How not to teach genetics


Robert Dillon teaches genetics at the College of Charleston…or rather, he is officially assigned the job of teaching genetics, but one might question whether his students are actually learning anything. He’s tenured, but is currently suspended from teaching over a dispute about his syllabus that has snowballed into a mess of a case.

I started reading this article with some sympathy for Dillon. I teach genetics, too, and I’ve been teaching it almost as long as he has. I’m a little bit demanding in the classroom — this is conceptually difficult material for many students, and you can’t lead them by the hand through every step of figuring out every problem, and at some point the students have to figure out for themselves how to do the work, or they haven’t succeeded in being independent thinkers. I also get annoyed at some of the dictates from on high, where we are told to fit our work to a template designed by people who don’t teach our classes. I can feel for his resentment.

But we also have a job to do. It looks like he’s not doing it.

The initial trigger for his suspension was his refusal to modify his course syllabus. He was asked to make the ‘learning outcomes’ section to be a bit more specific, and he refused. Which is weird; that’s a short piece of the syllabus, it doesn’t take much effort to adapt it, and the refusal to rewrite it at all moves beyond resistance to change directly into calcification into stupidity.

Here are the ‘learning outcomes’ for his genetics course that he refuses to change. It’s a short quote from Woodrow Wilson.

The object of education is not merely to draw out the powers of the individual mind: It is rather its right object to draw all minds to a proper adjustment to the physical and social world in which they are to have their life and their development: to enlighten, strengthen, and make fit. The business of the world is not individual success, but its own betterment, strengthening, and growth in spiritual insight. “So teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom” is its right prayer and aspiration.

Personally, I don’t care much for that specific quote, but OK, as a statement of his own personal teaching philosophy, I can see that he ought to be allowed to include it. But the problem is that that is all he says about the goals of his genetics course. That doesn’t help at all. It’s too generic. You could throw that quote into the teaching philosophy of a course in English literature or Latin American history; it doesn’t tell anyone what the course is about.

Here are the goals of my genetics course, for example, straight from my current syllabus.

Students should understand basic principles and mechanisms of inheritance and variation, including cytological, organismal, developmental, and population genetics; mechanisms of evolution; and the genetic problems of humans.

It’s rather broad, too, but at least you know what the heck I’m teaching. I also follow up that brief paragraph with a more detailed breakdown of the chapters covered in the text and what concepts I hope to get across to the students. That’s useful information to the students, and also very importantly, to the administration, which actually has a legitimate need to know to some degree of specificity what material is being taught in the courses they administer. It’s required for accreditation, too. It’s also important to other schools; our students may transfer, or may go on to graduate or professional schools, and they need to know in a little detail what background our students are bringing in.

So, for example, just last year a student going on to veterinary school got questioned about the credits in genetics; they wanted to know exactly what the students were taught, so I sent them the syllabus. They wanted to know more, so I rewrote and expanded parts of it. That’s part of the job. Dillon’s syllabus was inadequate, too, but when asked to include more specific information, he refused.

That’s just weird. So now he’s been stripped of all of his teaching duties, and is facing more severe penalties, like suspension of pay and ejection from the university. He’s fighting back.

“My argument is this: Think of the students,” Mr. Dillon wrote back.

He sent the provost excerpts from messages that he said had been sent to him by students. One message praised the professor for making the student feel less insecure about his faith. Another said Mr. Dillon’s “bluegrass and social commentary” would be missed.

Mr. Dillon asked that all the charges against him be dropped. “I have not changed the way I teach my class,” he wrote in his plea, “nor changed the learning outcomes I expect from my students, in 34 years.”

He’s teaching genetics, supposedly, as am I. His job is not to make students more secure or less secure in their faith, and while bluegrass might add some color and social commentary some flavor to the course, they are not the primary goals. That’s no defense at all.

And that last comment is devastating to his case. I’ve been teaching genetics for only 25 years, and at the level of the undergraduate understanding of fundamental genetics, the content hasn’t much, but I’m constantly trying to improve how I teach the class. Every year is an experiment where I change something to see if it helps more students better grasp the subject. I started in an era where the professor lectured, the students took notes, and then grappled with long lists of problems in their homework. Now I try to do more assisted problem solving in the classroom, with a mix of lecturing and dragging students into group work and coaching them through independent problem solving. I think I’m a better teacher now than I was starting out, and I also hope to get better year by year. You don’t accomplish that by announcing that you haven’t changed the way you teach in 34 years.

Then Dillon describes his teaching style, and all my sympathy evaporates. By his own confession, he’s a terrible teacher.

Mr. Dillon describes himself as a “prickly guy,” but it may be more accurate to say he is the antitenure crowd’s straw man made flesh. In his 34 years at Charleston, he has received three official letters of reprimand, along with many negative evaluations from his supervisors and his students. (A sample review from “Dr. Dillon likes to make you look like an ass for asking him a question. He will never help you and enjoys confusion. … DO NOT TAKE THIS CLASS.”)

That prickliness has cost him. Mr. Dillon, who studies snails, says he has not been promoted since getting tenure as an associate professor and has been shot down three times in bids for a full professorship. By his own reckoning, he has been marginalized — moved first from 100-student survey courses to 40-student lectures and, now, to labs with 10 to 15 students. He says about 40 percent of his students earn F’s or D’s, or withdraw before the semester is over.

Mr. Dillon’s teaching methods run to the Kafkaesque. He refuses to answer students’ questions with anything but questions. He says he sometimes purposely misleads students by making factually wrong statements in class, reasoning that students who did the reading should be able to correct him. (They rarely do, he says.) The professor is not interested in meeting students halfway; he believes it is more edifying to put them in a crucible and see if they are “critical, rational, mathematical, analytical” enough to intuit their way out.

“Isn’t that horrible?” says Mr. Dillon. “For 14 weeks to have to walk in and make Rob Dillon happy? It’s misery. It’s like being boiled in oil. They have to walk in and make this crazy, wild, demanding, critical, nasty person happy. Horrible. Horrible.”

Ugh, never ever cite I detest that site, and it’s a very poor way to evaluate teachers. I tend to ignore even the official student evaluations of my classes, because, like Dillon, I’m not running a popularity contest. What’s more important to me is student performance on exams and in their writing; if I give an exam and a lot of students demonstrate a failure to understand linkage, for instance, then I figure I taught that stuff poorly and that I need to go back over it and make sure the students know it. The primary basis for my ongoing adjustment of how I teach the course is how well students demonstrate comprehension of the material.

40% of his students fail his course? 40% of his students are not stupid or incapable of understanding genetics. Those 40% are students that Dillon failed, who were screwed over by his inflexible, unresponsive, archaic teaching methods. That 40% is screaming at him that he’s ineffective and is doing a poor job of teaching, and that he needs to adapt and pay attention to what he’s doing. And then he declares as a point of pride that he hasn’t changed his teaching methods in 34 years.

”Think of the students,” he says. Please do. Being critical and demanding are good attributes, and I’d praise him for that, but you’ve also got to do more, you have to reach out and connect with students and help them learn. And you have to grow and learn, too. If you think teaching exactly as you did in the 1980s is a good thing, then you’ve failed to learn, and aren’t doing your job.

Dillon has just been put in a crucible of his own making. We’ll have to see if he’s smart enough to “intuit” his way out. Hint: it’s going to involve changing.


  1. says

    Prof. Dillon: “I have not changed the way I teach my class,” he wrote in his plea, “nor changed the learning outcomes I expect from my students, in 34 years.”

    My dad used to say “He doesn’t have twenty-five years of teaching experience, he has one year twenty-five times.”

    PZ: “I’m constantly trying to improve how I teach the class…” QFFT

  2. dout says

    if I give an exam and a lot of students demonstrate a failure to understand linkage, for instance, then I figure I taught that stuff poorly and that I need to go back over it and make sure the students know it.

    This is a critical feature of an outstanding professor in my opinion. When I think of great teachers I’ve had, I recall my Differential Equations professor. On our first test, I got the highest score in the class, a measly 67. He recognized that he didn’t explain the topic well, went over it again and provided a followup exam to add to your original score. I aced that and went on to get an A in the course instead of dropping it after the first test.

  3. ZugTheMegasaurus says

    He says he sometimes purposely misleads students by making factually wrong statements in class, reasoning that students who did the reading should be able to correct him. (They rarely do, he says.)

    *gasp* No! He must be kidding! Undergraduate students don’t correct their professor? One who is trying to mislead them and make them fail on purpose? What is wrong with kids today??

  4. Owlmirror says

    @PZ: The first link is borked with “smart” quotes causing the URL to be perceived as a local link to a nonexistent page. Note that it doesn’t need the long “key” part of the URL — this works just as well:


    Of course, it’s a bit moot, given that the full article is only available to subscribers. However, I noticed another link on the page that seems to be available to anyone:

    Why I’m Sticking to My ‘Noncompliant’ Learning Outcomes,
      By Robert T. Dillon Jr.

    If a student (or an accrediting body) should be interested, the second page of my Genetics 305L syllabus shows that fruit flies are indeed manipulated in Investigations 3, 4, 5, and 6, and protein electrophoresis is employed in Investigation 9. But “manipulating fruit flies” is no more the fit object of a liberal education than dumping asphalt is the object of road construction.


  5. qwints says

    Assuming the review is accurate, it’s easy to see how people wouldn’t want to ask about the professor’s lies in class if he attacks questioners:

  6. A Masked Avenger says

    40% of his students are not stupid or incapable of understanding genetics. Those 40% are students that Dillon failed, who were screwed over by his inflexible, unresponsive, archaic teaching methods.

    You don’t understand: a basic genetics course is supposed to be a filter, not a pump. Its job is to weed out all but the cream of the crop, who will go on to become brilliant researchers.

  7. says

    He says he sometimes purposely misleads students by making factually wrong statements in class, reasoning that students who did the reading should be able to correct him. (They rarely do, he says.)

    Of course not. They’re probably too scared to even say anything and just figure that they must have misunderstood the textbook. All this proves is that he has successfully cowed his students into submission.

  8. Becca Stareyes says

    I just had to revise my syllabus for spring term, and, while I do have a bit of waxing philosophical in the course description, the learning outcomes are all concrete things I can link to assignments so I can measure if the students actually achieved them. And let the students know that their grade correlates with the things I want them to be able to use.

    Whatever his learning outcomes are, 40% Ds and Fs indicate they aren’t being achieved.

  9. A Masked Avenger says

    He says he sometimes purposely misleads students by making factually wrong statements in class, reasoning that students who did the reading should be able to correct him. (They rarely do, he says.)

    Side note: teaching Math I would sometimes accidentally mislead students, and they generally did correct me. So there’s an anecdote to add to your data.

    …which brings back nostalgic memories of my thesis advisor, who was a brilliant researcher. In seminar courses he would screw up details of his calculations, and we generally got over it; we weren’t there to see him demonstrate how to divide both sides by epsilon, and we weren’t derailed if he missed a term. Sometimes we caught it on the spot, sometimes he caught it later when the error threw off his result, and sometimes we caught it later upon review.

    Undergrads tended to dislike him, because he was too focused on the big picture and so (a) blew the details at times, and (b) went a bit over their heads. Understandable.

    I was disappointed in the grad students who took his classes a couple years in: they were on the cusp of taking their orals, and they were inordinately hung up on whether he got the exponents right. At their level I realize they were in their mathematical adolescence, but I expected them to start seeing forest instead of trees, and couldn’t believe they were ignoring the vistas before them to obsess whether he forgot to carry the 2.

  10. marcoli says

    Wow, what a jerk. I have had uninspired and flawed teachers like anyone, but this one makes them all look like Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society.

  11. A Masked Avenger says

    And dammit, now I’m having a mid-life crisis. Thinking back lo these 20 years, before I became a cog in a wheel…

    To the time I realized that the Riemann and Lebesgue integrals absolutely do not not differ in that “one slices up the domain, and the other slices up the range”; rather, both are identically instances of convergent nets, where one is over a much richer directed set (partition into arbitrary measurable sets rather than intervals). I had that in my back pocket for the orals, so I could surprise the examiners if they asked me to “contrast Riemann and Lebesgue integration.” But when I saw this result, which is hinted at but not explicit in Rudin, choirs of angels sang and I slid from my chair to my knees in worship.

    In that sense I am a very religious man, as my pal the big E would say.

  12. Compuholic says

    40% of his students fail his course?

    I am unfamiliar with universities in the U.S. but that doesn’t sound like an exceedingly high number to me. 40%-50% failure rate is pretty much normal in German universities (at least in introductory courses).

    But his teaching style does sound alarming. Purposefully making false statements and not properly answering questions is disgraceful.

  13. Artor says

    I remember catching my professor in a mistake during a lecture. It was a simple transposition of words that totally changed the meaning of her sentence, but it was something I knew was going to be on the exam, so I spoke up and corrected her, so my less-astute fellow students wouldn’t be confused. She pulled me aside after class to berate me. “Never correct me during my lectures!” That incident was enough to let me know she was a shitty teacher. I aced her class and told everyone I knew not to take any of her courses.

  14. A Masked Avenger says


    I am unfamiliar with universities in the U.S. but that doesn’t sound like an exceedingly high number to me. 40%-50% failure rate is pretty much normal in German universities (at least in introductory courses).

    I’m unfamiliar with the details of German education, but my department had an exchange program with Universitaat Ulm, and one of them remarked that he took courses back home as he saw fit, because all that mattered was the examinations which aren’t tied to any particular course. So if he thought he could pass, he could sit the exam; if not, he could study on his own, or take a course, or whatever was necessary in order to pass.

    In the US, the exams are part of the course, and only by passing courses can you earn your degree. If you fail the exam, you have to take the entire course over again, which means waiting a semester, or a year, or two years if the course isn’t offered every year, and then sitting through the entire thing even though you failed only one exam[*].

    [*] Assuming that failing the one exam is enough to fail the course, that is. Sometimes it is.

  15. Owlmirror says

    I have a modest proposal that will certainly make everyone happy . . . !!

    Robert Dillon wishes to teach in a Woodrow Wilsonian style. The school wishes him to change the syllabus of his genetics course. Dillon refuses, since that would not be “Wilsonian”.

    Rather than change his Wilsonian syllabus, why not change the course to be an education course? And change the title as well:

    EDUC 666: Demonstrating the Clear Superiority of a Teaching Style Based on the Philosophy of Woodrow Wilson, Incidentally Using an Introduction to Genetics as an Exemplar.

    Surely everyone will be satisfied with this . . . !!

  16. Toast Museum says

    @2Christophe Thill

    Not sure I understand “bluegrass”. Like… music???

    Yeah, he puts on bluegrass music during his lab classes.

    I was a biology major at the College of Charleston about five years ago. I never took any classes with Dillon, so my firsthand experience with him is limited to a few brief, grating conversations. Opinion of him among those who had taken his classes seemed to be a pretty mixed bag. I’m kind of surprised he’s been reprimanded, as I recall him being a vocal proponent of the state’s hiring Confederate cosplayer Glenn McConnell as president of the College, a move which >90% of faculty disapproved of.

  17. leerudolph says

    Yeah, he puts on bluegrass music during his lab classes.

    Damn, and here I thought he had some particular insights on the program to hybridize Poa pratensis with P. arachnifera.

  18. drst says

    OK I hated writing learning outcomes. They’re tedious and nitpicky. But they are necessary. And I only taught for about 10 years if you include my GA period and I was always trying to get better at it. I quit teaching about 4 years ago and some part of my brain still looks at everything and considers if it could be useful to illustrate some concept. This guy is a fossil and needs to retire.

    A properly taught class, especially a large introductory one, should have a bell curve of grade distribution. There’s always going to be a percentage who fail those classes just from not showing up or doing the work (especially if you’re dealing with freshmen who haven’t grasped that they have to actually put effort in yet), but if I had more than 20% of students outright failing a class like that I would assume I did something really wrong in my teaching. (Likewise if I had more than that many As I would assume something was off.) I always looked at my grade distribution for each class. I analyzed every test I gave and if a question was missed by more than 50% of the class I would rework the question and the lesson plan to ensure I fixed it.

    Yet I get driven out of teaching by inanity and horrible colleagues and this dude is tenured. Ugh.

  19. jacobletoile says

    One of the best teachers I had in college was the one I liked the least as a person. He wasn’t very approachable, and, in general I found him to be unpleasant but he laid out the material in that class so well, everything built on what came before in such a way that it was almost like I already knew the material before I went to the class. It was almost like he realized he didn’t really like interacting with students and decided to be such a dam good teacher he wouldn’t have to ever see a student after class. I didn’t do a formal survey, but it was known that he was the teacher to take for that class. The worst teacher I had was the one who said, on the first day of his class, “Some of you are not cut out to be engineers and this is the class I use to figure that out”. He was awful.

  20. A Masked Avenger says

    A properly taught class, especially a large introductory one, should have a bell curve of grade distribution.

    GAAK! NO!

    I had a course chair who forced me to re-curve the final grades until they approximated a normal distribution with a mean of C and a standard deviation such that about 10% fail and 10% get A’s.

    There are lots of reasons that isn’t a reasonable expectation in general.

    And don’t get me started on the course chair who insisted that the distribution of course grades should match the distribution of final-exam grades…

    Both profs benefited from the fact that our university was far enough north that the ground was frozen most of the school year. If it were softer, and I’d had a pick and shovel in my trunk, and maybe a roll of plastic…

  21. says

    Students are paying money to take a course that Robert Dillon fails to teach well? Some of those students have taken out loans to pay for a non-education.

  22. says

    Yeah, no bell curves. A properly taught course would have difficult exams and challenging content and would get 100% of the students to master the subject, all earning As. That’s possible in my courses, but I’ve never achieved it.

    Actually, what I see is a bimodal distribution: a hump down in the Cs and Ds, and another up in the As. Once genetics ‘clicks’, it makes a lot of sense and those students breeze through. If it doesn’t, then the student has to brute-force their way through (ever seen someone do a Punnett square for a trihybrid cross? Agonizing and inefficient), and they don’t do very well.

    My practical goal is to see the lower hump shrink and more people move up into the higher hump…that is, I’m looking for the pedagogical trick that makes that click in their minds. Unfortunately, it’s different for every student.

  23. nmgirl2 says

    OMG! I am taking genetics this semester. My professor doesn’t even use a textbook because he feels that by the time it is published, it’s already out of date. He provides his own written material so that he can update it as necessary. He is also very clear about what research is widely accepted and what needs more research.

    We have a teacher like Dillon in cell biology. He too thrives on conflict. I was the designated questioner because I am too old and mean to be intimidated by a jackass and I kept asking until I got a real answer. Our school has not taken action against this professor so I am really glad the College of Charleston is looking into their problem child.

    In defense of some professors, I have noticed several cases of self entitled children who grew up in the “everyone- gets- a- trophy” society. I have told many of my fellow students that if they are too scared to ask a question in class, they are not mature enough to be in college and need to grow up NOW!

    In fact it came out last week that one of our local high schools prevents graduates from displaying honor cords at graduation because those without may get their fee-fees hurt. That pissed me off!

  24. Dr Marcus Hill Ph.D. (arguing from his own authority) says

    Holy shit. We have to give an explanation if a course has more than 10% fail, and if there isn’t a good reason to believe it was due to factors outside the course team’s control, produce a plan for improvement.

  25. nmgirl2 says

    Have to address the bell curve thing. I took Gen Chem 2 last fall and got a B. I am taking the class again this summer. Why? I learned nothing. My B was the result of a various generous curve of a low C/ high D raw score.

    Why? This was supposed to be a hybrid course with lecture and online activities. In reality, there was no lecture and it was ‘Teach Yourself Chemistry” online. I spent most of my time fighting with the online format and very little learning concepts.

  26. says

    Textbook out of date? That can only happen if the course is an advanced one, teaching stuff right on the bleeding edge.

    An introductory genetics course can use a 20 year old textbook and not miss out on anything. I mean, my course does have some stuff that wouldn’t be in a textbook that old — I teach them how to use genetics databases, for instance — but if can get them comfortable with Mendel and Morgan, I’m doing well, and if I give them a glimmering of McClintock and Monod, we’re doing great.

  27. Bob Dowling says

    Just out of curiosity, PZ, what are the learning outcomes for your genetics course?

  28. says

    Yeah, and also look at Dillon’s history. He’s not teaching classes — he’s a glorified TA coordinator and lab instructor — because he’s been progressively demoted and removed from more complex teaching responsibilities over the years. That says there was a big problem with a tenured professor that they’ve been struggling to isolate for a long time.

  29. A Masked Avenger says

    he’s been progressively demoted and removed from more complex teaching responsibilities over the years. That says there was a big problem with a tenured professor that they’ve been struggling to isolate for a long time.

    I wonder if this latest brouhaha really just means they felt ready to finally can his ass, and they knew that they could make reasonable requests for trivial effort and he would refuse?

  30. says

    I had a course chair who forced me to re-curve the final grades until they approximated a normal distribution with a mean of C and a standard deviation such that about 10% fail and 10% get A’s.

    Yeah, WTF is with the standard curve anyway? If you look at the edge-cases – as I was taught to during my classes on testing methodology as a psych undergrad at Fancy University – you can see that curves don’t necessarily apply to test scores. What if everyone gets all the answers right? Either the test is too easy or the students are thoroughly prepared or have cheated – but you can’t tell which from just the results. Fitting the results to a curve is clearly arbitrary. Ditto if nobody gets an answer right.

    Wouldn’t an undergraduate level knowledge of testing methodologies make us think that if we had test results that clustered rather than falling on a curve, that our test was probably badly designed? So it seems to me that grading on a curve is primarily a hack for hiding flaws in the testing methodology, masquerading as sciency stuff.

    Up next: grading using Monte Carlo methods.

    #include “feynman on testing in the social sciences.h”

  31. Johnny Vector says

    Slightly off-topic, but I did have a high school American History teacher who deliberately gave wrong answers from time to time, and actually made it work:

    On the weekly exam, we each graded the paper of the person in front of us, with him giving out the answers. A typical situation. But of the 20-30 multiple choice questions, he would occasionally give one wrong answer. Which he had explained at the start of the semester. You got credit if your answer was the wrong one he gave, and you got credit if you gave the true right answer and corrected it when he gave the wrong one. IIRC, every wrong answer was caught.

    In addition, you got credit if he gave the wrong answer by mistake. You were allowed (encouraged) to argue the point if you thought your answer was better than his. This gave points for confusingly worded questions. Over the course of the semester, I think this happened 5 or 6 times. In which case again you got credit for either the “right” answer, or the one that someone in the class argued could also be considered right, or just ambiguous. But you had to remember what you had answered, since you didn’t have your paper in front of you. I have far more respect for him and his admission that teachers sometimes were wrong, than I did for all the teachers and professors who thought admitting error showed weakness.

    It also helped that he was a very thorough and entertaining teacher, who encouraged actually thinking about history. (Like for example: Wasn’t it convenient that Panama just happened to have a US-friendly revolution right when we wanted to build a canal and their government was balking?)

  32. blf says

    On the correcting the professor during a lecture, there was one incident I’ll never forget, albeit I played no part in it. I have redacted a few details…

    This was an advanced maths course taught by a Field Prize winning mathematician, who had a Theorem named after him (I have no idea what his Erdős number was). He had recently reviewed for a Journal a very clever new use of “his” Theorem by another mathematician, and was now presenting it to the class. As he was summing up, one of the dozen-or-so students interrupted (paraphrasing), “Excuse me, Prof X, but X‘s Theorem only works if blah-blah — but here it does not look blah-blah to me, sorry, can you explain?” This was quite cleverly phrased, because as soon as the student pointed it out, it was obvious to everyone the necessary blah-blah condition did not hold, and so the Professor’s own Theorem didn’t apply. Oops!

    There was a moment and silence and then basically everyone — including the Professor — broke into laughter. He then said something on the lines of “I made a mess of that, didn’t I? I shall have to write a letter to the Journal immediately informing them of the error. This is going to be even more embarrassing, but thanks!”

  33. blf says

    #include “feynman on testing in the social sciences.h”


    […] Social science is an example of a science which is not a science. They follow the forms. You gather data, you do so and so and so forth, but they don’t get any laws, they haven’t found out anything. They haven’t got anywhere — yet. Maybe someday they will, but it’s not very well developed.

    A short excerpt of a longer excerpt from a BBC Interview with Dr Feynman, discussed here.

  34. mrcharlie says

    PZ, as I see it you’re a teacher and he’s a pedant. I know who I’d prefer in a classroom.

  35. Vivec says

    I’m down with criticizing economics and some social sciences, but it seems a little disingenuous to write off all social sciences as unscientific made-up-on-the-spot drivel comparable to alt-med nonsense.

  36. leerudolph says

    if [I] can get them comfortable with Mendel and Morgan, I’m doing well, and if I give them a glimmering of McClintock and Monod

    And your name is Myers, and you teach in Morris, Minnesota. Hmmm.


  37. drst says

    @PZ @ 23 – I disagree. I especially disagree that there should be a bulge of A students. There should be very few As in a class – people demonstrating exceptional work and an above-expectations grasp and engagement with the material. The majority of the class should be in the B/C range – understanding and progressing but not beyond expectations.

  38. A Masked Avenger says

    @drst – my experience teaching math is different: generally speaking the standard for a math class is pretty objective. You can either find the derivative, solve the integral, recognize a convergent series… or you can’t. It’s entirely possible for everyone in the class to meet and exceed the expectations in Calc 1, and if that happens we don’t just toss in some concepts from Calc 2[*]. We just give you the grade that says you more than met the standard.

    Exceptions arise, of course. If the entire class is advanced significantly beyond the material, as sometimes happens in mandatory courses, then a good teacher adapts. I taught one (and only one) class like that, and I basically gave them the final exam early in the semester and used the remaining time as a topics course.

  39. ragdish says

    Although I am in agreement regarding necessary elements of Dillon’s syllabus, I get a sense that this is another example of the college mandating conformity to a specific format in place of individual teaching style.

    I used to run a 2 week course in Neurology for 2nd year medical students. The college mandated that every word that I say must be in the syllabus. The objectives of each lecture must adhere to a specific format. Every PowerPoint slide must be annotated in the handout. Also, no more than 3 points per slide. No slide may be solely a picture. No more than 30 slides per lecture. In fact, the syllabus should be comprehensive enough for the student without even having to attend the lecture. Furthermore, all multiple choice questions have to be based on content in the syllabus and not on what the lecturer verbally states (unless it’s in the syllabus).

    This unnecessary policing of lectures made teaching extremely frustrating and I guarantee you did not churn out better doctors.

  40. Ambidexter says

    One of the worst professors I had taught Ancient Greek history. He had been teaching the same course for over 20 years and had his delivery down perfectly. He’d start on the hour and, 50 minutes later, end the lecture. He hated questions because any question threw this timing off. So he would ignore anyone with their hand in the air. The only way to get a question answered was to go to his office and ask it then. He’d answer it but of course only that one particular student learned from the answer. I didn’t take his Ancient Roman history class the next semester.

  41. says

    #38: I think we’re using “should” in different ways. In my perfect class, every student would master the material and get every answer on the exams correctly, in which case they should all get As. And yes, if I had those perfect students, I’d add more complex material and we’d get a greater spread of grades.

    But there’s nothing magical or necessary about the bell curve. Grades aren’t required to fit that distribution, any more than my students are required to have a perfect bell-shaped distribution of nose lengths, from 0 to 10 cm. I have a list of things I expect students to come out of the class knowing, and if they all know them, then of course they all get As.

    In the real world, though, I get a weirdly bimodal distribution, I typically fail about 5% of the class, and 10-15% master everything well enough to earn an A.

  42. Karen Locke says

    I took three full or part courses from one excellent instructor (mineralogy, undergraduate igneous and metamorphic petrology, and graduate metamorphic petrology). In the undergraduate ig-met class, we had an exam that went horribly wrong; half the students did very poorly, much worse than the usual distribution for a small upper-division class. Our professor corralled a few of us students and said, “what was wrong?” We all brainstormed for awhile, and decided that perhaps the lectures and the labs hadn’t been well-correlated for that particular segment of the class. So the professor published another study guide, which tied things together better, and wrote a replacement exam. This time the material came together for most people, the professor saw a grade distribution that made her feel she was doing her job, and we carried on.

    This is the kind of thing that good professors do; my instructor wasn’t worried about anything but that students were actually getting the material that she was trying to teach. She was a full professor and could have blown off the incident, but she felt she owed it to her students to teach the material well.

  43. Karen Locke says

    PZ, most of friends who are geology professors and teach introductory courses report bimodal distributions. This is at both community colleges and four-year institutions. Make of that what you will.

  44. Erp says

    The bit about ‘faith’ in one of the student reviews quoted above caught my eye so I did some searching; my conclusion is that his helping the student’s faith is only by being known to be an active Christian who is also a firm supporter of science including evolution. Dillon is fairly active in promoting evolution in his denomination (Presbyterian Church (USA), the liberal presbyterians) and he seems responsible for the college’s annual Darwin Week (since 2001, subtitle “Origins, Life, The Universe, Belief”). He also is active in supporting the teaching of natural selection and opposing the teaching of creationism in the public schools ( He seems to support the two spheres point of view ( His research output to my lay eye is reasonable. He is still publishing peer reviewed papers (specializing in fresh water molluscs) and has a book published by Cambridge University Press (Ecology of Freshwater Molluscs, 2000, paperback 2010, had a mixed review in Nature “Despite these flaws, however, it is a valuable resource for students seeking fresh research questions, readers looking for information about freshwater molluscs, and ecologists who want to see what freshwater molluscs have to offer”). So it is only his teaching that is apparently faulty.

  45. johnmarley says

    @Erp (#45)

    So it is only his teaching that is apparently fault

    His faulty teaching is the entire issue. Until you brought it up, no one had mentioned his personal academic achievements. What was your point?

  46. A Masked Avenger says

    PZ, most of friends who are geology professors and teach introductory courses report bimodal distributions. This is at both community colleges and four-year institutions. Make of that what you will.

    In my experience bimodal distributions are also the norm. Anecdotally, most instructors I know report the same. Many of them fall for the temptation to conclude that the two humps are the “smart kids” and the “dumb kids,” but of course nobody knows the real reason. Kids taking requirements they’re not interested in are liable to end up in the lower hump, along with kids who test poorly, and kids whose learning style doesn’t match the course format.

    I’ve never seen a bell curve, except when artificially imposed by the course chair.

  47. A Masked Avenger says

    Side note: I’ve never imposed a curve of any kind and been satisfied with the results. After a couple abortive attempts, I would never change the grading from that posted in the syllabus, which gave the percentage contributions of homework, tests, attendance, whatever, and the grade cutoffs. There were weasel words about the grade cutoffs being “guidelines,” and I’ve jiggled them slightly when it seemed called for, but that’s it.

    One prof’s syllabi contained grading guidelines I found hilarious. It gave a weighted average for computing raw scores based on homework, tests, etc., and then basically said, “I guarantee only that grades are monotonic: if student X has a higher score than student Y, then student X’s grade will be no lower than student Y’s.” I think he also gave cutoffs for a guaranteed A and a guaranteed F. And some implicit cutoffs, like “if you never attend class, your grade cannot exceed a C,” which can be used to reverse engineer the raw score below which you cannot exceed a C.

    AFAIK his grading was fair; I never heard complaints about the grades he awarded. I always thought extra credit should be awarded to the grade-grubbers who analyzed the syllabus for all possible conclusions about his scoring system.

  48. Dr Marcus Hill Ph.D. (arguing from his own authority) says

    I’m also used to generally seeing bimodal distributions of scores. Furthermore, I’m not just a mathematician, I’m an education studies researcher, and in my professional opinion norm referenced grading (“bell curve”), especially in cohorts of the size seen in single University level courses, is bollocks. Not only is criterion referenced grading fairer, it also allows students to see the criteria in advance and reasonably self-assess against them. Of course, this requires that the criteria (and the learning objectives which they measure) be explicitly written for the course, which returns us to the topic of Dillon’s inadequacy.

  49. chrislawson says

    Grading to a bell curve is an excellent strategy if your class has over 1000 students and you allocate marks randomly.

  50. N. Manning says

    PZ (and others)
    “Actually, what I see is a bimodal distribution: a hump down in the Cs and Ds, and another up in the As.”

    I get that for most of my classes. Sadly, for the last cohort or two, there has been a shift away from the As, so more Ds and lox Cs and few if any As.

  51. says

    The cause of the bimodality is easy to see in genetics, and it’s probably going to emerge in the exam I’m giving today. The questions are really easy if you catch on to the logic behind them, which immediately suggests a simple (and correct) solution. If you don’t get it, you’ll sit there all hour long trying to grind through a huge number of calculations, slip up somewhere, and get the answer wrong. So what I expect will happen, as it usually does, is that some of the students will have a little light bulb go off above their heads, and they’ll zip through the whole thing in 20 minutes. Others won’t see it, and will slog away for the whole hour.

    I suspect that also is the case in a lot of math classes.

    So like I said up above, what we’re trying to do is get the lightbulb moment to go off in all of the students, in which case they’ll all get As, and I’ll be very happy.

  52. whynot says

    I remember laughing during an impossibly difficult electrodynamics exam. I knew that I was getting at most one in four questions right with semi-intelligent guesses on a few more, and that I was one of the best students in the class.

    It wasn’t poor teaching – it was a lesson in humility. We were being shown what research-caliber problems would look like. I received a grade of 90%; I also received the message that while I might be at the top of the class I was far from being at the top of the world.

  53. says

    Ah the so misunderstood and abused bell-curve. I itch to chime in and cannot resist.

    Firstly it is wrong to use descriptive statement (that many natural phenomena when measured show bell-curve distribution) as a prescriptive command (that all has to fit bell-curve).
    Secondly bell-curve occurs in nature due to averaging/adittion of multiple, often infinitesimally small variables that themselves can have different distibutions (see central limit theorem for understanding how the math works). For phenomena that do not arise from composition of a lot and lot of small variables bell-curve is not necessarily to be expected.
    Thirdly it is important to decide what the grading is supposed to measure. If it is supposed to measure if a student has achieved certain defined level of knowledge (in order to for example being able to take more advanced course), all kinds of distributions can emerge and imposing bell-curve serves no purpose because in an overachieving class it would fail student swho reached the necessary niveau of knowledge and in an underachieving class it would let pass students who did not reach it. If the grading is supposed to sort and order the students relatively to each other, then bell curve might (just might) pop-up spontaneously quite often but…
    Fourthly there are plenty of other naturally occuring distributions depending on what and how is measured.
    Fifthly I am sick of managers who based on half-assed understanding of statistics try to use its descriptive findings as a fifth law of thermodynamics.

    To sum up – statistics does describe which distributions occur under which conditions, it does not prescribe that everything shall fit bell curve, despite the bell-curve being an extremely important thing to understand and grasp.

    That teacher sounds terrible. Intentionally giving students false information during lecture while being constantly arrogant and verbaly hostile to anyone who asks a question is an evident Catch 22 – students are damned if the shut up, and damned if the say something. And giving in a lecture false information on purpose is a bad teaching technique in itself.

  54. Excluded Layman says

    This is another fundamental liberal/authoritarian divide, isn’t it? Where authoritarians see an inherently stratified world — ie. there is one true, invariant distribution — and their responsibility is to set an appropriate threshold to keep the undeserving out. Meanwhile, liberals see an inherently diverse world with the distribution being circumstantial, and their responsibility is to shift the distribution itself.

  55. blf says

    I suspect that [a little light going on over the student’s head during an exam and the student zipping through the test] is the case in a lot of math classes.

    Well, it certainly happened to me. Logarithms in High School. I just Did. Not. Get. It. and was slogging through the exam, painfully slowly, when I came to the last(?) question, some gigantic fraction-of-fractions with most of the terms being multiplications-of-powers, or something along those lines, and had to solve it. (Sorry for being a bit vague on the details, this was so long ago the Sun hadn’t yet ignited.) Anyways, I do recall my reaction (paraphrasing), “There is no fecking way I can solve this!”

    It was obvious I had to rewrite it, using these bizarre logarithm thingys I wasn’t grokking, so I just stared at it and wondered how to rewrite it using the memorized-but-not-understood “rules” when BING! the light went on. I solved that problem quite quickly, and then went back and redid all the other problems (I have no recollection how many I discovered I got wrong). What I do recall is I got 100%.

  56. cjcolucci says

    Since this post on genetics crossed with the news of Patty Duke’s death, the burning question is whether identical cousins are possible. Perhaps if the same man impregnates twin sisters?

  57. David Marjanović says

    Perhaps if the same man impregnates twin sisters?

    Assuming they’re identical twins, that would just be the same as one man having two children with one woman. In other words: nope, identical cousins are impossible barring an impossibly huge helping of coincidences.

  58. schicksal says

    @ Toast Museum

    He was genuinely toxic as a human being. I learned of the news of this happening yesterday evening when I heard my wife laughing maniacally from the other side of the house. She no longer works at College of Charleston but had a few experiences with Dillon that were less than pleasant. In a nutshell, he treats support staff like they are dirt. Those who failed to address him in the exact name and title that he wanted (even upon initial contact) he would attempt to get fired, and his arrogance was greater than that of anyone else she assisted during her tenure there. She said he was genuinely unappreciative and that her group avoided anything having to do with him as much as possible since more often than not it turned into a big mess.

    I don’t believe in karma, but yesterday made me think twice about it.

  59. snap says

    So, y’all are comfortable with a faculty member being fired because the administration doesn’t like the content of a part of his syllabus that students rarely read, that has never been documented to affect student learning, and that the accreditation body has said they’re not too concerned about? (And we all fiddle as academic freedom burns… What other sections of your syllabus would you like the administration to write for you, I wonder.) And if you think it’s ok because he’s a jerk, well look over your shoulder- I guarantee there are folks at your institution who think you’re a jerk too. Rules don’t exist to protect popular people.

  60. says

    I’ve had this man as a professor, and calling him prickly is an understatement. Attempts to defend or understand him and his teaching style should be tempered by a first-hand account:

    He is not just disliked by students who do poorly in his class, and I would argue that he willfully chips away at his students’ sanity- his classes *actually* are like being dipped in boiling oil. He is verbally abusive. He is vitriolic. He belittles students every chance he gets. I had him for his Evolution class. I will never forget feeling trapped in this man’s office while he laughed at me and berated me for going to his office hours because I needed help on an assignment. I had the second highest grade in his evolution class and he called me stupid all the time (I am about to defend my PhD in evolutionary biology, FWIW, so I’m probably not actually stupid). Never more so than when I asked for help on problems I couldn’t solve in spite of diligent effort (come to find out probably because they weren’t solvable, by Dillon’s own account quoted above). He refused to answer my questions because, at the time, my bangs were pink, instead talking over me and saying “DO YOU KNOW THAT YOUR HAIR IS PINK?” repeatedly, in front of the whole class. He would say it when I walked into the classroom in the morning. He would stop mid-lecture just to say it. He indulgently humiliates students and takes a sociopathic pride in it. This action by the administration seems like a convenient excuse to remove a professor who routinely makes a point of belittling his students as often as possible and openly laughing with delight when female students cry in his classroom (he is /particularly/ nasty to female students). He gave me a B in his class even though I had a 93% at the end of the semester. I had to go to the department and argue for my actual grade. He just didn’t think I “deserved” the grade I earned, and his syllabus left off a grading scale so he could pull that move with impunity. He thinks an “A” grade should be awarded to a single student (if that student “earns” it) no matter how large his class is or how well his students do. This man makes me froth with rage. He well surpasses “jerk” territory.

  61. Dr Marcus Hill Ph.D. (arguing from his own authority) says

    Snap, the content of his teaching is not an issue in the official complaint. He’s in trouble because he hasn’t properly documented what he is teaching at all. In practice, we all write learning objectives with a deliberate amount of vagueness to allow us to adjust what we teach a little without having to jump through administrative hurdles, but the objectives do have to allow you to work out, without reading the rest of the materials, what the course is actually about. The fact that the guy is an arsehole and a shitty teacher is incidental in terms of what the administration are trying to get him for.