Monthly Archives: December 2012

Time for wine: 2012, the end.

One of the nicest things about finishing the course is the emails some students send to say how much they have enjoyed the course, how much they learned etc etc. Most then ruin it by asking for a higher grade. But some do not. And its important to enjoy these ones, because really, that’s why I do it.

Two this year really struck me.
Thank you for a wonderful semester. I truly have come to appreciate your course. I have spent 5 years at Penn State receiving my undergraduate and graduate degree in accounting, and your class has been one of most enjoyable courses I have taken. I wish I had taken your course as a younger student at PSU. It has taught me how to analyze information better than just about any class I have taken at Penn State. I hope your course continues to help non-science majors like myself get a better appreciation for science.
I wish I had got to know that student during the semester. I wish him well.
Another student, a journalism student I think, emailed to say she’d been blogging about a science story herself, rather than pass it on to someone else at Onward State. Fabulous. One small step for man…
Ok, I am signing out of here. The class of 2012 is done. Maybe I will try to sum it all up later. 


Or maybe not.

Please, I'd like a higher grade

Most faculty I know hate the period straight after posting the final grades. Students email asking for a higher grade. Really. They just ask for a higher grade. I’ve had about a dozen such requests already. I take a hard line of this, partly because life does, and partly for the following reason.

Everyone in the class got 2% extra credit because the class managed >85% return rate on the Student Rating of Teaching Effectiveness. This strategy of ensuring a high return rate is controversial. But one consequence is that everyone who thinks they are marginal on a grade boundary is not there on academic performance… 
Many faculty I know avoid the problem by going away. Good plan. In two days, I’ll be in this part of New Zealand.

The final grades


A, 43; A-, 58; B+, 28; B, 14; B-, 7; C+, 12; C, 3; D, 2; Fails, 5. 
Two of the fails look like people who dropped out without dropping the course. Tragically, the other three fails failed because they did no or insufficient blogging. 
At the other end of the spectrum, five students got >100% with all the extra credits etc.

Final exam

It always amazes me how much better students do on the final exam than they do on the four class tests I run during the semester. Obviously I like to think it is that because my teaching eventually makes an impact. More likely, it is the fact that 20% of the final grade rests on the exam….

The average exam score was 87%, 10% up on the class tests. Again, no students got every question correct, but ten got all but one of the 28 correct, and fully 35 got 100% in my grading algorithm. Pleasingly, for all questions, the majority answer was the right one.
Grade distribution:  A, 74; A-,18; B+, 20; B, 19; B-, 16; C+, 8; C, 1; D, 11; Fails, 5, including 3 no shows.
The exam had the same structure and questions style as the class tests. The first half of the exam is on things discussed in class. I was able to populate that part of the test entirely with questions suggested by the students. I give 2.5% extra credit for any suggested question that I use; about ten students made suggestions. Any students who felt the first half of the test was tough can blame those class mates.


plagiarism(1).jpgEarlier in the semester I had problems with students plagiarizing material for the class blog. I had to write up two of them as academic integrity violations.

So the three of us grading the final blog period kept a keen eye out, and we ran various bits of software. Ironically, all we discovered was someone out there who had plagiarized one of my student’s entries on the class blog.  Here’s the original. And that student’s work re-posted on another site, unattributed


Today, the last proper class, I talked about why we sleep. Yet another profoundly important and interesting question science has so far failed to answer.

It occurred to me while putting the session together: I have taught the students much more about what science has failed to discover than what it has discovered. I did start with a couple of success stories: worm infections do reduce school performance, smoking is bad for you. And I added a couple more later on (Vaccine safety and efficacy, Bacteria cause gastric ulcers). 
But for the rest of semester, I reveled in ignorance, doubt, dispute and uncertainty. Prayer, GM safety, Doctors who kill, Dark matter, Dark energy, High fructose corn syrup, Genomic predictors of self, Why people can’t intuit probability, Autism, Gay animals, Climate projections, Nano-safety, Aliens, Battle of the sexes, Climate politics, Zombies, Microbiome, Immortality, Cancer, Obesity-causing viruses…so much darkness.
I bet none of the students ever had a science class oozing so much ignorance.

Class Test 4

Class average excluding the students who did not do the test, was 77.5% (C+), slightly down on class tests 12 and 3A, 22; A-, 19; B+, 9; B, 7; B-, 13, C+, 16; C, 9; D, 29; Fails, 16, and a further 28 no-shows. No one got everything right, but 12 students got 100% given my grading algorithm.


The part of the test which deals with interpreting a science story from the media was generally well handled. The part of the test involving material covered in class was not. Most poor was the question about what mainstream climate scientists argue about. Climate scientists agree the earth is warming, that CO2 levels are rising, and that CO2 levels are rising because of the burning of fossil fuels. Most students thought scientists are still arguing about those things. They are not. What climate scientists argue about are the models linking the CO2 to the temperature gains. Tom Mallouk went over that in class. I even interrupted him to summarize it. And it is clear from his handout. I guess that points to the power of politically motivated arguments in the media drowning out the science. Must make more of this next year.

Why does science impassion scientists?

One of the objectives of the course is to explain to the class why people become scientists. It is not the long training, low pay, endless hours or poor job security. I failed miserably to give a good answer in previous years. I got colleagues to post explanations, and the answers are good but its hard to get students to read the blog, and it made no impact when I read them out last year.

So I tried a different tack. I got a talented film student, Tristan Buckley, to make a film to explain. This is what he produced. I showed it in class Thursday. You could have heard a pin drop.