How to make your professor cry

This is the last week of the semester, and I have been buried in grading, nonstop. Term papers were due this week, lab reports, a quiz, etc., and they all have to be done by Thursday to clear the decks for finals next week. That doesn’t make me cry; it’s in the syllabus. This final surge of work for me was planned.

Here’s what kills me.

One third of the cell biology lab grade comes from a big final lab report, describing an independent project they’ve been working on for the past month. I spelled out for them that 75% of the grade on that report is based entirely on reproducing the structure of a formal scientific paper. You know the drill: an introduction that explains why you’re doing the experiment; a methods section that describes how you did the experiment; a results section that describes what you observed; a discussion that interprets your result; and a few other little things, like an abstract and proper citations, etc. I told them that 75 points come literally from just following the form, before I would even dig into the content of their work. (This is a sophomore class, with students who may not have even read a scientific paper, let alone written one, before this year, and simply mastering the structure of the scientific literature is a goal.)

I’ve gone over all this in class. I’ve given them a big ol’ handout I wrote, titled “How to write a scientific paper”, that spells out that structure. I gave them a talk on the subject.

One of the things I told them is that a paper is a text narrative with a formal structure, and every section of the paper is a tightly focused short essay, with rules. Your intro references prior literature in the field, here’s how to write a citation. Your methods are detailed enough that another student could replicate what you did in the lab. The results section includes your data, which may be in the form of tables, graphs, and illustrations, but it also must be a text narrative that summarizes that data and references any figures you use.

I emphasize that bit. I tell them that every year, some students will turn in a lab report that has a results section that is just a jumble of figures after the word “Results”, and that without an in-text reference those figures don’t exist as far as I’m concerned, and without any kind of narrative, they have basically turned in a major section of the paper as a blank, and they get zero points.

There is a section of my write-up on how to write a paper that specifies common problems. This is the very first one.

Missing results. I say it over and over again, but still students turn in a results section that is a jumble of figures and tables and contains no coherent narrative. Write a story about the results! Tell me what you saw, don’t make me try to extract it from a pile of data.

I pound the white board. I tell them “DON’T DO THIS”.

They turn in their lab reports. Most are fine. But again, there’s a group that turn in an empty results section, just a hodge-podge of disconnected charts.

I weep.


I give them so many opportunities. The week before it’s due, I set aside every day from 9-1 for office hours; I tell them, “Please stop by with your rough draft, I’m happy to look it over.” Some do. I caught one report with the cursed empty results section last week, and I was overjoyed to explain to them what they needed to do to fix it, and they did! Their lab report this week was lovely. Lots don’t. I spent many lonely hours in my office, away from my spiders, but at least I got some grading done then.

I even tell them that while it’s due at the end of the lab period this week, I am willing to look it over at the beginning of the lab period for any egregious problems, and they could patch it up and reprint it for submission. Curious fact: it’s the students who are fairly confident of their work who ask me to check it over. The ones who assembled it at the last minute don’t bother. Really, I don’t judge at that point! I just want them to get it right and do well.

Later, I judge. Unfortunately, I tend to judge myself more, and a little tear trickles from the corner of my eye.


This is student evaluation week. Also predictable — students will complain that I didn’t explain this essential component of their lab grade well enough, that I wasn’t available in my office when they needed help, that they didn’t get any guidance from me.

At least at this point there are no more tears, my heart just hardens a little more.

Next year…what do you think will work better? Getting down on my knees and begging, or breathing fire and rage, to get that one little point across? I would love to see one year before I retire in which every student pays attention to this one simple requirement.


  1. nathanieltagg says

    My educator thoughts:
    Telling them NOT to do something often is not good for retention. After all, they’ve not done that thing yet, and had no plans to. In the worst case, I’ve actually reinforced bad habits bu talking about them: they remember I talked about it, but not that it was bad.
    In my experience, explicit instructions not to do something usually fail.

    Some ideas: keep a few reports (or construct your own) Use class time to have students grade those reports. They can spot the issue if given a comparison. A bit of think-pair-share helps here. I’ve done this with intro physics assignments with some effect.

    Another is to have them try and fail early. Can there be a micro-write up they can do earlier? Simply practicing form? I my sophomore lab I usually have at least 6 write-ups, just to iterate. That’s not always feasible, but even a single tiny version can give them a chance to fail early.

  2. says

    If they’re not familiar with the form and literature, include exemplars — perhaps even commented — with the course pack. (Use your own pieces if necessary!) And go over them both during the first week of class and about fifteen days before they’re do. It’s sort of like successfully landing an airplane in that there is a “manual,” but seeing it done correctly is more valuable than any list of things not to do.

  3. says

    Can they write? Perhaps they are intimidated by writing paragraphs of text, and more used to tweeting and instagram-ing. In effect, they just instagram-ed you a bunch of posts, each of which is a figure. I am told that students are less and less willing to write long-answer responses on tests, and that teachers have to go to short-answer or multiple-choice formats. In this case they seem to have said “because data” and think that this is enough, or at any rate all that they feel able to say.

  4. says

    One of the things I have done in teaching is get other students to review the work.

    Group them in 3s (you can just ask them to group themselves in 3s) and have them pass their own paper to their left. This way no one is reviewing the work of the person who is also reviewing theirs. They don’t have to give grades, just a 3 check rubric that requirements are unsatisfied, satisfied, or exceeded. There should be multiple requirements in each section (like “did the paper use proper citation format” for that section 1 formatting bit you wanted them to learn) that get this simply check-box treatment. Then ask for one sentence about what a person liked and one more for what the reviewer didn’t like or wanted more or whatever. (Strength and weakness can also be used instead of like/dislike if that’s more appropriate).

    Make the first version of the paper due the class before they have to hand it in to you. If it works in your grading system, make points available for being in class that day and reviewing someone else’s work. (if it were me, I’d make 5 of the 75 points be whether or not they have their feedback page stapled to their final paper. The one weakness is that this makes one person’s grade dependent on whether or not another person remembered to keep hold of that review and turn it in. I’m not sure how you want to handle that, but there are ways and I’m sure you can come up with something. For me, I think I might ask for them to bring 2 copies of the work to be reviewed, one to hand in to me and one to pass to the peer reviewer. I assume that if they handed one in to me, that they also performed a peer review even if the person that they reviewed didn’t turn in that review sheet stapled to the final paper. My teaching context was different, so I used this in a slightly different way which didn’t create the problem you would have to solve.) They do the feedback exercise during class, and then they have a couple of days to fix the things that weren’t done satisfactorily. Then when they turn in the final paper, hopefully everyone will have a proper results section.

    If they have to judge someone else’s work as satisfying requirements (or not) and they’re going down a checklist that on the results section asks, “Is a narrative present? Is there an in text reference for every single graph or figure?” then in checking others’ work they’ll be hammering home what they need to do in their own work. And, of course, they’ll get the feedback sheet from that other class member with a big check in the Unsatisfied box for that requirement. They can then use that checklist – including but not only for the results section – to prioritize revising and polishing their papers.

    I cannot emphasize enough how it is impossible to teach something without learning it, and how it feels very uncomfortable to be put in the situation of judging someone else’s work without knowing how to judge it. As a result, reviewing others’ work tends to be an exercise which gets students to learn these things better than my grading and responses ever could. I’ve had people cite others during these review exercises for making the same mistakes that the reviewer made in their own work … and then that error immediately shows up a lot less in their own work. It really takes advantage of the fact that convincing someone else that you’ve learned something (bullshitting) is a lot easier than actually teaching that something to someone else. And it takes advantage of peer pressure, which is always ubiquitous and may as well serve as a force for good once in a while.

    This peer review process has honestly been the best teaching tool that I’ve ever used (and I certainly didn’t come up with it, so give me no credit for it, okay), and it sounds like it would be perfect for exactly this kind of thing.

  5. says

    I suddenly remembered that I didn’t say you don’t have to grade the review copy they turned in as proof they engaged in the review exercise. It’s peer review only.

    Just note that it’s present, that’s all. Doesn’t add to the grading load at all, and if the whole exercise reduces your stress over students failing to follow the instructions, then adding 10 seconds to grading each paper for the time required to note the existence of a review copy and add a check mark to your records is going to be WELL worth the trouble.

    One other thing is that this seems like it would take up valuable class time, but you might have been reviewing the requirements and answering questions about the paper during class anyway. If this merely replaces that, then you not only break even, you actually get better value (or at least I do) since the review exercise produces better results than lecturing about expectations.

  6. redwood says

    Agree that saying “do it this way” works better than saying “don’t do it this way.” But I understand the feeling of wanting to tell them not to do what you’ve seen countless students do in the past.

  7. says

    To your suggestions: They get a handout with positive examples of how to write a paper already. I quoted the bit at the end from a section that lists common problems, but seriously, I’m not telling them what not to do — I have to explain how to do it, first. It’s just that this has been a repeated problem so I emphasize this one frequent error. The “don’t do this” is always in the context of “here’s how it’s done.”

    These are group projects. They typically have 3 students working on this one paper. One source of the problem is that they sometimes divvy up the sections between different authors, and don’t even look at the other students’ contributions before turning it in. I’ve told them to have one student responsible for assembling and reading the whole paper, to provide consistency and make sure everything is present. Some of the groups do, others don’t.

    Peer review works great when at least one of the peers knows what they’re doing. I fear some of it is reinforcing what they don’t know.

    They have plenty of opportunity to get the paper reviewed with no grading penalty. They do three weeks of experiments, and then there are two weeks of writing and (potentially) review. They are told to come to me for a preliminary assessment; it’s optional, though, so they don’t.

    One thing I may do next year is make a review of a rough draft required — it would probably make this one problem disappear at last. The catch there is that one of the purposes of this exercise is to teach them to do experiments independently, without a lot of hand-holding (the hand is there if they ask for it, but they have to learn to be disciplined and responsible, too).

  8. Dave says

    Does Morris have a first-year composition course? If so, talk to the director of the program and push for a change in the curriculum to incorporate some science writing. I’m a composition instructor (PhD in English Lit), and my experience is that most of these writing programs are designed and run by English majors for writing English essays, when they should be about teaching the writing students need to succeed at university. If the writing staff is smart and realize that their continued viability depends on being a service to the rest of the school, they’ll make the appropriate adjustments.

  9. garnetstar says

    PZ, I so empathize and sympathize! I know your frustration exactly.

    Sadly, for all the excellent methods you’re using and that others have mentioned, there are some students who will refuse to do well no matter what. No. Matter. What. They choose not to make the required effort.

    To compare small things to the great ones you’re going through, I can’t tell you how many times, in my chemistry lab instructions, that I’ve printed a warning in all-caps large bold red font, to the effect of “If you don’t handle this chemical like I say, you will die.” I still get students who don’t follow that, and I have to snatch them out of the jaws of death during lab. When I ask why they didn’t follow the instructions, they say “I didn’t notice them.” I once asked one of them what I could do to make them notice, and I was serious, but he just stared at me.

    Learning is a collaborative enterprise, and if students don’t want to do the work, if they don’t choose to try, they won’t. No matter what a professor does, they choose not to participate. Then they usually whine about the wholly-predictable consequences.

    Honestly, I can post the exam answers ahead of time, and there are students who will not bother to learn them well enough to just repeat them.

    PZ, there is one comfort: isn’t it far better for these students to learn about the consequences of not following directions now, rather than when they’re, say, forty, and dealing with the IRS? (Or, even worse: an airline.)

  10. garnetstar says

    To summarize: you can lead them to water, and you can even take them by the back of the neck and shove their faces down into it, but you can’t make them all drink.

  11. mmfwmc says

    Ideas I can think of:
    1. Maybe split the assignment up? Write a description of your experiment according to the methods section, submit. Write a results section submit. Bonus is that the marking is broken up a bit. (This would have the benefit of showing them that they don’t have to write the paper in the order it’s read – I usually write abstracts last, and I assume others do too). They get feedback immediately, and maybe there’s a final “tie it all together” section
    2. Make them actually type out what the grades require at the top of their assignment. At least then they can’t complain. Nevermind, they’ll complain anyway. :)

  12. says

    Next year…what do you think will work better? Getting down on my knees and begging, or breathing fire and rage, to get that one little point across?

    I was raised by an abusive, authoritarian father. When I went to college, I was afraid of many of my college professors as I feared they would be as harsh and judgemental as my own father. That damaged my college experience and I know darn well my grades suffered as a result. If one of my professors had breathed “fire and rage,” I suspect I would have been even more likely to perform poorly in their class. So I have to recommend against that approach.

  13. barbaz says

    I feel your pain. I once had to grade a paper about some new UI concept the students developed and tested. It was really good work. But the paper did not contain a single image m/

  14. kome says

    I just looked at the UMM Biology department’s website, and it doesn’t appear that your department has a targeted research methods for biological science course required of students before they get to Cell Biology. That certainly makes your task here much more difficult. It looks like the two Biological Communications courses are the closest thing, though, so maybe that’s just what your department calls it, but it appears that those are generally taken AFTER the students take Cell Biology.

    Maybe the solution isn’t in how you teach material for writing up a scientific paper in your Cell Biology class, but in making a structural change to the department and degree requirements so that students are taught, explicitly, some degree of how biological science is communicated and written up before they have a lab-heavy content course. That way, they come to Cell Biology having already been exposed to the kinds of things you’re instructing them to do for their final lab report, so your handouts and examples and instructions are reinforcing and reminding them of what to do, rather than being the very first time they’ve ever had to think about it.

    I can’t imagine asking the department to make such a change to the expected course schedule for your various biology majors will go over easily or be implemented easily, but it might be worth proposing at a faculty meeting. Alternatively, whichever of your colleagues teach Biological Communications probably has some materials you might be able to adapt for use in your class for this assignment.

  15. kome says

    Also, as a weird suggestion, and I have no empirical data to back this up and this is instead only a result of conversations I’ve had with professors over the years, maybe multiply your course’s grading scale by 10 for all your assignments. So, instead of a 100 point final paper where 75 points are for structure, the paper is worth 1000 points and 750 come from structure. There’s something potentially psychologically more motivating to students to care about where 750 out of 1000 points are coming from than 75 out of 100, even though proportionally that’s the same thing. Again, zero data to back this thought up, I’m not sure if anyone in education or psychology has researched how students respond to different grading scales, so take this suggestion with a grain of salt, but it might be worth thinking about.

  16. Bruce says

    Early each semester, require students to pick the most helpful comment on THIS blog post, and say why.

  17. archangelospumoni says

    Music major here, explaining much: a music professor doing the vocal music ed class began a semester with his pet peeve, which began “part of the class material is the structure/anatomy of the human music-creating ‘voice’ equipment and if anybody spells it “vocal cHords” with the “h” you will flunk this class. Get that down please. We deal with chords all the time but . . . I promise you will get an F.”

    We chuckled as he was actually being light, but we all remembered to this day.

  18. chris61 says

    Maybe make your grading requirements more detailed. Some number of points for an abstract, some number of points for an introduction, some number of points for the written part of the results, some number of points for figures and tables (and maybe specify they only get these points if the figures and tables agree with the written part of the results), some number of points for the discussion, some number of points for the literature citations.

  19. jrkrideau says

    Ah the good old days of writing research reports. It might not work in biology but in anything from psychology to nuclear engineering technology, with a shortcut through nursing, the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association is invaluable. And it is available in English, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, Romanian, Polish, Greek, Thai, complex and simplified Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Arabic and Turkish.

    Millions of students have been traumatized learned the basics of scientific writing using it. It even has its own blog, APA Style Blog.

    It may be a bit excessive but it sure installs the basics of report writing. The new slimmed-down seventh editionis only 428 pages. IIRC the first edition had about 60.

  20. says

    @chris 61:

    some number of points for figures and tables (and maybe specify they only get these points if the figures and tables agree with the written part of the results),

    The problem is that PZ is already telling them that the figures don’t count for anything unless they’re referenced in the results section text. This is only going to help those people who are already primed to read and follow the instructions.

    The question is how to get people who otherwise would not read the instructions to actually read them – read them AND internalize them. It’s a thorny problem.

  21. dianneleonard says

    At least it sounds like you are consistent in what you want, having students write something that is like an actual scientific paper. Back when I was an undergrad, I took a seminar where most of the grade was picking a topic and writing about it in the format of a NSF grant application. Including a budget. I still have mine. Unfortunately, copies of the papers were passed around and the students got to “vote” on which applications would get funded if they had the choice. I remember the papers I read: mine was the only one that included a budget, a literature search, and some other stuff. Unfortunately, I chose to do something a bit off the beaten path, and I was ranked dead last by the other students in the class. No attention at all was paid to the fact that I had at least followed the requirements and nobody else had. I tried not to cry in class when I got this news. The faculty member told me to stay after class, and told me she’d ranked my “application” the highest in the class, and failed the students who hadn’t at least followed the format. I’m not saying my paper was wonderful–I know it had problems, and I cringed when I looked back on it when I was in grad school. Moral of that story–follow the directions, but don’t expect deathless prose or even good judgment from undergrads. Applying for grant money is hard enough without idiots in charge.

  22. says

    I feel with you. At least my students have the excuse of being 12b but they get all flustered when I refuse to explain their task for the fourth time when they didn’t even bother to open their books the first three times I explained it.
    I encourage and praise and cajole and (midly) cuss, but in the end they have to decide for themselves.

  23. Who Cares says

    Dang reminds me of one of my teachers, spent 1 day not at work but teaching. He did add that in addition to what he was teaching the practical would be a team effort since you don’t work alone in most companies. The group would need to have at least put in some effort to make the result requested but basically anything beyond handing in a crayon drawing by a 5 year old would allow the group to pass. Unless it wasn’t a group effort. At least half the new people to his class didn’t believe him when he said he could figure it out. He was capable of it.

  24. says

    The week before it’s due, I set aside every day from 9-1 for office hours; I tell them, “Please stop by with your rough draft, I’m happy to look it over.” Some do.

    In university (and also at school) I never asked my professors for help unless I was desperate and had already failed to figure out on my own how to solve my problem. I always felt bad and guilty about wasting another person’s time.

    I never imagined that a professor might feel frustrated about not being asked for help.

    I always assumed that professors should feel frustrated about having to spend lots of time answering questions from countless students who ask trivial questions, because they didn’t even try to figure out the solution on their own.

    I guess my problem stems from feeling insecure about various social interactions—I worry about being a burden or being annoying.

    I just realized that I’m still behaving exactly the same. Today I had an idea for a blog post that would require unusual formatting. My thought process was: “I’ll do a google search for how to format blog posts in wordpress, if I totally fail to figure it out on my own, I can send an e-mail to other Freethoughblogs bloggers and ask for advice as the last resort.”

  25. Kevin Karplus says

    Lectures and written instructions don’t help with the bottom of the class—they pay no attention to lectures (if they even show up) and they don’t read. What does help is to have 5 assignments rather than 1 assignment. Many will totally screw up the first one, but by the fifth one, 98% of the class is doing passing work.

  26. Porivil Sorrens says

    The idea of seeking out professors for out-of-class help seems so foreign to me, though I suppose that’s a product of my Law School experience. All of my professors had strict “do not contact me for any non-administrative matter, substantive questions will be deleted” policies, and none of them had open office hours sessions.

  27. FossilFishy (NOBODY, and proud of it!) says


    I weep.

    I witnessed this firsthand. My music theory prof once returned an assignment in class saying “I couldn’t pass any of them, I feel like I’m a failure as a teacher…” at which point he began to sob.

    Pretty sure that’s not an effective teaching strategy. Didn’t help me anyway.

  28. FossilFishy (NOBODY, and proud of it!) says

    archangelospumoni #17

    …if anybody spells it “vocal cHords” with the “h” you will flunk this class.

    Ha! Had a prof say something similar, though not so vehemently. I was okay through. My girlfriend at the time was a speech pathology major and always referred to them as vocal folds.

  29. says

    My girlfriend at the time was a speech pathology major and always referred to them as vocal folds.

    I have an ex who is still my best friend. While we were living together she got her Speech Path degree and I had “vocal folds” drilled into me as well. I can even tell you the differences between plosives and fricatives and voiced and unvoiced consonants. Fun!

    (Of course, I still can’t read all that IPA crap. I’ve got some letters down, but too many are still inscrutable to me.)

  30. says

    Crip Dyke @# 30

    Of course, I still can’t read all that IPA crap.

    IPA isn’t crap, it is pretty amazing. I love it, and it can be useful for learning foreign languages. Never mind that it is an essential tool for linguists who are researching languages. (As I have done, my degree is in linguistics.)

    The standard English spelling is what’s a piece of crap. Of course, IPA wouldn’t really be suitable as an everyday writing system either, but it’s great for its intended purpose.

  31. cvoinescu says

    Andreas Avester @ #24:

    “I’ll do a google search for how to format blog posts in wordpress, if I totally fail to figure it out on my own, I can send an e-mail to other Freethoughblogs bloggers and ask for advice as the last resort.”

    That is the correct approach for technical questions. I’m sure bloggers here are a helpful bunch, so you could have asked as the first resort, but, in general, you’re more likely to get a helpful answer if you point out you’ve made an effort yourself first.

    I used to spend an inordinate amount of time in an Undernet IRC channel answering questions about C and C++ programming. Saying what you tried yourself before asking for help allows me to gauge your level so I can answer with the appropriate amount of detail. More importantly, the fact that you bothered to RTFM or to debug your program shows me I’m not going to waste my effort. (Also, all helpers had “we won’t do your homework, but we’re happy to answer specific questions” as a macro.)

    IPA isn’t crap, it is pretty amazing. I love it, and it can be useful for learning foreign languages.

    I second that. IPA is wonderful.

  32. Rob Grigjanis says

    Andreas Avester @24:

    In university (and also at school) I never asked my professors for help unless I was desperate and had already failed to figure out on my own how to solve my problem.

    At the universities I attended/worked at (as undergrad, grad and postdoc) it was standard practice to have grad students available to help with undergrad problems. Given the different backgrounds of individual students, I’ve always thought that was a great idea. They (me, for a couple years) weren’t there to give solutions, but to explain what they might have failed to understand from the course or textbook. It worked on several levels; saved the prof’s “valuable” time, helped the student, and helped the grad student cement their understanding of the basics.

  33. reynardo says

    Oh your pain. I hear you so hard.

    When I was doing my degree in Education a couple of years ago, the lecturers emphasised that references must be used, and pointed us to the library’s web site for an example sheet for ALL the formats for references, with examples, that all we had to do was copy and paste the example and then change the names and other details to the ones from the articles and books and such that we’d used. Dead simple. I think the only problem I had once was that I was referencing a tweet and this wasn’t yet on the list.

    Most of the rest of my class had no idea how to do it, and I spent a LOT of time showing them how, showing them the button beside most of the online documents that gave an instant reference in the right format …

    I pity my poor lecturers.

  34. says

    For references there are even internet tools where you can type in the raw info and the website spits back a properly formatted citation.

    Of course, there are multiple citation styles and you have to accurately tell it which citation style you want (MLA, APA, etc.), but it’s still way easier than trying to make sure you got every last period and comma in their places.

  35. jrkrideau says

    @ 35 Crip Dyke
    Re Citation styles etc. I recommend the opensource biblio system Zotero for this sort of thing. At last count it seems to have the formats for a bit over nine thousand publishing styles. It does make life easy in that it it takes about three mouse clicks to change a paper from MLA to APA to Acta Astronautica style (well I have not personally used this one.)

    I was going to say it might be a bit of overkill for PZ’s students but no. They should learn to use modern tools when they are starting. It is a bit like teaching students to use a word processor rather than a typewriter, back in the old days.

  36. mineralfellow says

    Hi PZ,

    Could you possibly share the exercise and examples? I am trying to set up a similar type of semester-long mini research project for students in Geology, and I would love to have a framework to use.