Monthly Archives: October 2013

Not there

Class Test 1: 60 students with unacceptably low scores (D or worse)

Class Test 2: 43 students with unacceptably low scores.
I did the first test revision tutorial last Thursday at 5:30pm. At 5:30, this is what the classroom looked like:
Ten minutes later, it looked like this:
Four more turned up near 6pm. I think all six learned a lot. One said as she left that she felt a lot more confident now. Fabulous.
Tonight I did a rerun. Nine students appeared. They all seemed more confident as they left.
I like the banter of these sessions, and I like looking into the whites of students’ eyes. Its the only way to figure out what works and what does not.
Several of the students who showed had good scores. So dozens of poorly performing students aren’t taking advantage of these sessions. All something of a mystery to me.

Being there

Last Thursday, attendance was 60%. That looks like this. Every seat should be taken.

I asked Dean Williams for theories on how it could be so bad. She suggested the Thursday before canning weekend will always be bad. That cleared my conscience for the weekend. 
But this is how it looked yesterday.
Maybe it is this bad because it is the Tuesday after canning weekend? 
I see from my blog that I angst about attendance at this time of year (20122011a, 2011b). [who’d have thought that it is good I blog because I can reassure myself that this year is no worse than before….]. Sixty percent is not quite a record low, though we have a ways to go in the semester yet, and no football scandal. 
For other reasons, I was looking over the end of year judgements of the Class of 2012. In response to the question ‘Name three things you learned from this course’, a very significant number said: go to class. Students this year are also thinking about it, as they have in the past.
How to teach critical thinking to people who don’t show? It’s hard enough for those who are there.

Class Test 2, 2013

Well… things are going in the right direction. Average score was 77%, or 79% excluding the no shows. That’s up a whole grade from Class Test 1… 

Ten more students got an A this time – a total of 23, including seven who got 100% on my grading algorithm (though no one got every question right). Otherwise, the grade distribution is all a bit up on last time: A-, 19; B+, 10; B, 22; B-, 29, C+, 14; C, 13; D, 26: Fails, 12 + 5 no shows.
So in my books, that is 38 students with unacceptably low grades (D or Fail, excluding the no shows). That’s down from 54 last time. Better, but not better enough.
Most sobering, there were some questions the majority of the class got wrong. Two concerned our class discussion of whether prayer heals. A rigorous randomized double blind placebo control trial showed it does. I apparently failed to get across to the majority of students that we now think the result was a fluke.
The other question of general concern was about what can be learned from meta-analyses of cancer trials. They teach us about both the ethics of such trials and the efficiency of science. Many students apparently failed to grasp one or both messages.
Student misunderstanding on these things worry me. They are important, and I thought I had been pretty clear. These days it is frustratingly hard to tell when the teaching is at fault: we have about 20% absenteeism regularly now (hard to pick up the hard stuff if you are not in class) and I can see many of those present are on their cell phones. But maybe I can do better; obviously I’ll go over those issues again in class. 

Fall 2014…and impact

This is the time of year when room bookings for next year have to be made. That’s what determines the size of the class. The original vision of the course was to go big (400+). Each year I have agonized about that and pulled back (2012, 2011). Two things are different this year. It is the first time I have done things just as I did them last year; much to my surprise, I am missing the challenge of something new. And second, I am one of eight CIDD Faculty putting on a MOOC. It launches Tuesday, and we have no idea what will happen. But about 30,000 people, including my Dad, are signed up. Which makes you think. So does getting older. Tick, tick, tick.

Impact. Impact. IMPACT. Is there any other reason to teach?

This is a class room of 170 students of assorted levels of seniority look like.
SC200 class.jpg
Not bad, for sure. But this is what 900 eager freshmen starting College look like.
Incoming freshmen.jpg
So I have decided that for 2014, I will get the biggest lecture hall I can, and take only Freshmen. That’ll be a challenge. Plenty of potential for egg on face, especially if the course does not have sufficient reputation to fill the room. It is also quite possible I will be unable to captivate an audience that big twice a week for fifteen long grueling weeks. But impact. What else is there? 
We only get one shot at this. I’m not going to look back and wish I had rested less.


One of my jobs is to give students’ new experiences. Tonight, they gave me one. A student from SC200 2012 nominated me for Homecoming Court, a bunch of others voted for me, and before I knew it, I was on the field during the big Penn State-Michigan Homecoming game in front of 107,000 people. I even made the big screen for a nanosecond.

I really don’t understand American Football, and I barely know what Homecoming is. But who cares? Stand tall and enjoy it for what is it, I was told. So this is me, standing tall and enjoying it. Truly an American Kiwi. Thanks.

Blog period 1, 2013

The biggest dilemma in Higher Education is to know how hard to stretch students. Students, their past and future families and society as a whole pay for College so students get extended. But how far should we academics stretch them? Increasingly, I think we need to set a bar high enough to make a real difference but not so high that the students get disillusioned by failure. And to do that, we need to ensure that the students know our high expectations and have the resources and help to surpass them. We cheat everyone otherwise. 

All very easy in theory. Sadly, inspire as much as we try, I think the only real driver that makes most students stretch is grades. Blog period 1 is where the rubber meets the road as they say, or where my teaching ‘philosophy’ clashes with the expectations of many of my students….

Average grade 62%. Among those who did anything, the average was 73%, and among those who made more than a trivial effort, the average was 78%, in line with the performance this time last year
Three students got A-, 3 got B+ and 25 students got a B. The remainder breaks down as: B-, 23; C+, 46; C, 18; D, 12; Fail, 45, including 27 who did not participate at all.
There were some really good posts (classical music & studying, immunity and berries, night owls, and anxiety and modern technology). But overall, most of the work was pretty mediocre. I worry that the Facebook generation is not used to the idea of serious work being posted on line. I also worry that students look at on-going work on the blog and assume that is what we are looking for, rather than looking at examples I have given of previous good practice. 
Students: if you are not happy with your grade, by all means talk to me about it. But first, check out the many resources on the site — examples of previous good practice, words of wisdom from your TAs and TAs from previous years — and have a good look at the grading rubric (syllabus) and the personalized feedback on Angel (Course>Refresh>Digital Expression>Grades>Report>Run). Reflect, and then stretch. You can be your own best teacher.