Academic Round-up: Exam Review, Student Comments, Speaker Invitations

A collection of miscellaneous stuff with an academic inclination from the past week or so:

-- We gave an exam last night in introductory E&M (I'm teaching one of five sections this term), so we've spent a lot of time this week on exam review. One thing that might be worth mentioning here is the way I run review sessions, which I don't think is entirely original to me, but which generally gets a "Huh. That's a good idea." when I explain it to other faculty, so wherever I got it from isn't well known.

What I do is: at the start of the review session (either a regular class period given over to review, or a separate meeting outside normal class hours), I pass out small slips of paper and ask students to write down whatever questions they would like answered, or problems they would like to see me work through. Then I collect the slips, and go over whatever topics/problems turn up most frequently.

I like this method because it does a better job of matching what the largest number of students are concerned about. If I ask for questions via a show of hands or whatever, I only get those students who are confident enough to speak up and admit what they don't understand. A lot of students aren't willing to do that, though, because they don't want to look bad in front of their classmates. Which used to mean going over one set of things in class for the two students who were willing to speak up, and then going over a different problem six times for six different students who would show up to ask about it one-on-one. The slips-of-paper method generates six requests for that one problem, and ends up being much more efficient.

-- On the subject of exam review, I have occasionally toyed with a formal policy of not answering questions within N hours of the exam, to force students into studying earlier. I had one guy show up at 6:15 last night, when the exam was at 7pm. I don't think that really does any good for anybody.

-- Final exam review item: I'm never sure how to handle students who ask me to review questions that I know won't be on the exam. Particularly when they're long, complicated problems involving lots of math. I try to just do a high-level overview of the method, doing what I can to avoid getting into the algebraic weeds. I generally still go over those questions, though, because while they might not be on the specific exam, the material is still part of the course, and they're going to be responsible for it at some point, but it's hard to resist the temptation to say "This won't be on the test. Get out of my office."

-- There's been a lot of linking of this Slate article about student course comments, which is pretty much the standard recitation of problems from the faculty end: student evaluation comments are full of worthless venting, various unpleasant -isms, and correlate very strongly with grades. It wouldn't really be worth mentioning without the Slatepitch-y element at the end, namely the suggestion that students should have their names attached to their evaluation comments.

I've heard this kind of thing a lot from faculty, and it always surprises me a little, because all of the same sorts of issues that are raised by anonymous comments about faculty with regard to race and gender bias show up in the other direction. That is, a student who has real and genuine issues to bring up may not be comfortable with:

Actual constructive criticism can be delivered as it ought to be: to our faces. Any legitimate, substantive complaints can go to the chair or dean.

this is particularly acute for those students who are most analogous to the faculty who are most concerned about anonymous comments. Students from comfortably well-off families with prior experience of the higher-ed game are likely to be fine with the idea of directly confronting an authority figure, or going over the head of the professor, but those from disadvantaged backgrounds are less likely to have that confidence. And those are the students most in need of a forum for expressing their concerns in a safe way.

While I understand the desire to screen out the more YouTube-ish of the comments that come in, I don't think a total removal of anonymity is an appropriate solution. Some kind of blinded system might work, though-- something where the name of the comment-writer is knowable in the event that something truly problematic is said, but where the professor can't immediately determine it. this raises a bunch of logistical issues, chiefly finding an impartial party to handle the blinding process-- students who wouldn't be comfortable going to the dean might not trust the dean to preserve their anonymity for commenting purposes.

Maybe this is a place for an ed-tech start-up. Venture capitalists, call me!

-- Also on the subject of student evaluations (a topic of much discussion right now, because schools on a sensible semester calendar are wrapping up their year right about now, while we're not quite halfway through our spring trimester), a tip I got from a colleague in another department for generating better student comments: Ask them to comment on specific things. That is, when I pass out the evaluation forms, I say "Here are some things I did this term that were different than previous terms. I would like to know what you think about how those worked, so I can adjust them for future classes."

That generates somewhat more thoughtful and focused comments-- not necessarily more positive comments, as I get the occasional rant about the awfulness of WebAssign, but ones that are more on point. When I forget to do that, I get stuff that's all over the map, and lots of blank spaces.

-- On an entirely different eternal academic argument, Cedar Riener has some good thoughts on the latest Charles Murray kerfuffle. This is the usual story: Murray was invited to give a talk, some faculty and students found out and were outraged, and the invitation was rescinded. And now we're having the same conversation as always about academic freedom and the whole Culture of "Shut Up" thing. Riener's points about why Murray and those like him are valuable even if their views are unpleasant and poorly justified are good ones, and well stated.

I want to comment on a slightly different aspect of this, namely the process by which these kerfuffles come about in the first place, because I think that gets to an issue that regularly bugs me. We've had a few controversial speakers invited to Union during my time-- Mike Huckabee back in 2008, for example-- and the path to the controversy always seems to be the same: some student or group of students get fired up to invite a particular speaker, go through the process of getting that approved (which involves no small amount of bureaucracy) and issue the invitation, and then later on, a group of faculty who had no involvement in the process of generating the invitation get very upset and send outraged emails to everybody on the planet.

As with the fraternity business a couple of weeks ago, I think there's a failure here to engage with the real issue. It's very easy to get angry about a speaker invitation, but I think it's important to recognize that these aren't coming from nowhere-- a lot of the time, these invitations are generated by students who are looking for a particular thing. And what we should do as faculty is to understand what it is that they want, and why. If there's student enthusiasm for things we don't like, be it frat parties or reactionary conservative speakers, we as faculty should try to understand why that enthusiasm exists, and what we can do to channel it in a direction we find more appropriate.

(And really, I agree with Riener that Murray probably represents the "more appropriate" end of the spectrum of views he represents. I have no great love for his work, but he's at least willing to put some numbers to his ideas, and offer something approaching an appropriate academic argument that you can actually engage with in a constructive and instructive fashion. It's not like they invited Cliven Bundy, or anything.)

Of course, understanding student interests and motivations requires faculty to get involved with student life activities, something many of them are loath to do. Which brings us to the final item:

-- A study of what faculty do leads to the unsurprising conclusion that faculty are very busy, often with "service" work that many regard as a nuisance at best. The most important part of the story, though is:

University of Nebraska - Lincoln economists Sam Allgood and William Walstad used a 2003-2004 survey — the National Study of Postsecondary Faculty (NSOPF) — from the Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics to estimate faculty time use across a few specific disciplines. The total sample included over 35,000 faculty members; notably, they excluded adjunct instructors, including only full-time tenured or tenure-track faculty members. They found that physicists were workhorses, relatively speaking, putting in more teaching and research hours than other disciplines.

Woo! We're #1! We're #1! Suck it, biologists!

Wait a minute...


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On the subject of exam review, I have occasionally toyed with a formal policy of not answering questions within N hours of the exam

Back in my TAing days (which of course was before WebAssign, Blackboard, etc.), my instinct was to answer the question, "What will the exam be on?" with "8.5 x 11 inch paper." But I seldom if ever had a chance to use that reply with an actual student of the class I was TAing, because we were used primarily if not exclusively in labs. But a student showing up in my office 45 minutes before the exam (unless we had made an appointment) definitely deserves that kind of response. Clue phone for students: If you are devoting less than an hour, total, to studying for an exam, U R doing it rong.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 25 Apr 2014 #permalink

I could have walked one building over to make these 2 points, but instead I'll do it here...Ah, the Internets!

1) Best response to a controversial Murray/Huckabee guest speaker is to show up in force and then host a rebuttal. We did that with Climate Denier Christopher Monckton:…. We found that the visit made a great "teachable moment" that probably did more to advance the view of accepted science than all the classes we teach.

2) NO, we Biologists won't suck it, Physicist! Physics was the only science (assuming math isn't a science) the study reported. Get thee to the Blogging Penalty Box!

By Jeff Corbin (not verified) on 25 Apr 2014 #permalink

@Jeff Corbin #2: Please, please, may I quote you out of context?!? To wit, "Physics was the only science[.]"

By Michael Kelsey (not verified) on 25 Apr 2014 #permalink

@Michael Kelsey: Only if you're that insecure. :)

By Jeff Corbin (not verified) on 26 Apr 2014 #permalink

“Physics was the only science[.]“ --Jeff Corbin

Rutherford was right!

OK, point proven. You guys ARE that insecure!

By Jeff Corbin (not verified) on 26 Apr 2014 #permalink

Three years ago our institution's administration put student evaluations on line: students can take them anytime during the final three weeks of the semester. They also encouraged faculty to build points into syllabi to increase the number of students taking the time to do them: the plan is: offer 15 or 20 points to students who prove they'v done evaluations: have them take a screen shot and email it to you , you give them the points.

Our department doesn't do that: it's always "fun" to tell students "No, I won't give you points for doing an evaluation, even though all your other faculty will."

That really is a good idea about reviews. I'm going to pass that on to my colleagues. I tell them to e-mail me their questions, but I usually just get crickets in the in box. Once every few semesters I get a very nice list of well-thought-out questions from a student I already know is going to do well. But do you actually do the problems, or do you have the students start them and then coach them? I usually remind them that the purpose of class is not to find out if I can work the problem ...

You answered your door 45 minutes before an exam? My college has a policy that there are no required office hours after the last day of class.

@#1: I quote a colleague, thus letting me deny responsibility for what I say. He would have answered "paper", saving "eleven inches" for when asked how long it is.

@#2: You could also precede presentations like that with a lecture on what the Sophists taught us about rhetorical methods used to muddy the waters. Every college grad, especially from a liberal arts college that will likely produce many future leaders, should know how to spot those tricks and the logical fallacies they are based on.

@#6: Biology did cease to be purely stamp collecting when it began to take physics and chemistry seriously, but IMHO it won't complete the transition until it takes mathematical modeling seriously enough to require differential equations for all of its majors.

By CCPhysicist (not verified) on 27 Apr 2014 #permalink