Category Archives: GEDI14

Experts dehumanized – even on brain level!

Parker Palmer (2007) calls for humanity in higher education. He sees today’s professional education stripped of feelings and concentrated on skills and techniques. He is right in this on many levels. Further proof is offered by a research done on medical students, comparing their  balanced emotional empathy scale scores (BBES) through medical school using a survey. This survey was used as a measure of vicarious empathy, or sympathy, of the students.

Measurement of BEES in medical students at different states of career. (Newton et al. 2008)

Figure 1. Measurement of BEES in medical students at different states of career. Higher score refers to higher level of sympathy. M1= freshmen, M2= sophomore, M3= junior, M4= senior. Core= internal medicine, family medicine, pediatrics, gynecology, psychiatry. Non-Core= surgery, pathology, radiology etc. Number of students surveyed was 419.  (Newton et al. 2008)

Figure 1 above shows the results of Newton’s study. For both sexes in all disciplines of medicine the emotional empathy scores decreased as the students advanced in medical school curriculum. The decline was lower in women compared to men with lowest decrease in empathy scores (13%) for women in core disciplines like internal medicine or pediatrics. Largest drop in empathy scores (38%) was seen in men at non-core disciplines like surgery or pathology (Newton et al. 2008). This decrease of empathy could be connected to Dr. Parker Palmer’s perceived lack of humanity in professionals.

More interestingly these empathy responses are different in all physicians on brain chemistry level compared to non-physicians. This was shown in a study where physicians and control group watched videos of needles and q-tips being stuck on hands. Their brain activity was measured with functional MRI, and their perception of pain intensity and unpleasantness in the videos was recorded via questionnaire (Cheng et al. 2007).

Figure 2. below shows how physicians did not have the same reaction to pain. The brain areas activating were different and the intensity of activity in those areas was lower compared to control group. In addition the physicians perceived the pain to be less intense and less unpleasant than control group (Cheng et al. 2007).

A) Control brain and physician's brain activate different areas when viewing needles being put in other peoples hands. B) Pain intensity and unpleasantness are scored lower by physicians compared to controls. C) The intensity of neural signals in different parts of brain are stronger in controls compared to physicians. Q-tip touching instead of needle was used as a control measure to make sure the measurement method was valid. No significant changes were seen between controls and physicians in terms of pain perception for q-tip touching. (Cheng et al. 2007)

A) Control brain and physician’s brain activate different areas when viewing needles being put in other peoples hands. B) Pain intensity and unpleasantness are scored lower by physicians compared to controls. C) The intensity of neural signals in different parts of brain are stronger in controls compared to physicians. Q-tip touching instead of needle was used as a control measure to make sure the measurement method was valid. No significant changes were seen between controls and physicians in terms of pain perception for q-tip touching. (Cheng et al. 2007)

If these kinds of lowered empathy responses are seen in physicians starting already in medical school, the education must at least partially be the cause of it. It could be a way to protect one’s psyche from overloading when seeing suffering every day in hospital environment. It could also be just plain numbing effect. The students get simply used to seeing the pain, and pain loses it’s intensity in their minds. I would be interested to see if the pain perception of physicians is same as the control groups, when they themselves are poked with needles…

To fix this lack of empathy, we need to change the way the students learn, or at least constantly remind them that pain is real and devastating to people experiencing it. This humanization of professionals could take different forms in their studies varying from thoughtful problem based learning assignments to mentoring sessions. The way we teach has an impact on how students brain chemistry works, and we should be aware of this huge responsibility.


  • Cheng, Y., Lin, C.-P., Liu, H.-L., Hsu, Y.-Y., Lim, K.-E., Hung, D., & Decety, J. (2007). Expertise Modulates the Perception of Pain in Others. Current Biology, 17(19), 1708-1713. doi:
  • Newton, B. W., Barber, L., Clardy, J., Cleveland, E., & O’Sullivan, P. (2008). Is There Hardening of the Heart During Medical School? Academic Medicine, 83(3), 244-249 210.1097/ACM.1090b1013e3181637837.
  • Palmer, P. J. (2007) A New Professional: The Aims of Education Revisited, Change, Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. (, when accessed. Now no longer there.)


Learning with students

Paulo Freire, a  Brazilian education activist, has written that learning should be something teachers do with students. This breaks down the power imbalance class rooms: teachers hold the power and students passively absorb information in the teachers terms. His ideas of student centered inquiry into topics related to their world, mirrors problem based learning and student centered learning practices of today’s fore runners of education.

To me it seems that learning with students could be easily understood wrong. I highly doubt it means one has to fake ignorance in their chosen field to teach students by “learning” with them. That is why problem based learning needs to be the center of teaching. In this method also the teacher can learn new things while guiding students, despite having planned the starting problem. Students can take the problem and run with it to previously unknown directions. We just need to guide them enough to prevent them from running off a cliff.

Having multiple answers to the same problem at the end makes the wrap-up so much more interesting. In real life multiple solutions are needed and our teaching and learning experiences should reflect this. A nice example of this is the development of the two polio vaccines by Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin. They both attacked the same problem – polio virus infections – by designing vaccines with different components. Both solutions to the polio epidemic were successful and useful. In this light, every plausible solution to problem based learning tasks deserves our full attention.

The two polio vaccines. Salk used polio viruses inactivated by formalin treatment to make a successful vaccine used from 1955 until 1968. Sabin's oral vaccine with mutated attenuated viruses replaced it for a long time. After confirmation, that the mutated viruses in oral vaccine could cause polio in some recipients, Salk's vaccine was brought back.

The two polio vaccines. Salk used polio viruses inactivated by formalin treatment to make a successful vaccine used from 1955 until 1968. Sabin’s oral vaccine with mutated attenuated viruses replaced it for a long time. After confirmation, that the mutated viruses in oral vaccine could cause polio in some recipients, Salk’s vaccine was brought back.

Learning with students requires being in the present and being vulnerable in front of them and beside them. I greatly enjoy having a professor who openly tells that he does not know everything. It gives me a bit of agency and reassures, that I also don’t need to know absolutely everything. The enthusiasm and interest the professors and lecturers show towards student’s work, inspires the students. Who knows, maybe we can inspire the future Salks and Sabins by being with the students in the moment of learning instead of in front of them as a blocking authority.


Huston, we have a problem…

Problem based learning was first used to prepare medical students for their profession. It uses group work, and student directed leaning to tackle real life challenges. The benefits have been reported to include better recall of information, ability adapt information, and higher motivation (Hung et al. 2008).

A prime example of a great problem solving in real life is the Apollo 13 oxygen tank failure. The resulting rise in carbon dioxide levels threatened the astronauts life.  The researchers had to figure out the fix using materials available to the spaceship crew. The fix using duct-tape, moon rock bags, covers of manuals, and tubing worked in the end (Atkinson, 2010). Failure was not acceptable. Failure would have resulted in death of the astronauts.

“You can’t give her that!’ she screamed. ‘It’s not safe!’
‘She’s a child!’ shouted Crumley.
‘What if she cuts herself?’
Terry Pratchett, Hogfather (1996)

Fear of failure in problem based learning can be high. The students will be stressed about grading and group dynamics. And faculty will fret about too little content covered. There are things to be said about having the room to fail as a student. The environment of a class room should be a place where students can safely try their wings on problem solving. The failures and mistakes should not carry huge penalties. As long as students learned from the mistakes made, the goal of a class has been reached.

That is how I learned to trouble shoot my scientific experiments. The undergraduate laboratory course experiments with notoriously nonfunctional equipment, required me to think what caused my experiments to go wrong. Was it the 50-year-old detection system? Or the reagents used? Or was it my own mistake? Having to support my trouble shooting with the scientific principles behind every step of the experiment, made me a better scientist.

There needs to be a level of trust by faculty that students will solve the problems given to them. Students also need to trust the faculty not to give them problems that are beyond their maturity level as learners. Mistakes provide valuable learning opportunities, if there is trust on both sides. And nothing prepared me better for real life work than encountering those errors during my education.



“Decreased quality of undergraduates” – how does this even happen?

Weimer writes in her book “Learner Centered Teaching”, that the quality of undergraduates entering higher education has declined. How is this possible? Aren’t we supposed to have better access to knowledge via internet and media? Children as young as 3 years old can work a tablet computer. I highly doubt people are naturally getting more stupid.

I found an older opinion piece by Donald. E. Simanek describing the decline in student quality in the 1990’s. It is the opinion of a faculty member who retired in 1999 from a 16-year-long physics professorship at a university in Pennsylvania. The main causes of lowered student quality as summed by faculty in the text seemed to include three prominent areas of high school education:

1. Too many non-academic activities like sports

Penetration of sports in all levels of education is fairly unique to US. Communities take an interest in sports and the participants are considered special. According to Simanek sports are so special, that athletes get some perks on the academic front. Like days off to play the sport if the game is at a distant location, and special consideration for grades in some cases. This might not be the case in all high schools. But it does send a message of sports importance over academics.

2. Low quality of teachers

The teachers even on high school level are not required to have a masters degree on the subject they teach. This seemed really interesting to me. How are they going to answer student questions in a trustworthy way and with sensitivity to the underlying complications? For example meaning of statistical significance, or underlying forces behind evolution could be difficult to explain by someone who has not delved into the topics deeply. Simanek points out that the pay level is not perceived to be high enough. And the teachers education programs are not deemed rigorous. The teachers are not to blame directly, since the academic institutions are the ones preparing them for their career.

3. Grade inflation

In Simanek’s text grade inflation was tied to the teaching faculty needing great student reviews to gain tenure. To me it seems the problem could be consideration of education as a product students buy to get what they want. And some of them want a great degree with hardly any work. This is understandable. Most people will take the opportunity to work less if the payoff is still good. And if one wants tenure they might feel the need to give the great payoff and be rewarded a good student review in higher education. The whole business of “accountability” and standardized testing in K-12 education possibly follows the same pattern. Teaching for the test is rewarded, so that is what the teachers will do. Especially when bad scores lead to severe consequences for the whole school.

My thoughts on the issues

A disclaimer: I am not an expert on the issues and I did not go to US K-12 school. I just find the issues interesting as they affect me – a part of future faculty and possibly a teacher.

While taking the sports away from high school at this point does not seem viable, maybe the importance of academics could be brought to the fore front. Parents, teachers, and administrators should support the school’s academic endeavors just like they do sports. Excellence in either area can lead to scholarships in universities and can bring joy to every day life. I don’t see the reason why sports are put on the pedestal alone.

The quality of teachers education is also problematic as it has to do with perceptions. If the programs required rigorous academic work and perhaps even research on topic one is to teach at high school level, would the teachers be better? Or just different? What if no-one wants to be a teacher if entering the profession requires sometimes difficult and time consuming education? This concern was brought up by Simanek. If teaching in high school is not perceived as worthwhile and respected career, it is difficult to change what kinds of people who want to become teachers.

Grade inflation makes choosing the best students for any university difficult. Maybe this is why American universities require motivational letters, recommendations, and extracurricular activities from the applicants. They do give a more whole picture of any applicant. But could the high school grades be reinstated as a measure of candidates suitability for university admission? Since teachers are doing their best to make the students pass the tests, could the tests be different? Getting rid of multiple choice and using applied problem sets might help a bit. The changes in SAT could be a start of this rethinking of testing. It would be more work for the people grading them. They could no longer rely on machines to spit out the results.

Admissions machinery of universities in US has to support a system that gives everyone a common education in the form of core courses and majors are finalized later. The educational system of Finland does not expect everyone to get a bachelors degree. The trade school track is popular and respected. The Finnish universities admit students into specific majors, so admission requirements and entrance exams can be geared towards measuring suitability to study the field. While it is possible to change majors, one has to qualify to the new major via entrance exams.

I happen to like the idea of core courses and introduction of multiple academic fields. Would it be considered too confining to require a separate entrance exam to a desired major? It would increase the work load for faculty and possibly add to students stress. Would the payoff be worth it? Controlling the starting level of students entering the more challenging courses in any major could improve the overall results. Or is this already implemented by simply requiring remedial classes for everyone as is done now at most universities. How about the universities that need more students to attend to get the tuition income? As Simanek complained, the admissions and marketing side of education business in smaller schools gets different demands from the students. They might not want to take remedial classes and might just go somewhere else to get what they want.

Is the K-12 education to blame for the perceived downward spiral of undergraduate learning skills? It would seem so from the view point of some faculty members. But in reality it could be just a symptom of a more messy set of problems. Political issues, public perception, and changes in society have certainly played a role in the decline. And students should not be just punished for this development. I’d rather we find ways to fix the situation.

Do you believe in magic? – How not to do flipped classroom

Eric Mazurs peer instruction is very interesting and the article describing it’s use is inspiring. I found another article “Don’t lecture me: Rethinking how college students learn” describing his style of teaching by Emily Hanford. The article itself mirrored the others written on the topic and my attention was drawn to the comments section. One comment especially caught my attention.

A student opened up about his experiences on a physics class taught using only peer instruction. His experience was extremely negative as the class lacked structure and the TA did not even point the students to a correct direction during supplemental class, even if it was clearly needed. The answers to this post were basically telling the student to suck it up, work harder, and questioned his motivations.

This could be a case of resistance to learner centered model, but the student’s response hinted, that he had tried to talk to the professor and the university to have some sort of a balance. This alone could be a sign of commitment to the class. He was trying to make it better. The teacher has responsibility here to listen to the student and alleviate their anxieties. In case of one student, an open conversation is a good way to start. If multiple students in the class struggle severely despite the effort they put in, the teacher has a bigger problem.

To me this comment about peer instruction showed how the approach can go terribly wrong. Student could not make sense of the bigger picture or even the assigned. Even if this was just one students experience, I would be worried. The lack of any posts or responses from any professor or university on this matter leaves their side defenseless, so I cannot for a full understanding of the situation.

If any of the new or re-emerging pedagogical techniques are used like magic, they will not work. Just making students learn from each other will not work. The teacher needs to be invested in the students and their learning. This is the case with Dr. Mazur. He assesses students before starting the peer instruction and listens in on the conversations. When communicating about these “new” pedagogical techniques, we need to underline the increased involvement of the teacher. If this stuff was magic, universities and teachers would be no longer needed.

Allergic to philosophy

What do I think when I hear the word philosophy? Old bearded men dressed in sheets. Long classes with reading materials from the 50’s. Vague ideas sprouted by teachers. Overly important high school students showing repeating what someone else said ages ago. Merriam-Webster online dictionary defines the word as follows:

1 “the study of ideas about knowledge, truth, the nature and meaning of life, etc. ”

2 “a particular set of ideas about knowledge, truth, the nature and meaning of life, etc.

3 “a set of ideas about how to do something or how to live”

The first two definitions are vague to me. They even have etc. at the end. But the third definition is more encouraging. This is the definition I can connect to teaching. Figuring out what my ideas about teaching really are in a concise way will be challenging.

I don’t have enough teaching experience to actually have tried different approaches and styles. The advice offered by Gabriella Montell in her article in Chronicle of Higher Education (2003) is extremely helpful. The concrete questions really opened my mind to thinking about my teaching philosophy.

Dr. Karen Kelsky’s blog post on the common mistakes made in writing a teaching philosophy really hit home for me. The failure in linking research to teaching is something I can see myself running into. When I first read the assignment in the syllabus, this did not occur to me as a potential problem. To avoid this, I will have to think about my general work ethic, research interests, and the strategies I use in developing new ideas. They should all have a common thread and somehow connect in a statement.

The approach of Dr. Kelsky and Montell to humbleness in writing a teaching philosophy differ. Montell encourages to “adopt a tone of humility” while Kelsky warns about too humble statements. I get that writing this sort of document is a balancing act of correct tone, humility and grandiose ideas. But this makes me worried, that I might not hit that balance and come off as pompous know-it-all or a shy little mouse with no desire to advance in my career.


Thinking in pictures

To most efficiently use information in designing experiments and learning concepts I need to draw it out. Paper is the best, but I can deal with PowerPoint if given enough time. Without the visuals I cannot comprehend large concepts and their connections to other topics and systems. By drawing out the experimental design I ensure no details are missed.

I keep my brain between pages and hope those pages never burn in a tragic accident. I find pen and paper to  be still faster than typing on computer and more controlled than a touch pad. Also there is the fear that I manage to pour water on my laptop (again) and will have to open up the whole machine against manufacturers recommendations (again…).

This visualization allows me to appreciate the artistic side of science and the true beauty of details in functions and structures of cells. By just looking at ready made pictures I easily lose the intricate detail, which I am forced to draw out in my own notes. After drawing the coastline of Turkey, I appreciate the geography and understand it on a deeper level than by looking at the maps. After detailing the process of protein synthesis in a cell on paper, painstakingly drawing the different nooks of ribosomes, I can find the multiple spots where mutations and deformities in this machinery can cause problems.

Simple depiction of a ribosome making protein. (

Simple depiction of a ribosome making protein. (

In some cases technology can help in finding the details and enhance the learning process. In the field of crystallography, proteins are pictured in extreme detail down to an atom. The level of accuracy when making predictions from these models is far greater than from any of my drawings. On the other hand the structures are not readily available in case of power outages, crashing computers, and when internet connection is not possible.

I would say there is a time and place for writing things on paper instead of relying on computers. Especially when brainstorming for new ideas, I have found paper superior to a screen. But the tools to start up this process we need to use the help of search engines, databases, visualization programs and calculations. We need to be the centaurs Clive Thompson describes in his book “Smarter than you think”. The digital technology available to us should be our extension in a way that helps us reach new heights. Problems arise when we lose focus and allow the technology to lead and make decisions for us.


Do I need to know this for life?

In “Understanding by Design” by Wiggins and McTighe there was a nice quote from Jerome Bruner:

For any subject taught in primary school, we might ask [is it] worth an adult’s knowing, and whether having known it as a child makes a person better adult.

I have asked and have peers ask about relevance of topics in multiple classes during my whole education. And I don’t mean if it is important for the exam. Even in primary school students were questioning the need of religious studies, history, and physical education. And we did hear variations of “because I told you so” and uninformative “you will need this when you are an adult”. To a child adulthood seems so very far away. Defining the goals of each class and activity should have been obvious and I don’t know why teachers still fed us those generic answers.

The backwards planning of syllabus really painted a clear picture of how syllabus an classes should be designed to serve a defined purpose. We also need to communicate the importance of each task and class to students, no matter their age or level of expertise. And I don’t mean telling them they will need it to get along with everyone in the world. That could be too broad for students to relate to.

For example the history of my home country, Finland, is a weak spot in my knowledge. I asked why this was important and got a simple “you will need to know about your history, and be able to tell about it to others”. As a 12-year-old that had no connection to my life. It did not feel like my history in the first place with all the politicians and policies. And I could not comprehend, that anyone else would be interested in those things about my country.

Which motivational problems could be solved simply answering the “why?” questions students have in a way that will inspire them? I don’t think it will solve everything or even majority of the problems. But it might be needed to get all the other good changes to really make an impact.

Student organizations in Finland – the system of guilds

As part of positive psychology on campuses Frank Shushok Jr. and Eileen Hulme bring up positive organizations for students to belong to. According to their paper “What’s right with you: Helping students find and use their personal strengths” in About Campus, they describe these organizations as communities where students can use their strengths and feel empowered.

In higher education in USA this can be clubs connected to hobbies, sororities and fraternities, service groups for the community, or special interest clubs like the Dairy Club. Some of these communities require application or being chosen to be part of it. What if you are not accepted as part of the group? What if the application and initiation processes are too daunting for some people to even try?

In Finland this is solved by having “guilds” based on your major. And you are automatically accepted to the guild as you get your acceptance letter to the university to study the major. These are student run communities designed to serve the students. For example during my undergraduate days the biochemistry “guild” arranged parties for undergraduates, master’s students, PhD students and post graduates together. We got to know basically everyone in the department and could get peer support for every single class we had from the older students. Sports events were very casual. You did not even need to know the rules to come and play football, floorball, volleyball, or anything else.

This kind of environment offered a safe space for discussions on the topic of our major –biochemistry- as well as general thoughts about higher education and even politics surrounding it. The community would lend a helping hand also outside of academic life readily. It is not uncommon to have the guild help with moving for example.

What would be a better way to build an active community than the all-inclusive relaxed guild? One drawback of this system however is the exclusion of other majors. Some parties were arranged with other guilds and friends from other guilds are always welcome to join in on the activities, but it was rare for people with no personal ties to the guild to join in with sports or other activities.

I would be interested to know, if these kinds of systems work or could work in the US. Or is the exclusive nature of clubs an advantage in the higher education generally, and in building up your CV?


Empowering photography

While reading about affirmations as a tool to empower minorities to perform better in higher education, I recalled a similar social project in Finland. It was called “The loveliest girl in the world“. This project run by Miina Savolainen used photography to change self image of girls in a children’s home.

The participants had rough backgrounds and life stories, with very little to affirm them as beautiful, special, or accepted. The photography project cast them as the main character, them selves, in a scene they created with the photographer. From the comments of the participating girls, I got the vibe that they saw themselves differently after seeing the photos. They felt special and more whole. Their self image was greatly improved.

This type of affirmation could work especially well in self image issues. Could this be used in dissolving identity threat?  Maybe students could interact in the form of portrait photography on campus with other students. They would work together to produce a portrait photographs of each other. The portraits would have to present the person on a deeper level than just a mug shot would. This would incorporate interactions between diverse students, and work as an affirmation when best sides of each individual are explored.

(As a side note: maybe “selfies” are a way of self affirmation? Maybe we should encourage it up to a point?)