What do our grades measure? Academic savvy or actual learning?


Grades are a necessary evil. I record grades because it’s a required part of my job, even though the existence of grades makes my job harder.

Grades are primarily a measure of how good students are at getting good grades, not a measure of how much they learned.

My job is to foster curiosity and independent learning. I want students to grow by fulfilling a personally motivated need to understand. Grades inhibit that process. Grades make students focus on doing what it takes to get a good grade. That’s not a good thing.

People learn far more deeply when the information is discovered through a self-directed process of inquiry. When students are studying for an exam, what they are doing is the exact opposite of self-directed inquiry. They’re working to anticipate what others might expect of them and they’re working to fulfill the external expectations. When I have to give an exam to students, the last thing I would ever want is for them to study by trying to anticipate what is going to be on the exam. Because then they’ll be studying to just cover their bases.

In other words, when we make students jump through hoops, we get in the way of genuine learning. Students working towards a grade are not looking past the final exam. If none of my students are interested in the material after the exam is over, then I have earned an F for the semester.

Students can be prepared to answer a ton of questions, on a variety of topics. They then can do what it takes to get a good grade. And then, it’s possible to not really know a damn thing about the topic months later, after the exam, when the grade is in their transcript. That’s because their relationship with the curriculum was about learning stuff to get a grade. It might have been interesting or fascinating at the time, but if the motivator is the grade, then the motivation isn’t the pressing need to understand anything.

So, when we assign grades to students, what are we really measuring? Are we measuring effort? Are we measuring the ability to memorize stuff? Are we measuring the ability to explain things eloquently? Are we measuring the ability to anticipate what will be on an exam?

I don’t like any of the preceding options. What I’d like my grades to measure is how well the students have mastered the central concepts in the course. The problem, however, is that all of the ways of measuring that – the mastery of the central concepts – get biased by the ability of students to do all of that other stuff in the preceding paragraph. When students are assigned grades, the outcome is determined more by their academic gamesmanship than how much they actually learned.

Academic gamesmanship, caused by grades, gets in the way of genuine curiosity. Far too often, students get good grades only because they know how to earn good grades in the system; just as often, students who learn earn poor grades because of poor gamesmanship. The last thing I want is for the grades in my course to reflect a student’s savvy rather than learning.

I don’t know how universal this is, but my university requires that all syllabi have clearly stated “Expected Learning Outcomes.” Grades need to reflect how well students fulfill the expected outcomes. If designed right, these outcomes can allow students the intellectual breathing room to develop their own critical thinking process about a course.

In my opinion, the best way to liberate students from academic gamesmanship is to remove every bit of mystery from the grading process. Nothing on an exam should ever come as a surprise, nor should students be in a position in which they feel like they need to interpret what you think is important about the subject. Nor should students have to worry about cramming for a laundry list of concepts.

Our grades can’t really measure genuine learning. But the less our grades reflect gamesmanship, the greater the chance our students will be genuinely engaged in the content.

Teaching Tuesday: talking about teaching


When I did a survey of ecology teachers earlier this year*, I left a space for further comments on teaching in ecology. Here, I got perhaps some of the most interesting opinions. One respondent took the time to practically write a post themselves, which I have pondered quite a bit. Instead of commenting on bits and pieces, I decided to post it in full:

There is a big difference between large lecture hall sophomore courses (Introductory) and upper division courses.  My approach to these is almost totally in opposition.  In the upper division course I do many of the new fangled things you mention above including- think-pair-share, multiple drafts of written work, in class presentations, etc.  In the lower division course, though, this kind of activity is nearly impossible to execute- and the students, many of whom are uninterested, don’t WANT any of that.  So it becomes a pure waste of time.  I have tried many of these techniques in the large lecture hall setting and it becomes mayhem and nothing is accomplished.  So I settled back into pretty straight lecturing, which seems to work just fine- students are happy, they seem to get it, and my time is not wasted.

My Upper division courses are the opposite end of the spectrum.  Sometimes students enroll in my upper division course because they LIKED my large lecture hall technique, and they end up displeased with all the group interactions, presentations, class participation, etc. that happens in the upper division course.  I actually have a little trouble in my reviews from students RESISTING those techniques (that we all think are student friendly).

I approach upper division courses like a “workshop” and I tell them that before we begin at the start of the semester.  Interestingly, some of my smartest students have told me personally, and also in evaluations- ” YOU are the expert in this field- I don’t want my time wasted by listening to the novice opinions of other students.” I think that is an interesting perspective, although most of the students like a more participatory setting.

Finally, I have been involved in a number of teaching workshops and I think it is important to point out that those kinds of settings can become akin to moralizing.  Preachy, in fact.  And, I have excellent data to support the notion that sometimes the strongest advocates of new, “modern,” student friendly, engaging, technologically innovative, etc. are also people who have terrible natural rapport with students!  I have had advisees come into my office and complain bitterly about how terrible faculty member X is, and how everyone tries to avoid their sections of the class, when I know for a fact that faculty member X is the leading advocate on campus for all of these supposedly student – friendly techniques.  In contrast, I know faculty members who have been around for a long time who just us chalk and a chalk board- that is it- 100% lecture, no AV at ALL, who the students love and get a ton from.

E.g., I went to a session once all about how students these days are “Millennials” and they expect to have information delivered in small packages etc.  Have you ever spelled out that tripe to actual students?  I did in my class a couple of times and the students themselves think this is absolutely ridiculous.  They are not a simple “they” and “they” don’t fit into pigeonholes easily, and they don’t want you stereotyping them this way.

There is a high-horse mentality, and even taking this survey I could feel it a little bit… I expect to see some report from this survey bemoaning how ecology teaching is “behind the times” or missing opportunities for real “student engagement.”

I urge extreme caution before making any kind of statements of this sort.  What is missing from any of this discussion is actual OUTCOMES for students!  Has there been content delivery?  We watched some Youtube clips, had a scientific debate on twitter, used clickers, paired and shared, etc—-so what?  Did they get more than would have been accomplished through use of chalk?  Data on this are VERY scanty in my view- and, unfortunately, a lot of our critique of teaching has absolutely no rigor when it comes to measuring OUTCOMES.

As outlined above, I use many of these techniques, and appreciate them- and I will vocally support anyone who choses to use them.   But, I think they are mostly irrelevant to success in teaching.  In my experience, teaching is pretty simple:

(1) Bring good material to the classroom
(2) Be organized, have a plan for the semester- explain the plan- and stick to it.
(3) Demonstrate that you care about the students- you are not there to battle them or prove them stupid, that you really do want them to “get it”
(4) Be transparently fair in grading and other forms of evaluation.
(5) Demonstrate passion for the topic.

There are things I agree with and many I don’t in this commentary, but I want to be careful to not simply argue with what is written here. Instead, the comments have got me thinking about many of the assumptions, biases and difficulties around talking about teaching. Some of those are highlighted above, some not. Mainly I want to use the comments as a springboard. What follows are the somewhat random thoughts that this reading inspired…

First, should we be concerned with whether techniques are “student-friendly” or not? Or what the students want? I keep coming back to this one. Ultimately, as the commenter suggests, it is the outcomes that are important. So regardless of what the students think they want or are comfortable with, I believe we should be doing what helps them to learn.

That leads me to the purpose of teaching in the first place. What are our goals? Do we want students to pass our tests or to take the fundamentals learned in our courses with them for life? Are we exposing students to ideas or do we want them to understand them? Is the main thing to get students to be passionate or at least respect the natural world around them? None of these are mutually exclusive, of course but the goals we have as teachers will determine the kind of teaching we do. And for some, teaching is just the price for working at a university, the goal is get by doing as little as possible. But in general, it seems to me that we as teachers should mindful of our goals and do what is best able to achieve those. It seems to me that there is a fair amount of evidence that straight lecturing isn’t the best way to achieve learning. However, there are many different ways to engage students.

Another assumption is that technology = engagement. Students can be just as engaged with chalk as with clickers. A YouTube video is just as passive as a lecture. What I find interesting is that using some forms of technology such as clickers can force you as a teacher to be more purposeful with engagement. Maybe it doesn’t come naturally to you to get students engaged, so directly incorporating activities aimed at engagement will make that happen. But one of the things I’ve taken from my teaching is that for anything to be successful, you need to think through what you’re trying to achieve.

Are the data truly scant? It seems to me that there is a lot of research on teaching and learning. I’ve only dipped my toe in the literature but it is its own discipline.  I don’t think I’m really qualified to assess whether there is enough data on particular techniques, etc. I’d have to read much more. But it seems to me that we as teachers could benefit a lot from knowing more about what has been studied. Some of the best exams I ever took as an undergraduate were in a psychology class called simply “Memory”. Now that prof knew how to cut through our crap and ask a multiple choice question that actually tested our understanding. Although I didn’t realise it at the time, that course impressed upon me that understanding how our minds work could lead to better teaching and testing materials.

But one of the big questions I am left with is: Why can teaching be so difficult to talk about? I worked hard to ask questions in the survey in a very neutral tone. I was curious, but not coming from a place of judgement. I wanted to know what people were doing but am a far cry from knowing what the best practises are/should be.  But despite that, even asking about teaching leads some to think that the results will lead to critical conclusions about the field, without even knowing the outcome of the questions. But what are we so protective of? If the data exists that we’re doing it ‘wrong’, shouldn’t we change? And what if we’re doing it ‘right’? How can we know without investigating, both the teaching practice and the learning outcomes? And does discussing teach techniques always come off as moral/preachy? I’ve certainly had different experiences. But I wonder about where the preachy overtones come from—is it the presenters or perceptions of the receivers of the information? I’m sure it varies from situation to situation. But why is it there at all?

Honestly, I was a bit nervous to send out the survey broadly in the first place. I wasn’t sure how people would respond and it was a new kind of data collection for me. Overall, I got a lot of very positive responses to my doing the survey and sharing it on this blog. But I still wonder why resistance to discussing teaching exists. Are we so sure that we know what it takes to be a good teacher? I know I’m not. I certainly look for feedback on my research from experts in the field—why should teaching be any different?

What are your thoughts? Do you think teaching seminars/workshops are too preachy? Are we paying enough attention to the outcomes or getting caught up with flashy new technologies? Should there be more data on what works? Do we pay enough attention to the data that exists?

*for those interested there are some other posts on the results of the survey to be found: here (and links within)

Teaching Tuesday: Interviewing–the teaching test lecture


This week I’ve been a bit distracted by instructions I’ve been given for a demonstration teaching lecture. It is for a permanent position in my department so the interview is stressful, important, and far from certain. There are three others interviewing for the spot, all colleagues and/or collaborators*, all friends, and all deserving of the position. It is also a little strange in that you can exactly know the CV of your fellow candidates and that all of us will show up for work after the interview, regardless of the result of the job search. The only difference is that one of us will have a permanent job and the others will not (still). I have talked a bit about the Swedish interview process previously and the upcoming one will function in a similar way. One major difference is that in addition to a short research lecture, we’ve been asked to give a 20 min teaching lecture. The topic is outside everyone’s expertise (Ecology of Plant-Pathogen Interactions), so in some senses an even playing field.

I have taught classes previously but not on this particular topic. But given that I’ve never done a demonstration lecture, I’ve been thinking a lot about how to tackle the task. Unfortunately, teaching talks don’t seem to be a common feature of the interview process, so unlike the research seminars and chalk talks, there isn’t so much out there (see Meg Duffy’s post on links for tenure-track job searches, for example).

However, I did find this helpful post about giving test lectures with a focus on those given to actual students in an on-going class (yikes!). It would be tough to drop in on a class that has already established a rhythm between the students and teacher, although I think it would be a good test of your teaching. It might not be fair to the students in the course, however, if they are continually interrupted by different interviewees. The teaching talks I’ve heard of are more commonly to faculty and maybe grad students. Anurag Agrawal compiles some advice on finding an academic job with this bit of wisdom on the teaching lecture (you can find more advice here; HT: Meg):

Teaching talks: Many places will have you give a teaching talk—they may give you a topic or let you choose one from a list. Some will want a sample lecture—others may actually want a verbal statement of your teaching philosophy. In general, ask those around you that actually teach those subjects for outlines or notes. It is usually fine to have notes for your teaching talk. They will probably ask you to not use slides, but overheads and handouts may be very useful. The faculty may interrupt you during your talk and pretend to be students asking questions. Try not to get flustered by them, but rather have fun with them.

Even before reading this, I began my canvasing of people for lectures on plant-pathogen interactions. So far I haven’t found it to be a common topic in ecology courses (if you lecture on the topic and are willing to share, yes please!). So after researching for this interview, I might also advocate for including the lecture in one of our ecology courses (I have funding for two more years regardless of the outcome of the interview).

I’ve only had one experience with this sort of interview requirement and that was indirect. When I was a masters student, my department was hiring a number of people to expand and we were also going to an Integrative Biology model from an organismal division (merging depts). So there were a lot of positions (~6) and likely a lot of opinions on how to best fill them from colleagues who hadn’t worked together before. In any event, I got to witness a bunch of job talks and meet with a lot of candidates. It was a useful lesson as a grad student but the one portion that was closed was the test lectures. I’m guessing these were to distinguish people’s ability from very different fields but I don’t know what the exact instructions were. We (the grad students) did hear rumours that some people’s talks were terrible, so it clearly doesn’t do to blow teaching talks off. But how to do it well?

Turning to advice on how to give lectures can give some clues. Improving lecturing has a bunch of hints and tips for generally improving your lectures. Another list of practical pointers for good lectures is focused mainly on the classroom but can also be helpful in thinking about how to demonstrate your teaching. I had to link this good talk advice for the hilarious nostalgia it created for the overhead strip tease (advice: don’t do it, and I think this also applies to powerpoint reveals).

From the Columbia University Graduate School of Arts & Sciences Teaching Center (many useful pdfs here including one on giving effective talks), it is better to:

  1. Talk than read
  2. Stand than sit
  3. Move than stand still
  4. Vary your voice’s pitch than speak in a monotone
  5. Speak loudly facing your audience rather than mumble and speak into your notes or blackboard
  6. Use an outline and visual aids than present without them
  7. Provide your listeners with a roadmap than start without an overview

There is also this simple and eloquent advice from a twitter friend:

My plan is to demonstrate how I would give a lecture to a course, including emphasizing where I would stop lecturing and turn things over to the students. As I move away from straight lecturing, it feels a little strange to demonstrate my teaching through lecturing only. But I only have 5 minutes to describe the structure of the course, where this lecture would fit in and how I would evaluate learning, followed by the first 15 minutes of the lecture. Given all that is required to pack into 20 mins, this teaching talk is really a demonstration, rather than a lecture. I won’t prepare for it as I would do for a regular course lecture and given my unfamiliarity with the topic, it is also going to take a fair amount of research. This is a job interview, so I know it isn’t really a teaching lecture, it is a performance. One I’m hoping will convince the committee to let me get on with actual teaching for years to come.

I’d love to hear from anyone who’s done a teaching lecture as a part of their interview! Advice on how to nail this will be greatly appreciated by me but I’m sure others on the TT job search will also appreciate pointers.



Teaching Tuesday: Incorporating primary literature into courses


As academics, we spend a lot of time reading primary literature (although we often feel it is not enough). It is a real skill to learn to decipher how journal articles are written and how to read them effectively. One barrier is the language and learning a discipline involves learning the language. However, even if you know all the words and concepts, the format of papers is different from most everything else we might read.

From a survey I did of ecology teachers*: many think that reading primary literature is important in teaching ecology. I included answers for reading textbooks as a comparison. I wasn’t surprised that there was a bit less emphasis on textbook reading but it is obvious still a useful resource for teaching ecology. I certainly also had the impression that reading journal articles was important as an undergraduate but I wasn’t quite sure how to do it.


So if you are using or want to use primary literature in an undergraduate class, how should you go about it? There are perhaps 101 ways to effectively use journal articles as teaching tools. The link is a detailed article which outlines what you can use primary literature for, how to identify good articles, challenges with using primary literature and how to overcome them and finally how to assess learning. There is tons of good advice there, so if you are looking for ways to incorporate the literature but are unsure how, it is a good place to start. Here’s a more personal account of one professor’s approach to integrating the primary literature into a class. I like the idea of building up understanding and directing the students so that their reading is productive.

I found when I was an undergrad, I basically learned how to read primary literature by doing it a lot. My first attempts felt a bit like looking through a fog. I would attend discussion sections where we’d read papers and there were a few students presenting each time. I don’t think I learned anything until I presented a paper myself. Before that, it seemed that every time I missed the main point of the paper.

So when I started running my own section for a writing intensive group of an ecology course as a teaching assistant, I realised I didn’t want my students to be stuck in the rut I had been in. We were to discuss many papers during the semester and I couldn’t wait for the end for all of them to be comfortable. I also didn’t want the focus to be on me (the section was meant to facilitate their independence), so I didn’t want to break down every paper for them. Inspired by discussions in a class about how to teach writing that I was taking, I came up with a simple plan to get students to overcome any issues they might have with discussing primary literature.

The methods were simple**:

  1. Choose recently published papers on topics that students will be able to understand without much background.
  2. Describe the general layout of a paper and how to read it (be brief to give students as much time as possible to read).
  3. Break students into pairs, and have each pair read a different paper for 10-15 minutes.
  4. Allow the pairs to discuss the paper for ~5 minutes.
  5. Give each pair 2-3 minutes to tell the class what the paper was about.

As instructors, we often discuss how to approach reading a paper but we rarely address the intimidation that many students feel when reading scientific writing. Often students get so bogged down in the details of a paper that they can’t see the forest through the trees. So I wanted students to avoid getting caught up in details they didn’t understand (e.g. statistical methods are particularly prone to this). My hope was that I could help students overcome their fears of both reading primary literature and then having something to say about it. I have to admit the first time I tried this I was terrified. I knew that I could briefly read a paper before a discussion and contribute if I needed (sometimes happened more than I’d care to admit as a grad student) but I wasn’t sure how they would do. I wasn’t asking them to describe in detail the paper and I specifically choose papers that were relatively easy to understand the main points.  I hoped this was enough. To my relief, it worked!

Student comments on this activity:

  • “An invaluable skill! Keep encouraging this. Thank you!”
  • “Was useful because it helped me think about the essential information”
  • “Speed reading will be a skill I keep-usually I spend so much time I get confused in the readings.”
  • “Great. Not only familiarized us with various ecological concepts and studies but helped with the ability to skim/read scientific papers for pertinent information.”
  • “Speed reading was helpful in understanding take away messages from papers—it is a great skill.”
  • “very useful”, “relevant and important”, “practical”

I was able to describe paper reading very briefly in the beginning of section because my students had all been exposed to reading primary literature in previous courses. If this is the first time your class has seen a journal article, maybe more effort would be needed here. At the end of class I would also take a few moments to point out what they couldn’t pick up from their quick reading. For example, I’d ask some directed questions to the teams about the articles that I was pretty sure that they wouldn’t have picked up on. My goal was to get them to be able to figure out the main story of a paper and realise that they could understand that without knowing all the details. But I didn’t want the take away message to be that fully reading a paper is never necessary. The rest of the semester we discussed many papers and they also needed to read and summarize papers working up to their final proposal so there was many opportunities to teach them about how to read and learn from the literature.

I was lucky because I had small groups of students to work with. I can see ways in which you could modify the activity for larger groups. Maybe having them share what the paper is about in smaller groups rather than the whole class, for example. Mainly I think it is important for them to have to say something about the paper. It is through being forced to quickly summarize the points that students actually learn to ignore all the detailed methodology that they tend to get caught up in. We can tell them to focus on the big picture but most of them (including me as an undergrad) won’t. By not giving the time to get bogged down, they quickly learned to look at the big picture. I was really pleased that both times my students were able to use this experience throughout the course. The discussions were more lively than I’d ever had before as a TA and I did very little talking.

In general, I think incorporating primary literature is important for learning in the sciences. Whether it is exposing students to the papers themselves or their products in an deconstructed way, efforts we make to teach students how to read the scientific literature can only expand their understanding of what science is all about. Now whether they should be able to access the literature after their degree is complete is a whole another debate…

*if you are new to Teaching Tuesdays, I’ve been doing a series of posts that have derived from a survey I distributed broadly to ecology teachers earlier this year. If you are interested in knowing more about what ecology teachers are up to, you can read more here (intro, difficulties, solutions, practice and writing).

**after doing this activity with my students in a couple of courses I remember reading something similar. I think the article was maybe in an ESA newsletter (Eco 101, perhaps) but my cursory searching hasn’t found it. Although I had thought I downloaded it, there is nothing on my hard drive either. If you know of this article, please send me the link! (Update: link, thanks Gary)

Efficient teaching: Rubrics for written assignments


I’ve often emphasized the importance of transparency and fairness in teaching. The evaluation of written assignments is an inherently subjective activity, at least from the perspective of students. The grading of written assignments is most prone to the appearance of unfairness. When students think they’re being treated unfairly, they are not inclined to focus on learning.

Moreover, in the grading of written assignments we are most likely to be inadequately transparent and unfair. By using rubrics to grade writing, we can mitigate, or perhaps even eliminate, this problem.

Some folks don’t like using rubrics because they think that written assignments should be evaluated holistically or by gestalt. As experts in our field, we can tell apart a B paper from a C paper based on reading without the use of a rubric, and we can explain to students in our evaluation how this distinction is made without resorting to over-simplified categories. We can reward deep insight without being captive to a point-making system.

Even if the concepts in the preceding paragraph were factually correct, the choice to formulate is such an argument indicates a lack of focus on student learning. Rubrics should be used to grade written assignments not only because they lend themselves to the appearance of fairness in the eyes of students, they actually result in more fairness.

Grading written assignments without a rubric is unfair. Why is that? It’s very simple: when an assignment is graded without a rubric, students do not know the basis upon which their writing is to be evaluated. Fairness requires that students know in advance the basis upon which their grade is being assigned.

There are many different components to good writing, and presumably someone who grades holistically takes all of these into account in an integrated fashion and then assigns a grade. However, if the purpose of the assignment is to learn about writing, then the student needs to which components are important constituents of good writing. And then the student needs to receive credit for including these components, and not receive credit if not including these components.

If a professor wishes to reward students for making “deep insights,” then these deep insights can be placed as a category on the rubric. And, when handing out the rubric when assigning work to students, the professor can then explain in writing on the rubric what constitutes deep insights that are worthy of receiving points in the rubric.

Rubrics don’t rob professors of flexibility in grading written assignments; they only prevent professors from ambushing students with criticisms that the students would not have been able to anticipate. They also prevent professors from unfairly rewarding students who are able to perform feats that satisfy the professor’s personal tastes even though these feats are not a required part of the assignment.

Is bad grammar something that deserves points off? Put it on the rubric.

Should it be impossible to get an A without a clearly articulated thesis and well supported arguments? Build that into the rubric.

Does citation format matter to you? Put it on the rubric? Don’t care about citation format? Then don’t put it on the rubric.

When you’re grading, you should know what you are looking for. So, just put all of those things on the rubric, and assign the appropriate amount of points to them as necessary. Of course any evaluation of “clear thesis” and “well supported argument” is to some degree subjective. However, when students know that the clarity of their theses and the quality of their arguments are a big part of their grade, then they will be aware that they need to emphasize that up front, and focus on writing well. This point might be obvious to faculty, but it’s not necessarily obvious to all of the students. To be fair, every student needs to know these kinds of things up front and in an unbiased fashion.

There are several other reasons to use rubrics:

Rubrics help reduce the unconscious effects of cultural biases. Students who write like we do are more likely to come from similar cultural backgrounds as ourselves, and students who write well, but differently than we do, are likely to come from a different cultural background. If grading is holistic, then it is likely that professors will favor writing that reflects their own practices. Without the use of a rubric, professors are more likely to assign higher grades to students from cultural backgrounds similar to their own.

Rubrics save your time before grading. Students often are demanding about their professors’ time when they are anxious about whether they are doing the right thing. The more specific information students receive about what is expected of them, the more comfortable they are with fairness and transparency in grading, the less often instructors are bothered with annoying queries about the course, and the more often they’ll contact instructors about substantial matters pertaining to the course material.

Rubrics save your time while grading. If you grade holistically without using a rubric, and it takes you appreciably less time than it takes with a rubric, I humbly suggest that you’re not performing an adequate evaluation.  The worse case scenario, with respect to time management while grading, is that a complete evaluation happens without a rubric, and then it takes only a few moments for the professor to then assign numbers on a rubric after being done with a holistic evaluation.

Rubrics save your time after grading. If students are unpleased with a grade on a written assignment, and all they have to go on is a holistic assessment and written comments – regardless of verbosity – they are far more likely to bother you to ask for clarification or more points. If they see exactly where on the rubric they lost points, they are far more likely to use their own time to figure out what they need to do to improve their performance rather than hassle you about it.

Most importantly, rubrics result in better writing practices from your students. It is a rare student who relishes receiving a draft of an assignment with massive annotations and verbose remarks about what can be done better. Those remarks are, of course, very useful, and students should get detailed remarks from us. When fixing the assignment, students will be focused on getting a higher grade than they received on their draft. The way to do promote success by students is to provide them specific categories on which they lost points. This kind of diagnosis, along with any written comments that professors wish to share, is more likely to result in a more constructive response and is less likely to terrify students who are unclear how to meet the expectations of a professor who gave a bad grade without providing a specific breakdown about how that bad grade was assigned. If a student wonders, “what can I do to produce excellent writing?” all they’ll need to do is look at where they lost points on the rubric. That’s a powerful diagnostic tool. If you think the use of a rubric in your course cannot be a great diagnostic tool, then you haven’t yet designed an adequate rubric.

Of course, it’s okay to disagree with me about writing rubrics. If you do, I’d be really curious about what your students think. The last time I graded a written assignment (a take-home exam), I asked my students if they wanted to receive a copy of a grading rubric before I handed out the exam. They all wanted it, and they all used it. By choosing carefully what I put on the rubric, I was sure that their efforts were allocated in the best way possible.

Teaching Tuesday: Writing in Ecology


In my continuing series on teaching ecology, I am going to focus on using writing in ecology classes. The following is a lot of my opinion, some of the results related to writing from a survey of ecology teachers and a few links to writing resources that I find helpful. If you are interested in exploring past posts stemming from the survey I did of ecology teachers you can read them here (intro, difficulties, solutions, and practice).

Writing is a particular interest of mine, stemming from before I taught a ‘writing in the majors’ section of ecology as a graduate student. Students applied for this section and they attended two sections a week with me with their grades based on my section rather than exams. I was given an amazing amount of freedom to run the section and both times it was incredibly fun. I didn’t need to give lectures (they attended those with the rest) but I had my first opportunity to organise a syllabus and be in charge as a teacher. It was a wonderful experience as a graduate student. In conjunction to teaching a writing-intensive section, teaching assistants for these writing-intensive classes also took a short course on how to teach writing. I learned an incredible amount by taking the course and teaching myself. My advice to any PhDs out there is if you have the opportunity to do something like this: do it! The skills I learned teaching these sections have been invaluable to me as a teacher.

I think that learning to write and specifically scientific writing is an important skill. Of course, writing is crucial if you want to go on in science, but scientific writing is also something that students can benefit from regardless of what they ultimately do. So I’m showing my colours and biases here. I think writing is essential and if we haven’t made an effort to teach students to be better writers, than I think we have failed as university teachers. Of course, it is possible to divide the responsibility of teaching writing skills across classes in a program and there are places where it is easier to do (fewer students, for example). However, I always find it disappointing when I see upper level undergraduates that have been able to get by without being able to write well. I know that some think that their subject should take precedent over skills like writing (they should have learned that elsewhere!). Given how important the ability to write is for science careers and so many others, I think we need to have some focus on writing in every course. After all, what is the use of knowing an answer if you can’t communicate it?

Maybe we ecologists are just a communicative bunch, but 62% of the responses said that writing is essential for teaching ecology.


So how many use writing assignments in their courses? Well, a quarter rarely or never assigns writing research papers or proposals. So there seems to be a bit of a contradiction here. It could also be that teachers are using different forms of writing assignments in their courses or make exams that emphasize writing as well as content. Being a skill, writing takes practice, so if we want students to learn to write we need to give them the opportunity to do so. I think with effective time management and teaching, writing can be incorporated to any class. For example, I’ve had students write exam questions and figure captions as very short writing assignments. Of course one of the best ways to learn how to write, as well as how ‘real writing’ works, is to have multiple drafts. I was lucky enough to be exposed to forced multiple drafts as an undergrad. Without the forced part, I wasn’t really learning how to improve my writing but that is only something I realised after the fact. For an upper-level plant ecology class I took, Elizabeth Elle had a clever way to use her time efficiently by doing not quite multiple drafts of the same work. We had a report early on in the class that was heavily commented on and then a larger paper towards the end. Even though these papers weren’t the same topics, capitalizing on the fact that students tend to make many of the same general mistakes again and again, we had to show that we had improved any issues in the final paper. Later working with Elizabeth and my masters advisor, Chris Caruso, really helped me hone my writing. I am still appreciative of their patience. It was only working through many drafts of my writing that got me to think directly about the writing, rather than just the content I needed to include. For me, writing is an on-going learning process. However, multiple drafts are time-consuming for students and teachers and only 15% of ecology teachers always use them. The trend is generally that fewer who have writing assignments also get students to do multiple drafts but the difference isn’t by much. To me this suggests that many who emphasize writing in class are also utilising feedback on drafts to help students learn the skill. I think that with effective time management and


So if writing is important, than how should we teach it? I’ve gathered a few sources that are mostly directed towards professional scientific writing but I think they contain lots of good tips than can be adapted to use in classes as well.

Here’s a detailed post on clear writing including a macro that detects your most verbose of sentences. Honestly, I’m a little afraid to use it, I tend towards long and involved sentences where I include lots of information that I end up needing to break up into smaller pieces in the revision process but I would probably benefit from getting those run-on sentences highlighted in red straight away. Here’s some more tips on how to write a scientific paper and on the beginning, middle and end of scientific papers. There is also this simple intro to writing for scientific journals and as mentioned by Brian McGill in his post about clear writing the Duke scientific writing site is also useful.

Writing in ecology assignments can also include summarizing existing research, so this plain language summaries post might give you some useful tips for students. It is written for scientists who want to communicate their findings more broadly but it seems that this is a good way to also assess if students really understand the literature they are reading.

Further guidance for writing detailed research proposals can be found as an example in TIEE (teaching issues and experiments in ecology). Here the students build upon data they collect and then create proposals but it also provides lots of good tips on helping students to come up with ideas and write proposals.

Finally, a list of common writing errors.

Up next week: ? I have a few more posts in mind from the survey results, including getting into the demographics and potential biases of the answers. I also haven’t included all the questions thus far and there are a few interesting things to discuss from the comments section. I want to reflect a bit more on what I’ve already written about and what might be left that is interesting to say. If you have anything in particular you want me to address, just leave it in the comments and I’ll see if I can include it.

Teaching Tuesday: How do ecologists teach and are there barriers to change?


Continuing on in my presentation of results from a survey of higher education in ecology, I am going to spend this post summarizing how teachers are teaching ecology to (mainly) undergraduates and whether they think there are barriers to changing the way they teach. If you are just coming upon this Teaching Tuesday now and want to know more, you can find a brief introduction, what ecologists find difficult to teach and effective teaching tools in past posts. (update: links should be fixed)

To follow up everyone’s favorite teaching tools, I want to dissect a little more what ecology teachers are actually doing in their courses. The majority of respondents were basing their answers on what they are doing in undergraduate courses (43%, introductory and 43% upper level).

First, I wanted to tease apart the time spent lecturing by teachers and the amount of course time students spent listening to lectures. There is a lot of evidence out there that simply listening to lectures is not an effective way to learn, but I wanted to assess how common it actually is for students to only listen to lectures. Because ecology courses can often have separate sections for labs/field work and these might be taught by different people (teaching assistants, for example), I thought it was useful to contrast the teachers’ role from the students’ perspective. Following are the answers to: What percentage of your in-class teaching time is spent lecturing? and For your students, what percentage of your course is spent listening to lectures?

lecturing listening

Indeed, students seem to generally spend less time in lectures than the teachers are lecturing, suggesting that students might be getting some of the non-lecturing time with other instructors/teaching assistants. But just to be sure, I also came at this question from another angle and asked how frequently teachers used extensive lecturing. Many do frequently use extensive lecturing and the majority think that lecturing is important or essential for teaching ecology.


There is a lot of lecturing going on in ecology classes, likely because the teachers think it is important but there is also obviously more to the story. So what is happening when teachers aren’t lecturing?

We saw last week, few ecologists are using clickers in their courses but think-pair-share (basically getting students to talk to each other about an issue before a larger class discussion) was mentioned as an effective teaching tool. There are a number of people using the technique, but about half are basically not. However, I think that there might be a bit of skewing here because some might actually use similar techniques without realising there is a name for it. Although it is impossible to know specifically what kind of class discussions these include, the majority of ecology teaching does include class discussions.

TPS discussions

Further on the theme of students talking to one another, group work is common, and a similar pattern was seen in the answers for cooperative learning. Therefore, ecologists are getting their students talking and learning from one another.


Letting students decide course content is not common but interestingly, it is not unheard of in ecology classes. Almost half of the people said students select topics at least some of the time and about a third occasionally use just-in-time teaching.


I expect in line with many of our experiences, ecology instruction involves quite a bit of lecturing but this is spiced up with other activities. But say that you wanted to change the way a course was run or try a new technique, what are the biggest barriers for ecology teachers? Well, I’m sure that this won’t be a shock but it comes down to two basic things: time and money.


But what about large class sizes and students who are resistant to change? Well, people do seem to find some issues there, but not nearly as strong as time and resources:

classsize students

What about the classic stereotype that ‘professors’ (in quotes because the survey includes  different positions involved with teaching) don’t care about teaching and just want to do research?


With the strong caveat that people who take time out of their day to answer a survey about teaching may have some strong opinions about teaching and be personally motivated to change/try new things, personal motivation is not a strong barrier to change. (Or, you could take the negative view and say that people won’t admit that it is.) Probably related to the time issue, distraction from research is seen as a stronger barrier to change than personal motivation. Time invested in one activity must come from somewhere, thus a somewhat classic tug-of-war between teaching and research can occur. However, if people had more access to the logistics of trying a new technique and knew better how to make that efficient, than perhaps changing teaching styles/techniques wouldn’t be such a time sink. As a commenter on last week’s post said, maybe we shouldn’t be reinventing the wheel for every course but instead can learn from one another.

knowledge training

But here is the real kicker: if teaching effort is not appreciated or rewarded, than it becomes harder to put those activities to the top of your list. effort

Of course, there is a bit of circularity here. If teaching is appreciated by your department/university, than they will likely also invest in ways to create time and resources, including training, for their teachers. But for those with limited time, resources and appreciation, it is not surprising that people continue to teach as they have in the past. I definitely got a taste of this with a course I was asked to teach. Everything happened fairly last minute with changes to the course leadership and teachers (including me). Given that I didn’t have a lot of time to prepare, I generally followed the previous lectures and activities given in the course. Now I am looking for ways to improve my section of the class but of course, it would take up much less of my time if I just retaught the way I (and those before me) have done before.

Despite some of these challenges to change, if this survey is any indication, ecology teachers are doing some innovative things with their classes.

Up next week (if I can manage to get some time to write surrounding the pollination conference I’m attending): Writing in ecology.

Teaching Tuesday: teaching tools ecologists find effective


As an antidote to last weeks challenges to teaching ecology, here I’ve collected all the responses to the question: What teaching tools do you find most effective in ecology courses? As before, text in italics is quoted from responses.

It was somewhat heartening to me that the most common effective teaching tool used by ecologists is the outdoors. Field trips were mentioned 55 times as the best way to teach ecology and they are also frequently used in courses.

field trips 2field trips

Now I know that all ecology isn’t field-based but getting outside seems to be a good way to inspire students and getting them thinking about the world around them in a different way. On this general theme, laboratory exercises and hands-on-activities were also frequently mentioned. There were also a couple mentions of using videos as an effective teaching tool and if you are thinking about incorporating videos into your classroom you should stop right now and head over to Dynamic Ecology. There you will find an amazing list complied by Meg Duffy of all sorts of ecology/evolution videos handily categorized by subject. Videos can be also be a way of “getting outside” in courses where this is tough to do by giving real world examples of ecological phenomena.

 A second theme to emerge was “active learning” techniques. Active learning basically refers to any technique that involves a more student-centered approach than straight lectures. In part, the involvement of labs and field exercises for ecology courses and the importance that most place on these activities already adds active learning to an ecology course. However, there was this little gem of a comment to remind us that our job as teachers is to create an integrated course with a purpose to the various activities: Making sure lecture and lab are well integrated. But it also seems that ecologists are finding it useful to break-up or replace lectures with active learning activities like clicker questions, think-pair-share, and the like.

Clickers—some love them, some do not and it seems that most ecologists do not use them. Meg Duffy also has a pair of posts on why she uses clickers in her courses (Part 1 and Part 2) with some links to pedagogy behind them (found in part 1). As you can see below, Meg is quite the maverick in the field (only 12% use clickers sometimes to always) but there is a growing acknowledgment that these kinds of teaching tools can be highly effective for teaching (e.g. this article in Science is behind a paywall but you can listen to the podcast for free). And here’s a glowing account of clickers in science classrooms. Another suggested TopHat, which is a platform where you can use cellphones, computers or tablets instead of buying a particular clicker system. But, of course, it is important to remember that it is all about the questions you ask using clickers and that to be effective these need to be thoughtful. Unfortunately, we are at the stage where most of us aren’t using clickers, so there is not a resource of questions that you can modify for your course.


I also want to share this anecdote of one person’s experiment with how to change up a lecture. It highlights some of the pluses of engaging students during lecture time—it can be more fun, tell you about where the student’s understanding is at and demonstrate to the students what they do and do not know. As the author suggests, there are probably many ways that this kind of engagement can be involved but the game show style seemed like a fun idea. I find that it’s easy for students to sit in lecture and think they understand a concept without knowing that they don’t really get it. This year I started having 3 students at a time come up to the board and I’d ask them a question (e.g. draw a graph of productivity and how it would be influenced by different levels of disturbance). They could get help from their “fans” behind them (1 student from the left, 1 center and 1 right were chosen so their audience behind them was their fan base) so there wasn’t so much pressure on the selected students up front. It was actually a great way for me to find out what they knew. For instance, the first time I did it I learned that nobody in the class knew how to draw standard error bars… If I had just drawn it, I think they’d all just nod and think “oh yeah, I knew that” but when they were pressured to stand up and do it themselves, even with help from the fans, nobody could do it. It showed me that I had a different expectation of what they knew than what they did know (I just assumed everyone in their Junior year of college would know how to draw standard errors). Later in the class I asked them a density dependent question and they all got it in under 10 seconds – I was so surprised! I thought that one would stump them. I think the same thing can be done with clickers, I just haven’t taken the time to figure out how to get clickers to work in my class (and frankly the game-show environment of the 3 contestants up front is sort of a fun way to break up the monotony of a lecture.

In direct contrast, there was the following comment: I have tried lots of alternative techniques but students like straight lecture the best. I think there is a real issue here; whatever the teaching tool or technique you use, you need to make it work for you. We are all different in our teaching styles and there is no one solution fits all. And not to pick on this one commenter, there are a number of potential reasons for this problem. It might be that the teacher likes to lecture best and therefore puts more effort into that activity, stacking the cards for lecturing. Or it might be that they never got training on how to make the alternative techniques they’ve tried effective. Whatever the reason, this comment also made me ponder whether we should care what students like best. Of course it is nice (and sometimes very important) to get back good student evaluations of your teaching and course. However, if we are in the business of teaching and care about it, than we should be more concerned with whether students learn than how much they liked how they were taught.

Discussions can be a useful way to get students thinking about the material and gaging how well it is understood. Think-pair-share is a basic technique where students first think about a question, then discuss with their partner/neighbour and then the results of these discussions are shared with the class. I suspect even the person who commented that they didn’t know what this was, has some idea of it in practice. But even general class discussions were frequently mentioned as useful to teaching ecology.

Flipped classes are an approach where students learn content at home (via video lectures, reading, etc) and do “homework” in the classroom. Class time is then used to interact with the instructor and fellow students, rather than passively listen to lectures. One person answered by saying that they wanted to do this more and it is what I imagine you’d see in Terry’s classes. I plan to do some more of this next spring for my Ecological Methods course. I have been slowly shifting from the lectures that were given in the past in this course to more active techniques, in part because lectures on things like quadrat size and shape tend to be dry for both the students and me.

Ecology is a science, and many suggested that the best way for students to learn is by doing. Everything from reading primary literature to designing experiments to writing proposals to conducting studies/experiments to analyzing data to presenting findings, basically teachable versions of what ‘real’ ecologists do was suggested as a useful way to teach ecology. I hope that every student walks away from their ecology courses at least knowing how scientists study ecology.

Finally, a number of people suggested particular tools or sites that they find useful.

TIEE, Teaching Issues and Experiments in Ecology, was brought up twice as an effective teaching tool and I can personally second the use. Last year, I revamped the diversity section of the course I am involved with teaching (Ecological Methods). Instead of using a made-up dataset that had been used in previous years, I tried the lab on diversity in tall grass prairie. Students really appreciated being able to relate the diversity estimates to real data and I think it was a useful way to approach the subject before they collected their own data.

Simulations of ecological processes are an alternative to running labs and field exercises. SimUText got this this endorsement “Love it!” and the associated EcoBeaker was also recommended. Judging from the answers to the question: “What tools would you like to be more available for use in teaching ecology?” cheap affective computer simulations are one of the top requests. Clearly there is a desire to use these tools, especially as resources for courses diminish and lab/field components seem to be under increasing pressure.

Although directed at high school students, one person suggested this site for good activities for non-majors. When I was a TA for a biology major required evolution course, we also used the activity for demonstrating natural selection. So in some contexts these might also work for entry-level majors courses.

And then there was this: chalk (seriously). There is definitely something to be said for writing things out for students to follow your process.

This is a class I would like to attend: I prepare 2-5 slides/lecture about news stories or papers I’ve read since the last lecture that are relevant to the course, to make the point with the students that what they’re learning has relevance to the rest of their lives, and that my goal is to make them educated voters, citizens, taxpayers. A high goal but one I certainly hope that we can achieve through our teaching.

Next week: How do ecologists teach and are there barriers to change?

Efficient teaching: class needs to end on time


clockClass needs to end when it is supposed to end.

If you did not plan adequately, it is not acceptable to unilaterally decide that class can be stretched beyond the scheduled time.

Your students might have another class to get to, or a study appointment, or a job. And, they probably want class to end and whatever you want to squeeze in during the last few minutes isn’t likely to have the desired educational outcome anyway. (Unless all you wish to do is blithely “cover material.”) Also, someone else might need to occupy the room, and if it’s a professor who is using digital stuff during the lesson, they need to get hooked up to make that happen and that could take a few minutes.

Here are some guidelines that I suggest, on handling the timing of class sessions:

    • Make sure that a clock is visible to you while you are teaching.
    • Tell your students at the beginning of the semester that you vow to always end class on time.
    • Ask your students to inform you when the end of the class period arrives. If this happens while you’re still in the middle of a lesson, stop at that moment and say “see you next time” immediately. No content is important enough to keep your students captive beyond the time allotted to a class session. (This still happens to me a few times per semester, and I’m thankful that students are comfortable enough to call me out on it.)
    • Start your class on time, even if people haven’t arrived or settled in. This promotes professionalism about the use of time in your classroom.
    • Assign your homework and reading, collect assignments and do other bookkeeping at the start of class, so that it doesn’t make the end stretch longer than planned.
    • Plan for your lessons to end a few minutes early. If they go to the end of the period, you’re okay. If you have a few minutes left as planned, you can do a quick “muddiest point” for students to complete on their way out. You might find muddiest points to be an important part of the course and it is useful to regularly leave time for them.
    • Write exams that can fit within your class period. Write them so that slower students can finish them within the prescribed time. (It varies by discipline, but a chemist colleague once said that if it took more than five minutes to take his own exam, then the exam is too long.)

If you can’t start a class on time because the room is being occupied by another class that has gone over schedule, quietly sneak up to the front and tell the instructor that your students will be entering the room in a minute. This will give them the time to make sure their students can leave the class unimpeded before you claim the room scheduled for your time slot. If you suspect that this instructor is a novice teacher, you might want to give them a few more minutes because they’re still learning how to run a class.

It’s easy to get peeved when students start rustling their bags and packing up before class is over. It annoys me, too. This bag-rustling is not its own problem but merely a symptom of poor engagement and time anxiety. The engagement problem is a whole ‘nother enchilada: you can’t be expected to keep everyone rapt at every moment. But you can take care of the time anxiety by being reliable and predictable. Students pack up when they feel like they are done and want to leave. If they know that they are staying until a precise time, and that they will always be free to leave at that precise time, then you’ll hear fewer zippers and rustles. You might even keep them more engaged.

Do you have any thoughts about managing the duration of a lesson, or have particular challenges with managing when to end class? How do you design exams to evaluate what you need to but make sure that nobody feels rushed? Any other tips you wish to share?

Teaching Tuesday: What do ecologists find difficult to teach?


by Amy Parachnowitsch

Today I begin in earnest a series stemming from results of a teaching survey I sent to higher education people teaching ecology (introduction here). In describing the results, I decided that the best place to start was in the middle. In later posts I will include more information on the analyzable data that came from the survey and, although it is definitely interesting, some of the most revealing information was found in the free-form answers. So to kick off the series, I summarize what people find most challenging to teach and in following weeks we’ll explore some of the tools and techniques people use to overcome these challenges.

The exact question that the following responses answered: What ecological concepts do you find are commonly misunderstood or difficult to teach? Here I am pulling together all of the verbal responses to the question (was a voluntary question answered by 138/220); anything in italics is quoted from individual response.

I’m sure it is no surprise that mathematical concepts ranked high on people’s minds as a difficult/misunderstood component of teaching ecology. Statistics and modeling (with many mentions Lotka-Volterra) figured prominently in the answers. Roughly 45 responses involved mathematical/statistical concepts suggesting the prevalence of the issue. As a particular component of statistics one person mention the philosophy of null hypotheses and the general concepts of variability, uncertainly and probability can be problematic. Probability is also a fundamentally misunderstood concept in terms of risk and risk assessment or genetic drift/evolution. And more basically, data interpretation is a stumbling block for many.

The following quotes nicely summarize the general feeling that many have about the resistance to math:

  • Anything involving mathematics, which many biology students consider an unfair imposition. Students who like science but not math seem to believe that by choosing a biology program they have entered into some unspoken pact whereby they will not have to look at equations again. With this Theoretical ecology comes up against a brick wall (and an enduring one – how many theoretical ecologists do you know that actually came through a biology stream?).
  • My students struggle with anything that involves even algebra. They come from high school thinking ecology is all about memorizing biomes and are not ready for the quantitative aspects of ecology.
  • anything involving math and modeling; students want to solve equations rather than understand them
  • And about pre-med students: they think that Ecology is a class where you think about your feelings about trees and flowers

But it isn’t only about the math itself. As three further responses suggest, we also have a hard time getting students to translate the statistical/mathematical concepts to anything ecological. One specifically referred to understanding statistical interactions in ecological terms, another talked about the difficulty of getting students to relate graphical interpretations to the underlying ecology and another mentioned the difficulty of relating models to ecology. These problems can than translate into students (in this case, senior undergraduates) that still struggle when discussing primary literature and relating it to common ecological concepts.

So we as teachers are up against the perception that ecology is easy and about facts that can be easily memorized. That means that students are not only challenged by the mathematical concepts presented to them but can be resistant to learning them as well. As an undergraduate I think I came into my first ecology classes with a similar perception, although honestly it is tough to reconstruct how I thought then. But I do distinctly I remember my first mid-term exam in Animal Ecology with Larry Dill at Simon Fraser University (BC, Canada). It was a transformative moment for me—all of a sudden I was asked to think and understand, rather than memorize. It was incredible and tough. I can’t remember how I did on that exam but I remember a stern talking to the class by Larry afterwards. Looking back now, I’m pretty sure this was a practised speech that he gave almost every time he taught. This course (followed by those taught by some other great people at SFU) was the beginning of me understanding what ecology was really about. For me, I never looked back, but our challenge as teachers is to get all our students to understand what ecology (and science in general) is, whether or not this turns into a life-long pursuit.

From a more topic centered approach, biodiversity, along with its alpha, beta and gamma types, was frequently mentioned. Competition and species/trophic interactions, population dynamics/growth, life tables, and the niche where also mentioned more than once. Nutrient cycling is a difficult subject, perhaps because it is drier than other aspects of ecology and requires memorization (as was mentioned by two commenters). So some students seem to want to only memorize facts rather than understand, but not when it comes to the nutrient cycle or taxonomy (another person’s comment). But at a basic level, students are misunderstanding basic concepts. For example, where organisms get their energy and the idea that ALL living things respire and produce CO2. So photosynthesis and respiration also showed up in the answers. Overcoming the concept that there is a balance in nature and therefore what ecosystems are and are not is also challenging. For myself, growing up in a hippy, back-to-the-land, part of Nova Scotia certainly coloured my perception of things like herbal medicine. Along the way, I had to face my own inconsistencies and now when I’m visiting old family friends, I have to decide when to get into those discussions about homeopathy or the like. But these kinds of attitudes are not unique and you don’t have to be surrounded by hippies to have them. Knowing whether these ideas are prevalent in your students can only increase your ability to reach them.

There was two topics that were consistently brought up that maybe difficult to understand/teach in and of themselves but can also be political issues: climate change (11) and evolution (19).

For those students who think that they can avoid evolution in ecology classes, the number of responses involving evolution suggests otherwise. Four responses were “natural selection” and fifteen involved evolution/genetic drift/adaptation/population genetics. Of course as an evolutionary ecologist, I’m excited to see that many are including evolutionary concepts in their ecology courses. However, it is a challenge that so many find this difficult both to understand (student’s perspective) and to teach. I am guessing that cultural context plays a role in the difficulty of teaching evolution as expressed in one response: evolution is difficult to teach without being seen as preachy or offensive. Interestingly, not all comments that suggest teaching evolution is challenging/misunderstood came from that large country with issues of teaching evolution in schools, highlighting that evolution can be a difficult subject in its own right. Further, the connections between ecology and evolution are often misunderstood such as the fact that species interactions evolve as well as the relationship and scale of ecological and evolutionary processes.

Teaching is an interaction in itself. Therefore the difficulties can come from either side of the equation. Many responses spoke of student-centered issues that impact learning.

  • I find the human-centric and animal-centric bias among our students to be a barrier to learning.
  • I feel that some simply have developed effective study skills and some have not.  As always, the latter seem to have trouble “knowing what they don’t know” – they feel as though they have mastered content when they really haven’t.
  • And on not doing homework: Many students do not read the assigned reading which also limits their learning. And from another: Difficult to teach: Discussion seminar when students haven’t read the literature.
  • Math is not the only thing student’s think they can avoid in Biology: scientific report writing (Students often take Biology as they do not want to write).

But others acknowledged their own role in the teaching equation:

  • the less well I personally know an ecological concept, the harder it is to teach.
  • I find diversity patterns especially hard to get across, partly because I have trouble myself linking them to biology.

Since every class is a unique combination of students and teacher this likely plays into why challenges vary from year to year.

As a counter to all the individual topics people have difficulty teaching: No individual concept is commonly misunderstood or difficult to teach in my opinion, but making connections across concepts is difficult for students and is challenging to teach. These two further comments speak to the complexity of teaching ecology: anything complex and all complex and therefore counter-intuitive issues, which, however, are quite common in ecology.

I want to note that not everyone had a particular difficulty and there were a few answers that said as much, as well as the many who chose not to answer. The wording of this self-assessment was amusing to me: misunderstood = evolution; difficult to teach = none. Sometimes it would be nice to have that kind of confidence but I certainly find some subjects more challenging to teach than others. And it seems that I am not alone.

So the moral of this story is that there is no magic bullet concept that once solved will make all ecology teaching smooth sailing. No surprise there. Although I wasn’t surprised by the diversity of answers to this question, seeing what they were has been very interesting. It seems many of us have a lot of challenges when teaching ecology, both from our students and ourselves. I hope these challenges don’t set a negative tone to the series and in future posts I will explore how ecology teachers overcome these hurdles.

Up next week: effective teaching tools in ecology.

Ps. After I have completed these posts, I will provide a link to the data for anyone interested in accessing it.

Efficient teaching: Getting metacognitive


I’ve built up a little speech that I make on the first day of class, after we’re done going over the syllabus and before we start the first lesson. It sounds something like this:

This semester, my goal is to teach you absolutely nothing.

If I do my job as well as possible, then I will not teach one single fact or concept. Instead, I will set up the circumstances for you to discover information on your own. You only really learn something if you discover it on your own. So, our classes will be set up so that you sort through and find information provided to you, to answer questions, and to go through experiences that enable you to make your own inferences and figure out concepts on your own. And you’ll be reading a lot outside class.

We learn better when we are conscious about the fact that we are learning, and when we are aware of the methods that we are using to learn. In other words, we need to study metacognitively. Cognition is what happens in your brain when you sort through things and learn. Megacognition is being cognitive about cognition.

Different kinds of facts and concepts are best learned in different ways. Lectures are pretty much the worst method for most concepts. When we do activities in this class, and when you are working on assignments, or solving problems on your own or in groups, these are designed for you to have a cognitive experience.

As you are going through your cognitive experience, it is useful to be mindful of the fact that you are having a cognitive experience. In other words, when you are solving a problem in a group, you should keep in mind that the process of solving this problem, itself, is provided so that there is something specific for you to learn and understand. When you are aware that there is a set of concepts tied to cognitive activities, that practice of metacognition will help you guide your cognitive processes towards the central question at hand.

If you wander through a maze without paying attention to your route, you may eventually get out, but it will be inefficient and probably unpleasant. However, if you are aware of the fact that you are in a maze, and you focus on the methods that you are using to get out of the maze, then you will not only get out of the maze more quickly but the process of solving the puzzle might be more fun as well.

This course has a route. We will discuss this route and there are lots of concepts that interconnect. However, if I show you a map of the maze, then you will be deprived the opportunity of truly learning the maze by building the map yourself. Don’t blindly study the concepts in this course, but be metacognitive in your approach to learning about the concepts and how they relate to each other. When you are working on a question or a problem, be sure to recognize specifically how, that your approach to studying is tied to the larger questions at hand.

You might have some classes in which you’re expected to write down notes from powerpoint during every lecture session. That won’t be happening here – we’re using our time together to interact and learn from one another and engage substantially with both the material and as a group. Metacognitively, you should be aware that this approach is not because I don’t like to lecture, but because the science of learning is unambiguous that we learn better when interacting and working in groups. Learning solitarily is lot more difficult, and learning by digesting notes from a lecture is inefficient. This may be different from the bulk of your classes, but I ask that you put some trust in me and that when your work is evaluated throughout the semester, that this approach will not only be fair but also provide you with a better opportunity to learn.

The measuring stick of how well I teach is not about my performance as a theater exercise, but how well you learn. I’m not talking about how well you do on an exam in this course — though that matters — I’m talking about what you know about this topic ten years from now. [for statistics] Do you fundamentally understand how a statistical test works, and what a p-value represents? Can you identify an experiment with solid design and can you create an experiment that isn’t pseudoreplicated? If you can’t do that ten years from now, then I will have failed. But to accomplish that goal, I need to choose ideas carefully because there are only so many topics that we can cover with such depth that they stick with you for a long time. I refuse to barrage you with information that you will soon forget, and instead I’m choosing to teach a small number of concepts, chosen carefully, that will stick with you well after this course is over.

I’m sorry to lecturing to you for so long about this. Hopefully, if I do my job well, I won’t do this much speaking again throughout the whole semester.

Among other consequences of this little speech, I’ve found that it reduces the number of students who are uncomfortable working in groups or who feel dopey when class doesn’t have lecture but has problems to be solved. How to get students to engage, especially in a larger room with more students, is a challenge for classroom management. How the tone is set on the first day goes a long way.

Teaching Tuesdays


by Amy Parachnowitsch

This isn’t a real post but rather a heads up for the coming weeks.

As a part of a course on scholarly teaching I took last winter, I began to think more deeply about teaching styles and techniques. I was finding a stark contrast between what I was discovering about effective teaching and learning and the experiences I had as a student or a part of the teaching team. So for my project in the course, I decided to ask ecologists about how they were teaching and why. I created a survey (link still active here if you want to add your voice: teaching survey) and sent it to as many ecologists as I could reach through various list serves, facebook and twitter. I summarized a portion of the results (from Swedes) for a teaching conference at my university in the spring but haven’t had the chance to share the dataset in its entirety with the ecology community and especially those that so kindly took the time to answer the survey. This blog seems to be the perfect venue to share the results. And so I begin a series called Teaching Tuesdays. Over the coming weeks I will share the insights into ecology teaching and practice I’ve gleaned from the survey. Hopefully I will succeed in summarizing the data into some digestible chunks.

Before I start the series, I want to acknowledge all the people who took the time out of their busy schedules to fill in the questionnaire. I truly appreciate the generosity of the ecological community. Without you this would not be possible!

Next week: What do ecologists find difficult to teach?

Extra credit is unfair to students


The old joke goes like this:

Q: Why did the undergraduate cross the road?

A: Extra credit!

I’ve known scores of students who would work their butts off for five extra points when they wouldn’t work nearly as hard for a normal 100-point assignment. It’s disheartening to witness such irrational behavior. However, this isn’t why I don’t offer extra credit.

I don’t offer extra credit because it’s inherently unfair.

I treat my students professionally. I respect their time and I expect the same courtesy from my students. When professors decide on an extra credit assignment in the middle of the course, this looks to me like poor planning. Even if the possibility or certainty of extra credit is placed in the syllabus at the start of the semester, that doesn’t make it fair to everybody in the course.

Just because all students are given equal opportunities, doesn’t mean that they are being treated fairly.

When students sign up for our classes, they are expected to attend class at the scheduled times, and complete the studying and assignments outside of class, though not at any particular time because they have other courses, jobs, and private lives. The syllabus says what is in the class and why the class exists. If a professor adds additional stuff to the course, at some point through the semester, then this provides a disadvantage to the student who has more commitments outside of regular class hours.

Maybe there are some ways that extra credit is used that is fair to everyone. I can’t think of any. If there is a regular part of the course that is used for points above 100%, that’s not extra credit, that’s just spreadsheet voodoo. Extra credit, as I consider it, is when students are given a chance to earn extra points by doing some stuff that is outside the typical curriculum of a course, or is scheduled outside class hours, or is connected to performance on an assignment in the middle of the semester.

Let me address different reasons that people might use extra credit, and why I view these reasons as unjustified:

1. Extra credit is a carrot to get students to do favors for their institutions. The most common one that I’ve seen that students get extra credit for attending seminars by visiting speakers. This drummed-up audience prevents anybody from being embarrassed by paltry attendance. This practice is manipulative, and doesn’t show adequate respect for time of students. Moreover, because not everyone may have equal availability to earn such extra credit, this gives some students an opportunity to earn more points than other students. (Assigning written assignments to students who cannot attend an extracurricular event to earn extra credit is punitive.) If students need to attend seminars for their courses, then this needs to be built into the course and scheduled during class hours, or placed in the course description. It’s not right to reward the students who have enough spare time to attend events while others might be working or have other commitments.

2. Extra credit is an opportunity for students to earn additional points if their exam scores were particularly low. I have seen some professors give students extra work, including an opportunity to revise exams, in order to improve their scores on exams. If a professor doesn’t like the mean score on an exam, the proper course of action is to give everybody a boost. If most students in the class performed below expectations, then offering extra credit to everybody is relatively punitive to the students who did perform higher than their peers. Some students did better than other students on an exam for a reason. To respect all of your students, honor those reasons and look to the future when students tank an exam. (For edu-folks: exams are summative assessments. Keep it that way.) The only way students should have a chance to revise an assignment or exam for additional credit is if it was structured that way in the first place and the students were aware of this policy at the outset. Anything else is unfair to those who did their best at the start.

3. Extra credit is assigned to motivate students. If students aren’t working hard enough, and extra credit is the incentive, then I humbly suggest that there is a suite of pedagogical approaches that will increase student effort and engagement that don’t involve the inherent unfairness in extra credit. Extra credit encourages students to obsess over their scores rather than focus on the content of the course. If you have students jump through hoops to get a higher grade than they think they would otherwise be getting, then how does this help them learn?

4. Extra credit keeps students happier. I’m doubt this is true. Does extra credit help professors out by boosting their evaluations? I’m not aware of any evidence along these lines and my anecdotal observations suggest that some students are aware that extra credit is manipulative. Even if extra credit would pacify some otherwise unhappy students, priority should be placed on fairness.

5. Extra credit is assigned because the professor overestimated or underestimated the difficulty of the curriculum. If students are underperforming because the course was harder than the professor intended, then the scale should be shifted. If students are overperforming and extra credit is required to give students enough material for learning, then other curricular changes within the bounds of the course should be implemented.

6. Extra credit is assigned to engage students with the community. If student involvement in the community through some extracurricular activity (such as a beach cleanup, or volunteer tutoring at a local elementary school) is desired by the professor, then it should be built into the required curriculum. It’s acceptable to integrate service learning in all kinds of courses. If you don’t want to require it, but want to provide the option, then you could make this activity one of a variety of things that are worth equal required points, or you could offer the possibility without giving student an academic reward for extracurricular activities.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m all in favor of an instructor calling an audible during the semester to change up all kinds of things. I often have a large amount of points to ‘homework and in class assignments.’ I often don’t know exactly what those are going to be when I start the semester. However, I’m not going to give extra points on top of those assignments. It’s simply unfair and doesn’t respect my students’ time.

When students come see me about extra credit during the semester, I explain that I don’t give extra credit because it’s unfair to students who have their time budgeted to other activities and to those who were able to perform well consistently throughout the semester. Nobody’s argued with any substance, other than, “Are you sure?” Yes, I am sure.

One strategic reason to be clear about not offering extra credit is that some students accustomed to the practice might not try hard to learn the course material in the first part of the course, hoping that extra credit might bail them out in the end. By not having extra credit, and making sure this is well known, then you might get a higher investment throughout the whole semester.

The professor-student relationship is structured by the power that the professor has over the student. By coming up with (seemingly) capricious ways to increase student scores throughout the semester, this looks like an abuse of that power to make things easier for the professor and (seemingly) harder on the students who don’t need the extra credit.

If you are providing a carrot to some students, then those who aren’t able to eat or fully digest the carrot will then see extra credit as a stick.  When I start my classes each semester, I tell my students: “The world isn’t fair. But in this classroom, I place a high value on endeavoring to be as fair as possible.” If I offered extra credit, then I’d be undermining that notion.

Many of my students work long hours outside of school, in addition to a full course load, and they also have families to care for. I’m not going to ask anything more of them other than what was in the course catalog and what I made very clear in the course syllabus. Even if I taught a bunch of students on a residential campus, who did not have major family obligations including a paying job, I still feel that extra credit would be an unprofessional manipulation that wouldn’t fairly treat those who did their best throughout the course.

Efficient teaching: grading schemes


What is a grading scheme for our classes that promotes the best learning with minimal agony for all?

Everybody who has been teaching for a while has come upon a set of practices that works. I still don’t have a pat format, and I continue to tweak grading schemes as I gain experience, and as the content and level of the courses I teach vary. Though I don’t always do the same thing, I design my grading scheme to avoid particularly annoying or time-consuming parts of teaching, and I also make sure to include elements that are designed to improve learning. Here are key concepts that I take into account when building my grading scheme for a course:

  • Students that are overly stressed about the grades on their assignments are less likely to genuinely engage with the course material and will not learn deeply.
  • Students who are concerned that grading might be unfair will not be as interested in engaging with the course material.
  • Some of the students in the class might have valid reasons for needing to miss a class session. If students have worries about missing class or an assignment, regardless of the cause of these concerns, it takes a boatload of time of the instructor to deal with these concerns.
  • No instructor can be in a position to accurately and fairly judge the legitimacy of any excuse that a student might choose to provide.
  • Students learn most effectively when assessments (tests, quizzes, returned assignments) are frequent.
  • Students need to be able to calculate their grade in a class, and how many points remain in the semester, at any point during the semester. This requires a transparent grading scheme.

What does my grading scheme look like to deal with these principles? Here are some elements that I almost always include in my courses:

  • I do not take attendance, so that students don’t get overly worried if they have to miss a class.
  • I structure the course so that a person who chronically misses class will take a massive hit to their grade, by not having completed a number of in-class activities tied to a grade. A person who aces all of the exams, and assignment, but doesn’t do in-class assignments and quizzes, will earn a C. So, these in-class activities should constitute 20-30% of the grade.
  • I include some kind of frequent assessment (quizzes, homework, in-class assignments), to let students know how they’re doing. These may be graded or ungraded. Ideally every class has a very short exercise for students to size up if they’re up on the latest material.
  • I accept late assignments, but the moment they are late they lose 50% of their value, and it then declines by an additional 10% each week. This encourages completion on time, but still provides value to students doing the assignment later; if I did not accept late assignments then these high stakes would lead to extreme stress for some students and this would get in the way of learning. If I accepted late assignments with a minimal penalty, then too many students wouldn’t be doing their work on time and would get behind in the class.
  • I drop one or two of the quizzes/assignments; this can include ones not completed because a student is absent. This way, I don’t ever have to be in a position to judge whether one absence is more legitimate than another absence.
  • I make sure that non-exam assignments make up at least 40% of the total grade, to make sure that the exams are not high stakes.
  • I don’t make the final exam worth more than 35% of the total grade.
  • I place the first midterm exam relatively early; even with quizzes, the first exam tends to be a jolt into reality to let the students that they need to buckle down. The sooner this happens, the better.
  • I don’t post grades on the course management system; this keeps some students from getting any information about their grades outside the classroom, which lets them only access course content, rather than performance, when they’re not in class.
  • I require students to formally identify one or two partners in the course, which they may contact for a variety of questions. Students should not be asking me what they missed in a class; it’s their responsibility to find that out.
  • I use straight scale, such that > 90% = A; >80% = B, and so on. I only occasionally use pluses and minuses, at my discretion, and only to boost a student’s grade. I tell my students that I’d be over the moon everybody got an A, but also that that has yet to happen. This overtly encourages cooperation and group work in the course.
  • Grades are assigned using final scores blind with respect to the identity of the student. I sort grades from highest to lowest and evaluate the distribution. Typically, the distribution is multimodal and the grades fall out easily, and the ones on the boundaries get pluses or minuses to boost them up. I make sure that the grade a student receives is at least the minimum that they would earn under the straight scale; typically results are no different than the straight scale.
  • I never assign a single grade to a group assignment; I can’t see how this could not be unfair.

Once I abandoned the midterm altogether. In that class, very two weeks, we would have a short exam that took the first half of a class period. There were six or seven of these throughout the semester, and I’d drop the lowest one. The stress of midterms is gone, and students don’t stress about cramming material from long ago. There are two reasons I haven’t done this again. The first is that the one time I did it, some members of my department freaked out because it broke the mold in the department, and students in my section were happier than in other sections. (That was at a different university; now I am sure that everyone would be totally fine with it.) The second is that I haven’t had the time management skills to pull this off in future semesters. I tend to grade in big batches, and having a batch of exams every two weeks is a bit too much. I recognize that it’s better pedagogically, but I’m not sure the improvement is balanced out by the time I have to put into it.

Last semester, I offered my graduate biostatistics students the option of of a cumulative oral exam instead of a written take-home exam. Nobody took me up on that offer.

I don’t do extra credit. There’s a whole separate post about that for some point in the future. I also don’t hold out-of-class review sessions or host in-office-hour reviews with gaggles of students. And that’s also a whole ‘nother post. Students in my classes never be surprised about any exam question. That’s a third post.

What is always in your grading scheme? Do you do something overly different than me, and how do you think it affects the way that students study and learn in the long term?

Efficient teaching: how to use the course management system


A wise friend of mine once advised me: the most valuable resource is our own time.

Consequently, I have emphasized efficient teaching tactics. Efficient teaching is effective teaching that doesn’t take a lot of your time. There are many routes to being an effective teacher, and some of them require far more time than others.

Many have advocated using web-based course platforms to increase teaching efficiency.

I’ve been a user of Blackboard, Moodle, and WebCT, with varying levels of experience. These are course management systems (CMS). A CMS can be mighty powerful once you’ve learned how to use one. All kinds of activities in your class can be conducted smoothly within the CMS. Some folks call them the LMS, with the L standing for learning. (I’m not going to imply that by managing a course online, I’m actually managing learning, so I’ll stick with CMS.)

If I were asked for advice how about how to use the CMS efficiently, what would I say?

Ditch the CMS.

I wouldn’t be equipped to recommend otherwise, because I have no idea how to use the CMS efficiently. If you’re not running an online course, then I don’t see why you’d need to a CMS unless you’re looking to lose time and make yourself miserable.

If you really learn how to use a CMS, by making an investment, then it can pay off. If you’re not ready to make that investment, don’t feel bad about it. If you’re using a CMS, and it seems like a time sink, don’t feel bad about dropping it.

I’ve seen others use the CMS effectively and have it an immersive part of their course.  I’ve worked closely with a high school science teacher who runs a paperless classroom, with absolutely everything on Moodle. He puts up reading, assignments, quizzes, exams, and avenues for student-student interactions. That’s exceptional, meaning that it is an exception. He put a lot of front-end investment into this system, and it only started paying off because he is teaching the same curriculum, with little change, over several years. That’s wonderful, and it’s a great experience for his students as a part of building technological literacy.

I haven’t dedicated that kind of time to make the CMS work. I haven’t identified a specific benefit that I would obtain from doing so. I can teach my courses efficiently without having to use the CMS, so that’s what I’m doing. Would my teaching be more effective with the CMS? Perhaps. I’m not sure. It wouldn’t be more efficient, at least without a big front-end investment that I’ve yet to make.

Some students love the CMS; some are as annoyed by it as I am. Some people simultaneously love it and are annoyed by it, like they feel about some family members. We can’t choose our family, but we can choose against the CMS.

The main reason that students love the CMS, from what I have gathered, is that they can access their grades quickly, they know their grade in the class at any given moment, and have quick access to the files for their lectures. The CMS gives them a feeling of control over the course. They can log in at any moment and have the resources of the course at their fingertips.

From my viewpoint, those reasons are not connected to effective teaching, and may even hinder teaching effectiveness. The CMS might help students overemphasize grades over genuine learning, and memorization over exploration and deep understanding, depending of course on how you use the CMS. Whenever a student asks me to use the CMS for the course, it’s because they want a digital copy of a presentation I did in class, or because they want their grade more quickly. Those, in my view, are horrible reasons to use the CMS.

A number of faculty in my department have been using the CMS to connect clickers to grades for the course. It works for them. The clicker/CMS combo can be used to take attendance, spot quizzes, and even entire exams. That’s not a bad selling point. If you’re teaching a particularly large class, then the CMS/clicker combo can help with classroom management. However, if you’re only using clickers for immediate pop questions (“formative assessment” as they say), then you don’t need the CMS, unless these questions have grades connected to them. I have noticed that faculty members that are heavy CMS also spend a lot of time on teaching outside of the classroom. I don’t know where the threshold lies that CMS use saves time rather than costs time. For me, I suspect, I’d never hit that threshold no matter how much I teach or how big my classes are.

Another reason that I forgo the CMS is that it increases student expectations of constant availability, and for you to provide information more promptly than should be reasonably expected.

I tell my students that I’ll get back to them within a business day after they contact me. My response time is typically is far more rapid, but I don’t want my students to build the expectation that I am at their beckoning.

I want my students to think that business is conducted during class hours and office hours. Why do I want this? First of all, I think it’s healthy for the students to be able to rely on themselves to work on the course material. I am not focused on customer service, I’m focused on learning. Learning inherently requires some struggle with content, and I want my students to struggle so that way they can learn. If I clearly explain to students, during class hours, exactly how I expect them to struggle with the class material, then we can update their progress in class and office hours.

Having students expect things of me beyond class time and office hours is horrible for my own time management. If I’m teaching multiple courses simultaneously, I need to be able to put my work on those courses on my calendar, and not work on those courses when time isn’t budgeted.

It’s harder to compartmentalize your work on your course when you use the CMS, because the expectation of the students with a CMS-heavy course is the same way that other social media are used, opportunistically and frequently. Just because other parts of our lives are replete with social media, we don’t need to mimic this pattern with university coursework. There is a social burden for all of us, including our students, to frequently access information online. Do you want be a part of the problem or be a part of the solution?

In short: If the CMS works for you, great! If not, don’t feel guilty about it.

The CMS should be used to find solutions to problems in your teaching that increase efficiency. If you don’t foresee that the CMS will help accomplish this goal, don’t feel bad about not trying. If it feels like it’s not working for you, don’t feel bad about not giving it up. If it is working for you, before you recommend it for others, be sure that you have a specific and useful reason for your recommendation that is directly relevant to your colleague’s situation.

Before you pigeonhole me as a latter-day-Luddite, keep in mind that for the last year, I’ve been the “Digital Ambassador” from the Chancellor’s office to my university, tasked with promoting the use of technology to improve teaching effectiveness. (I haven’t been an effective ambassador, but I clearly am interested in integrating new and useful technology into teaching.) So, I am entirely open to using technology in the classroom. I’d like to emphasize that I’ve been an ambassador for technology in the classroom. I don’t want to extend it far beyond the classroom. Outside the classroom, I want students to engage with nature, with books, and with one another. There are some great tech tools out there that make teaching better. Is the CMS one of those tools? Not in my, albeit limited, experience.

Efficient teaching: marking down for grammatical errors


I used to be appalled at the quality of my students’ writing on exams and other in-class assignments.

Now I’m slightly less appalled. Here’s what changed things:

About ten years ago, I got overly fed up with sloppy errors on exams and quizzes. Students would misspell the most basic words, and make standard homonym errors (such as there/they’re/their) and just sloppy phrasing. It was unbefitting of any college student, or actually of any student in general. These errors indicated an overall lack of pride in one’s work. Grading these could slowly eat one’s soul.

So then, here’s what I did: I told my students that any error in writing (grammar, diction, syntax, spelling) that would not be accepted by a middle school English teacher, wouldn’t be accepted in my class. I said that every single error would result in a loss of a tenth of a point. If you did the same error four times, then that would mean that you’d lose four tenths of a point. If you had a hundred errors, you’d lose ten points.

I put the policy in the syllabus, and I told students every time I handed out a quiz or exam.

When I started grading quizzes, I would mark down a “- 1/10” for every stupid little error. Even on short one-page quizzes which only contained short responses, there could have been up to a score of such errors for some students. Others had none, and many had just one or two.

So, instead of getting a full 10 on a quiz, an otherwise perfect quiz with two lame-o errors receives a 9.8. How would this affect a student’s grade? Negligibly.

Each semester, I would get predictable outrage from a few students (at the expensive private school), that I would try to teach something other than science. I asked if it was reasonable for a college professor to expect proper grammar and spelling of a college student regardless of the discipline. That usually quieted things down, though earning the respect of these students would be an uphill challenge. At my current job, it’s just accepted as par for the course.

What is the outcome of marking down points for sloppy writing? It’s actually amazing. Their writing improved dramatically. The writing more closely resembles the professional output they always should be generating.

This is what I find depressing about this whole affair. If students don’t think that they’re being graded on spelling and grammar, then they actually misspell words far more frequently, by about two orders of magnitude. They also are more likely to craft nonsensical sentences, use adjectives in place of adverbs, and use apostrophes with abandon except where needed.

My students actually can spell, and follow basic rules of grammar. They just don’t bother to do so unless it’s required of them.

If I make my students do it right in my classroom, that’s one small part of it becoming a routine. However, in one semester I can’t undo a decade of other instructors who weren’t maintaining similar standards.

Teaching efficiently: the muddiest point


I mentioned earlier that I sometimes start classes with short ungraded written quizzes.

Now, I’ll tell you how I sometimes end class: a ‘Muddiest Point Evaluation.’

If I have one minute at the end of class, I ask everyone to take out a piece or shred of paper. I ask everyone to write the ‘muddiest point’ in class – the single thing that happened in the class period that made the least amount of sense or had the biggest unanswered question. If any students say that they are 100% hunky-dory with the entire lesson, then I ask them to write that fact down and turn it in.

I try to do a muddiest post especially when we’re going over conceptually abstract material, or if the lesson is more densely packed than usual.

After browsing through the muddy points that I received, I spend some of the time in the next class clarifying things, doing a new activity to clear up something that I thought was done but wasn’t. Sometimes there are just very quick questions that I can answer in five seconds. Recurring trends in the muddy points among several students might indicate that part of the lesson was unsuccessful and needs a new approach.

This is important for me to do once in a while, because sometimes I find out at the end of class that some concepts that were obvious me went entirely over the heads of my students. It’s better to learn this right away, rather than find out while grading an exam. If it’s important enough to bring up in class once, it’s important to make sure that people actually learned it. (If it’s not, then perhaps you shouldn’t mention it and reduce the amount of pointless content in your class?)

This activity, including the name “muddiest point,” is taken straight up from the Angelo & Cross Classroom Assessment Techniques book. Some of the many techniques in there work for me, and some don’t, but it’s a great browse. Some techniques in the book are far more efficient than others, but they’re all good food for the mind.

Efficient teaching: ungraded quizzes


One principle in teaching is that students need consistent feedback on their performance. They need to know how they’re doing, and use these data to adjust how, and how much, they are studying for a course.

The obvious drawback is that frequent assessments take plenty of your time as the instructor — whether in the form of quizzes, exams, homework, or even clicker questions.

How can you get the benefits of frequent assessments without the drawback of having to do it?

You have ungraded quizzes in class.  That is, quizzes graded in class not connected to points.

How does that work? You have a few quiz questions (multiple guess, fill-in-the-blank, short response, whatever). Write them on the board, project them, read them out loud. Make the students write down their responses on sheets of paper.

When the quiz is over (it should take no more than 3 minutes), ask the students to exchange their quizzes with their neighbors. (If they don’t want do, explain that it’s not necessary, just a good idea.) Then, just tell them the answers and have them grade it. Now, tell the students to read over their quizzes then recycle that piece of paper. Let them know that exam questions will look very similar to those questions, and some of them might even be identical.

What makes this different from a clicker question, is that by committing it to paper and having it graded by another person, the evaluation of their performance by someone else feels more formal and it takes the perception of their work outside their own brain.

The students are getting what you need them to get out of a quiz: that they don’t get it well enough. Being able to follow a storyline isn’t the same as being able to explain the story. These quizzes are an immediate reality check for students who might be overly confident before exams.

I also explain this to my students. I explain what metacognition is, and how we have to conscious to think about what we’re thinking about (sensu David Foster Wallace), and that this kind of external check for understanding will give them what they need to know to do well on the test.

I usually do this right at the start of class, because there’s something else that takes 2 minutes that I tend to do at the end of class. More on that another week.

A related factlet: this is a book that lives on my shelf about measuring student performance that I have consulted periodically over the last 12 years. It has lots of good ideas.

Efficient teaching: after academic dishonesty happens


One of the most unsavory parts of the job is dealing with violations of academic integrity policies.

This is an “efficient teaching” post because dealing with academic dishonesty is a part of teaching, and there are many ways to handle it, some of which are more efficient than others.

Just sweeping it under the rug is not efficient, because efficiency is a ratio of teaching effectiveness and teaching effort. Doing nothing about academic dishonesty is ineffective teaching, because if that’s what you do, then you’re not doing your job.

I used to be bothered by the poor judgment of the students. If students are driven to cheat, how can I be an effective instructor? What did I do wrong?

I’ve gotten over that worry. It was cured with data. If you’re familiar with the literature on academic dishonesty (the wikipedia page is particularly good), then you are aware that cheating on exams and assignments is rampant in all sectors of higher education wherever you go.  That’s just a straight-up fact. Every class you’re teaching, there’s someone cheating in it. Don’t even try to deny it.

(To get the obvious stuff out of the way: Buckets of ink have been spent on how to deter cheating and plagiarism. Often it’s real ink, in the form of useless handouts at professional development sessions. I work hard to design my courses to reduce the incentive for cheating and plagiarism as well as making it harder to get away with it. Every student of mine is fully, wholly, aware about what constitutes academic dishonesty, so when they do it, there’s no doubt that they’ve made an active choice in the matter. You should only pursue consequences for academic misconduct when it is entirely obvious to you, without any doubt whatsoever, that the misconduct occurred. Moving on to the meat of the issue:)

Events of academic dishonestly don’t make me even think about my teaching quality anymore, or fuss about the welfare of the perpetrators. Nowadays, the only reason that academic dishonesty pisses me off is that it’s a massive time sink.

Students who cheat are selfish because they’re wasting my time while I make sure the proper consequences are administered. I deal with this almost every semester at least once. It’s maddening.

When a student decides to foul up in one of my classes, in a stupidly obvious way that I can detect it, it has the potential to screw me up just as it does for them. It can suck away many good hours that would be better spent on students who aren’t cheating, and on manuscripts that are waiting for me.

The first time I intercepted academic dishonesty (while not as TA) was when five students were all plagiarizing together on a lab research project. It was overt, badly done, and they clearly knew it was the wrong thing to do. One student even brought in someone’s draft from the year earlier (with edits on it from the instructor of the prior year!) to pass off as their own and ask me for input. I spent days – literally  – doing all the legwork, paperwork, documentation, interviews, and other crap associated with making sure that these students got their fair dose of justice. My department was very supportive of it, but it mushroomed, because the students escalated the issue. And then one of the plagiarists claimed I was racist. Hearings were held. This is what you do not want to happen when you’re in your first or second year on campus.

This turned into an inquisition because I set the stage to let the students make this happen. In this instance, I was initially dealt a bad hand, as the assignment was designed for plagiarism by the professor who designed (or rather, didn’t design) the lab curriculum. Regardless, I lost control of the situation before I even started. I took the well-meaning but misdirected advice of senior faculty, who mostly did nothing about the plagiarism in their midst, who in fact encouraged it by usually ignoring it or giving extremely light penalties. Most faculty handle academic dishonesty in a way that is designed to make themselves miserable in the process, either by guilt or by effort.

There is a completely fair way of handling the situation without wasting all of your time.

It’s alluring to let students off light, because if you don’t, they can make a big stink which involves lots of paperwork, conversations with administrators, and hearings. However, letting students off easy (aside from being an injustice) also invites more cheating. Once you get a reputation for busting people — and the reputation does get out there — you have deterring effect.

So, how do you appropriately nail cheaters and plagiarists without making it your life’s work?

Here are some handy dandy observations that you should be aware of before heading into this morass:

  • When a students are personally accused of misconduct, they will deny it. It’s a gut instinct to defend one’s self against external threats. They’ll even deny it when the evidence is incontrovertible. You could have a photograph of their arms with smuggled formulas, a cheat sheet in your possession, or the original version of an online essay from two years that perfectly resembles their own. You could have a misdirected email between two students explaining to one another exactly how they cheated on the last test. You could invite God into your office and have him testify that he saw the student cheating. All but the most incredibly forthright students will still absurdly insist they did nothing wrong.
  • The reason that students deny in the face of total proof is, in part, because this strategy often works. It’s amazing how consistent denial in the face of clear evidence can persuade administrators to dismiss or lessen a university-level penalty. (Many student affairs offices are filled with Poppy Harlows that have trouble watching students experience the consequences for their poor decisions, regardless of whether the events were horrific or banal.)
  • Once a student claims innocence, even in the face of incontrovertible evidence, there’s nothing you can do to get the student to recant. They won’t recant because then they’d be guilty about lying about dishonesty, which is just as bad as the original dishonest act. They don’t want to get busted for that either, and they won’t trust you after they lie to you.
  • When students feel that they are cornered, they might lash out. This could result in pages-long diatribes copied to every administrator whose email address is on the university website. If the student has a wealthy parent who donates to the school, or is a member of a traditionally disenfranchised minority on campus, or has a disability, or stands out in some other way, then their claims of persecution might have traction. Some students might lawyer up. A couple years ago a student said I was biased against him because he wasn’t from an ethnic minority. Seriously. These irrational attacks by students may or may not help out the students in the long run, but one thing is for sure: it’ll take a lot of your time.
  • Everybody handles academic dishonestly differently, and in your department, there are faculty members who have policies and practices that don’t meet your standard. It’s not useful to try to get someone to change their policies, because they have made up their mind and if you show that you think differently, you’re just losing common ground with your own colleagues.
  • It’s a fine practice to think of your syllabus as a legal contract. It’s not, but if a policy is clearly stated in the syllabus at the start of the semester, the university thinks that it is the students’ responsibility to be aware of that policy.

In light of these observations, how I have I decided to handle academic dishonesty when it happens? I handle the matter in a way that maximizes the probability that it will work out smoothly and not result in a big waste of my time, while making sure that the necessary outcome happens. Keep in mind that I follow this course of action only when it is 100% clear that there was an intentional violation. (If it’s plagiarism, then I am sure of intent; see #1 and #2 below.)

  1. I put unambiguous and detailed policies in my syllabi. I discuss (meaning, talk at my students) in detail on the first day of class, informing them that I don’t expect anybody to be academically dishonest, but it’s something that I have seen often and I need to take care of it when it does. This policy results in an assigned grade of F in the course for any academic dishonesty.  (I make this an “administrative F” by writing a memo to the Student Affairs office, so that the student can’t repeat-and-cancel, by retaking the course to eradicate the F from the GPA. Your institution might now allow that to happen easily, though.)
  2. We go through a short lesson (5-10 minutes) on what constitutes plagiarism, to ensure that they know what it is. I’ve also assigned a short web tutorial with a quiz at the end.
  3. When dishonesty happens, do not immediately engage with the student. If it’s a plagiarized assignment, don’t contact the student. If you intercept a student cheating, then you should document as much as possible at the moment, and don’t start a conversation. Make a note of who is sitting next to the student, and write notes for yourself.
  4. Mention to your chair that you have an academic misconduct incident and that you’re handling it. That will be an inoculation against a possible toxic student outbreak, which is what you’re trying to avoid.
  5. Within the next day, you need to spend about an hour writing a memo. This memo will be addressed to the student, and cc’d to your chair and the other authorities to whom you are supposed to report academic integrity violations. In this memo, you state that you establish the fact that the student violated the academic integrity policy. You spend several sentences going into some detail about exactly how you know this is a violation. Don’t overexplain, and don’t nitpick into detail, but report that it the misconduct was unambiguous and overt (as it needs to be if this is your course of action). If you used turnitin or a similar service, do not specifically reference the originality report, but instead indicate that sections are plagiarized from other preexisting sources in a fashion that it is logically impossible for the student to not have committed plagiarism, and that the similarity transcends coincidence. Be clear that this letter is to inform the student that you have determined the fact of the dishonesty, and that this is not a matter of further discussion, and if the student disagrees with this finding of fact this may be rectified with a formal appeal. This memo will then tell the student the specific consequence – that they will be receiving an F in the course and also that you’re reporting this to the appropriate university body. Write that the student is entirely welcome to continue attending class for the remainder of the semester, but that that any further involvement will not effect the grade at the end of the semester. Write to the student that, if he or she chooses, a meeting can be scheduled. To protect the student’s interests, any future conversation should be conducted in the presence of another faculty member, and should be scheduled through the departmental office. Indicate that you don’t require such a meeting, as the outcome is already determined and is not subject to change based on any further information. Remind the student that you are required to follow this policy and that you are working to represent their interests as best as possible, and as long as there are is no further academic misconduct, you are not going to request that the university pursue further sanctions such as probation, suspension or expulsion. The memo should also indicate that you do not want to discuss the matter over email or the telephone, as these matters are best handled in person and with the involvement of other parties, if necessary. Ask that the student wait at least 24 hours to respond, and if the student wants to file a formal response, you’ll accept it in writing and send it in to the university along with your report. A written statement should precede any formal meeting about the matter.
  6. Send this memo to the student’s home address by postal mail, and also send a copy of it to the student as a pdf attachment to an email.

Your goal here is to handle the matter while letting the student know that you’re on their side, and are only following the policy. Give them 24 hours to cool down. If they find you at the office and lie to you before the cooling off period is over, tell them that you can’t talk, and they should put down in writing their response. Their lies look stupider to them on paper than they do coming out of their mouths, and they recognize this fact. So, make sure their first rebuttal (if any) is in written form. Since plagiarists are repulsed by actual writing, this can dissuade many of them right at the start.

There are a few possible outcomes from the memo. The best one, for all parties, is that the student disappears and you never talk about it again, and you just give the F when turning in your grades. This has happens for me the majority of the time. The student might email me with an excuse, and I just email back saying that the letter is unambiguous about the policy. Then it’s done.

The second best outcome is that the student wants to meet with you to proffer an explanation. In this meeting, you’ll get excuses or mitigating factors. You listen and then firmly tell them that your policy stands, and that all misconduct has this outcome. If they persist, then you remind them that further misconduct, which includes being untruthful about misconduct, would result in a request for more serious sanctions. The student typically then will face facts and accept the F.

This whole approach, keep in mind, is designed to get the student to recognize the obvious fact of the misconduct and come to terms with it before they choose to deny it. Because once they deny it, they won’t take it back, and if they won’t take it back, then they’ll fight you on it. You want them to accept it easily. You have to be your own bad cop and good cop. I do honestly believe I’m representing my students’ interests, and I don’t want them to be unnecessarily harmed. However, I have to administer the consequences that I set forth at the start of class if I’m going to be fair to everyone.

It might be possible that the student will fight the F by filing a grade grievance, talking to the Dean of Students or your Dean or whatnot. At this point, there isn’t that much for you to do. You let the student continue to attend class like normal. You’ve already written your memo that explains what happened. You might have to write a more detailed statement explaining exactly how it is a violation, but this shouldn’t be too much work. And if there’s a hearing, you go. You’ve done everything you’ve could to give the student an opportunity to do the right thing after misconduct, and if they choose against it and continue to fight, then you just have the facts on your side and it’ll speak for itself. Getting deeply engaged in thinking about it can’t help you. You’re just doing your job. If the student lawyers up, then let the lawyer deal with your administration, after all, that’s why they get paid the big bucks. But hopefully, it won’t come down to that, and by handling it this way, I think you’re minimizing the chance that it’ll happen.

Life is not fair, but I can work hard to make my classroom as fair as possible. If a student is caught cheating in your class, or knowingly plagiarizes an assignment, and you don’t flunk them, I don’t even want to hear about it. It’ll just ruin my day. This is where others of like mind might post a picture of a cat wearing sunglasses, captioned, “I CAN HAZ CHEETING?”