All posts by terencehebert

I m a professor in the Department of Pharmacology and Therapeutics at McGill University.

Robotutor marking student homework

By Terry Hébert, Pharmacology & Therapeutics

Finally something (someone) who can teach thousands of students at a time. I give you… Robotutor!

Is this where our flirtation with MOOCs will lead? What are we trying to achieve with MOOCs anyway? That has never been made clear to me. I could imagine MOOCs as a way to prepare students FOR university but I still have grave concerns about what they mean for the future of universities if we remove the real interactions between professors and students and we stop pushing both to be their best.

TENS of thousands of students across the world will log in to online classrooms this week. A large portion of them will be learning to write code in computer science courses. The scale and reach of massive open online courses (MOOCs) is growing year on year, and many argue they have the potential to vastly improve access to education. But size is also their biggest weakness: a human teacher can’t guide, correct and give feedback to legions of students all working simultaneously.

Read the full article from NewScientist:

Twenty top tips for interpreting scientific claims from University of Cambridge

By Terry Hébert, Pharmacology & Therapeutics

We talk about giving students the tools to evaluate research in their disciplines critically. These tools can also be applied to their roles as citizens as well. We are sold a lot of things now- it is more important than ever to judge  the claims of our colleagues, our leaders and even ourselves honestly and critically. Here are some really good tips for developing that critical spirit from the University of Cambridge:

Aiming to improve policy-makers’ understanding of the imperfect nature of science, academics from the Universities of Cambridge and Melbourne have created a list of concepts that they believe should be part of the education of civil servants, politicians, policy advisers and journalists…

See more at:

Is Intellectual Curiosity a Strong Predictor For Academic Performance?

By Terry Hébert, Pharmacology & Therapeutics
Re-post from Tomorrow’s Professor Blog

Here’s an article I received from the “Tomorrow’s Professor Blog” run by Rick Reis. Getting students to invest in their educations intellectually is an excellent predictor of success. Who knew? Maybe this is the best argument I’ve seen for why we should get students interested in research as soon as possible.  Show them that the edge of human knowledge is the best place to be if curiosity is the driver of educational excellence. Not sure how MOOCs will do this- but face to face this works wonders.



The posting below looks at the importance of curiosity in academic performance. It is prepared by the Research and Evaluation Team, Office of Information Technology,( University of Minnesota – Twin Cities. In an effort to make research in the educational technology field more accessible, OIT\’s Research & Evaluation team produces frequent brief synopses of important recent studies. These synopses may be freely shared and used for non-profit academic purposes. For further information contact Dr. J.D. Walker (


Rick Reis

UP NEXT: Mistaken Beliefs About Content

Tomorrow’s Teaching and Learning

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 Is Intellectual Curiosity a Strong Predictor For Academic Performance?

  What Does Research Tell us about Academic Performance and Curiosity

For better or worse, academic performance has long stood as a proxy for general aptitude. To understand what factors affect academic performance gives us a better understanding of how instructors can help students achieve their greatest potential in college. Empirical evidence strongly suggests that academic performance can be predicted by a combination of cognitive ability (or intelligence) and effort. Non-ability personality traits, such as effort, can be potentially more meaningful than intelligence because less able students can compensate for lower levels of cognitive ability by becoming more conscientious, studying harder, and paying greater attention to details and rules. Beyond cognitive ability and effort, researchers look to so-called investment traits to explain inter-individual differences among people’s drive to pursue, enjoy, and engage in learning opportunities. Intellectual curiosity conveniently describes this impulse, as does the researcher’s titular phrase, “the hungry mind.” Like cognitive ability and effort, intellectual curiosity positively associates with academic performance.

Several instruments have been developed to measure something like curiosity. The “Need for Cognition” scale measures the “tendency for an individual to engage in and enjoy thinking” (Cacioppo 81 Petty, 1982, p. 116). The “Typical Intellectual Engagement” (TIE) scale was designed to “differentiate among individuals in their typical expression of a desire to engage and understand their world, their interest in a wide variety of things, and their preference for a complete understanding of a complex topic or problem, a need to know….” (Goff and Ackerman, 1992, p. S39). Because these measures have similar conceptual underpinnings and share criteria validity for academic performance and intelligence, they appear to measure the same trait dimension, and, therefore, studies that use these scales can be rolled into a meta-analysis.

 Study & Methods

To investigate whether curiosity is a strong determinant for academic performance, Von Stumm, Hell, & Chamorro-Premuzic extracted correlation coefficients from three previous studies and performed four meta-analyses that focused on TIE to stand in for curiosity. For the new TIE meta-analyses, the researchers selected 11 studies (including several in which one of the authors had participated). They excluded studies that did not include empirical data, did not include zero-order correlations, or included previously reported data. In these studies, academic performance was expressed as either grade point average or an academic performance composite. From the extracted correlation coefficients and the new meta-analyses, the authors created five path models using a stepwise process, settling on a single, best-fit model.


The best fitting model indicated that intelligence, TIE, and conscientiousness were direct and inter-correlated predictors of academic performance. Within this model, general intelligence had the greatest impact on academic performance (β = 0.35), while curiosity and effort had equal, but slightly smaller (β = 0.20) impacts on academic performance. Together, general intelligence, effort, and curiosity explain approximately 25.7% of the variance in the dependent variable. The authors thus confirm their hypothesis that intellectual investment, including curiosity, is a key determinant of academic performance.


The authors suggest several important ramifications of this finding.

• Academic performance can be increased if students’ intellectual curiosity is regularly renewed and stimulated. Thus, students should be encouraged to follow   challenging paths and not be exclusively rewarded for their “acquiescent application of intelligence and effort.” Universities and colleges should seek to exploit   opportunities to inspire curiosity and reward productive novelty.

• Admissions officers should pay attention to intellectual curiosity as a strong predictor of potential.

• Future studies to examine predictors of academic success should seek to expand their range beyond intelligence and effort.


Technology may have a role in cultivating curiosity by providing greater access to new information, new ways to participate in culture through new media (Jensen et al, 2006), and novel methods of visualizing data. Curiosity might also have a role to play in orienting students toward life-long learning, which has already been shown to be influenced by such pedagogical practices as active learning, reflection, and tasks that encourage perspective-taking (Mayhew, M.J., Wolniak, G.C., & Pascarella, 2008).

 Study Limitations

As the authors note, the study is constrained by several factors, including the quality of the original studies in the meta-analyses. Further, only conscientiousness was used as a proxy for effort, ignoring academic motivation, self-efficacy, and ambition. The study also did not consider the cumulative effect of success as an ongoing magnifier for conscientiousness and curiosity. To correct for this, another study would have to consider the longitudinal effects of an academic course of study and not a single moment. Finally, the authors concede that despite the encouraging results that showed that conscientiousness and intellectual curiosity combined influenced academic performance to the same degree as intelligence, other variables likely to have an effect, such as choice of subject, socio-economic status, self-confidence, etc., were not factored into a final model. Seen in the context of these limitations, the study directs researchers to continue to explore the nexus of non-ability personality traits with intelligence to predict academic performance.


Cacioppo, J. T., & Petty, R. E. (1982). The need for cognition. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 42, 116-131.

Goff, M., & Ackerman, P. (1992). Personality-intelligence relations: Assessment of typical intellectual engagement. Journal of Educational Psychology, 84, S37-552.

Jenkins, H., Clinton, K., Purushotma, R., Robison, A. J., & Weigel, M. (2006). Confronting the challenges of participatory culture: Media education of the 21st century. Chicago, IL: The MacArthur Foundation.

Mayew, M.J., Wolniak, G.C., 81 Pascarella, E.T. (2008). How educational practices affect the development of life-long learning orientations in traditionally-aged undergraduate students. Research in Higher Education. 49(4), 337-356.

Von Stumm, S., Hell, B., & Chamorro-Premuzic, T. (2011). The hungry mind: Intellectual curiosity is the third pillar of academic. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 6(6), 574-588.

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Writing – part of the educational journey

By Terry Hébert, Pharmacology and Therapeutics

I got involved with a teaching exercise called “Routes of Writing” run out of the McGill Writing Center. I was asked the following question: How do you perceive the relationship between academic writing and critical thinking?

In my mind, the two are inextricably linked. I have written a lot of papers. Nothing clarifies my understanding of my own work better than writing out my ideas. In writing, data gets translated into results and results get translated into a coherent narrative. Writing is the best way I know of to frame out a hypothesis and the most effective means to connect a hypothesis into what the best experiments to test it might be. For no other reason, students should write down their ideas often, and continue writing about them as they develop. As much as the activity of writing is crucial to developing and understanding my own academic work, it is equally important for developing an understanding of, and thinking critically about, the literature. Writing helps me connect different papers and analyze them collectively rather than simply thinking about them on their own. I guess that is my advice to you then … write about what you read, what you do and what you want to do. It doesn’t have to be perfect the first time, writing is an iterative process. For me, writing crystallizes and focuses critical thinking, and lays down the mental tracks for a life of reasoned understanding. It develops a necessary part of the intellectual skillset. It doesn’t matter where you are on your educational journey—first-year undergraduate or seasoned graduate student. Start now and don’t stop.

A lot of other thoughts and suggestions regarding writing and scholarship can be found at the link below.


Taking a break with science fiction

By Terry Hébert, Pharmacology and Therapeutics

“Because preparing 9 new lectures for our new medical curriculum is driving me crazy, I’ve been re-reading some books by Jack McDevitt for the pure entertainment of it. McDevitt is one of my favourite science fiction authors who writes well, has a good grasp of big issues and realizes that people will be people no matter how far we are projected into future. In an epigraph to one of the chapters in “Polaris” he talks about history:

“History is a collection of a few facts and a substantial assortment of rumors, lies, exaggerations and self-defense. As time passes, it becomes increasingly difficult to separate the categories.”

So true…

MOOCs and human interaction

By Terry Hébert, Pharmacology and Therapeutics

An interesting article by the president of my Alma Mater, David Naylor at the University of Toronto on the continuing need for interpersonal contact in the university educational setting. Here, he is commenting on the use of MOOCs (massive open online courses). To quote him:

“At U of T, recent curriculum reforms have deliberately leavened academic and technical skills with what one might call “renewable competencies,” such as critical thinking, effective writing and communications, problem-solving, teamwork, and ethical and social reasoning. These are competencies for a lifetime, for any job and for every citizen.”

This is also the raison d’être for McGill’s Inquiry network (

Naylor also says: “It’s hard to imagine nurturing such attributes effectively without some in-person interactions. It’s even harder to imagine how traits such as resilience or emotional self-awareness can be developed in an online cocoon with its pseudo-socialization. In contrast, if student A debates student B in a seminar, neither can reboot as their pet arguments get shredded. And the good news is that they might thereafter engage in civil discourse and discover the most important piece of human geography: common ground.

Also, here is a link to a lot of good articles on the risks and opportunities of online learning and MOOCs: