Monday, April 30, 2007

Rank, reward, filter...

I'm about to submit the final grades for my freshman biology course, which prompts some thinking about why we give grades (rather than e.g. pass/no credit).

A "pass/no credit" system accomplishes one of the functions of grading. It filters out the students who are not prepared to proceed to the next stage in their education program (or their like). When students complain (beg for special consideration), I often argue that "I've given you an 'F' for your own good", and I encourage them to think about other career plans than medical school (or Pharmacy, which is big here).

But when I fail students in their first year of university I'm also motivated by the benefits to other members of the university community. That's the filtering function - part of my responsibility is to prevent unprepared students from going on to more advanced courses. Such students are a tremendous drag on teaching; both the instructor and the other students pay a heavy price if the level of instruction has to be lowered to accommodate students who should never have been allowed to enroll.

The other functions of grading won't be satisfied by a "pass/no credit" system. One of these is ranking the students who have passed. Our university uses student grades to assign priority in registering for next year's courses. So students with good grades have first choice of the often-limited places in the courses they want, and students who have just scraped through have to put up with what's still available when are finally allowed to register.

Another function of grading is giving the best students the marks that get them scholarships and other benefits. It's not enough that a student is top of the class - if the top mark is only a B this student won't make the local equivalent of the Dean's List. With a class of 400 (well, two classes of 200), I want to give the top ten or so students A+s, even though my tough final might have left them with what would otherwise be an A-.

One final issue is consistency of grading in a big course with sections taught by different instructors. The different instructors may have to compromise our individual grading philosophies a bit to ensure that students in different sections are treated comparably. So I'm waiting for the course coordinator to give me the OK to click the "submit grades" button.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Not "hot"

My sense of responsibility to my students prevents me from reading what they're saying about me on until AFTER I've submitted their final grades.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Oral exams

One of my grad students is about to defend his PhD thesis, which got me thinking about oral exams. Most undergraduate students never experience an oral exam, but they're the best and I think fairest way to assess a student's understanding.

Usually the examining committee has several members, who each ask the candidate a series of questions. The goal is to find out the limits of the student's understanding, and the strength of oral exams is the flexibility of the questions. So when the student easily answers one question, the examiner responds with a harder question on the same general topic. If this is answered well, the next question will be even harder. Any question the candidate can't answer defines one boundary of their knowledge. The examiner responds by changing topics, again starting with an easy question and moving to harder questions if the student's answers are good, until another boundary is reached.

So taking an oral exam is a scary experience. No matter how well or how badly you are doing, you'll still spend a substantial fraction of the time dealing with questions you find very challenging, and you probably will be unable to answer some questions. But knowing that this is supposed to happen to even the best students can save you from panicking when it happens to you.

Friday, April 06, 2007

Gender bias in students' expectations

I'm still seething over a couple of postings an anonymous student made to the discussion board for my freshman biology course. I had asked a colleague (Dr. X) to give two lectures, in exchange for three I had done for him earlier in the term.

I've already responded on the discussion board to the implication that when I'm not lecturing I'm resting (see posts below), but here I want to point out the implicit gender bias in this student's expectations.

The student views Dr. X's research work as more important than his teaching responsibilities. (I had told my students he was doing botanical research, but in fact he was accompanying his wife on a trip combining her research with a vacation for them both.) The student assumes that of course I should make sacrifices to support this work.

On the other hand, although I run a much larger research program than Dr. X, I am seen as only a teacher. And in addition to teaching, I'm judged on how deeply I appear to care about my students.

These different expectations are one of the many reasons women faculty have a hard time. Students make excuses for male faculty (who they see as having more important things to do than teach), but expect women faculty to be substitute mothers, sacrificing any other goals to take care of their students. On Wednesday the students will do their teaching evaluations, and I expect as usual to be criticized for insufficient nurturing.

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Here are the discussion board posts:

From an anonymous student:
I felt really bad for him. He was just given a package of slides and then tried to teach from there. I thought a lot of people were really disrespectful. Like if you went the monday lecture and found him insanely boring, why did you come to the one on wednesday just so you could talk the whole time and then make a huge scene by leaving early?
My response:
Hi everyone,

Dr. X normally teaches another section of Biology 121. He taught
these two classes for me because I had taught three classes for him in
late February, while he was in Thailand.

He did not have any prepared material that he thought would be suitable
for my students, so I provided him with copies of the slides I used last
year, thinking that he could use them as a framework to develop two
classes on sustainability. I did not expect him to simply show my
slides, and I apologize for any problems with the classes he taught.

Dr. Redfield
From another anonymous student:
Its quite rediculous that she asked Mr. X to teach for her although she helped him
teach 3 classes. Mr. X was away for a reason, but dr. Redfield is just taking a
break and not being responsible for our class. Just so dissappointed.
(I deleted this post, and last night a new one appeared - same sentiment and same spelling error so probably the same student.)
I actually disagree on that. Some parts were interesting, but this teaching skill was not good. Dr. Redfield's teaching method was really better and have the skill to actually crab your attention! However, I am quite dissappointed that she wasn't able to teach our class. She taught Dr. Xs class because he was away to Thailand, but now he is taking over her class while she is resting. This really shows that she is very unresponsible for our class. She is a good, interesting and smart prof, but maybe she needs to care more.
And here's my response.
!!! RESTING???

Pardon the 'shouting', but I've been working night and day, holidays and
weekends, on this course; just check the dates and times of my
Discussion Board postings. Since my last lecture to you I've taken
exactly one day off (yes, it was a weekday, but I worked on all of the
weekend days).

If my lectures are interesting it's because of the work I put into them.
For example, I've spent part of the Easter weekend working on
Wednesday's final lecture. This is a lot of work because I've decided
to replace about half of what I had prepared with material from the new
IPCC Report on climate change. I'll be spending much of today on it too.

I also spent part of the Easter weekend compiling and posting the PRS
marks. This including tracking down the errors students had made in
entering their student numbers so they would get the marks their answers
have earned.

I spent part of it analyzing and posting the Reading Quiz marks. This
included going back over the original 'opt-out' quiz to find those
students who had never realized that if they weren't going to take the
quizzes they needed to actively opt out. (About 15 students had marks
of zero; I discovered that they had not opted out but never taken a
quiz, so I opted them out retroactively.)

I spent part of it reading and responding to Discussion Board postings.

I spent part of it working on the final exam.

I spent part of it reading reports of students' projects.

And I spent part of the weekend doing an experiment in my research
laboratory. Today (Easter Monday) I may even find time to analyze the data.

At the end of February I took valuable time away from preparing my grant
proposals to teach Dr. X's classes, so that he could spend an extra
week in Thailand. We agreed in advance that he would repay this favour
by lecturing to my classes, freeing me to catch up on other

I realize that students don't have many opportunities to see the work
their professors do outside of class. But 'resting' is the last thing
we have time for.

Dr. Redfield

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Last class: teaching evolution

I won't be teaching evolution in this class. Instead I want to address the problems raised by the sophisticated war being waged against evolution by Christian and Islamic fundamentalists. Nobody else I know covers this in their biology classes, but we can't just blame the high-school teachers for doing an inadequate job of teaching evolution, when we're the ones responsible for teaching the next generation of teachers.

Last year I taught this in the middle of the term, at the end of the Evolution section, but this year I've moved it to the last class. I'm also going to cut down on the mass of examples of fronts in this war, both to allow more time for introducing the resources available for biology teachers, and because we need to allow time for end-of-term teaching evaluations.

It's important to not put all the blame on the Christians. The richly funded Islamic fundamentalist group operating under the name Harun Yahya is not well known in the West, but they produce an enormous amount of very slick anti-evolution propaganda.