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Thoughts on Motivating and Inspiring Students

This post contains the slides and a rough script of a talk I gave on 13/6/2019 at TUD (Tallaght Campus)


Slide1This presentation is not designed to be an instruction manual on how to inspire/motivate third level students to commit to their studies. I wouldn’t be so presumptuous as to think I have all the answers. Instead, I set out to make a number of observations about the broad areas of inspiration and motivation and especially the pitfalls involved in relying on inspiration or focusing solely on making classes “engaging”.  I do make a number of suggestions based on my experience of teaching biotechnology in DCU and my most important point will be that progress leads to motivation rather than (for the most part) motivation leading to progress. This leads to the ultimate conclusion that the best way to get students to commit to their studies is to teach them well. It’s not a very dramatic conclusion but it does simplify things for us because it means that we have one goal only and that is to teach well.


As a youngster, I was inspired by astronomy and astrophysics. I was a nerd. I devoured popular books on these subjects and I watched pioneering TV shows like Carl Sagan’s Cosmos and the BBC’s Horizon. In a way, I think I was searching for meaning just as a religious person searches for meaning through faith and prayer. This was the late seventies and early eighties and the shadow of a confrontation between the US and the USSR hung over everyone and a lot of us teenagers were a bit angst-ridden. So by the time I did the Leaving Cert in 1980 I was leaning heavily towards a career in physics with the ultimate hope of specialising in astrophysics or space science.


Thirty-five years later I find that I have published a book on filters of all things! How did that happen? How did someone who had such an interest in all things space and astronomy end up studying and becoming an “expert” in a such a seemingly mundane subject as  membrane filtration. The answer to that question goes to the heart of the difference between inspiration and motivation. It also speaks to the fact that at 18 years of age we don’t know ourselves all that well – we have an image of ourselves – and education, the very purpose of which is to open our eyes to new possibilities, often leads us down unexpected paths, paths you never knew existed because of your limited experience of the world. That is why I think it is not necessarily good advice to tell young school leavers to “follow your passion”.


So let’s talk about inspiration and motivation, taking inspiration first. The first thing to say about the feeling of being inspired is that it  is an emotional response – it’s not an intellectual one. When you are inspired, you have an urge to follow, to emulate, to challenge oneself, to achieve. Greta Thunberg might inspire you to do something to save the planet – but that doesn’t mean you’ll actually do anything. Indeed that feeling of being inspired is often short-lived and while you may be inspired one day to recyle like never before, it’s quite normal to get up the next day and go about your business as usual.  Furthermore and as a teacher, if you rely on your ability to inspire students, you’re likely to be disappointed because what’s inspiring to one student might make another feeling unmoved. Some students you’ll never reach. Many times I have left a lecture theatre convinced that I had been inspiring only to be brought back down to earth at exam time.


A good example of the limitations of inspiration is The Pendulum Summit which takes place every year in the National Convention Centre and is wall-to-wall inspirational speakers. If you attend this summit you’ll find that your attention is held for hours on end. But here’s the thing: you’ll have forgotten nearly everything the speakers have said (bar a soundbite or two) by the time the day is over. In fact, what’s really inspiring about the Pendulum talks is the stage craft of the speakers not the substance of what their saying. In a way, all that ’passion’ is distracting.


I have forgotten literally everything I heard at the Pendulum summit I attended except for these words (“choose your attitude”) from Debra Searle who rowed across the Atlantic on her own. (Her husband started out with her but had to be airlifted off the boat because he was suffering from panic attacks. They’re now divorced.) The thing about Debra Searle’s talk was that it was not all passion and frantic pacing around the stage. It was low key, and the emphasis was on substance, not style. I learned from her.


Richard Feynman is said to be one of the greatest physicists of all time. He is also said to have been an inspirational teacher. (You’ll find loads of him on YouTube.) However, if you dig into things a little more deeply you find that he might have been inspirational but he wasn’t necessarily a very good teacher. He pitched the material at a level that very few people could understand even if they were enthralled. Students flocked to his lectures but they also flocked away.


So for a teacher/lecturer, a far better strategy to encourage students to commit to their studies is to focus on motivation. Motivation is generally associated with a specific goal, e.g. to get a good grade in a module, to learn a valuable workplace skill, to run a 10K etc. Motivating is practical and pragmatic. When motivating, you provide the student with the necessary tools to continually make progress, and you use feedback to help the student monitor their progress. Progress is key. None of this to say that emotion is not involved when embarking on any journey. Even the most motivated will have moments of self-doubt, disappointment, confusion and even elation. All journeys, even learning ones, are emotional.

I also think that when it comes to ‘teaching’ we can learn a lot from the world of sport. It is very easy to be inspired by, say, watching Roger Federer on centre court and it is noticeable that during Wimbledon the number of kids attempting to play tennis on the green outside my house increases enormously. By August, thought, the footballs are back and the tennis rackets (some of which might be brand new) are back in the garden shed. Inspiration is one thing; motivation is another.


It appears to me that much of the effort spent on getting students to commit to their studies leans towards inspiration rather than motivation. And the same ideas keep cropping up. I’m going to focus on just four of them.


First though, let’s divert to say a few things about the word “engagement”. It’s a word that’s overused these days  and it is very loosely defined. Often it means little more than some sort of interaction between two people or between a person and a device or a book or whatever. This extract from a column in the Guardian is a witty take down of the word and the irony running through it is that despite all the England and Wales Cricket Board’s efforts to “engage” with the public, they have allowed a situation to develop whereby the cricket world cup cannot be viewed on terrestrial TV!


For me, engagement means “the extent to which students commit to all aspects of their studies”, especially the extent to which they commit to studying in their own independent learning time.


When looking at the engagement phenomenon we first have to recognise that there are many aspects of a student’s life that we cannot control and many of these will impact on their ability to commit. We know for example that for many if not most students the 125 hour module is completely unrealistic. Typically this ad hoc number would require a student (doing 6 modules per semester) to study up to 50 hours a week. That is not happening and everyone knows it.


EDtech or technology enhanced learning or whatever you like to call it is gradually becoming a feature of higher education. Much of this is driven by a vague sense that if we have all this technology, then we should use it. It’s also driven by the presumption that students these days are ‘digital natives’: this term refers to the belief that the modern 18 year-old who has been exposed to technology since birth will be more likely to commit to his/her learning if that learning occurs in a digital environment. It’s also driven by the belief that modern students will actually learn better in a digital environment, a belief that is reminiscent of the now debunked ‘learning styles’ idea. And of course there is the authenticity concept which I’ll talk about later: this is the idea that the way students learn and what they learn should be authentic, i.e., it should reflect what is going on in the real world. And if the real world is digital, then the learning environment should be digital too. Or at least that’s the reasoning.

I think there is plenty of truth in the idea that this generation has an affinity for digital technology (if not necessarily an aptitude) and there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that the availability of multimedia tools, even if it’s just YouTube videos, has had significant benefits. YouTube has certainly benefited my teaching as I have very poor spatial reasoning skills and many times I have struggled over the years to explain how a lot of  chemical engineering equipment worked. I was fine on the theory but the machines themselves often baffled me. Now I can show videos and animations (of pumps for example) and everyone benefits.

But does the use of Edtech motivate students to go home, or go to the library, and knuckle down and study. I’m not so sure and this is something I’ll return to later.


The next strategy that tends to be used in an effort to inspire students is active learning. Now, I have absolutely no conceptual problem with active learning – most of my lecture time is taken up with active learning – but I think there is a danger that the tasks students ‘engage’ in are of little utility. But there seems to be an underlying belief, thanks to Confucius, that ‘doing’ leads to better learning that listening or watching. We have to remember that Confucius was a philosopher, not a cognitive scientist, so we have to take his statement with a large pinch of salt.


Furthermore, there seems to be a belief, or a sort of unconscious bias, that taking part in activities that have even a  remote connection to the subject will inspire students to study that subject in the future.


This belief is especially strong at second level and is a feature of the new Junior Cycle. Indeed if you peruse #STEM on Twitter, you’ll find a huge emphasis on fun activities that are believed to be inspiring as well as supposedly teaching all sorts of “skills”.  There is a real need for a fully informed debate to be had here; otherwise we risk messing up a second level system that is working well by international standards. And what happens at second level ultimately impacts on third level.


The idea that doing “sciencey” things is inspiring has opened up all sorts of commercial avenues for toy makers and also science ‘galleries’ like W5 in Belfast, Explorium in Sandyford and Imaginosity, also in Sandyford. In my experience, the motto for these places should be “I do and I’m entertained.” I don’t think we can say with any conviction, “I do and I’m inspired”  and certainly not “I do and I learn”.  We need to be wary of corporations, who have an obvious commercial agenda, muscling in on education and driving change based on plausibility rather than real evidence.


This, from Robert Coe, Director of Research and Evaluation at Evidence Based Education, is one of my favourite education quotes and should act as a warning to everybody who champions active learning in education: “Engagement is a poor proxy for learning”.


Coe’s statement can be recast in more plain language and a little more precisely: “Just because they’re busy that doesn’t mean they’re learning what you want them to learn.” Two aspects of learning activities are important to discuss: distraction and the problem of transfer. In his book “Why don’t students like school?”, Daniel Willingham talks a lot about the problem of distraction. Distraction occurs when, in an effort to make a topic “engaging”, an activity is designed which then dominates the students’ thinking while the original topic is forgotten about. An example might be if a teacher is giving a class on Roman history and in an effort to make the class engaging, brings the class down to the woodwork lab where the students all get stuck into making a Roman sword. The net result will be that the students learn a bit about sawing and hammering but little or nothing about Rome.


The other issue, and it is a key one, is that it is usually the case that what students learn in one activity will not “transfer” to other domains. For example, suppose I set out with the aim of teaching ‘problem-solving skills’ and I get my students to build a Lego robot. Well, the evidence shows that at the end of the lesson the students will have acquired the ability to build a Lego robot. It is highly unlikely though that they will have acquired the ability to problem-solve in another domain: law or microbiology or economics, whatever. So why build the robot at all? Interesting research on the problem of transfer was done many years ago where it turned out that air traffic controllers are no better at keeping a lot of mental balls in the air than the rest of us. Their skill as air traffic controllers has much to do with training, practice, SOPs and experience.


An increasingly common philosophy in education is that of instrumentalism, i.e., a pragmatic philosophical approach which regards an activity (such as science, law, or education) chiefly as an instrument or tool for some practical purpose. Many academics, ironically mainly those who would see themselves as “progressive” are instrumentalists at heart and they believe students are too. How else can you explain the many, many times you here even senior educators  talk about “problem-solving” and “real world problems”. Seriously, what is the obsession with problem-solving all about? Loads of profession and jobs have absolutely nothing to do with problem-solving. This underlying instrumentalism provides the rational for “authentic” learning approaches.




The above is  a formal definition of authentic learning. I find it depressing and in my view, one of the most pernicious ideas in all of education. The authentic approach usually comes as a package with a bunch of “progressive” and (unproven) pedagogies, combining to make education a potentially soulless experience for students.


Look at what we miss out on if our thinking is dominated by “authenticity”.  What kid is not fascinated by dinosaurs even though they are  never going to see one. And no kid is going to wander down to the Tallaght town centre in fear of being savaged by a lion: yet, TV shows about animals are hugely popular. And what about art and poetry and the mysteries of the universe? If you are never exposed to these things how can you be sure they’re not going to relevant to your life. The authenticity idea is an intellectual dead-end. Mind you, if we run with the authenticity idea, we could cut the time required to educate a person by at least 50% and save a lot of money that we could use for the health service. There’s only so much real world problem-solving you can do.


The idea of offering students choice as a way of enhancing their motivation is a plausible one and it is something that would be quite easy to verify by trawling through exam marks. Indeed, I really like UCD’s Horizons approach but it has huge resource implications. But choice has its dangers and research by Paul Kirschner, for example, has shown that students tend to choose those subjects/projects that will offer them the path of least resistance. Indeed, when you actually talk to students, they admit that they often make quite important decisions – what final year project to choose for example – based on perceptions as to how strict or how supportive the relevant academic is said to be. So choice has its drawbacks.


Anyway, so let’s try to be positive now and suggest a few things and most of what I’m going to mention falls under the heading of motivation rather than inspiration.


Active learning does work as long as it’s designed well with no distractions! The activity has to be designed in such a way that the main focus is on the students learning what you want them to learn – not to be engaged for engagement’s sake.


A key aspect of the design of active learning is to ensure that the cognitive demand on the students is appropriate. In his book “The Hidden Lives of Learners”, Nuthall observed that if the challenge was too difficult, students tended to disengage.


A good, real-life example of this issue is shown here. If you get a gift of the jigsaw on the left you won’t even open the box. The one on the right is perfect: an interesting scene with a mix of easy and hard bits. You’ll make it.


When designing activities, remember that people have different working styles. Introverts might like to work on problems on their own. Let them. Don’t enforce collaboration just because someone says that the ability to collaborate is a useful workplace skill. So is thinking on your own. Consider this quote from Steve Wozniak, creator of the first Apple computer

Most inventors and engineers I’ve met are like me — they’re shy and they live in their heads. They’re almost like artists. In fact, the very best of them are artists. And artists work best alone — best outside of corporate environments, best where they can control an invention’s design without a lot of other people designing it for marketing or some other committee. I don’t believe anything really revolutionary has ever been invented by committee… I’m going to give you some advice that might be hard to take. That advice is: Work alone… Not on a committee. Not on a team.”

So we shouldn’t forget to create an environment where introverts as well as extroverts can flourish. Actually, my theory as to why so many people recall not liking school is that the classroom is not a great place for introverts to be. All that interaction, day after day, is exhausting for an introvert and given that about one third of the population is introverted, it is no surprise that school gets a bad rap. I worry that higher education is becoming more and more biased towards extroverts and campuses lack enough quiet spaces for the introverted student to escape and think.


In her book about Grigori Perlman, a Russian mathematician who won a Millenium Prize (worth a million euro – which Perlman didn’t claim – he lives with his mother in a flat in Moscow) for proving the Poincaré conjecture, Masha Gessen writes in detail about the Russian system of teaching mathematics, a discipline in which they excel. Their approach was essentially the SLOP method – the Shed Load Of Problems method – but done in a very competitive and individualistic way. I use this approach but in class in an open and collaborative (if desired) environment. It’s a classic engineering approach – there’s nothing new about it – but it works. Stop any engineer in his or her tracks and ask her what the best way to learn engineering is and 99% of them will say “you have to do the problems!”.


The in-class SLOP approach has many advantages as shown in the slide. But as the following slide shows there are some drawbacks.


The biggest of these, in my view, is the opportunity cost. Unless you are willing (and able) to significantly increase contact time, the in-class SLOP approach comes with a large reduction in content. In that case, curriculum design becomes crucial: you have to really think hard about what it is students need to know as opposed to what it would be nice for them to know. The other key issue that I see is that by doing the problems in class, you might be creating a dependency culture. In my days as a student, we were expected to simply get on with completing problem sets in your own time.  If I could be sure that my students would work hard on problem solving during their study time, I would definitely reduce (but not eliminate) the amount  of  in-class problem solving we do. That way I’d be able to increase the amount of content. Despite all the silly talk about knowledge not being so important because we have Google, content remains key to education.


One practical example of active learning we did in the School of Biotechnology in DCU was to come up with a  design and build project. This was one of the best things we’ve ever done. The project was scheduled as two lab ‘experiments’ so there was no real opportunity cost. It was all about the topic being taught, namely heat transfer. There was lots of cutting and drilling but at all times the aim was clear: maximise the rate of heat transfer between the hot fluid and the cold fluid. We got some very interesting designs!


This may come as a surprise but I think we need to teach IT skills to enhance our students’ levels of motivation. For many years now I have been exasperated by poor attention to detail by students. It has baffled me, annoyed me and made with rant even more than usual. And I’ve come to the conclusion that much of what I see is down to the fact that students are not proficient with key software like Word and Excel and when they are writing their reports and projects they are cognitively overloaded by having to deal with all the unfamiliar nuts and bolts of the various packages they are using. They must find the whole process of completing continuous assessment work deeply frustrating and, fundamentally, demotivating. It must be like trying to play golf never having been told even how to hold a club, never mind swing it. So I think we have to stop assuming that our students are proficient in Word and Excel, or that that they will learn these packages by osmosis: I think we have to make space in the curriculum to actually teach them these skills. The digital native idea does not extend to Microsoft Office.


We all like to know where we’re going in life and first year students are a case in point. Most of them have little idea as to where their chosen course will take them. And the evidence is clear on this: if students have a sense of direction, a sense that there is a goal awaiting them, they are more likely to commit. (This is one reason why I worry about making first year too generic even though it’s a seductive idea.) So I use my final years and my former students to come in and talk to my early-years students. Logistics can be a struggle, especially with alumni, but the positive impact is significant.


Another thing I do is to give my  “My 10 Kinds of Scientist” talk. Students come in to science courses with an image of a scientist as someone in a lab with a white coat on. When they find out that many if not most scientists work in an office or in a production plant (not a lab), they are genuinely surprised. After giving the lecture I ask them to write a 500 personal statement about what kind of scientist they would like to be. Their statements  make fascinating reading.


We often forget that the bulk of a module is allocated to independent learning. It would appear (and I think we obsess too much about the contact time), if students are to be believed  that they put in the time but still perform poorly at exam time. This must be very demotivating and lead to a huge amount of frustration. Students need to be taught the key techniques for effective study. I’m not talking about fresh air and a good diet and all the sort of nonsense that appears in the paper at Leaving Cert time, I’m talking about what you actually do when you sit down at your desk to study. A good place to start is

Slide39And this is my key slide.  Most of the time we have things backwards; we assume that if we inspire students they will become motivated make progress. The reality is that motivation follows from making progress (although some level of motivation must be required to make that initial step forward). So the key to motivation is GOOD TEACHING. It’s that simple. You won’t motivate everyone but you will reach the maximum number of students if you teach well.


What makes a good teacher?  Here are some of my thoughts on this. I should say that I’m conservative. I think the evidence shows, unequivocally, that the most effective way of teaching novices is for you, the teacher, to be the sage on the stage, not the guide on the side. Be a nice and supportive sage, but a sage nonetheless.


Back to me: How did I go from being inspired by astrophysics to being motivated by chemical engineering. Life took over, I made practical decisions and I found I loved chemical engineering. I realised I like the pragmatism of it, the creativity of it, and the down -to-earthness of it. My head was no longer in space. And having studied quite a lot of engineering mathematics, I realised that I wouldn’t have had the motivation to study the level of mathematics required to be an astrophysicist. Most of all, the competitor in me realised that I could be a good chemical engineer but I’d probably have been a mediocre physicist. And who wants to be a mediocre anything?


Fixing the ‘Leaving Cert’ – I wouldn’t start from here

Everyone has a view on the Leaving Cert at this time of year and, if you’re to go by social media, the majority think it is not fit for purpose in some way: whether it’s the stress it causes, or the fact that a lot of memorisation (not rote learning) is required, or that it doesn’t prepare students for third level, very few people seem to have anything good to say about it. People who are self-employed, especially very successful people, are especially scathing about the Leaving. Celebrity economist, David McWilliams refers to it as a “bullshit pub quiz”. Mind you McWilliams has also suggested that the Leaving Cert was responsible for the financial crisis, so his utterings need to be taken with a pinch of salt.

There’s an interesting psychology at work here I think. There is no doubt that being self-employed is hard – the constant need to bring in work is a major source of stress – and it is quite understandable that the self-employed might be quite resentful of people in steady, pensionable jobs, especially public sector jobs. And the thing is, obtaining a very good Leaving Cert provides the school-leaver with the fastest route to a steady, safe career in the public sector, or in the multinational sector, or indeed in any sector. While there are obviously other routes available, there is no doubt that obtaining 500+ CAO points provides you with the widest range of options in choosing what kind of career you want to pursue. And, a really important point is that the people who do extraordinarily well in this “bullshit pub quiz” become our doctors, our engineers, our lawyers, our scientists, our engineers, our nurses and our teachers. The young doctors we produce are outstanding – I know this from personal experience – and our scientists have proved themselves capable of competing with the best in the world when given the necessary resources. Our nurses are held in particularly high regard and our education system performs at well above the international average.

But of course the LC is not perfect and it would, no doubt, benefit from greater diversity in the way we teach and assess. For example, you could greatly improve the Project Maths course if you got rid of a lot of the Euclidean Geometry and substituted some computational/numerical mathematics. But you’d need every student to have access to a laptop and standard software: the logistics would pose a problem.

But the key thing about solving the Leaving Cert ‘problem’ is that to solve it, you should not actually start with the Leaving Cert itself. As things stand, no amount of tinkering with the Leaving will take away from the fact that, despite the recent focus on apprenticeships, it has become, to a large extent, an entry exam for third level. Furthermore, the demand for places in the traditional universities, especially the Dublin ones, is such that every assessment, whether it’s the final exam or some form of continual assessment, will be a high-stakes one. So pressure and stress is unavoidable.

And when the stakes are high, the learning process becomes dominated by tactics rather than real learning. This is compounded by the fact that a high stakes system requires that marking schemes be tightly defined and highly transparent because transparency and fairness are seen as inextricably linked.

So, as long as the entire system remains as it is we are in something of a bind and radical thinking will be required to get out of that bind. The problem is that our education system is a bit like the health service – there are an awful lot of vested interests involved. For example, much of what the universities do is effectively a taxpayer-funded subsidy to the private sector. Why, for example, would a student study, say, actuarial mathematics at university? The answer? To gain exemptions in the professional actuary exams. So, in effect, when universities teach subjects like actuarial maths, they are doing the spade work for the financial sector. And it’s not just maths: you could make the same argument about law, accountancy and perhaps even engineering. But no university is going to divest itself of these highly prestigious disciplines.

So how do we proceed? I think the problems we face are a bit like the housing crisis. The pressure on school-leavers is not unlike the pressure on workers trying to find affordable places to live. Most reasonable people recognise that the solution to the housing crisis is to provide a greater supply of affordable housing. Likewise, the solution to our problems in education might be to create non-traditional routes to high-demand careers – the careers that are causing all the stress at second level – not just those careers that you would typically associate with the IoT sector.

Unfortunately, I think it’s a case of “good luck with that”.

You can’t learn problem-solving from textbooks – allegedly

In a few months’ time we will celebrate the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11. The Apollo missions, especially the ill-fated Apollo 13 mission, are arguably the greatest ever examples of human beings’ ambition, creativity, problem-solving ability, teamwork and grace under pressure. The average age of the support staff in mission control was  a mere 27. Most of these mission controllers were from an engineering background, and all would have been educated according to the traditional model of engineering education: study and learn the concepts and then solve shed loads of the problems of escalating difficulty listed at the end of each chapter of the course textbook.

If you are to believe those pushing the use of iPads in school because “you can’t learn problem-solving from textbooks”,  then you must presume that the 12 men who walked on the moon did so because of divine intervention. How else could those taught using ‘factory methods’ possibly have had the problem-solving ability to deal with the many crises that threatened the lives of those astronauts as they travelled the half-a-million mile round trip to the moon.

As for the astonishing developments in biomedical sciences that characterised the 20th century, just imagine what we could have achieved if we had iPads and the 21st century skills that iPads would have brought to bear on our children.

The pros and cons of academic life

For the last week or so I’ve been laid low with a ‘bug’ and I’ve been thinking about the  pros and cons of academic life.

One of the main ‘pros’ of this career is flexibility, something that is invaluable if you have young children or if you have health issues or if you have any kind of commitment that requires you to be able to work flexibly. The downside of this, however, is that the boundary between work life and home life becomes blurred and you end up in a state in which you are never really ‘off’. But overall, I think the flexibility we enjoy is something that many workers in other jobs can only dream about.

But there is a downside to the academic career and it’s this: our work comes with a huge amount of responsibility. Although not feeling well this week I still have final year project theses to mark, end-of-semester exams to mark, papers to review and an external PhD to read. These tasks are not easily delegated for obvious reasons.

I’m remembering now the time I fell down the stairs and broke my collarbone. When a delivery guy arrived to my bioprocessing lab and asked me to sign off on a package, he commented on my arm, which was in a sling, and suggested that I should be taking time off to recover. My reply was “who’s going to run my labs then?”. The thing is, I could have asked one of my colleagues to step in but that would have been a huge imposition on them and, no disrespect to colleagues, it probably would have affected the quality of the lab which I have run for many years. In a way, being an academic is like being self-employed.

And, when I had a kidney transplant on Jan 1st 2011,  I marked, a few weeks later, all my Semester One exams, not because I was being heroic but because it was my responsibility to ensure that the assessment of my  students was done as accurately and fairly as possible.

In the long run  none of us is irreplaceable, but replacing us at short notice is not easy, not just for  colleagues who have to take up the slack, but for the students who deserve to be assessed in the fairest and most accurate ways possible.

Having said all of that, I do think the pros outweigh the cons. There are very few jobs that allow you to indulge yourself the way the academic life does. Every single thing we do provides us with opportunities to be creative and innovative and that’s something that you don’t find much in other jobs.

Thoughts on ‘Rote learning’

Examples of rote learning

A student writing “menagerie lion” while explaining what the equator is.

A student saying “5.cerivisiae” instead of “S.cerevisiae” when answering a question on yeast biology.

My late brother, Tony, singing “Where the streets have no name” by U2 and belting out “I want to feel some lead on my face”

Any Irish person saying the ‘Our Father’ in Irish.

Most Irish people singing the national anthem.

Chemical engineering students of my era solving any number of problems using the graphical techniques that were the go-to methods of the time.

Me solving induction motor problems in the electrical engineering module we had to endure in third year chemical engineering.


Examples of Fixed Learning

Memorising and understanding topics in isolation. Memorisation without understanding is almost impossible which is why most people don’t use random strings of letters and numbers for passwords. ‘Meaning’ is at the heart of successful memorisation and we need to remember if we are to think. Thinking involves using the information in your head to  solve problems or to understand a new topic or to make a discovery.

An example of fixed learning might be knowing Jane Austen’s Emma ‘inside-out’ but unable to connect it to the movie, Clueless. Or perhaps knowing lots about the histories of Israel and Northern Ireland but not noticing any parallels.

Only seeing the surface structure of a topic. For example, I teach two closely related subjects: heat transfer and mass transfer. Students can easily understand them separately but rarely see the deep connections between the two, especially the underlying mathematical similarities. This is a great example of students preferring to learn from the specific to the general whereas experts often like to teach from the general to specific because it is a more elegant, and more powerful (in their view), way to do things.

Flexible or Deep Learning

After many years of study or work experience, we see the connections between subjects. We are not distracted by the surface features of problems and ideas – we see the deeper structures; the underlying laws and principles rather than the specific context.

Does Google kill creativity?

I set a number of assignments to my students (at first and second year) in which I challenge students to think outside the box. I actively reward creativity. For example, in my first year course I challenge my students to come up ways of performing various processes on a large scale, for example, extracting sugar from sugar beet.

Increasingly I’ve found that rather than actually thinking about the problem, students just Google things like “sugar extraction beet” or similar and regurgitate what they read off a website. Of course I can fix this problem by banning smartphones but it is interesting nonetheless that the availability of massive “intelligence” in the form of Google has made it possible for our students to outsource their thinking to an algorithm. Maybe it’s a sign of things to come.

Yet more thoughts on the Leaving Cert

This a is an analysis (fisk?) of this article in the Irish Times by Barry O’Callaghan, former principal and chair of the National Association Association of Principals and Deputies (NAPD) leading for learning committee…


Anna sat the Leaving Certificate in the summer of 2017 and secured a place in Trinity. She got 580 points, was pleased with her results, yet her next words nailed the problem: “If I was to sit it today, I wouldn’t get 200 points.”

You could say exactly the same thing about university exams, or indeed, any exam. When it comes to exams and learning generally, it’s a case of use it or lose although my experience is that when push comes to shove you can actually remember a lot more than you think you can.


Her mother told me earlier that year she worried about the endless hours studying in her bedroom and having to be coaxed out to say hello and eat.

That’s unsurprising considering that she got 580 points.


Across all the big issues surveyed, students voiced the strongest dissatisfaction. The Leaving Cert did not come close to preparing them either for work or for third level (are we surprised when the first-year dropout rate for some third-level courses is more than 30 per cent?), never mind preparing them for life.

The Leaving Cert is hard, probably the hardest challenge an 18 year-old has had to deal with. It is quite natural that they would want it to be reformed in the hope that it might become less stressful.

Transitions are always hard: whether it’s from primary to secondary or from secondary to tertiary or from the world of education to the world of work. Students will always imagine that somehow improving one level will make to transition to another level seem seamless. But that will never happen. That’s why we call them “levels”.

Drop out rates are high when students perform relatively poorly in the Leaving Cert, a fact that runs counter to the core thesis of this article. The HEA’s excellent statistics department has shown this for many years – performance at third level is crucially dependent on “prior academic achievement” as measured by CAO points. (The effect is strong at low points levels, below 300 or so, and quite weak when you got to higher points levels.) The Leaving seems to be a good “signal” for academic achievement at higher level once you go above a certain threshold.


Shouldn’t the Leaving be more than an entrance exam for third level? It is time to disentangle it from CAO and bring back matriculation.

Possibly, but the devil is in the detail here. Will forcing students to do more than one exam (and possible multiple exams) not create more pressure on students and more than likely create a matriculation industry, just like the HPAT?


Or maybe it’s time to create a technical stream after junior cycle, as Germany does, to prepare for employment in industry and trades?

Do we really want to pigeonhole youngsters at 16 years of age? There is a lot of dissatisfaction around this approach in Germany and, indeed, in everyone’s education utopia, Finland.


Why does everyone have to aspire to university, when so many are, post-Leaving Cert at least, unsuited?

Reasonable point but it’s important to ask who’s driving this emphasis on third level education? I would say it’s a nexus of government, the institutions themselves, parents and, most of all, employers. It suits a lot of people to increase higher education participation rates. Why hire a school-leaver with an A in maths when you can hire a graduate with a bunch of exemptions from the actuarial exams.


Also, what about expanding apprenticeships to traditional white collar careers, as has happened in accounting and insurance?

That is happening albeit slowly and the funny thing is it’s portrayed  as a  really original thing to do when, in fact, it was the norm back in the 1980s.


Change is needed, but whatever we do, we must end up with a robust, reliable and fair Leaving Cert.

The case for change hasn’t been made yet, at least not in this article


Despite its many failings, the present system ticks many boxes – except fairness. How can it be fair when some students have unlimited access to external help and are taught in smaller classes in schools with better facilities?

There is some truth in this but a system based on, say, continuous assessment is far more likely to benefit students from more affluent backgrounds with access to far more cultural capital.


Reforms must be dynamic, evolutionary, ambitious but also realistic and doable. We should add “timely”: University College Dublin first introduced computer science as a degree subject in 1972. It then took all of 46 years, half a lifetime, to introduce it, in 2018, to the Leaving.

Fair point re computer science but there are huge resource implications. Plus it is easy to fall into the trap of wanting to teach the next ‘big thing’. We should always emphasise teaching that which has endured, and is likely to endure.


A student recently told me that his best teachers were those who gave the best notes. I, naively, was hoping he would choose those who facilitated learning, made them think, asked awkward questions, advocated self-directed learning, turned them into problem solvers and collaborators and developed their curiosity.

Giving good notes is an essential part of being a good teacher and is not inconsistent with being an inspiring teacher. In fact you can be inspiring and not be a particularly good teacher. The story goes that the great physicist, Richard Feynman, was inspiring, but students often left his lectures somewhat euphoric but unable to remember much of what he had said!


Then I remembered that I once held some teachers in high regard for the very same reason. It’s what the Leaving did to us 40 years ago and continues to do. How can we blame young people who have learned to play the game, just as we did? It’s the game, stupid!

Playing the game effectively is the sign of a smart person. Don’t knock it. The world of work, especially academia, is to a large extent about playing the game.


Young people must learn how democracy works by experiencing it in action. We need to loosen our hierarchical structures, bin the idea that we know and they don’t. They are but “kids” yet they address us as “sir” and “miss”. Learner voice must be engaged with. Democracy must be learned in our schools.

Now this is where things go a bit mad. There is a strand of thought in education that suggests that teachers are “co-learners” and that students should dictate what should be taught and how it should be taught. This is a recipe for disaster. The reality is that students are, in the main, naïve novices, and teachers are more than a bit wiser and knowledgeable. That’s what it means to be “educated”. If the writer can provide any evidence that student-led curricula lead to better outcomes I’d love to hear it.


It makes little sense that 14 years of schooling culminates in a final two years of rote learning and cramming, all to be judged in a three-hour exam on a sunny June day. We must immediately reduce student stress over these two years, lest they continue to leave us burned-out and disillusioned.

Does it really make little sense? What’s the alternative – continuous assessment? Does that really reduce stress in system where every mark counts if you want to get your first choice on your CAO from. And does chopping learning up into bite-size chinks really improve the depth of our learning or does it actively encourage the student to think in a disjointed kind of way? It’s by no means clear what the optimum way to assess students is.


Instead of a three-hour terminal exam, can’t we have a shorter exam in the summer of fifth year and similar in sixth year? Split the course, take the test and bank the marks.

This seems a bit contrary to the whole thrust of this article. So we should test material, bank the marks, and move on. What about the whole “I’d only get 200 points now” argument?


There is another idea talked about for many years, whose time has come – remove the Junior Cert from State certification. The old “inter cert” once served a purpose for early school leavers, but no longer does. Schools can issue their own certification. This would free up significant resources for the Leaving.

I’m confused by this. Schools issuing their own certification is fraught with problems; problems around grade inflation, parental pressure, selection of leaving cert subjects, plagiarism etc. etc. Again, as in a lot of education discussions, the writer is making a suggestion in an evidence vacuum. Where has this worked before? Where’s the evidence that this approach will prepare students adequately for the demands of the senior cycle whatever that may become? We need to stop experimenting with young people’s lives. Extraordinary changes require extraordinary evidence.


We could be braver still and mirror third-level semesterisation. Over the two years have four testing points: December/January in fifth year, June in fifth year and likewise in sixth year.

As I said in an earlier blog, I know of no study that has shown the benefits to student learning of semesterisation. Anecdotal evidence suggests to me that semesterisation has reduced students’ ability to retain knowledge gained in prior study. Semesterisation seems to promote the ‘bank it and move on’ approach to learning.


We live in an information-rich age and need to ask what young people leaving school should know. Can we reduce content in top heavy syllabuses, allowing for learning at greater depth and providing time to stop, think and explore?

There’s a hint in this of the “knowledge is obsolete because of Google” argument (a ridiculous one) but it is a fair point to ask if students should do fewer subjects in greater depth. For what it’s worth I like the breath of our secondary education.


At day’s end we need to ask if young people are leaving our schools with a sense of achievement and, as forward-looking global citizens, ready to contribute to making the world a better place.

Yes, they are. Our first year students are, in the main, excellent. I often think that they regress a bit as they cope with the demands of third level (being not very IT-literate and struggling with attention to detail are key problems) but by the time they graduate they are a credit to our education system.


Unless we help equip young people to fix the broken and existentially challenged world we are bequeathing them, the Leaving Cert will become the least of their problems.

This reminds of the time celebrity economist, David McWilliams, blamed the financial crisis on the Leaving Cert because the Leaving promoted group-think – or something. If we want to solve our many problems we’d be far better off focusing on our dysfunctional political system rather than the Leaving Cert. I remain to be convinced that the Leaving Cert is “broken”.

And by the way, the world is not broken. Check out “Better Angels of our Nature” by Steven Pinker.

Thoughts on Motivation

When I was a youngster I devoured popular science books. I watched the BBC science programme, Horizon, religiously, and Carl Sagan’s Cosmos was the highlight of the TV week for me. I was a bit of nerd.

But as worked my through the education system and tried to find a happy medium between fascination and employability, I ended up studying chemical engineering. I was somewhat influenced by my brother who was two years ahead of me but my choice of disciplines was more to do with the fact that chemical engineering is the most ‘science-like’ of the engineering disciplines. It’s engineering at the molecular level.

At the end of my education journey I found myself an expert in membrane filtration, of all things, a subject that is, when you think about it, a very long way from the space science and astronomy of Carl Sagan. But here I was, deeply interested in obscure concepts like “concentration polarization” or the difference between “apparent and intrinsic rejection”.

I was thinking about these things the other week when I attended the 30th anniversary dinner of UCD’s Newman Fellowships. I was in the first ever ‘class’ back in 1989. When I was a scholar (as we were known then) I’d give the occasional talk and typically I was paired with another scholar whose research was centered on some aspect of the humanities. I’m remembering now the night I was paired with a Dutch guy whose talk was “Did Yeats propose to Maud Gonne?”. Mine was on “Preferential deposition of small cells in crossflow microfiltration of yeast suspensions”. Guess which talk sparked the most interest.

But the things is, most research in science and engineering could be classed as superficially boring; yet researchers devote their lives to their own obscure fields of study, making incremental improvements to our knowledge of the physical world. Why do they do this?

The answer it seems to me is that researchers enjoy the process of discovery, not to mention the sense of competition one gets in the research world. But more importantly, researchers devote their lives to seemingly dull topics because they have become experts in those topics. But this is true of many careers: people tend to be motivated to work hard at a job if they are good at what they do and especially if they see themselves as improving at it.

Motivation to persevere in academic learning or in sport or in playing a musical instrument is very much dependent on whether we are making progress. That sense of making progress is far more important, in my view, than being “engaged”, a word that is almost synonymous with “having fun” these days.

So if you want to motivate students, teach them well and ensure that they make progress, and especially,ensure that they know they are making progress. And give them a sense of direction.

Thoughts on Geary’s ideas of primary and secondary Knowledge

David C. Geary is a cognitive psychologist who came up with a theory of the mind that can be roughly summarised as follows:

“Environmental pressures have resulted in the evolution of brain ‘modules’ specialising in processing certain types of information, such as language or facial features. Information is processed by the modules rapidly, automatically and implicitly, resulting in heuristics (rules of thumb) characteristic of the ‘folk’ psychology, biology and physics that form the default patterns for the way we think. But we are also capable of flexible thought that overrides those default patterns. The flexibility is due to the highly plastic frontal areas of our brain responsible for intelligence. Geary refers to the thinking using the evolved modules as biologically primary, and that involving the plastic frontal areas as biologically secondary.” (See here for source.)

In a highly influential paper, Sweller explored Geary’s ideas in a pedagogical context and current thinking around primary and secondary knowledge, stemming largely from his paper, seems to be the following:

Primary knowledge/skill need not be taught explicitly but secondary knowledge/skill must be taught explicitly and usually in a definite context rather than in a generic kind of way.

Although Geary’s ideas are plausible and at least partly ‘true’, they do seem to me to be simplistic.

For example, the vast majority of human beings can speak but many cannot communicate effectively and some do it very badly indeed. Likewise, most human beings have a reasonable level of hand-eye coordination (survival would have depended on it) but some are naturally brilliant and excel at sport while some are clumsy and require huge amounts of practice to even become average. Some people have extraordinary spatial skills and seem to have a sixth sense when it comes to 3D geometry; others are like me and will never be able to reverse park into a tight spot. Some people are born with an ability for abstract reasoning (does that make it primary?) while many, if not most, are not, and have to be trained to do so. Some are born with an innate ability to draw and paint (does that make drawing primary?)  while others need intensive training just to draw simple cartoons. Although humans have evolved (you’d expect) to cooperate, , many groups and teams perform very badly.

So for me, the problem with Geary’s ideas is that they ignore the diversity of the human population. What’s primary for some might well be secondary for others. Things are much fuzzier than Geary suggests.