Recently I enrolled, along with 40,000 other people, in a free, ten-week online MOOC, a Massive Open Online Course. It was offered by Hebrew University through the Coursera Program, and it was entitled: Synapses, Neurons and Brains. By the time the course ended, enrollment plummeted – as it does for many MOOCs – to roughly 4000 students. 85% to 95% of MOOC enrollees either fail or fade away by the end of all courses.
Essentially the course consisted of a weekly video-taped lecture on the topic by Professor Idan Segev, a neuroscience researcher at Hebrew University, who is also affiliated with The Blue Brain Project. During one of the ten weeks a video-taped presentation on sensory processing by Professor Israel Nelkin was included. A teaching assistant, Guy Eyal, facilitated the Discussion Forums.
To be given credit for the course, students were required to pass 8 quizzes for 20% of the grade and a final exam for 80% of the grade (I’d love to see the research that correlates the efficacy of learning with these percentage breakdowns, although I probably wouldn’t trust it if I did). Quizzes and the final exam could be retaken. The course ended on June 16th.
Attending to My Own Brain Throughout
On the first quiz I did reasonably well, since it covered material that I was already familiar with. But what I noticed first was just how conditioned my brain is to want to do well on tests regardless of their merit or their applicability to my own real life. On the next quiz I did less well. In the midst of taking it, a strong memory surfaced reminding me of all the times throughout early adolescence when I would be sitting in a classroom taking an exam and realized that I did not know the answers and would not be getting a good grade. An emotional swell of helplessness signalling I was somehow seriously defective arose in me, making it very difficult to fully focus on the remainder of the quiz.
In response to this feeling, realizing I had somehow been diminished by all those emotionally-disturbing exams like this one – exams that had little relevance to either my life or the real world – I got pissed off. So I took the quiz again. And again. Until I got over 90% on it … and every one thereafter. I couldn’t help but think how much I would have benefited as a young kid, not from ignorant, irrelevant tests and quizzes, but from the care of a real, live, compassionate tutor, like this guy: Clyde. In fact, 50 years later I still remember the two Yale Divinity School students, Dave Woods and Vic Weber, who tutored me one summer at the Yale Camp for Underprivileged Kids.
Dreading the Final
The Final Exam was published on June 2nd and could be taken anytime during a two-week window. I found myself not looking forward to it in the least. I finally resigned and steeled myself and took it on June 7th. It was made up of 40 multiple choice questions. Here’s an actual question from the exam:
Mark the correct sentences about the following equation: V(t)=I∗R∗(1−e−t/RC)
O The equation describes the development of membrane voltage responding to a step current injection to a passive isopotential cell.
O The equation describes the decay of membrane voltage in a passive isopotential cell following the ending of the injected step current.
O We can extract from the equation the minimal voltage (V=(1−et/RC)) that may be attained during the injection of a step current I.
O We can extract from the equation the maximal voltage (V=I∗R) that may be attained during the injection of a step current I.
About half way through the exam I suddenly felt a great wave of depressive fatigue wash over me. Once again it made it extremely hard to focus and I had to read a number of the questions over and over several times just to understand what was being asked. It was as if the memories had triggered a biochemical reaction in my brain that had literally shifted the balance of excitatory neurons to the inhibitory side of the ledger. My brain literally diminished its capacity for propagating neural spikes. I became, in that moment, functionally dumb.
In the wake of that feeling, I found myself suddenly getting pissed off all over again. It became clear that many of these questions weren’t really designed to test my knowledge, or to actually facilitate my learning, but rather, to see if I could be tricked into giving the wrong answer. They also weren’t designed to afford me any possibility for applying them in the real world – my real world (I doubt they are even useful for applying in the real world for computational neurobiologists) – in ways that might accord with or improve my own real life. What they mostly wanted me to do was regurge data. But perhaps I ask too much. This is academia, after all.
Evaluation Makes It Not Happen
When Buddhist psychologist, Jack Kornfield asked his meditation teacher, Ajhan Chah, what one thing he might do to improve his own meditation practice, his teacher replied, “Give up all your opinions.” Opinions are evaluations. Every school I’ve ever attended has, in one way or another, required me to make all kinds of evaluations so that I could then in turn, be evaluated myself. But evaluation short-circuits curiosity. It also makes learning environments unsafe.
Here’s what biophysiologist, Steve Porges points out: our bodies, through the unconscious process of neuroception – threat detection without awareness – respond to all evaluation with the feeling of being unsafe. When the feeling of being unsafe arises, adrenaline floods our brains and bodies. Cortisol then quickly follows in rapid succession in an attempt to regulate that arousal. Many research accounts, from Bremner’s Does Stress Damage the Brain to Sapolsky’s Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers recount the damage these biochemical processes, activated repeatedly, can do to body and brain. Which is exactly how I would describe the feelings that arose in me frequently while I was sitting in my office alone watching the videos for this course and also while I was taking the quizzes and final exam. And that feeling of being stressed and feeling unsafe – if I take myself as an N of 1 – contributes adversely to my brain functioning optimally.
I managed to pass the final exam for this course, barely, on the first try. For no reason other than my own satisfaction. But I think it’s ironic that instruction on how the brain works has left me feeling like my own brain has been seriously damaged somehow… unfortunately, long before I ever enrolled in this course offering.