Category Archives: Uncategorized

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.

Get busier…?

marathon-manOne of my grad students, in response to my last post, suggests that the secret to getting organized is to get busier. Take up a sport, she said. And I think there is something in that. Athletes are hugely time efficient (so are working moms). I’ve noticed the pinnacle of my own time management occurs when I have an international flight to catch. In the days before, I prioritize, cut the procrastination, plan my time, look for worthy shortcuts, drop the bullshit and dithering, cross unimportant things off the to-do list and nail the mission-critical tasks. Why can’t I maintain that 24/7?


Frustrated with on-going problems with the blog software and in need of a pick-me up, I decided to total up the number of students who have enrolled in SC200 in the seven times I’ve offered it. I thought it must be getting close to 1,000. Turned out to be just over 1,400.


I made a ghastly mis-speak in class last week. I was asked if grades get rounded, and I said yes. WRONG Andrew. You can’t round grades. The grade distribution has to be exactly as in the syllabus (p. 6). By University decree, I am not allowed to change that even if I want to. So there can be no rounding. Period.

What was I thinking? Now I am going to get a ton of emails demanding a bit here and bit there, and I will have to point them all to this post, and the highly related one of yesterday.

Sorry folks. This is why I hate speaking off the cuff about grading issues in class. We all need to read the syllabus.

The $100 challenge

Scientists are all over each other looking for flaws in ideas and data.  This is what makes science so powerful: relentless peer review. It’s why we can all be pretty confident about scientific consensus in fields we do not have technical expertise to assess, like climate change. Yet powerful forces in the (mostly US) public arena believe deeply that scientists can go horribly wrong because scientists go in for mass delusion or worse, mass conspiracy to get grant money (scientists could put together a conspiracy if they tried).  For a classic and truly frightening example of this, brace yourself and check this out.

I try various ways to get all this across in class. I talk about Lysenko and what he did to Soviet plant genetics (and hunger levels). Abetted by politicians, Lysenko was successful by negating the scientific process (not least by having scientific critics killed or imprisoned). I also talk about the trials and tribulations of Penn State’s very own Mike Mann, who has been harassed by politicians who think they know his science better than he or his colleagues do.

But to get the point across, I hit on a fabulous scheme. I said in class, and followed up in an email:

” I will give $100 to the first person who finds an example where bad, fraudulent, mistaken or incorrect science was first demonstrated by someone other than a professional scientist (e.g. a politician, lawyer, lobbyist, concerned parent). To play safe, the example should come for the 20th or 21st Century. I contend that the process of science (formal and informal peer review) does more to keep science honest than anything else. Be the first to prove me wrong and you are $100 richer!”

2015-12-01 15.02.16I thought that would be the end of it, as it had been when I made the same challenge before. But not this time!! Here is me losing my $100 in front of 300 students. After a spirited and very thoughtful Thanksgiving e-discussion with Isaac Will, I decided he had found a case. Dr Andrew Wakefield did terrible damage to public health by linking the MMR vaccine to autism in a paper in The Lancet. Many, many scientists subsequently showed with different data there was no link, and I believe that their scientific work was most important in debunking Wakefield’s mischief. But that still left Wakefield’s original data – all rather poor but nonetheless unarguably still there. Issac argued that investigative journalist Brian Deer showed just what crap it was.  He figured out that Wakefield had terrible financial conflicts of interest AND that his patients were not random cases but carefully chosen to try to show an MMR-autism link. Deer’s work demonstrated that Wakefield’s poor (shockingly poor) science was actually fraudulent. This led to the retraction of the paper by The Lancet. The story is well summarized here. In essence, Deer showed the only ‘data’ supporting Wakefield’s case was garbage, thereby taking the final study off the table. I felt Issac had a point: Deer indeed revealed important scientific weaknesses not discovered by scientists. So I became $100 poorer.

But oh, what a teachable moment. One case in over 100 years. Next year, I’ll post the $100 challenge again. Can anyone think of another case?

Angel's extra credit report

This is another post providing a generic response to emails I get from students.

Any Extra credit earned is added to the final overall grade, up to a total of 10%. Extra credit is a component of the final grade. For every component of the course, Angel returns a score out of 100%. Thus, to add three points of extra credit (for example), I need to tell Angel a score of 30% and that then ensures that 3 points (30/100) gets added to the final score for extra credit. This shows up on Angel as Extra credit Category Total = 30% .

Thus, 3 points of extra credit = 30%, 5 points = 50% and 10 points = 100% of extra credit.


GPAI lost about 15 students from the course in the hours before the late drop deadline. They did not want to jeopardize their Grade Point Average.

This is of course one reason why none of us pay any attention to GPAs when we are looking at grad school applicants. You can’t tell the difference between students who perform well and those who select easy courses — or drop challenging courses rather than try harder.

None of my education ever involved a GPA. Why do Americans need them? Why does anyone pay them any attention?