Monday, 26 May 2008

Finishing up

When I finished writing my answers, I'd get a feeling like this picture. Rays of tranquility, the stillness of having finished...aaah it's all over.

The trouble is I got this feeling prematurely: when you finish writing you still have one job to do. Checking it over. If I am honest, not every essay I wrote in exams was read through and checked either because I ran out of time or steam (or had lapsed into a world of romanticised classical imagery.)

This is bad time management and a bad attitude to have. On those essays I did check over I always found a slew of glaring errors. On the ones that didn't get the once over I probably cost myself. I would advise you hold off the feeling of relief at the end of writing for a bit longer and leave yourself a couple of mins at the end of an essay to go back over and brush it up. Silly mistakes upset markers - and grumpy markers get stingy with marks.

The first five mins

Read the questions sloooowwwly

When the exam starts read the questions carefully. Sounds bleedin' obvious, doesn't it? But panic does funny things to us. Time feels like it's slipping away and reading the questions speedily is the outcome of this feeling. Besides, what you nod at here isn't often what you actually do. To make sure I read them properly, I didn't read them 'in my head' but as if I were reading them out loud, just with no volume.

I'd spend 2 minutes reading the questions over and over. Sometimes one will jump out and give you a big wet kiss, other times it will twist in front of your eyes, changing shape every time you look at it.

I like to choose both questions before I start under the belief that somewhere some portion of my brain might be thinking about the other question sub-consciously whilst I answer the other (I have no idea whether this is true, it just seems like it might be from experience).

Put your answer's gist in a nutshell

Before embarking on your answer have a casual sentence or two in your head to sum up what your main argument will be. Some examples:
  • [Human Factors & Error] 'Sure, human error is unavoidable but user-centred design can make systems more tolerant of error'
  • [Neuropsychiatry] 'Yes, psychiatry and neurology should be merged for theoretical reasons (they both deal with breakdowns in the same system)
For people confident with their stuff, I'd advise adding on a modifier to this mental statement. This will refine your argument, show caution (a good thing) and tick the box for critical analysis. Building on the examples I gave you a moment ago:
  • [Human Factors & Error] '...While systems can be polished, we must not forget - and remove all the blame from - humans: as operators, their cognitive systems can be polished too by training';
  • [Neuropsychiatry] '...Whilst Neuropsychiatry is theoretically ideal it may be practically impossible to be sufficiently expert in. Therefore, although the two should be reunited, the sub-disciplines of psychiatry and neurology should exist within the framework of neuropsychiatry';
If you do this, what you have is the last sentence of your introduction and the spine of your essay which you can add the muscle to when you are writing it. It will keep you focused.

If you are write-down-plan sort of person spend the next few mins making that. If you are a do-it-in-your-head-plan type (like me) make sure it's solid and then start writing...

Before the exam

Avoid the wafts of panic that hang outside exams; find somewhere quiet and unflustered

Outside the exam ignore those people. You know the ones. Well-prepared but nevertheless spreading their own brand of insecure worry-vibes out on a strong frequency. Get your desk number and picture where your desk will be in the room.

Then relax, perhaps find your revision buddies, talk about general course issues, the news, where you are going to eat after the exam, a few major references etc. This mix of getting into the intellectual groove whilst soothing the nerves is best.

Now, when you walk in you should be calm and confident and not letting nerves frazzle your mind and serve up blocks. On the other hand, a bit of natural edge is good. You don't want to be so completely relaxed you feel like a kip.

When you get in you can make a bee-line to your desk, as you know its location, and exploit the time at the start to get ready and even think about your answers if they are showing (n.b. useful skill to be able to read back-to-front text through paper. Or, just turn the question sheet over. Technically, there is nothing saying you shouldn't; it's just one of those funny obedience to authority things that we assume we can't. Do what you want - don't hold me responsible if some adjudicator elbow drops you.)

Keep the contents of your desk to a minimum. Check for table wobbles. Head up your booklets. Open any drinks or snacks before. Crackling or the "ft-sssss" of a bottle opening isn't appreciated during the exam. Hydrate before, not during.

You should be calm, ready and excited. Panic will be detrimental. So will apathy. Now the exam starts...

Exam technique

"Two point drop-down....There it is."

'Any tips on exam technique?' seems to be the question of the moment.

Technique is very important. It's the bottleneck through which all your knowledge must squeeze.

The next few posts will address some techniques that might be useful before, during and after the exam.

Wednesday, 21 May 2008

How to be the cream

I had this scheduled to post a while back before all the exams kicked off but something went wrong with Blogger for some strange reason. Here it is now though.

A pint of Guinness tonight and a couple of emails from you lot got me thinking about the difference between a 2.1 and the a First. What does it take to be the cream at the top?

Having produced essays that range from shrugging 2.2 all the way up to a party-throwing nineteen, I have had a crack at analysing what I think works.

I know it says a little bit in the handbook about what a makes a First but here's my take on the sine non qua of the undergraduate black belt.

Flawless basics

Getting the basics right might sound obvious and easy but it is often neither. Perfect writing takes skill, which means practice. You might also be thinking that it is the quality of your ideas inside an essay that are of importance, not other things like proper spelling, grammar and vocabulary. You'd be wrong. Basic errors will piss off your marker and reduce your essay's readability. You have to respect that these guys have spent years grooming their own writing and they are seriously sharp and unforgiving on errors. A First class essay will have mastery over these basics. This is the first hoop.

Advanced understanding

This is the single most important thing to have if you want to write at a First class level. Not only does this tell the reader you know your stuff but it also sets you up for all those other things a First needs, which I'll speak about in a sec.

How to do it? Read. Read. And then read a bit more. A good benchmark for when you have read enough is that the references start becoming achingly familiar and no important new ones pop up. Considerable investment of time is needed; cramming simply won't work at this level.

Once this is done you will need to get it straight in your head. There are several effective ways to do this: teach someone else what you know, write a brief article about for a newspaper, make a diagram.

In all these cases, you are translating your knowledge into a simpler form that forces you to be clear by getting intimate with the logic flowing through material. It also gives you the chance to enliven and have fun with the concepts, which should forge better memories.

Once you have reached this level you will be fluent with in-house debates (e.g. modularity/connectionism, user-centred design/system-centred design, mind-brain dichotomy/mind-brain holism, serial/interactive, nativism/empiricism and so on). These arguments, their proponents and the evidence that is used in their support should be achingly familiar to you. Beyond this bifurcated, black and white - 2.1 - view, you will know the subtleties of theories and arguments - you will be at one with grey.

This refined understanding of the big picture and its smaller brushstrokes will mean you can quickly set out an argument in a pithy introduction, write with brutal clarity and relentless relevance and - most important - be unabashedly critical and glitteringly creative. I'll expand on each of these a bit.

A super-concise introduction

See my post on introduction writing for more on this. Briefly though, you should have a quick introduction to the area, a specific statement about the issue at hand, an idea of the route you are going to take and the conclusion you will arrive at. (Note how this is almost identical to an abstract.)

Brutal clarity

This means the reader is treated to an effortless journey through your argument, free from tangling structure, overgrown vocabulary and irrelevant obstacles. Every sentence will be suffused with a crispness and will elegantly pass the baton from the previous sentence to the next.

Relentless relevance

Every sentence should be working for you; use it to answer the question, or lose it. Anything not maintaining the flow of logic or evidence will be spotted by a marker's keen eye and cause upset. So many essays fall down because they give answers to adjacent questions. Keep referring back to the question with explicit sentences that actually answer it.

Unabashed criticism

Take a very low view of academic papers. Assume they are wrong and that they have something to prove to you as you are reading them and you will see the weaknesses more easily. When you do this don't tip-toe around flakiness, attack it explicitly. Don't be afraid of published scientists with lots of letters after their name. The whole point of this degree is to get you thinking for yourself. It's a great feeling taking giants down a peg and actively looking for the opportunity to do so will sharpen your nib.

Glittering creativity

There is usually a painful discord in the recent literature. That's what being at the fractious, creative edge of science is like. Armed with your advanced understanding and critical outlook you will be able to spot weaknesses in how people are uncovering and making sense of the unknown. Critiquing is good but real rewards await for those not only satisfied to criticise the food, but go ahead an open their own restaurant. That is, propose your own theory.

One way of doing this is to hook up the best bits of other theories that haven't met before. This is something I did lots. Another way of doing this is to come up with something truly new and amazing. I've never been good enough to do this.

And a conclusion to hold all the strings together and announce lift off

See my post on conclusion writing for more on this. Briefly though, gather up all the points you have made and then package them up for the reader in a neat sentence to finish the essay on, which undeniably answers the question and avoids the platitudes.

Tuesday, 20 May 2008

The big day: getting ready

The Great Day of His Wrath by John Martin (1853, Oil on canvas)

Exam days don't have to be the emotional equivalent of 'Mad Martin's' apocalyptic vision. It's probably much better if they aren't because all that worry is bad for performance, soaking up valuable working memory. At the same time total indifference is unlikely to get your brain fired up for sharp thinking. Instead, you want to aim for a happy medium - a calm tinged with a brooding sense of drama, a restrained excitement, like Turner perhaps.

Snow Storm - Steam-Boat off a Harbour's Mouth by J.M.W. Turner (1842, Oil on canvas)

So, as requested, here is some advice for preparing for the big day.

Exam days begin the night before with a solid amount of sleep. Read the this paper (the intro at least) out last year if you don't believe me. Doing revision at the expense of sleep is pointless. Set several alarms to get you up for at least 2hrs before the start of the exam. This will give your brain time to warm up and allow you to calmly go about your morning activities.

One of these should be to eat well. Nerves may try to fend off your meal. Ignore them. Your brain is going to make a energy-demanding journey so fuel it up well (see here for more on eating). Also, don't eat too close to an exam otherwise you'll get the unhelpful "post-lunch dip'' (Smith et al., 1991).

Absolutely no new learning should be attempted on the morning of the exam; cramming is a seriously dodgy exercise (Glenn, 2007; Rohrer & Pashler, 2007). Just go over your condensed notes, making sure you focus on arguments first and references second.

Monday, 19 May 2008

No trousers?

You sit down, turn over the paper. The questions are revealed. You read over them quickly. An out-of-body experience begins to creep in. Your palms start prickling with sweat. What the hell are they asking? This wasn't even on the course, was it? Your heart is jumping in your chest. You look around. Heads are down. Please - someone give an indication that they are in the same position. No one. No one? This is just like the nightmare of turning up somewhere without any trousers, except it's worse: it's real.

But unlike the bare-legged moment, this probably happens a lot more than people care to let on. I'll come clean, it has happened to me many times. The words are swimming on the page, you are telling yourself to concentrate and then in that horrible recursive way you start thinking 'I should be actually concentrating instead of thinking about concentrating. Ah! I am wasting time!' And then - snap - you are back looking at the questions. Everyone around you seems to be getting on - and time is running out! What to do?

Take a deep breath.

Calmly read through the questions again and stop worrying about time. You will have missed something in your panic earlier. Sometimes a question comes disguised as an ogre whereas when you take off the ugly phrasing there's a hottie underneath.

Here are a few things to be on the lookout for when undressing the ogre:

1. Inversion

This is where a common theme is disguised by flipping it on its head. 'To what extent is language a cultural invention?' is getting at the biology of language. 'System-centred design is wrong. Discuss' is inviting you to talk about user-centred design. 'Social anxiety is a 'illness' 'suffered' only by malingerers. Discuss.' is opening the gate for a discussion on the neuropsychiatry of the disorder. Be careful not be led down the wrong path with questions like this. If you feel your thoughts drifting off into new territory ask yourself if the question is rotated whether you can get back to familiar ground.

2. Tricky language.

This is the use of unfamiliarity to mask a familiar topic. For example, 'Does matter matter?' - here the familiar theme - functionalism - is disguised by the seeming complexity of the question. Another might be, 'Discuss the evidence for 'insulated processing islands' in the visual system?' - here the usual term - a module - is substituted to throw you off the scent. Take a moment to translate back into terms you are familiar with.

3. Quoting.

This is the use of external quotations, often couched in the practical, which then demand theoretical clarification. For instance, '"Women need a reason to have sex; men just need a place". Discuss this statement in relation to Parental Investment Theory.' Or, '"Most of the focus in product design is on the product itself, and I realised that's just a small piece of it" (Norman, 2005). Discuss.' In these cases, the meaning of the quotation needs unpacking and translating back into something you are familiar with. I found it helpful to write a couple of re-phrasing words over the top of quotations just to get the meaning pinned down. Just make sure in your answer you address a quotation directly.

So, take your time when reading the questions at the start. If you feel panic setting in push it away, take a deep breath and have another look because a second reading without the dizzying effect of anxiety will be much better if you are looking out for the things questions are getting at and not their window dressing.

Sunday, 18 May 2008

Exam drinking

No, this is not a drinking game where you take a shot for every page you write. It's about that habit some people have to continuously sip away at a bottle whilst they sit their exams. My advice is to hydrate before the exam and top-up on fluids (and sugar) between your two essays. All that sipping wastes precious time.

It is also a cognitive no-no. The department's very own Peter Rogers and his minions have written a paper on this (Appetite, 2001, 36, 57-8). They say, "Many students take a drink into a long exam. If you are not thirsty and use the water as a distraction or comfort tool it may have a detrimental effect on your performance."(source).

They found 15% lower scores (than controls) in people taking a test where water was sipped continuously. They also found 10% higher scores where water was consumed and people were thirsty, hence why I say hydrate before the exam.

Saturday, 17 May 2008


winmac @ Flickr

Creatively, digitally, altruistically, commercially and pedagogically, Brain Milk has been a bit of an experiment. From the fact that around 150 of you keep coming back every day together with all your lovely emails, it seems to have been successful.

As you may have picked up on from various posts, I am dubious of the current way things are done when it comes to work throughout the year and revision - mostly solipsistically and without any 'top down' - to steal a popular cognitive term - feedback. That is, alone and without any input from people who have done it already. The revision wheel is continually reinvented, which seems rather pointless.

However, it does genuinely interest me how my twenty minutes a day of babbling affects you lot. So, I have put a poll over on the right to see the results of my little experiment. I realise I have been a bit naughty with the framing of third question, but you get the idea: best to worst as you go down. And don't worry it's completely anonymous - Google Analytics tells me a lot about you but not who you are (yet).

The Profound Sign-off

Still thinking about conclusions, I starting thinking about The Matrix, which tickles me and annoys me a bit.

It tickles me for for galvanizing a generation of pale guys to go out and buy long leather coats, adopt a slightly creepy, deadpan vernacular and walk around with knitted brows looking like they are cogitating the nature of Choice. (Aside: anyone else notice they always carry thin HMV bags? What is in those bags?) It annoys me for the final scene of the first film: I think it was rather overindulgent of the Wachowskis. Listen to it here (may not work on Internet Explorer because it's lame; use Firefox):

Neo's frothy spiel to the Matrix (or whatever he is talking to, himself most probably) and his extravagant 'Superman thing', as Link later dubs it, set against Rage Against the Machine's Wake Up, captures a tendency in writing, speeches and film to shoehorn some mawkish wider meaning into the end of the script and finish on a big, splashy note.

US TV series are especially guilty of this, typically signing off with some life-affirming message or manifesto for making the world a better place. Something like, 'I guess the thing about identity these days is [insert your own pseudo-profound statement].'

Back to academia though. Whether or not this need to inject some wider meaning into conclusions is a product of our reading and viewing diets or whether it's from something else, it has no place in your essay's conclusion. Try and purge yourself of the temptation to imbue your final sentence with a fat dollop of real-world import.

Your final sentence in your essay should be a place for you to pithily state your answer to the question, so it is ringing in the ears of the marker as she finalises your mark. It is not the place for your personal manifesto.

Don't do a Neo and dip into the platitudes when you finish up; just answer the question.

Conclusions and Balloons

I have blogged about getting the flavour of your introduction right to impress your reader. Now it's time to think about how to finish off.

For this we are going to employ the use of some helium balloons for the mother of all contrived analogies. What we want to do is make the marker take off like this at the end of the essay:

How do we do it? What we will need are lots of well-inflated balloons all tied together. The balloons are the points in your essay. The lift they give is the force of your argument. If they don't have anything in them they ain't gonna fly. So, in your essay make sure all your points are supported by empirical reference or logic, and there are lots of them.

Now, if you hand someone a load of balloons that aren't bound together what you have is minor disappointment and a load of wasted balloons that are probably going to confuse a flock of birds. You might as well not have bothered inflating them. In other words, if your points aren't nicely drawn together at the end you aren't going to get the desired effect. The conclusion is the place to tie up all the balloons and announce the lift off.

What follows is the crudest possible way of constructing an essay. It a guideline not a rule. Don't follow it to the letter but use it to see how you can go about constructing your conclusion by drawing on the points you have made earlier.

-Intro, issue, route, destination

Para 1
-Point 1
-Summarise paragraph point 1 and relate back to Q (P1P)
Para 2
-Point 2
-Summarise paragraph point 2 and relate back to Q (P2P)
Para 3
-Point 3.
-Summarise paragraph point 3 and relate back to Q (P3P)
Para 4
-Point 4
-Summarise paragraph point 4 and related back to Q (P4P)

-Summarise the issue outlined at start
-Drumroll...and explicit answer to main question which will be ringing in marker's ears as they finalise your mark.

So for conclusions remember this: tie up your balloons and announce lift off!

Friday, 16 May 2008

Writing references

mark78 @ Flickr

People have clearly developed a hunger for the posts on writing style. To sate that this post has a few references that you might like to explore further. It is probably one for second years to dip into next year, although it may be worth using a dead moment to take a look at them now before exams begin.

Taines, C. (2007). A practical guide to writing for psychology. New York: McGraw Hill.

Smyth, T. R. (2004). The principles of writing in psychology. New York: Palgrave Macmillan

O'Shea, R. P., Moss, S., & McKenzie, W. (2007). Writing for psychology (5th. ed.). Melbourne: Thomson Australia.

Findlay, B. (2006). How to write psychology research reports and essays (4th ed.). Frenchs Forest, Australia: Prentice Hall.

Burton, L. (2007). An interactive approach to writing essays and research reports in psychology (2nd ed.). Milton, Australia: Wiley.

Beins, A., & Beins, B. (2008). Effective writing in psychology: Papers, posters, and presentations. New York: Blackwell.

Ambiguous pronouns

If you use pronouns - like "this”, “that”, “they”, “these”, “those” etc - make sure it is clear what they refer to, otherwise do not use them. It's just another of those things to avoid reader confusion.

More on writing

“Formal writing differs from informal writing in being concise, clear, simple, scholarly, polite, careful, precise, and scrupulously grammatical…” (O’Shea, 2000, p.1).

Nicely put.

To the Psychoanalysts

onefromrome @ Flickr

There has been a call for more psychoanalysis essays on the hub. It'll be useful before the exam on Monday. Upload now!

Wednesday, 14 May 2008

What to do this week?

chunyang @ Flickr

Exams are suddenly no longer just around the corner. Nerves are creeping in; you lot are (anxiolytically?) checking the blog more often per day than you were this time last week. As people feel time pinching up, the questions have taken on a common theme: how to use it most effectively in the coming days.

My answer to these questions is this:

1) Pace yourself - There is a temptation to up the pace now the hours are getting tighter, to pack more in to each one and to work more of them. This is fine but don't lose sight of the reason for all this work - the exams. If you are not fresh (fed and rested) for them all that hard work is pointless.

2) Learn by plans - If you were told to commit to memory all the characters in The Godfather films, how they relate to one another and their individual journeys through the plot, which would be better technique: learning them off a list or watching the films? I think the films, which is why I am a fan of learning references by planning essays; the arguments become the important bits and the refs are easily picked up collaterally. So, instead of just writing out references again and again blend them into arguments. The nice thing about this is that if references are absorbed in context, when it comes to wringing them out all the related references drip out too. In cognitive speak, one reference can act as a cue to activate the others, and before you know it you have a paragraph in the exam.

3) Get social - Get out of the cubicle and chat. This is good because it forces you to test your knowledge without the crutches of your notes, thus sweeping away the self-deception that is so rife with individual study. For some reason, it is also a whole lot easier to learn those references by chatting them over.


Signposting is helpful for getting around a place. And essays can be confusing places. So, just like their physical namesakes, when used sparingly and at the right places they can make all the difference to someone trying to find their way around your essay.

Personally, I find them helpful at the start of new paragraphs. They help provide the zip line for reader to glide down as they read. They're just another way of being an altruistic writer.

A signpost might take the form of something like this: "Having discussed how deprivation negatively affects linguistic and communication skills, why deprivation causes these effects will now be examined."

Monday, 12 May 2008

The original hub, updated

It's at DropBoks. Enter these details :

password: i/l/i/k/e/s/h/a/r/i/n/g
[remove all the "/" - this is to avoid bots]

MediaMax have refused to restore any of the old data. Thanks to everyone who has uploaded again. You are all stars!

Anxiety: all in the mind?

broterham @ Flickr

New research out in the Journal of Nuclear Medicine, which will get neuropsychiatrists fizzing. Using single-photon emission computed tomography (SPECT), researchers in The Netherlands were able to detect biochemical differences in the brains of individuals with generalized social anxiety disorder (also known as social phobia), providing evidence of a long-suspected biological cause for the dysfunction. Carry on reading here...

On quantity

florian_b @ Flickr

You'll often hear people asking each other how many pages they wrote in the exam as they exit, as if pages were somehow related to marks (even if that were true it would be confounded by writing size.)

I think you could probably write a pretty sweet answer on two sides (if your handwriting were on the smallish size). I know you could write a terrible answer six sides long.

The point is length doesn't matter; it's how you use it - how you write it - that counts.

I say this because there is often the temptation to try and fill the pages out of some anxiety that the marker will be unimpressed by a pithy offering.

The marker will be unimpressed by a bloated, descriptive, unfocused answer. So, write a concise, persuasive, focused answer and completely forget about how many pages you fill in an exam.


clspeace @ Flickr

Another thing I picked up on from the essays before MediaMax imploded: be careful with comparisons, which inevitably crop up all over the place.

Saying "Females performed worse for Condition A" is meaningless because what other group did they perform worse than? The monkey wizards?

While we're talking about "Condition A", I should mention I don't like refering to conditions by a letter because it is as clear as a brick to the reader. Give it some meaninful name.

So all together, "Females performed worse in the Banana Magic condition than the Monkey Wizards.

Chunks. Not spread.

toronto_lex @ Flickr

If last year is anything to go by, right now is an anxious time. You are far enough into your revision and close enough to exams to doubt whether you have enough covered and in proper detail. This puts space between where you are and where you want to be causing stress (and maybe even some out-of-body library experiences.)

The first thing to say is that you can't know everything in a course. For those of you fretting over this, stop. Trying to know everything means you'll end up floundering because unless you started back in January you will spread your butter too thinly. It's best for everyone - both people who have left it too late and the diligent - to have several nice big chunks of butter. Concentrate on areas you've cherry picked to come up and craft arguments you can deploy in exams.

For those who have left it too late, your best bet is to be ruthless in this cherry picking. You need to redress your poor planning with riskier strategies. Hone down on, maybe, four areas that have the best chance of coming up. This happened to me in second year on the Individual Differences course after I spent far too much time doing Klaus impersonations and pretending the course didn't exist.

For third years, concerned about that general question, know that you can answer a general question with information from your specific topics; you just need to be solid on the course themes (blueprints). You do not need to have a understanding of every single topic to answer general questions.

For those of you who have had more foresight, you will likely have your cherries picked. Don't be distracted by trying to go beyond that. If you made a decision a while a go to do, say 6 topics for a module, stick with it. Take the topics you have covered and learn them until you wake up mumbling references.

It is better to be solid in lots areas than OK in all of them. Now is the time for fashioning arguments and learning them and their supporting evidence. It is not a time to embark on new stuff.

Wrong apostrophe's

Tesco seem to piss incorrect signs out of their arse on a daily basis. For a litany of their agrammaticism see this collection. (Perhaps that's why the majority of the public incorrectly call them "Tesco's" - the grammar gods are redressing the balance for all the missing apostrophes).

I just walked past the Carphone Warehouse which informed me "iPod's for sale". Unless they were just selling the one - a strange economic practice for a major retailer - that means someone wasn't listening in class. So, if the title of this post didn't raise an eyebrow, here's a reminder on how they work.

1. The possessive apostrophe denotes belonging, like in "Tesco's fruit" or, if the word ends in an 's' "Ross' hair" (it's ok to stick another 's' on if you like, but I don't, e.g. "Ross's".)

However, there are a few exceptions including,

It's and its

'Its' is possessive but lacks the apostrophe because 'it's' [it is] usurps it. For example, 'It's impossible its wings came off".

'Whose' and 'who's'

'Whose' is possessive but lacks the apostrophe because 'who's' [who is] usurps it. For example, 'Beardface, who's Head of Hirsute Neuroscience at Oxford University, has a PhD student whose thesis is going to be focusing solely on the neural correlates of moustache perception.'

2. The contracting apostrophe

This simply eats up letters (e.g., don't [do not]). You should never need to use this in academic writing. Therefore, if you find yourself writing "it's" and "who's" in essays, don't: either you'll have used the wrong possessive or you are making an unnecessary contraction.

Saturday, 10 May 2008

The first bite of an essay

Don't know about you, but I find the first taste of food to be the best. It's probably a combination of the hypothalamus getting its way, some neural adaptation thereafter and a bit of the primacy effect, if we are stripping down and getting really geeky. Science aside, I probably make my "Mmm, great", "Yeah, not bad" or "Ergh! Who cooked this?" after this first bite or two. It's the same with essays: the introduction will give your reader an immediate flavour for your mark and they'll spend the rest of the time they're reading making tweaks to that figure (this is what every lecturer I have ever asked has intimated).

If you start poorly your essay will have to work damn hard to improve the marker's opinion of it. Send them reeling with a confusion blow from the start and they don't really recover. On the other hand, a punchy, crisp and explicit introduction will elevate the marker's opinion of you such that occasional weaknesses are excused and any confusion you bestow upon the reader is lessened because they still have the thrust of your argument ringing in their ears from the introduction.

I think the perfect introduction has four parts and is super-concise (fewer than 150 words)
  1. A sentence to introduce the general area.
  2. A sentence or two to introduce the specific issue at hand.
  3. An idea of the route you are going to take or any definitions that need settling
  4. A punchy statement of where you are going to end up.
I'll illustrate these with an example introduction to this mock question:

"Who is the best fighter in the University of Bristol Experimental Psychology Department?"

(1) Hand-to-hand combat between psychology lecturers is common (2) Yet, the question of who is the best fighter at the University of Bristol remains largely unspecified. (3) By evaluating a large corpus of fight data and accounting for the heavy bias in Stollery's (2007) meta-analysis (towards Stollery) (4) it will be argued that although Hood (weapon: short-sleeved shirt), Scott-Samuel (weapon: the bitingly acerbic comment) and Mike from CSG (weapon: dangerous mugshot) were strong, Bowers emerges as the clear winner with his ability to 'seriously confuse from fifty feet'.

Or more seriously

Which theory do you think offers the best account of consciousness?

(1) Consciousness presents science with its most frustrating problem because it is both so familiar but so tough to explain; (2) nevertheless, a number of theories have been put forward. (3) By evaluating some of these theories against their ability to accurately and parsimoniously explain a large corpus of evidence, (4) a number will be rejected in deference to an adaptive representational model of consciousness, where temporal information integration is fundamental.

So, remember the reader's first taste of your essay is very important. Given that they will probably have read lots of essays before getting to yours, 'Tango slap' your reader into sitting up and paying attention to your sharp, punchy start.

Casual language

frank-wouters @ Flickr

I wrote a post about keeping your words and style simple a few days ago. I want to refine this by making sure that you don't get too relaxed. Avoid contractions (e.g. aren't), slang (e.g. there are loads of criticisms of this study), empty phrases (e.g. 'of course' or 'obviously' - it is 'obvious'?) and weak modifiers (e.g. basically etc).

Friday, 9 May 2008

Offensive words

Some words can upset scientists in a big way. Having mastery of the basics by avoiding silly mistakes is needed for a good mark. So here are few words not to use and a few words to be careful about how you use them. I'm sure most of you have them nailed but there are always a few.


Scientists don't 'prove' anything: they use data to support or falsify a theory.


Without evidence science is a fundamentally agnostic endeavor. Therefore, something in science can only be believed once there is evidence for its existence. And when that happens there are more appropriate words to use than 'believe', like 'support', 'indicate', 'demonstrate' and so on.


This word is actually plural. 'The data is flawed' and 'The data indicates a beard module' are incorrect. It should be 'The data are flawed' and, more subtly, 'The data indicate a beard module.' One easy way to get it right if you have difficulties is to substitute 'data' in your mind with the word 'people'. 'The people is flawed' and 'The people indicates...' just sound wrong - and they are.

'Affect' and 'effect'

'Affect' is most commonly used as a verb (e.g. Having his brain removed affected the patient's judgement). 'Effect' is most commonly used as a noun (e.g. The effect of having no brain was poor decision making by the patient). However, they can switch. When 'affect' is a noun it means feeling or emotion (e.g. the patient presented with blunted affect.) When 'effect' is a verb it means to bring about (e.g. The new drugs effected the patient's recovery from coma).


This grinds my gears. The need to say 'literally' indicates that the utterance should not be taken metaphorically. For instance, on Scrubs JD literally becomes a deer in the headlights when he can't think of an answer to a medical question (in one of his frequent surreal asides). However, in modern parlance it is often used like the verbal equivalent of bold - for emphasis - and I have seen it creeping into writing too. 'He literally glowed with pride', 'he was literally mental', 'she literally exploded with anger'. These don't describe an extremely proud person, a rather kooky individual and someone who is very angry; they describe someone emitting light, someone who needs to be committed and a dead person.

'Bias' and 'Biased'

This can take several forms: the singular noun (e.g., 'There was bias'), the plural noun (e.g., 'There were biases'), and the verb (e.g., 'The data were biased'). If you get confused swap in the word 'colour': 'There was colour'; 'There were colours' and 'The data were coloured'.

and 'Phenomena'

Singular and plural respectively. 'The phenomenon intrigued the farmers' and 'The phenomena had been observed over two months on the farm.' 'Phenomenons' would not really be used in scientific writing.

'Signficant', 'Insignificant' and ' Non-significant'

Which of these three words shouldn't you use in scientific writing? The middle one. Data are never insignificant in statistical terms, they are non-significant or they fail to reach significance.

'Genes want'

In Evolutionary Psychology although it is instructive to talk about genes wanting to replicate this implies some sort of intention and it will upset evo. nerds.

'Less' and 'fewer'

The rule is 'fewer' if you can count the items (i.e. plural), 'less' if you can't (i.e singular). Supermarkets perennially get this wrong at their checkouts, ad campaigns (e.g. Tesco's "Use less bags") and even corporate material (like on this J Sainsbury plc page where "use less bags" is also used).

Any emotional words

Salting and peppering your writing with emotional adjectives is not needed.

'In my opinion' or 'personally'

Probably ok for Consciousness but really you should leave phrases like this at the door.


This is a classic Guardian ad. In the first eight seconds we conclude from the evidence the man is running away. After the next eight seconds the conclusion is that he is stealing a bag. In the last part we see that he saves the man from some falling masonry.

Now let us imagine that the middle part were the only part we had seen. Scientifically, it would be imprecise to say 'The man is stealing the bag'. This is because there may be (and indeed is) an alternative explanation.

It so happens that you know there is an alternative explanation because you have seen the ad through to its end. However, in scientific life there isn't the luxury of having all the points of view - they are still to come. You must still acknowledge that. Therefore, any conclusions made must nod towards the contingency of knowledge, they must leave room for uncertainty, they must anticipate the reader's possible rejection; in short, they must always hedge.

To infuse your writing with tentativeness and possibility, you will need to salt and pepper your language with words from the hedging arsenal, things like 'may', 'might', 'could', 'suggest', 'indicate', 'seems possible', 'implies' 'if', 'possibly' and so on.

In the Guardian Points of View ad, instead of "The man is stealing the bag" good scientific writing would say "The man may be stealing the bag", "The man could be stealing the bag", "The evidence indicates the man is stealing the bag" etc.

Hedging makes scientific writing fuzzier, but it makes it a whole lot more precise. You are saying. 'Hey there reader, based on the info I have it is likely that this is what is going on but just want to let you know that there may be other causes so please don't kick my arse if you later find out I'm wrong.'

(Hedging also acts as rather nice padding for criticisms. It may feel weird taking down guys whose job it is to think about this sort of stuff. So, instead of coming out with a categorical 'You're wrong', the introduction of a little 'may' leaves room for future discussion and fewer enemies.)

Thursday, 8 May 2008

Question Spotting Collection

oberazzi @ Flickr

You can find the question spotting stuff using the "question spotting" tag; however, I thought it might be nice to have them all in one place. These were my eight:

Language, Thought & Modularity of Mind
Human Factors
Developmental Disorders of Communication
Vision (no longer a course)

Developmental Disorders


Discuss the view that language is domain-general with reference to developmental disorders of communication.

People with learning disabilities can have problems with language. Does this provide evidence for the cognition hypothesis of language development?

Nativists, such as Pinker (1994), believe that humans have an innate predisposition for language. Is this true and why?


A child who has been reared in isolation without verbal input is discovered at the age of 7. What are the prospects for their subsequent language development?

Why are cases of temporary language deprivation of particular interest to those studying the development of language, and what do they show?

How important is early input for the development of language?

What evidence is there for a critical period of language development. What implications does this have?

You are presented with three children who have been deprived of verbal input for 3 years, 6.5 years and 14 years. Discuss how you would prioritise efforts to teach each child language. Justify your answer.

Discuss how otitis media is of interest to developmental psycholinguists.


How far does research into DS support or reject the cognition hypothesis?

What can we learn about language from studies of DS individuals?

Why might there be a language delay in sufferers of DS?

With reference to data from DS individuals, how far would defend or reject a modular view of the mind (with specific focus on language)?


How do children acquire the past tense of verbs? Discuss with reference to evidence from developmental disorders.

Do Williams Syndrome and Specific Language Impairment constitute a double dissociation? Discuss the theoretical implications of your answer.

How does SLI speak to the issue of innateness of language?

Does SLI provide evidence for a domain specific or domain general problem in language?

Is there a gene for language?


Does the existence of specific developmental disorders provide evidence for the modularity of mind?

Is the acquisition of past tense in Williams syndrome any way support of Pinker’s Words and Rules account?

Brock (2007) has suggested researchers no longer use Williams syndrome as an example of the modularity of language? Why might he have said this?

How intact are the language abilities in Williams syndrome? What theoretical implications does this have?

Does Williams syndrome support the view that language abilities are innate?

Evaluate Williams syndrome in terms of connectionist modelling.

Does language development depend on cognitive development. Discuss with reference to Williams syndrome.


How central is a theory of mind impairment to the psychology of autism?

Evaluate the possible explanations for autism.

Why do individuals with autism have difficulty understanding lies, metaphors and irony?

Do autistics have a domain-specific or domain-general impairment?

Can the triad of problems in autism be explained by ‘mindblindness’?


What are the theoretical implications of output disorders? What can they tell us about the view that language is modular?

Evidence from studies on the effect of speech disorders on subsequent language ability indicate that speech production is modular. Discuss.

Evolutionary Questions

margolove @ Flickr


Why do humans reproduce sexually and not asexually?

Why do humans have two genders? What implication does this have on behaviour?

How can evolutionary theory help us to understand human behaviour?

Contrast the EP and HBE approaches in the study of human behaviour and psychology, with emphasis on their strengths and limitations.

"Many of the complexities of human behaviour have their roots in our biology trying to stay fifteen seconds ahead of the parasites." (Sharpfella, 2008). Discuss.

How can traits that reduce viability and survivability be favoured by evolutionary processes?

Good genes models of sexual selection can only explain why males evolve sexually dimorphic traits. Discuss.

Why is parental investment theory of such value to modern evolutionary psychology?


Males are polygamous; females are monogamous. Discuss the accuracy of this statement and explain why this might/might not be the case.

What have the solutions to the problems of mate choice produced in terms of different sexual strategies?

There is disagreement as to whether human mating is solely designed for long term mating or for short-term promiscuous mating. Why might contemporary evolutionary psychologists consider this dichotomy incomplete?

Discuss the different mating strategies available to humans and couch them in a theoretical framework.

Why might women typically dislike casual sex?

Humans are designed to operate pluralistic mating strategies. Discuss.

How does balancing genetic quality and parental quality in mate choice manifest itself in human sex differences?

What are the differences in jealousy between the sexes? Why might this be?

Are humans polyandrous?

What can the study of human faces tell us about mating strategies?

Discuss the trade-off between quality of offspring and quantity of offspring.

In what ways are mating strategies context-specific?


Account for risk proneness in males using theories of sexual selection.

In evolutionary terms, what might homicide as an extreme index of aggression and risk taking tell us?

What risk factors increase the likelihood of homicide? Justify your answer with evolutionary logic.

America and Canada both allow their citizens to have guns and yet the homicide rate in America is significantly more. One of the major differences between the two countries is the income inequality. Discuss from first biological principles why this might be the cause of this gross homicide discrepancy.


Infanticide is an evolutionary adaptation. Discuss.

Who is more likely to kill their offspring: genetic parents or stepparents? Why?

Discuss how evolutionary psychology bears upon infanticide.


"Bats will help each other out because ultimately this is a selfish act for them. In humans this line of reasoning is simply not consistent with the data. We need a better theory." (Bob, 2008). What, in your justified opinion, is an example of a 'better theory' of human altruism?

How can our genetic relatedness to a person determine whether we will help them altruistically?
Some theorists believe that kin selection (Hamilton, 1964) is not the only reason why altruistic behaviour has evolved. Discuss.

Social exchange reasoning is a domain-specific, cognitive adaptation that allows us to detect cheaters (Cosmides & Tooby, 2005). Discuss.

Are there modules for social exchange?

Are people altruistic to non-relatives? Why?

Are the classical theories enough to account for human altruism?

Will it be necessary to look at group selection to account for some human behaviours?

What is strong reciprocity and is it useful?

Reviews: LTMM

geekmom @ Flickr

Language, Thought, Modularity of Mind

  • Bloom, P. & Keil, F. (2001). Thinking through language. Mind and Language.16, 351-367 (copy here)
  • Kay, P., & Regier, T. (2006). Language, Thought, and Color: Recent Developments. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 10, 51–54 (copy here) (also see the rest of Kay & Regier's recent publications)
  • Boroditsky, L. (2003). Linguistic Relativity. In L. Nadel (Ed.), Encyclopedia of Cognitive Science, (pp.917-922). London: Macmillan (copy here) (be careful though because she has been shown to be wrong about a few things; see Chen, J. -Y., [2006] and January and Kako [2006])
  • Fodor, J. (1983). The Modularity of Mind. MIT Press Cambridge, Mass. (this chapter)
  • Bates, E. (1993) Modularity, domain specificity and the development of language. Technical Report 9305. Center for Research in Language, UCSD (copy here)
  • Pylyshyn, Z. W. (1999). Is vision continuous with cognition? The case for cognitive impenetrability of visual perception. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 22(3), 341-423 (copy here)

Reviews: Human Factors

davemorris @ Flickr

Human Factors

  • Parasuraman, R. (2003). Neuroergonomics: Research and practice. Theoretical Issues in Ergonomics Science, 4, 5-20. (copy here)
  • Fundamental Human Factors Concepts, Civial Aviation Authority (copy here)
  • Chalmers, P.A. (2003). The role of cognitive theory in human-computer interface. Computers in Human Behavior, 9, (5) (copy here)
  • There's also a great chapter or paper from 2007 by Christopher Wickens called 'Aviation' or something like that. Even with the full force of the Google machine I can't find it again though. It's great because it covers so much of the course material with nice examples from aviation. The only snippet of original info I have from it is a quotation, "how they should be carried out, and when they should be done.” and the ref (Wickens, 2007, p.375). Good luck searching for it...

Reviews: Evolutionary

What a beard.


  • Cosmides, L. & Tooby, J. (2003). Evolutionary psychology: Theoretical Foundations. In Encyclopedia of Cognitive Science. (pp. 54-64). London: Macmillan. (copy here)
  • Tooby, J. & Cosmides, L. (2005). Conceptual foundations of evolutionary psychology. In D. M. Buss (Ed.), The Handbook of Evolutionary Psychology (pp. 5-67). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley. (copy here)
  • Ermer, E., Guerin, S., Cosmides, L., Tooby, J., & Miller, M. (2006) Theory of mind broad and narrow: Reasoning about social exchange engages ToM areas, precautionary reasoning does not. Social Neuroscience, 1 (3-4), 196-219. (copy here)
  • Cosmides, L, Tooby, J., Fiddick, L. & Bryant, G. (2005). Detecting cheaters. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 9(11), 505-506 (copy here)
  • Daly, M. & Wilson, M. (2007) Is the "Cinderella effect" controversial? A case study of evolution-minded research and critiques thereof. In C Crawford & D Krebs, eds., Foundations of evolutionary psychology. Mahwah NJ: Erlbaum.
  • Daly, M. & Wilson, M. (2005) The 'Cinderella Effect' is no fairy tale. Trends in Cognitive Sciences 9: 507-508. (copy here)
  • Daly, M. & Wilson, M. (2005) Carpe Diem: Adaptation and devaluing the future The Quarterly Review of Biology 80: 55-61. (copy here)
  • Daly M, Wilson M (2002) Introduction: two special issues on risk. Evolution & Human Behavior 23: 1-2. (copy here)
  • Daly M, Wilson M (2001) Risk-taking, Intrasexual Competition, and Homicide. Nebraska Symposium on Motivation 47: 1-36. (copy here)

Reviews: Developmental Disorders

ylvas @ Flickr

Developmental Disorders

  • Mervis, C.B. & Becerra, A.M. (2007) Language and communicative development in Williams syndrome. Ment Retard Dev Disabil Res Rev, 13 (1), 3-15 (copy here)
  • Brock, J. (2007). Language abilities in Williams syndrome: a critical review. Development and Psychopathology, 19, 97-127
  • Abbeduto, L. Warren, S.F. & Conners, F.A. (2007) Language development in Down syndrome: From the prelinguistic period to the acquisition of literacy. Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities Research Reviews, 13 (3), 247
  • Silverman, W. (2007). Down syndrome: Cognitive phenotype. Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities Research Reviews, 13 (3), 22
  • Roberts, J.E., Price, J., & Malkin, C. (2007) Language and communication development in down syndrome. Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities Research Reviews, 13 (1), 26-35
  • Smith, S.D (2007). Genes, language development, and language disorders. Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities Research Reviews, 13 (1), 96-105
  • Müller, R.A. (2007) The study of autism as a distributed disorder. Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities Research Reviews, 13 (1), 85-95
  • van der Lely H K. J. (2005). Domain-specific cognitive systems: Insight from Grammatical specific language impairment. Trends in Cognitive Sciences. 9 (2), 53-59 (copy here)