Dread teaching


I’m caught up on a lot of grading, but today I now have to explain while they got so much wrong. The mean on the last exam was 75, which isn’t bad, but a lot of students are certain they deserve an A on everything, so I have to tell them today that the grade they got was the grade they deserve, and then explain how to solve the problems correctly. Many of the errors were due to invalid assumptions. For example, some people were confused by the term “wild type” — they had it in their heads, largely from their introductory population genetics course, that wild type was simply the most common phenotype in the cross, so for instance, whatever the phenotype of the heterozygotes was in a simple hybrid cross, that was “wild type”. Yikes. So now I also have to reset my brain and stop assuming they know all the basic conventions.

Next bit of fun: we’re wrapping up a standard complementation assay in the lab, so I have to talk to them about writing up a lab report, which means that, while I’ve finished a painful backlog of grading, I’m about to tell them to create a lot more work for me.

Somehow, in all that, I also have to teach them about deletions, duplications, and translocations this week, and then next week we plunge into the happy world of recombination and gene mapping, and more math. Sometimes I wonder how I can keep going, since I’m pretty sure that by the end of the semester all of my students hate me.

Comments

  1. Ariaflame, BSc, BF, PhD says

    It does seem to be a common thing with students that any mistakes they make are your fault for not explaining it correctly (that they didn’t do the reading, turn up to class, watch the prerecorded lectures, or even do any of the practice work apparently has nothing to do with it, and it is also not fair of you to report them when they have obviously colluded or plagiarised). I know, I know it’s ‘not all students’ but sometimes I really do wonder why we do this.

  2. PaulBC says

    Many of the errors were due to invalid assumptions. For example, some people were confused by the term “wild type” — they had it in their heads, largely from their introductory population genetics course, that wild type was simply the most common phenotype in the cross, so for instance, whatever the phenotype of the heterozygotes was in a simple hybrid cross, that was “wild type”. Yikes. So now I also have to reset my brain and stop assuming they know all the basic conventions.

    This brings up something I dislike about the way testing and grading is typically carried out.

    I agree that if someone is unclear on an important concept they should not get a rating of “excellent” and go on their merry way. On the other hand, if they can just go back and fix their mistake, they may leave with a deeper and more permanent grasp on the subject matter than if they had crammed for the test and got everything right just that one time before forgetting it all and moving on to the next thing.

    Ideally, a grade should be neutral, objective, and useful feedback. It reveals the gaps. You fix the gaps and then leave having learned something. But it’s usually presented as a competition in which the first time around is what counts, and you carry it forever. It’s good to have a little pressure, but this is part of the reason I can at least sympathize with a student who got a 75 and feel they “deserve” more. They probably don’t “deserve” a better grade on that one exam, but that exam should not be a weight against further progress. In practice, it may turn out to be and that’s a big problem assuming the goal of education is for people to leave with the best understanding of the material that they can.

  3. Christian Copley says

    “this is part of the reason I can at least sympathize with a student who got a 75 and feel they “deserve” more”

    Depends, for me, on the effort they put in to start with. I put a lot of time and energy into being approachable to my students, and if they don’t take advantage of all the offerings I have to help them BEFORE the exam, then I am less “concerned” about them after the exam. If someone is generally struggling with the material, and they are willing to put the effort in up front but fall short, I am prone to find ways for them to learn and improve without carrying previous failures like an albatross. I agree that the system of lecture/exam/tears/repeat may not be the best for all students, and I am not a stranger to flouting it entirely when I think there is a better way. Being an adjunct at a community college also might be making that easier because class sizes don’t balloon to insane levels, which of course presents another flaw in the design of a lot of college courses.

  4. Sunday Afternoon says

    Looking back at my undergraduate days, the fondest academic memories I have are of the hardest class. Perhaps surprisingly, this was in the second year of four. The rate and difficulty of hard to grasp concepts made for slow progress, but it made what came later seem comparatively easy.

  5. JustaTech says

    Genuinely the worst professor I had in college (I was very lucky with professors) was the Molecular Biology professor who was notorious for grading an exam with things like “Vague, -5”, and then refusing to meet with students between returning one exam and giving the next, so there was no opportunity for the students to learn what exactly their mistakes were so they could correct them for the next test.
    (I knew the prof had free time when he could have met with students because I watched him read the newspaper in the library every morning while I worked the desk. He was such a bad teacher, and also did so little research that the year after we brought our very specific and data-based concerns to the Dean, the (tenured!) Mo Bio prof had found himself a new job elsewhere.)

    PZ sounds like the exact opposite.

  6. PaulBC says

    Christian Copley@3 Yeah, I understand. Of course my least favorite question as a teacher was always “Is this on the exam?” (The world has been spared my teaching incompetence for about 25 years running and we’re all happier that away.) I would like to explain interesting things and have people learn them. The focus on testing is not entirely useless. Otherwise, we’d all be dilettantes. But at the same time, I think the main beneficiary are those who want to create rankings, not teachers or students.

    So in short, if someone really wants to learn something, I don’t think it matters if they were confused the first couple of times they attempted it. On the other hand, if they’re there to run the race and get their ranking, then I suppose the system is fine and they ought to accept the results without complaint.

  7. whheydt says

    In one Physics class I was in, the average score on the mid-term was 17 out of 100. UCB later decided that the text book for the course was not only not suitable for lower division students, they weren’t even sure it was suitable for undergraduate courses.

    For fun, I took a two-quarter sequence on Navigation (one quarter was Terrestrial, the second was Celestial; never actually got to set hand on a sextant though, darn it). The course were given by the Department of Naval Science…aka Navy RotC. The instructor was an up and coming Navy Air Lieutenant. The TA was a Chief with about 30 years in on his retirement posting. The Chief was a much more interesting character than the instructor. The instructor announced the first day that the course would NOT be graded on a curve. He noted that everyone there who was in the RotC program (I was the lone exception) would probably be responsible for navigating a Navy ship at some point in their career, and just being a bit better than the other guy wouldn’t be good enough. They actually had to master the material.

    My wife spent a number of years doing clerical work at UC Berkeley, and at one point audited a class in Greek. There was an advanced placement high school student in the class as well. My wife put in a lot of work and she got one of the As on the midterm. The high school student got the other A. The rest of class did very poorly, and rather resented it.

  8. fergl says

    A colleague of mine while lecturing on recombination, decided to use props consisting of coloured bands with crocodile clips to make things clear. It didnt go well! Ending with a messy ball of bands. Still have a chuckle about it now and then when Im feeling evil.

  9. DaveH says

    I (PhD student) am currently TAing a 200 level genetics course, so these same topics.

    My university made at least one good decision and upped TA support for a lot of classes during the pandemic. The profs for this course have seized on that and used it as an opportunity to transition away from multiple choice memorization questions to long answer conceptual ones, which of course require a lot much more marking time. But they can be open book at home, so we don’t have to even worry about all that.

    Many of the students have only dealt with MC exams up until this course, and I am having to explain stuff like “When the question is 5 marks, you should write a long paragraph or so, covering about 5 things. If it is 10 marks, you are usually looking at a page or so. Etc.” The argue every mark pre-med types are just not comprehending the whole situation, despite the fact that with the GPA system, anything over an 85 in the course doesn’t matter. Note, we are in Canada, not the States, it is generally tougher grading: an A- here is 80, but is equivalent to an A- in the US which (correct me if I am wrong) is generally 90.

    The desperation about not getting 10/10 on every question is getting a bit grating though.

  10. says

    My freshman year of college, I had “politics” as a class. I got a F grade on the mid-term since I responded with my “liberal” views instead of the professor’s “conservative” views. Realizing this, I got straight A’s for everything else in the class and got a B so I did learn to say what the professor wanted to hear. It seems highly unlikely that you are that type of professor.

  11. Christian Copley says

    @Sunday Afternoon: Same. I loved the harder classes that were hard because there was a lot to learn/understand, not hard because the instructor artificially made it that way. I mainly teach 100-200 level biology/chemistry classes, and I struggle between “hard enough” and soul crushing. I want people to LOVE Biology, but I want them to give it the appropriate respect and effort. These are bedrock classes that are the foundation for what they will do later. They deserve to be challenged without having their inquisitive spirit crushed. It’s even more annoying that they frequently expect me to want to crush their souls. It’s like playing dice with your eyes closed and having the numbers on the dice change randomly in mid throw. Zatoichi I am not.

  12. Jado says

    See, everything you said in this post is in English, and I recognize most of the words. But when you put them next to each other like that, I am totally lost. Although that’s not too much of a surprise as I crammed for the Bio CLEP exam to get college credit for it without taking the class during my sojourn through the Higher Education system in pursuit of my engineering degree.

    Bio has always been a mystery to me. I guess if you can’t stick a wrench on it, it just doesn’t compute for me. Good luck to you and your students thru these hell times, and may we all get back to the classroom soon.

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