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October 23, 2007

Sleep and scholarship

I have been chronically sleep-deprived since college. Perhaps as a consequence, I have become interested in sleep research over the years (and I have been diligent about trying to teach my kids good sleep hygiene!).

Not a lot is known about the role of sleep for cognitive activities, but much more is known than a couple of decades ago. What does this have to do with scholarship? Many research studies indicate that long-term memory formation, learning, complex skill performance, and creativity are strongly affected by sleep patterns.

A good place to start learning about sleep research is Stanford Professor William Dement's The Promise of Sleep. He explains the basic physiology of the sleep cycle and summarizes the state of sleep research (as of about 2000), with interesting results on memory, reaction time, learning, etc.

A lengthy article in today's New York Times reports on research by Dement, recent work by Prof. Matthew Walker at Berkeley, and others, on the role of sleep in learning and memory. For example, there is a large body of evidence now that the period of deep sleep that occurs relatively early during a normal night of sleep is crucial for encoding and strengthening declarative memory (like memorized facts).

Stage 2 sleep, on the other hand, which mostly occurs during the second half of the night, seems critical for mastering motor tasks (like playing the piano).

A story on LiveScience.com reports on other research by Walker showing that emotional responses to negative stimuli dramatically intensify in the sleep-deprived.

Po Bronson wrote another lengthy journalistic article summarizing research on sleep and learning in New York Magazine (2007).

One piece of suggestive evidence that I find particularly compelling (because of my passion for playing the piano): In his famous studies on deliberate practice and expertise acquisition, K. Ericsson and co-authors reported that the best violinists got measurably more sleep than good violinists and teachers, and also took more naps (1993).

Posted by jmm at 12:24 PM | Comments (0)

October 21, 2007

Drago Radev's skill list for Ph.D. students

My colleague Drago Radev (with help from his former student, not a graduate, Jahna Otterbacher), has compiled a list of skills Ph.D. students should develop before they complete their degree (some are specific to natural language processing or computational linguistics). As with many things Drago does, this rather takes my breath away, and I think I don't score well enough for him on many (despited being 21 years past my Ph.D.!)

The list is long, so...

Prof. Dragomir Radev's Advice for Ph.D. Students
(with contributions from Jahna Otterbacher...)

List of skills that a PhD student in NLP/CL should have by the time he or she gets a PhD.

A new student should be expected to score very low on most of these criteria while one about to graduate should get very high scores on almost all of them.

Posted by jmm at 01:42 AM | Comments (0)

October 03, 2007

"Quick thinks" for active learning

A leading communication objective for scholars is to persuade; another is to inform. Often the goal of informing is to make the audience aware: I have a new result, it is interesting, go read the paper to learn the details (the typical 15 minute conference presentation, for example). Sometimes of course, we want our audience to learn more deeply.

Though I mostly intend this blog to focus on scholarly activities other than classroom teaching, the line between classroom teaching and communicating our research ideas is blurry, to say the least. Yesterday I read a good 1997 essay aimed at classroom teachers; I'm reporting it here because I don't want to forget its advice, and because techniques to increase active learning are useful in seminars, conferences, and even in written scholarly communication (though the techniques need modification for different contexts).

Suzanne Johnston and Jim Cooper wrote about "Quick-thinks: The Interactive Lecture" (in the Cooperative Learning and College Teaching newsletter Vol. 8, no. 1 (Fall 1997)). They offer a good summary of then current research on the importance of active learning in the classroom, for those not already familiar with the ideas and their empirical support. Then they offer eight "quick-think" strategies, particularly for large audiences for which it is difficult to engage in whole-group discussion or even to break out into small groups:


  1. Select the best response (multiple choice)
  2. Correct the (intentional) error
  3. Complete a sentence starter
  4. Compare or contrast (two important parallel concepts from the lesson)
  5. Support a statement
  6. Re-order the (jumbled) steps (when teaching a procedure)
  7. Reach a conclusion (from proposed facts, assumptions, opinions)
  8. Paraphrase the idea

Via the Tomorrow's Professor (SM) mailing list (2 Oct 2007); all entries are archived (with a two-week delay).

Posted by jmm at 08:33 AM | Comments (0)

October 02, 2007

Should scholars rely on Wikipedia?

As soon as Wikipedia achieved much critical mass, students began citing to it, and professionals and other writers have followed suit. Should research scholars rely on Wikipedia?

Neil Waters, a professor in the Department of History at Middlebury College, thinks that Wikipedia is a good place to get ideas, to get an initial introduction to a topic, or to get leads on references to pursue. He thinks students and scholars should not rely on it, however (that is, in scholarly currency, should not cite to it as a reliable source). He has published a short, cogent essay presenting his argument in the Communications of the ACM.

I agree with Waters. Indeed, Wikipedia agrees with Waters. This is not an attack on Wikipedia: it is a long-standing and general principle about not relying on (or citing to) tertiary sources in scholarly research, which includes all encyclopedias (even the venerable Britannica). The problems posed by Wikipedia are special, and of special concern, especially for less popular topics, but the principle is general.

One of Wikipedia's principles is "no original research", and all fact assertions are supposed to be documented by citations to primary or secondary sources. The latter guideline is followed only partially, but it is one of the quite useful features of Wikipedia for scholars: get an introduction to a topic, and then start following the references to more reliable source material.

Posted by jmm at 08:50 AM | Comments (0)