Monthly Archives: November 2016

What's interesting?

I polled the class on which of topics they would like me to cover in the remaining classes. This gave me a popularity ranking on the options I offered, from most to least popular (n=141 respondents):

  1. sleep.jpgAre there aliens? (91%)
  2. Is a Zombie apocalypse coming? (87%)
  3. Are animals gay? (84%)
  4. Why haven’t we cured cancer? (72%)
  5. Why do we sleep? (66%)

This order is the complete reverse of what is interesting to me and (I believe) the vast majority of scientists. Go figure.

Sex bias?

This is the actual hat I use....

This is the actual hat…

According to a comment in this very interesting video about how to get large classes engaged in active learning, males are more likely to put their hand up and to be called on in class. Best practice is therefore to do random cold calls. Students hate that, and so I compromise: for extra credit, they can have their names in a hat from which I randomly select people.

The class is 44% male. 40% of those who opted to have their names in a hat were male. So no bias there. The real bias is probably in the personality types selected. That sort of bias might be much more insidious.

Late drop

Last Friday was the last chance for students to drop the course and not have it show in their GPAs.  We lost just 12 students. Incredibly, some of those had full attendance and grades that could easily have been lifted to A’s with a bit of effort.

Go big or go home is a common saying on campus. Kudos to the 90% who did not go home. Each year it staggers me that there are students who waste their tuition dollars, time, energy and (more importantly to me) a place in my class, all to protect their precious GPA. The GPA is the single most damaging number in higher education metrics. Truly brave universities would get rid of it. I’m told we can’t because some of our Colleges actually select students based on their GPA. I wonder why. It just encourages students to play it safe and avoid or drop challenging courses. No way to encourage them to go big.

For those wondering what just happened to their grades

Angel, the course management system, calculates an overall grade in real time. This is good, but it means that as new components of the final grade come in, some grades adjust downwards. This generates a lot of email traffic. This is my generic explanation of what just happened.

I just released the attendance grade for the first time. Students have to be at nine pop quizzes to get this (worth 10% of final grade). We have now done nine, so regular attenders just got their 10%; those who have yet to be at nine just got a zero. They will get their 10% when they hit nine quizzes (and there will at least three more before end of semester). But for now, that means those who have missed any pop quizzes had their score go down by 10%. The scores of the other altered slightly as Angel re-weighted the various components of the grade to include the attendance score.

Culture wars

To Dr Harlene Hayne, Vice-Chancellor***, Otago University, New Zealand

Dear Harlene,

As an Otago graduate (Zoology, Class of 1984), I’ve always enjoyed your articles in our Alumni Magazine. Congratulations, btw, on five years in the job. I hope the next five are as good for you and the university as the last five.

Here at Penn State, I am a research professor most of the time. But for 15 challenging weeks a year, I teach 365 non-science majors about science. I’ve been doing it since 2010, and each year I am amazed by just how hard it is. I have a high bar (and struggle with how high set it) and I do everything I can to get the students over that bar — except lower it. I also expect (demand) that the students seize control of their own learning. But many of my students just hate it (they want A’s on a plate) and most of my colleagues don’t much care for my efforts or standards.

And so it’s a struggle. I’ve often wondered why I bother. No one would complain if I aimed low. But now, thanks to your recent article, I know where my teaching aspirations come from. You went on US tour to get feedback from the US students who do Study Abroad at Otago and, in your words, everyone

… reported that the academic standard at Otago was much higher than that of their home institution. I was constantly told that the American students – many of whom came to us from highly selective, and extremely expensive private universities – had to work twice as hard at Otago as they did at home.

They also told me that Otago required students to think for themselves and to take responsibility for their own learning; that Otago fostered a sense of independence that was initially a bit daunting to many of them.

So that’s it! My aspirations are Otago’s fault. Ironic that you, an American in a NZ university have the perspective to explain to me, a NZer in an American university, what’s going on.

Well, here’s to the ‘smart, ambitious and warm-hearted, edgy‘ Otago people who shaped me. To name just three still on your books: AlisonEwan and Alan. You’ve made me realize their reach is long and their contribution to my professional discomfort great. I am sure my own students will one day thank them. I do.






Dr Andrew Read FRS
Evan Pugh Professor of Biology and Entomology
Eberly Professor of Biotechnology
Director, Center for Infectious Disease Dynamics.

This from Otago's recruitment literature...

A major reason I had a fantastic time at Otago University (1981-1984).

***In US speak, the Vice-Chancellor is the University President.

Extra credit calculations con't.

We just released a slug of grades, meaning that students who did not do well start thinking about extra credit options (good) and how they are calculated (ok, but better to spend time reviewing class material, blogging or actually earning extra credit). Any how, the calculations, and further to my last post about this: we cap extra credit at 10% (ie students can have added to their actual class grade a maximum of 10% extra). That means no matter how much extra credit they actually earn, we never add more than 10%.

That 10% is added using the extra credit option in Angel, which shows everything out of 100%. So 6% extra credit shows in Angel as 60/100 extra credit, and the maximum allowable is 100/100 = 10% added.

Class Test 3: sigh

unhappy-face-clipart-best-md1kpo-clipartI don’t recall ever being quite so disappointed by a set of test results. I didn’t think the test was especially hard, and certainly no harder than Class Test 2. But the grades are down. The average score among those who took the test was 74% (C), down from 77% (C+) in the last class test and 79% (C+) in the first test. That is a trend so going in the wrong direction.

The specifics: A, 11; A-, 15; B+, 33; B, 41; B-, 47; C+, 38; C, 24; D, 59; Fail, 46; No shows 19. One student got 26/28 and 7 students got 100% on my ask-28-questions-grade-out-of-25 algorithm (down from 9 last time and 20 the time before). The number of A’s was down (from 15 and 42), as was the number of B+’s (down from 46 and 40). The only growth area is the C+’s (this time up from 27). So my strongly bimodal distribution of earlier tests now has less of a valley in the middle. Hardly an achievement.

So what’s going on? Possible explanations:.

  1. The test was impossible. But a dozen students did outstandingly well, so the test was do-able.
  2. There were some badly worded questions. I won’t know until I talk to the students, but looking at them, that’s not obvious to me. There were a few questions where I had slung in some class slogans (e.g. correlation does not equal causation) that were perfectly correct answers to questions I wasn’t asking. Those always seem to cause problems (ie test understanding). I think people recognize the slogan and opt for it without thinking about the question. That’s sobering. There was also a question about whether the study in the the media report was a randomized control trial (it was), but to realize that, you had to read the report and think about it. Most of the students having incorrectly decided it was an observational study then got the next two questions wrong (since RCTs but not observational studies allow you to rule out reverse causation and third variables). But other than that, I can’t see any real question-related issues.
  3. Nobody got the guest speakers. Five of the questions revolved around the recent presentations of our two guest speakers, Mike Mann and Doug Cavener. I reviewed both those presentations with the class following their visits. Attendance at all three of those sessions was poor (just 75% of the class present when I went back over what they’d said), and that can’t have helped. But looking at four of those five questions, the majority of the students got them right: 88%, 64%, 63% and 59% (which, if non-attendance was fatal, translates to 100%, 85%, 84% and 78%). Only 30% of the class got the fifth question right. This concerned Dean Cavener’s work to put a giraffe gene into mice. He is not doing that to test the power of new gene editing technology or to test evolution (why would he do that? — both of those have already been thoroughly demonstrated). No, he’s doing it to see if a genetic difference correlated with the height difference between giraffes and their nearest relatives is actually a cause of height difference. I really thought I went over that well in class. Clearly we need to do some work on correlation/causation, and maybe revisit gene editing and evolution, but that’s just one question — not enough to sink the class average.
  4. Study groups are working together and group-think is misleading them. This is a possibility. The students are supposed to do the tests alone. And they pledge to that effect. It’s an integrity violation to work with others. It can also be dangerous if the blind are leading the blind….
  5. Too few people have been to review sessions. That’s certainly true. Is this the problem? How to fix that? I can’t do review sessions in class. No one complained that they couldn’t make reviews last time or asked for other sessions to be put on. Maybe after these grades, some more students will make the effort to review things.
  6. People are really not understanding things. This is a serious possibility. The questions all variants of what I used in previous years. People are not getting all the same things wrong (exceptions above); they are getting diverse things wrong and more than in previous years. I am not sure why. This year I have been going much more slowly through material, and I thought if anything explaining things better. I wonder if my focus this year on soft skills has been taking up so too much class time. It might be better to spend more time probing the concepts from different directions (that’s what builds real understanding) rather than talking of phones, study skills and time management.

So what to do? I won’t really have a good understanding of the misunderstandings until I do the first review session and see what students are missing. Hopefully we can do that first review session tomorrow so I can get a real sense of what’s happening asap.

I want to do everything I can to help students over this bar. Except lower it.