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Grading policies and equity March 28, 2019

Posted by mareserinitatis in engineering, physics, teaching.
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When I was a grad student in electrical engineering, I had to sit in on a couple of undergraduate courses to fill some knowledge gaps.  One of the classes I sat in on was the second semester of circuits.  The prof had a very interesting grading structure: he only graded you on whether your answers were right or wrong, although you had to show your work.  Then he took the grades and renormalized them to fit a bell curve.

The whole “all or nothing” approach was quite intimidating, but I can see why it made sense in classes of 60-100 students and why he would then use renormalization to determine the grade distribution.

When I taught physics for the first time, I thought that renormalization would be a good way to handle the very frustrating bi-modal grade distributions that pop up.  I would move the class average up to where I thought it should be and while Fs were generally still Fs, I found that they were Fs that could be recovered from with a lot of hard work.  For students with low frustration tolerance, this will probably make no difference and they will shut off.  No one wants to fail, but not everyone has the experience to know how to handle it constructively, unfortunately.  However, there are a number of F students who, with some mentoring and pep-talks, step up and get their grades into the passing range.  Those students later become very solid students because they understand that hard work will get you a lot farther than brilliance, although I think we all recognize that brilliance can give you a bit of a boost.

I have discovered, not surprisingly, that this grading method is a problem because even most A-students at that level don’t understand statistics.  Numerous times in student evaluations, I had students complain about how someone would get a 10 point increase in their grade while they managed only to get a 3-point increase.  They failed to realize that the 10-point increase was still an F and their 3-point increase bumped them from a high C to a low B.

As I am not one of those teachers that believes “you have it or you don’t,” I find this frustrating.  Often times the students who do well in the classes had opportunities in high school that others didn’t or were simply more focused on their educational goals.  More than once, I have had students whose parents were not educated and advocated that their children go to trade schools.  The children agreed that was what they would do, foregoing advanced math and physics courses until a school counselor or math or science teacher saw promise in the student and suggested that engineering would be a suitable profession.  Of course, the student then comes to college a couple years behind their peers and is expected to perform similarly.

This is a macrocosm of the equality vs equity argument you often see discussed when talking about efforts to broaden the demographics in STEM fields.  An excellent discussion and the graphic below can be found here.


It’s unintentional, but students complaining about grading policies, in this instance, can be an example of how people unwittingly reinforce the status quo.  The student who received three points (1 box) is only aware of that the other student received 10 points (3 boxes) but is unaware of the fact that this student started from a spot that was lower than their position.  Fairness is too often tied to the notion of equality.

I’m still struggling how to explain grades and point differences in terms of fairness, equity, and equality to my freshman classes.  Any of my students will tell you I’m a hard grader, so it’s not that I’m handing out participation prizes.  However, a little bit of a leg up right in the beginning of someone’s college career can make the difference between their long-term success and failure despite the fact that it seems unfair.


Midterm reviews October 27, 2016

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, teaching.
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I scared my students to death yesterday.

“Pull out a blank piece of paper.”

The look of total panic was hilarious.  Probably not for them, though.  I shouldn’t have been so amused by it, but it didn’t occur to me until I saw their faces that they thought I was going to give them a pop quiz.

No, instead I gave them a few minutes and left the room while they wrote down, anonymously, a couple things they liked in the class and a couple things that needed improvement.  I told them that the comments needed to be constructive, though: if they don’t like my hairstyle or my wardrobe, I really don’t care.

I was kind of scared to look at the comments, but I was actually very impressed with the quality of the feedback.  I’ve never had end-of-semester evaluations give me this kind of information.

Some of the comments were expected: nearly half complained about the ungodly earliness of the class.  (This is something that doesn’t bother me except that half of the class will fall asleep on lecture days, so it will be changed in the future.  I personally am in favor of early a.m. classes.) I only got one “the instructor is very nice” comment.  I have mixed feelings on comments like that, but I was happy to also see that they liked how the class was structured and said I gave good explanations.  Those are the kinds of things I DO like to hear.

On the negative side, I had a couple complain about the number of ethics problems, so I will have to explain to them about this little thing called ABET.  A couple were confused about the grading, so I will also have to discuss my grading rubric, although I won’t be changing it for the one person who said I graded too hard.  One person wasn’t sure what the point of the class was.  All of these are fair questions that I think can be easily addressed.

Then there were the mixed bag things: some hate the book (or its expense) while others love it, some feel class is too easy while others feel it’s too hard, some like the pace while others feel it’s too fast, etc.

I was surprised that there were more students who wanted more group projects than those who wanted less.  Apparently the group work is actually a positive thing, so hopefully that means I am structuring it well (or well enough).

And, best of all, they definitely got the message that I really don’t care what they think of my hair.

Curriculum litmus test February 14, 2014

Posted by mareserinitatis in engineering, physics, teaching.
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I received the written comments back on my student evals from last semester.  I had a number of students who were very annoyed with the final project.  The previous two years, the final project consisted of a Matlab project.  After thinking about what a pain that was, I decided to change to a new project: a paper of 10-15 pages that has each student discuss their goals for getting through college.  The general consensus among those who commented was that the project required too much work for a 1 credit class.  There were several comments about how most of the other sections of this class don’t require as much work as I do, but the paper was just too much.

I’m sort of used to the comments about how much work my class is.  I state up front that they can expect 2-3 hours of homework each week…for a 1 credit class (that is, we meet once per week for an hour).  I also figure they had better get used to it, given the expectations of many of my colleagues.

I did find the comments slightly disturbing, however, because the implication seems to be that what I’m asking them to do is a lot of busy work.  In a lot of classes, many students feel that they’re spending a lot of time doing things that they will never do again outside of college.  They’re right, in a lot of cases.  I took a ton of math as an undergrad, and Mike likes to tell people that I’ve forgotten more math than he ever learned.  Sadly, the longer time goes on, the more I think he may be right.

The class I teach, however, is an academic skills class.  This means I am teaching them how to get through school, particularly in the engineering curriculum.  Do you know how to take notes?  What are the key things that are important?  Can you write a lab report?  Do you even know what area of engineering you’re going into?!

These are the things I’m trying to teach them.  My goal isn’t even to get them through the engineering curriculum, though a lot of the things I assign may be geared that way.  I simply want them to get through school and graduate.  I tell them this.  It perplexes me, therefore, how they can view setting goals as a waste of time.

I really have put a lot of thought into my assignments.  I want this class to be useful, and so I ask myself if each activity is something that will help them learn a skill they’ll need to get through school.  In a lot of ways, I’m at an advantage: college is a very constrained environment, and I can tell what skills are useful until they graduate.  After they graduate and get a job, however, their classwork may or may not be very valuable.  It’s something that simply can’t be predicted.

I have had students come back to me and say that they are really glad I taught the class and they do use the skills that I taught them.  I’m just not sure, however, how to make it clear to the freshman in my class that I really am not trying to torture them and that I do want them to succeed.  I can only hope the ones complaining about writing their goals are so motivated and driven that a lack of clearly stated goals has absolutely no bearing on their performance in school over the next 3 1/2 years.

A useful exercise November 19, 2013

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, engineering, older son, teaching.
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Since I began teaching this class, I’ve had this nagging question in my head: is what I’m doing effective?  I’ve contemplated inquiring as to whether anything changed in terms of retention or GPA of students who went through the class before versus after I started teaching.  It would be good to track that as much as possible, so that I could see if changes in the class manifested in changes in those retention-type numbers, although I wonder if I would be able to evaluate micro-changes in the class that way given other issues seem to swamp data about student behavior.  (It may just be me, but I’ve noticed that when the economy is good, more of my students seem to be interested.  When it’s not good, I have a lot of students who are back in school because they think it’s the only way to get a better job or the students are very pessimistic.  It seems like the attitude of all of the students get pushed in pulled in ways like that.)  It might also be a good thing to put on my resume.  Wouldn’t it be impressive if I could say something about improving retention in the dept. since taking over the class?  Having quantitative data saying you’re an effective teacher certainly can’t hurt.

On the other hand, I’ve wondered if it was worth the time to do so or if the school would give me some reason why they couldn’t provide me with that kind of data.  Or worse yet: what if I didn’t like what I saw?  (It’s easy to attribute favorable changes to one’s efforts but seems hypocritical to evaluate negative changes as being out of one’s control.)

When I started teaching this class, which is supposed to be an academic skills class for freshmen, it was done as whatever each teacher wanted it to be.  I imagine most people put a decent amount of effort into it, but there was one year that apparently didn’t go well.  A former classmate told me that when he took the course (a decade ago?), the prof decided that, being engineers, they didn’t need academic help: they needed social skills.  They spent the entire semester playing fantasy football.  I wish I was kidding.

When I put the course together, I came up with “everything I wish I’d known as a freshman plus all this stuff on how to learn and study effectively (because I’d been reading a ton on learning disabilities because of older son) along with things I’ve observed my students really ought to know even if I knew those things at that age”.  So, I jammed a lot of stuff into the course.  And, as I said, I have no way of knowing how well it’s working as the only feedback I’ve had was student evals (which, I have to admit, have been much better than I anticipated).

At least, I didn’t until today.  I had requested to have some upper-level engineering students come to my classes to talk about their experiences and answer questions.  One student went through my class last year.  At some point, she said, “I bet you all think this class is a waste of time.” She continued, saying how useful the class was in transitioning her from high school, where she didn’t have to work much in order to get good grades, to college where things were more challenging.  She mentioned a couple of the project-type activities I had them do and said she’s using that information a lot in her upper-level classes.

I was surprised.  That’s exactly the kind of thing I’m hoping to hear, but I was surprised that she began discussing that unprompted.  (I had only mentioned in introducing her that she was a former student.)  It’s made me wonder how many other students have similar perceptions being a year or two into the program…and whether I need to rethink my view of trying to get concrete data.

Annual review February 28, 2013

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, teaching.
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I suppose getting evals once a year (since I’m currently teaching only in the fall) is sort of like having an annual review.

I have to say that I’m rather pleased with this year’s review.  Of my four sections, I did have one ‘dud’, where the scores were noticeably lower than others.  However, in all classes, I generally was at or above the average.  Given I have now earned a reputation for teaching the hardest sections of the course, I think I’m a bit proud of that.

I had all of four comments:

Pointless class!

She was very helpful when working on our schedules.

Does a very good job teaching everything.

The most interesting comment was this:

You assumed too much w/the final MATLAB assignment. People who have never programmed would never understand for loops and “if” statements.

I am amused that this person was so concerned about their peers that they felt the need to tell me I was expecting too much.  Or maybe they were mad because they themselves didn’t understand and didn’t want to admit it.

I find it interesting because the whole point of the unit was to learn some basic programming…and I consider loops to be fairly fundamental.  I also explained them in class.  Even more important is that this student may not have clued in yet to the fact that one is supposed to learn new things in college, not just stuff that one knew before.  That being said, the vast majority of the students were able to finish the assignment and did just fine.

I’ll just take it that I’ve officially reached “too high in the ivory tower” status.

Evals, part two April 21, 2012

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, engineering, teaching.
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I got my ratings for teaching last semester, which I discuss here.  I didn’t get back any comments, however.  When I went down to campus this week, I found out that the secretary for the dept. has to type all of the comments in and give me a typewritten copy…and they’d been sitting in my box for two months.  (I didn’t realize I still had a box since I wasn’t teaching this semester!) This is apparently to maximize the anonymity of the students.

Of the 90ish students, 11 left comments.  I’m kind of surprised because it seemed like before, fully half of the students left comments.  Usually I like to pull out a sample, but since there are so few, I’ll just put them all down…numbered so I can refer to them more easily.

1. Relatively easy course.  Good use of Blackboard. Made communicating easy and quick.

2. She didn’t do a very good job of explaining some assignments.  She was a very nice teacher, though.

3. Cherish is a good teacher.  I just don’t think this course is necessary.

4. Need to learn more about the fields.

5. The course was interesting and I enjoyed covering some topics.  Cherish is very good at covering topics and explaining things.

6. This course has some good content but I don’t think the majority helps out.

7. LOL

8. A very interesting course.  I learned a lot about what being an engineer means.

9. Very good job with the class. The extra help in figuring out my next semester was very helpful.  Thanks!

10. I very much enjoyed this class. The instructor made it fun.

11. Set up syllabus that is actually going to be used.  Changing it multiple times is too confusing.

First, I was amused at #7.  I wish I knew what part they were LOLing about.

That said, I have to say I’m overjoyed with the comments.  I’ve really never had comments that overwhelmingly positive.  (Yay for teaching engineering students!) There was actually some good feedback in there, as well.

I’m glad #1 liked the use of blackboard.  I’ve decided that I’m going to use it more than I did this semester.  It made it so much easier to keep track of assignments.  There are probably two or three assignments that can’t be submitted on blackboard, but I’m going to require all the others be submitted that way.  Also, I’m going to spend a lot more time explaining how to use it as some students were really confused once we got into things.

Number 2 said I didn’t do a good job of explaining some assignments, and I think that’s a very fair observation.  When we were talking about lab notebooks and reports, it was very clear that some of the students were confused as to what I expected.  Having been through it once, I have a much better way to frame out those assignments in particular for future use.

Numbers 3 and 6 are probably the same sort of thing.  Realistically, I’d say that half of the students in the class really didn’t need the class.  On the other hand, you can never tell which students are going to be in the half that do, so they hit everyone and hope it sticks.

Number 4 – that was another assignment that needs work.  For that assignment, I had student groups give presentations on subfields of engineering.  It was obvious that I need to provide more guidance about what sources to use.  Some of them got very fixated on one little aspect of the subfield and didn’t give a very good overview of the subfield as a whole.

The last comment is probably the only one that annoyed me.  I told students at the beginning that the syllabus was subject to change, and being the first time I’d taught the course, I pretty much guaranteed it would change.  So how many times did I change it?  Once, and I made a mistake on the homework list that needed to be fixed near the end of the semester.  Honestly, I’ve had teachers who give a syllabus and then don’t even bother to use it…so I guess this will be a learning experience for that student.  (BTW, my ‘syllabus’ included a full list of lecture topics, assignment requirements and due dates, etc. so that they pretty much had everything laid out for them.  It wasn’t the typical, “Here’s your books, grading scheme, and office hours.”  You know that’s going to require a revision when you’ve never done it before.)

I have been asked to teach this class again in the fall…along with one or two others.  I have some choices to make, but given how well this one went, I really think I’d like to do it again.

Evals! Oh happy day! February 6, 2012

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, engineering, teaching.
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I had to make a run down to campus and, while there, I picked up my evals from last semester.  Apparently there were no comments on the evals because I just received a sheet for each class summarizing my ‘grades’.

I had been dreading this day for quite a while.  I had a couple of cranky students at the end of last semester.  I was also worried.  When teaching geology labs, it seemed like I got some very pissed off students who left simply nasty evals.  (I discussed this on my old blog a couple times.)  Compared to some of the other TAs, my evals usually came out worse.  A lot of this had to do with the perception that I was a harder grader.  In reality, I graded more easily on labs and more harshly on exams, so my averages were about the same as everyone else.  But that’s not what the students think.

Anyway, so I sat down with my numbers and discovered that some classes had better or worse perception than others.  For instance, my first Thursday class gave me the lowest scores (3.6 out of 5 for a couple questions) while the class right after that gave me the highest scores (4.5 of 5).  My Tuesday classes were somewhere in between.  The smallest class was the happiest, but the largest class wasn’t the unhappiest.  I’m not sure what happened with that one Thursday class, though, as it was a lot lower than the others.  Maybe I need to make sure to regale future students with my huge stack of nerdy science jokes.

They said the average for the department was around 4.2…but I realized that they were talking about the University Studies department, not engineering.  (The class is listed under University Studies, but some departments choose to have their own teachers for the class, as was the case for the sections I taught.)  I’m actually relieved that my scores were on par with the rest of the University Studies department given I heard many complaints about how much more work my students had to do relative to other sections (which weren’t being run by engineering).  Despite the fact I “worked them to death,” they were still okay with it.

That’s good because it’s not going to get any easier for them.

It’s looking,therefore, like last semester went as well as could be expected, especially given it was my first time teaching it and the whole thing was an experiment.  I wish there was some way to see if the kids really did get anything out of it to help with their long-term academic goals, though.

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