Laura’s Psychology Blog

One Professor’s Observations of the World of Psychology….   

October 30, 2009

A New Look for Textbooks

If you haven’t seen an eBook before, here’s an image from what mine looks like:


A Page from My EBook, with Highlighting

One of the nice features of Cengage‘s eBooks is that you can highlight, as I’ve demonstrated in the image, and take notes. So two major barriers to using an online resource instead of buying a hard copy have been nicely addressed. Yes, you can’t take the eBook to the beach very easily, but I’m not sure people (other than serious brain geeks like myself) read neuroscience at the beach :)

And here’s the best part. The whole thing is SEARCHABLE. That’s not something you can do with a hard copy, no matter how good the indexing can be. In terms of trade-offs between enjoying a hard copy and reading online, this search feature tips the scales for me.

Not only is this eBook option much cheaper than a hard copy, but you have all the resources (quizzes, animations, etc.) that go with the book all in the same place. I was very impressed.

As an author, I’m also encouraged by the innovations publishers are using to reduce the costs of textbooks to students. By reducing the used book market (our industry’s version of Napster), authors will be fairly compensated for their work. We won’t be stuck  making sizeable, involuntary, non-tax-deductible contributions to the campus bookstores, who make obscene profits on our work, pay us nothing, and charge the poor students top dollar.

So whether you purchase iChapters, whole eBooks, or rent your text, life is about to get less expensive! Yay!

October 24, 2009

Fun With Grad School Admissions in Psychology

Filed under: Psychology,Teaching Psychology — Laura Freberg @ 8:45 pm

I just finished writing letters of recommendation for one of the best undergraduate students I’ve worked with, and now we cross our fingers.

My student is not applying to UCLA, but for old time’s sake, I thought I’d take a look at my alma mater’s stats. Between 2004 and 2008, UCLA overall admitted about 29% of their applicants to their academic graduate programs (not professional schools like law and medicine). Nearly half (48%) were women, 15% were underrepresented minorities, and 17% were foreign students.

Psychology is traditionally more impacted than most programs, and the data for Fall 2006 support that at UCLA. Out of 578 applicants, 59 were admitted. Not such great odds. And my student, being female, faces another barrier typical in psychology. Women made up 76% of UCLA’s applicants, but only 64% of the admitted students. Interestingly, UCLA seems to be bucking the trend among many Ph.D. programs by accepting only 2 foreign students out of the 59. Don’t get me wrong–I’m no xenophobe, and I think private universities can admit anyone they choose. But I think the weary taxpayers of California are trying to educate their children and neighbors, not the entire world.

My usual advice to students, above and beyond getting great grades, GREs, and research experience, is as follows:

  1.  Apply to as many schools as you can afford. Applications can get very expensive, with GRE reports, transcripts, and application fees, but it’s a roll of the dice.
  2. Have some backup masters programs so that you at least move your academic career forward if you don’t get into a Ph.D. program right away.
  3. A good match between student and faculty is another important factor. Too often, we find students who want to stay in California, and pick schools on that basis. At the Ph.D. level, that’s just not going to work at all. One of my students ended up in a frog retina lab in an outstanding Ph.D. program, but her interests were not there at all. Another was horrified that the expert in her field was in what she thought was a very undesirable part of the country (we won’t name names to protect the innocent). She was accepted, and moved reluctantly, only to find out she liked the area very much. So some flexibility doesn’t hurt either.
  4. As part of 3 above, find the professors who are working in the area most similar to your interests and read their stuff. All of it. If you don’t understand the methods and statistics they’re using, do your homework. If you end up working with that person, you’ll be prepared to get started right away, and busy faculty do not have much time to bring new students up to speed. When you write your statement of purpose, say I want to go to University X to work with Professor Y on project Z. It’s not schmoozing–it’s demonstrating that you have made an informed decision, not just that I like UCLA’s overall reputation.
  5. Visit as many campuses as you can, and make appointments to look at facilities and discuss your goals with faculty. Obviously, take care of #4 first so you can discuss their work intelligently. Ask professors how you should prepare to work in their areas in the time you have remaining in your degree program.
  6. If you have time between now and when you apply, take every possible statistics course known to humankind. Journals are looking for sophisticated analyses, so you need at least a working knowledge of things like multiple regression and S.E.M.
  7. Choose your letter of recommendation writers carefully. Provide them with ALL the materials they need:  A checklist for each school with dates and directions for sending letters to schools directly or back to the applicant, all forms, stamped and addressed envelopes, your statement of purpose and resume, and a brief reminder of when you interacted with us (which class or classes you took and when, what your grades were, why we should remember you favorably, topics of papers written). Recognize that what you’re asking takes a great deal of time, and anything you do to make it faster will be very much appreciated. Even though I encourage applicants to sign the waiver saying they won’t see the letter, I always send a copy to them anyway. I think people should be transparent. If I can’t write a superior letter for a student, I simply tell him/her I don’t know enough to write a letter, and they should ask somebody else. I’m not saying every recommender does that, but if you need 3, and have 3 open letters and a fourth closed, and the 3 are good, I’d just pick those. One of my former students sent her 3 open ones, and the opened the 4th, from a professor she thought she knew well and liked, and it was horrible. The student was understandably shocked and hurt, and very grateful she didn’t send it in.

As difficult as this process can be, the universities do accept psychology Ph.D. students, so that might as well be you! With the right preparation and planning, and maybe a little good old fashioned luck, students can follow their dreams.

October 19, 2009

The Availability Heuristic and American Fear

Filed under: General Psychology,Psychology,Teaching Psychology — Laura Freberg @ 6:57 pm

Afraid of sharks? After watching Jaws, most people are. As we’ve pointed out in previous posts, however, there are very few fatal shark attacks world-wide. You are far more likely to be killed by a dog than by a shark, but few of us run away screaming, “Look out! A dog!” when we see one.

This is less likely to kill you than a dog....

This is less likely to kill you than a dog....

The availability heuristic [1] suggests that if you can imagine something easily, you inflate its probability. Being attacked by a shark is certainly more vivid than imagining being attacked by a dog. One of the things that increases our ability to imagine something is news coverage. Shark attacks are news, dog attacks, even fatal ones, are much less likely to be.

My students seem unaware that out of the 300,000 to 400,000 children we are told are “missing” on milk cartons and grocery bags, only about 100 per year are kidnapped by strangers in the US, according to FBI stats. The others are custody disputes and runaways, not good things for children, but much different from a stranger grabbing your child on the way to school. Unfortunately, all the coverage of those 100 kids per year leads to the idea that kidnapping really does happen to perhaps hundreds of thousands. One of my neighbors was fretting when her 12 year old son was riding a bike with a friend the one mile to our local ice cream store because he might get kidnapped. I’m not sure how parents today are making the transition from worrying about a 12 year old’s 1 mile bike ride to putting the keys to the family car in the hands of a 16 year old to sending an 18 year old off to college.

I don’t know why, but sometimes I compulsively read Dear Abby, and a few weeks ago, she published a doozy that truly illustrates the current American paranoia. Janet, from the “dangerous” town of Aurora, Illinois, has the following advice for parents with cell phones:

Parents should take advantage of these photo opportunities. Before leaving home for the day on a shopping trip or family outing, take a picture of your children in the outfits they are wearing that day. Once you are all back home, safe and sound, you can delete that picture and the next day take a new one. That way, you’ll always have a current photo of how your child looks “today,” not six months or more ago at a special event. You also won’t have to rely on your memory of exactly what your child was wearing if he or she should go missing.

You have GOT to be kidding. Janet, like many Americans, seems to think that “going missing” is a regular occurrence. Instead of worrying about the chances of our children “going missing,” we should warn them about the uncles, coaches, teachers, camp counselors, and others who are much more likely to be the pedophiles than strangers jumping out of bushes.

The world is a very unsafe place–always has been, probably always will be. But it seems to me that our fear today is misplaced and inconsistent. People wear bike helmets, but then drive drunk and have sex with people they don’t know.

1.  Tversky, A., & Kahneman, D. (1973). Availability: a heuristic for judging frequency and probability. Cognitive Psychology, 5, 207-232.

2.  Tversky, A. & Kahneman, D. (1974). Judgment under uncertainty: Heuristics and biases. Science, 185, 1124-1130.

October 16, 2009

How to Rent a Textbook

In my morning mail was an interesting letter from my publisher, Cengage, in which they described a new innovation– Using this site, students will be able to purchase or rent over 1300 of the titles published by Cengage, with even more to be added later. The letter went on to say that my book, Discovering Biological Psychology, would be available on this site in December, in time for our new terms in January.

A Rental Copy Will Soon Be Available

A Rental Copy Will Soon Be Available

Now for those of us old enough to view our college textbooks as the beginning of our adult libraries, the concept of “renting” a textbook seems a bit astonishing. But I am VERY excited to be part of this innovation! Hopefully, publisher-based textbook rentals will finally address the dilemmas posed by the used textbook markets. How does the rental work? Once you sign up for the rental, you get immediate access to Chapter 1 in eBook form, so there is no delay in getting started with your coursework. The hard copy will be shipped to the student, with a choice of shipping options. At the end of the term, you can either print out a label and ship the book back to Cengage, or if you decide to keep it, you just pay for it at that time.

I have posted on this issue before, but it warrants repeating, as the concept appears to be completely misunderstood by most people. What makes a new textbook expensive is the fact that ALL of the publisher’s costs must be recovered when the book is sold new. Once a book hits the used book market, it makes tons of money for the used book sellers, who buy at a pittance then recycle for nearly new prices, and NONE of that money goes to publisher or author. So the poor student buying the new textbook is subsidizing cheaper used books for the next student, the college bookstores make all the money, and the authors and publishers get nothing. If the costs of the book are spread across all users, the cost of a book to any one user is vastly reduced (think Harry Potter for $20–nobody resells Harry), and the rightful producers of the book (author and publisher) receive fair payment for their efforts.

The rental option is brilliant (unless you are a college bookstore). The student gets a cheaper book and the publisher and author get fair compensation. At a state school like Cal Poly, we are not supposed to be in the business of competing with the private sector, so cutting the bookstore out of their ill-gotten gains is no tragedy.

I have been told by publishing insiders for years that the publishers would have done something like this years ago, but were worried about “backlashes” from the big retailers. I am very proud that Cengage is taking a leadership role to bring students affordable materials, and I am delighted to be a member of this team.  The “Napster” era of used book sales may finally be ending.

October 14, 2009

The Dreaded Neuro ID Test

Just finished grading this quarter’s Neuro ID exam for my 90 + Biopsych students, and I’m delighted with how well they did! This is not everybody’s favorite activity–it’s rote memorization–but it makes no more sense for students to talk about neuroscience without knowing where the cingulate cortex is than to talk about geography without knowing the location of the Rocky Mountains. What we do is present a number of the anatomical illustrations without labels, and the students need to provide the labels.

Neuro ID is Everybody's Favorite Test!

Neuro ID is Everybody's Favorite Test!

Judging from student feedback, a lot went for the Study Guide this quarter and found it helpful. A lot of adopters told us that they liked the existing neuroanatomy coloring books on the market, but that they were geared towards medical students and had way too much detail for biopsych. So we made our own! Seems to be working, and who doesn’t like coloring?

Who Doesnt Like Coloring?

Who Doesn't Like Coloring?

I do have two versions of the Neuro ID test (exhaustive and short versions) if faculty are interested. Just email me.
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