Ethics in Psychology

As a clinical psychologist, even though I’m not currently registered in Alberta yet, I work and live by the Canadian Psychological Association Code of Ethics.

There are four guiding principles.

I. Respect for the Dignity of Persons

II. Responsible Caring

III. Integrity in Relationships

IV. Responsibility to Society.

These principles seem to be more relevant than ever these days, but the one I’ve been thinking most about is the fourth.  People probably understand a psychologists responsibility to their clients, but may not realize our responsibility extends beyond our own clients to society as a whole.

The CPA code of ethics states “Psychologists, both in their work and as private citizens, have responsibilities to the societies in which they live and work, such as the neighbourhood or city, and to the welfare of all human beings in those societies” and goes on to add “expectations of psychology as a science and a profession are that it will increase knowledge and that it will conduct its affairs in such ways that it will promote the welfare of all human beings.”

As a psychologist I cannot stand by as the world begins discount the dignity of all persons and I must do what I can to promote the welfare of ALL human beings – not just those of certain races, religions, sex or sexual orientation.  I will not stand by as a government dismantles systems and processes for protecting the environment for future generations. I will not stand by as world leaders break down laws and regulations designed to prevent corruption and fraud thereby making it easier to exploit vulnerable people.

I don’t always know what to do to help this situation, but I will do everything I can think of. I will try.


And more about Cause and Effect

Ok, so here is another big problem with the way media reports research.  Here is a news article I found online.

Cause Effect FacebookCause Effect Facebook

The headline reads – Facebook can Cause Depression

So of course I went off in search of the original research. It was a survey of a very large sample of undergraduate students.  Students reported on the reasons for their Facebook use (e.g. surveillance to compare their lives to those of their friends), their emotional reactions to those posts and their current mood.

The researchers have found that, feeling envious in response to other people’s posts, statistically predicted depression scores.  This word predicted is very misleading.  It gives the impression that the envy happened first.

The key point is that all of these variables are measured at the same time, so we don’t actually know which one occurred first.

It may be that envy leads to depression, but it could also be that people with depression are more likely to feel envy.

It is simply not possible to draw conclusions about cause and effect from this data.

Cause and Effect

There are many limits to what we can demonstrate in research, and one of the hardest is causation.  To demonstrate that A causes B, we need to ensure 3 things:

1. That A and B are related

2. That A occurs before B

3. That no other variable explains their relationship.

I beat this drum so much that I’m pretty sure my students are good and sick of hearing it.  But I am combatting this misconception nearly every day from popular media.  While on a trip to the UK, I found this mini article in their newspaper.



Ok, so what I’m guessing is that they gathered these people together, asked about their history of head injury and tested their cognitive abilities.  So they may have met the first criteria.  But that’s it.

It is unlikely they tested these people BEFORE their head injuries because it would be difficult to predict who would suffer such an injury.

The problem with this conclusion is that it could be that B causes A – perhaps poor cognitive functioning increased the likelihood that these people would injure themselves.  Alternatively, it could be that some other variable accounts for both A and B. Perhaps some neurological difference makes the injured people more impulsive, and also impacts on their attention and concentration thereby affecting their cognitive performance.

Now, I know it makes a kind of logical sense that hurting your head, and therefore possibly your brain, would impact on what your brain does, but this research CANNOT actually draw this conclusion.


Ok, so it was almost a full 2 months ago, but I have moved!  I am now at Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne. I’m very excited to be here and look forward to learning a lot more about teaching and learning in a different environment. I will attempt to get the blogs up and running again.

Watch this space.


Evaluating Students

I’m currently involved in a project examining peer review of teaching and the number of ways our teaching and courses can be evaluated is quite comprehensive. Our presentation style, the materials we provide, the choice of assessments, the design of marking rubrics and syllabi and on and on. In a (natural) defensive reaction, I thought, even students aren’t evaluated this much!

Yes, I evaluate my students by assessing the amount of content they have successfully retained for the exam. I evaluate their ability to gather, integrate and present information in essays and assignments. But aside from these academic measures, I don’t really evaluate anything else. I don’t measure their interpersonal skills, their campus engagement, even their contributions to class discussions.

I don’t evaluate the effort they put in.  I don’t even keep track of patterns of behaviours like late assignments or requests for special consideration (although I have thought of this last one….often).

When students walk out into the wide world with their degree, does anyone consider how they got there? First, someone who got straight A’s has the same degree as someone who got C’s. (some employers may ask for transcripts, but many don’t). Someone who never handed in a late assignment has the same degree as someone who requested extensions chronically across many courses.

I wonder what information we could glean about students, and how we could use this to guide what we do and how we do it.

Thrust into an unknown world

Perhaps I should have gotten onto Twitter when it first came out.  To be honest, I never felt I had anything of interest to say that would garner a following.  I still don’t!  But I’ve recently registered for a MOOC about Technology Enhanced Learning and have decided that if for no other reason, perhaps I should be at least familiar with the modes of communication my students use.

I think I am listed as Jay Brinker1. I could be wrong.

It has asked me who I want to follow. This is a lot of pressure. As an academic endeavour, I feel I ought to only choose people of respectable standing.  And sincerely I don’t really care to hear what most celebrities have to say. But if you type in “academic” into the search box, the most peculiar results emerge.

Please feel free to make recommendations.

Even worse it has a section about who is following me. This could a double edged sword. If no one is following me, it would be insulting. I could tell my students to follow me (power imbalance and all) but then I’ll be under the gun to post clever and inspiring tweets. My clever and inspiring moments are rare, fleeting and decidedly unpredictable.

I also don’t really know what a hash tag is or how to use one. The help section has a lot of information, but this feels like reading the manual to my new vacuum. I should be able to figure this out on my own. I’m a smart person. But the truth is I couldn’t figure out how to empty the dust canister on my vacuum until I hit a critical button which dropped the bottom of the canister releasing all of my hard work right back onto the floor.

I wonder what the Twitter equivalent is to making a big mess.

Ah well, all in the name of posterity and excellence in higher education.

Just take a second….

Recently, I had a discussion with my 3rd year undergraduate class about my perception that students no longer feel confident in thinking for themselves.  More and more I am getting question after question about lab times, or course readings, or detailed questions about assignments. Part of me wants to write this off as laziness, but there is an undercurrent of anxiety.  Students are afraid to trust their own judgement.

A recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Ed discusses the issue of students not thinking for themselves and suggests this is due to the policy of elementary and secondary education systems.  The policy that says we will take tests to ensure consistency across schools, but inevitably compels educators to teach to those tests.

Teaching to the test means that the test is created first and guides what we teach students.  If this is what they need to know to get the grade to get into university, that is what we will teach them.  It has all become about content, and nothing about process.

Basic skills for critical thinking, rigorous reading, high-level writing, and working independently have been lost.

At what point can you teach and encourage thinking for oneself? Is 3rd year of an undergraduate course too late?

What happens when these students are the leaders and there is no one to tell them what to do? Is it that somewhere in between they’ll develop the ability out of necessity and begin to use it? Will they become a generation of reassurance seekers checking in with each other and not knowing who has the correct answer?  I suspect it is the first, but is that the most efficient way to get there?

If everyone just took a second to think of what they would do, even if they do ask for guidance after, the more often their guess matches what is told, would they eventually build the confidence to act on their own decisions?  Too many questions I know.

Generic Graduate Attributes

As I mentioned in the Leadership post, the idea of generic graduate attributes has become more and more popular over the past few years. In a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education by Kathrine Mangan, less than half of employers and students felt prepared for “entry level” jobs.

I think before we start to generate solutions, we need to understand where the problem stems from.

1. More people are going to university because it is now seen as the natural progression. It may be that now we have far more graduates but the job market is the same. I’m not talking about number of jobs, but the kind of jobs that exist. For example, sales people, public servants, office workers and so on, didn’t used to have degrees. Is it now that we’re trying to explain how an undergraduate degree prepares people for these same jobs?

2.Could it be that we used to know how university prepared people for this but now we have to find the words for it due to increased competition? It my be that before, there was a general consensus about what generic skills were gained in university and therefore employers didn’t require having it spelled out explicitly?

3. Could it be that university was seen by employers as a foundation on which further training was built, but now employers want work-ready employees? There is a radio ad for the University of Canberra where a new employer is showing around a newly hired graduate and pointing out what the phone is, what the desk is and so on. First, I think if you have someone who doesn’t know what a desk or a phone is, then it’s your own fault for hiring them. Second, is there no responsibility on the part of employers to provide any kind of work place training?

4. It could also be that the number of people competing for certain roles is increasing, forcing graduates to look for ways to apply their education to positions that are not quite as clearly linked.

5. Is it that people with a university degree are not open to starting at very low levels because of the effort they’ve put into their degree. The article warns that if students work hard in school and don’t get the jobs and respect commensurate with their effort, there will be unrest, anger and even violence.  Who will these students be angry at?

Before we can try to address the issue of preparing students for employment, we have to answer these questions.

I think we also need to clarify the responsibility of the educators, the students and the employers.

Tweetering on the Edge

I just read a blog on the Chronicle of Higher Ed website about an in class experiment where the entire class discussion was conducted via Twitter. Some students loved it, some students hated it and the lecturer concluded that the discussion wasn’t as deep as it usually is in traditional class discussions.

One of the students commented that she felt “independent in her voice”. This is a common comment when we discuss using technology as a way to increase student involvement. Yes, some students may not feel comfortable voicing their ideas and opinions in front of groups. Would it be better, if we helped them to do so, instead of finding alternative ways for them to communicate?

Perhaps it is the psychologist in me that gets hung up on the importance of being able to communicate our needs, wants, opinions, and ideas to our functioning in life.

I like the idea of blending technologies and I love using every tool and gadget at my disposal for a multi-media classroom learning extravaganza! (ok, I’ve got PowerPoint and Moodle, but I use them like crazy).

What I don’t like is technology as a substitute. And I think the blog and the comments that follow really illustrate the point that these tools are useful but not sufficient. How can we find the optimal blend?

To read the blog, go to

Marketing Education

I am a huge fan of the Chronicle of Higher Education. Every day I get newsletters and every week I get the full Chronicle. If you’re in Higher Education, I strongly recommend it.

Anyhoo, in the newsletter yesterday, I was struck by the headline “Clever, Catchy and Descriptive? A forum on Effective Course Naming.” (

It instantly reminded me of a chat I had during a flight from LA to Sydney next to another academic. She was in engineering and was lamenting the shrinking of her area.  Her department head suggested that they would be able to attract more students if they changed the program name to “Corrosion Engineering and Media Studies”.

It was a joke….at that time.

Are we really at the point where we are coming up with catchy course names to entice students to enrol?

In the article, the author explains he was trying to be a bit cheeky with the title and it may have simply confused the students and prevented them from enrolling. He titled it “Pamphlets & Pirates in Antebellum US Print Culture.” and I agree with his comment – It has pirates in the title! Who wouldn’t want to take this course?! But as he said – funny to him, obscure to the students.

One of the best things about the Chronicle online is the comments that follow the articles.  One reader is going to be offering a course called “iPad Sex Ferrari, 90210”. I would sign up just to meet the person who came up with that.

Luckily, I have a pretty popular course – Abnormal Psychology. It also doesn’t hurt that it’s compulsory. I have no idea what new name would entice students more.

Abnormal Psychology, Pirates and Media Studies?