How should the shape of your grade distribution change the way you teach?


I’ve received a number of comments about one of the recommended reads from last Friday. It was about the New York Times op-ed piece, about why people shouldn’t grade on a curve. And then, I asked, who does that anymore? The answer is: a lot of people. In addition to the comments on the post, I’ve gotten some emails and chatted with a few people (here while I’m at the International Congress of Entomology in Orlando, Florida).

One friend is in a department in which all faculty are rigorously required to conform their grades to a particular distribution, and they can’t submit their grades unless they follow this practice.

There was a second piece that reminded me of a topic that I’ve had in the queue of post topics for a few years. The link about how people often think they have bimodal grade distributions but they don’t actually have bimodal distributions. Quite a while ago — far enough that I can no longer recall or search it up — Jeremy Fox (of Dynamic Ecology) was thinking about if or how we should alter how we teach based on the structure of our usual grade distributions in a particular class.

I suspect many people think a central challenge in teaching is how to balance meeting the needs of high-performing students relative to the needs of the students who are challenging to just pass a class. Do you “teach high” and leave behind the struggling students, or “teach low” and fail to challenge the high-performing students?

In the last several years, I’ve come to decide that some of the teach-high-or-teach-low issues are predicated on a false premise. Students are in my class to learn a set of things that they don’t already know. This is both true for the struggling and high-performing students. The high-performing students can figure out out to get a high grade without much support from the course, because (for a bunch of complex reasons, independent of how smart they are, though I choose to defer to educational theorists about all that) they can figure out the things you need to get a high grade more readily. The struggling students, on the other hand, don’t have the academic savvy to garner high grades.

I want everybody in the class to learn the stuff that I want to teach. Oftentimes, the high performing students don’t necessarily learn the stuff, but instead, learn to jump through the hoops to earn the grades they want. So teaching high-performing students is not that easy, necessarily, because if they can take tests very well, then they can only just do what it takes to get their A and never really learn what you’re teaching. On the other hand, struggling students who haven’t figured out to do what it takes to get that A could be struggling mightily to learn the material, and may have actually learned more than the high-performing students, but the tests just don’t show it, because they’re not expressing what they’ve learned on the tests.

We learn by struggling. Like building muscle tissue from weightlifting, if you don’t struggle, can you grow? In my experience, it’s more difficult to get high-performing students to struggle on the material that you want them to struggle with. I don’t want to give high-performing students more “difficult” stuff to struggle with than other students, because I want everybody in class to struggle conceptual with the material that I am trying to teach. I don’t think that’s done by making it harder, but by ensuring the use of critical thought and analytical reasoning, even in topics that are not considered difficult to learn. I want to make sure that my high-performing students actually struggle. If As come easy to students, then that means I need to find a way to create a way for them to struggle without just giving them more stuff. I want them to find struggle in the things that we are covering so that they actually learn it, and not just be capable of getting an A. You want to create a way in which everybody finds a need to stretch their brains.

Let’s say there are two sections of an introductory course. In Class One, based on past performance, you’ll expect a bunch of students to get As, and the remainder to get Cs. In Class Two, based on past performance, you’ll expect the majority to get Bs, but with a range including As and Cs, and a tail to the left. In other words, in one class you have a clear bimodal distribution, in the other, a clear normal distribution.

In the bimodal class, in the K-12 model for sure, you’re expected to differentiate instruction, to provide support to each group of students in a different way. In a unimodal class, you don’t have two discrete groups in your class with differences in academic performance. At the university level, do you teach these two different sections differently?

That’s a sticky question for me. I don’t know how I’d deal with this hypothetical situation. What do you think?


Recommended reads #87


A ban on bans against laptop bans. Or something like that.

Folks often think their grades are bimodally distributed when they actually are normally distributed.

It’s not Powerpoint’s fault.

Is it a problem that changes in our media landscape can bring a lot of attention to critiques of newly published research?*

Is academia waking up to the problem of sexual harassment? This interview with Kate Clancy provides some quality perspective and insight.

A carefully written piece in Nature describes income inequality among scientists in the US.

Here’s a great idea: If you’re a grad student, when you’re dealing with folks outside academia, don’t call yourself a grad student. Might as well to call yourself a research assistant, or a teaching assistant, or a something else, which has more meaning to (most) people, who mistakenly think that grad school in science is not a job.

Women 1.5 Times More Likely to Leave STEM Pipeline after Calculus Compared to Men

A very simple assignment can substantially change students’ self-identity as scientists.

Do you know about the World Nomad Games? I didn’t, until I saw the image (below), and then I read up on them.

Another paper is getting some press showing that student teaching evaluations have nothing to to with how much students learn.

If you’re teaching the evolution of plant reproduction in introductory biology, don’t trust your textbook. Here’s a paper in Bioscience that sets the record straight.

Solid arguments for genuine research experiences for all undergraduates.

An easy guide to writing the great American novel. (This takes a piece of hide out of Jonathan Safran Foer, which I don’t know if is justified as I haven’t read it. Regardless, it’s entertaining and hard to argue with a lot of the cliches that pervade the novels that come from a certain demographic. Or is it about Jonathan Franzen? Or Jonathan Lethem? It doesn’t matter, now does it?)

“The five things no one will tell you about why colleges don’t hire more faculty of color.” This is so spot on. I think it’s a critical read if you’re on a search committee. The title of the piece is off, of course, because people are probably telling you these things often, but if you’re not listening, then you don’t hear it. (The titles of pieces like this are not the fault of the authors, and the mismatch between the title of a piece and its content is usually by design of the editor, who is picking a title to get traffic rather than to actually represent the piece.)

A recent research paper found that sometimes folks can’t distinguish computer-generated peer reviews from the real thing. (I found about this through a story in Times Higher Education that someone shared. But THE has a habit of not paying their authors even though they have a lot of advertising revenue, so why the heck should I link to them?)

A perfectly well-reasoned piece came out in the NY Times about how we should stop grading students on a curve. Okay, great point. Now, who grades on a curve? This is really a problem?


image: J-P Kärnä

Do you live one near of the few remaining flying saucer homes? Looks roadtrip worthy to me!

Stephen Heard explains why you should keep an extraordinarily detailed master CV with everything on it. And when something happens, change the CV before you forget. It feels dopey to update your CV all the time, but it’s even dopier to not have stuff on your CV that you should because you forgot to add it.

How to keep bicycles from getting damaged during the delivery process? Put a picture of a TV on the side of the box. I thought this was an interesting fact.

What can I do today to create a more inclusive community?” It’s written for computer science, but much of it can be generalized.

Ooooh! We have a new metric for research impact! RCR, the relative citation ratio! I’m sure this metric will fix ever single one of the problems that have come from using earlier metrics.

The sugar industry paid for favorable research.

The video that shows you the evolution of antibiotic resistance as it evolves is stunning. This has really made the rounds but you might not have seen it yet.

A professor from the University of St. Louis just won substantial damages against the university, as a jury found that she was denied tenure because of gender bias, and that the university related against her because she spoke out against a hostile climate on campus.

The movie that I shared the trailer for two weeks ago just got reviewed in the New York Times. Starving the Beast. About the defunding of higher education in the US.

538 talks college tuition.

Are big conservation groups like the IUCN still relevant?

Five things related to this asteroid approaching our planet which we desperately hope may narrowly miss that is the upcoming US election:

Hillary Clinton’s concrete shoes. It’s by Garrison Keillor. Yeah, I know, but read it anyway.

The crisis at the New York Times.

“On your way to the camps, I just want you to know…

Ta-Nehisi Coates fact-checks assertions about the Trump campaign and describes what is going on, and not going on, in our media about this election.

An eight point brief for lesser-evil voting: “8) Conclusion: by dismissing a “lesser evil” electoral logic and thereby increasing the potential for Clinton’s defeat the left will undermine what should be at the core of what it claims to be attempting to achieve.” The second author on this is Noam Chomsky. Just sayin’. If you have liked other arguments of Chomsky, and are planning to not show up and vote for Clinton, please please read this with an open mind.

If you read any of those five  pieces above, you can cleanse mind with this refreshing and heartwarming piece, “Welcoming Omar Khadr to The King’s University.”

Have a great weekend! I’m currently off to the International Congress of Entomology. If you happen to be there, please do say hi! (I might be in my women-in-science shirt.)



*I think, sort of yes-ish in certain circumstances. There is clearly a disparity in the visibility of critiques that may be independent of the quality of the critique. Some people are positioned to launch major critiques that would have low validity but get lots of attention, and other people might have very substantial critiques that might fail to gain attention not based on the quality of the argument but because of the visibility of the platform. That’s a problem. But is it a good thing that critiques of clearly flawed work are more capable of reaching the scientific audience? Of course that’s good.

Please nominate colleagues to be selected as ESA fellows


This one is for the ecologists.

There are a lot of people who have made outstanding contributions to the field of ecology — in education, research, outreach, and policy.

Do you think that any of these outstanding contributions came from ecologists in teaching-focused institutions? Continue reading

Networking from scratch


I’ve been writing regularly for Vitae, the careers section of The Chronicle of Higher Education. This piece was published there a couple weeks ago. I’m reprinting it here:

Conferences are a wonderful time to see old friends and colleagues. That is, if you’re an old-timer.

If you’re not, the experience can be isolating and intimidating. And even if you do have friends at a meeting, the prospect of expanding your network can be daunting. Continue reading

Recruiting underrepresented minority students


The last couple weeks have posed a challenge, as several people have contacted me (mostly out of the blue), asking me for ideas about specific steps they can take to improve the recruitment of minority students. This isn’t my field, but, I realize I’ve put myself in this position, because it’s a critical issue and I discuss it frequently. I’m just one of many who work in minority-serving institutions.

I realize that most of the suggestions I’ve given to people (but not advice) are generalized. If several folks are writing to me, I imagine there are many more of y’all out there who might be thinking the same thing but not writing. Hence this post. Just with my suggestions. Continue reading


Recommended reads #85


In 10 years, Harvey Mudd (an exclusive STEM-focused college in the LA area, one of the Claremont Colleges) went from 15% women students to having a majority of women. Here’s how they did it.

What I learned as a hired consultant to autodidact physicists” Or, what happens when a trained physicist takes crackpots (and their money) seriously. Continue reading

Conference travel awards that you can’t apply for until after the travel is done are bad


I’m about to make some statements that I think should be obvious. In fact, everything I say in this post about travel awards will probably be obvious, but I feel moved to write about it since these obviously bad travel awards exist.

Grad students are typically on very tight budgets.

Grad students are expected to attend and present their work at conferences (usually at least one per year).

Departments or schools often have funds available (as conference travel grants or similar) to students to help cover the costs of attending conferences, which is good.

Some of these grants require students to wait until after the conference is over and include all receipts for their expenses before they can apply, which is bad. Continue reading

On absurd tenure requirements at small institutions


As this site continues to grow, the more I hear about issues that people face in teaching-focused institutions. There is one issue that I consistently hear about, but I have yet to mention: nonsensical tenure requirements for scholarship, especially in small liberal arts colleges. The most common one is: When an entire college or university uses the same publication expectations for all faculty. In. Every. Field. Continue reading

Let’s nominate folks for NSF’s Waterman award, including women


Every year, the National Science Foundation gives an award to the most bestest early-career scientist in the US. It’s up to the scientific community — that’s me and you — to make sure the pool really has the best. Which means it has to have a lot of women in it.

Months ago, we had a small spike in traffic here at Small Pond because we joined the chorus wondering how NSF can manage to go thirteen years without giving the Waterman Award to a woman. Continue reading

Accessibility isn’t the key to mentorship


When I start a new batch of students in my lab, my spiel includes:

Two problems can prevent success. The first is poor communication, and the second is poor data management.

At the moment, I think this is true. As poor data management is a by-product of poor communication, it really just boils down to communication.

Earlier on in my career, I was too quick to attribute communication failures to my lack of approachability, or poor decision-making by my students. I don’t see it this way anymore. Continue reading

Recommended reads #84


Are you familiar with the work of the Holotypic Occlupanid Research Group? I applaud their dedication and excellence in chronicling the diversity and natural history of this unappreciated yet widespread taxon. This is where the line between science and art is invisible.

Women are woven deeply into the history of science, stretching back to ancient Egypt, over 4,000 years ago. But because their contributions often go unacknowledged, they fade into obscurity—and the threads of their influence today aren’t as apparent as they ought to be.” I’d like to call this one early: We’ll be looking back at Dr. Emily Temple-Wood as the person who rewrote the history of scientific discovery.

Racism in the research lab. This post, from two scientists from prestigious institutions, is important. Continue reading

We need to stop putting diversity in a box at conferences


At the moment, I’m having an absolutely great time at the Ecological Society of America meeting. I’m learning new science, meeting old friends and a variety of folks who read this site, and formulating plans for my sabbatical that recently started.

This wonderful time has been punctuated with moments of my own frustration and annoyance. Why? Because this is a typical academic conference. And the status quo is often maddening. Continue reading

Serious academics take the media seriously


The Guardian chose to publish a piece from a “serious academic” who made an argument that we shouldn’t share our work on social media.

So who is this “serious academic?” Well, we have no idea. They are an anonymous “young” PhD student. Does this mean they’re some kind of whistleblower, warning the world about the rampant public sharing of academic information?

Anyway, what does the phrase “I’m a serious academic” mean?

Here are some half-guesses:

  • “Sharing my work with the public is a waste of time because it is unimportant.”
  • “Sharing my work with the public is a waste of time because my work is just too important for laypeople to think about.”
  • “Sharing my work with the public is a waste of time because my work is too complex for the average person to comprehend.”
  • “I’m jealous of my colleagues because they have substantial things to say to the public, and I all that I’ve ever shared with the public is an anonymous spoilsport gripefest.”
  • “I think my colleagues are sharing insubstantial things to the public because they’re not as Important and Deep and Serious as I am, and I resent that their public engagement is positively affecting their career outlook.”
  • “I’m such a pedant that I feel the need to point out that ‘I am a serious academic’ is a clause, and not a phrase.”

Continue reading

Advice for department chairs


I recently finished up a three-year stint as chair of my department. (At my institution, the role of department chair rotates among the senior members of the department — basically, anyone with tenure — based on seniority. Three years ago, it was my turn to take the mantle, as the next most senior person in line.) It was an interesting experience and I certainly learned a TON from it, but I am also relieved that it’s now someone else’s turn.

Since relinquishing my post, I’ve been reflecting a lot on the experience of being chair. Continue reading


Recommended reads #83


New Zealand is developing detailed plans to eradicate every exotic predator, including feral cats, rats, and weasels.

How women are harassed out of science. Let’s be clear about this: It’s not just that scientific institutions and individual scientists are implicitly biased against women. That is true, but on top of all that, direct harassment itself drives women out of science. Not convinced this is true? Then please please please read this story. Continue reading