Monthly Archives: October 2010

The important stuff

Newsweek has just published an article which very nicely summarises one of the goals of this course.    It’s the goal with which the students have struggled most–and which has proved the hardest for me get across:  what counts as evidence?   Or more correctly, how reliable are conclusions coming from different types of evidence?  It is so second nature to me, I have trouble teaching it.

There is something delicious in my teaching solution.  Anecdotes and stories have extraordinary power to shape human thinking.  Consequently, I use them extensively in class to show the dangers of relying on, well,  anecdotes and stories.    So does the Newsweek article.  Not sure what I make of the irony.

Thanks to Susan knell for pointing me to the Newsweek peice.    

2nd blog period

The scores break down as 15 A‘s, 25 Bs, 9 C‘s, 4 D or less, and 15 non-participants. Much to my surprise (this course is a constant surprise), most people did not much improve their mark from the 1st blog period. The slight upward march from last time comes from just a 5% gain across the board. I can only conclude that most students paid little attention to the feedback I gave them personally on Angel last time, or generically on the blog, or to the rubric.  Most disturbing were the minority who simply cut-and-pasted from other websites.  I honestly dunno.  Where does the temptation to do that come from?

There were some outstanding posts, including time, jellyfish, cancer vaccines, life, and bees, all of which had the feature of making surprising points, or synthesizing across several sources and ideas.  There were also some great comments (multivitamins, cancer vaccines, extra-terrestrials), notable because they really extended things in addition to giving a personal reaction.  But my comments on the 1st blog period are as relevant now as they were then.  
My biggest quandary: whether to give the really good bloggers really good marks.  I did in the end, but I guess students being students, those good ones will vanish from the blog, their A’s safely in hand (I take the best mark from the 3 blog periods).  Yet, ever the optimist, I hope they’ll rise to the challenge of going for the extra credit with a post to beat all posts…

Biggest surprise of the course so far….

I figured it would be great to put the students in the driving seat over course content.  All semester I have been asking for topic suggestions, and a fortnight ago I polled the students on their own suggestions.  Yet not one of the polls has attracted half the class to even vote!     

My conclusion:  I must think laterally about the rest of the semester.  The only positive interpretation I can imagine is that class preferences are highly diverse and spread thinly across all the polls. More likely, though, not enough students have been sufficiently inspired.  Now there’s a challenge. 

Rigor or popularity?

The classic conundrum faced by university teachers.

The second class test really spread the class, with 7 A’s through to about half the class who failed (mark of <60%), although about half of that half did not actually do the test and/or have pretty poor class attendance records. This is actually better than the 1st class test.  But still, a mean on the C/D border is clearly not good.  The comment wall was interestingly mixed on what this means, though most comments were negative:

“who wants to take class to ruin GPA?”

“Andrew come on. The class mean was a D. Please no more tricky ?’s or poor course reviews will occur, SC200 is not too great, considering 7+ stude”

“I was hoping this class would make me like science but it’s making me hate it even more. Fail.”

“I feel bad everyone ganging up on you, Dr. Read, but the tests are bad…”

“you are so nice, why do you have to make exams so hard, is a non science major class, and then they ask why students dislike science -_- not cool.”  Mmmm.  Nice but uncool.  Might be fair point.

“an average that low says either a) not good instruction b) too hard for a 3 credit GN”  That of course may be right, but I am also open to the idea that there is a third option, to do with study habits and thinking hard about applying concepts in novel contexts.
Curiously, almost no one made constructive suggestions about what the problem is.  The closest:

“I would prefer more questions on the tests so you don’t lose so many points for each incorrect answer.”  This is something I had wondered about too.
“I honestly feel like there wasn’t enough information provided to answer some of the questions. They’re somewhat ambiguous.”  Like life.

And there was the other end of the spectrum
“I dont see how the test are hard for some people. He goes over everything on them.”

“slightly tricky, but much better than the first one! Lots of jumping to conclusions here…”

“i thought this test was a lot easier than the first one”

And then, strangest of all, a comment on the main blog:  “I scrutinized every little detail of the question and was killing myself to figure it out. Fortunately, I did very well on this one…but I shouldn’t be spending 3 hours trying to think like the teacher and choosing answers that are more opinionated.”  Well, I’m pretty happy with that.  Think hard, figure out what I am trying to teach, and make informed choices from a range of possible opinions….  
People make big life decisions based on information they get from scientific, pseudo-scientific and non-science sources.  Like whether to vaccinate their kids, how much to drink and whether major changes in lifestyle are needed to deal with climate change.  Not to say also forming views on aliens, homeopathy, creationism and whether my genome made me do it.  I do feel like I am progressing the class towards more thoughtful engagement with the world.  Key issue is figure out how to lift everyone’s game to the level of those at the top. Plenty of time yet.

Topics for future discussion

We now need to choose the topics we are going to look at over the rest of the semester.  The following are culled from student comments/posts/emails so far, with a few ideas of mine.  Please, class, vote.  Vote as often as you like in as many categories as you want.  And make any additional suggestions by adding a comment to this post. 

And then I’ll choose…..

Requested topics we are handling for sure:
Animal Cognition
Gray Goo

The Options:
(roll your mouse over the poll to find fullscreen option)


As a means to get across the principles of hypothesis testing, I think a stimulating hook is the scientific analysis of the healing power of prayer.  [The latest [2008] ‘answer’ is here].

I did worry.  This is the first time I’ve tried teaching this to US students.  Yet from the outset, they were pretty broad minded (polls can take time to load):
although about half the class could not imagine opinion-changing empiricism:  
That is faith.  I wonder if skeptics and believers are equally represented in the two camps.
The learning experience?  A comment on the wall: “For the record, I have a lot of trouble paying attention in class for the last 20 minutes or so.”  But a student after class: “Just so you know, today’s class was wild.  Really wild.”  My feeling precisely.

Due to chance?

Today’s class material the toughest yet conceptually.  Hypothesis testing, p-values and Types I and II errors.  Quite a few blank looks coming back at me.  The poll results (poll can take time to load):

But the main question I got on the comment wall was the most common and disappointing one: how much of this will be in the exam?  [Answer: the stuff in the summary slide at the end.].  It’s so much easier to illuminate when the question is: “I didn’t understand from X on”, or “I don’t understand Y because….”

Lets see what happens when we go over this in the context of prayer and vaccines.