teaching

Graded Exams Distributed by Drones. Not

American academics all know about FERPA. Basically, in college, a student’s education records are not to be disclosed to anyone but the student without the student’s explicit consent.

In day-to-day operations, that means we should not be sharing information about the students’ grades on homework or exams with anyone but the student.

I am more careful than many of my colleagues in this regard. For instance, in my hallway, there are still piles of last semester’s graded uncollected HW for classes taught by some my colleagues, with students’ names and in some (misguided) cases even the student ID number clearly visible on the assignments. These piles linger until they are collected or thrown away.

I have been collecting HW and returning comments and grades electronically for years, so nobody but the student (and me and the grader, if I have one) can see the student’s HW scores.

As for exams, I think multiple choice exams are an abomination, so my exams test the student’s ability to set up as well as solve a problem, and have to be graded by a human, which in the absence of adequate TA support is generally me (yes, even for 100+ people).

When I bring back graded exams, I don’t leave them out there in piles for people to collect, as doing so would make everything visible to everyone, and would also cause chaos and mayhem, with everyone digging through the giant pile. Instead, I come in 10 min early and I start distributing exams — I call each of the students by name and hand over the exam to them. I go through the whole pile 2-3 times as the students trickle in, and am usually done 5-10 min into the class. Then, as everyone has gotten their paper, we go over the course stats and I do the problems on the board. (By the way, I try really hard to learn all students names, and usually by mid-semester I know everyone’s names even if the class is 100+ people; giving the exams to each of them individually really helps remember who’s who.)

Sometimes students ask me if they can pick up the exam for one of their friends who didn’t come to class, and I only allow it if they can show me that they have received a text or an email from the friend to the effect of “Joe, could you please pick up my XXX 123 midterm? Thanks! -Jane”

But, other than that, I find that students don’t particularly care about their classmates’ scores and are focused on their own. Often, I will have several students in my office after the midterm wanting to discuss their grade and I ask every single one of them if they are okay with the others being in the office as  we discuss the exam or if they would prefer to be alone; the vast majority of students don’t mind if there is anyone else around.

So I think I am mindful of student privacy and try to make sure the information is not needlessly or carelessly shared.

Which is why I was really taken aback by a student comment I received after last semester’s class.

This was a student in a large class, where students sit jam-packed in rows, each row seating 6-8 people. If someone sits in the middle of their row and not in the first or last row of their block of rows, I have so send their paper to them through the hands of the folks closer to me, because we are as yet not using drones for targeted distribution of graded exams.

This student (I don’t know who, since this came out in anonymous course evaluations, but I have a hunch) complained that me returning exams was causing zir (zir=him or her) a lot of anxiety, because when I return exams I am not subtle; the score is written on the front page and, since the student sits in the middle of the row, all of the students to the left or zir (or right, depending on where I am at that point) see zir core, as they pass the test on to zir. Apparently, me returning exams this way, in which the student’s score might be seen by 3-4 people who generally don’t give a toss and just pass it along, is causing this student so much anxiety that ze avoids coming to class on the days when I am supposed to return exams. The student requests that I pass the graded tests face down, or that I write the total score and percentage on the second page (as opposed to the first page).

I have been a prof for 12 years, and was a TA for years before that, and it never occurred to me this would be an issue, so I want to see what people here think.

On the one hand, I do not want to violate students’ privacy, but I had no idea that someone would be this inconvenienced by a practice that I feel is really benign. I also really don’t want to cause people anxiety, if I can help it. But, I also need to be able to do my job and do it in a timely manner. I have no intention of writing the total score on the second page, but I could return the papers face down; however, remembering this extra step — to flip the exam paper after calling the name out and right before sending it down the row — will take me some time to make a habit, because I do walk around with giant piles of papers with the names up (so I could actually see the names and distribute them).

On the other hand, my gut reaction to the comment was that the student was overreacting and was being unreasonable in zir expectations. First, this student greatly overestimates how much others in the class care about zir scores; I don’t think that I have ever seen anybody glance at the paper of someone whom they don’t know and who just happens to be sitting in their row. Second, the student does not know or appreciate the fact that many, many precautions have been taken to ensure zir privacy already, and that in a large class it is very hard to do work that involves exchange of graded materials between instructor and students in anything resembling a timely manner, unless everything is done electronically (or I actually get those drones).

My gut reaction is to dismiss this comment as whiny and overly demanding, but I do not trust my gut, because I am aware that my gut is calibrated to the school system I went through, where everyone knew everyone else’s scores (all exam scores were posted in the department lobby, and in grade school and high school all grades were read to the whole class); everyone knew who the smart kids where and who the not-so-smart-kids were, so shaming was liberally employed as a way to push people to improve performance.

So cannot dismiss the comment is whiny and overly demanding based on my gut. I do not know if I should dismiss it at all as a one-off and go back to business as usual, or if this is something I should think about henceforth when distributing graded exams.

What say you, blogosphere? Ignore as one-off and/or unreasonable or act to correct my exam-distribution practices? I seek counsel from those among you who have had more experience in the US educational system, which has much higher expectations of student privacy than Europe or Asia (I don’t know about South America, Australia, or Africa).

Haters Gonna Hate… Not?

It’s that time of year again, when undergrads start enrolling in their spring semester classes. I am scheduled to teach a large undergrad course, let’s call it A, one that’s required for majors and offered every semester, and it’s nearly full to capacity. I looked at the roster and there are probably a couple of dozen students whom I had last spring in another large required course, B. What’s interesting is who these folks are: some of them I could have sworn didn’t care very much for my teaching of B last year at all, and they could have easily avoided having me again by taking course A this semester, with another teacher. Yet here they are, willing to subject themselves to another semester of my teaching, seemingly on purpose.

It’s not uncommon that I have students who take 2, even 3 courses with me; usually those are the students who meet me in a lower-level class, do well, and then try to take electives when I offer them; this is a point of pride.  There are definitely a few kids who I know enjoyed course B, so I am not surprised by them taking A. There are also a few students who did very poorly in B, but with whom I had good rapport nonetheless; I thought they might avoid me, because I am tough, but they are back. There are a few with whom I didn’t have a lot of interaction so I couldn’t tell one way or another if they particularly liked it or not; maybe they were indeed ambivalent, but it’s better the devil you know, and they do know me.

But there are a few who I could have sworn hated my guts with the burning passion of a thousand suns, and now they are back for a second helping? One student, who received only half a grade lower than the maximum, was quite displeased by it and sent me a lengthy email about how that’s the most unfair thing that had ever happened and how what I required in class was unreasonable and inhuman; you guessed, that student is back. My husband, always ready to  mess with me, hypothesized that the student was there just to psych me out through the intervening months, and will drop out as soon as the semester starts.

The point is: I suppose we may not have a very good idea how we are perceived by students. We do on average, but not necessarily on an individual level. It’s entirely possible to be genuinely disliked by the people who act very sweet and interested in the material, but who are just kissing up; I am in fact quite sensitive to that. In contrast, it has happened more than once that the people whom I had no idea I had positively influenced, who seemed quiet or even glum in class, actually turned out quite appreciative of the experience.

Never a dull moment in academic land…

Question from Reader: Managing the First 1-2 Years As an Assistant Professor

A New Assistant Professor (NAP) has a question:

I have worked at an industrial research lab for five years and have finally received an offer from a well-known US public research school as an assistant professor in engineering.

I am so excited but at the same time I am a bit anxious about setting up a new research lab, recruiting graduate students, getting grants, and teaching.

Would you please give me some advice about how I can successfully manage the first one or two years as assistant professor? What would be my
priority in the first two years; writing papers or writing proposals, or teaching, or mentoring graduate students? Probably, all of them….

I would appreciate any of your advice in advance.

First of all, congratulations to NAP on landing a tenure-track position at a major research university! It will be quite a ride.

I responded briefly to NAP via email, and will expand on that a little bit. (All my advice is for a physical science field at a major research university in the US, so if you are reading and your field or institution type or country is different, obviously some or even all of the advice will not hold.)

1) Teaching: Try to make sure you teach grad courses in your specialty (rather than large enrollment undergrad courses) in the first 2-3 years. Teaching well takes a lot of time, especially initially. Teach the same 2 courses a few times during your fist few years, until you get your research program going. Ideally, you will have senior faculty mentors (often formally) who should be there to advise you and to also be your advocates when it comes to shielding you from some of the unnecessary burdens. Many universities have formal mentoring programs, make sure you take advantage of that.

2) Startup: You probably received a startup package that covers equipment, stipend and tuition for a couple of research assistants (RAs) for 2-3 years, and some travel and summer salary money.

2a) Summer salary: In the US it is common for physical-science faculty to have 9-month contracts, i.e., they are not paid over the summer, unless you teach the summer courses or more commonly have money from grants to cover summer salary. Indeed, at research universities it is expected that the salary will be eventually brought in from grants. However, it is typical that a startup will include funds to cover a couple of months of summer salary for a couple of years, until you land your first grant (or five).

2b) Personnel: Try to recruit 1-2 grad students who will start during your first year, or bring in a postdoc whose quality you trust, to help you build up your lab. You need people right away, but you don’t have to bring everyone you think you will ever need right away. There is a learning curve when it comes to recruiting people, so your first few may be awesome but they may be duds too. Fingers crossed.

2c) Equipment and building a lab: Lots of money, lots of time. Start shopping right away. However long you think it will take, it will be even longer.

3) Funding: Since you are in the College of Engineering, the requirements to bring money will be high for tenure. At least some of your grants should be peer reviewed (NSF or DOE or NIH, depending on what you do), others can be DoD (AFOSR, DARPA, ONR) or industry. Getting funding is probably the highest priority at the start. For DoD you need to make personal connections with program managers so you will have to travel to DC to meet them and see where their interests lie.
Map out all the early career/young investigator awards you are eligible for (some have limitation of years post PhD), see how many tries you have for each one, and what you need for each. Hit as many of them as you can, potentially staggering them, but generally hit them hard. A few are due in the summer so you have a full year of practicing with regular NSF proposals and collaborative proposals etc. before the first wave of young investigator awards.

(A bit of parenthetical info: People in the physical sciences tend to be in the College of Letters and Science or the College of Engineering (computer science and materials science, for instance, could be in either, depending on whether they are standalone or associated with an engineering department). The funding requirements in the College of Engineering are generally different as a whole than in the Letters and Science. There are fewer TA-ship available in Eng because the departments do not teach service courses, and everyone is expected to bring in lots of grants. Among the departments in the L&S, there are differences. For instance, chemistry and biochemistry will typically have high requirements on grants, similar to chemical engineering, but with often larger groups because of the supply of TAs. People in statistics and computer science and some branches of engineering and applied math have very similar requirements as to how much money should be raised and the publication pace. In the physics departments, condensed matter experimentalists will raise money and publish at a pace similar to chemists or chemical engineers or materials scientists, while theorists in general and the people in particle physics or astrophysics may not be facing very high grant raising requirements, and grants may not be an important part of the tenure review in those fields. In my math department, it is specified at tenure time that they do not expect grants or evaluate grants as a component of excellence. In general, departments that teach large service courses will have lots of TAs, and I know people in physics and chemistry who have had multiple students on TAs throughout their PhDs.

In general, in the College of Engineering, grants will be a significant component based on which you are evaluated. In you are in College of Letters and Science, depending on the field, they may or may not be considered as a metric of accomplishment.)

4) Papers: If you have data from your industry position or previous postdoc or some collaborative work that you can write up for publication, write those up during the first year. Alternatively, write a review paper or two. Backlogged, collaborative, or review papers are a good way to bridge the gap between starting a new position and having papers out from your own lab (which realistically won’t happen right away). Depending on what you do, you could have single author papers (I did during the first few years on the TT, while my first students were being trained).

5) Service: Keep institutional service minimal, and professional service in the capacity that will enhance your exposure, visibility, and/or potential for getting funds. Travel to see program managers, travel to give invited talks and lectures. Do not organize a major conference as early assistant professor, but do participate on the program committee if invited. Definitely volunteer to sit on review panels and generally review proposals for relevant agencies, it will drastically help improve your grant writing abilities.

6) The first few years are crazy, but it does get less so by the end of year 3. Try to be nice, but avoid unnecessary obligations in terms of teaching and service. Your primary duty is to get your research program up and running — which means grants and papers — and anyone who is is not helping you focus and is trying to divert your time is not your friend early on the tenure track. Once you have gotten your first couple of grants, you have papers coming out, and you have several students staggered in seniority, it’s OK to diversify your teaching (show you can teach undergrads, try novel techniques) and service (ideally something you care about, like curriculum or facilities or new faculty recruitment).

Good luck!

What say you, blogosphere? What did I miss as critical advice during the first 1-2 years on the tenure track? 

Grouchy Musings on Teaching, Part 2

I have issues with some of the advanced teaching strategies as I see them implemented in my department. (Flipped classroom, I am looking at you, and all other eggcellent paradigms.)

My main complaint is that the responsibility to sit down and understand the material and work until proficiency is achieved is being taken away from students and moved entirely to instructors. Instead of the students taking ownership for their own learning, we the instructors are supposed to devise lectures to be tutoring sessions (the flipped classroom model), so the students don’t have to think about the material alone at home… But working alone is the only way you really learn! Instead, we hold their hands while they work through problem sets, smoothing out the kinks as they go along, misleading the students into believing that the road to problem solving is easier than it really is. I have seen some pathetic products of flipped classroom instruction, as the students come to my class with an A in a prerequisite that was taught in a flipped format, and they can’t tell their a$$ from their face (because the class is all about a$$ vs face recognition, of course); they don’t understand anything, and they certainly can’t do any relevant problems that they hadn’t specifically seen before. We try to remove the natural and necessary discomfort that comes from learning, being challenged, being required to stretch beyond where we are. And this incessant insistence on everything being with other people, like flipped classrooms and group projects, is an introvert’s nightmare. Can’t we let people think in peace?

This is completely opposite to my own teaching philosophy. I, as the instructor, need to be there to help when help is needed, but the student has to think and grapple with the material alone FIRST; this is absolutely key. Ideally, this is the sequence: come to class, read the book (or the other way around); start on the homework early and on your own, do as much as you can on your own; then ask friend/come to discussion/come to office hours AFTER you have thought about the problems on your own really hard, because by then you will be sensitized to what you are missing and what you don’t know, and therefore much better at remembering explanations and clarifications. Instead, I see many students work in packs, with a pack leader who’s a strong student and the rest contributing little, but still feeling very good about their command of the material; studying in packs works well for their grades, as long as homework and projects carry a lot of weight. But in the setting such as the one I have for a core undergraduate course, it is all exam heavy and it shows how much each individual student knows, and the students can get surprised by how little that is. Yet, this class is important and I need them ALL to not only sort-of understand the material, but to actually know the material really well and to be able to calculate things.

{A related aspect that peeves me is students complaining that we somehow need to test their understanding only. I say that we test both understanding and proficiency. No, you don’t get to be just a concept thinker until you have demonstrated that you can actually do some basic problems, start to finish. [You should see the grumbling because I expect everyone to be able to, at all times, calculate the horribly complicated integrals of x^a (a\neq -1), sin x, cos x, 1/x, exp(a*x)].}

Another aspect that I am very tired of is students constantly asking that we only teach them the practical stuff that will get them a job and none of the useless abstract crap, presumably because at the tender age of 19 or 20 they know exactly what it is that they will or won’t ever use. Employers want what they want, and most don’t want to pay for it; they want a new graduate to come trained in all the minutiae that the employer (any employer!) could possibly want. The employers have no qualms about wanting the universities to act as trade schools, but they are not and they shouldn’t be.

Sure, we should provide training in the latest and greatest tools and techniques, because I agree that our students should be employable upon graduation. However, what peeves me is how joyously these kids rush towards becoming corporate cogs today, without stopping to think what will keep them employed 20-30 years from now. Why? Because the jobs that exist today didn’t exist 30 years ago. The only way you remain competitive for jobs over the long term is if you have a good, solid base in many basic sciences (for the physical sciences, that’s first and foremost math, then physics, chemistry, computer science, statistics…) as well as in writing and speaking. The stronger and wider your base, the better able you will be to change careers if needed.

I do my part, but I wish we collectively a did better job of communicating to our students that our job as educators is not to just ensure they get their first job out of college, but to give them the knowledge base and the self-study skills that will keep them nimble, growing, learning, and ultimately employable throughout their lives.

Grouchy Musings on Teaching, Part 1

The spring semester is over! After months of heavy teaching and service, with a large helping of grant writing, I am now happily heading into 3.5 months of summer, which means a) frantically writing up and sending off several papers for publication, which had been sitting on my desk for longer than I care to admit; b) spending as much time as needed with some stuck graduate students, so they’d get unstuck and be able to move on with their projects; c) several complicated trips to conferences (no, it’s actually not glamorous or exciting), each with a jam-packed schedule of giving 2-3 talks at different meetings over the course of a week in order to maximize exposure per travel dollar.

This past spring, taught a large undergraduate class (of order 1 hecto-student) that is required for two majors; the people in one major appreciate it more than those in the other (who often consider it to be a cruel and unusual punishment). I hadn’t taught the course before, as the faculty who do research in a different area usually teach it, but I am perfectly competent to teach it and I found it fun and enjoyable for the most part. However, I had essentially no TA support, so I taught both the lecture and the discussion, and I graded all the exams myself, not to mention created all the course materials (including extensive solutions to weekly homework assignments).

This semester I also did an experiment. Since this is a core course, it is important to make sure everyone who passes it actually has not just sort-of an understanding of the material, but actual working knowledge that they would take into follow-on courses. I decided to teach and grade how I felt this course should be taught and graded, in order to actually teach them the material so that the vast majority of them are actually competent at the end.

This (bean-devouring leprechaun) means that many of the students, perhaps for the first time since starting college, got exposed the fact that they may not be quite as awesome as they always thought they were. People do not like being faced with this realization (which is, in fact, an inherent part of growing up).

If anyone thinks there is no grade inflation in K-12, I invite them to teach any large enrollment required course at a reasonably-to-highly selective institution. The GPAs required for enrollment are getting higher and higher (as are the GPAs required for the majors related to this particular course). Therefore, based on the GPA alone these are all spectacular students, smart and with great study habits. In reality, while I do believe that most of them are smart enough, many have exaggerated views of their abilities, and the vast majority are inadequately prepared in math (like algebra or pre-calculus) and actually have atrocious study habits, because high school was too easy. They were coddled and never properly challenged pre-college. Now, when faced with a really challenging class, they are bewildered, and in some cases (especially when a woman with a funny accent they can’t quite place shells out the challenge) they can become downright hostile. There was a kid this semester who spent the whole semester in seething rage, looking at me with flaming-hot hatred from somewhere in the back of the classroom; one really starts to worry about the ease with which people get access to guns.

No, people don’t like it when you show them that they are perhaps not as awesome as they always thought they were.

While all the exams had averages 70-80% and I had a nice distribution of grades, many felt the exams were too hard. Why? Because they all expect to get 90+% (being that they all had high grades in high school) and it’s my fault that the tests are not tailored to their individual level of preparation, rather than assuming responsibility for their own performance and pushing themselves to meet the requirements. The tests are designed precisely as they should be, and the fact that the students are not getting the grades they envision (because they all envision A’s without much sweat) means they do not actually have the understanding and proficiency that is required for that score, and they need to work more and come to office hours and discussion.

After the first test, many did get a wake-up call and started studying much more methodically, starting early on their assignments on their own, and attending office hours and discussions. They quickly realized that it’s certainly not impossible to get a good grade in my class, but you have to study and be smart about it. I am very proud of them and have told them as much; the material was hard, but they rose to the challenge.

The evaluations are back (a few years ago we went electronic) and while they are still plenty high (well above the department average and well above 4/5), there are a handful of kids who hate my guts. People say it can’t be avoided, bu it always bothers me a lot.

You know, when most kids say you are in the top 20% or next 20% of all teachers they’ve ever had, and one kid says you are in the bottom 20%.
Or when most kids “agree” or “strongly agree” that you are well prepared for class or that you are knowledgeable about the material, and then one kid “strongly disagrees”.
I wonder what the heck is wrong with these young haters. Do they grow up to expect the world to accommodate them and their preferences, and therefore spend the whole life disgruntled when that doesn’t happen?

I know I am supposed to focus on all the students whom I helped (there were many very good evaluations, and people saying they were inspired, and some wanting to specialize in this field, and students recognizing I cared about their success). However, as bad is apparently always stronger than good, what stays in my mind, at least short term, are the bad and especially nasty comments. If the student’s goal is to spoil my day, they are successful.

Why do I read the evaluations anyway? It’s not like I don’t have tenure, and plenty of faculty stop reading them sooner or later. I read them because I like reading the positive comments, I like to read the thoughtful and useful specific remarks about something that may be done differently; however, I so dislike reading the negative comments or seeing even an outlier negative vote, that perhaps I really should not read them at all.

More than anything, reading negative evaluations makes me wish I hadn’t spent quite as much time and effort on this course, trying to be available to as many and as often as I could. Many of my colleagues avoid teaching large-enrollment courses, have the bare minimum of exams (1 midterm, which I really think is not enough for undergrads), hold very few office hours, and generally attempt to get by with minimal effort. Instead, they focus their time and energy on research. And I feel stupid for basically sacrificing much of my semester to this very demanding class and then have some nastiness come out in the evaluations. Why the hell do I bother, I think?

I wish there were a way to extract how much of the negative is something I cannot fix — they dislike the fact that I am a woman and/or a foreigner, or whatever it is that I have that irritates some people as soon as I start speaking (being uppity for a woman/foreigner, perhaps). Although I am not sure that would make me feel better anyway.

But if this comment at nicoleandmaggie’s is any indication, my guess is that they mostly they don’t like being faced with their own inability to follow the class, their own poor preparation, and tough requirements, and they take it out on me.

Still. Knowing where the negativity comes from makes the evaluations no less infuriating in the short term, no matter how glowing the positive ones are.
(It probably doesn’t help that academic research, the other major part of my job, comes with a constant stream of criticism and rejection.)

What say you, blogosphere? How do you feel about teaching evaluations?

Crankypants

There is work to do tonight, but I can’t make myself do it. Preparing a whole new midterm for one student who was ill, writing a letter of nomination for a student for an award, getting an abstract/bio ready for an upcoming talk.

This has been a really difficult semester and I am really cranky.

I am teaching a new (to me) large undergraduate course. I have essentially no TA support to speak of (thankfully, I have a grader for homework), and the course has required a lot of time to prep the materials (homework, homework solutions, exams) and grade the exams. I teach the lectures and the discussion and I have more office hours than usual, because they are needed — there is always someone in my office during those. This past weekend I graded nearly 100 exams; it took all weekend. The weekend before, I wrote the solutions to about 50 homework problems (postings of solutions before the midterm, making up for missed postings due to work travel). If you are at a teaching-heavy institution, what I wrote might seem like nothing, but I am at a research institution, and teaching is not supposed to take up 20+ hours a week.

I have had more travel than I am comfortable with this whole academic year, and much of it was service related, which means I traveled, worked a ton, then came back to a punishing backlog of work. I have a break in travel till July, and then it’s 6 effing trips between mid-July and mid-September.

I have written too many proposals, and the new NSF fall deadline is just around the corner. I also have some schmoozing with DoD to do to see if some money could be had.

I have way too much service at the department and university level. One of the university-level committees has turned out to be drastically more work than initially promised, so it has been a huge time drain and I have constantly been pissed off about it. It does nothing for me or my career, it is just a humongous waste of time and I feel like a fool for having agreed to do any of it. The way the whole thing is run is unbelievably inefficient and just plain wrong.

Eldest’s swim practice has moved to 4:30, which means I often have to leave at 3:50 to pick him up and drive him to practice. And this also means I always have to work evenings and often weekends, to make up the lost time because the work day is now even shorter than usual, so I also get no play time.

As a result of all this, I have virtually no time to actually mentor my students and work on the group’s papers, let alone read the literature. The fact that I get to do none of it is making me very, very cranky.

I find it mind-boggling that I have to fight hard to find the time to do research, because all the other stuff — most of which does not require me to seriously turn on my brain at all — easily fills 50+ hours per week. It should not be this hard to find the time to do the work that no one but me can do.