Monthly Archives: September 2015

Progress report

The early grade data are now in: the initial blog post, the first blog period and the first class test, enough to calculate a meaningful overall grade. The numbers do not look pretty. Incredibly, 28% of the class are currently failing the course. Only 1.4% of the class are on some kind of A (at least they show it can be done). Of the remaining students, 21% are on some kind of B, 32% on some kind of C, and 17.6% on a D.

improve_togetherWith my grading algorithm (best of three blog periods, best two of four class tests), none of the grades to date need impact the final grade. Indeed, nothing begins to stick until early November. But the students need to lay the foundation for improvement NOW. And improve, most of them sure will. They just need to work with me.

The university asks us to do Early Progress Reports on all freshmen. Early Progress Reports have to be done by October 5. We have no more grades before then, but there will be some further attendance data, so we can’t report just yet. The Reports go to the students and their advisers, and are a mechanism for spotting students in trouble before it is too late. Most commonly, the Reports are an important kick in the butt of students who are too much enjoying the distractions of college.

The Early Reports are trivial to return if the student is doing satisfactorily (tick the yes box). But tick the unsatisfactory box, and fresh window opens, offering a long list of ailments: tests, quizzes, assignments, attendance, participation, absences, tardiness, and my favorite, unsatisfactory demonstration of necessary skills….  also demanded is the date the student last showed signs of life (ok, they don’t put it that way, but that’s what’s meant). You also get the chance to write comments, up to 250 characters.

Given the current failure rates, I’ll have 99 unsatisfactory reports to return. By the time I’ve looked up the data for each student, filled in the 99 boxes and written each a sentence…… at 3-4 mins per student, almost six hours work. MONICA……

Blog Period 1: results

A third of the students decided to take a pass on the blog this period: 17% of the class did nothing, and another 15% didn’t do enough to pass. That’s a bit depressing, not least because I implore them not too. They live to survive another day (I take the best score from the three blog periods) but those who did nothing this first round miss the feed back the others get. That means the abstainers will be running into Blog Period 3, the period of last resort (flu, finals, other course crises). Maybe they’ll ace the next period and need no feedback. But just four students scored an A or an A- from a standing start in this Blog Period….

19046174-The-words-Learn-Practice-and-Improve-on-three-red-dice-for-betting-on-your-future-in-attaining-new-s-Stock-PhotoAnyhow, the remaining two thirds of the class did do significant work. The average score of those who did enough to pass was 75% (C+). This means a significant amount of improvement is possible. The grading team spent a huge amount of time posting individual feedback to each student, with tips for what to do better, how to improve. From past experience, I know that those who think hard about their feedback and really strive this coming blog period will knock it out of the park. The biggest most gratifying jumps in performance are the step from the first to second blog period.

smoking plantThere sure were some great individual posts. I enjoyed learning that I can keep eating gluten (or can I?) and that some people just are bad test takers (those people should concentrate on the blogging! – by design, there are many ways to get an excellent grade in SC200). I also learned that smoking is bad for plants (who would have thought to ask?), that we have no idea why we have nightmares (our ignorance about ourselves is staggering) and that the photic sneeze reflex (great name) is heritable. Health topics dominated, of course, and we learn that vitamin C is a wash (someone should blog about zinc: that works), that grade obsession is bad (I hate it too: worst part of being a professor), that volleyball is no safer on a beach, and that wearing heels is as bad for you as you might imagine (so I’ve given mine away). Some folk bravely took on difficult subjects, like the humanity of a fetus and whether cell phones in bras cause cancer (a topic I might pick up later in semester). I also learned I need to go home.

Students who want to improve their scores: Look at some of those examples. Look at other examples of best practice here. Read the Instructor posts, especially this one. Go over the grading rubric again. Do not leave posting to the last minute – post a great post every week. Ask the TAs for advice. Heck, have a look at the work they did last year when they are doing the class. You can find their work via the Contributions Page for the 2014 Class Blog. Note the big jump in the quality of their posts between Blog Period 1 and Blog Period 2….. SC200 is all about trying, learning and improving. 

Review questions

Question-Mark3For the first time this year, I did a couple of review questions in class today to make sure stuff from last class was bedding in. When I said at the end, after questions were off the screen, that both came from last year’s tests, several people asked me to post them. So here they are.

Question 1 (Ethics of refusing experimental treatments in cancer trials)

Question 2 (Why large double-blind trials are often needed to identify dangerous medical practices).

In both cases, the majority of the class got them right. Thank goodness. There is always a slight tension when I reveal poll results – if the majority of the class have gone wrong, that would throw a spanner in the works.

Where are the men?

First review session of the year was today. I love it. Small(er) group teaching, lots and lots of interaction. You can see the whites of the eyes. You can see when they don’t get it–and best of all, you can see when the light bulbs come on. That is so gratifying.

4ib4K5xigThe major bummer: I forgot to take a photo of the group. In previous years, it’s been tragic. Today, there must have been almost 40 students. Best attendance ever. Camera Andrew? Wake up. Too busy with water, recovery from class, projection systems (that damn multitasking problem)….but I did observe the sex bias. It is always there. This time there were two blokes among the ?40. I am not sure what the class sex ratio is. But it is not 1 in 20 (maybe it is 9 in 20?). As a father of sons – and frankly, the most charming and smart young men you will ever meet – it is seriously sad that blokes don’t revise. I hate to generalize, but here goes: women work to achieve. Men assume they will.

They don’t. Somil, one of the class TAs this year, was in the top three in class last year. The next guy was in rank order #21. That’s an anecdote. but every year, I have had no options for male TAs. If I am lucky, one bloke will be up there. Most years, none are. That’s six anecdotes. Starting to sound like data.

Class Blog Period 1: deadline meltdown

keep-calm-you-kidding-the-deadline-is-hereIt finally happened. The blog site crashed under the pressure of all the last minute posts. I couldn’t even post to this site at noon, when the deadline was, let alone the class site itself. It seems there were several other classes with deadlines today, and so..well,…  Stressed emails started raining in late evening and kept up all morning.

DeadlineI extended the deadline to midnight when the system came back on stream early afternoon. That seemed to keep the peace, but I wonder if I should have been so lenient. The Federal Government does not allow the failure of their websites as a excuse for missing a grant deadline (and this can mean people have to wait up to a year to resubmit). This is a great motivator for submitting earlier than the 59th minute of the 11th hour. So I told the class – for Blog Periods 2 and 3, no extensions no matter what. If the US Government can govern like that, so can I.


Outstanding discussion in class today (I thought) about the perils of multi-tasking in class, in particular texting. Prompted by this provocative summary of the data by one of PSU’s most thoughtful Professors, Julia Kregneow, I first showed a short video summarizing a Stanford study claiming that those who think they multitask best are actually the worst at it. I then posted this rather sobering graph from a paper by Duncan et al. from the Astronomy Education Review.

Duncan et al graph

The graph shows a correlation between the amount of texting students reported doing during a one hour Gen Ed astronomy course, and their final grade. The final grade axis is a little weird, but so far as I can tell, texting at all is associated with dropping a grade (so going from an A to a B or a B to a C etc.).

I described it to the students, and then after a few think-pair-share minutes, I called on some of them by name (chosen at random from a ‘hat’ – Julia assured me that would work — and it does!). The discussion was good. The study is correlational, so might not indicate causality, but we can probably rule out reverse causation (it was the final grade, taken some months later). Some plausible third variables can be identified (maybe less engaged students text more out of boredom?) and we had a good discussion of how we could make the study experimental (should we as a class try it?*).

So pedagogically valuable, but more so, I think, because the students were highly engaged because it is them (well almost them: are they like astronomy Gen Ed students from Colorado?). Of course, I have no idea if the discussion will make my students text less in class. And it does raise the question of whether I am doing them a favor by having a phone-linked Comment Wall running live in class and asking them text-in questions. I asked the class if I should give it all up and ban their phones. I did not get a clear answer. For my money, a ban that is unenforceable is a recipe for disaster – and besides, I like the students texting my comment wall in class in real time. They do too. And everyone hates clickers.

Julia’s solution? Ban electronics in most of the class room, and let those who want to be distracted sit together on one side, leaving the others to learn. And she uses colored paper signs instead of clickers. Low tech and popular, evidently.

Post-script – while multitasking at the end of class (answering questions, shutting down my electronics, collecting my stuff) I put the names of the students I’d called on back in the hat – so they might get called on again, despite my promise it would be just once in the semester. No one should multi-task……

*No. I’d need an IRB. Red tape kills again.

Class material

I post the slides and material I use in the classroom on Angel. Turns out the file for the second class was corrupted and couldn’t be opened. Only one student brought that to my attention, and then during the class test yesterday. Well, I guess that means at least someone is looking.

The first results: Class Test 1

The first class test happened yesterday. After last year’s fiasco, I spent an inordinate amount of time checking the computer settings for the test, and it all went remarkably smoothly. Just a couple of people with self-inflicted computer problems, and getting those bugs out of their systems is one of the reasons I have a test early, and then only take the top two grades of the four class tests.

The actual results were disappointing in terms of student performance, but in line with the ‘wake-up-call’ results of first class tests in previous years (e.g. 2014). This is a timely reminder for me and more importantly a strong message to many of the students: SC200 not a cake-walk. We all need to focus and up our games.

The average score was 75% (C+) for those who did the test, and we had 10 no shows. Three students got 26/28 questions, and five more got 25/28, so a total of eight got 100% on my ask 28-questions-grade-out-of-25 algorithm. In total, there were 20 A‘s, 13 A-, 36 B+, 43 B, 40 B-, 54 C+, 39 C, 59 D‘s and 42 fails, a distribution which looks like this:

Class Test 1

That’s remarkably similar to the distribution this time last year. For the faint of heart (which includes me), that distribution moves substantially to the left by the time we get final grades.

The good news? There were some really great efforts (the 8 students who got 100%, and a lot of very good ones [152 with a B or better, almost half the class]). No individual questions where disasterously handled, apart from one on wormy kids and one on smoking. Both of those questions seem to me to point to students barely paying attention in class, but I guess to the students they point to me explaining things poorly – I’ll go over those again in class today. The critical assessment of the media report was pretty well handled on average, and since critical thinking is the aim of my game, that’s good news.

But obviously the bad news is the 101 students who did poorly (which I take to be a D or less); that’s almost a third of the class. For many of those students, this will be the worse grade they have ever got. Those students need to work with me now. What are they not understanding? I can help if I know what the problem is.  Otherwise, I am left guessing. So its time to implore the students to take control of their own learning. Revise the test (its there, with right/wrong, on Angel). If you don’t understand the answer, ask. Ask, ask, ask. I am going to do everything I can to get students over the bar – except lower it.