hearing/reading about this idea of a short-term team. That’s not completely fair. Yes, of course we learned about teams coming together for a short period of time, but it wasn’t written about in the same way that it was in this NYT article. I’d be interested to hear from folks in the PM-academic circles on this.

Does Everyone Want to Attend University?

There was an op-ed in the New York Times the other week that detailed some of the economic inequality in the US. It used academic data to discuss how poorly Americans estimate the level of social mobility. It’s certainly worth reading, but I wanted to highlight one section (and study):

Studies by another author of this article, the University of Illinois psychologist Michael W. Kraus, and his colleague Jacinth J.X. Tan, to be published in next month’s issue of the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, found a similar pattern: When asked to estimate how many college students came from families in the bottom 20 percent of income, respondents substantially misjudged, estimating that those from the lowest income bracket attended college at a rate five times greater than the actual one documented by the Current Population Survey.

Now, it’s certainly worth noting how poor Americans are when it comes to estimating social mobility, (they’re certainly just as poor when it comes to estimating wealth inequality), but I’m curious about the desires of those in the bottom quintile. That is, many people espouse the values of higher education (full disclosure: I’m a professor at a higher education institution and I have two master’s degrees!), but what if everyone isn’t meant to go to university? More importantly, what if everyone doesn’t want to go to university?

Higher education is often held up as a mechanism for those in lower income quintiles to move up into a higher quintile (social mobility), but maybe people who come from the bottom quintile don’t want to go to university. I’m not in the bottom quintile nor did I grow up in the bottom quintile, so I have little to no authority to speak about the desires of those who come from the bottom quintile, but I think it’s worth asking what it is that the bottom quintile desires, specifically as it relates to higher education.

In raising this kind of question, it would, of course, be important to raise the issue of culture and how that influences one’s desires. That is, people who come from higher quintiles usually have parents (and friends) who think it natural to make the progression from high school to university. For some, attending post-secondary institutions of learning isn’t a choice — they’re forced to go. For those in the bottom quintile, attending a post-secondary institution of learning isn’t thought about in the same way. For many, it’s not “the thing you do after high school,” but instead, it’s held up as an ideal. It’s held up as a mechanism for transformation from being poor to not being poor.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to say that people in the bottom quintile shouldn’t attend university or shouldn’t want to attend university, but I think that alongside data discussing that estimates university attendance of different levels of income, there should also be data discussing the desires of those different levels of income.

ResearchBlogging.orgKraus, M., & Tan, J. (2015). Americans overestimate social class mobility Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 58, 101-111 DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2015.01.005

What if We Treated Prisoners Like Humans?

There was an excellent article in last week’s New York Times Magazine about a maximum-security prison in Norway. Though, when you read about this prison, it sounds nothing like any prison you’ve probably heard about in the US or Canada:

Norway’s newest prison was marked by a modest sign that read, simply, HALDEN ­FENGSEL. There were no signs warning against picking up hitchhikers, no visible fences. Only the 25-­foot-­tall floodlights rising along the edges hinted that something other than grazing cows lay ahead.


I walked up the quiet driveway to the entrance and presented myself to a camera at the main door. There were no coils of razor wire in sight, no lethal electric fences, no towers manned by snipers — nothing violent, threatening or dangerous. And yet no prisoner has ever tried to escape. I rang the intercom, the lock disengaged with a click and I stepped inside.

If you think the description of the appearance is surprising, I’d encourage you to read the article as the journalist who wrote the article did a wonderful job painting the picture of what it’s like inside the prison. Here’s another snippet about what it was like to be with the most dangerous prisoners (i.e. violent crimes like murder, assault, rape, etc.) that I found… enlightening:

I met some of the prisoners of Unit A one afternoon in the common room of an eight-­man cell block. I was asked to respect the inmates’ preferences for anonymity or naming, and for their choices in discussing their cases with me. The Norwegian news media does not often identify suspects or convicts by name, so confirming the details of their stories was not always possible. I sat on an orange vinyl couch next to a wooden shelving unit with a few haphazard piles of board games and magazines and legal books. On the other side of the room, near a window overlooking the unit’s gravel yard, a couple of inmates were absorbed in a card game with a guard.

An inmate named Omar passed me a freshly pressed heart-­shaped waffle over my shoulder on a paper plate, interrupting an intense monologue directed at me in excellent English by Chris Giske, a large man with a thick goatee and a shaved head who was wearing a heavy gold chain over a T-­shirt that strained around his barrel-­shaped torso.

The thing that struck me most about this article was the underlying philosophy of the Norwegian prison system: prisoners are humans, too. Think about for a minute what it might like to be in a maximum-security prison in the US. How much freedom do you think you’d have? I’ve never visited a maximum-security prison, but based on what I’ve read, it’s certainly not somewhere I’d like to spend my afternoons. What’s worse is that some of the people in those kinds of facilities are meant to reintegrate into society when they’ve completed their sentence. If they spend so much time by themselves and then when they do get to socialize, they do so in a manner that would be wholly unacceptable when they’re ‘out,’ how can we, as a society, expect them to be ‘better’ once they’re out of prison?

I’m not arguing for every prison in the US and Canada to look switch over and look like this one in Norway (though, imagine what that would look like), but I think it’s important for us to consider the way we treat our fellow humans — even if they’ve done some unspeakable acts. Even if you’re not willing to consider treating someone like that in a more humane way, consider that it could be you. And before you get all high and mighty, remember that not all prisoners are guilty of what they’ve been accused of and subsequently convicted for.

We will never know for sure, but the few studies that have been done estimate that between 2.3% and 5% of all prisoners in the U.S. are innocent (for context, if just 1% of all prisoners are innocent, that would mean that more than 20,000 innocent people are in prison).

How Smartphones Can Lead to Better Parents

Over three years ago, I wrote a post about cell phone etiquette. At the time I wrote that, I wouldn’t have guessed that three years later, I’d be considering the possibility that smartphones could actually lead to better parents.

But that’s exactly what this post is about.

The stereotype goes that many parents will bring their children to the park (and/or some activity) and upon arriving, they shoo away their children only to peer down at their cell phone. Some folks do this while out to dinner with friends (even though they don’t have kids, see here). Many will cringe upon seeing parents sitting on the bench enwrapped in the goings on of their cell phone. Farhad Manjoo, however, points out how smartphones can actually make for more available parents [Emphasis Added]:

But we rarely consider how, by liberating us from the office, smartphones have greatly expanded the opportunity for certain kinds of workers to increase their involvement in their children’s lives. Because you can work from anywhere thanks to your phone, you can be present and at least partly attentive to your children in scenarios where, in the past, you’d have had to be totally absent. Even though my son had to yell for my attention once when I was fixed to my phone, if I didn’t have that phone, I would almost certainly not have been able to be with him that day — or at any one of numerous school events or extracurricular activities. I would have been in an office. And he would have been with a caretaker.

Stop and consider that for a moment: having a smartphone can actually make you more available as a parent. Now, this isn’t a commercial for smartphones, but it’s certainly something that should give you pause for consideration. I know it did for me when I read it. This idea put forth from Manjoo is exactly the kind of thing that I’m talking about when I say putting a new perspective on things. Someone who is so focused on how smartphones are bad for parents and how they keep parents from their children wouldn’t be able to see the possibility that for a small population, having a smartphone can actually allow a parent to be away from the office and with their children.

This idea isn’t meant to invalidate the idea that smartphones are changing the relationship we have with our children, but the idea that smartphones are allowing us to be with our children more is, to be hyperbolic for a moment, paradigm-altering. A key step to being a better parent is being able to be with your children. So, if smartphones can get us out of the office and next to our kids, isn’t that an important step?


There still might be some of you out there that unequivocally think we shouldn’t be on our phones when we’re with our kids and that’s okay, but I hope that you’ll at least consider (reflect, think about, ponder, etc.) the possibility that the opposite may be true. It’ll put you one step closer to defending against the confirmation bias.

Do Public Salaries Increase Performance?

With the recent news regarding Jill Abramson and the New York Times, I wanted to take a closer look at the academic literature to see if I could find something about public salaries. There’s certainly been a lot written about whether she was fired or she quit or whether it had to do with secretive salaries or her gender. I’m not writing this post to debate any of that because I consider myself grossly uninformed on what may or may not have happened, but I am writing this post to talk about pay secrecy.

The research showed that pay secrecy adversely affected individual task performance. Meaning, the absence of public salaries led to a worse performance. Why? Pay for performance. That is, because the salaries weren’t public, workers didn’t have a perception that an increase in performance would lead to better pay.

There were a couple other important pieces that I wanted to highlight.

1. The best workers were more sensitive when it came to the perception of link between pay and performance.

This certainly makes sense as those folks who are working the ‘hardest’ would want to know that they’re being appropriately compensated for their hard work. An implication from this point is that organizations that don’t have public salaries might have a harder time retaining their top talent. We can tie this back to the situation between the New York Times and Abramson. Again, I wouldn’t say I’m informed of the situation, but from what I understand, Abramson was rather high up in the NYT hierarchy, which indicates to me that it was fair to consider her “top talent.”

2. If public salaries isn’t an option, partial pay openness could mitigate the negative effects of pay secrecy.

It might be that a firm or organization isn’t yet comfortable with releasing all data about salaries, so an intermediary step could see them gently open up the salaries by talking about ranges. This point reminded me about government salaries that often have ranges for each level that an employee reaches. One may not know exactly what their co-worker makes, but if one knows that their co-worker has reached a certain level, one would know that one’s co-worker’s salary is in a certain range.

Just before ending this post, I wanted to circle back to the point about pay for performance. In this study, the task that participants completed was a “computer matching game.” Based on what’s been written about pay for performance, this is the right kind of task to test these sorts of hypotheses. However, when it comes to more creative tasks, the pay for performance model doesn’t always fit the best. Tying this back to the situation with Abramson and the NYT — it’s not clear to me whether the “pay for performance” model fits best. Having never worked at a newspaper or publishing outlet, I don’t exactly know the role of an Executive Editor, but from what I’ve been able to read through Google searches, it sounds more like creative tasks.

ResearchBlogging.orgBelogolovsky, E., & Bamberger, P. (2014). Signaling in secret: Pay for performance and the incentive and sorting effects of pay secrecy Academy of Management Journal DOI: 10.5465/amj.2012.0937

Is There a Way to Broadcast Ideology Without it Colouring Opinion?

There was a good article in the New York Times this past weekend from a professor of economics at Harvard, N. Greg Mankiw. He talked about how when economist give advice on policies, they’re also giving advice as political philosophers. While this should come as no surprise to anyone, I think it’s good that it’s being discussed.

What’s more interesting to me, though, is how we can offer opinions or advice on matters as experts, while at the same time disclosing our inherent bias to a given political philosophy. And if we do this, does that then colour the way the opinion is received? Most folks would say that of course it is going to colour the way the opinion is received, but maybe it wouldn’t. Regardless, I think it’s necessary to disclose biases, especially when it comes to making policy advice.

The problem here is that people aren’t always aware that they have a given bias towards one political philosophy over the other. While I’m relatively sure that I lean towards the “left” of the political spectrum when it comes to social issues, where I fall upon the political spectrum when it comes to other matters can vary by issue. This is part of the reason why I encourage folks to take the time and read through some of the more notable philosophers.

I suppose the idea of signaling also comes into play on this matter. That is, if someone has a more conservative viewpoint on health policy and they support a more liberal policy, does that change the way other conservatives view the policy? Does it change the way liberals view the policy? Should it?

There are lots of questions, but no easy answers. As someone who’s steeped in biases in judgment and decision-making, I’m not sure which way would be best, but I’m glad that — at a minimum — it’s being discussed.