Day: November 4, 2014

Wrong, Wronger, Wrongest (Adventures in Grading)

In science, a potential answer to a problem is either right or wrong. But when it comes to teaching and learning, and especially grading student exams, there is wrong and then there is WROOONG.

Here’s an example. Let’s say you need to compute a certain distance that has to do with the behavior of electrons in a nanostructure.

Correct answer: 160 nm

Incorrect answers:

Wrong: 300 nm (wrong, but within the order of magnitude)

More wrong: 1.6 μm  or 1.6 nm (wrong order of magnitude, but still meaningful, within the scales of nanostructures)

Nonsensically wrong: 1.6 m (height of an adult woman) or 1.6 fm (size of an atomic nucleus; fm=10^(-15) m). While it may seem that mistaking the 160-nm length for a macroscopic height of a woman is more silly and thus more wrong than the nuclear size, the latter is actually “wronger” because it is 8 orders of magnitude off (versus 7 orders of magnitude for the former).

Two things that we don’t teach our students enough, that we perhaps don’t insist enough on, are minding units and building intuition about orders of magnitude. They are amazing, priceless tools for sanity checking.

Taking It Easy

Reader TheGrinch asked if I would be taking it easy after the mad dash to proposal submission. I said sort of, not really. I feel like I am taking it easy this week, but I don’t actually feel particularly rested. And I could still use more sleep.

Here are the things I have to accomplish this week.

  • Read through the dissertation draft of one of my students who is defending in a few weeks. There are several published papers inside, but I still have to read the whole thing before it goes to the entire committee.
  • Grading the midterm administered a couple of weeks ago. It’s for an undergrad class, I don’t have a TA because it’s an elective (I also teach the discussion), so it’s just me. I usually try to cheer myself up with colorful pens. The orange one isn’t doing the trick today.
  • A letter of recommendation for my REU undergrad researcher applying for a fellowship.
  • A proposal to review.
  • Two outstanding paper reviews that I am a little late on because of my own proposals.
  • Regular teaching prep  (probably about 2-3 hrs per week), teaching (2.5 hrs), and discussion (1.5 hrs), assigning homework and writing up solutions (2-2.5 hrs). Also office hours (these I can usually use for something else, as few people show unless there’s an exam coming up).
  • I am on the university-level committee that reviews tenure cases. That’s not a committee where you want to do a shoddy job, as people’s careers depend on it. I need to review carefully the cases we will be discussing in the very near future. That’s probably one whole day, perhaps more, between meetings and dossier reviewing.
  • I am also involved in a committee in charge of awards, so more letters are being prepared, this time nomination ones.
  • Meeting for a multi-PI grant we might be pursuing.
  • Lunch with a potential leadership hire for the college.

Obviously, this takes a lot of time, and some of these tasks require considerable work, but it feels like I am not really doing any work, because almost none of it is research…