Grading is a necessary evil.
Over the holidays, I taught my niece how to throw a frisbee with a forehand. It took five minutes, and she totally picked it up. It was awesome. And then we just played catch for a good long while. There may not be a more pleasant thing than throwing a frisbee on warm afternoon in the park with good company*.
Teaching basic science is difficult when some folks deny the validity of science. Facts are facts, but there are powerful interests working to convince us that facts aren’t factual. Meanwhile, our incoming government is collaborating with a group that operates a watch list to track the activities of liberal professors. Earlier this year, a leading advisor to the new administration proposed reviving the House Un-American Activities Committee. I imagine that some faculty would be high up on the list of targets.
So, what should we change about what happens in our classrooms?
Students learn better when their professors are demanding and have high standards.
People learn even better when these professors are supportive, encouraging, and have confidence in their students.
If you don’t ask hard questions about yourself, then you probably aren’t going to hear what you need to hear.
That’s what I learned* from the best fake turkey sandwich** in the world.
There are two basic models for teaching courses and the norm varies a lot depending on the type of ecology course. A single professor was responsible for the majority of classes I took as an undergraduate. However, these days the courses I’m involved with are done by a series of professors for particular subtopics. The contrast has me thinking about the pluses and minuses of these approaches.
In the sciences, most exams are a closed-book affair. Is this a good thing?
On some tests, I’ve allowed students a 3×5 card, or a one page “cheat sheet.” This is usually met with relief, or joy, or gratitude. When I tell students that they can bring in their textbook for the exam, they get even more relieved.
I might say, “Don’t be so happy, because this just raises the bar for what I’m asking on the exam.” But then, my students say that they feel like it’s not useful for them to have to memorize stuff. And they would prefer solving problems and applying information in novel ways. Even if memorizing stuff is important, it causes a lot of anxiety.
I’ve seen a lot of great teachers in the classroom. And they all teach differently from one another.
So, to become a great teacher, you don’t have to follow a set of prescribed steps. If someone is telling you that a certain teaching approach is required to be great, then skepticism is warranted. You can be a great teacher by using an approach that is all your own. (You can also use your own approach and be a nightmare. Your mileage may vary.)
Academic freedom is glorious. Despite pronouncements to the contrary, university faculty — including most contingent faculty — enjoy tremendous freedom in what we teach and how we teach it. Most professors teach however the hell they choose to teach.
Academic freedom enables change, but resists rapid change. Faculty have the liberty to stand aside as change happens. We can stand by and snark as fads wash by. We also can fossilize as the landscape truly changes. I think it’s hard, in the moment, to distinguish between a fad and a change in the landscape.
I’m super-enthusiastic about K-12 science education, and working with K-12 teachers and students*. When a student wants to talk science with me, I’m over the moon. That doesn’t mean I’m as drunk as a cat on catnip whenever a K-12 student emails me a question.
As we start up the new semester, this is an apt time to evaluate, and update or change, our grading schemes.
I don’t like giving grades. I wouldn’t assign grades if I didn’t have to, because grades typically are not a good measure of actual learning.
Over the least year, I’ve heard more about a new approach to assigning grades, that has a lot of appeal: “standards based grading,” in which students get grades based on how well they meet a detailed set of very clearly defined expectations. This is apparently a thing in K-12 education and now some university instructors are following suit.
I’ve gotten positive feedback about a post in which I explain how it’s not that much work for me to do active learning in the classroom. However, a couple entirely reasonable misgiving seem to crop up, and I’d like to give my take on those causes for reluctance to start up with active learning approaches.
Distractions in the classroom are a problem.
Digital devices are often a huge distraction.
Therefore, to manage distractions in the classroom, we need to manage devices.
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.”
This post is by Leslie Curren.
I recently came across Amy’s post from last October about the ecological concepts people find the most difficult to teach, and knew my own answer immediately: multilevel selection. I was surprised no one else had mentioned it, although perhaps that’s because it is more evolution than ecology. But given the tight links between ecology and evolution, I still expected someone to bring it up—multilevel selection always finds its way into every course I teach, and that includes General Ecology (as well as Animal Behavior, Behavioral Ecology, Intro Bio, and others).
Teaching has some perennial questions: How do you engage students? How do you make a classroom run smoothly? How does mutual respect make a better working environment? How does curiosity lead to learning? How do you get groups of students to work together effectively? How do you design a lesson that flows conceptually and addresses key ideas?
To figure out some of these answers, in all sincerity, I suggest hanging out in the classroom of a high quality kindergarten teacher at work. My kid has had some remarkable teachers. Just interacting with them over the years on an infrequent basis, I think I’ve picked up as many tips and ideas as I have from my university-level colleagues.
Now that my sole heir is heading off to middle school, I haven’t visited kindergartens too often of late. Last week, though, was our last Open House at his elementary school, and we always make a point to cruise by our kid’s former teachers, see what’s going on in their classrooms, and to say Hi and Thanks.
Every time I have a short chat with his former Kindergarten teacher, I get a pick-me-up and often pick up ideas. She has couple decades more experience then myself — and unimaginably more contact hours. On our last visit, she was explaining the changes that she’s making as the state is shifting to new standards.
She explained to me that the students are now reading more nonfiction in her class. She is doing some of the assignments that she used from previous years, but in addition she is requiring the students to do non-fiction reading and assignments prior to their fictional projects. For example, before writing a fictional story about a particular animal, they would read non-fiction about that animal and do a report on what they learned. Then they’d do a fictional story about these animals.
She told me that she’s always learning something new. In this case, she learned that the quality of the fictional projects was improved by the prior experience with the nonfictional projects. More knowledge led to more creativity. That’s pretty cool.
What I liked about this little story even more is that it comes from the most-experienced amazingly perfect-as-far-as-I-can-tell teacher, who tells me new things that she’s learning about teaching.
I imagine that the reason she is such a a good teacher, is because she always has been working to improve, and no matter how good she is, she still is both open to and working at learning new ways to do things better. At the end of what has felt like a long semester, that’s inspirational.
I’m at a different place on the improvement curve, as I’m well aware of far too many things that I need to improve in my teaching. But I’ve been thinking, well, maybe I have the routine down solid enough for now. Watching great teachers at work puts me on notice: I should be wary whenever I feel that equilibrium can emerge from stasis. This is another sign I should take that overdue sabbatical.
Do you love it when students waste office hours with questions that don’t help them learn? Do you want to cultivate anxious emails from students sent at 3 in the morning? Do you want your students to wager their grades by guessing what you think is the most important material?
Then don’t tell your students what is going to be on the exam.
It is entirely legitimate for a student to be told the basis of their evaluation. Students take a course, and earn a grade. They should be made aware, as specifically as possible, the foundation for this grade before they do what it takes to earn it. The less they know about the basis of their evaluation, the less fair we are to our students.
The more specific you are about what is on the exam, the happier the students will be. Moreover, specificity gives you control over the material that they will study. I have often heard colleagues frustrated that students aren’t focusing on studying the right material, or asking the right questions while studying. I seriously don’t get these questions from students, and I think that both they and myself are better off for it.
If students ask you what will be on the exam, please don’t reply, “Whatever I think is important.” That just will help the students who are better mind readers. (Which are probably those with a social and cultural background most similar to yourself.)
If students ask you what will be on the exam, please don’t reply, “Everything in the lectures and everything in the chapters.” This vague set of expectations will prevent students from focusing on facts and concepts which are most important, and may lead to some students wasting their time on minutia.
The more vague you are about what will be on the exam, the less control you have over what they study. The worry about the mysterious contents of the exam detracts from learning. Our value in the classroom isn’t our content knowledge itself, but our expertise that allows us to parse the useful, meaningful and relevant. Asking the students to master too much information will result in no mastery at all.
Several years ago, I decided that the exam guesswork was a bad thing. Now, I administer three types of exams, all of which are designed to remove guesswork on the part of students:
- I give students a full list of potential exam questions in advance. I then select a subset of these questions for the exam itself, choosing at random, haphazardly, or with a specific rationale. Here is an example of one, from a non-majors Environmental Biology lecture course.
I give students a comprehensive exam preparation sheet, one or two weeks before the exam. I give them a solemn promise that everything on the exam will be covered by one or more items on the review sheet. Sometimes these items are very narrow but other times they could be rather open-ended. But they are never intended to be vague. I tell the students that if any question on the exam isn’t based on one of these review items, then I’ll drop it from the exam. I am also tempted to hand these out at the beginning of the semester, but I call too many audibles to make this a wise choice. Here is an example of one, from the first exam in a biostatistics course. You’ll note that there’s a lot of material on there. I can’t ask questions to cover every one of those items. But I can make sure that students study them all, but also make the scope narrow enough that it is do-able.
I can give a take-home exam. I only do this if I’m blessed with a small class. Because are a variety of problems associated with take-home exams, I typically only do this with a small graduate course.
One of the more annoying questions that a student can ask is, “What’s going to be on the exam?” I just have to answer that with a single piece of paper.
Sometimes some students will email me, “What’s the answer to number 8 on the exam prep sheet,” or they’ll write me an answer and ask me how it meets my expectations. I make a point to not evaluate their responses or give them any information, unless I do so for the entire class. I might clarify a question or an item, if a student doesn’t understand the words. Under all circumstances, I assiduously avoid evaluating providing privileged information for the students who feel more comfortable with approaching me for private studying advice, because that would be unfair to the students who don’t email me. I might send a reply to a question to the entire course.
I always schedule time during a class session prior to the exam so that students can ask me questions about any of the review items. Sometimes this lasts just a few minutes, and sometimes the bulk of the class period. (I do not hold separate reviews outside regular class hours, as I’ve mentioned before.) Usually when students email me a question, I ask them to save it for class, so that everyone can benefit from their question. But most of the review session is me saying, “I’m not going to reteach that entire lesson, but this is the nutshell version.”
The better I construct the exam prep information, the less time we spend in review during class, and the more time students spend studying with each other, which is where the real learning takes place.
Several times a year, students contact me to tell me that I was the worst professor ever.
To be precise, former biostatistics students contact me with the simplest, and often ignorant, statistics questions. These questions are so basic that it is clear that I have failed in my job as a stats professor.
With a basic dataset, a student might ask, “what test should I use?” Last month I had a student drop by my office with a result of p = 0.0071 to ask me to tell him whether or not his result is significant. Without a hint of irony.
If you taught comparative vertebrate anatomy, how would you feel if a recent student of yours came into your office and pointed at his biceps, and then asked, “What muscle is this?” This is how I feel when students come to me for statistical consulting.
My one-semester graduate biostatistics class doesn’t go into much depth and covers the standard, mostly univariate, frequentist statistical approaches that you find in similar courses. We spend a decent chunk of the course on probability, experimental design and why people do statistical tests and what the results mean. We spend a lot of time – and by a lot I mean a lot – on what p-values are, and the relationships among probability, null hypotheses, variance, distributions, and errors. (And when I say we spend time on it, I don’t mean that I lecture a lot about it. I mean students actively figure this stuff out. And their exams show that, at least at the time, they really understand it.) I am convinced that, at the end of the semester, that these students really understand the main concepts.
But then they don’t understand it after the course is over.
If a student came to me and said, “I realize that we didn’t learn how to do a GLM in class but from my reading I think that might be the best choice here, and I was wondering if you had the time to talk about it,” I’d ask her to pull up a chair. But when a student says, “I know I was in your class a couple years ago, but I’m looking at this dataset that I already collected and I don’t know where to start,” I’m not going to lift the paperwork that is probably occupying all three chairs in my office.
The hypothetical students-who-forgot-the-name-of-the-biceps-muscle are professional frustrations, and evidence of educational failure, for three reasons:
- They forgot something really simple. Though the name of muscle is a mere fact, is one thing you’d expect a student in a vertebrate anatomy course to remember, if not know before even starting the course.
- The students were intellectually lazy and didn’t decide to look up the answer, but instead just asked a former professor.
- The students demonstrated a personal lack of regard for the professor’s effort in teaching the course, by showing unawareness of the fact that the professor expects students to remember basic facts after the course ends and also empowered them to look up basic information. Or to put it in fake-biblical terms: the students had the temerity to think that we are there to feed them fish sandwiches instead of showing them how to fish and how to bake bread. In my view, this extends beyond personal laziness, by showing that the students don’t bother to show that they respect our role as teachers.
On the bright side, there is one positive aspect of the fact that students come in to ask me dumb stats questions. They think positively enough about my course that they think that I’m useful for statistical advice. That’s not much of an upside, but hey, it’s all I’ve got as far as I can see.
I’m long past taking this personally. I don’t get insulted when students come to me asking me to reteach a very basic concept of probability that we studied for a whole semester. I see that this is their problem, and not mine. I don’t take it home with me. There’s a 0% probability that this issue will keep me from sleeping. However, if I’m trying to be more effective at my job, then I need to confront the issue raised by these interactions. It’s a form of teaching assessment, in which I’m doing poorly. (Some students do thank me quite generously for what they learned in the course, and I’m not forgetting that input either.)
How do I handle these outrageous questions? It varies, because I haven’t (yet) developed an a priori approach to the situation. In some cases, I might simply chimp grin a bit and say something like “you really don’t recall how to test a null hypothesis?” or “So you’re telling me that you haven’t been able to find anything about what to do when your independent variables are categorical and your response is continuous?”
The bulk of the class is biomedically-oriented Master’s students who have some need for statistics with their thesis but don’t think that they’ll need to practice stats for everyday use. So, each semester, I make a point of saying at the outset, “When you design your thesis experiments, you’re welcome to consult with me about the process. But if you don’t discuss your stats with me before collecting your data, then there won’t be much I can do to help you.” I’ve had to remind a couple students of this fact, one of whom had a horribly pseudoreplicated design. And another who failed to run a necessary control.
While I’m not the most amazing professor, I don’t genuinely think I’m the worst, either. I just think that some students think it’s acceptable to offload course material from their brain as soon as the course is over, and do not feel obligated to go back to the hardware store if they lost the tools that they picked up during the course. And among students who are stats-phobic and math-phobic, which is a sizable fraction of the population in the course, they’re just glad they survived. It’s particularly frustrating because my guiding principle in this course is to teach a small number of fundamental concepts in a way that they are supposed to stick with the students for a long time. At least in this class, I know it isn’t happening, with at least some of them. I honestly don’t know what I can do, if anything, to make sure that students really remember what a null hypothesis looks like and what a p-value means. But it is clear that some of them genuinely forget it, presumably because they think it’s not important.
So, when I teach this class again in the fall, I have to find a way to make biostats personally important, with students who don’t see the usefulness of stats in their professional future. Wish me luck.
I just completed my last lecture of my first year as a Visiting Assistant Professor at a liberal arts University. Each semester I got to design my own course and teach three lab sections of a general biology course called Ecology, Evolution, and Diversity. Having graduated in August 2013, this was my first experience in designing and teaching my own course and it was absolutely amazing.
I did stumble a bit at the beginning though. In the fall I taught Plant Physiology, a junior level course of my own design, and had a bumpy start trying to figure out how to teach. Given that all of my post-secondary education has been at research I universities, I assumed the most familiar teaching format I knew – standing in front of students, powerpoint up, throwing information and numbers at them. That was my first lecture. I blew through what I thought would take me three lectures in one hour.
Then I did what anyone in my position would have done: sought advice from fellow faculty. This is a top-notch liberal arts university after all, and I am surrounded by teaching gurus. Within a couple of hours and several meetings with different faculty post-first lecture, I completely changed how I thought about teaching. As per the advice of the faculty, I abandoned my powerpoints (except for complicated images and figures) and returned to the most basic method of teaching: the chalkboard.
My second lecture, I asked what they had learned from my first lecture and, after many mumbles and looks of confusion, I decided to start from scratch and re-teach the first lecture. I was honest and open about it and told them that if I was doing something that confused them, I wanted them to let me know. I used a socratic method and got them engaged and involved by asking questions constantly. I used the chalkboard to write and explain key concepts. The classroom transformed into an open and engaged learning environment. I was happier, my students were happier, and my teaching was way better. The learning curve wasn’t just steep, it was 180°!
Through my Masters and Ph.D., I had so many opportunities to TA courses as a graduate student that I realized my teaching skills were developed for running labs. So the lab sections of the biology course that I ran were much smoother than my Plant Phys course. I shadowed the faculty member who was the coordinator for the course, by which I mean I went to every MWF lecture and to her Monday lab so that my Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday afternoon labs went smoothly. Although it took quite a large time commitment, I learned a lot by doing this and incorporated the same questioning and engaging teaching methods from my classroom into the labs.
With new skills in hand and great feedback from my students in the fall, I designed a CORE science course on agriculture called Food for Thought this spring. By far, this has been my most rewarding teaching experience. The class is for freshmen and sophomores in any discipline. I only have three students from biology the rest being from varying departments – political science, economics, philosophy, English, and sociology. Students discovered biology through the history of agriculture and current farming practices. We examined environmental impacts of farming, GMOs, and had a continuous debate about the global food crisis and how to feed the world. This class (again!) taught me how to be an effective teacher because of the new challenge of teaching non-biology students. The course went so well that I have students knocking on my door asking if I could teach it again in the fall so they could take it. I am so touched.
I am so grateful to have had this experience. I am a much more effective and creative teacher and would recommend this job to anyone looking to better their teaching skills. I liked it so much that I have decided to stay for another year.
Here’s an incident, or really just a conversation, that left a little scar on me.
Around the time I was finishing up my PhD, I was given the opportunity to give a seminar at my alma mater. I had sit-down conversations with some of my undergraduate professors. As I was somewhere in the process of starting a faculty position, this was a mind-bending role change, no longer a student but now a junior colleague of my former professors.
I took three excellent courses with one professor, whose courses were well designed, all with engaging and creative labs, and with lecture content well grounded in the primary literature. I worked somewhat hard and I learned a helluva lot, especially in Evolutionary Biology and Biogeography. He definitely had his theoretical biases (a la Gould & Lewontin), but this didn’t stop him from being an excellent instructor.
When we were chatting, he was interested in learning what I was up to, and how I ended up working on the ecology of ants. I told him that my interest started with the evolution of sociality, and that I was curious about the Hamiltonian predictions for colony structure. (When I started my dissertation, people had only just abandoned using allozymes to look at relatedness inside colonies). He tilted his head and said asked me a bit more. Before I realized what was happening, he let me know he wasn’t familiar with kin selection theory. He said that he hadn’t heard of any of the WD Hamilton papers from the 1960s. He didn’t seem think that this wasn’t a big deal, that this was just an inside baseball discussion among social insect experts. We moved on to new topic.
But it was a huge deal. If you’re not a biologist, you might not recognize this But if you are a biologist, you’ll recognize that my professor openly volunteered (to his credit?) that he was ignorant of something really foundational in his field. Frankly, nobody teaching evolutionary biology at the college level, at the time, should have been unfamiliar with the concept of kin selection.
This blew my mind in three ways. First, it’s bizarre to think that the man who started me on the path to Ecology and Evolutionary Biology didn’t have an adequate map of the territory. Second, he was a top-notch instructor and it was clear to me that we didn’t suffer much (if at all) for his lapses of awareness in the field. Third, I suddenly realized why the supposed controversies that I learned in college were actually tired arguments among everybody in grad school. My professor was merely out of date.
In hindsight, I see he was a classic example of driftwood. But not deadwood. He was a dedicated teacher and engaged evolutionary biologist, but his research was not well engaged off campus.
The stereotype of the professor who teaches outdated material is one who is retired-on-the-job, uses the same powerpoints over and over, appears bored, and uses old textbooks because they can’t bother to update the course. That stereotype was not embodied by my Evolutionary Biology professor. But the content itself was not only stale, but it wasn’t even up to date at the outset. And he was an evolutionary biologist!
Ironically, I think the content of the course would have been more representative of introductory evolutionary biology if it was taught by someone who was not an evolutionary biologist. This instructor would have been relying more heavily on a textbook, and covered the major topics as decided by the textbook authors.
So, which one would have been better for me? Either the professor who was an amazing teacher and specialist who was aware of some topics, or one someone who was not a specialist who covered all of the bases? I think that’s an unfairly dichotomous question, so I won’t answer it. But it’s fuel for thought.
If I had to list three undergradaute-level course titles that would be in my field of expertise, they would be ecology, insect biology and tropical biology. I would clearly choose to amplify some topics over others, and these decisions would result in a course that would look very different than if it were structured by a non-specialist who was merely assigned these courses.
For example, I’m not a cracker-jack population biologist, and I don’t build life tables for my work. This is, however, bread and butter for introductory ecology courses. Since I don’t regularly work in population biology, I can’t honestly tell you whether this is an actual skill that every undergraduate biology majors needs to know. (I’m not sure it is, though some of the embedded concepts are very important.) Would I include in my class? You bet I would, because it’s in every textbook and it’s expected of everyone who finishes introductory ecology and I wouldn’t want to be responsible for underpreparing my students. Even though I’m an ecologist, I wouldn’t teach only the parts of the ecology that are my specialty. But I can see how some others can be tempted to leave life tables out of an ecology course. And, I wonder if they need to be within the 30 lessons we get to teach each semester.
Overall, I have no idea how the community collectively decides what concepts are truly important. I don’t think the K-12 approach of statewide standards is the way to go for higher education, and the culture of Assessment is still leaving us plenty of latitude, which is good. But why do we teach some things as canon, and overlook others?
I get that some topics are important. But what makes them important? What defines a field? is it the people actively doing research or the people looking at a distance? When we define the topics of lessons in our syllabi, what are the criteria we use when making our choices? I haven’t thought much about this other than “I think it’s important,” but I realize that’s not good enough.