Recently in Reactions to classroom Category

Customer Satisfaction 1. The numbers

The Student Rating of Teaching Effectiveness results are just in. Students are asked to rate a variety of things on a scale of 1-7. It is hard not to fixate on these numbers, despite their shortcomings. And their shortcomings are many. The scores almost certainly reflect something, but is it teaching effectiveness? The scores can't be used to compare courses, not least because audiences differ (most of my students aren't there by choice), or to compare teachers (popular teachers are not necessarily effective teachers). But the scores are good for identifying under-performing teachers (usually scores <4), and for comparing the same teacher across years. 

Evidently I am getting worse.
SC200 scores2.jpgThe shape of the curves fit with my general experience of university teaching. The second year of a new course is the best. You've ironed out the kinks, but the material is still fresh and exciting to teach. It is hard not to lose the edge once things become routine.

But looking more closely at these numbers, I can't help but wonder if something else is going on. One of the questions asked is 'Rate the clarity of the syllabus in stating course objectives, course outline and criteria for grades'. The syllabus is the document which should lay out everything about the course. I have not changed mine over the four years. Moreover, I have never had a single complaint about it. Yet the students rate it as less and less clear through time (black dotted line). Is it possible students are getting more ornery?


I do this course to make a difference. How do I know if I am? At the start of semester, I ran a survey to gauge the students' attitudes to science. I ran the same survey last week so I could measure the impact of my course. 

I made no impact. None. Zip. Denada. ZERO.

There must be something wrong with the survey.

Dear Professor

So far this week, I have spent over eight hours responding to students complaining about some aspect of their grade. Over 50 students have emailed since December 1 (30% of the class), some about several different issues. I judged three of the complaints to have merit.

The sheer volume of the deluge began to fascinate me, so I started collecting data. On average, it takes me 15 minutes to investigate, make a decision and write back. Often times, students respond to the response faster than I can process the original complaints, so the net volume of correspondence actually grows as I process it. Of the responses to the responses, about half are graceful; the other half disagree and require I respond to the response to the response. I respond to about a quarter of the responses to the responses to the response. Which I guess shows I am not being firm enough. Or that I have gone mad.

It felt like there were a lot more complaints this year, but as I tell my grad students, always get the data. Checking, I learned that this year is in fact only about 20% ahead of last year, but it is 50% ahead of the year before. Extrapolating, there won't be enough hours in a week to do the responses by 2020. If we scale the class up, I will need to employ someone to handle all this. A shrink maybe.

The saddest correspondents are the ones that talk about having put in many hours on x, y or z, and not got the returns. I do feel sorry for those folk. Partly because they have put the hours in for disappointing returns, but mostly because those students seem to think that hours in equate to rewards out. That only works when you are flipping burgers or waiting tables. Maybe not even then. 

Perhaps none of this is the fault of the entitlement generation (the standard faculty explanation). Maybe I did something wrong? I thought I did my best job ever of defining expectations, that the graders did a better job of feedback on the blogs than ever before, and that Kira and Ethan, this year's TAs, did an outstanding job and were available more or less 24/7. I ran as many revisions sessions as I ever have before; fewer students than ever took advantage. Attendance in class hit a record career low for me (<50% at the end). Not for the first time this year (test grades, blogs), I wonder what happened.

The overshare problem

For people of my generation, it is a struggle to understand why students can be so open on the internet. Some post to the class blog that they are promiscuous, indulging in illegal drugs, drinking under age, getting obscenely drunk and stoned, even discussing date rape drugs in less than condemnatory language. 

Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for overshare_big.png
I can not imagine how all this will look when they are applying for police, government, law, corporate jobs. Yesterday, The Daily Collegian, Penn State's excellent student newspaper, reported a recent study which shows that 93% of recruiters are using the internet to see how candidates present themselves off clock. Only 1% of recruiters see references to illegal drug use and sexually explicit posts as positive.

I was asked yesterday if I feel any responsibility for the potentially self-harming stuff the students are posting. I hadn't been: I've told the class - in class - several times that they should be careful.

But is that enough? Telling teenagers and young twenty-somethings to be careful...? Like that works.

Trouble in the classroom?

My class yesterday was on 'Are animals gay?' I teach it because it is intrinsically interesting. Gay sex is not obviously an evolutionary winner (lots of theory, not much data, much ignorance, good stuff to teach about the workings of science). Moreover, when science figures out the biological basis for gayness (for surely there is one: there are gay sheep), drug targets will be revealed, meaning we could change people's sexuality by swallowing a pill. The societal ramifications of that will be fascinating. Even better pedagogically, the subject is a great hook for asking whether scientists' world views affect their science. Obviously they do. Scientists are people, and people with different perspectives ask different questions. That is why for most of the repressed last century, no one saw anything other than heterosexuality in the animal kingdom. It is why, more generally, we need diversity in the scientific work force. And of course, I teach gay animals to shamelessly exploit the students' interest in sex to get them to think about science. 

For the last couple of years, it's worked really well. Yesterday, however, trouble set in early. Within the first couple of minutes, a student texted to say "THANK YOU for wasting my time and money with today's lecture", and five students stormed out. Later, when I have gone over the data (same-sex sex/couples are everywhere), I asked why the existence or not of gay animals is such a big deal to people. Not much reaction, so I read that comment out in class. General outrage followed. One student got very abusive about anyone who could send such a text - and the rest of the class clapped her outrage. So I had to lecture them on not being abusive, least of all in the face of abusiveness, and then I got a string of texts thanking me for doing the class, how interesting it was.

Was I right to read out that message, to pour petrol on the fire? I don't know. During an exam revision session tonight, it was clear that the students had been impacted. Me too. That's good, right?

Being there

Last Thursday, attendance was 60%. That looks like this. Every seat should be taken.

I asked Dean Williams for theories on how it could be so bad. She suggested the Thursday before canning weekend will always be bad. That cleared my conscience for the weekend. 

But this is how it looked yesterday.

Maybe it is this bad because it is the Tuesday after canning weekend? 

I see from my blog that I angst about attendance at this time of year (20122011a, 2011b). [who'd have thought that it is good I blog because I can reassure myself that this year is no worse than before....]. Sixty percent is not quite a record low, though we have a ways to go in the semester yet, and no football scandal. 

For other reasons, I was looking over the end of year judgements of the Class of 2012. In response to the question 'Name three things you learned from this course', a very significant number said: go to class. Students this year are also thinking about it, as they have in the past.

How to teach critical thinking to people who don't show? It's hard enough for those who are there.

Nobel gold

Peter Agre, Nobel Prize Chemistry 2003, came to talk to the class. 

As a fellow scientist, it was really inspiring.

Peter 2.jpg
As a teacher, it was phenomenal. Look at the smiles.

Peter + class.jpg
(Peter assured me he was having a good time).

Why do Nobel prize winners come to talk to my class (2010, 2011)? Because they, like me, know it does not get more important than the students in my class. Few science students will run the world: they are geeks. But SC200 students will. These folk will become leaders in business, media, politics...  these people matter. 

I have no trouble persuading Nobel laureates of this. But how can I make the students realize that is why the class matters?

Thanks so much to the Eberly College of Science and the Huck Institute for the Life Sciences for sponsoring Peter's visit. And to Peter, for his enthusiasm in the face of health challenges. Tremendous good was done.

An exercise in humility

| 1 Comment
Science is good at generating knowledge because it crowd-sources criticism. We humans are hopeless at finding fault in ourselves, but we are damn good at finding fault in others. Science exploits that. This is completely different from other realms of human endeavor (imagine politicians or lawyers or marketing people or religious leaders encouraging people to find flaws in their arguments).

But over the years I have struggled to get this across to students. Last year, I hit on what I hoped would be a powerful approach: follow in real time during the semester a paper of mine as it went through the peer review process.

It sure was powerful. I gave the students a grandstand view of the peer review process in action, and a close look at a few of the rigor hoops scientists have to jump though. But I accidentally provided a perhaps more important experience: a grandstand view of my anger, tears, fury, incredulity, humility, disagreements, other words, an experience of science and the human condition. They seemed to revel in it. I will never forget the sound of the class groaning as I told them of the latest failure. Particularly because their groans got more emotional with each successive failure.

This was how it played out that semester.

Early August 2012, submitted to Science. Rejected without review.
Mid August, submitted to Nature. Rejected without review.
Early September, pre-submission inquiry to PLoS Medicine. Full submission encouraged.
Mid September, submitted to PLoS Medicine. Rejected without review.
Late September, pre-submission inquiry to PLoS Biology. Full submission encouraged.
End September, submitted to PLoS Biology. Rejected December 4: four negative reviews.

Well..., at least I was able to show the students some reviewer comments before semester end. When they last heard from me, the paper was in limbo. I told them I would email them in the Spring semester with the outcome. I should have been so lucky.

Late January, 2013, submitted to PNAS. Rejected without review early March.
Early March, pre-submission inquiry to PLoS Pathogens. Full submission encouraged.
Mid March, submitted to PLoS PathogensRejected May 23. Four largely positive reviews.
June 7, re-submitted to PLoS Pathogens. Rejected end June. Three largely positive reviews.
July 4, resubmitted to PLoS Pathogens. Accepted July 10.

Yesterday, September 12, 2013, it got published.

And what happened to the paper in those intervening 13 months? Well, it mostly just got shorter. We dumped almost all the mathematics, which we will publish elsewhere, and we took out an experiment, which we will publish elsewhere. Otherwise, we changed the rhetoric a bit (adding a paragraph repeating what we had said before). 

And now we wait to see whether anyone in the scientific community thinks the paper is as good as we do. Today, I emailed the SC200 class of 2012 to tell them how it all ended. And I think I will tell the class of 2013 this tale. I don't have the heart to do another paper in real time.


Tuesday, I spent class time on plagiarism - how bad it is, and how to avoid it. I hate having to do it. But it's a simple legal thing. When I want to throw the book at some student, I need to satisfy the university I explained it properly to the class. It's all deeply boring. But it is one legacy of the class of 2012. My ban on laptops in class is another.

The final irony of 2012: one of last year's students had her original blog post plagiarized by someone else in the ether. I believe she was flattered, and not without reason.

But I will eat for breakfast any students who try to pass off someone else's work as their own. Why do I even need to say that? But now I have said it. I have said it in my syllabus, in my class, in my emails, and now on my blog. Bases covered guys. Just don't do it. There is no excuse. It degrades you. You are better than that. 

Image from Alamance Community College who apparently borrowed it from
Yesterday, in the first class session, I asked the students (in eight groups) to come up with the most important and interesting questions in science. It is an interesting exercise in its own right, but it also helps me decide what topics to cover.

The most important:
(1) What will we do when we run out of oil? (3 groups)
(2) How can we cure cancer? (4 groups)
(3) What is the meaning of life?
(4) How can we cure HIV and other fatal diseases?
(5) Global warming?

The most interesting:
(6) How long will humans last?
(7) What will cause our extinction?
(8) Is there life on other planets? (3 groups)
(9) Can humans be cloned?
(10) How do penguins find their mates again after 6 months apart?
(11) Can we colonize other planets?
(12) Is time travel possible?
(13) What is the future of American agriculture with GMOs?
(14) What is to be discovered under the sea?
(15) Are GMOs harmful?
(16) Are mermaids real?

And from my list of possible class topics
(17) Are animals gay?
(18) Are drugs better than teachers?

There is a lot of overlap with the questions identified by the Classes of 2012 and 2011. I think I can cover most of these topics in class, or get someone in who can. When #16 was raised I said all I have to say about it (no). Though I am shocked to discover mermaid outfits are available for babies. I love #3. Someone should figure that out.

Time for wine: 2012, the end.

One of the nicest things about finishing the course is the emails some students send to say how much they have enjoyed the course, how much they learned etc etc. Most then ruin it by asking for a higher grade. But some do not. And its important to enjoy these ones, because really, that's why I do it.

Two this year really struck me.

Thank you for a wonderful semester. I truly have come to appreciate your course. I have spent 5 years at Penn State receiving my undergraduate and graduate degree in accounting, and your class has been one of most enjoyable courses I have taken. I wish I had taken your course as a younger student at PSU. It has taught me how to analyze information better than just about any class I have taken at Penn State. I hope your course continues to help non-science majors like myself get a better appreciation for science.

I wish I had got to know that student during the semester. I wish him well.

Another student, a journalism student I think, emailed to say she'd been blogging about a science story herself, rather than pass it on to someone else at Onward State. Fabulous. One small step for man...

Ok, I am signing out of here. The class of 2012 is done. Maybe I will try to sum it all up later. 

Or maybe not.


plagiarism(1).jpgEarlier in the semester I had problems with students plagiarizing material for the class blog. I had to write up two of them as academic integrity violations.

So the three of us grading the final blog period kept a keen eye out, and we ran various bits of software. Ironically, all we discovered was someone out there who had plagiarized one of my student's entries on the class blog.  Here's the original. And that student's work re-posted on another site, unattributed


| 1 Comment
One of the students told me today s/he had been offered money to write blog posts for another class member.

$100 says...

I was talking in today's class about how political pressures can come on scientists, using the very local example of Mike Mann. If you are a climate change denier, you need his hockey stick to go away. It will go away only if it is wrong. This means many politicians and political operatives criticize the science behind it, even though the majority of climate scientists accept that it broadly correct. If you are a climate change denier, you get out of that one by saying that there is a conspiracy among climate scientists to stay silent about the truth in order to get grants.

I think it is really important to get across to my class that scientists can't do conspiracies. We are an extremely competitive bunch who make our reputations by finding flaws in other peoples' reasoning - the bigger the flaw, the more we can over turn, the better. In fact, I go one stage further. I assert that scientists are better at rooting out incorrect science than anyone else.

Which led me to challenge the class: $100 to the first class member who can name a non-scientist whose insights have led to a scientific consensus being over turned. I can think of lots of scientists who have overturned a scientific consensus.  I can't think of a single politician, religious leader, snake oil salesman, mystic, rock star, lawyer... who has done that.


The back of the classroom

I invited the faculty member who inspired me to talk about aliens to sit in on the class. Her reaction:

That was a fun class to sit in on--thank you for the invitation! I learned alot, and so must they have. You got some lively conversation going. Seems like the people who actually care sit towards the front.  From the back row where I sat, there were many students with computers open just surfing the web, writing papers for other classes, or messing with their phones. If that were my kid and my tuition dollars, I would have a few choice things to say to her/him.  Why do they even bother to attend--warm place to sit and free wifi?  How can you stand it?--have you ever surveyed to find out why they bother?  Arrrggghhh--you have my empathy

Back of the class.jpg
This is an important mystery. Some students at the back text me asking me to put a stop to the distracting behavior of other students (that's hard - I can't see who it is. Why don't the texting students just move to the empty space at the front?). I have been for a walk up the back several times, and it really is the badlands. The students up there don't even care that I see them doing something else. Mind you, it is not as bad as some other classes. One faculty member saw a student watching porn at the back of his class.

I do wonder why these students bother turning up. I take a few marks for attendance - are they that desperate? Or do they think something percolates in, even when they are not listening? Lots of regular attendees do poorly on my tests. I assume they are the ones sitting there not paying attention. One hypothesis which was put to me tonight is that they like the soothing tones of my New Zealand accent. Groupies? Seems unlikely.

But my colleague has a good point: as a parent about to shift money from my retirement fund to my kids' college education, I would be outraged if my kids go to class and ignore it. 

How best to ask these students why they bother coming (and take a seat from from someone who could not get on the course)?  Imagine the questionnaire. Do you attend and pay no attention because (a) Andrew has a sexy accent, (b) it is a warm place with wifi (c) I want my parents to feel they are getting their money's worth (d) masochism: college education is something to endure.

Are we alone?

Tuesday, I did a class on whether there is life elsewhere in the universe. The students think this is one of the most interesting questions in science

I did it in two chunks.  The first concerns the bit career scientists are involved with: the search for life in our solar system (e.g. Curiosity), the search for Goldilocks planets elsewhere in the Milky Way (e.g. Kepler) and the efforts to listen (e.g. SETI). And of course the Drake equation.

The second chunk is about whether we are being visited: flying saucers, UFOs, Roswell, Alien Abductions and the like. The students are much more interested in this part. I only think about it for this class - and it strains my very being to do so. The main educational benefit is that it helps shape a discussion about what counts as meaningful evidence. 

There is interesting irony here. Eye witness accounts of alien abduction, deeply believed by the abductees themselves, are deeply disbelieved by almost every credible scientist. Yet in other aspects of life, equally deeply believed eyewitness accounts are enough to put people on death row.

There are other ironies. There is not a jot -- not a jot -- of evidence there is life elsewhere, but many scientists are spending a lot of money, much of it federal tax dollars, looking for it. In contrast, there are hundreds (?I can't find a reliable number) of US citizens who say they have been abducted by aliens visiting earth. That's a lot of evidence.Yet so far as I can tell, there is no credible scientific effort investigating that evidence. Of course, that's because, by and large, deeply held personal experiences are not very accessible to the rest of us. If I could go see for myself, then the investigation is on. Otherwise, there is nothing. It is just like religious experience: strong evidence to those who have the experience. Nothing to someone with a different experience. That doesn't make it wrong. It makes it inaccessible.

The final irony struck me during class. I am trying to get the students to think about the nature of evidence, to think decide for themselves what to make of eye witness accounts and grainy shots of strange objects in the sky.  And the Comment Wall lights up with texts from the students asking what I believe.

As if that matters. Three quarters of the way through semester, and there is still is no right answer folks. You have to think for yourselves.

Sometimes it works

I had a fabulous lunch today with one of the students. She is doing very well on the course, and has been to both revision tutorials - just to argue with me. She is not used to getting less than an A, so she is pissed she is running A-'s and B+'s.

She let slip that among her daily reading of the Entertainment Industry 'news' she reads, she is starting to look critically at the science and health news: how good is the study? what's the data like? can they really say that? 

I nearly wept. One of her counters the on-going discipline problems, the absentee students, students that bitch about bad grades who don't come to class, the students who just don't try.

The view from the front

IMG_0977.jpgThere should be no empty seats.

The way it looks

A photographer came to class today. I am presenting to the Dean's Advisory Group on Friday about developing a strategy for the Eberly College of Science about how we are going to lift the Gen Ed game.

A major challenge is the students we are trying to reach out to are nothing like any of us geeky scientists (we are weird humans). My students learned to hate science during their K-12 education. So we have nothing in common with them. But many of them are very smart, energetic, hugely fun, and going places. So we have to get on their wave length.  Step one: looking in to the whites of their eyes.  My favorite picture:

Not sure what I'd just said.  But it was obvious good. 

More pictures coming.

Last Thursday

| 1 Comment
I have been on the road, without time to blog. Last Thursday's class amazed me.

(1) I did a pop quiz. Over the three years we have been going, 350 students have done that test.  Last Thursday, one of them found a mistake... She was SO right.  I had to crack up in class. What else to do?

brain in jar.jpg
(2) I got asked the question: why do scientists work on what they do?  This is a really deep question, which I do not think has a good answer. In my case, I choose something which might have serious impact, where the competition is not too hot, and where fundamental problems in evolutionary biology clash with real world concerns. But the natural next question is: why do I care about those things?  It is all a mystery to me. I ended by saying, we scientists do what feels good. I can't help think that is pretty unique among the professions.

(3) I got asked, in response to the class before: how is it possible to do research on 100 rats? I beamed up the Jax labs.  Many of the students were clearly alarmed there are animal supermarkets. One even gasped: but they are selling mutants!. It had not occurred to me that the students would not know this. Must teach it next year.

(4) The ongoing saga of my currently favorite ever paper was that the thing got rejected from PLoS Medicine without review.  This led to a lively discussion about the hierarchy of journals, and why our paper can not go forward, whereas others can. Many students realized that this is particularly important issue after the especially crap paper we discussed in class that day.

(5) What I actually discussed in class is why smart, well meaning physicians kill people by not utilizing the scientific method. I think this is a powerful way of teaching what science is about. Your authoritarian physician, who you trust with your life, is running on instinct, anecdote and what their professor told them. Just like you are. Hopefully, the next generation can do critical thought.

Search This Blog

Full Text  Tag

Recent Entries

Does God exist?
In class today, I talked about the question of whether prayer heals. This question very naturally lends its self to…
The first session..
...went well, I thought. The class seemed very bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, and they were interactive when they should have been,…
Class attendance
It is clear from the SRTEs (student questionnaires) that many students are immensely annoyed that so many of their…