A grim start to Spring Break

Spring break starts…NOW. I’m done with classes for the day, and just have to make a trip out to St. Cloud to pick up my son for the weekend and my obligations are temporarily over, sort of.

Way back at the beginning of the term when spring break seemed far, far away, I scheduled an exam for my physiology course (75 students) and my introductory biology course (35 students) for this week; I also had my intro students turn in a writing assignment this week, and because they had done poorly on one rather important exercise, had also assigned an extra paper, also due now. There is a rather terrifyingly full box of papers sitting on my desk, growling softly to remind me of its existence now and then. I know that if I neglect it it will glare more ferociously and grow claws and fangs and get increasingly vicious; if I wait until the last weekend of the break to deal with it, it will try to kill me. So I’m going to take it out early. I swear, I will annihilate the contents of that evil box this weekend, splattering every page with red.

That box is evil. I hate it. I will gut it soon, one page at a time.


  1. fusilier says

    So maybe ScanTrons aren’t the invention of the Devil, after all?

    fusilier, who won’t have spring break for another week.
    James 2:24

  2. cm says

    How do you find student writing in biology courses? I have been unsure of what the best approach to that is. I have also not found many resources to teach good writing in the sciences (in the sense of writing a paper or grant proposal; not so much science journalism). Getting good at it is a long process, and it is tough to take that time in a biology course when there is so much biology content to get to.

  3. says

    The process you describe for the box full of papers to be graded sounds an awful lot like my process for the stack of assignments to be completed when I was in college.

    Guess the life isn’t that much different on the other end of the classroom :)

  4. says

    if I wait until the last weekend of the break to deal with it, it will try to kill me.

    We’ll know what happened if you never post again.

  5. Karen says

    Kudos, PZ, for NOT using the scantron and for pouring tons of ink all over exams. I was just teasing one of my professors for doing that the other day, but it’s actually VERY helpful. I’ve generally gotten much more out of classes where the feedback was intense.

    So, pat yourself on the back and grab that red pen.

  6. says

    When I was a student I didn’t much care about the grade I got on a paper, but comments were very important to me. Now that I’m a middle-aged blogger, well… not much has changed.

  7. says

    In grad school, I was a TA for a biology prof who required ALL of his students to make one trip to the university’s writing center as part of the semester’s one formal laboratory report. Or, more properly: It was actually “optional”, but if a student didn’t bother to go, it meant five points right off the top. Students also had the opportunity to make at least two additional trips there for five points each. And, they had to be prepared to show a complete or partial draft at each visit — they couldn’t just show up, have their grade slips signed, and leave.

    The result: The easiest grading job the TAs ever had. We each had 40 to 50 lab reports to grade, so it was an absolute joy to not have to try to parse defective sentences, nor figure out whether one’s students thought that an insect had six legs, six lugs, or six lungs. There were two problems: First, half of the students complained mightily, and second, the writing center was understaffed and told our department that we couldn’t do it again.

    I’m sorry to admit that I was guilty of committing mass Scantron torture when, as a temp instructor, I had two sections of 275 non-majors (each) and no TAs. I also had two sections of a writing-intensive class during my last semester — yup, the one with the dissertation defense near the end! Two days before my graduation ceremony, my husband picked up my mom at the airport while I sat in my cubicle grading 47 very, very long essay exams.

    Never apologize for spilled red ink. :-)

  8. says

    cm: Back when I was going to NAIT, we had a technical writing course, essentially english for Science Publications. Our teacher was Dr. Robin Leech, Arachnologist and Grammar Slammer. He had a wonderful collections of poorly written science answers, such as the following piece of work:

    “A 30 meter tree can break wind for up to 50 meters”

    It’s been to long to remember much more, but he had pages of these kinds of mistakes.

  9. says

    I assign essays to my calculus students. To avoid downloaded essays purchased from Internet sites, I require that the essay be related to assigned reading and reflect the student’s personal perspective on how that relates to the content of the class. (Over the years I’ve assigned Innumeracy by John Allen Paulos, How the Other Half Thinks by Sherman Stein, A History of Pi by Petr Beckmann, and e: The Story of a Number by Eli Maor.) The results so far have been mostly satisfactory and fairly thoughtful (with only one definitely plagiarized submission and two that smelled suspicious–and were sufficiently off-topic that the grades were sure to be poor anyway).

    While I have had students tell me that math teachers aren’t allowed to assign essays or term papers (that’s permitted only in English comp classes, apparently), most of them buckle down and end up giving me helpful insights into their thinking processes and the way in which they view the class. A few have even told me that the essay assignment opened their eyes, and I hope they weren’t just sucking up.

  10. Dustin says

    My stack of ungraded homework is 8″ tall. That’s bad as it is. I would never give an essay assignment… hunting down the computational errors and flagrant misunderstandings in this mountain of calculus is bad enough. Zeno must be a masochist or something.

    There are a lot of math people who frequent this blog…

  11. says

    Writing science, as opposed to science writing, is a topic very close to my heart. I just did my “writing is important for scientists” spiel to my food analysis class this afternoon as I graded their first report/essay last night. I give my students two chances to write; the first effort isn’t graded, but I write comments about what they need to do to improve. It is important to stress that this isn’t a first draft or that is what you get. If the writing is really bad, I strongly recommend they go to the writing center. Most students who go come back saying how useful it was. Luckily, the University of Delaware has a great writing center and for the last three semester two of the faculty have come to my classes to work with the students in class.

    Good writing about science is so important to me that I make the food science students write from the moment they enter Freshman class. About 50% of my freshman didn’t know how to use commas properly. Many of them grumbled about my emphasis on writing and the involvement of the writing center – “this is a science class not an English class” – but writing improved immensely. Grading the Final exam this year was a breeze compared to earlier years.

    A good resource for upperclassman there is a book by Robert A Day “How to write and publish a scientific paper”. While it is meant for graduate students and above (I find it useful even now) it contains useful tips that undergraduate students can benefit from. The chapters on tables and graphs are very useful. Apparently Robert Day used to teach a graduate science writing class at UD but that was before my time.

    Good Luck with the grading PZ.

  12. Barry says

    PZ, it’s Minnesota, in the Winter.

    Burning those papers to keep alive was necessary. Don’t mention the self-defense aspect, though. That might give you a too-close look at the world of forensic psychiatry, from the wrong side.

  13. says

    Somedays I mark in green or purple instead of red ink. It breaks up the monotony.

    Wishing you good luck tackling your monster mountain of marking!

  14. Rachel Robson says

    Because I am crazy, I let my microbiology and immunology students hand in their papers early, as many times as they like, so I can circle all the things that are wrong, badly written, etc. This guarantees that motivated, concerned students who start working on their papers early need not ever miss many points on a paper, even if writing is not their forte.

    I didn’t count on having so awfully many motivated students in one semester. Their first lab report (to be written in the style of a scientific paper) is due on Monday, so I’ve been correcting papers all day. So my eyes are bleary, my brain addled, and my heart filled with the deepest sympathy for you, Dr. Myers.

    Btw: Multiple-answer exams solve many, many problems. (Not multiple-choice. Multiple answer is like multiple choice, but where more than one, or no, answers might be correct for a particular question. There are no logic problem answers provided, like “a, b, and d” or “all of the above” or “none of the above.” Rather, if a student thinks none of the answers is correct, he should leave all answers for that question uncircled. If a, b and d are correct, she should circle accordingly, etc.) Multiple-answer exams are as easy to grade as multiple-choice, easier to write, and (IMO) a much better test of actual student understanding of the material than traditional multiple-choice.

  15. says

    In a cheesy Israeli TV show a few years ago, there was a teacher who graded papers by stamping them with F’s without reading them. You might consider doing that if reading them it too challenging.

  16. says

    Zeno, you sound like a math instructor I knew once. He had a degree in comparative literature or something as well and so tried assigning an essay to some students once. He told me that it gave the students the screaming willies and (despite them learning better and doing okay on the assignment) he never did it again, to save students the excessive anguish.

    Personally, I’m all for it. I really hate the idea of the exam in the usual sense, but then again I’m in a field where one can get away with it. I’m still looking for good logic projects, though, which has proved rather difficult. If students were honest, one could evaluate them purely on homework problems, but I fear that doing that would lead to rampant cheating and banking of problems.

    Speaking of which, do the teachers here who assign problems find it difficult to get new ones year in and year out because of the above consideration? I’d love to have the time and tools to develop something like a logic problem database for elementary logic courses. I imagine such a thing could be useful for math teachers, suitably adapted.

  17. jaimito says

    75 students? I thought my load was excessive. Sir, kol hacavod (you are a giant).