The Questionable Authority

Where should the bar be set?

This semester, I’m teaching Zoology 101 labs (Intro to Zoology for nonmajors). I’m enjoying my self a lot, and it’s a class I’ve wanted to teach for a while. Right now, though, I’m grading quizzes and not enjoying life too much. Most of the scores absolutely suck, and I’m trying to figure out how much of that is the result of me setting the bar too high, how much is the result of me sucking at teaching, and how much is entirely due to other factors.

The quiz in question was on diffusion and osmosis. These aren’t the easiest topics for non-majors, and they aren’t all that interesting, so I wasn’t expecting too much – or so I thought. Apparently, I was wrong.

A little background – a week before taking the quiz, the students observed diffusion and osmosis in action by placing nematodes in a range of solutions. When the nematodes were placed in a solution with a higher salt concentration than their normal environment, they lost water, shriveled up, and died. When they were placed in distilled water, which has a lower concentration than their normal environment, they eventually swelled up and burst. This would, we hoped, be a memorable demonstration of the passive diffusion of water through a semi-permeable membrane (= osmosis).

We discussed all this before we started the lab. At that time, several of the students asked me to define “diffusion,” “osmosis,” “hypertonic,” and “hypotonic.” I didn’t define it for them. Instead, I told them that they should look up those definitions and get in touch with me during the week if they were having problems understanding them. I also told them that they might be asked to define some of those words on a quiz that they might have next week.

There were two versions of the quiz (I’m teaching two sections) and each version asked for definitions for two of those terms. So far, about 25% of the class has managed to define one correctly, and about 10% of the class defined both.

Was I unreasonable to make them look up the definitions for themselves? I thought doing it that way, particularly after being told there might be a quiz, would increase their chances of remembering the definitions. Or was it just unreasonable to expect that they would actually do the homework?

I’m honestly looking for feedback on this one – it’s not just venting this time.


  1. #1 tubi
    September 26, 2006

    My personal opinion? Assuming you helped them understand where the resources were to find the definitions-their textbook, a reliable website, etc-then there is no reason they should not have made the effort to look it up. You are right that when someone has to find the answer for him- or herself, it is more likely to stick. As well, you made yourself available to assist if they were having trouble. For Pete’s sake, it was only four terms, and they knew they were going to be on a quiz! I say mark the scores straight up with no curve, and then when you hand them back tell them that one of their quizzes can get tossed when computing the final grade-those that studied for this one still have one to use, those that didn’t just used theirs.

    Did anyone contact you for assistance? Just wondering.

  2. #2 dlamming
    September 26, 2006

    Truthfully, it sounds to me like your lesson relied rather heavily on knowing these terms in the first place – and teaching them should have been part of the lesson plan. The terms evidently came up, and your students “did their job” by asking you what they meant. Telling them to look them up – well, it could be taken as a brushoff.

  3. #3 Rosie Redfield
    September 26, 2006

    You were perfectly reasonable. They’re probably still thinking like high-school students, expecting to be told exactly what to memorize. They now need to ‘take responsibility for their own learning’ (this probably should have become an acronym in education blogs: ‘trftol’)

    The hard part will be helping them to realize that their poor marks on this quiz are their own faults. You don’t want them to blame you for their failings, as then they’ll never change their ways. When you give their quizzes back, you could ask them to consider ways they could have gotten a better mark – ask them what they now wish they’d done to prepare.

    Then before the next quiz you could remind them of what they said after this one.

  4. #4 Algerine
    September 26, 2006

    I’d give them a pass on hypo-/hypertonic. First, they sound very similiar — especially if you have a New England accent — so there’s confusion there. On top of that, the whole pumping in/pumping out to reach equilibrium is pretty heady stuff for non-science majors. Maybe give ’em a pass on that one for the quiz, tell ’em it’s going to be on the test, and reteach the concept with maybe a new example to reinforce.

    Osmosis and diffusion are pretty darn easy and they could have easily looked that up in any old dictionary. Show no mercy if they screwed those two up.

  5. #5 your brother dan
    September 26, 2006

    Here’s the thing, Mike – if your students didn’t understand the base terminology at the time of the lesson, then the rest of the lesson was probably a wash.

    Take it from me – zoology can be difficult and overwhelming. As can any new topic with an entire vocabulary.

    Now. I know next to nothing about the ins and outs of your material, so I can’t vouch for the relative ease of getting to know these terms (cf. Algerine’s reply). However, I will refute Rosie Redfield’s position that “They’re probably still thinking like high-school students, expecting to be told exactly what to memorize. They now need to ‘take responsibility for their own learning.'” If it’s a 101 course – they’re not much further beyond high school students, and asking the questions “what does this mean” is very much a manner of taking responsibility for their learning. As a student, if I asked a question and got the brush off from the teacher of “look it up,” I would not want to be a part of this class – because the teacher’s assuming that I did -zero- work, when in reality, I probably did -some- of the reading and didn’t understand the reading materials enough to delve further.

    When you’re given terms like this, and asked to understand them for the first time, the ideal would probably be to teach in this order: introduce the terms, practice the terminology in the context of an active-learning lesson, and then quiz. If they’re practicing without the understanding that comes with knowing the terms, it’s basically expecting students to experience the laboratory, look up the terms, and then essentially re-experience the laboratory through a retrospective lens, hoping that they picked up on every essential detail of the lab so that they can apply their new knowledge correctly.

    Yes, these students should be held accountable for what you asked them to know – and I’m not saying you should throw out the quiz results. I am saying this, though: if you want to optimize your lessons, especially when teaching non-major students in a class, you might have to backtrack and help them through the terminology a little more prior to reading. It’s not ideal for your field, as your colleagues and readers have already stated, but here’s what you will accomplish:

    – your students will then read for purpose, knowing where to get started, what your emphasis is, and the relative importance of the written material to your classroom teaching

    – you can set up your lessons in a linear start-middle-finish fashion with the knowledge that all of your students are starting with the same base of knowledge

    Remember this, an important tenet of teaching on any level: you didn’t teach if learning didn’t occur.

  6. #6 hank
    September 26, 2006

    I’d show them the distribution curve of grades, tell them you’re going to re-test them on the very same material in a couple of days, and that it’s up to them to save your teaching career by doing the minimum needed to survive a college course.

    You might add what I was reminded of in my first college biology lecture — that I would be expected by the final exam to understand as many new words as someone who’d taken three years of French.

    Now I grew up a college brat and that didn’t worry me — but it was an eye opener to some of my classmates who planned to be performance musicians or fine artists or, well, French classic literature teachers.

    I don’t recall what caliber school you’re teaching at, but if it’s anything over .bb — you’re the first hurdle, and if you just draw a line on the sand, they won’t learn to jump.

  7. #7 Michael Anes
    September 26, 2006

    I would probably always give at least a brief description of a term, or briefly what to expect and why, before a demonstration. That being said, there was a week before the quiz, and certainly any kid in college ought to be able to use a glossary or the internet or a friend.

    There is a way to talk about not doing well with students (I’m doing the same thing I’ve always done but that doesn’t mean it’s right; evaluate for doableness by some of the sample, rethink the grading rubric and check to make sure it was applied fairly). I tell my students a little about the performance but not much.

    Whatever the case, another teaching day, another useful experience, at least I think so. And you haven’t stopped ranting, have you?

  8. #8 Julia
    September 26, 2006

    I didn’t teach science, but I did spend forty years teaching introductory college courses to disadvantaged students who (many of them anyway) had never been taught how to learn. Brother Dan is right.

    It’s basic in teaching beginning students to build in repetition. The students needed the terms first with definitions and examples. Then they needed to the terms repeated during the lab exercise itself. Then they needed to be told to look up the terms later in specific sources and, preferably, write out a summary of the lab using the terms.

    It’s also basic in teaching to provide a variety of ways to learn because of the variety in your students’ learning styles. They need to see it (as in a demonstration). They need to read it. They need to write it down. They need to hear it from you. They need to try it themselves (as in the lab). And they need the opportunity for personal interaction (lab partners maybe, and your offer for personal help later, but also some interaction with you or a lab assistant while doing the lab work, if only an individual comment or two).

    Advanced learners will provide themselves with repetition and a variety of sense experiences. They’ll read the material before coming to class and look it up on the internet or in the library. They’ll write out careful notes, and many of them will re-write or type up the notes later. They’ll ask questions (like your students did) in order to get more auditory input, and they’ll form study groups to get more interaction.

    But beginning students have to be led through these steps, preferably with you now and then pointing out these learning techniques and explaining how they can duplicate this variety of techniques on their own.

    On the other hand, of course, at schools where students are assumed to be all advanced learners, it’s a effective weeding out technique to keep reducing repetition and learning variety until only the desired number of the very strongest independent learners is left. So you need to clarify your own goals. Is your intention to get every person to learn as much as possible, or is your goal to weed those who don’t yet know how to learn on their own?

  9. #9 Aerik
    September 27, 2006

    No, you gave them plenty of time! We had just a couple days and no demonstrationon osmosis, defusion, membranes and the like in my freshman Biology 1 course in high school, and most of us did very well. And this is in Kansas, mind you.

  10. #10 ParanoidMarvin
    September 27, 2006

    I’m working on my Ph.d. in mathematics, so my teaching experience is slightly different than yours, but I think you’re totally on the ball. I’ve TA’d both undergraduate courses and graduate courses, in which I wrote all the exercises, and I’ve learned that when I use the phrase “look it up” I lose the bad students and get better good students, and when I spell everything out, I still lose the bad students, but when I meet the good students a year later in advanced courses they’re not as independent as I’d like them to be. The mediocre students do the same.

    Now, my sample size is not huge, since I’ve only been able to try the techniques twice, but that’s my gut feeling.

    BTW, the most important part of your statement was not “look it up” but rather “come see me if you have problems”, assuming that you keep office hours or read e-mails (I set up discussion groups for each course I TA), anybody who had trouble with the terms and didn’t come to see you is responsible for his grade.

    Some of the strategies suggested here seem to me too much of force feeding of the students. This is college, and we should expect people to think (I personally think people should also think in highschool). It’s even more annoying to see that they haven’t learned it, when just by googling “define diffusion” I got this powerpoint slideshow with animations and everything:


    To sum up, I think you should keep doing what you’re doing, as long as your accessible and the texts are accessible.

  11. #11 Bardiac
    September 27, 2006

    I think it’s fine to have students look up terms BEFORE they need them. That is, give the students a list of four terms they’ll need to understand for the next lab session, and tell them to look each up and give an example or something. Did they have readings before the lab that defined these terms?

    But when a student asks an honest question, s/he’s telling you s/he’s ready to learn right then. If one student asked, then three others probably wanted to ask, so defining the terms right then would have helped both in the lab (they would have understood the exercise more effectively) and long term. When you answer, you also teach them that it’s good to ask questions, to clarify definitions, and that you respect them enough to answer their questions.

  12. #12 gengar
    September 27, 2006

    It sounds to me like the problem stems from most of the students not making the connection between the introduced terms (diffusion, osmosis) and the lab they then did. Do you make them write up the lab? Getting them to rigorously relate what they saw to the process of osmosis might have helped fix it in their minds.

    Then again, I had a situation last year with an assessed exercise where I went through it in class, pointed them to an example in the literature which worked through a similar problem, and explained it (again!) to anybody who came to see me. That was more than enough information to at least work through the whole problem, even if they didn’t get the right answer. One person managed it. Some people, it seems, just don’t want to use their brains.

  13. #13 Sandra Porter
    September 27, 2006

    I started to answer this, but it got to be too long, so I just posted my answer.

  14. #14 Genevieve Williams
    September 27, 2006

    I have to confess that I’ve been going back and forth on this post since I first read it yesterday. Because, in principle, I agree that students should be self-motivated to look up what they don’t understand. On the other hand, as an academic librarian I can tell you that some of them will avoid anything that remotely resembles looking something up with a determined passion.

    I think that I’m ultimately in agreement with Bardiac. If that lab was the first time they had encountered those terms, and they didn’t know what they meant before they did the lab, how on earth can they be expected to know that they’re seeing these things in action?

    I’m a little surprised at the suggestions to use Google to find definitions here. I suppose that as participants in the blogosphere we’re more progressive on this than most, but a lot of the teaching faculty I work with really don’t like allowing their students to use free Web sources at all. (I find this to be less common in the sciences, however, with the growing OA literature movement and so much government research being pushed online.) Unless your students also have the critical thinking skills to know a correct definition when they see it, this can be a tricky proposition. I’ve taught library research skills to first-years and to upper-division students, and the difference in their ability to tell good information from bad is remarkable. It’s a skill that a lot of first-year college students have just never been taught.

    Often when I’m teaching a research workshop, if somebody asks what a term means I ask someone in the class to define it before I do so. If nobody knows what the word means, then I’ve just gathered some valuable information about my class’s level of expertise. I teach one-shot workshops: I don’t have quizzes, graded assignments, or an entire semester to make sure they get something. I may see a particular student for a total of fifty minutes over their entire four years in college.

    I’m currently taking an undergraduate science course myself, at the institution where I work. I’m old enough and experienced enough to know when I’m not getting something. But the last time I took a class in this particular subject area, back in high school, I often didn’t know that I was getting something wrong or misunderstanding something until after I got the test back. One can rightly argue that this is part of the point of tests, but if something is a basic concept that a student is going to be tested on, something on which other course content relies, then I honestly don’t see the point in not covering it in class at all.

  15. #15 Mike Dunford
    September 27, 2006

    I’ve posted an update here.

  16. #16 Perry
    October 5, 2006

    You are not delivering product to the consumer, thats how colleges are run now. C’mon, you think its as if learning were a process that required active interest on the part of the student!

    Yes I’m cynical, you are right to be upset. All I can think is to actively tell them that YOU EXPECT THEM TO WORK and that means looking up definitions, reading the book, asking questions, etc.

  17. #17 Jim Thomerson
    August 13, 2007

    I’m an emeritus bilogy professor. I never recieved a great teacher award so don’t get too excited about my advice. I tend to focus on teaching definitions. I’ve seen research figures which suggest that a college graduate has about three times the vocabulary of a similar person who did not go to college. If so, learning biology is almost like learning a foreign language. You do not understand what is being said unless you know what the words mean. There is a well known phenomenon that you tend not to even hear words which are unfamiliar to you.

    So I like to start out giving the student “ownership” of osmosis, diffusion, hypertonic and hypotonic. Not just dry repetition of a definition. In my freshman chemistry course, when discussiong diffusion, the professor told us that each time we took a breath, we breathed in three molecules of Julius Ceasar’s dying breath. Once you understand what a word means, you can start thinking about the implications. Once the student owns these terms the student can then formulate an hypothesis as to what will happen to a nematode in hyper and hypotonic solutions.

    I also don’t like memorization. Discussing osmosis and focusing on using the implications of osmosis; learning the definition through use, I think, fixes the definition in your mind much better and painlessly compared with rote memorization out of a textbook.

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