William M. Briggs

Statistician to the Stars!

Louisiana State University Professor Booted: Course Too Hard

I have long predicted that as the proportion of high school graduates attending college increases, the classes offered at colleges would have to become easier. If they did not, then the proportion of students failing courses would increase to intolerable levels.

This prediction was correct. As proof, I offer you the story of Dominique Homberger, who tried teaching Biology 1001, “a large introductory course for nonscience majors at Louisiana State University at Baton Rouge.” A lot of kids flunked her first exam. And then a lot failed her second exam. In the end, about one out five students dropped out of her course.

Get it? Students were receiving bad grades! Grades that would decide their very future and control their fate. Horror!

The Dean, Kevin Carman, flew (well, walked vigorously) to the rescue. He booted Homberger from the classroom and had Homberger’s replacement artificially boost every kid’s grade.

“Don’t worry, poor children,” Dean Carman told the sobbing students, “Here are the As you deserve. You are not stupid. You are smart. Bad grades aren’t your fault. Remind your parents to send in your tuition checks.”

But, really—what excuse did LSU offer for this extraordinary act? “The grade distribution in Ms. Homberger’s section was far out of line with the historical pattern in Biology 1001.” I’m sure anybody from the Philosophy department (if they still have one) could have told them that this was a tautology with respect to the question asked: it is a restatement of the facts and not a reason.

Poor Dr Homberger didn’t see it coming. She ordinarily taught an advanced course in comparative anatomy, well known as brutal-going but rewarding. But she decided to see how the other half lived and volunteered to teach Bio 1001, a course specially designed for people who won’t be able to understand biology. Excuse me, I meant for non-science majors.

All went well until she gave her first exam. Students immediately complained of Homberger’s “eccentric format” of the test. A shocked LSU professor said that she “was using multiple-choice questions—but instead of the typical four or five possible answers, she used as many as 10.”

Oh, how I weep (retroactively) for the poor, benumbed kids who had to whittle down a correct response from twice as many possibilities as usual! (An example question from Homberger is copied below.)

What other infamies were there? Students said, “the questions often dealt with material that had been assigned as reading but never discussed in the classroom” (emphasis mine). Yes, dear readers, this termagant, this rogue professor assumed that the darlings in her charge would actually read the material assigned to them.

I know it may be difficult to face, but it was still worse. Many kids were downright “irked” because Homberger “did not give out detailed study guides for tests.” See! See! No wonder they couldn’t find the right answers.

Anyway, other smart alecks heard how Homberger was frog-marched from her classroom, so they began tossing criticisms at LSU. In the true spirit of collegiately, LSU responded by dishing dirt about Homberger, gossip which never rises above calling her a hard-ass.

For example, they put it out that “[s]tudents would complain and she would answer, ‘Did you have to read that? Well, then, you should know it.’” Just awful, no?

What about Homberger’s “academic freedom” to teach and grade how she likes? James Remsen, a professor of biology at LSU, called such talk “nauseating”, and said academic freedom “does not apply to what one teaches in core-curriculum courses.” He supports the Dean’s actions and said that LSU students “should worship at [his] altar” for giving them their (undeserved) grades.

Another prof fretted that Homberger didn’t hand out enough As, though he did acknowledge grading varies: “One [prof] is stingy with A’s, giving them to fewer than 5 percent of his students; one of his colleagues consistently awards 30 percent or more.” Did you catch that lingo? Grades aren’t earned, but are given or awarded.

LSU is now “investigating” a policy whereby the burden of grading can be removed from professors. Presumably, grading will be taken over by the Bursar. I jest not, dear reader. Just wait for the arguments that claim that high grades are a “right.”

Wait, did you hear that? It’s already being said. In an article on how maybe it’s not a good idea for all kids to go to college (sent in from reader and contributer Ari Schwartz), Peggy Williams, a counselor at a high school in suburban New York City said, “If we’re telling kids, ‘You can’t cut the mustard, you shouldn’t go to college or university,’ then we’re shortchanging them from experiencing an environment in which they might grow.”

The possibility that we’re saving them from routine humiliation caused from attempting what they cannot do evidently did not cross her mind.

Sample Question

From the Chronicle:

Students first read this article from the Financial Times (not usually considered difficult) and then answered this question:

(Choose the incorrect statement) Feral dogs in Moscow …

a. tend to have a similar look, with erect ears, thick fur, wedge-shaped head, and almond eyes.

b. look like a breed apart and very unlike the purebred dogs from which they may have descended.

c. vary in the color of their fur.

d. typically have a rolled-up tail.

e. tend to establish and defend territories.

f. are much less aggressive than wolves and are more tolerant of one another.

g. are an excellent example of feralization, which is the opposite mechanism of domestication.

h. rarely wag their tails and do not show affection toward humans.

55 Comments

  1. I usually find myself in admiring agreement with what you write, but in this case you are mistaken.

    Speaking as an Ivy League graduate with a science major I’d say the dean acting very well in replacing this professor and adjusting the grades in the science course for non-science majors. The format and difficulty of the exams was indeed inappropriate for that course.

  2. Briggs

    21 May 2010 at 8:14 am

    Doug S,

    Thank you. OK. Why?

  3. Doug
    You base your response on one example question? Does being an “Ivy League graduate with a science major” make you more or less qualified as an evaluator of college courses?

  4. Matt:
    According to one of my mentors, the late psychologist Prof. David McClelland, the decline of civilizations can be traced to a reduction in Achievement Motivation (nACH) among the young brought about by the spoiling the young. (See the Achieving Society, 1961)

    We are in deep long term trouble. The fall in standards, while it may not be visible among the most able, will definitely be visible in the performance of the average student (not the Lake Wobegon average, but as in typical).

    The WSJ used to print every now and again exams from the 1920s and 1930s for middle school graduation. They were eye opening in terms of expectations for students.

  5. It was a “1001″ course, after all. I think the dear professor was over-the-top on ruining the multiple-guess experience of non-science majors, but the boorish over-reaction of the dean, et al, far surpasses any harm caused in the classroom, imo. Pitiful. And given many in academia’s lack of savior-faire almost predictable, more’s the shame.

    But I could be wrong, so I’ll roll up my tail and lie down on the mat again.

  6. Doug,

    As a non-Ivy, social science graduate with some dabbling in science and mathematics, I have to disagree with you.

    I’m going to weigh in with my experience as a TA at one of the so-called “top public universities” in the nation. I had a student who turned in a paper that was practically unreadable. While I sympathized with her being a non-native, she could have turned in a paper that was proofread– she did not. I failed her.

    She turned around and complained to the professor, who quietly gave her a C-.

    Her excuse was that she was an engineering major, so being able to write well “wasn’t really that important” to her.

    Sigh.

  7. College should not be a haven for the stupid and whiny.

    Well, except for the faculty….

  8. There seems to be an expectation today that courses will be meticulously packaged. Perhaps the students think they are entitled to this.

    David Brooks had an Op-Ed piece touching this in a recent NYT. It does not bode well.

    An acquaintance finding an unattended pc with another instructor’s scope outline for an upcoming final exam. This was an outline which would be posted prior to the exam to assist the students in aligning their ducks. Acquaintance added a book to the list that was part of the scope.

    The scope was posted.

    A parade of students showed up at her colleague’s office DEMANDING an explanation for how this book could be listed in the scope for the final without ever having appeared on any of the assigned readings, been mentioned in class, and so forth. Unfair at best.

    Colleague had never heard of book nor knew what this clamor was about.

    What it was about was that the classroom experience has evolved into a bargain in which the professor is expected to specify with great simplicity what the student will be able to recite at the end of the class and be awarded (given) his “A.”

    My favorite exam question continues to be John Wheeler’s. “How far does the wild goose fly?”

  9. I don’t see how that question would be too difficult for college students. You either read the article, or you didn’t. Actually, I don’t see see how that question would be difficult for HIGH SCHOOL students. In any case, if you are in college, then you should be able to read at a college level. I’ve seen questions more difficult than this at my community college.

    I can understand if you were perhaps an immigrant, and English is not your native language – that’s fine. But then a person that struggles with that particular reading level shouldn’t be in that class anyway. They should continue learning and practicing, and when they’re ready, THEN they can attempt it. But not before – it’d be just frustrating (and a waste of money!). So I’m assuming that all of the students here had the appropriate level of reading comprehension. There’s no critical thinking involved in that question. At all. And there’s no APPLICATION of knowledge either. It truly was just a case of rote memorization. You didn’t have to think abstractly or conceptualize anything.

    Science is one of the harder subjects to learn, but in my opinion, is one of the more FUN subjects to learn! It’s so applicable to everything in life, and it gives you a real sense of how the natural world works.

    Even in an introductory course, the basic principles that you need to learn to even just get “a taste” are new to many, and require taking the time to really think about what the concepts mean. Science is very CONCEPTUAL. Just because it’s an introductory course for non-science majors doesn’t mean you shouldn’t teach the fundamental principles – it’s still a biology class right? And the point of these GE requirements is to make sure that you still LEARN a little bit about other subjects that don’t fall into your major. It’s not meant to be a cake-walk. You deserve a full education for all that tuition you’re plunking down, and watering down a Bio. 1001 course to the point where you’re not learning anything of importance in biology is short-changing the student.

  10. 49erDweet,

    How well I remember the pleasure the engine school guys took in telling me how they wouldn’t have to take all that soft stuff after freshman year.

    Years later, I saw thought of them when I saw the Far Side cartoon where the dog is leaning out the car window telling another dog (with apparent pride) that the master is taking him to be tutored.

    But he had a curled tail.

  11. “Thank you. OK. Why?”

    The purpose of an introductory course in science for non-majors is to teach students the concepts and methods of science, not to prepare them for more advanced work in the discipline by the acquisition of large amounts of detailed knowledge.

    Passing a science for non-majors course does not advance the student toward a career in science, engineering or health care. Deterring students from taking such a science course by fear of failure, will help to ensure that those outside of science remain ignorant of its concepts and methods.

    In a school such as LSU one might expect 20% or so of entering students to be either incapable or unwilling. When 60% of students are failing such a course, the problem is with the curriculum or instructor.

    The professor may perhaps be humorously compared to an earnest policewoman who decides to apply the laws against assault and battery at a rugby match. The laws are sound, but the setting would be quite inappropriate for their enforcement.

  12. Doug,

    I still disagree. The coursework I did for AP Biology in high school was more difficult that what was expected of the students in her class (assuming that the test question Briggs gave was representative). If I was able to master material of a greater difficulty at the age of 15, why can’t they be expected to pass a class in college of lesser difficulty?

    “In a school such as LSU one might expect 20% or so of entering students to be either incapable or unwilling. When 60% of students are failing such a course, the problem is with the curriculum or instructor.”

    60% of the students were failing based on the first couple of exams, but would likely have passed in the end given that they improved.

    And if these students can’t do coursework that is basically what 15-year-olds can do, should they really be in college? I know that strikes many as a cruel statement, but if a college student cannot do coursework at an AP level in most core areas, then something is wrong.

  13. Doug S has it right for the reason he gave. . It was clear enough.

  14. What other infamies were there? Students said, “the questions often dealt with material that had been assigned as reading but never discussed in the classroom” (emphasis mine). Yes, dear readers, this termagant, this rogue professor assumed that the darlings in her charge would actually read the material assigned to them.

    Oh my God this is the most annoying whine I have ever heard from my peers. I remember taking a biology class during summer school and I ended up with a B+ on our first exam. In my mind a B+ is nothing to be proud of, yet somehow half the students in my lab section sought me out and asked he how I did so well.
    I told them I didn’t do anything special besides reading the assigned chapters and doing the study questions the prof. gave us. The reaction, I kid you not, was “Oh. You read the book? Did that help?”

    Most of these kids are graduating from medical school literally as we speak boys and girls. So rest easy.

    This is the basic problem with “meritocracy” though. Without any reliable way to measure “merit” we end up using proxies like GPA and test-scores. Of course, that naturally creates the incentive to pad GPAs and test scores rather than improve teaching. It’s really unavoidable. Generally the GPA doesn’t tell much of the story of how well a student has learned the material (how reliable it is varies by subject naturally) and it tells even less about how long that student will remember and be able to apply that material. So as a teacher, if you know you have a student that gets it but doesn’t test well the temptation is to err on the side of padding. As a university, since your prestige depends on your students going on to get good, high-paying jobs and donating that money back your incentive is, likewise, to pad.

    Of course, I was raised in a household where an excuse like “But. . . it was too haaaaard” would have yielded no sympathy from my parents and would probably have led to my mother calling me a sissy. I don’t know what kind of “supportive environment” these other kids have been getting.

  15. Joy,

    But where does that end?

    Should a political theory class not expect students to read Hobbes because he’s difficult?

    Should we strike Thucydides from history classes because it’s long?

    No need to learn Joyce because intro to English shouldn’t ask much?

    I realize this is a slippery slope and therefore a fallacious argument, but at what point do we draw a line in the sand and say, “No further!” How low do we make the standards? Intro to science courses should, I think, be at least as difficult as AP/IB coursework!

  16. As a non-science type myself (although having taken advanced biology in high school) I think Prof. Homberger’s approach in assigning relevant, current, interesting articles from mainstream publications, such as the Financial Times and Scientific American, is wonderful.

    General questions for all—in which classes did you learn the most? The classes where you had to buckle down and work hard? Or the ones where you sailed through with little effort? Which professors did you most admire? The ones you strove to please? Or the ones who wanted to be your buddy?

  17. PJ,

    My family told me that if I ever failed an exam, then I probably deserved it, so suck it up and take what you get. The one time I failed an exam it was because I got mononucleosis and basically was physically incapable of studying. I got a D on most of my exams.

    My family said, “it happens. Take your low grades, wear them as a badge of pride, and do better next time.” I did.

    No complaining to the deans, asking for re-tests. No whining that it was unfair. Nothing. Just suck it up and be an adult. Isn’t that what college should be like?

    Look, I can understand making an intro to calculus course accessible to art majors somehow. Even AP Calc AB can be too much for some otherwise intelligent and capable people. However, this particular case is a travesty because even at an upper division level biology is one of the more accessible sciences (to its credit, mind you.)

    No. I still feel no sympathy. The students just sound too much like the whiners I had in section.

  18. MGeneral questions for all—in which classes did you learn the most? The classes where you had to buckle down and work hard? Or the ones where you sailed through with little effort? Which professors did you most admire? The ones you strove to please? Or the ones who wanted to be your buddy?

    There was one time I fell asleep while studying for a midterm and ended up sleeping through it. I went back begging to retake it and the prof. was kind enough to let me. I considered it a favor rather than an entitlement, but I really appreciated it.

  19. The real question for me is what is trying to be taught and as a student what am I trying to learn. To me the important story points were dog evolution/adaptation, foraging strategies, individual and pack behavior, human/dog interactions, carrying capacity and the human social dynamic. As much as I agree with the basic thrust of this post— I have to be honest I came away with the impression that this question was an attempt to confound. Nor did I think the question was a good test of knowledge. I did not remember all the visual descriptions of the dogs – the take away point for me was they are evolving to a basic body type.

    I chose D but was torn with maybe E. The article said they had long tails but was silent on the curve but several pictures showed the tails were not straight – would this imply “rolled up” to the prof? The article did not really describe pack behavior–it said less aggressive- but one should not imply from this that territories are not defended. Despite the fact that an alpha dog can move among the packs -the article says packs hold dominant positions over other packs (how can they do this without defense?). I was thinking while reading the article the only difference between wolf packs and feral dogs is the ability for a unique individual animal to move among the packs. The article said nothing about what happens if a “pack” dog entered another territory. Nor did the article say guard dogs formed any sort of pack. E is a very bad answer for multiple choice.

    “With stray dogs, we’re witnessing a move backwards,” explains Poyarkov. My question -Why would a biology prof have people read articles where evolution is shown as directional?

  20. Briggs

    21 May 2010 at 10:43 am

    Doug S,

    Got it. Well, your point is the same as the administration’s: too many kids were failing; thus, this must be the fault of the instructor. They did not consider that it could have been the fault of the students, or rather the fault of the system itself.

    If a kid enrolled in college can’t read a Financial Times article on stray dogs, he should either (A) not be allowed to enroll in a watered-down biology course, or (B) not allowed to enroll in the university in the first place.

    Now, there is nothing—absolutely nothing in the world—wrong with offering a “survey” course for adults who want to learn some biology but who know they will never master it. This, after all, is the model of community colleges. I support this.

    But at a university, there should be no watered-down courses of any kind. Obviously, I speak of core courses for BA/BS students; nothing wrong with universities mimicking community colleges to fatten the treasury; however, these offerings should not earn BA/BS students credit; some universities do this.

    If biology is important enough to learn, then everybody should enter the same progression. Not all will, or should, complete that progression. Same with any subject. People often say that they go to college to receive a “well rounded” education. This is a fiction, of course.

    What we can argue about is what courses should form the core that all students must take. Perhaps calculus isn’t in it. Thucydides should be. An excellent argument for including biology exists. Physics, certainly; but then we need the calculus, at least at the hand-waving level. Some fields should belong solely to technical schools: computer science, maybe. Two years and out with a certificate.

    Anyway, my main point is that, as predicted, courses will continuously watered-down as the proportion of high school graduates attend college.

  21. I took an intro to astronomy class. Easiest class I took in my college career. After the midterm, the Professor posted a histogram of exam scores. A large number of people were failed. A few scored lower score than would be expected by raw guessing. The numbers didn’t improve after the second midterm.

    At a large school, it should be expected that some portion of the enrollees in any class, will have zero comprehension.

  22. Matt,

    I sort of disagree on CS. While the lowly coder should be able to get a 2-year degree in CS and then be allowed to start writing code for his company of choice, there are plenty of arguments for 4 year CS degrees. This is particularly true for hardware guys, who need to understand the underlying physics of the hardware they’re designing. Surely they benefit from 4 years of education?

  23. I should add the Prof was considered one of the best on campus.

  24. William Sears

    21 May 2010 at 11:11 am

    In order to judge the difficulty of this exam I would have to know how many questions there were. The problem with this question is the amount of reading and re-reading required to eliminate each choice. If there are many questions of this type the student could easily run out of time and be forced to rush. As both a student and professor I have encountered many exams that are very poorly constructed in this manner. With the large number of very similar choices it looks like the instructor is worried that the students might get away with sometime. This tendency should be suppressed. The purpose of an exam is to test basic knowledge in the limited time frame of the exam. I should also note that I am known to give rigorous exams myself (in Physics).

  25. The example question is interesting. Without reading the article, I notice that one answer out of eight is not like the others. Is it possible that the professor’s lectures were such that a student paying attention would find g to be the proper answer? Even though it seems reasonable to this lawyer that feralization is the opposite of domestication, perhaps it isn’t or perhaps these dogs are not a good example of it.

  26. Briggs,

    What you suggest seems impractical to me. No university I know of implements your scheme. They all offer watered-down science courses for non-majors, which count for BA/BS credit. When I attended university many years ago there were four different introductory courses in physics: one substantially without math; one without calculus; one with calculus for science and engineering majors; and one with tensor calculus and other advanced math for physics majors.

    Being a conservative, I tend to trust experience over theory.

    Here in the USA there is no distinction between the introductory science course you might
    take at a local community college, and the one you might take at the university. If the course at the community college was sufficiently rigorous you will be given appropriate credit toward your BA/BS major when you later transfer to the university for your upper class work. Some American students have begun their academic careers at local community colleges and then subsequently transferred to Yale or Harvard. Does that ever happen in the UK with Oxford or Cambridge?

  27. To read a lengthy article from a decent newspaper is probably far beyond the experience of many of these students, never mind having to answer a question about its content. Harsh!

  28. Physics for Poets
    Physics for Physicians
    Physics for Physicists
    Physics for Engineers

  29. Mikey says:
    21 May 2010 at 11:38 am

    The example question is interesting. Without reading the article, I notice that one answer out of eight is not like the others. Is it possible that the professor’s lectures were such that a student paying attention would find g to be the proper answer?

    If G- why did the article spend so much time highlighting the process of selecting for domestic traits even going so far as to point at the ability -using foxes- to breed in domesticity from a “wilder” strain?

    My point– we can agree with respect to raising academic hurdles–however such an agreement does not logically require agreement as to whether this test is a proper introduction of academic rigor.

    While only one question – I found it confusing at best. I sure would like to hear what the answer is supposed to be- I picked D with hesitancy.

    I would be careful about using this question to build a case for improved academic standards. Sometimes a bad test is just a bad test.

    Also wonder if questions like this accomplish just what we don’t want to achieve – selecting for the mediocre. If you never read the article- you have a high probability to get it wrong but I can argue as you have more information/knowledge on related subjects (beyond that given in the article) your probability of getting the question wrong also increases as you begin to consider more potential “meanings” to the question.

  30. I would have to wonder how long the test took, if a single question required the reading of that article. Or was the article something they were supposed to read before the test?

    I picked E before reading the article, and I still think that is the correct answer.

  31. And I would have failed the test. pick the incorrect answer. grrrrrr

  32. Briggs,

    Your postings are always timely or at least coincidental to my daily experiences.

    I’ve spent most of this week helping my Grade 7 son study for an upcoming math exam. First off the primary level math and middle school math are “language based” (whatever that means) in our jurisdiction. From what I’ve seen it seems to mean talking about math rather than doing it. But even if I accept language based math at face value then it should at least be well executed. The text book is horrendous. It introduces concepts like translations, transformations, reflections etc. but no where in the text’s chapter about these concepts does it–in words–define them. Nor can a word definition be found in the glossary or the index. Worse it uses short forms and doesn’t define them as in “rotate the object 90 degrees cw.” I had to infer because it was a rotation that cw was a direction and I had to guess clockwise. But again, this language based text didn’t define the term nor could it be found in the glossary.

    These LSU students are arriving at University wholly unprepared for real work. Even work as simple as reading for comprehension. The problem starts well before they get there. In my story no one gets fired, but perhaps someone should.

  33. Another option could be to “choose the incorrect statement; defend your answer.” But short essays take more time to grade.

  34. I still think that reading for comprehension was a red herring in this question. BTW, I still have not read the article, but a quick internet check reveals an issue (one of Briggs’ favorite words) revolving around the distinction of populations of animals versus individual animals.

    From “Feralization: The making of wild domestic animals” by Thomas J. Daniels and Marc Bekoff:

    Abstract

    The widely accepted viewpoint that feralization is the reverse of domestication requires that the feralization process be restricted to populations of animals and, therefore, cannot occur in individuals. An alternative, ontogenetic approach is presented in which feralization is defined as the process by which individual domestic animals either become desocialized from humans, or never become socialized, and thus behave as untamed, non-domestic animals. Feralization will vary among species and, intraspecifically, will depend upon an individual’s age and history of socialization to humans. Because feralization is not equated with morphological change resulting from evolutionary processes, species formation is not an accurate indicator of feral condition.

    However, on the point of the article, there are bad professors and bad designers of tests. I have first hand experience with both — once inhabiting the same person. It never occurred to me or my fellow students that we should complain to management.

  35. Reading comprehension? The article in question had PICTURES. The pictures plainly show dogs without rolled up tails. Maybe you need to be a ble to read in order to uderstand the question, but not the answer!

  36. I took a math course which attracted a lot of non-math majors in fact I was only math major in it. The 1st exam was hard for even math majors and i was disappoint to receive an 84 instead of my usual A. Based on 2nd best grade (19) being a B+ there was 75 point curve added. Everyone hated me because i killed the curve for most of them to get a’s or b’s they expected.

  37. My wife took a Education Math class at a college in the midwest. One of the assignments the teacher gave was as follows.

    “Write a math problem. Solve it!”

    Many hands were quickly raised.

    “What kind of problem does it have to be?”

    “Whatever you want, it just has to be math.”

    “That’s not a fair assignment” spoke half the class.

    The professor was let go at the end of the year.

    Don’t remember the reasons, but they had something to do with his grade distribution.

  38. Perhaps she should have warned the class that they would have to read the required material, and it would be more difficult. I recall at Oklahoma A &M, in an elective class on Life Insurance, where our professor warned us he would grade in a manner he use at Amherst. We had some 35 students began his class. At the end he gave out 2 Bs, 4Cs, and the rest ds and fs. No one complained to a higher authority. However, we had all the knowledge needed to set up and run a Live Insurance company.

    This begs the question, why are they in the college, at all, if they cannot follow simple instructions?

  39. I don’t really see what the fuss is about, but maybe I’m seeing it differently. Looking over LSU’s course catalog, the 1001 course is taught in three to five sections per semester by what looks like a rotation of six professors. These professors all consistently produce a similar, predictable grade distribution. Prof. Homberger teaches the same course, yet produces a far worse distribution.
    The article did mention that roughly 20% of students dropped the course, but did not mention if these students then just added one of the other three available sections with normal grading.
    If I was studying and struggling to not drop below a C, and my airhead roommate who didn’t study at all was in a different section of the same course with a B+, I’d be at the Dean’s office too.

  40. What other infamies were there? Students said, “the questions often dealt with material that had been assigned as reading but never discussed in the classroom” (emphasis mine). Yes, dear readers, this termagant, this rogue professor assumed that the darlings in her charge would actually read the material assigned to them.

    In the autumn term of 2009 several students were asking me for clarification about contents of a recent “physics without mathematics” exam.

    “Where did question X come from?” they asked.
    “From lab” I replied. This was just awful, they decided. Very unfair.
    “Where did question Y come from?” they continued.
    “From the textbook.” says I.
    “But I don’t recall you covering it in class.” says one.
    “True. I don’t cover the entire book in class, but you must be familiar with the material in the book anyway” I say. It’s in the syllabus.
    “You mean,” says one student with disgust, “that this is a course where we have to read the book?”

    They now began to argue that because they could get good grades in many courses by just attending lecture, mine should be the same. Well, I resigned this spring. No more Community College nonsense for me.

  41. Like, the dean is totally da bomb. If you’re a scholarship student (playing basketball 8 hours a day), you don’t have time to waste on this butt-numbing classroom crap. It’s your scores on the court that bring in the Benjamins for the school (and yourself, of course, when you hit the pros). If the prof didn’t get the word about how to grade a crappy 1001 course, the dumb broad deserves to get fired. Wake up and smell the coffee! The only biology you need to know is to never leave no DNA. Business is business, after all.

  42. Tough the question shouldn’t be hard for people who did read the article (my guess would be that many didn’t), I fail to see the relevance with biology. I followed many biology and microbiology courses, though mainly related to human but i never saw such a dumb question in a biology course.

  43. No sylvain, the question was hard only for people who didn’t look at the pictures in the article. No reading of the reading assignment was necessary.

    The test question was more teaching. The students were coerced into learning by reading the test question, which they had to do in class during the test period. The professor employed an insidious method of educating her charges: learn or fail.

    Unfortunately, LSU determined that force feeding knowledge into students was not acceptable. LSU is a party school. The worst thing a professor can do there is poop the party by doing education. The best thing is to make the classrooms into open bars with music and buffalo wings, and to give everybody guaranteed A’s on the first day of class.

  44. The real question is “Why are they testing reading comprehension in a college biology class?”

    That academics find basic literacy to be beyond the pale in an introductory course tells us everything we need to know about them.

  45. I had a graduate drama major as a lab partner in one of my EE courses at CMU (no, not the faux one Briggs waxes about — the real one in Pittsburgh). He took the course because he was interested in stage lighting and sound and figured the EE course would give him valuable insight. The graduate courses at CMU are PASS/FAIL — nothing in between. As such, the university decided that my lab partner’s criterion should be an “A” or “FAIL” mostly because he was a grad student taking an undergrad course. (He got a well-deserved A).

    One of the disadvantages I see about taking a PASS/PASS course, is that in real life, the real students will end up eating your lunch and any alumnus/a from that school will have a real disadvantage in the business world once word about their true qualifications gets around.

  46. I agree with Teflon93.

    The question had nothing to do with biolgy.
    It was simply a test of comprehension.
    Or was it a test to see if student bothered to read an article as requested?

    Either way, you do not need to attend biology lectures or study assigned biology texts
    to answer that particular question.

    The whole tenor of the thing is of the type that you could find in a popular magazine
    that has (false) pretentions of being up market.
    I would be surprised to find it in a undergraduate science course.

  47. Matt,

    I’ve been reading since you started this blog. Although the administration seems heavy-handed in this instance, and there is indeed too much piling on by faculty, AND your hypothesis that way too many people are attending college certainly seems true, AND the whining is ridiculous, you’re coming down on the wrong side here.

    When you are in the situation that this professor was in, cashing checks signed by LSU, it’s your duty to follow policy as it exists. If you oppose it, fight to change it through channels. Doing what she did makes it worse for the innocent victims of the college scam, the students who are just playing the game by the rules as they know them. They’re not worldly enough yet to figure out that they shouldn’t be in college, and, presumably, most of them are doing the best they can given their preparation and skills. You just can’t flunk 60% of your class.

    I also agree with several posters above that the example question has little to do with biology and may indicate that the professor herself really doesn’t know what she’s trying to teach. Doug S. makes an effective, unrebutted point in his second post as well.

    Given the system as it exists, her actions were wrong, and did much more harm than good. I say this as someone who has taught a difficult science at the college level for 30 years. Making a “grandstand” play like this helps no one.

  48. For students:

    1. Don’t cut class. Not one.
    2. Do all the assignments. Even the reading

    Not all students are created equal. Some will be able to master the material in three years, many in four and some in five or six. Decide which you are (or want to be) and plan accordingly.

    For administration:

    There are great teachers, good teachers, OK teachers, bad teachers and terrible teachers. Administration must have a rational and reasonable process in place to attract and retain the great and good while improving or getting rid of the terrible, bad and OK. Great researchers aren’t necessarily great teachers.

    For all:

    Delivering a college education is not the same as manufacturing automobiles. Not all incoming parts (students and teachers) are the same. Some can do the work with no help and some will need considerable extra help (rework). This is the way it is. Call it diversity.

    A high quality college education is hard to create and should be hard to achieve.

  49. Briggs

    23 May 2010 at 6:11 am

    MrCPhysics, Doug S,

    Sorry about the slow response, guys, but I was away from the computer yesterday. Also, no worries about disagreements from me. Nobody gets everything right (me, I mean).

    I think what’s getting lost is the larger point: these kids who are flunking should not be in “college.” Perhaps—raw speculation here—they should be in a “business certificate program”, where they learn to read balance sheets, count change, and to dress nicely. Their future employers—for ninety-eight percent of these kids are only in college to build their resumes—only care about finding people who “stuck with something.” They don’t particularly desire that their applicants know about stray dogs in Moscow subways.

    Look, we all know how valuable these courses are, and how much of the material sticks with our students. Answers: not especially valuable, and not much. The kids would have received just as much value had they been forced to sit and read (anything!) for three hours a week. I’d say seventy-, eighty-percent of kids (plus or minus, depending on where you are, and increasing!) come into college not having been made to read. Yes, the fault lies (mostly) with their parents and (in part) with their high schools.

    The only thing that is gained by funneling kids through watered-down courses is to throw the relevant departments a few bucks. This is openly discussed at every college I have been part of, especially in English, a department which usually receives a substantial chunk of money to teach remedial reading and writing. (However, they have to spend out a substantial portion of these funds to pay the adjuncts, graduate students, and other lesser beings to grade the flood of term papers that flow through the department.

    So, are these kids being punished for attending a course that is too difficult for them, while their lucky compatriots are “awarded” easy As in the traditional course? I say they are not. In fact, I say that those who make it through will be better off. They will have been taught, many for the first time, what it’s like to work for something. They will be like the folks who enroll in Homberger’s advanced anatomy course: tired but grateful. And smarter.

    Anyway, one withdrawal or one bad grade on a transcript is trivial. All of us who have been teachers know the kids don’t see it that way (I have had more people than I can remember fight for every half point on every unsubstantial quiz).

    About the question: several people have said they don’t think the question is related to biology but merely tests reading comprehension. Leave aside the question of reading comprehension, I wonder, to which subject we think this question is related? Certainly seems biological to me; but of the older, non-genetic kind; the type of biology that we might expect a kid who can’t compute an inheritance table to be able to learn. Plus, we have no idea what she said about this article in class, nor on the subject generally. Too, this is only one question. And I’d bet that if it were limited to just four choices, there would not have been one peep of complaint.

    Now think about reading comprehension: any kid who is college should be able to read, period. And read so well that his “comprehension” is never questioned.

    Doug S, you’re right: no college follows my grand plan, and, even stronger, if they did, they would have to do so all at once, and not piecemeal. I agree with you and MrPhysics that this is not likely. It requires a complete re-tooling. I see enclaves developing inside existing colleges, in which “advanced” students enroll; a sort of hard-core extension of “honors” programs. Your ideas?

    In Homberger’s favor, the Chronicle article stated that she met with the Dean before the class commenced, and that her attrition rate was discussed; plus, the eventual rate wasn’t that far out of line; and after the first set of kids dropped, it was average. The Dean certainly knew she was a hard grader and that her classes were difficult; further, that she was difficult.

    I don’t know, maybe I like Homberger so much because I tend to be a bit of a softy when it comes to grading, for all the reasons you mention, and I wish I wasn’t.

  50. Has anyone ever had reason to recall the Krebs Citric Acid Cycle form memory for any reason besides passing a freshman biology exam or winning a bet?

  51. Wow!

    More than 5 choices with one correct answer? This reminds me of my high-school geography tests, in which there were more than 6 choices and an untold number of correct answers to each question. And no partial credit.

    About one out of five students dropped out of her course?! Not bad at all. In our 100-level algebra classes that fulfill math competency requirements, about 45% of them either fail or drop out of college. Many freshmen are still stuck in high school mentality and have a study habit of typical high-school students. Well, they really have no study habits at all.

    What a frustrating experience for all people involved. Anyway, once an “issue” reaches the Dean’s level, oftentimes, students/parents (yeah, parents) get their wishes. Nowadays, many administrators are running a school like a business, and students are customers.

  52. I’ll go with (g).

    Pete

  53. My wife got her MS in Environmental Education. She got her degree on campus. Teachers would come in during summer vacation and take a 2 week course and would get the same credit for a class that was a full semester. Part time the teacher would get the same MSEE degree that my wife worked 2 years to accomplish with a Thesis.

    The teachers paid money for their courses though.

    The University liked to get the money.

  54. Speed,
    While practicing chemists and biologists could be at their leisure to reference the Krebs cycle, those who require such a reference are not likely to have much incite in group discussion, lecture Q&A, or be able to generate grant worthy hypothesis and experimentation concerning metabolism.

    If you can’t place succinic dehydrogenase without reference when your department’s invited speaker lectures about a population which he has mapped with having a deficiency of this enzyme, then you are lost from the get-go and are worthless for any productive discussion.

    If you don’t know and understand the basics without reference, you cannot progress.

    Does a non-science major need to be able to dictate the Krebs cycle? probably not. But intro courses for no -majors have to provide a base level of information or they don’t introduce anything.

    That being said, if an intro course cannot effectively instill the required information to 80% of the attendees, then it is clearly not grading/testing fairly or not doing a good enough job of instruction.

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