May die of discouragement soon

I need to vent. I’m grading lab reports, and one of my banes is this: students who assemble a series of tables and plunk them into the results section with no text narrative. Nothing to glue them together. Just Table 1, Table 2, Table 3, I’m done. I tell them in Cell Biology that I hate this, that it’s completely unacceptable, and these students have gone through cell bio. I tell them again in Genetics; I tell them I want them to imagine that all of their tables and figures fell out of the manuscript, but I can get the gist of what the results are from the text. I tell them that a table or figure does not exist if it is not referenced in the text. They’ve done one lab report earlier in the semester, in which this rule was reiterated, and I gave them big fat zeroes on their results section if they committed this sin. Then have to know by now. I’ve emphasized it so many times this term. I tell them in lab. I tell them in lecture. I warn them that this is a huge peeve of mine, and students keep doing it despite my tirades, and this year, finally, I hope the whole class will get it.

First 6 student lab reports: they just have a string of tables for a results section.

Jesus fucking christ. This isn’t hard. Can I just give them all failing grades, quit my job, and apply to be a Walmart greeter? They’re doing worse than they did on the first lab report.

I am not encouraged to continue, but I must. If the next lab report fucks this up, I’m going to explode and my poor wife is going to come home to an office painted in blood and body parts.

I had to think back to the instructions I gave the students with the first lab report.

Introduction. You should explain what a complementation cross is, and you should explain what each of the mutants, scarlet and brown, do. I will not be expecting an extensive literature search; citing your textbook and will be adequate.

Methods. Think back: you did a cross of st x st and bw x bw just to make lots of flies. You isolated virgin females to cross st x bw (and maybe did a reciprocal cross) and generate F1 flies. You then crossed the F1 flies to make an F2 generation. Explain all those steps! Imagine that your methods will be used by next year’s students to replicate this experiment.

Results. The core of the results section will be the data that is currently in a spreadsheet on Google. Reformat that into two pretty tables. You don’t have to include the entirety of the raw data; you might want to sum up particular categories. It’s all up to you how you present it. NOTE: Just the tables will not be an adequate results section. You must have a text narrative that explains the tables.

Discussion. Now interpret the results. Tell me what you expected, summarize what you observed, and do some statistics. Did what we saw fit the expectations? Remember that you looked at multiple phenomena. Are the sex ratios what you expected? Was one mutant more viable than the other? Are there anomalies in the data set, like maybe some groups got completely wacky results? Explain what must have happened. Another NOTE: there’s always a tendency to agonize over what went wrong. Try to emphasize the positive conclusions from the experiment.

I pretty much told them exactly what I expected. I also went over this in lecture and lab. I don’t know what went wrong, so I’m just going to blame COVID-19.

Lab reports are all graded now, and I didn’t die, yet. I’ve got to escape, though, so I’m going out for Mexican (I’m vaccinated! I can!): fish tacos and a margarita should help. Then I come back to do the next big assignment.


  1. sc_262299b298126f9a3cc21fb87cce79da says

    Is Incomplete still a thing? Of course, first time only.

  2. brucegee1962 says

    I have the exact same problem trying to teach freshman comp how to do MLA citations. There is a chapter in their textbook that tells them how to do it. There is a link on the class to a website that tells them how to do it. There are numerous assignments and entire class periods where I walk them through the process. I have individual conferences where I explain how to do it, and why the successful completion will be a major part of their grade. Yet they still can’t do it correctly.
    Students, this is what your professors are talking about at faculty picnics these days. How about it, young persons? Why is your entire generation incapable of following a printed page of simple instructions? This rather bodes ill for the nation.

  3. nomaduk says

    Our K-6 school has students in 6th grade reading at a 2nd grade level. Nothing I’ve seen indicates that any of them can write their way out of a paper bag.

    I put all the blame squarely on the Internet and computers in classrooms.

  4. says

    These students can write. They do really well on the introduction & methods, sort of OK on the discussion, but for some reason, they just stop writing when they hit the results section.

    If I survive this afternoon and get through this pile, I’m walking to the Mexican restaurant in town, having some fish tacos and a margarita, and staggering back home.

  5. nomaduk says

    Fish tacos, margaritas, and staggering sounds like a perfect way to spend an evening.

  6. hurlingfrootmig says

    Checklists are good for this. Give them a set of printed checklists at the start of the year. Tell them to not hand in a report without a completed checklist. Give a few marks if the checklist actually matches the the report. Take marks away for an incomplete or incorrect checklist or a report handed in without one.

  7. NitricAcid says

    I hear you. Every year I give students more and more explicit directions on how to write up lab reports, because I’m sick of spending an extra 20 minutes on each one playing “hide and seek” with the answers I’m looking for. I tell them that for a conclusion, I only want one single sentence, generally along the lines of “Sample A was found to contain 25.44% copper, and was thus copper whateverate thisahydrate.” or “Unknown Aldehyde 5 was determined to be 2,4,6-trinitrobenzaldehyde.”

    Instead I get, “The sample was determined to be…”
    “My sample was determined to be…”
    “The % copper in Sample A was successfully determined.”
    Or three paragraphs repeating everything that was already said in the “Answers to Questions” section.

  8. Who Cares says

    Do what one of the better teachers I had did when we were supposed to do a group project and every single ‘group’, including mine, did the same parcel out who’d do this project and who’d do that project. He failed the entire class for the simple reason he determined after questioning the groups that was handed in was not a group project, which was according to him a shame since there were quite a few projects that would have garnered an B+ to A if it would have been an individual project.
    And yes that was the first trimester he was a teacher or everyone would have known how to behave.

  9. says

    #8: Yes. This was a straightforward cross: the F1s tell you that the genes are X-linked, the F2 test cross tells you the order of the genes and map distances. I told them what the purpose of the experiment was. I told them I expected to see a map in their discussion. Half are forgetting that they did an F1 cross, half are failing to report the major conclusion of the experiment.

    #9: I’m not that harsh, but yeah, I told them they needed to cross check what each section contained. Worst offender: so many lab reports where whoever wrote the results got carried away and wrote what was basically the discussion, and the person who wrote the discussion never references the results.

    This lab is going to kill me.

    The only salvation is that some students are doing a superlative job.

  10. jrkrideau says

    You biologists are so slack. Follow Psychology’s approach. Madly insane, prescriptive formatting, etc, etc, rules and nasty penalties for violations starting in the first Psych course ever taken. This does produce generations of paranoid/haunted graduates but one gets results that are consistent to the point that they can be evaluated for errors by a computer program—and I mean if the SD is inconsistent with the mean in a table. Rigid, us?

    By the time a student is in 3rd or 4th year they write love-letters in APA Style. Note this applies to nuclear technicians and nurses as well as psychology.

    For a taste of APA paranoia see APA Style Blog

    That said, I was once on a team in a gov’t agency writing a report; a colleague and I noticed that Figure 2 had no reference in the text. It took a lot of persuasion to convince tho lead researcher that this was NOT a good idea.

    If the next lab report fucks this up, I’m going to explode

    No, no, much better the student THIS BLOWS

  11. says

    No, no, no — I hate APA style, and it’s what the students all get taught before they get to my classes. Every year, I get student after student asking if citations should be APA style, and I say NO. Use CBE, or just follow the Pechenik style guide, which recommends (Author, Year) format, like any sane journal.
    Throwing APA style guides on top of this lab report would be tossing napalm on a bonfire, as far as I’m concerned.

  12. garnetstar says

    I have to agree with those above: the seniors I teach fail to follow instructions too, and they get graded down severely, to get them to do it every time afterwards.

    Then they tell me that they should get the points deductions back. And, that I’m a mean mommy when I don’t do that and make them follow the rules.

    At least no one died in my chem lab class this semester, from not following directions when handling the chemicals. That’s the most I can hope for now.

  13. says

    Here’s an idea…..

    Early in the semester/throughout, have them read scientific papers. Then don’t call them lab reports, call them scientific papers. Then you can tell students that upon completion (or even before completion), you will need to write a scientific paper on your findings including the data you obtain during the course.

    Students could work on their intros before the experiments are complete, the methods as they conduct them, and make figures/tables and write up the narrative as it comes in. Upon completion of the studies, the students would then have to write a discussion based on what they found.

  14. NitricAcid says

    Lorax @15

    That would work if there was a limited number of reports I had to read. However, I generally get 20-30 lab reports a week, and I’d go insane reading that many “papers”. I give them a specific format to follow so that I can get through them more quickly. If I can shave off six minutes per lab report, that’s three hours a week i can spend doing something less painful. I want to see the answer to question 1, then the answer to question 2, then the answer to question 3. I don’t want to hunt through three paragraphs that have the answers to questions 5, 2, and 1 dispersed with vague waffling about the experiment, and then another page which has the answers to questions 3 and 4 interspersed with similar waffling.

  15. brucegee1962 says

    The “whether” part of teaching MLA citations (and APA citations for the second level classes) is out of my hands — it’s part of what we have to teach.
    Personally, I think it’s stupid. I teach at a community college. Maybe half our students go on to four-year schools, which is high for a cc. How many of them will go on to grad school, where writing with MLA will actually be useful? But we teach MLA because the four-years want it, and the four-years want it because the grad schools want it. It’s dumb.

  16. leerudolph says

    I have never before had the experience of looking back at years of grading (undergraduate) mathematics and feeling relieved.

  17. says

    @#3, brucegee1962:

    The MLA always struck me as the single worst style guide available (I had to use two others during the course of my ill-spent academic career). When I had to use it, the examples in the manual itself always seemed to emphasize whatever piece of information was least-available about a work if any were dubious or missing, it took ages for them to recognize new source types (like web pages) and when they did they devoted less thought to it than to citing outdated technology like vinyl records, and even after more than a decade of computers being the most-used method of composition it was formulated as though everyone was using a manual typewriter. (Oh, and of course there’s also the price, which was and remains ridiculous.) I went back and looked at a later edition, out of idle curiosity, about a decade after I no longer had to write papers using it, and with the exception of providing a few new source types, it was every bit as terrible and useless as I remembered. That thing needs to be relegated to the trash heap of history, and the authors need to be put into their long-overdue retirement.

  18. says

    Oh, no. Now all the student complaints about their grades are flooding in. Good thing I have it in writing on the course web page saying what the criteria for a good grade are.

    Also, good thing I had that margarita with my dinner.

  19. jrkrideau says

    Every year, I get student after student asking if citations should be APA style, and I say NO.

    Total mistake . At least they have some idea of what they are doing. What biological format do you recommend? Vancouver or is that a medical format?

    I hate APA style, and it’s what the students all get taught before they get to my classes

    Then it seems they are not taught well. APA at its very, very, basic says reference your sources. If you do not want references then APA is useless.

    Citations styles in APA Style are basically irrelevant. And mad.
    Oh, APA raves about it but APA Style is totally another thing. APA is about how it write a behavioural research paper.

    Essentially APA Style says that you will present your propositions. research. and results in as standard a format as possible. And you will document where any ideas come from.

    You will also format and label figures and tables in a consistent manner, understood across the various psych disciplines.

    In a more pedantic manner, I do not know about MLA but APA tells you exactly how you should present a table or reference a graph. I know exactly where to look for certain key statistics.

    I am sure it is a lousy style for many uses but for a simple bio paper? It seems to work for nuclear techs—well based on one friend.

  20. rockwhisperer says

    I remember hearing echoes of your complaints from my MS thesis adviser in geology, back when I was writing it in 2012-2013. I got Dave to sign off on my paper after four drafts. At the end, he told me that ten drafts was his average, because his students really balked at writing and interpreting their results. That struck me as the whole damn point of the exercise.

  21. dragon hunter says

    Very interesting. This was one of my biggest frustrations while teaching. They just included a list of tables and figures in the results, and they couldn’t by the life of me understand why this was not ok. I kept telling them, just write a description of what you think I whould looking at in those tables/figures. Don’t worry about how long and how fancy the writing style is. Just write something. And… most never did! I’m sure they know what was expected of them, and they still didn’t do it.

    After consulting many students on this, I concluded that the problem is they don’t know how to read those. They don’t know themselves what information they should be taking from those tables/figures. Given that they get points from the other sections, and that a grade is considered to be agood grade from about 60%, they make a strategic decision to just not wrtie anything. This way, they ensure that what is there is correct.

    So I’m afraid the solution to this, is to just fail anyone who doesn’t write anythin g in the results. But this would not be the pedagogical correct approach, and so it continues.

  22. blf says

    The mildly deranged penguin points out that exploding with Margarita in-hand makes a much more satisfying and LOUD bang than either by itself.

  23. jrkrideau says

    @23 dragon hunter
    They just included a list of tables and figures in the results, and they couldn’t by the life of me understand why this was not ok.

    Hence the value of APA or some equivalent. In second year you failed if you did this. And you had no excuse because you had the APA Manual as a guide.

    You needed to know what goes where and “exactly” how to present it. Probably down to the number of decimals! Psychology and a number of other disciplines enforce this by terror but it works.

    As an aside, there is nothing strange where I live to hear a bar-tender and a customer in an earnest discussion about how many authors go in a citation in APA Style.

    What PZ and others are complaining about is a lack of this (overly?) rigid format.

    The format may very well not work in the biological sciences but what sounds like a total lack of agreed-upon format does not seem optimal.

    PZ says
    Every year, I get student after student asking if citations should be APA style. Use CBE, or just follow the Pechenik style guide, which recommends (Author, Year) format, like any sane journal.

    Um, APA uses the (Author, Year) format. We whine that Vancouver does not.

    However students in a psychology/nursing/nuclear technology course never have to ask. They have already learned the format and the accepted way to lay out, format and present a paper. Again, not necessarily optimal for a biology paper but it works in Psych

    @ 16 NitricAcid
    If I can shave off six minutes per lab report, that’s three hours a week i can spend doing something less painful.

    Ever wonder why your colleagues in the Psych Department looked so relaxed? Not only are lab reports in that format but so are journal articles.

  24. garnetstar says

    Nitric Acid @16 is exactly right, that’s my exact same experience.

    And now, I’m also getting the flood of whines about them getting the grades that their perfomances earned. As PZ says, the only thing to do is state in writing beforehand exactly what performance merits what grade.

    Then monotonously repeat, over and over, to every single student, “That you ‘worked hard’ is irrelevant. Grades are not assigned (not “given”) for effort: grades are only assigned for performance.”

    None of them, obviously, have never been Olympic-level figure skaters, where you learn the hard way that only your performance, on that one night, counts.

  25. Craig says

    I think you might consider rewriting the part about the text narrative in next year’s course requirements. I would bet that students don’t read that far and that they may sadly not understand the construction, “Just the tables will not be….”

    I’d write as a separate paragraph:

    “IMPORTANT: You must have a text narrative that explains the tables. The tables by themselves without a narrative will not be an adequate results section.”

  26. blf says

    On text narratives, I once got so frustrated I wasn’t getting any feedback on proposed designs I deliberately included the full text of Jabberwocky in the design, as a separate section and listed in the ToC (table of contents), to see if I would get questioned, presumably along the lines of “what is this doing here?”

    I didn’t. From memory, I got no feedback at all. Nothing. Not about the (presence of) the poem, nor the proposal.

    It wasn’t even hidden. It was in the fecking ToC. It had nothing at all to do with the design, technology, or as far as I can now recall, examples. It was just stuffed into the design with no context or explanation. (I did, later(?), write something which did use names from the poem in the examples.)

  27. garnetstar says

    Craig @27, yeah, you would think that that would work, and it would with anyone who has even marginal adult life-skills.

    But, in actual practice, it doesn’t. My syllabus states the rules and then says, in bolded red all-caps, “Reports (that do not follow this rule) will not be graded and will get a zero.”

    Those are the ones that students call me a mean mommy about when I enforce them, because they “didn’t notice” or “just forgot” the bolded red all-caps text.

    And, they are seniors! Good luck in a job!

  28. garnetstar says

    But again, let us all who deal with this consider the silver lining: it is much better for the students to encounter the enforcement of rules now, when the consequences are only low grades, than when they are, say, forty, and telling the IRS that they “just forgot” to sign their tax returns. That will not end well.

  29. jrkrideau says

    @ 28 blf

    Lovely. Reminds me of a friend who always started his essays as an undergraduate with an epigram(?) that he wrote himself. No one ever noticed.

  30. chris61 says

    A number of commenters here seem to be more familiar with citation styles than I am so maybe someone can satisfy my curiosity. I recently read a paper in which the student cited all references with more than two authors as (author 1, author 2 et al., year). The paper had numerous serious problems so I didn’t bother to comment on this one but is this an actual citation style?

  31. birgerjohansson says

    (cautiously peeks around corner)
    If PZ is done grading , I recommend sleeping a whole day, and resting as much as possible the folliwing days.
    I say this, because more than one of my colleagues have suffered burn-out and had to change jobs or take a year off.
    And this is in administration, not in the possibly more cognitively stressful University environment.
    Watch out for headaches or sleeping problems.

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