Monthly Archives: December 2013

Extra credit

In the New York Times, the ever-excellent David Brooks describes a new social contract: Young people provide their middle-aged professors with optimism and flattery, and the professors provide them with grade inflation.


I just finished inflating the grades. Formally, we call this adding extra credit. Most of it leaves a bad taste in my mouth. A few students actually earned extra credit: three from fine blogging and four who sent in useful exam questions. But the vast majority of the extra credit I awarded is a bribe to fill out surveys and come to class. 
At maximum, the bribe is 5% of the final grade. That can turn a B- into a B+, or a straight B into an A-. It can even save some students from failing. Can this be right? Should I really be rewarding the 25% of students who managed to be present all nine times I took attendance? Should I really be rewarding all the students because over 85% of them filled in the course evaluation?
I do it because I want thorough feedback on the course, and attendance does matter. And one immense benefit of the bribery is that when I get complaints/begging emails from those just below a grade boundary, I can use the non-academic freebie buffer to tell them they are in fact no where near a boundary. But I wonder if I should just get ballsy (honest?) and give grades only for academic performance. 
Maybe it is that time of year when optimism and flattery are in short supply.

Overall Class Test grade, 2013

There are four class tests in the semester; for each student, I take the average of the best two grades of the four to calculate the final class test score, which is worth 26% of the final grade.

The overall average is 84%. The grade distribution breaks down as follows. A, 27 students; A-, 39; B+, 9; B, 18, B-, 21; C+, 23; C, 11; D, 12, Fail, 3 + one no show. So 40% of the class got an A or an A-. Two students got a score of 100% on my grading algorithm, but no one got everything correct in any test.
That is down on 2012, when 55% of the class got an A or an A-. Again, I can’t figure out why. I don’t think the questions were any harder this year. In a subsequent blog, when I get a few minutes to think, I’ll ponder what happened this year.

Class Test 4, 2013

Well, this was a train smash.

Overall score, excluding the no shows = 70%, in line with what happened in the first class test what seems a life time ago, but down about 10% from the previous two class tests (2, 3). Thus, the steady upward march of (measurable) learning progress gone, just like that.
I struggle to understand why. The good news, and it really is good news, is that the half of the test which dealt with critical analysis of the science behind a media report was well handled. I guess that sort of critical thinking is one of the most important things the students can carry forward from this class.


But the bad news was that the part of the test which probes comprehension of what I say in class was really poorly handled. When I look hard at the questions, I realize what I have done is write questions that really required the students to be in class and listening. The answers to the questions the students did most poorly on aren’t on the handouts or the slides. For instance, Barry Marshall, who got the Nobel Prize for discovering that H. pylori causes stomach ulcers, drank the bacteria in a desperate attempt to prove his theory. I discussed this in class: what does a sample size of one tell you anyway? Is it ethical? And critically for the question I asked, he got sick, but did not get a stomach ulcer. So his own data point is evidence against his hypothesis. It took large randomized trials to provide convincing evidence for the hypothesis. Barry Marshall drinking the bacteria was at best an anecdote – and one which argued against the hypothesis. Apparently only a third of students took that message on board.
By chance, I took attendance the day I talked about Barry Marshall – only 60% of the class was present. So that probably explains why 40% of the students did not know the answer. Why did half of those that were there get the wrong message? Was it because they were not paying attention? Or because I did not explain it well enough?
The other odd thing about that particular question is that a few minutes on Wiki with a critical appreciation of the hypothesis under test would have enabled anyone to work it out. I thought I had been banging on so hard determining what the hypothesis is, what was actually measured, and how that matched the hypothesis. Maybe I need to bang on more. 
The grade distribution break down: A, 2; A-, 4; B+, 9; B, 7, B-, 19; C+, 12; C, 30; D, 35; Fail, 29 + 17 no shows.
I wonder if I should have been more ruthless probing comprehension of class material in previous tests. So much non-attendance…and in class, so much inattention. Its hard not to get cynical. Saying over and over again: come to class and listen. This course is brutal on non-attenders. Is the only way to get the message across to put in more probing questions early in the semester?
One of the interesting things about blogging about a course is that you get to see what you were thinking about at the same time in previous years. I see in both 2012 and in 2011 I had the same worries. Performance on Class Test 4, 2011 was as disappointing as this. I see was then agonizing about the same things, beating myself up the same way. 
There must be some lesson to draw from that.

Blog Period 3, 2013

When reporting on the last two blog periods (1, 2), there were some excellent posts, but actually rather. I found myself scratching around to provide examples of outstanding work. This blog period, there were lots to chose from.
On so many personal levels, I really enjoyed Rejection. It is always good to someone out there is listening and thinking. And Mantis Shrimp is in a league of its own as a piece of fun writing. I gave that extra credit.
The average grade among those who participated enough to pass was 81.1%, up a few points on the previous two blog periods. Three students got an A, 5 got A-, 13 B+, 14 B, 18 B-, 14 C+, 10 C, 5 D, with 25 fails and 56 no shows.
Really special were the outstanding improvements. Some students increased their grades by more than 20% – one even by 30%. I am really pleased with those students. They seem to have taken the feedback on board, consulted with Kira and Ethan, and really lifted their game. One of the things it is all about.

The overshare problem

For people of my generation, it is a struggle to understand why students can be so open on the internet. Some post to the class blog that they are promiscuous, indulging in illegal drugs, drinking under age, getting obscenely drunk and stoned, even discussing date rape drugs in less than condemnatory language. 

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I can not imagine how all this will look when they are applying for police, government, law, corporate jobs. Yesterday, The Daily Collegian, Penn State’s excellent student newspaper, reported a recent study which shows that 93% of recruiters are using the internet to see how candidates present themselves off clock. Only 1% of recruiters see references to illegal drug use and sexually explicit posts as positive.

I was asked yesterday if I feel any responsibility for the potentially self-harming stuff the students are posting. I hadn’t been: I’ve told the class – in class – several times that they should be careful.
But is that enough? Telling teenagers and young twenty-somethings to be careful…? Like that works.