Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Sock Muffins

Yesterday, as I was racing to get ready for the commute, I slipped on my shoes and jacket, clipped on the blackberry, grabbed the briefcase, and headed downstairs. I noticed about five hours later than I'd put on two different kinds of loafers, one brown and the other kind of reddish. But I digress. When I got downstairs, I made my second cup of coffee and waited for my wife. When she appeared, her eyes immediately went to the counter under the cupboard for the plates and glasses. There, lying in front of the mixer, were the dress socks I'd worn to the gala along with that rather ill-fitting rented tux. What the heck were they doing there? I knew it was no good to blame the sock fairies, because we'd had the house sprayed for them.

"What are these?" she asked? Meaning that she knew what they were--she just wanted to make sure I knew they didn't belong on the counter. I had to think fast.

"Oh, those are for the sock muffins," I said as casually as I could.

"Sock muffins?"

"Yeah. You pack dough in the socks, then squeeze them into little balls like making sausage links. Bake 'em right in the sock, and then cut it off afterwards. You know...sock muffins."

There was a long pause. She's German, and it could just be that this was some crazy American thing, I could almost see her thinking. Then she asked "well, aren't these new socks?"
I'm afraid my ruse failed at that point because I started laughing. I'd make a lousy spy. The moral of the story is, if you do enough crazy things often enough, people will believe you're capable of anything.

At this point, what is called for is a pithy segue. If today's profundities included passing accreditation, this would be relatively easy, but I promised last time to look at this study on expectations vs. reality at elite institutions. I'm not clever enough to figure out how to go from sock muffins to predicting grades, so you'll have to use your imagination.

I missed the point last time that the predicted grades in the study were self-predictions by students before taking classes. The biggest gap in this expectations game was for minorities, particularly Black students.

The article itself is written in economics-speak, which for a math guy is a little like a German reading Dutch. It's not something you can sit down and read casually. It took me a lot of flipping back and forth (during a long meeting) to determine that

just means multiply the number of applicants of a race by the percentage of that population that lie above some cut off (T*) in benefit. This gives the number enrolled in that category. This formula appears throughout the paper. I think I'd have been tempted to condense it to B(Tmin) and W(Tmin) to save a few eyeballs, but never mind.

The comments on the article at insidehighered are interesting and worth browsing if you're interested in this topic. The idea of mismatch is clearly controversial. My interest in the article was more about getting insight into Duke's admissions process. But I will say that it seems obvious that providing more transparency about the likelihood of success is good for everyone. In my attrition studies (see here for example), it's obvious that a mismatch in expectations for new students is very hard to recover from. This has implications from marketing through the first year experience and beyond.

Duke uses variables gathered from the admission process that in this report are called Achievement, Curriculum, Essay, Personal Qualities, Recommendations, Test Scores, high school GPA, and SAT. Note that at least two of these (achievement and personal qualities, and probably recommendations as well) speak to non-cognitive traits. How well does it work? From page 17 of the report :
Notice from Column 3 that controlling for Duke’s rankings increase the R^2 by more than 0.12, again suggesting substantial Duke private information. Note that this still leaves two-thirds of the variation in GPA unexplained, perhaps due to course selection and shocks to how students respond to college life.
So the 'private information,' which would not include things like high school GPA and SAT scores, since those are known to the student, counts for about 12% of the variance in correctly predicting first year college grades averages. The two-thirds unexplained variance in those averages is about typical in my experience. I think this is the real story, and the real opportunity.

In the insidehighered article, one anonymous commenter writes:
Experience at my institution is that students from lousy high schools do not do well in their first year of college, but, if they're bright and willing, eventually catch on to what university-level work is all about. They also find what they want to study, and this adds to their motivation. So focusing solely on the grades in the first year of college vastly overstates the effect being studied.
This point is well taken. A better indicator of success is perhaps first year retention. If a student fails to return, that represents a failure in real terms: investment of time and money that cannot be fully recouped even if courses transfer. Our predictive powers are not stellar in that regard either.

Time to make the commute again. Guess I'd better go look for my socks.

No comments:

Post a Comment