Category Archives: Get an A on the blog

Blog Period 2 results: upward

Somehow we lost 17 students from the course since Blog Period 1… sigh. None of them ever came talk to me about their options. Maybe they dropped out for reasons other than the course.

Of the 336 students still registered, 91 did nothing on the blog at all. A further 59 did so little, they failed. On top of that, there were 38 D‘s. The good news is that, believe it or not, that’s fewer fails and D’s than for the first blog period.

performance-improvement-web-picture-pcaaun-clipartBetter, the number of students scoring very well has gone up ten-fold. There were 6 A‘s, 13 A-, 19 B+, 20 B, 22 B-, 40 C+, and 28 C. The average score among the 186 who passed was 78% (C+).

It’s always a little hard to know what to make of that distribution. Some of those who did well last time will not have participated this time (I take the best score from the three periods) and some who did not do anything last time have just tried for the first time (and so have yet to benefit from personalized feedback). Nonetheless, I do take heart that some students had really stretched and things were in general much improved (way more A’s and B’s). The writing that earned those scores cheered up the graders. They found it all quite disheartening in the first blog period (a common reaction for grading newbies who never realize quite how little effort the majority of undergraduates put in).

blogSo, some examples of good practice: I enjoyed learning whether music is helpful (lots of original thinking in that one) and that chicken soup can be (mechanism unclear). Whether brothers make you gay is an important topic with lots of ramifications, some of which I hope to discuss in class in the not too distant future. Also important and well written, the possibility that video games make you sexist, and that weight loss apps don’t work. I also thought this take on sleep was great. Sleep is another topic I hope to get to in class: we do it for a third of our lives and no one knows why. Do dumber people swear more? As an occasional potty mouth myself, I was reassured to find the answer is probably no. There was also important, well written stuff on running to aid mental health, the effect of skipping class on school performance (not good), SADthe dangers of second hand smoke (where the beliefs are far stronger than the data), and whether going to the doctor is actually good for you (it’s almost always good for the doctor’s bank account, so you can trust their answer to that question).  As always, for students interested in improving their blog grade, I strongly recommend taking a look at those examples (not random entries on the blog which are by definition average), scrutinizing the grading rubric, paying serious attention to the feedback from the graders, and looking at the tons and tons of resources to be found here.

Ok….so we now have the list of the 23 students who have yet to do any blogging whatsoever. We’ll write to those folks over the next few weeks begging them to engage. You can’t pass this course without blogging (it’s 40% of the course and the pass grade is 60%). In previous years, some students have failed and told me after they thought blogging was optional… Gotta love it.

How to give the source for images

Earlier, I wrote about citing sources, but one of the students has just asked me how best to cite the source for a photo. I’m glad he asked; I do think its important to credit sources for images, but unlike plagiarism, we can’t police it so I leave it up to the students to do it. Every year, some photographer or company writes complaining we stole an image, and each year, I go in a remove the offending object. That seems a more time efficient than trying to police the students on this.

But for students who want to give credit where credit is due, and you should, a good way to do it is to use the caption option that comes with the ‘Add Media’ route to posting pictures. When you select a photo to insert into the blog post, on the right hand side of the screen is the Attachment Details panel. One of the options is ‘Caption’. That would be a great place to stick the source.

This image came from

This image came from

Note added Oct 20, 2016. Maybe I need to take this issue more seriously. I just got a letter from a lawyer demanding $8000 for a photo a student posted in 2014. It was a thumbnail picture of fruit like anyone could have taken with their phone at a farmers market or at Wegmans….

How to give citations to sources

For reasons that are unclear to me, many students seem completely uncertain as to how to cite sources. I think this is because their teachers have insisted on particular formats. My son tells me that one of his college professors spent a whole hour teaching the class how to do APA format referencing. Googling APA citations, I see he is not alone (example). I have to say I feel like citation format is a unimportant problem in academia. The key principle is to make sure the source is clear. How that is done I leave up to students.

For SC200 the blog, live links can be used to direct the reader to the source, and I think that makes things readable, accessible and looks much better. But if traditionalists want to give sources at the end, fine with me. We don’t care how it is done. But we do care deeply that it IS done. Unless something is widely understood general knowledge, citations MUST be given or it is theft (you have used the ideas/data/concepts developed by someone else and passed them off as your own).

So here’s some examples of ways to do it:

  1.  As Read and colleagues (2001) pointed out, it does not always make sense to complete a course of antibiotics even after you feel better, despite what the doctor says. This is because…
    end of post:
    Read, A.F., Day, T., & Huijben, S. (2011) The evolution of drug resistance and the curious orthodoxy of aggressive chemotherapy. Proceedings of the National Academy of Science USA. 108: 10871-10877.
  2.  The doctors advice to complete a course of antibiotics even after you feel better does not always make sense (Read et al. 2011). This is because,,,,,,
    end of post:
    Read, A.F., Day, T., & Huijben, S. (2011) The evolution of drug resistance and the curious orthodoxy of aggressive chemotherapy. Proceedings of the National Academy of Science USA. 108: 10871-10877.
  3.  Andrew Read and colleagues have argued that the doctors advice to complete a course of antibiotics even after you feel better does not always make sense.
  4.  ….The doctors advice to complete a course of antibiotics even after you feel better does not always make sense. This is because…

SC200 2016 Students: (1) If you want to do it some other way, no problems, but it must be clear what the source is. If you are worried about whether your way works, email and ask. (2). Note that I am assuming here that you have put things in your own words. If you are using someone else’s words, you need to email and ask permission to use them and if that is granted, we will talk about the use of quote marks etc. That is to avoid plagiarism — see p. 9 of the 2016 syllabus.

Blog Period 1 results: a tale of procrastination

Inaction dominates the results.

Of 353 students, fully 86 did nothing at all. A further 84 did so little, they failed. On top of that, there were 85 D’s. Oh my.

More positively, lets focus on the students who engaged. We awarded 2 A-s, 2 B+, 12 B-, 25 C+, 45 C‘s. And among the students who did enough to pass, the average grade was 71% (C). On the face of it, not too terrific either, but I feel ok about it at this stage. If students could take on a new learning exercise and do well from the get-go, what would be the point of the exercise? We want to teach critical thinking and expression of that critical thinking, and that takes some practicing.

Significant improvement will happen. Each student gets personalized feedback, and I will go over some generic things in class next Tuesday. But for now, one of the graders listed the most common faults as:

  • Bad sources lacking scientific research
  • Summarizing a single article by a journalist
  • Unfocused posts that read like a stream of consciousness and don’t have a main idea or organization
  • Statements like “I read about x and you can too, (link)” without any discussion.

Students who think hard about the feedback, take a good hard look at the rubric, study examples of good practice (rather than examples of average or less than average work which by definition dominates the blog), think about the advice of the TAs (Brian, Abby from 2015), chose topics with some teeth and put some effort in…well, the improvements can be spectacular.

A couple of students did do very well from the off, and I look forward to seeing what they do when they really pull it out of the bag. I especially liked An Apple a DayPets to the Rescue and Is Your 8am Harmful? were also pretty good. I might teach a session on Will Joining Greek Life Increase My Drinking? — that seems like a question to catch this audiences’ eye, and an analysis ripe with confounding variables. And I continue to be pleased by the thought some people put into evaluating the safety of what they do to themselves in the name of fashion.

Of course, for procrastinators (roughly half the class), doing even enough to pass would be a hugely significant improvement…

Blog Period 3 — the end

I am never sure what to make of the third blog period. I take the best of the three periods as the final grade. This means there are a bunch of people who leave it to the last minute and then post something half-assed because they never got their act together all semester. There are others who try very hard but haven’t done anything before so they have no feedback to work off and so struggle to do well. And then there are some who use the feedback on previous blog periods and blow it out of the water.

So, for what it is worth, the average score was 68.4% excluding the 153 students who did nothing because they had done very well earlier in semester or could not be bothered trying to improve their previously average attempts. The distribution broke down as A, 4; A-, 8: B+, 8; B, 30, B-, 18; C+, 37, C, 18; D, 17; Fail 36. If I get time, I’ll return to this post and give links to some of the excellent work we got this blog period.

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.

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

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. 

Overall Class Test grade 2014

There are four class tests during the semester. I take the average of the best two as the final test grade. This allows students to improve. Improvement is of course the aim of education. It also eases complaints and fear. For many of the students, their grade on the first class test was their first C or D ever.

The breakdown for the overall test grades for 2014: A, 23 (including two with 100%); A-, 55; B+, 21; B, 29; B-, 27; C+, 13; C, 8; D, 8; Fails, 2.

Interestingly, that means 42% of the class got an A of some sort. The corresponding figure for the blogs is 16%. So despite the endless complaints that my tests are too hard, people actually do better on the tests than on the blogs. I hadn’t thought of that before, but looking at it, I see that was also true in previous years (e.g. 2013 blogs, 2013 class tests). So there is more scope for improvement with the blogs. That’s especially interesting since they can be done any time, on anything, under no time pressure, no exam freak-out scene, with endless help freely available from the TAs and with lots of personalized feedback from the graders….

Memo to self: make sure you mention this to the class next year.