Monthly Archives: October 2015

The view from the back of the class

How to get over a HangoverA new faculty member sat in on my class. He was astounded. Immediately in front of him, a student asleep, evidently hungover. To his left, three women painting each other’s fingernails. To his right, two students on their phones, one playing a mountain bike game, the other watching basketball highlights — out of season.

My colleague had seen nothing like this in the Penn State science-for-scientist classes he’d sat in on, let alone in his own training (Princeton, Stanford, Oxford). All I could offer by way of explanation was more of an observation: science-for-non-scientist classes are a challenge. Fortunately for the sanity of those of us who try, the view from the front of the class is dominated by engaged students.

Blog Period 2: results

Grades from the second blog period are now in. Among those who did enough to pass, the average grade was 80 (B-). That’s a big and very pleasing improvement over Blog Period 1. The average improvement among those who did enough to pass this time was 14% – a grade and a half. Most excellent. Clearly many students took the feedback on board and upped their games.

The grade distribution was: A, 1: A-, 17; B+, 15; B 32, B-, 29; C+, 44; C, 24; D, 15, with 41 fails and an incredible 122 no shows (a third of the class!). I am especially pleased with the 18 students who got an A or A-.

Among their efforts were some great posts. Try, for example, linguistic genius of babies, the dangers of blogging, zombie bees, why Penn State is so sick, 7 or 8 hours sleep?, dressing well for exams, why ouch?, how meeting people with different accents makes you smarter, and whether there is any good reason to ban cell phones in hospitals. I also enjoyed elephant cancer (they don’t get nearly enough), and whether mono leads to cancer (it can) and whether vaginal births lead to smarter babies (written by a student born by c-section). I also thought it interesting that make-up might be for the wearer, and that aspirin still seems magic. And at a personal level, the analysis of the utility of bike helmets I found fascinating. I’ve just read a book by the neurosurgeon who said they are useless, and today I finally gave into the nagging of my beloved and brought myself one. After reading the post, I decided that if wearing the helmet makes her happy, I should do it for that reason – even if the safety margins seem pretty, well, marginal.

We also had the disgusting (pooh on your toothbrush, love and sweaty tee-shirts) and some great work on politically charged topics (marijuana, do men or women whine more?, how to die, and domestic violence). And there were some important discussions: is homework good? As always, it is fascinating to see where students go when left to follow their noses.

For students looking to improve. My advice after Blog Period 1 still stands. And for students who put in more hours in Blog Period 2 for little reward, I am afraid that as in much in life, it’s not the hours put in that matters: it is how those hours are put in.  If in doubt, ask the TAs — or me.

More review questions

I learned from the mid-semester evaluation that review questions are popular, so I asked some more today. Two came from stuff I’d been over before the last class test…

…and one came from last Tuesday’s class

The first two went fine (the most popular answer was right), but the last one gave me a teachable moment about the difference between ideas/hypotheses/speculations and actual knowledge. We aren’t short of ideas, but we really have no idea why we are so bad at Monty’s problem. But bad we sure are. You should switch.

Of those three questions, only the last comes from an actual SC200 exam. But all three are analogous to questions I will ask. I always ask in different ways, in different contexts. I want to test understanding, not regurgitation or memory.

Class Test 2 results

The second class test happened yesterday. The overall average among those who took the test was 77.4% (C+), up only slightly from Class Test 1. But the good news is the big jump in the number of students who did well – the numbers of A’s and A-‘s more than doubled.

Class Test2

It looks like a fair few of them were in the B’s last time and have moved up. There was also a big decrease in the number of C and C+’s, so many people went up (60% increased their grade from Class Test 1). But 40% went down, and there is still a big group of people on a D or failing. But most noticeable (alarming even), just look at the red bars. That’s no bell-curve. It’s a perfect W shape… One interpretation of that is that the class is in fact three classes: those that get it, those that don’t, and those that kinda do. Reaching all three student groups and keeping all three engaged…phew.

For the record, the actual numbers: A 51, A- 45, B+ 21, B 28, B- 40, C+ 26, C 19, D 63, Fails 45 with 10 no shows (oddly, most of those ten showed last time, and have good attendance records). Seventeen students got 100% on the ask-28-questions-grade-out-of-25 algorithm, and four of those got 26/28 (>100%). Nobody got everything right.

The students on a D or fail are the challenge. No doubt this second test has led some of them to despair – they just learned their poor showing in the first test was not just one of those things. Worse, I guess some students just fell into that fail category for the first time. Those are the students I have to reach today. I need to implore them review the tests, figure out what went wrong, and ask or come to the revision sessions. Getting poorly performing students to seize control of their own learning is, I have learned, one of the big challenges.

Mid-semester evaluation

This is the third year I’ve handed out a questionnaire to find out how things are going. Mid-semester evaluations are a good idea because there is still time to fix things.

The quantitative data are just in.  The dissatisfaction scores are the ones I look at, and all of those are better than previous years. Less than 20% of the class are unhappy about something (down from 25% last year and 30% in 2013). But that’s still around one in five. I only wish the dissatisfied would talk to me about what the issue is. I can’t fix what I don’t understand.

Of words (and Dutch landscapes)

During class last Thursday, everyone suddenly started whispering. I asked if anything was wrong, no one said anything, things quietened down fast and I did not think more of it. But after class, a student explained (and I am very grateful she did). I had used a forbidden word.

I had been discussing the data on whether sugary drinks cause obesity, and one of the only really good studies involves elementary school kids in Amsterdam. It’s a reasonable sized double-blind randomized placebo trial, so powerful data.  For me, those data pretty much close the case (avoid Coke if you are worried about weight gain), but I was asking if a study on elementary school kids, and Dutch ones at that, generalizes to college-age Americans. In questioning whether the Dutch environment might be different from America, I picked from my head ‘land of dikes’.

As the student who talked to me after class said, that’s a culturally insensitive word in America, and no question it is. The distinction between a ‘i’ and a ‘y’ vanishes when spoken (even in my accent), and is completely lost in a land of levees. So serious apologies to anyone who took offense: absolutely none was meant.

That it was an issue says a lot about all of us, and how language evolves. I wonder how they deal with this in geology classes? At least I can talk of windmills from now on.windmillPhoto credit

Plagiarism (continued)

I don’t know how common plagiarism is in courses with traditional essays and term papers, but experience has taught me that it can easily creep into blog-based work. Over the years (2015, 20142013, 2012a2012b), I have learned that just because it is obviously shameful, and just because the university thinks likewise, and just because avoiding it seems like common sense, I still need to work hard to head it off. That is worth the time and energy investment because prosecuting a student for academic integrity violation is never fun and very time consuming. And we don’t want well meaning students falling foul of the rules simply because their schooling prepared them inadequately.

So again this year, I made sure the Academic Integrity section in the syllabus was clear, and the links up to date. I then did a session in class on plagiarism (Sept 8, early in Week 3). In that, I spent 10+ minutes going over the excellent TLT tutorial on plagiarism. Using that tutorial, I particularly emphasized the problem that sets in when students copy text from another site. I urged them to put quote marks around any such text as soon as they copy it, so it can never ‘accidentally’ become their own text. And I went on at great length about how using their own words is a way to get a great grade. Using someone else’s in quote marks is ok, but if it is the vast bulk of the post, it won’t get a very good grade. But using someone else’s without quote marks is academic theft, the most serious academic integrity violation. I also made it very clear I would not hesitate to prosecute any cases we find, and pointed out that one reason I was saying all this was so that I could say I had said it all when it came to prosecuting any cases (I know, but such is the bizarre world we now live in).

And having learned from previous years, I took attendance that day so I would know who would be there, and then after class, I sent an email to all the students:

As discussed in class today, plagiarism is totally unacceptable in all circumstances.
The tutorial I discussed today is at  That has an outstandingly good discussion of what to do to avoid giving even the slightest hint of plagiarism. Please look at it. The last page of our SC200 syllabus has detail and links on the legal situation.
If you are worried or not sure about how to cite or quote, ask your TAs for advice. If in doubt, ask. If you ever feel even the slightest little temptation to deliberately commit plagiarism, don’t….. Instead, reach out to me. I am always available to discuss any circumstances that got you to that point. Remember: plagarism is theft. Just don’t do it. It demeans us all.

-quoted from email from A.Read to SC200 students 9/8/2015

All of that might have made a difference, but sadly it did not reduce the plagiarism to zero. I had to report two students on academic violation. Both were in class on Sept 8.

After the academic violation paperwork on those two cases moved to the next step, I sent that email around the class again, this time adding above it:

I now have two students on academic integrity violations over plagiarism on the blog. Plagiarism is extremely serious, and also easily detected by plagiarism software. Please, please, please review the tutorial below. There is no excuse for plagiarism. If you ever, ever, ever find yourself copying and pasting, put quote marks around the material “like this” , so that you never run the risk of trying to pass someone else’s work off as your own. Quoting large chunks of someone else’s material won’t get you a great grade, but at least if it is in quote marks, it is not an integrity violation. Lightly editing someone else’s work and trying to pass that off as your own is even worse. Use your own words. If in doubt, ask the TAs.

Plagiarism is intellectual theft, and the university takes it as seriously as I do. There is NO excuse. Don’t do it. Seriously, it demeans us all.


-quoted from email from A. Read to SC200 students Oct 5, 2015

I so hope that will be the end of the plagiarism. But I dunno. I was in a shop downtown Saturday when the person working there discovered some merchandise had been stolen. I was told it was students who did that – they catch them quite often. But it is too much work to get the police involved, and nothing comes of it anyway. Evidently the students aren’t even apologetic or worried about being caught.

In all of this, I try to focus on the many students with integrity, the ones who are engaged. They are very rewarding. I hope in the end, they do the best in the world.writeyourown-chopped

Image cut and pasted direct from, as suggested by the author