Built on Facts

The Final Countdown

The Intro Physics II final exam was this week. The signs were all there.

1. It was a summer class. Therefore a fairly high proportion of the students were taking it again after having failed it previously.

2. The class switched professors two weeks before the final. The first professor is a skilled scientist but, well, not necessarily as gifted in passing his skills to his students.

3. The second professor made the final exam from scratch.

I just finished grading three problems worth of the final exam (the other two TAs are taking care of the rest), and I think the exam can be safely described as a debacle. It was a disaster. The scores haven’t been tallied up yet, but I think there’s a good chance the mean score will be within one standard deviation of zero. And, I dunno, about 4 or 5 standard deviations away from 100.

Either everyone is going to fail this class, or the curve for the final will have to be so colossal that the final exam will do nothing more than add a tiny bit of variance in the grade distribution.

Here’s a video representation of the final. You’ll also probably learn more about Newton’s first law from the video than the students did from the class.

Ladies and gentlemen, don’t take summer classes unless you have no other option. Just don’t.

Comments

  1. #1 Uncle Al
    August 8, 2008

    Ignorance can be educated, stupidity is forever. A primary educative goal is to separate the able from the unable ASAP, the latter being soonest redirected to where they are able – manual arts, crime and politics, being sacrificed in the military, civil service, or – for the lowest dregs – certification as teachers.

  2. #2 Epicanis
    August 8, 2008

    don’t take summer classes unless you have no other option.

    It’s not always bad…but cramming the entire second semester of Organic Chemistry into an 8-week summer session was definitely a bad idea.

  3. #3 Butter
    August 8, 2008

    Ladies and gentlemen, don’t take summer classes unless you have no other option. Just don’t.

    Well, not for sumething with actual content, like physics, no. But it can be a good time to get core requirements out of the way: intro comm and English classes, for example.

  4. #4 Butter
    August 8, 2008

    Ignorance can be educated, stupidity is forever. A primary educative goal is to separate the able from the unable ASAP, the latter being soonest redirected to where they are able – manual arts, crime and politics, being sacrificed in the military, civil service, or – for the lowest dregs – certification as teachers.

    Except that for education to function as the sluicing mechanism you propose, the teachers within it have to be sufficiently competent within their own fields to accurately judge students according to objective standards, and to provide opportunities for the students’ potential to be demonstrated. Which means they have to possess a valuable kind of merit of their own, and your argument collapses under the weight of its own hypocritical assholishness.

    Unless it was a joke, in which case it wasn’t funny, because it had neither internal consistency nor an ironic ending that made sense within a larger context.

  5. #5 Zeno
    August 8, 2008

    My school routinely allows faculty members to “team teach” summer session classes. Each professor wants to teach five units of summer session, but doesn’t want to stick around for all eight weeks, so one teaches two classes for the first four weeks and then hands it off to the other guy for the second four weeks. All the students get to swap horses in midstream during what is already a suboptimal learning experience. Disasters abound.

    I once got rooked into picking up the second half of a summer calculus course taught by a popular (and easy) instructor. I became the teacher just as we were moving into non-trivial applications like optimization. The results were not pretty. Fortunately, the students knew exactly who was to blame. (Hint: It wasn’t them!)

  6. #6 Jon
    August 8, 2008

    A friend of mine dropped out of his E&M summer physics course a week or two ago. The professor was literally covering only 40% of the material, and asking the students to read everything else, while testing them on all of it.

    I took a numerical analysis course one summer, and it wasn’t too bad. I got an A, and while it was a pretty tough class, I did learn a lot from it.

    I guess it really depends…

  7. #7 Detroitus
    August 8, 2008

    Having taken several summer courses myself and always done ok, I think it all depends on what type of course you take. I’d never try to take something like E&M over the summer, but a nice humanities class is sometimes nice and relaxing…

  8. #8 CCPhysicist
    August 8, 2008

    I am so going to use this when we get to the First Law…

    As for your actual topic and response #4, this is when “assessment” becomes an issue and why there are regular discussions about enforcing it with federal legislation. That sort of testing is quite unfair to the point of being actionable via mass grade appeal within the university.

    I don’t buy the “second try” excuse since it isn’t even an explanation. Anyone who passed Intro Physics I should be capable of passing Physics II (my success rate is better than 80% and better than 90% if you don’t count withdrawals). Besides, aren’t they mostly wannabe engineers at your school? That usually imposes some severe restrictions on multiple attempts at a core science course so they should be more motivated.

    I also don’t buy slackers like the prof the “Jon” mentions. There are just as many class minutes in summer as any other semester in the systems I know about, so all the prof has to do is drive the class to use every one of those minutes.

    I enjoy teaching a summer gen-ed class in a 6-week session, and my success rate (meaning ABC grade, not actual long-term learning) is very good. They don’t have time to forget much from exam 1, so most students do really well on the final exam. They do have to put their minds to it, but I address that on the first day of class. I give them homework due the next day.

    PS – Find out how to enable numbering of comments like Chad has on his blog.

  9. #9 Matt Springer
    August 8, 2008

    CC, I think based on the previous 3 exams, homework, and quizzes, the class is probably performing at about a C level on average. There’s A and B students of course, but judging based on their mastery of the material I’d say the proportion is somewhat lower than the regular semester. I know for a fact that at least a few of the students are repeating – a couple were from the sections I taught last winter.

    In my opinion, most of the fault lies in the final exam itself. The performances on the previous exams were mostly ok if not spectacular. Switching professors with two weeks left when the second professor has never taught that class before and the students aren’t familiar with his style is just a bad idea.

    In any case, it is also entirely possible that a person can pass Physics 1 and have much worse trouble with Physics 2. Physics 2 is both legitimately a bit harder, and E&M is less intuitive than mechanics in a lot of ways.

    Finally, comment numbering. There’s no easy switch I can just hit, but I can do it by fiddling with the code which runs the comment form. I’ll figure that out and shoot for having it up and running this weekend.

  10. #10 Phil
    August 8, 2008

    that’s a hilarious video. Who made it?

  11. #11 CCPhysicist
    August 10, 2008

    Never taught it before? The justice is that all of the complaints will go to the Chair who made that stupid decision without forcing some sort of coordination for the final exam (like having prof A write 75% of it). Make sure you send them to the right place. It is likely that prof A has no grading responsibility at all.

    My (extensive) experience with Physics 2 is basically what I tell my students who ask: it is different. Some find it easier and some find it harder. (The key being whether they grasp the concept behind Gauss and Ampere.) However, a worse time does not equal failure. Since circuits and optics are easy, there are plenty of opportunities to ace exams that compensate for the harder material. I’ve seen an A go to a C and a C go to an A, but actual failure is rare and generally predictable.

    Now I do have the non-trivial advantage that they passed *my* Physics 1 class. Back in my TA days, we quickly identified good situations (tough prof teaching mechanics) and nightmarish ones (softhearted prof whose pass meant little) when it came to teaching that second semester. I even see it here at my CC when it comes to calculus. God help the poor soul who was given ‘the benefit of the doubt’ in trig or calc 1 only to find that this left plenty of doubts in calc 2!

  12. #12 Jon
    August 11, 2008

    I also don’t buy slackers like the prof the “Jon” mentions.

    Admittedly, I’m relying upon my friend’s interpretation of the situation. The class mean of his first exam was a 43, though, with a very small sigma (7 or 8 percentage points, I believe), so I’m at least somewhat justified in believing him.

    And no, the friend I’m talking about isn’t me, if that’s what your air quotes were insinuating. I graduated in May :)