Monthly Archives: September 2012

Blog Period 1, 2012

Two grad students and I have just finished marking the 484 entries and 1245 comments that made up the first blog period.  Learning from last year, we called things as they actually were, particularly using the descriptors A=excellent, B=good, C=acceptable, D or worse=unacceptable.  This generated the following grade distribution.

A-, 2; B+, 12; B, 21; C+, 37; C, 33; D, 21; Fails, 23 (consisting of six who barely showed and 17 who did not show at all).
That was an average score of 75% (C+) among those who did something.  Among the top scorers were some really good efforts.  We enjoyed polyphasic sleep, brain implants, and smart pills for students.  There is also some amazing stuff dug up.  My favorite was the headless chicken. Not sure I believe it though.
What takes the time grading the blog is giving the individualized feedback (students, you can see yours on the Angel site).  I really hope students read and think about those comments. Nothing is more depressing than finding myself writing the same comments to a student after the next blog period.
The most common issues were Comments that are no more than personal reaction. I do try to tell the students that this is not Facebook. Extend the discussion in new directions. That usually means bringing to bear some new sources or new arguments supported by new sources. The most common problem with the Entries is that they were too simple. The rubric says that for an A, we need entries that “are conceptually sophisticated, engaged in a substantial way with the material”…”that extends beyond the [source] material”.  For me, this is easiest done when you try to ask a question, synthesize across sources and do some serious research. Hard not to feel the majority of students just want to post the minimum required and get on with something else. I think the grades reflect that.
For students wanting to improve: read your personalized feedback, read these, and check the wise words of wisdom from your TAs. I think writing is hard work, and needs thought.  Do a post a week, and put some effort into each one.  You’ll be surprised how rewarding you’ll find it.
You might also try getting out of your comfort zone a bit.  So you are a basefall fan? Great to write about the science of baseball.  But also write about something you know nothing of…there’s magic in investigating new things.


take off.jpgI just finished marking my share of the first marking period on the class blog. Three of us have been working hard at it, and I have yet to align the grades. But based on what I have graded, my overwhelming feeling so far is disappointment. Very few students are really going for it. Obviously my job is to inspire them, to lift games, to make them go places they are not naturally inclined to go. 

It is all so different to my day job with my research group, where I just need to make a few encouraging noises, get out of the way, and watch the best lift off.

Class Test 1, 2012

Recall: the tests are 28 multiple-choice questions.  I calculate the grade out of 25.  This allows me to ask testing questions, so that a good student can still get an A even after they have got a few questions wrong.  I love this system.  Fewer complaints, more stretching. My aim with tests are to force students to think hard, generate teachable moments, tell the students and me who is not understanding what (i.e. kick them and me into action) and then, least important, return a grade. 

Class average: 79.7% (C+). 
A, 34, A-, 18, B+, 16; B, 16; B-, 18; C+, 16; C, 18; D, 23; Fails, 11, including 4 no shows.
I have now set nine SC200 Class Tests over the three years it has been running, and only one student in one test got everything. It wasn’t this time. But one student came really close (27/28). Five students got just two questions wrong, and 13 students got just three questions wrong.
This test really, really opened the class out.  And in perfect symmetry: 34 students with A’s; exactly the same number with D’s or Fails. When I get a chance I will have to figure out what is going on here.  Is it older students or students doing science-related majors at the top? Worryingly, there are some folks at the bottom end with good attendance records.  
Also looks like I have a teaching challenge on my hands.  This is not a bell curve, not even close.  It’s the shape of a shallow dish.

Tests, in real time

fingers-crossed.jpgToday is the first class test. It runs on line for 24 hours. This means in real time, I get data on how people are doing. It is very stressful for me early in the day, when I can’t tell if the test settings are right, or I have got the balance right.  But by about noon, I get a sense of it, and by early evening (now) I can really tell. This test has no problems. It has spread open the class. There are some fails. Nobody has got everything right, but there are some 100% grades under my grading scheme. No individual questions have been train smashes: different people got different things wrong. An ideal outcome. I can use any of the questions I want as teachable questions in class tomorrow. And it will wake everyone up.  I have started to stretch people.

How hard to make things is one of the toughest dilemmas teaching Gen Ed.  Last year, I made the first test too easy. That is a recipe for happiness at the time (no student complaints), and misery later in the semester.  Fingers crossed, this is going better.

Does God exist?

In class today, I talked about the question of whether prayer heals.  This question very naturally lends its self to scientific experimentation.  I based the class about one such study [Leibovici (2001) Effects of remote, retoactive intercessory prayer on outcome in patients with blood stream infection: randomised controlled trial. British Medical Journal 323: 1450-1.pdf].  It’s a great hook to get across lots of stuff, like the difference between faith (where no data will change your mind) and science (where data makes a difference). It also illustrates hypothesis testing, experimental design, chance, third variables and a whole lot of other good stuff, not least the sheer beauty of the randomized controlled trial.

But it is a challenge as a teacher because you have to tread very, very carefully.  The students are tense discussing this, feelings run strong, and it would be easy to ruin lives or crush their interest in science.  But what gets me is the sheer audacity of the Lebovici’s hypothesis. He asserts that “we can not assume a priori that time is linear, as we percieve it, or that God is limited by linear time, as we are”. So in his study, the praying happened after the clinical outcomes had already happened.
This is an astoundingly strong test of the hypothesis.  I for one would be totally, totally impressed if praying for peoples’ health after the event made a difference. Not least because it is the perfect double blind.  Nobody in the study can have known there would be a study because there wasn’t one until 4-10 years after the people were sick. The students find it very hard to accept this notion at all.  But if God is all powerful….
Last year I was asked if this was a test for the existence of God.  Obviously I dodged the question. Sensible teachers should. But as I age, taking risks in the classroom seems interesting.  So I polled the students.
Poll Everywhere
I didn’t say in class.  Not my place.  But I disagree with that majority.  If praying for patient health retrospectively actually works, so that a randomly chosen group of patients actually got out of hospital earlier if they were prayed for: what other explanation could there be?  Of course, if it doesn’t work, there could be tons of reasons.  Not least that God doesn’t play this sort of ball.

Peer review

For two years now, I have been pondering how to teach my students about peer review. Love it or hate it, peer review is an essential part of science. Expert scrutiny makes a huge difference. The review process is why you can trust scientific papers more than, say, the latest political diatribe. It is why I trust what climate scientists say, even though I cannot judge climate science myself.

How to show students the power of this system? I tried just saying it when I first did the course in 2010.  The students glazed over. Last year I showed the students a couple of reviews I had got. They seemed slightly more interested.


So this year, I am going to go the whole hog. I am going to do the review process in real time.  We’ve just finished the best paper I have ever written. Conceivably, it is the best paper I will ever write (I hope not), and it concerns drug resistance, one of the most important topics of the age. It got bounced from Science two weeks ago – unreviewed. I wept. We’ve since sent it off to Nature. I am sure I will be crushed again. Since this story is likely to run all semester, I figure I can involve the students in the emotional roller coaster. With luck they will learn about the review process, and the essential negativity of science – and that scientists are humans who get really, really emotional about rejection.
I am slightly scared about this experiment. Not normal to bare my soul in front of 178 young people.
Noted added after class: This soul-bearing approach actually seemed to work as a teaching device. The students seemed engaged in the review process. The tragic thing was that the form letter rejection from Nature arrived a few hours before the class, which I duly reported to the students, ….so the saga continues. I wonder if it will be done by semester end. Hopefully, whatever happens, there will be lots of teachable moments.

The Responsibility

This is the time in semester when I still have the energy and enthusiasm to really feel the burden of this course.  The students are busy writing their introductory blog entries, where they have to explain why they are not science majors, and why they are doing my course. The main goal of the exercise is to make sure they can work the blog, but what gets revealed are woeful tales of the failure of K-12 science education (some particularly disturbing examples: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5).

The burden to rectify this falls to me. I do worry whether I am up to the task. I need to get the students to really appreciate the passion, the joy and the beauty.  And as importantly, I need to get them to appreciate the power: why science reveals so many incredible things that other wise elude humanity. I also need to encourage the students (give them permission?) to start using the scientific process in their everyday lives. Rational skepticism is the key to critical thinking, and making their world and mine better.


I am more than normally worried about this responsibility because I am reading This Will Make You Smarter, edited by John Brockman of Brockman asked some of the leading scientific communicators of the age to answer the question: What scientific concept would improve everybody’s cognitive toolkit? I got the book to mine it for material for the course, but it turns out that I already cover everything. The really sobering thing is that the book makes the course seem more important than even I imagined. The extraordinarily eloquent contributors are screaming out: empower non-scientists.
Up to the task Read?