Category Archives: Thoughts about SC200

Class Test 1 results in

On balance, I’m pretty pleased. I made the test slightly harder than I normally do for the opener, but I also spent more time reviewing things before hand (not least, I used half of last years first class test as a Pop Quiz last week). I also deliberately covered less material in the first three weeks of semester, with a view to trying to get the basics better ground in. And it all seems to have worked! Overall, things are up on last year at this time — more A’s, a higher overall average and most importantly, fewer D’s and Fails.

For those who did the test, the average score was 79% (C+). One student got all the questions right on her first go, the first in over 1400 students to have achieved that. Two students got 26/28 questions, and seventeen more got 25/28, so a total of twenty got 100% on my ask 28-questions-grade-out-of-25 algorithm. In total, there were 42 A‘s, 32 A-, 40 B+, 40 B, 42 B-, 33 C+, 39 C, 35 D, 49 and 28 fails. We had 12 no-shows.

But that all represents a big teaching challenge: over a third of the class is on a B+ or better, but more than 1 in 5 on a D or worse. How to keep the top students stretching while lifting those in the tail of the distribution? b_veicular_geral

How to improve your learning: wisdom from the class of 2015

In the last class of last year, I asked the students to write a postcard to the person they were 15 long weeks earlier, at the start of semester. I wanted to know the lessons graduating SC200 students would tell themselves if they had a chance to go back in time and start the class again. I asked them to advise themselves on how to learn better and how to get a better grade.

Most (85%) of the advice on how to learn better on the course fell into the following five responses.

  1. Take more and better notes.
    • Focus on overall concepts not details
    • Outline notes and focus on terms
  2. Pay more attention in class.
    • Turn off phone/no texting in class
    • Sit closer to the front
    • Focus more
    • Don’t sit with friends
  3.  Ask more questions.
    • Meet with TAs
    • Go to review sessions
  4. Come to all classes.
  5. Study more between tests
    • Review notes.

Hindsight is a fine thing, of course, but it was eye-opening to me to get back from the students all the stuff I told them at the start of the semester.

I talked about all that with the class of 2016, explaining that its not just my advice but also the advice of the graduating students. We’ll see if the ghosts of students past make more of an impact than I do.

Day 1: the questions

Each year, I ask students to tell me what they think is the most important and the most interesting question in science. I use it to shape what we do in class. This year, I got more diverse answers than ever, perhaps because I did it as a think-pair-square-share exercise and then used the hand of god (a random number generator) to call on students.

This is what the hand of god looked like:
hand of godA good teachable moment on what random looks like (it never looks random – note the complete absence of hits in the left hand portion). I will get back to the issue of the predictability of random later in the semester.

And these are the answers we got:

Most important scientific questions of the age:

  • How can we prevent climate change?
  • Why can’t we cure cancer? Why can’t we cure diseases?
  • What happens when resources run out?
  • How did humans come to be?
  • How many animals on earth?
  • What is deep space? What are black holes?
  • Nature or Nurture?
  • How can we regenerate cells, limbs?
  • How can we predict natural disasters earlier?

Most interesting scientific questions of the age:

  • Is flossing important?
  • What is life like on other planets?
  • What are the causes of mental illness?
  • How can we better use our minds?
  • Is it possible to reach a peak level of immunity?
  • Was the land covered by the sea?
  • Is the globe warming and is it due to humans?
  • Why do different people react differently in different situations?
  • Where does evil come from?
  • Will humans evolve in the future?
  • How can we use genetic engineering to benefit us all?

Class: please email any questions that you want to add to this list.

And Class of 2016: we're off

Today is Day 1 of semester, 112 days until the final exam goes live. Tomorrow, the first SC200 class. This year, 357 students…

Picture1I’ve now got the syllabus and schedule sorted out. Everything flows from the syllabus, in particular the grading algorithm and everything that goes with that. I’ve made changes in a couple of areas to try to encourage better time management and reach zero plagiarism. The changes come from discussion with other Gen Ed STEM colleagues. A group of us have been meeting about once a month since last fall (organised by the ever-enthusiastic Julia Kregnow — with me cheering her along). I’ve found it really good therapy, as well as an super time-efficient way to disseminate best practice among experienced colleagues. I am not sure why these self-help/self-improvement groups are so rare. Our discussions have impacted almost everything I plan to do this year. Time will tell whether those changes generate learning gains and greater peace for me, but if I get even one less case of plagiarism this year, I’ll be ahead time-wise. And our discussion have made me think a lot more about how students learn, how teachers teach, and the responsibilities of a course like this. I hope to find time to blog on these issues over the coming weeks. For now, time to prepare the first class of the year — and get the student blog working (changes yet again in the underlying software – just when we finally got a fix for last years changes. Sigh).

Please sir, can I have some more grade?

It is that time of year when I get inundated by emails for the sort:  Dear Professor. The grade I earned on SC200 is not what I hoped it would be. I need a higher grade to (a) stay in the country, (b) keep my funding up, (c) get into Schreyer’s Honors College, (d) get into/stay in Smeal Business College…. Please can you increase my grade?

Sometimes that message is prefaced with ‘Sorry to bother you‘, and sometimes it comes with comments like ‘I know I really mucked up  but…‘, and sometimes with ‘I worked really hard and came to class….‘, and sometimes it includes a statement like ‘I don’t think I should be penalized for my poor performance on a Gen Ed course when my classes in my major went so well‘, and other times with ‘Yours was my favorite class and I was relying on it to get me…‘.

I find it all really tough. Some of the stories are heart rendering. They all make me want to scream one of: Why the hell didn’t you work harder/engage more/get better organized/treat me and my class with respect/listen to my repeated warnings/look at your grade on Angel when you still had time to save it/take the extra credit options when they were available?

A group of professors are meeting to explore better teaching practice in Gen Ed. At today’s session, I raised the issue. The 15 faculty rose up as one. Bottom line: You have to stick to the syllabus grade algorithm. It is what the university mandates. And it is only fair to the other students who worked hard and performed well. Making concessions to individuals is unfair — and that way lies madness.

Well, that’s always been my philosophy too. Standards are standards. And Freshmen especially, as most of my class are, have to learn early in life that you have to earn it. Get organized, engage with it, do it, take control of your own education – and earn it.

bums on seats

Coming to class is important for SC200. It’s not just me that thinks that: the students always tell me that, especially those that realize too late that we have no text book and you can’t wing this class from the powerpoint slides. But no matter how or how much I tell them that, it transpires that you have to incentivize them ahead of time. So after many years of ruminating (and complaints from students that I did not tell them strongly enough how much it matters (!)), I decided to go brutal. I randomly take attendance, and for 10% of the final grade, they have to be at 9 of at least 12 of those attendance takings. If they are not, they get none (zero, zip, nuttin) of that 10%. That 10% percent can lead to a very serious grade drop (A to B, B to C etc).

And with that algorithm, this was the attendance pattern for 2015:
attendance 2015So over 80% attendance until the week after Thanksgiving, by which time most students had hit the required nine, and by the end, c.95% (308/326 students) had hit the attendance requirement (remarkably similar to 2014 when the requirement was 7 of 10). [Note that the denominator for all these data are the number of students who finished the course; there are likely bad attenders who dropped the course for whom the algorithm failed to work.]

Of course, after I had taken attendance for the 12th time (second last class of the year), there were a  number of students sitting on 8, desperate for one last change to hit the magic 9. Here they are at the end of the last class of the year, lined up to sign on for their 10%.
final attendeesNaturally, I have since had emails from some of the 18 who never hit the mark offering a variety of explanations about why they deserve the 10% for attendance even though they could not be bothered attending regularly. This email begging is definitely a downside of the system. But upsides:

  • I don’t have to deal with paperwork for absences: under this algorithm, you can have quite a few of life’s little traumas (and even the odd hangover) and you are not in trouble. You just can’t persistently miss class.
  • I get data on individual attendance. So when someone is moaning about their test performance, I can see its because they seldom came to class.
  • Attendance itself is high until after Thanksgiving; without this arrangement, it sags a month earlier.
  • I can incentivize attendance early on, when I need them to focus on the pop quizzes which are the practice for the class tests, and then I can do nothing for a while to incentivize them to hang on until the end.
  • Next year, I think I should take attendence for the 9th time after Thanksgiving….

Finally, in the last class of the year I held a discussion about whether this attendance scheme was good. No one — and I mean no one — thought it was a bad idea. I wonder what the 50% students who were absent made of it.

Of sickness and sick notes – and other absences

It’s that time of year where sports injuries and infectious diseases set in with a vengeance. Job interviews and family weddings (and troubles) also become more common. All this generates student emails offering doctors notes, excused absence paperwork etc. This is my generic response to emails about absences.

As discussed in the syllabus (p. 6, Attendance, Missed Classes and Missed Assessment), I don’t need any paperwork. The course is set up so that life events won’t cause problems for engaged students (i.e. regular attenders, those who take the tests, and frequent bloggers). Thus, I take the best two of four class tests, the best of three blog periods, and for attendance, presence at nine of 12 pop quizzes. The final exam is even live for six whole days and can be taken anywhere in the world. So bad luck can strike (indeed several times) and all is still fine. Of course, for disengaged students, it can be a train smash if things go wrong at the end. When that happens, I feel for the students and wish they had been engaged earlier.

The only paperwork I might need is for situations like chronic illness which keeps students from working for several weeks or more. Those cases get really tricky, but are fortunately super rare.

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.

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

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……