The end is in sight

One more class hour to go, and it’s a review. Then a unit exam on Thursday, a unit exam in another class on Friday, a final exam next Wednesday and one last final on the Thursday after that, which means I’m substituting hours of lecture prep for days and days of non-stop grading. I may have to rethink my syllabi in the future to avoid this last-week crush of tests, because grading exams is my very least favorite thing about teaching.

Can I just give them all a C and pretend I read their work? That would be fair, wouldn’t it?


  1. robyn slinger says

    You can’t give all a C, that would be silly. You have to make sure the grades have a Gaussian distribution.

  2. Larry says

    Works for me. I mean, I got Cs in my partial differential equations class so my professor must of been using that technique. Right?

  3. says

    A Gaussian, huh. I could do that — just a formula in a spreadsheet cell that uses the coordinates to calculate a point value. I’d do it on a sorted list and set it up so all the students in the middle, with names that begin with, for instance, “M”, get As, while all the “A”s get Fs.

    Serves ’em right for always being first in line.

  4. robertfoster says

    Go ahead. Give them all Cs. Then you can report about how much time you are spending fending off the student who says that your C is what is keeping her out of med school. And it’s so fucking unfair! She’s paid to be here. She showed up every day. And she really, really tried. That should earn her an A, right?

    Or better yet, you can deal with her influential, alumnus parent who has driven through the night to have a one on one talk with you. Or doesn’t that happen at Morris? Lucky you, then.

  5. toska says

    My favorite part of teaching is when students ask questions.

    You mean it’s not the grading part? I thought for sure that’d be the best part of teaching.

  6. ragdish says

    Do you give any pre-exam whispered hints like “shhhhh…the stuff on folate and the development of the anterior neuropore could be on the exam”?

  7. says

    Yeah, I give little, general hints like that. They know I’m guaranteed to have several questions on the lac operon in this next exam.

    Anyway, I just finished! Done teaching altogether! And then I remembered, I also have to give a lab final at 2:15…so it’s five exams to grade in the next week, with 50 students in each class.


  8. Crimbly says

    To be fair, for most students, taking exams is their least favourite part of being taught.

    Anyway, almost done PZ!

  9. says

    A professor at my alma mater had a policy that if you came to and swore that you had read all the material twice (in this case Shakespeare plays on the syllabus), he’d give you a C (or whatever the bare passing grade was). If you wanted to try for a higher grade, you had to write the exam (of course if you got less than a C once you wrote, you couldn’t change your mind). At least that’s what I recall the details to be, but I may be mistaken since I never took the class myself.

  10. numerobis says

    As a kid I was into D&D and thus dice. My mom salivated at the d100. When I left for college, she took the d100 to prominently display in her office.

  11. congenital cynic says

    I just gave my last tutorial session. Have my last exam in the morning. Then a bunch of marking that will take until the end of next week.

    I’d have to agree that marking is my least favourite thing about teaching. Especially grading work from students who have terrible penmanship, are disorganized, and get most things wrong. Grading work that is well done is not so bad. The part of teaching I like the most is definitely in the classroom. Answering questions and clarifying things is good. I also just like the whole “performance art” aspect of putting up challenging problems (it’s engineering school) that I have not solved before class myself (I do this on purpose to keep my problem solving wits sharp) and working through them for the first time live in the classroom. I was doing a new-to-me course this term with material I hadn’t looked at in more than two decades and I winged the problem solving in that one too. It was fun. Twice during the term I had to really pause and think out loud in front of them to get through a tricky problem, but I think it’s good that they see that process too (profs aren’t perfect answer machines and often have to stop to sort stuff out, if it’s an unseen and challenging problem). But I never got caught out either. I’m beginning to wonder if I’m deranged to like this self-imposed pressure.

  12. says

    Grading would be easy & fun if the students would just get all the answers right. Or wrong. A and F papers take a quarter of the time that a C paper takes to mark up.

  13. Seize says

    Peez, after my first year of med school I long for the imposition of a 70%. The formula at this time is P (“pass”) = M.D.

    I still love science and evidence-based medicine. It’s just that I’ve been in the library 8 straight days and haven’t bathed. Squid have mercy.

  14. NitricAcid says

    I hear you- even with calculation questions instead of explanations, hunting for the freaking part marks is a pain in the neck.

  15. larrylyons says

    Give them all a “C”? PZ what department do you think you’re in? Organic Chemistry or Neurophysiology?

  16. congenital cynic says

    I agree with you PZ. A’s and F’s are no trouble to grade. Even the C student is easy to mark if they are tidy and orderly. No problem to identify where it went off the rails. But I generally find that those students execute “solutions” that look like random scribbling, and I have to try to pick through it. Sometimes I can’t even read what they wrote, so bad is the penmanship and so disorganized is the presentation.

    I think the most discouraging thing about teaching is that most of the students who really don’t know how to be students just flat out won’t take any advice to help their own cause. For example, I held a two hour supplementary tutorial a few days ago (one of three such sessions I do for each course I teach) and there were a dozen or so students there (out of 28 in the class). Someone asked if we could do a certain type of problem, so I put one on the board and told them to have at it for three or four minutes and then we would see where they were going with it. All of the students in the room, except two, went to work. They had paper, pencils, calculators, and rulers, and they were all getting busy. Except these two students in the back corner of the room. They are two who are doing the worst in the class, and they have come for help a few times during term, but in this session they sat there watching like spectators. No books, no paper, no nothing with them. They stared blankly at the board, doing nothing. I asked them if they were not going to try the problem. They tentatively shook their heads “no” and said nothing. They don’t seem to get that the DOING of the thing is what sticks it in your head. They have been observing non-participants all term, and it is impossible that they can pass the exam. And they won’t even know why they didn’t pass, so little do they relate to the material. I often look at their tests and wonder what class they were sitting in, because they generate things we have never done. They seem to “want” to be students. But they simply haven’t any idea how to go about the enterprise. When they have come for “help”, and ask questions, they watch the answers, but they never make a note, never ask a follow-up question. It’s nearly complete non-participation. Most students who come for help will, after we are done, ask if they can take the sheet of paper with them when I am done. And I happily give them the problems we have just worked through. These guys, who are representative of a good 20% of my class, are just lost as to how to make it happen for them. And it seems that by asking them about participating, I must have frightened them off. They were absent from the next 4 hours worth of sessions. Nice boys, but lost in this institution. Maybe maturity will fix some of this, but I frequently despair over these students. It’s one thing to go to university and decide it’s not for you, but it’s quite another to go there and think you want to be there, think you are “doing it”, but not even realize that you haven’t even the slightest clue about how to help yourself navigate the place.

    Over the years I have had many students who, after a year or two, switched to science, business, trade school, or some other discipline. I totally understand that this should happen. People don’t come out of high school knowing what they want to do for life, so at least 30% of them are likely to change course. And I respect them for making that decision. But those who hang on when the writing is on the wall, and then get bitter when they finally fail out after 7 years of trying (it happens!) are just not being realistic. They fail on two counts, typically. First, they never learn how to learn. Their bad habits, which they arrive with, are never corrected, no matter how much coaching they get. They know better (in their own minds), so they see no need to change, or they are profoundly lazy. Second, they cheat, do the minimum, and try to work the system in every way possible (deferred exams, etc.) to get bare passes so they can show some slow progress. They often feel that if they paid the fees, they deserve the course credit. It’s a consumer transaction for them. I do my best to filter these students out of the profession. Engineered solutions require the opposite of the traits they exhibit. I think they need to pursue some other kind of career. But it’s still depressing to watch them flounder, and especially when they refuse the multifaceted help that is available on campus. Sigh. Oh well. There is always single malt scotch.

  17. Ariaflame, BSc, BF, PhD says

    @Congenital cynic #24
    I hear you… and I’m teetotal (partly taste, partly control issues) so I don’t even have that coping mechanism. Books. And games. And craft… And every so often a convenient wall or desk to gently beat my head against.

  18. komarov says

    If you’re trying to save time marking there are plenty of easy ways of making it look like you put in the effort, which may be useful to anyone ever in that situation. I hasten to add that I have only ever been on the receiving end of this and that I haven’t made all of the associated mistakes.

    – The intelligible scrawl
    Could be words, could be an equation. You think you can sort of make it out but you’re not even sure to which part of your work it even refers. May even be on the back of a page or on a little sheet of paper stapled to the original.

    – The squiggly line
    A squiggly line under a few words. Whatever it actually means, that bit of text is wrong somehow.

    – Corrected punctuation
    If the teacher only added a comma to your 300-page essay and nothing else that must still mean they read and marked the entire thing.

    – Figures
    A remark on a graph, table or figure. If they point out something like that they must have scrutinised every letter of your work, top to bottom. And that arrowhead on the y-axis could have been a little sharper, it’s true.
    (If all else fails a positive remark can be added just to get some red ink on paper. Compliment students for those very straight lines and the sharp contrast between the maroon and red plots on the same graph.)

    – Units
    The metric system may be a wonderful approach but all answers should really be given in units of square furlong mile gallons. This is the standard measurement unit for the field of [obscure subdiscipline] as established by [one of the three working scientists alive at the time] in the 16th century.
    (Something is always wrong with units. If in doubt quibble with the prefixes and orders of magnitude.)

    – References
    Universal truths: Any text could always use more references.
    No matter which referencing style you were using, it’s the wrong one.

    – Layout and technicalities
    The specifications asked for a 25 mm margin. Maybe that’s what you used but then it’s still your fault for not calibrating the printer beforehand.

  19. komarov says

    That should have been the unintelligible scrawl. Had this been hand-written noone would have been able to tell.

  20. Kevin Anthoney says

    Grading would be easy & fun if the students would just get all the answers right. Or wrong. A and F papers take a quarter of the time that a C paper takes to mark up.

    Well, that’s easy then. If a paper’s taking too long to mark just give ’em a C.

  21. chatt says

    Marking on the curve isn’t always a joy. I was teaching grade 7 or 8 math or science at a private school and some kid cheated (prob. saw the test beforehand, when it was being copied). I was new at the game (and old as i was fired soon thereafter) and I don’t think i even considered doing other than normal: marking him ahead of the rest, who made his life miserable. Actually i did foresee that part and thought it would be a good punishment for his cheating; I just didn’t see how i could help the rest. What should I have done?

  22. ragdish says

    If you want to ace PZ’s exam and get that 4.0 cGPA, then remember the following:

    Oh, Lac Operon, gene cluster great, you code for enzymes three,
    but only if Lactose in the cell arrives to make you free.
    Lac Z, Lac A, Lac Y: these poor genes want to be expressed
    yet a crafty protein from gene I causes you to be repressed.
    Binding to the Operator, this Repressor keeps you capped
    but don’t despair—Lactose saves you from this cruel Repressor trap,
    for Lactose turns the Repressor off, giving you the space
    to make galactosidase, transacetylase, and lactose permease.
    Polymerase binds the Promoter, and the Lac genes have their day.
    Sadly, their proteins process Lactose, taking your savior away.
    When Lactose is gone, the Repressor rebinds and causes you to freeze,
    so, Operon, to live again, you must find more milk and cheese.

    This poem is by Liz Humphrey

  23. gussnarp says

    You don’t just throw them down the stairs and grade them by which step they land on?

    Interesting grading methods I’ve encountered: I had a freshman history professor who assigned a research paper as the final, but who I’m 100% certain assigned a final grade based entirely on performance throughout the term without ever grading the paper. I’m certain of this for two reasons: 1. I believe he taught three classes per term, and while small by college freshman course standards, they could easily be 50 or more people in each and he had no TA. There’s simply no way he graded those papers in the time between the due date (the final exam period) and grades being due. 2. In one class I just phoned it in. My sources were poor and most of the paper was written in one night in which I also polished off a bottle of tequila. There’s no way that paper merited the ‘A’ I received in the course.

    I had a computer science professor who, while endeavoring to encourage classroom participation, when I volunteered in class to answer what seemed to me a simple question about pointers and got it right, suggested that I not be required to take the final. The class agreed and I skipped the final. His finals were murder. It was grossly unfair, but I got an ‘A’. Also, when I tried out the sample code the question was based on with my answer incorporated, it had a logic error.

    Another computer science professor’s final was a one on one interview. And for a pretty low level undergrad course. Probably not something you have time for, or necessarily want to go through either, but might be a fun alternative to grading. On the other hand, I wonder how any of these profs document their grading rubric in the current climate of students challenging grades they don’t like, often with parent help and even lawyers.

  24. Kevin Kehres says

    @24 congenital cynic

    Just because someone is admitted to a particular institution of higher learning, that does not mean they deserve a degree from that institution.

    I went to a school that was notoriously tough to get into. You needed a high GPA, great SAT/ACT scores, and all the rest. Everyone there was supposed to be the creme of the crop.

    And the first quarter, there was about a 20% attrition from the kids who just couldn’t do the work. Of course, two of those were guys I knew on my dorm floor who spent the first 8 weeks basically becoming the campus drug dealers. They got a 0.0 GPA and were gone.

  25. dean says

    I give a standard assignment when I finish covering Markov Chains: each student has to write his/her own problem (within specific guidelines), give rationales for the probabilities, provide the proper analysis and give interpretations relevant to the problem. Historically it has been well received.
    I collected the work Monday and asked for comments: One student said “I’m not sure how having us to all of this on our own can let you assess how well we know the material.”

    I think he said more but he was drowned out by a very loud whooshing sound from above his head.