How to Write a Personal Statement or Statement of Purpose

At Tsinghua this semester I am teaching academic writing. Almost all the students are seniors and almost all of them are applying to graduate school, so I spent several weeks on how to write a personal statement. Each student wrote a draft. I read each draft and made suggestions in one-on-one meetings. The students wrote down my suggestion, and these summaries were compiled into the following guide. Continue reading “How to Write a Personal Statement or Statement of Purpose”

Teaching Academic Writing: My Plan (Part 2 of 2)

To review, I am teaching Academic Writing this semester. I want to motivate learning using forces other than grades. Here is my plan.

On the first day of class, I’ll say: Don’t take this class unless there is some piece of writing you want to do. This class will be all about me helping you write whatever you want. Most of the students will want help writing a personal statement for graduate school applications. I’ll tell them there needs to be something else they want to write. Without that the class will be a waste of time.

For the first class — the course meets for 1.5 hours once/week — I’ll talk about writing a personal statement.

After that, the general plan will be:

1. I meet with students after class (in the same place) for however long they want, maybe 5-20 minutes. They choose the duration. During these meetings, they show me what they’ve written. I read it and tell them how they can improve it.

2. During the next class, each student who met with me will give a talk lasting the same length of time as our meeting. For example, if we met for 5 minutes, the talk will last 5 minutes. The talk will  be about what I said. After each talk I’ll give feedback.

3. In addition, students who meet with me will add my advice to a shared document (e.g., Google Docs).

4. Each week, one student will be assigned to spend a certain length of time (30 minutes) improving the shared document. For example, making it clearer or better organized. The next class they will give a brief talk saying what they did. Again, I will give feedback.

This accomplishes several things: 1. Customization. Each student can write whatever they want. 2. Doing. They actually write “real” material (in contrast to writing assignments). What they choose to write will probably be stuff like a paper for another class but at least it isn’t a writing assignment. 3. Telling. They will tell other students what they have learned.

Attractive elements of the plan for me include the fact that I never lecture and never grade. I never need to guess what the students need help with. I learn what they need help with by looking at what they’ve written. Even though there are no grades or teacher-imposed deadlines, I give lots of feedback — it really is challenging. Attractive elements of the plan for students are that there is flexibility, they can write whatever they want, they never have to take notes (yet there is a written record to refer to), and they are pushed to understand the material in a non-competitive way.

If a student doesn’t pay attention in class — the presentations when other students tell what I told them — he risks having me make the same comment on his writing I made earlier on someone else’s. Then he would have to tell other students that I made that same comment. The other students wouldn’t like that; it wastes their time. So there is pressure to pay attention. If you miss it during class, you can study the shared document.

More English is not my students’ native language, although they are quite good at it. I think that they are more likely to understand another student say X (in English) than when I say X (in English) because the student’s English will be closer to their English ability. I might use words they don’t know. This is a problem in America, too (professor knows a lot more than his or her students) but it is especially clear here. My point is that this is a good feature of having students give class presentations about what I told them, rather than me telling the class directly, which might seem better. If a presenter makes a mistake, I will fix it.


Teaching Academic Writing: My Plan (Part 1 of 2)

This semester at Tsinghua — which begins this week — I am going to teach Academic Writing in English. The class is in the Psychology Department. It hasn’t met yet; I suppose all of my students will be psychology majors. In this post I am describe my plan for teaching it; future posts will describe what actually happened.

Last year I taught a class called Frontiers of Psychology. I discovered that I could teach the class without grading. I never gave grades (nor tests), yet the students did lots of work (the assignment completion rate was about 99.9%) and apparently learned a lot. Behind my removal of grading was my belief that long ago people learned everything without grading. Maybe I can use those ancient sources of motivation, rather than fear of a bad grade or desire for a good grade. The details of the course centered on three principles: 1. Customization. As much as possible, I tried to allow each student to learn what they wanted to learn. For example, they had a very wide choice of final project. 2. Doing. “The best way to learn is to do” (Paul Halmos) — so students did as much as possible. For example, they did experiments. 3. Telling. Students told the rest of the class about what they had read or done. I gave plenty of feedback but it was always spoken. For example, after each class presentation I pointed out something I liked and something that could have been better.

It was like the discovery of anesthesia. All of sudden, no pain. No difficult grading decisions. No written comments (explaining the grades), which I wondered if the recipient would understand. The class was a pure pleasure to teach. For the students, no longer did they need to worry about getting a bad (or less than perfect) grade.

Can I repeat this with a much different class? At the same time I taught Frontiers of Psychology, I also taught Academic Writing in English for the first time. It was pass/fail, so I didn’t grade there, either, but I wasn’t happy with how it went. (I didn’t want to teach it again . . . but, a month ago, I learned I am teaching it again.) This time I am going to take what I learned from my Frontiers of Psychology experience and try to create a better class.

In the next post I will describe my overall plan. Throughout the semester I will post about how well my plan is working. Supposedly “no battle plan survives contact with the enemy” but my Frontiers of Psychology plan worked fine. I didn’t change it at all. Maybe my Academic Writing plan will work, maybe it won’t.

Movie directing and teaching.




Tsinghua Graduation Memento Statement

The first class of Tsinghua psychology majors in a half-century is graduating in a few days. (The Tsinghua psychology department was closed in the 1950s — Soviet-style university reorganization — and reopened in 2008.) The seniors asked their professors for statements to be included in a memento book. My contribution:

I remember our first day of class (Frontiers of Psychology). It was my first time teaching in China. It was on a Monday, maybe it was your first class at Tsinghua. Some things surprised me. Moving from students in the front row to students in the back, English ability got worse. Each student said their name. When one student said her Chinese name, everyone laughed. I still do not understand this. This had never happened in my American classes. A student had her picture taken with me. This too never happened in America. There were two graduate students in the class. Both of them volunteered to be teaching assistants. In America, no graduate students attended my undergraduate classes, and you need to pay them a lot of money to be teaching assistants. (At Tsinghua, that was the only time graduate students came to my class.) The graduate student who became my teaching assistant told you, “Don’t say My English is poor. Say My English is on the way.” I can tell you now I disagree. It is confusing to say My English is on the way. There is nothing wrong with saying My English is poor. I say 我的汉语不很好 all the time. We were all so new that we weren’t sure when class ended! That was the first thing you made me learn: The length of a class period. I enjoyed having dinner with you. You were less afraid of me than my Berkeley students. I especially remember dinner with 徐胜眉, who told me the Chinese side of the debate about the Chinese takeover of Tibet. Most people in America, including professors like me, had no idea there is another side. I had had a big gap in my knowledge and hadn’t even realized it. The most important thing I learned from you was how to teach better. The homework you did was very good but I was puzzled how to grade it. From talking with you at dinner and listening to you in class, I could tell that all of you were excellent students. It did not seem like a good idea to make it difficult to get the highest grade, but what was the alternative? This was the puzzle that you pushed me to solve. Eventually I changed how I teach quite a bit, as you may know from talking to students from last year’s Frontiers of Psychology. Thank you for that, and may you teach your future teachers as well as you taught me.

Because my students were so good, they made me see the deficiencies in usual teaching methods especially clearly. It really did seem idiotic to take perfectly good work and carefully divide it into piles of best, good, and less good (and give each pile a different grade). Surely there were better uses of my time than making such distinctions and better uses of their time and mental energy than trying to do exactly what I wanted.

When I visited Berkeley to be considered for an assistant professor job, one of the interviews was with graduate students. One of them asked, “Which do you like better, teaching or research?” “Research,” I said. They laughed. All Berkeley professors prefer research, but you’re supposed to say you like them equally. I was unaware of this. I did like research more, and still do, which is why I am surprised that I talk about teaching so much. I told a friend at lunch recently that it was weird how much I talk about my teaching ideas.

Assorted Links

Thanks to Bryan Castañeda and Andy.

Why Fujoshi? Experiment by Tsinghua Freshmen

In January I blogged about teaching a class in a new way. The obvious novelty was that I did no grading, but I was also pleased by the high quality of the student work.

The class, at Tsinghua University, is called Foundations of Psychology. It’s required of psychology majors and is taken by freshmen. Last time there were about 25 students. The biggest assignment was a final project where I allowed students to work on their own interests. They could do almost anything they wanted related to psychology and they could work alone or with others. I “graded” their work via a checklist: X points for doing this, Y points for doing that, and so on, with the possible points adding up to an A. The checklist was different for every project. They had about five weeks.

Here is a summary of one project, by Vista Zeng:

In the Frontiers of Psychology class this term, we, a group of three freshmen (Vista Zeng, Joy Wu and Michael Wu) conducted an experiment on Fujoshi. Fujoshi is a subculture that started in Japan and spread in East Asia. It has influenced many of our classmates and friends. When recruiting participants, we found 14 Fujoshis out of about 720 female students in Tsinghua University. Continue reading “Why Fujoshi? Experiment by Tsinghua Freshmen”

How Meritocratic is Chinese Higher Education?

A friend of mine taught at Harvard for a few years. Her husband needed a job, so he taught a writing class. He said his students were so bad it appeared to be an experiment: How stupid can you be and succeed at Harvard? They had not been admitted based on SAT scores or grades, that was clear. In a recent article called “The Myth of American Meritocracy”, Ron Unz described considerable evidence of exactly what my friend’s husband noticed: Harvard admission not based on the usual “meritocratic” measures, such as SAT scores and grades. For example, he found evidence of an Asian quota. If Asians weren’t penalized for being Asian, far more would be admitted.

In a follow-up article, Unz wrote: Continue reading “How Meritocratic is Chinese Higher Education?”

How to Write: Lessons From My Writing Class

I just finished teaching an undergraduate class called Academic Writing at Tsinghua. One semester, pass/fail, about 10 students. The last assignment was list six things you’ve learned. Combining the answers, I came up with this:

1. Don’t tell readers what they already know. This came up a lot when I discussed how to write a personal statement. “Your university has an excellent program in X” — no, don’t say that.

2. To make your writing moving, focus on your own thoughts and emotions. Moving = evoking emotion. Evoking emotion was enormously important, I said. Continue reading “How to Write: Lessons From My Writing Class”

Online Teaching Versus What?

Is online teaching (e.g., MOOC) a big deal? In an essay (“Why Online Education Works”), Alex Tabarrok argues for the value of online education (meaning online lectures) compared to traditional lectures. A friend told me yesterday that MOOC was “a frontier of pedagogy”. No doubt online lectures will make lecture classes cheaper and more available. Lots of things have gone from scarce/expensive to common/cheap. With things whose effects we understand (e.g., combs), the result is straightforward: more people benefit. With things whose effects we don’t understand, the results are less predictable. Did the spread of sugar help us? Hard to say. Did the spread of antibiotics help us? Hard to say.  It may have helped sustain simplistic ideas about what causes disease (e.g., “acne is caused by bacteria”, “ulcers are caused by bacteria”) reducing effective innovation. Do we have a good idea of the effects of lectures (or their lack of effect), or a good theory of college education? I don’t think so. Could their spread help sustain simplistic ideas about education? Maybe. Continue reading “Online Teaching Versus What?”

How Difficult is Chinese? A Tsinghua Professor Complains

Recently there was a competition for Tsinghua civil engineering majors. Whose structure can support the most weight? And so on. At the end of the competition, a professor handed out prizes to the winners. After the awards ceremony, the professor who had handed out the awards said to a colleague, “I don’t like this job.” His colleague was surprised: What was so bad about handing out awards? The professor explained that the students’ names sometimes included characters so obscure that he didn’t know them. Which was embarrassing.

Assorted Links

  • One of my Tsinghua American colleagues writes an op-ed: “China wants you. Job prospects are abundant.”
  • Robert Anton Wilson’s skepticism about skeptics. “Those people claim to be rationalists, but they’re governed by such a heavy body of taboos. They’re so fearful, and so hostile, and so narrow, and frightened, and uptight and dogmatic. . . . None of them ever says anything skeptical about the AMA, or about anything in establishment science or any entrenched dogma.” I agree. They should be called one-way skeptics.
  • Excellent Vanity Fair article about Occupy Wall Street. Better than The New Yorker‘s article covering similar stuff.
  • The many side effects of statins. I am impressed by the new way of learning about drug side effects.

Thanks to Ryan Holiday and Gary Wolf.

Chinese Medicine As Now Practiced

In America, I often hear praise for “Chinese Medicine”. By this they mean Traditional Chinese Medicine, which includes acupuncture and techniques that harness hormesis. I tend to agree. Medicine as now practiced in China is a different story.

Last night, I had dinner with some of my students. I asked them what their parents thought of their decision to major in psychology. One of them had a surprising answer. Her mom was happy that she was majoring in psychology because among the required courses was a human anatomy and physiology class. If her daughter took this class, her mom believed, it would be harder for doctors to cheat us.

Chinese doctors “cheating” patients is a big problem, in other words. They prescribe drugs that don’t work, said my student, and perform useless surgeries. Little different than Western medicine, except perhaps the drugs are less dangerous. Just as in Western medicine, drug reps try to bribe doctors to request their drugs. Unlike Western medicine, doctors steal the drugs of hospitalized patients, my student said, which they then sell. After a friend of mine was badly burned, she had (wisely) turned down the recommendation of a skin transplant. This angered her doctor, who would have made money from the operation. Later, when he changed her bandages, he did so roughly, which was very painful. Revenge.

“Don’t see the doctors at Tsinghua hospital [the campus hospital],” said my student. She had had a bad experience. She had gotten injured and gone to the hospital. She had had to wait half an hour to see a doctor; who had taken a mere 30 seconds to prescribe a cream that did almost nothing. That evening I watched The Poseidon Adventure. A doctor visits a sick woman in bed in her cabin. After a long wait, he gives her cursory treatment.

HUSBAND (to doctor) Hold it, hold it. You mean to tell me we had to wait all this time just for you to come in here and kiss her off with a couple of pills and some crap about staying in bed? How do you know she’s just seasick? Look at her! It could be something else! You didn’t even examine her.

Same complaint.

“We are Heroes, They are Villains”: My Brilliant Students

At Tsinghua University, which is like a Chinese MIT, I am teaching a small class (25 students) called Frontiers of Psychology. It is required of freshmen psychology majors. There are a few students from other majors. So many of my students do brilliant work that it is hard to keep track. For example, two classes ago I started having presentations (short talks related to the reading). In the very first one, a student talked about her dysmenorrhea and self-experimentation to stop it. Later, during a discussion of how to give a talk, another (female) student said, “I could not have given such a talk.” “That’s a compliment, right?” I said. “I don’t know,” she said. Which is only to say what a radical and stunning talk it was.

For this week’s class I assigned several readings, from which students chose one. The shortest and most popular paper, by Joshua Knobe, a Yale professor of philosophy, was about judgments of intentionality. Knobe showed subjects various scenarios and asked them whether the side effects of a action described in the scenario should be considered intentional or not. Changing one word had a big effect. Knobe concluded that we tend to see bad side effects as intentional, good side effects as unintentional. I assigned it because the effect of changing one word was large and I liked the source of data (“Subjects were 78 people spending time in a Manhattan public park”).

Here is one student’s comment:

When I was in primary school, we had a very kind English teacher who was quite close to me. After she left school, she sent some photos to me and I found it a great honor to deliver them to my classmates. Later on, a math teacher got married and she gave another pupil some sweets to deliver the class. I felt unpleasant since not every student could get a sweet. I thought it unjust.

However, in both cases, photos and sweets, there weren’t enough for the whole class. The only difference was who passed them out. When I did, the main issue I cared about was “I’m the one to deliver them”; in the other case, “Why can’t everyone get one?”

She titled her comment “We are the Heroes, They are the Villains”. Her point was that Knobe’s results could be explained by the idea that we slant our judgments of others and ourselves to make them look worse and us look better — an explanation that Knobe didn’t consider.

Knobe isn’t the only one who didn’t think of it. Other students proposed other plausible explanations. But I think the “we are heroes” explanation is quite plausible because three other students made the same point in other ways. One of them repeated a story from a test preparation book:

A teacher had a student do ten math problems on the board. Then she asked another student to describe what he saw. “Two of the answers are wrong,” he said. “What about the eight correct answers?” said the teacher.

Not a true story but surely based on actual events. Another student told of the time her teacher had made her push her fellow students to exercise for an half-hour per day. The students complained to her about their loss of time. Later, however, her class had finished first in a physical competition — much better than usual. Her classmates did not give her any credit for this.

To emphasize how unobvious this idea is, here is what two professors make of Knobe’s results:

This asymmetry in responses between the ‘harm’ and ‘help’ scenarios, now known as the Knobe effect, provides a direct challenge to the idea of a one-way flow of judgments from the factual or non-moral domain to the moral sphere. ‘These data show that the process is actually much more complex,’ argues Knobe.

My students disagree. Their proposed explanations, such as the “we are heroes” idea, were not “much more complex”.

I believe they have noticed a broad truth about human nature that has escaped many psychologists, not just Knobe. In this excerpt from his new book, my former colleague Danny Kahneman describes what he calls “the illusion of validity”: personality judgments were considered more predictive than they actually were by the people who made them. Could this be another example of “we are heroes”? The “we are heroes” idea also explains the Lake Wobegone Effect: Most people consider themselves above average. The technical name for this is illusory superiority. The Wikipedia article about illusory superiority does not mention the Knobe Effect and vice-versa. In this important aspect of human nature, professors (including me) have had trouble seeing that the trees make a forest.

Public Speaking Advice From My Students

In the Frontiers of Psychology class I teach at Tsinghua (Monday 3:20-4:55, Teaching Building 6, Room A113, visitors welcome) , the students will give several presentations each class period. So I decided to assemble a list of advice. I came up with Items 1-3, the students came up with the rest.

  1. Give a presentation that you would like to hear. Don’t worry about following a formula.
  2. Make your points by telling stories. Don’t just say “X is true”. Tell a story that will make your listeners think that X is true.
  3. Stay within the allotted time (e.g., 5 minutes). In real life — presentations at scientific conferences, for example — most presentations are too long. Listeners rarely like this. They think the speaker is selfish. If one person speaks too long, this usually means that other speakers will have less time to speak.
  4. Don’t read your talk.
  5. Use simple, spoken English. Don’t speak fast
  6. Smile and use body language to connect with the audience.
  7. Pause before the most important points.
  8. Ask questions to attract attention.
  9. Show the big structure of your talk.
  10. When telling a story, don’t go far from the point of the story (e.g., with unnecessary details)

To me, the most interesting item is #8 (ask questions). For example, instead of saying “Let us begin” I can say “Shall we begin?” Which is certainly an improvement over coughing, which is what one student said was the usual way officials began talks.

For example, which phrasing works better?

Why does question-asking work? I asked my students.

I asked my students why question-asking works.

The first way (“Why does”) grabs my attention more than the second (“I asked”). I did ask my students why it works. One said that when you hear a question you automatically try to answer it.  I cannot do better than that. I suppose we notice questions much like we notice loud noises.

First Day of Class 2011

Yesterday was the first day of one of my Tsinghua classes. It has about 25 students. I asked each of them to say their favorite book in English. Several were mentioned twice: Pride and Prejudice (mentioned three times), Harry Potter, Catcher in the Rye, The Little Prince, and — this surprised me — The Secret. The last student to answer this question said her favorite book was Lolita. The class oohed. Last year a student said his favorite book was Ulysses. I said my favorite book was Cities and the Wealth of Nations. (A close second is Totto-Chan.)

I said the class would have three underlying principles: Continue reading “First Day of Class 2011”

The Future of China

Recently I had dinner with two Tsinghua students I advise.

ME Do you know what “science fiction” is?


ME I have an idea for a science-fiction story. Five years from now, Tsinghua and Beida [Beijing University] students get together and decide to change the government. What do you think?

They were amused by this idea. However, here’s what they said:

BOTH OF THEM Where’s the science?

I explained that science fiction often takes place in the future.


Unexpected Christmas Presents

This year I got two:

1. I taught a class about R and data analysis. On Christmas, one of my students wrote, “Thanks for what you taught us on the class. I love your class. I learnt a lot!” I hadn’t taught it before. A few weeks ago I had been abashed to discover a midterm exam from Phil Spector’s R class at Berkeley. I know Phil and like and respect him. His students had learned a lot more than mine, it seemed. I had consoled myself by thinking that I couldn’t answer some of the questions.

2. Cleaning a cupboard, also on Christmas, I found a “gift” derived from buying a water heater in March. (Buy the water heater, get the “gift”.) It looked like an ordinary glass teapot, which is why I had put it in semi-storage. When I opened the box I discovered it wasn’t. It has a basket where you put the tea and hot water; when the tea is ready you press a button that releases the water into the bottom of the teapot, stopping the brewing. I drink a lot of tea. A month ago I barely knew these things existed. Then I bought one and thought it was wonderful — but small. The uncovered one is the perfect size.