To ban or not to ban laptops?

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Some folks want to ban laptops from their classrooms, and others are okay with laptops.

This is a perennially annoying discussion in higher ed today.  But I think it’s an important issue because it has the potential to really affect learning.

What do I do? Here’s the language in my syllabus for this semester: Continue reading

We need to stop putting diversity in a box at conferences

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

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

What is press-worthy scholarship?

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As I was avoiding real work and morning traffic, there were a bunch of interesting things on twitter, as usual. Two things stood out.

First was a conversation among science writers, about how to find good science stories among press releases. I was wondering about all of the fascinating papers that never get press releases, but I didn’t want to butt into that conversation. Continue reading

How does college selectivity affect the jobs of professors?

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Sometimes when I talk about teaching — and interactions with students in general — folks don’t really get where I’m coming from. Faculty experiences vary a lot from campus to campus.

I was talking with some folks in recent months about the different kinds of faculty jobs, and how to figure out what you want in a faculty position at a teaching institution. One person was arguing that the selectivity of undergraduate admissions was an important factor. At first, I disagreed, but on reflection, I see that selectivity of admissions is associated with a number of things that affect your day-to-day experience as a professor. Continue reading

Respecting the time and needs of adjuncts

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Almost every university in the US has succumbed to financial pressures and employs a relatively high proportion of adjunct instructors. Typically, adjuncts are highly trained professionals with a graduate degree, but don’t get the compensation or professional courtesy that they deserve.

Universities have given up on the notion that all faculty should have job security. Instead, now institutions are measuring “tenure density” as a measure of how many faculty are fully paid and fully respected. Continue reading

Students say the darndest things!

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Oftentimes, professors make sport of sharing humorously incorrect exam answers. I’ve seen a bunch of these during this end-of-semester grading season.

When students don’t know the answer, they sometimes entertain us with witty, technically correct answers that don’t answer the intended question. (There’s a well-selling book about this. And at least one website, too). But that’s not what I’m talking about. Continue reading

Charging a cover for lab participation

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I am considering implementing a new policy this fall in the lab portion of my primary course. The short version is: students would need to read/watch certain things before coming to lab that would prepare them for the day’s activity. Before entering the lab classroom, they would be handed a (relatively easy) quiz on those materials. These practices are pretty standard in lab courses, in my experience. Here’s the twist: if a student didn’t get at least a 75% on the quiz, s/he would not be allowed to participate in the lab, and would forfeit all points associated with it.

If you’re like me, your first reaction to that is, “Wo. That’s pretty harsh.” Continue reading

Respectful conversation at academic conferences

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You’re probably familiar with this scene from academic conferences:

Person A and and Person B have been chatting for a few minutes. Person C strolls by and makes eye contact with Person A. Person C gives a big smile to Person A, which is reciprocated, perhaps with a hug. Both A and C enthusiastically ask one another about their lab mates, families, and life in general.

At this moment, Person B is feeling awkward.

Continue reading

Efficient teaching: Rubrics for written assignments

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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.

Efficient teaching: class needs to end on time

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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?