Category Archives: Study Skills
I use SPSS for statistical analysis, but I don’t like it. Every time I do, I feel like the victim in some kind of emotionally abusive relationship. The interface is deeply horrid, the outputs are butt-ugly, and it runs like a three-legged overweight sloth with a heavy suitcase. It’s an absolute bloated dog of an application, and IBM clearly don’t give a crap about it, other than making some cosmetic updates every now and again. Plus the licensing system is bat-shit insane, and very expensive.
So, why do I keep using it? Because a) It’s what I learned as an undergraduate/PhD student and I know it backwards, and b) there are few viable alternatives. Yes, I know I should learn R, but I actually don’t use ‘normal’ stats that often (I spend most of my analysis time in brain-imaging packages these days) and every time I learn how to do something in R, I try doing it again a month later, have forgotten it, and have to learn it all over again. At some point I hope to become an R master, but for occasional use, I find the learning curve to be too steep. I would also hesitate to try and use R to teach students; I find it generally pretty user-hostile.
So, for ages now, I’ve been looking for a good, user-friendly, open-source alternative to SPSS. One that isn’t a bloated monster, but has enough features to enable basic analyses. I was quite hopeful about PSPP for a while (free software that tries to replicate SPSS as closely as possible). However it lacks some relatively basic ANOVA features, and since one of the things I dislike about SPSS is the interface, trying to replicate it seems like a bit of a mistake. SOFA statistics was a contender too, and it does have a beautiful interface and produce very nice-looking results, but it only does one-way ANOVAS, so… fail.
So, I gave up and crawled miserably back to SPSS. However, fresh hope now burns within my chest, as the other day I came across JASP (which the developers insist, definitely does not stand for ‘Just Another Statistics Program’). The aim of JASP is to be ‘a low fat alternative to SPSS, a delicious alternative to R.’ Nice. It seems to cover all the analysis essentials (t-test, ANOVA, regression, correlation) plus also has some fancier Bayesian alternatives and a basic Structural Equation Modelling option. The interface is great, and the results tables update in real-time as you change the options in your analysis! Very nice. This demo video gives a good overview of the features and workflow:
It’s clearly very much a work-in-progress. One issue is that it doesn’t have any in-built tools for data manipulation. It will read .csv text files, but they basically have to be in a totally ready-to-analyse format, which means general data-cleaning/munging procedures have to be done in Excel/Matlab/R/whatever. Another major downside is that there appears to be no facility for saving or scripting analysis pipelines. Hopefully though, development will continue and other features will gradually appear… I’ll be keeping a close eye on it!
I was in a moderately-well-known-Professor-who-shall-remain-nameless’s office the other day, watching him bang out an email. Except he wasn’t banging it out, he was using his two index fingers to hunt-and-peck at the keyboard while continually lifting his head to look at the screen, and then putting it back down to peer at the keyboard. It was painful to watch. I nearly gnawed right through a knuckle.
I was fortunate. When I was 13 years old, my Mum sat me down at her electric typewriter (yes, really, I am that old), gave me a Mavis Beacon book, and told me I wasn’t allowed any dinner until I could do at least 60 words per minute with no mistakes. A week later, when I was so faint with hunger and the pain from my finger-blisters that I could barely see the page anymore, I managed it.
Of course that’s not true, but my Mum is a fantastic typist, and did teach me when I was about 13, and honestly in terms of investment/payoff ratio it’s probably the best few hours I’ve ever spent in my life. Learning to touch-type is not hard and doesn’t really take that long; like most things it’s just a matter of discipline and practice. Actually, once you start doing it properly it’s hard to imagine how you ever managed without it. If you’re reading this, then you probably spend at least a substantial part of your day sitting at a keyboard, why not spend a few hours making the entire rest of your working life easier and more efficient? And if you’re reading this thinking “Yeah, but I’ve developed my own version of semi-touch-typing which is pretty fast and efficient, actually” then you’re wrong. It’s likely nowhere near as fast and efficient as it could be.
There are lots of good online touch-typing courses available. Most of them give you feedback on speed and the number of mistakes you make while typing. TypingClub looks like a good option. The BBC has a good course aimed more at kids. This site has a free course and a number of games to improve and sharpen up your skillz.
Seriously, this is one of the best things you can possibly learn. Yes, it’s a drag, but it will literally make the rest of your life easier. DO IT.
…is really, really brilliant, and you should all go and look at it. That is all.
When I was an undergraduate student, email was still not widely used, and the idea of emailing a lecturer or professor would have been quite daunting. Times have changed however, and nowadays most academics deal with a steady stream of emails from students throughout the year. This is a good thing in many ways; it helps to break down barriers between the staff and students and can be a very efficient way to communicate. Unfortunately many students don’t follow some basic rules of general politeness when contacting staff and this leads to faculty members getting irritated, and students receiving witheringly sarcastic responses or links to let me Google that for you.
Here are a few pieces I’ve collected that set out precisely how best to communicate with your advisor, lecturer or professor. First of all, we have a guide from Wellesley College titled How to Email Your Professor, shared on Twitter by Tom Hartley. Tom also went to the bother of conducting a survey about this kind of thing, and presented the results on his blog. He highlights some interesting cultural differences, particularly between the UK and the US – well worth reading through.
I won’t bother repeating much of what these excellent sources suggest, except to say that the common threads through them all seem to be:
1) Be polite, and relatively formal (at least at first).
2) Don’t ask stupid questions.
3) Don’t make stupid (i.e. any) spelling and grammar mistakes.
4) For the love of all that is good and holy, get the name and title of the person you’re emailing correct.
How hard can that be, eh?
So, another academic year is about to hove into view over the horizon, and what better time to take stock of your situation, make sure your gear is fit for purpose, and think about levelling-up your geek skills to cope with the rigours of the next year of academic life. If you need any hardware, Engadget’s Back to School review guides are a great place to start, and have reviews of all kinds of things from smartphones to gaming systems, all arranged helpfully in several price categories.
If you really want to be ahead of the game this year though, you’ll need to put in a bit of extra time and effort, and learn some new skills. Here are my recommendations for what computing skills psychology students should be learning, for each year of a standard UK BSc in Psychology.*
If you’re starting your 1st year…
A big part of the first year is about learning basic skills like academic writing, synthesising information, referencing etc. Take a look at my computer skills checklist for psychology students and see how you measure up. Then, the first thing you need to do, on day one, is start using a reference manager. This is an application that will help you organise journal articles and other important sources for your whole degree, and will even do your essay referencing for you. I like Mendeley, but Zotero is really good as well. Both are totally free. Download one of them right now. This is honestly the best bit of advice I can possibly give to any student. Do it. I just can’t emphasise this enough. Really. OK. Moving on.
Next you need to register for a Google account, if you don’t have one already. Here’s why. Then use your new Google username to sign up for Feedly and start following some psychology and neuroscience blogs. Here and here are some good lists to get you started. If you’re a real social-media fiend, sign up for Twitter and start following some of these people.
You may want to use the 5GB of free storage you get with Google Drive as a cloud back-up space for important documents, or you may want to sign up for a Dropbox account as well. Use one or the other, or preferably both, because none of your data is safe. Ever.
If you’re really keen and want to learn some general skills that will likely help you out in the future, learn how to create a website with WordPress or Github Pages. Or maybe download Gimp and get busy with learning some picture editing.
If you’re starting your 2nd year…
This is when things get more serious and you probably can’t expect to turn up to tutorials with an epically massive hangover and still understand everything that’s going on. Similarly, you need to step it up a level with the geekery as well.
You probably learned some SPSS in your statistics course in the first year. That’s fine, but you probably don’t have a licence that allows you to play with it on your own computer. PSPP is the answer – it’s a free application that’s made to look and work just like SPSS – it even runs SPSS syntax code. Awesomes. Speaking of which, if you’re not using the syntax capabilities of SPSS and doing it all through the GUI, you’re doing it wrong.
If you really want to impress, you’ll start using R for your lab reports. The seriously hardcore will just use the base R package, but don’t feel bad if you want to use R-Commander or Deducer to make life a bit easier. Start with the tutorials here.
If you’re starting your 3rd year…
This is the year when you’ll probably have to do either a dissertation, a research project, or maybe both. If you’re not using a reference manager already, trying to do a dissertation without one is utter lunacy – start now.
For your research project, try and do as much of it as you can yourself. If you’re doing some kind of survey project, think about doing it online using Google Forms, or LimeSurvey. If you’re doing a computer-based task, then try and program it yourself using PsychoPy. Nothing will impress your project supervisor more than if you volunteer to do the task/survey set-up yourself. Then of course you can analyse the data using the mad statz skillz you learned in your second year. Make some pretty looking figures for your final report using the free, open-source Veusz.
Learning this stuff might all sound like a lot to ask when you also have essays to write, tutorials to prepare for, and parties to attend. However, all these things are really valuable CV-boosting skills which might come to be invaluable after you graduate. If you want to continue studying at Masters or PhD level, potential supervisors will be looking for applicants with these kinds of skills, and solid computer knowledge can also help to distinguish you from all the other psychology graduates when applying for ‘normal’ jobs too. It really is the best thing you can learn, aside from your course material, naturally.
Have I missed anything important? Let me know in the comments!
* I realise US colleges and other countries have a different structure, but I think these recommendations will still broadly apply.
Very exciting news here: I’ve just been invited to the first British Psychological Society (Maths, Statistics and Computing Section) Psychology open textbook hackathon!
Inspired by this event (where people got together and wrote an open-source maths textbook in a weekend) the day aims to raise awareness and skills, as well as perhaps produce some usable output.
The organisers are Thom Baguley of Nottingham Trent University (and the Serious Stats blog and book) and Sol Nte of Manchester University. They’ve very kindly invited me as a guest, so I’ll be hanging out and learning some new tricks myself, I’m sure.
Here’s the flyer for the event, with sign-up details etc. It’s free, but strictly limited to 20 places – if you’re keen, best be quick… (click the pic below for a bigger version):
So-called brain-training tools seem to have exploded in the last few years; one estimate puts it at a $6 billion market by 2020. It’s clearly become a major industry, but what’s less clear is exactly what it does, and if it even works. The typical procedure seems to be to engage in short games, puzzles and working-memory-type tasks, and these are supposed to produce long term changes in attention, engagement and general fluid intelligence.
Whether this is actually true or not is a matter of some debate. I’m not a specialist in this area, but the received wisdom appears to be that training on specific tasks does improve performance – on those tasks. There seems to be little generalisation to other tasks, and even less to domain-general abilities like executive processing, or working memory. A high-profile study by Adrian Owen and colleagues (2010) reported exactly that – benefits in the tasks themselves, but little (if any) general benefits. A previous study from PNAS in 2008 does seem to contradict this, and reports an increase in fluid intelligence as a result of working-memory training – not only that, but they claim a dose-dependent effect, that is, more training = more increase in intelligence. The gains in that study were relatively small, and it should be also noted that the control group also apparently increased their intelligence somewhat over the same period as the experimental group – curious. There are lots of other studies around, but many have issues; small samples, poorly-controlled etc. etc.
So, the jury’s still very much out (though personally, I’m on the side of the skeptics on the issue). This hasn’t stopped a bewildering array of businesses starting up, making all kinds of wild claims, and playing on the fears of educators and parents that perhaps if they don’t provide these kinds of programs, their kids will be slipping behind the rest. All these companies have glossy, highly-polished, ethnically-balanced websites with testimonials, and lots of links to science-y looking videos that present their program as the only scientifically-proven method of increasing your child’s intelligence. A brief browse through some of these companies websites reveals that they range from the absurd (QDreams! Success at the speed of thought!) to the very, very slick indeed (e.g. Lumosity). Other examples are Cogmed (seems to be backed by Pearson publishers and, to its credit, links to a list of semi-relevant research papers), and the very simplistic PowerBrain Education – which seems to involve getting kids to do some odd-looking arm-shaking exercises. There’s literally hundreds of these companies. Some of them even seem to cater to businesses who want their employees to do these ‘exercises’.
LearningRX definitely falls into the slick category. According to this New York Times article it has 83 physical store-front franchises across the USA, where people can come to pay $80-90 an hour for one-on-one training, and they market this to parents as an alternative to traditional tutoring. A quick glance at their Scientific Advisory Board is pretty revealing – I count only one (clinical) psychologist, and a grab-bag of other professionals – mostly teachers (qualified to Masters level) with an optometrist, a chemical engineer and an audiologist. Not a single neuroscientist, and only a few qualified at doctorate level.
I’m not trying to be unnecessarily snobby about their qualifications here, I’m suggesting that the claims they make for their brain-training programs (literally: it will change your child’s life) are big ones, and we might expect that the people who developed it might be qualified in some area of brain-science. If it really, clearly worked, then of course it wouldn’t matter exactly who developed it, and what their qualifications were, but there’s definitely reasonable doubt (if not outright disbelief) over its effectiveness.
And this is the important point. People are spending money on this – big money. Whether that’s a hard-pressed family struggling to find an extra $90 a week for their kid to have a session at one of LearningRX’s centres, or an education board deciding to institute one of these programs in its schools. Education budgets are tight enough, but these kinds of programs are being heavily invested in, and I can see why – they promise to make kids smarter, better-behaved, more attentive, and all you have to do is sit them in front of a special computer game for an hour a week. That must seem like a pretty attractive proposition for teachers. Unfortunately, if they really don’t work, then that money could be better spent on books, or musical instruments, or something else which might genuinely enrich the kids’ lives.
There’s a long and venerable history of unscrupulous people making money from pseudo-neuroscience – back in the 19th Century phrenology was described as “The science of picking someone’s pocket, through their skull.” I’d like to believe that some of these companies have a solid product that actually made a difference, but they all seem to have the whiff of snake-oil about them. For now I’m very much of the opinion that you’d probably be better off learning the piano, or Japanese, or even playing the latest Call of Duty. If you were really ambitious you could even try and get your kid to (Heaven forfend!) read the odd book now and again.
I put that last sentence that mentions Call of Duty in there as a bit of flippancy, but I’ve since been informed (by Micah Allen on Twitter) of some evidence that playing action video games can indeed improve some cognitive processes such as the accuracy of visuo-spatial attention and reaction times. These results mostly originate from a single lab and so are in need of replication, but still – interesting. (I still reckon you’re probably better off with a good book though.)
A very quick post to point you towards a really fantastic set of online, interactive courses on MRI from a website called Imaios.com – a very nice, very slick set of material. The MRI courses are all free, but you’ll need to register to see the animations. Lots of other medical/anatomy-related courses on the site too – some free, some ‘premium’, and some nice looking mobile apps too.