Parrots, People and Pedagogies: A Look at Teaching and Education

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ALEX the African Grey Parrot and Dr Irene Pepperberg.

Image: The ALEX Foundation.

Like anyone who has taught science courses, and probably like anyone who has ever taught anything to a classroom in the history of mankind, I've wondered how to motivate my students to really care about the material they are learning, beyond simply "studying for the test." For example, I have used a group method of study where groups of 4 students are each assigned a specific task: to become an expert in a particular area and to share their knowledge with the other groups. This method is only partially successful since it is dependent upon good classroom rapport and careful management by the professor, otherwise, each group of "experts" can selectively withhold or misrepresent information that is important for developing a better understanding of the topic at hand.

Since after my postdoc funding ended, I was only occasionally hired as lowly and disposable adjunct with a very low tolerance for institutionalized bullshit, so my years as a professor of science ended some time ago, and I was not able to develop my ideas about teaching further. But a sweet little pedagogy paper was just published by Malcolm McCallum, an assistant professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at Texas A&M University-Texarkana. This paper describes a very interesting method for successfully teaching students how to read scientific papers. To my eyes, Dr McCallum's teaching method looks surprisingly like the "model/rival technique" used to teach Alex the African Grey Parrot how to do all sorts of things.

Basically, the model/rival technique works like this: there are two trainers, one is a professor and the other is a "model student." The "model student" models the desired student behavior, and is perceived by the student (in this case, the student was Alex the Gray Parrot) as being a rival for the professor's attention. During each session, the "model student" and the student exchange roles so the student/parrot realizes that the process is interactive and flexible.

In this paper, Dr McCallum describes a common classroom situation: trying to get the students to actually read a scientific paper. You'd be surprised to learn that this is not as easy as it sounds, because reading and understanding a scientific paper is difficult. In these classes, the professor would assign a paper or series of papers and one student would act as the presentor of the paper while the others were the student "presentees." To ensure that the "presentees" also read the paper instead of passively sitting in the classroom or texting their friends, the professor would either reward or force student questions and discussion. To do this, some faculty awarded points for each question asked. Others asked questions about the paper on exams. Frequently, "participation points" would be awarded to force individual participation.

"In fact, the many different angles used by professors in my many classes all ended the same way," writes Dr McCallum in his paper. "Inevitably, a growing number of students did not read the papers unless they were the presenter."

To engage all his students, Dr McCallum devised and tested an innovative method in the two-hour lab section for his senior-level environmental physiology class. The design worked like this: Dr McCallum brought two copies of 10 different manuscripts on critical thermal maxima. In this case, almost all of these manuscripts were by Victor Hutchison, and they were very similar except for the organism involved. Only one of the manuscripts was a review paper. In a classroom of 20 students or less, each student was given a different manuscript. Only a few students had a duplicate paper, so almost everyone was responsible for their own article. Then, the students were given roughly 15 minutes to read their paper in class. At the end of that time, Dr McCallum asked if everyone was done. If anyone was not done reading, they were given a little more time to finish.

After everyone had finished reading their paper, Dr McCallum randomly asked one student to briefly describe what their paper was about. After they had done this, Dr McCallum asked the other student who had that same paper if the first student's iteration followed their understanding. Invariably, the second student had things to add or ask. Then Dr McCallum randomly asked a student with a different paper to compare what they read in their manuscript to what the other two students presented. If a second student had read the same paper, Dr McCallum then asked that individual if s/he had anything to add. Then, Dr McCallum asked the presenters of the first paper if they felt that the comparison was accurate and to explain why (or why not). Dr McCallum found that continuing this scenario through approximately four papers led to a fluid discussion where only an occasional question from the professor was necessary to stimulate further participation (Figure 1):

The result of this model was not only to circumvent many lazy student behaviors, but also to improve reading comprehension by familiarizing students with how to read, process, and evaluate complex scientific manuscripts in a short period of time. To test this hypothesis, Dr McCallum included a 10-point short-answer question on an exam that asked students to discuss the topic of the papers that were discussed in class. He found that almost all of his students had at least a working knowledge of the topic and 65% earned at least 7 points on this question. When compared to the more traditional "presenter-presentee" scenario used during the previous semester, only 33% of the students earned at least 7 points on a similar question.

But even more interesting was that Dr McCallum's students' GRE, MCAT, and ETS major field exam scores increased significantly. For example, the class averages for raw section scores in the ETS major field test in biology increased 12% from the previous year and 50% relative to students taking the same classes with other instructors within one year of introducing this technique. Additionally, the number of students entering graduate and medical school also rose.

So what does this have to do with Alex the African Grey Parrot and the model/rival technique for teaching? The way I see this, each student takes turns being both the "model" and the "rival" for the professor's attention. Because the professor sets up a rapidly moving group-based model/rival scenario, it challenges each student to quickly assess and improve on their own personal techniques for successfully reading and reporting on a scientific paper, thereby attracting the professor's attention (the reward). Further, due to the structure of this scenario, where only a few (two?) students have duplicate papers, and thus, everyone possesses an important piece of the puzzle, no one student can monopolize the professor's attention -- the damaging "teacher's pet" scenario is avoided.

This is a really exciting paper and for the first time in years, I wish I had a classroom of my own so I could try this technique myself. Do any of you, dear readers, wish to volunteer to be in an online "classroom" to see if we can translate what was described in this paper to an online setting? If so, maybe we can work together to develop an online model of our own? (On the other hand, I've -- unknowingly -- been trying to develop a modified scenario of this for my mystery birds feature for awhile now. I think it time for me to rethink what I am doing there in the light of this paper's findings).


McCallum, M. (2010). A Method for Encouraging Classroom Discussion of Scientific Papers. Bulletin of the Ecological Society of America, 91 (3), 363-366 DOI: 10.1890/0012-9623-91.3.363.

Read more:

The Alex Studies: Cognitive and Communicative Abilities of Grey Parrots by Irene Pepperberg (Paperback) [Amazon: $21.79].


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I'm game - I have been similarly challenged to get my students engaged.

I'm game.

When I was a professor at Northern State University, I divided up my chemistry survey students into groups of four students each, and had each group present a paper on a chemistry topic. I wrote a lay-audience summary of each paper to make it easier for them to figure out what their paper was about. I required each student to ask one question about another group's presentation, so they'd pay attention to at least one of the other presentations.

I like McCallum's approach. It may be harder to perform with introductory science students.

Totally works with my students. I got the idea from watching Cesar Milan on The Dog Whisperer, though. =P

I would totally be up for that!

In one course we had to hold weekly 80min tutorials in small groups, different group each time. Part of the marks came from interacting with the audience, so the 'presentations' had to be heavily interspersed with questions to the audience. The instructors (course was also team-taught really well) also asked random questions throughout. Since the papers were fair game during the final, reading all of them was encouraged regardless; furthermore, the non-presenters had to answer questions about the paper and hand them in at the start of the tutorial (for marks) -- thus, everyone read the papers, and at least one of them was read thoroughly.

I've read plenty of papers before that class, but usually you tend to skim over the techniques, trusting the authors interpreted their experiments correctly. Like, you see see yeast-two-hybrid results and go "oh, blah and blah interact" or whatever. When you actually have to explain the paper, with pedantic profs in the audience, it forces you to actually understand the techniques. For example, how yeast-two-hybrid actually works. And why they did the experiments they did. And what else they could have done, etc. It was a very great experience and seemed to be enjoyable for everyone (except the presenters at 4am the day of their presentation...)

It did help that the class was really small and that it was a specialised upper-level course. Moreover, the topic wasn't popular among pre-meds (plant genetics), so almost all the students in the class were active in research, grad-school-bound and actually wanted to be there. I'm a little more pessimistic about whether such an approach would work in a more mainstream, pre-med-infested, course like "general"(ie, animal...lab animal...mouse + fly...) cell biol or mol genet.

Come to think of it, I now wonder where our instructors got the tutorial idea from...

2 of the better course I had at CalTech for grad school were structured as student reports on an assigned paper. Essentially a small group was assigned a paper and were expected to summarize the paper and lead the group discussion. Of course once you reach the level of recent journal articles you don't have much choice but to do things this way, there is insufficient time for textbooks, or indeed review articles to come out on the subject. Essentially this is the Journal Club turned into a class. In particular in a field undergoing a major change in paradigm (geophysics in the 1970s) its about the only way to go.

wait - the students only read the paper for 15 minutes? Is that really enough? I can read a paper in my field in that time, but when I assign an out-of-their-specialty paper to students I am hoping they spend more than 15 minutes on it. And you discuss (and read???) 10 papers in 2 hours?? My discussion sections are two hours and we typically do ONE paper in that time.

When I was a grad student, we had a course that met Monday morning with ~ 10 students. Each week, we had 3 papers to read. The class would start with the teacher saying...ok...Mark (or Mary, etc), why don't you present the first paper. That would be over the top for undergrads, but this seems pretty unimpressive to me. Also, finding 10 papers that relate to each other and are accessible to undergraduates is pretty challenging -- that would take at least a full day right there.

I'm for experiments in education, but this one doesn't compel me to test it in my classroom. I have sometimes done a variant of this where I have a paper or two that I ask the students to prepare as best they can, and then divide the class during the scheduled meeting by groups, and assign specific FIGURES ( or tables, etc, not entire papers) to duplicate groups. THen we go through the paper figure by figure. THat seems to work pretty well, although I don't think most students prepare the papers well beforehand. They do learn how to read papers, though (I think).

Thanks for the great post! I've used a similar technique in my classes, and found personally, that having to explain something about a paper makes me pay greater attention to the story.

I hope you get some opportunities to teach in the future.

This is a very interesting experiment and I hope the results are applied in various ways at different levels of education.

I do have one question that may look a bit like flame bait at first, though I honestly do not intend it as such.
If the students need to be manipulated to this degree to bother learning about their subject area... do they really belong in higher education much less graduate school?

Earlier in the education system I can see how students need to be encouraged to take interest, but by college shouldn't we at least consider only accepting those who are interested and sending the rest directly into the work force?

On a different note, it would be very interesting to see how this class effected the student's behavior in other classes (outside of being better able to read a paper).