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Monthly Archives: September 2011

Not just psychology: how not to start an essay

Should you start an essay with a definition?

The simple answer is NO, but Daniel Chandler, an excellent communicator from Aberystwyth University (who has just edited a dictionary, so you would think he’d be very pro-definition), recently posted on Facebook:

Despite all my warnings, a 3rd year student is still starting an essay with definitions of key terms drawn from Wikipedia and miscellaneous online dictionaries. Argh!!!

– but then followed it up with some useful advice:

Unless the term is highly contested (when there is no single agreed definition), key terms do not need to be defined (it can be assumed that the reader knows) but an understanding of them needs to be demonstrated by the ways in which they are used in the essay.
Good psychology suggests making the reader’s first experience of a text in any medium arresting and interesting. It would be possible to begin an academic essay with some dramatically contradictory definitions from authoritative sources (as long as the subsequent essay explored this further). The let-down is the essay that begins by using low-grade sources to define terms about which there is little disagreement or with which the reader can be expected to be thoroughly familiar.

Note that nearly all this post is not All My Own Work, but it’s not plagiarism, because I’ve clearly stated my source, and clearly identified the words that aren’t mine (by using italics: you might think double quotes would have been clearer). However, you might count it as a pretty poor piece of work on my part, because it’s all Daniel’s points, not mine.

How much do babies remember?

A PsyPost report of research by Melissa Kibbe, of Johns Hopkins University, and Alan Leslie, (Rutgers) on what six-month-old babies remember about an object which is no longer visible (about their concept of ‘object permanence’). Seems they remember that something was there, but may not remember specific details (was it a triangle or a circle?) – which might be interesting to cognitive modellers in that there might be something systems as well as triangle-or-circle systems – but it’s also interesting as an example of the simple but ingenious methods which this kind of research has developed since Piaget’s day (remember, kids, Piaget was right in some general principles, but wrong on a lot of the details)

…and it shows, again, how cognitively competent young children are.
An example with a slightly older child. When my oldest child was about 18 months old, we drove all round the USA in a Morris Marina (don’t ask) – which had (fairly weedy) air conditioning, at a time (1980) when A/C was pretty well unknown in the UK. My son had a vocabulary of a few words at the time, mainly words for animals or food. More than a year later, back in the UK, he was out in a car with his grandparents on a hot day, and the heat in the care was uncomfortable. “What we need,” he said, “is a hole there (pointing to the dashboard) and cold air comes out of it”. We’d never discussed A/C with him, or reminded him about it. Now, as grown ups, people typically remember nothing before about three years old, but here’s a 2+ child remembering pretty accurately things that happened a whole year ago, which he didn’t have words for at the time – ‘cold’, ‘air’, ‘comes out’ – and so which must have been stored in some pre-linguistic way. I’m not claiming this is unusual: lots of people can give anecdotes like this, but it’s a problem for the textbook accounts of the limited memories of young children, and a challenge to researchers to find methods which are sensitive enough to research this kind of thing in young children, just as they’ve used the concepts of surprise and attention in babies (as in the research above) so brilliantly to help us understand babies’ cognitive world, going back to Tom Bower’s work in the 1970s: