Thoughts on ranking, evaluating, and liking

From this week’s GEDI F18 blog prompts on assessment, I was most interested in Peter Elbow’s essay on forms of judgement: ranking, evaluating, and liking. I highlighted several of Elbow’s passages and found myself writing in the margins “YES! I can relate to that!” What resonated with me the most however, was his comment that ranking “is inaccurate or unreliable; it gives no substantive feedback; and it is harmful to the atmosphere for teaching and learning.” His example of grading unreliability – a single paper will receive the “full range of grades” from readers (based on research conducted in 1912!) – is extremely convincing.

Elbow also points out one of my major frustrations with grades – students tend to focus on the grade and ignore the feedback/evaluations. He says “I’m trying to get students to listen better to my evaluations—by uncoupling them from a grade.” I would argue in some cases that better “should” be deleted from the sentence, implying that students should simply listen to evaluations. I had a wonderful PhD adviser who told me to always include positive feedback on all of my student’s assignments. Before my students could submit their homework to a digital platform, I would often receive encouraging comments from them about my feedback. My comments made them feel good about their work and they looked forward to picking up their assignments. Last semester, however, I TA’d a lab where all of the assignments were submitted through Canvas. My issue with the digital platform is that a student can see their grade without going to their assignment. Therefore, students may not actually read the evaluations, especially if they are satisfied with their grade, and thus won’t benefit from the feedback.

I love that Elbow brakes down his grading into only two classifications, “Honors” and “Unsatisfactory.” From my limited teaching experience, I wholeheartedly agree that it’s easy to identify the good and the bad but ranking the students in the middle is ambiguous, time consuming, and I never feel good about doing it.

I also want to comment on Elbow’s statement that “many “A” students also end up doubting their true ability and feeling like frauds – because they have sold out on their own judgement and simply given teachers whatever yields an A.” I want to add to this that in other situations some “A” students might also feel that the quality of their work was unworthy of that A because they know that they did not put enough time, effort, or thought into an assignment, which is another issue with the grading/ranking form of assessment. In this situation, feedback is essential (e.g., maybe the quality of the writing was poor but the student hit on all of the major points of the assignment).

Elbow’s essay focuses on writing, thus I wonder how his ideas on evaluating and liking could be applied to the sciences. Would scientists ever embrace these ideas? Or do they prefer multiple choice assessments solely because they’re easy to grade and shy away from assignments that require more rigorous evaluation? While I was reading, I was trying to come up with some other forms of evaluating students in the sciences. My default was to still consider tests of knowledge without the stress of a grade, e.g., end-of-the-week, ungraded or bonus “quizzes” that are reviewed in class, or the replacement of mid-term exams with a semester-long project. I also pondered using participation “points” to encourage liking, e.g., participate by contributing to the course’s weekly folder an article related to the topic being discussed in class that week. Does anyone have another idea or comment on evaluating and liking in the sciences?

I’d rather be playing soccer than working

I really enjoyed the GEDI F18 Week 4 prompts on Mindful Learning. Sir Ken Robinson’s TED talk was particularly moving, inspirational, and at times, laugh-out-loud funny. However, I was also saddened by the reminder that the United States’ educational system has many avoidable deficiencies. I just don’t understand why American politicians and some educators continue to promote standardized testing and uniformity in teaching despite there being strong evidence that these methods do not promote mindful learning or a culture of learning.

I found Ellen J. Langer’s article on Mindful Learning (Current Directions in Psychological Science, 9, 2000, 220-223), both informative and relatable to my own experiences with coaching. Langer explains that subjects respond more mindfully to activities that are described as play rather than work (Myth 3). I have also found this to be true when I coach soccer. In fact, I often use this strategy to encourage my players during practices. For example, when working on passing patterns (e.g., player 1 passes to player 2, who passes to 3, who passes to 4), if I describe the activity as a drill, most players will mindlessly go through the passing motions unconcerned with the quality or speed of their passes. However, if I describe the activity as a competition between groups, the players are immediately more attentive; they listen to the instructions, are concerned about the quality of their passes, move the ball more quickly, and are frustrated when their passes are inaccurate. All in all, the players are more focused and determined when they think they are in competition with each other, which translates into them working harder to improve their performance. Thus, the change in the players’ learning experiences is unrelated to the drill itself, but to how the drill is presented to them.

Thinking about what motivates my players also brings me back to our in-class discussion on gamification. I am reminded that in order to promote student learning, every lesson does not need to be presented as a fun game. Rather, the material just needs to be presented in a way that gives the lessons meaning and encourages the students to want to learn. I am looking forward to our class discussion on mindful learning with our guest speaker, Professor Emily Satterwhite.

How ‘Reacting to the Past’ helps address present-day problems

This week’s readings for GEDI F18 focused on engaging and inspiring students through the use of problem-based learning and gamification. I found the article by Mark Carnes, History professor at Barnard College, most interesting. The article describes how Dr. Carnes, with the help of hundreds of scholars, created an elaborate series of games called “Reacting to the Past” that has elicited such positive responses from students that the students:

(1) were discussing the games for hours after class

(2) were passionate and dedicated to their roles in the game

(3) volunteered to come early to class to continue to play the games.

This example shows that even if students aren’t necessarily learning the prescribed course material (though they should be through the game), this pedagogical practice is engaging and helps the students learn to solve problems and work in teams, which are important skills to master.

One of the readings mentioned (though I can’t figure out which one now) that gamifying the sciences is easy (paraphrased). My thought is that any game that is effective at meeting a desired goal is challenging to develop, no matter the subject. For example, as Carnes describes, it took hundreds of experts to create “Reacting to the Past.” I can imagine that to produce an effective educational game it does require the knowledge and creativity of many different people. Like Robert Talbert says, students learn more when they have access to an expert’s experiences, thought processes, and learned mental models. What then could be better than having access to all of those experts embedded in a single game?

I started looking into the efforts being made to use gamification in Chemistry education. A quick Google search produced fewer results than I expected. I found one recent article in the Journal of Chemical Education that discussed the use of gamification to help students understand the concept of limiting reagents in stoichiometry. (I should add that the title of the article is “Clash of Chemists: A Gamified Blog To Master the Concept of Limiting Reagent Stoichiometry,” (which relates back to last week’s discussion on blogging.) The game asked students to come up with an analogy to represent the difference between stoichiometric and nonstoichiometric conditions, e.g., if you have 4 pieces of bread and 2 cups of peanut butter you can only make 2 peanut butter sandwiches because you’re limited by the 4 pieces of bread (assuming each sandwich is made of 2 pieces of bread). By the way, this is an example of a nonstoichiometric condition because you have excess peanut butter (assuming you put less than 1 cup of peanut butter on your sandwich). The game involved points and competition among peers. The feedback from students who participated in the game was generally positive and these students performed better in the class on average relative to their classmates. I liked this simple approach to a complex problem that is usually challenging for students to comprehend.

Thus, here is a list of the general chemistry topics. I don’t think anyone else in the class is a chemist, however everyone is required to take general chemistry. Does anyone remember a mental model, story, or have an idea/experience that could help students understand one of these topics? Or maybe add a game idea for a topic in your own field.

  • Acids, Bases and pH
  • Atomic Structure
  • Electrochemistry
  • Units and Measurement
  • Thermochemistry
  • Chemical Bonding
  • Periodic Table
  • Equations and Stoichiometry
  • Solutions and Mixtures

How to be a successful academic – Blog

The articles and video that were assigned for GEDI F18 Week 1, delivered the message that I should focus more time on building my digital presence via blogging. According to Seth Godin and Tom Peters (Inside the Entrepreneurial Mind), blogging is a free platform that can help an individual (or perhaps an organization) network and learn to effectively communicate with their audience. Agreed. However, I’m not sold on the idea of networking via The Internet. Is it really necessary that my peers know and follow my thoughts? I’ve never been much of a blogger, or blog follower, for that matter. I was required to blog in PFP (GRAD 5104) and though my response was to fear and resist, I did feel a sense of satisfaction when I received positive feedback from my peers. That being said, outside of class I am still hesitant to post my thoughts to The Internet for public viewing. (I prefer reposting other people’s thoughts or educational content. That’s still a form of blogging, right?) My level of blog knowledge is admittedly archaic. I am still under the impression that blogs are where people share stories about their lives (mainly their cats, see image below), or share details about their most-recent cooking/baking accomplishments… My wife just informed me that Twitter is a form of blogging. (She is all about her digital presence, thanks to GEDI.)
Twitter user profile picture of iAmMoshow - The Cat Rapper
Image taken from Twitter to demonstrate a form of blogging. @iammoshow
I didn’t realize that the websites for some organizations can be considered professional blogs. A quick Google search of “Science blogs,” directed me to a list created by of the “14 Science Blogs Everyone Should Read.” From there I started reading to find out what I was missing. I found that many of the blogs were similar to news websites, i.e., different categories for different posts (e.g., read these 10,000 articles related to Health and Medicine that includes multiple articles per day). I could have spent hours clicking through one category. Where should I begin and where does it end? It was overwhelming (and not in the ‘this is awesome’ sort of way). Some were more traditional, one post per day on a particular topic. But then still, should I check the archives or do I start reading the post from today? If today is the only day that matters then what is the point? (This post is turning into an unending rant so I’m going to wrap it up.) I think I would be more willing to blog if I enjoyed following other people’s blogs. I enjoy reading stories when I happen upon them but I wouldn’t say I follow any particular blog. In the end, the readings did give me a greater appreciation for blogs. I never considered blogs to be, as Tim Hitchcock explains, “a form of publication” or a means to improve a person’s writing into a form that is “more engaging, simply written, and to the point.” Writing a blog does require a significant amount of thought, planning, and time. For those who enjoy blogging, whether for the intent of networking or simply to write down your thoughts (or share pictures of your cats), kudos to you! Quote that I found valuable from ATA Scientific Instruments on science related blogs: “A quick search in Google, and you can generally find whatever information you need. But sometimes the mass and diversity of material on the Internet can be overwhelming. Blogs are a valuable resource that can give analytical insights into the people, inventions and discoveries driving scientific innovation. Macro or micro, the blogs in this list engage in discussions and topics that will continue to evolve and change throughout history. Up-to-date and topical science blogs are the future for scientific research, education and outreach, a future which is being built by the blogs mentioned above.”

Contemporary Pedagogy

I’d like to introduce myself to the Fall ’18 Contemporary Pedagogy community. My name is Kristen Felice Noble. I am a PhD Chemistry Candidate starting my 6th year at Virginia Tech. Thus, my focus for the next several months will be to publish, write my dissertation, and apply for jobs (e.g., instructor positions at PUIs). My involvement in chemistry outreach and coaching (soccer) helped me to discover my enthusiasm for educating and inspiring young scientists. My background is in Forensic & Investigative Sciences and Chemistry (WVU ’11). A fun fact about me is that before coming to Virginia Tech I worked as a criminalist for the NYPD crime laboratory.

ACS Open Access

American Chemical Society (ACS) Publications is a collection of over 60 scientific journals related to chemistry, chemicals, and related sciences. The Journal of the American Chemical Society (JACS) is one of ACS Publications most influential journals, with an impact factor of 13.858. The cost to “purchase” a single JACS article is $40.00 for 48 hours of access, an unreasonable value, especially for small businesses who are trying to do innovative science but can’t afford to access valuable journal articles to guide their research.

The ACS Publications website has an “Open Access” tab. When I navigated to it, I was confused by what I found. The website had a flavorful list of five open access journals and a price list. It turns out, you can pay a hefty some if you want your research to be open access:

For instance, if you like watermelon you can pay up to $5000 for your manuscript to appear in ACS AuthorChoice, $4000 for the putting it in the journal and up to $1000 for the license. If you’re a pear and your manuscript is selected by the editors as an editors’ choice for open access, you still have to pay the $500+ license fee.

I decided to take a deeper look at one of the open access journals, ACS Central Science. According to the description, ACS Central Science is a highly selective, multidisciplinary journal that publishes articles “of interest to the broad chemistry and scientific community.” The editors publish no more than 200 articles per year and the journal has an impact factor of 7.939. Looking over the latest issue, I found that about half of the articles are full research articles, while the other half are labeled “outlooks” or “first reactions.” I don’t really know what that means but after skimming through two of the articles, it appears that a first reaction article is a two-page glimpse into results and future work. These articles have no abstract and appear to contain quite a bit of background information.

Needless to say, I am less than impressed by ACS publications consortium of open access journal. I hope they will have more open access and at lower cost to the researchers in the near future.

Timely college completion

Why does it take some students a long time to graduate? In the United States, some people really want to know. Some people also believe that higher education institutions should be held accountable for slow graduation rates.

A recent article in Inside Higher Ed suggests that high-impact educational practices (HIPs) may be part of the problem. The article Maybe Not So ‘High Impact’?, describes the findings of a study by Harvard Business School and NYU that, according to the researchers, suggests HIPs are not as beneficial as their authors make them out to be and do not improve graduation rates. Let’s take a closer look at HIPs.

HIPs are recommendations from the Association of American Colleges & Universities (AAC&U) to institutions designed to help in student learning, engagement, and retention. According to the AAC&U, each recommendation has been widely tested and is beneficial to college students.

Here is the complete list of High-Impact Educational Practices:

  1. First-year seminars and experiences – small groups of students and faculty where students experience critical inquiry, writing, collaborative learning, and other skills development
  2. Common intellectual experiences – broader themes related to “core” curriculum
  3. Learning communities – linked courses taken as a group with close interaction with the professors
  4. Writing-intensive courses
  5. Collaborative assignments and projects
  6. Undergraduate research
  7. Diversity/global learning – experimental learning in the community and/or study abroad
  8. Service learning, community-based learning – field based learning with community partners
  9. Internships
  10. Capstone courses and projects

Based on the list, it appears that HIPs are designed to develop students’ process skills (e.g. oral/written communication, teamwork, problem solving, etc.) and expose students to future careers in their field (e.g. internships, service learning). I experienced many of these recommendations in my undergraduate education.

For traditional students, only two items on the list stand out to me as having the potential to directly impact graduation time, No. 8 – diversity/global learning and No. 9 – internships. Obviously, study abroad could delay graduation, however these experiences are not typically included in graduation requirements. At my undergraduate institution, I was required to complete an internship, for credit, over the summer between my third year and fourth year. My internship experience was amazing but it was unpaid and it cost me over $3000 to take the three-credit “course”. For non-traditional students and students of low economic status, giving up a summer to complete an unpaid internship would be challenging. Needless to say, based on the HIPs recommendations, HIPs probably isn’t the reason why students take a long time to graduate.

Now let’s consider some other reasons for slow graduation rates.

  1. Student self-motivation – some students are lazy and don’t work hard in classes, don’t attend classes, or withdraw from several classes.
  2. Lack of engagement in the field of study – hopefully this isn’t the case but it could very well be for some students. Maybe the student is not really interested in the field but feels stuck because they’ve put 2+ years into it. Or, maybe they chose the field for the wrong reasons (e.g. money, etc.) and are not really engaged in the classes.
  3. No prospective job offers – would you want to graduate if you didn’t have a job lined up?
  4. Engagement in other areas within the field – students may be engaged in research, outreach, or other extracurricular activities that may distract them from graduating and postpone graduation.
  5. Family – now we’re getting to the obvious reasons but taking care of a family may take priority over classwork and may limit the number of credits a student can take in a semester.
  6. Money –some students can’t afford to go to school full-time because they need to work and make money.

I’m sure this list could go on but I’m going to stop there and end by saying that in opposition to what the Inside Higher Ed article suggests, HIPs do not appear to directly impact graduation time. Slow graduation rates are a problem, however there is not one cause and not one solution.

Your data suggest a moderate automatic association for Male with Liberal Arts and Female with Science – Project Implicit

I really had fun learning about my implicit associations using Project Implicit. If you haven’t visited this website, you should. The website contains a broad range of tests designed to reveal your implicit associations. The tests are a series of exercises where you are asked to sort words/pictures into groups as fast as possible. The words/pictures are broken down into categories. The categories and words/pictures stay the same throughout the test but the grouping instructions change. For example, the table below shows the categories and words for the Gender – Science Implicit Association Test (IAT), the test associated with the title of this blog.

Implicit Association Test

Next, you will use the ‘E’ and ‘I’ computer keys to categorize items into groups as fast as you can. These are the four groups and the items that belong to each:

Category Items
Male Man, Son, Father, Boy, Uncle, Grandpa, Husband, Male
Female Mother, Wife, Aunt, Woman, Girl, Female, Grandma, Daughter
Science Astronomy, Math, Chemistry, Physics, Biology, Geology, Engineering
Liberal Arts History, Arts, Humanities, English, Philosophy, Music, Literature

There are seven parts. The instructions change for each part. Pay attention.

Project Implicit

During the test, you might be asked to group words in the Male category with words in the Science category, and words in the Female category with the words in the Liberal Arts category. Then, you might be asked to group Female with Science and Male with Liberal Arts. Sometimes, the categories aren’t grouped and sometimes groupings repeat, you just have to pay attention and respond as fast as possible. At the end, you take a brief survey and get your result.

I am a female Chemist, so I wasn’t surprised when my result for the Gender – Science IAT was “a moderate automatic association for Male with Liberal Arts and Female with Science.” However, my implicit bias is definitely showing. What I found most interesting was the breakdown of results based on web responses, which is provided at the end of every test. The Gender – Science IAT breakdown is below:

Project Implicit’s Implicit Association Test (IAT) web results for Gender – Science

Based on the breakdown, I am definitely in the minority when it comes to my implicit association. Over 70% of respondents have at least a slight implicit association of Male with Science and Female with Liberal Arts with only about 20% having little to no automatic preference.

We really need the percentage of no preference results to increase. We need more Females in Science!

How to kick off a lecture and get students engaged

Lord Rayleigh famously explained why the sky is blue. He was also a Nobel Prize recipient, but for a completely different reason. In 1894, he discovered (quite accidently) a new element, the inert gas argon. This story is one I remember from reading my student’s analytical chemistry textbook. It also relates well to my first lesson from The Chronical of Higher Education article, Small Changes in Teaching: The First 5 Minutes of Class. Lesson #1: start with something engaging! Storytelling wasn’t actually one of the author’s tips for starting a lecture, but the article started with a story and that grabbed my attention enough to keep me reading on. Here are James M. Lang’s other suggestions with my thoughts and comments.

  1. Establish a purpose for each class by opening the lesson with questions. The questions should be answered during the lecture to demonstrate learning.

I like this idea of asking questions at the beginning of class because it right away tells the students that there is a point to the lecture and to the material they are learning. I am imagining a lot of “Have you ever considered this,” or “How might you determine this,” questions for an Analytical Chemistry class.

  1. Review the previous lecture material by asking the students to give the review, aka “retrieval practice.”

I always appreciated when my professors would review the material from our previous lecture. Though it took up some precious minutes of class time, it really helped to get back in the mindset of the course, especially after a weekend or having three other classes in between. I like the idea of asking the students to give the review because it creates an opportunity to gauge what they remember and clear up any misconceptions.

  1. Reactivate what students learned in previous courses or have heard about in the media.

This is so important. I love when professors do this or when I can do this for my students. It’s that “Oh yeah, I remember that!” moment when everything floods back to the front of your memory. Reactivating the student’s memory helps gauge their knowledge and understanding and helps them make connections that can bolster learning.

  1. Have the students write down their answers.

This is not something I have considered before though I think it is a good idea. Ask the students a question, have them write down their answer, and then at the end of class after you’ve answered the question in the lecture have them look back at their answer. That way, they can recall what they knew before the lecture and remember what they learned during the lecture.

I found this article very valuable and look forward to implementing Lang’s suggestions in my classroom.

What’s wrong with learning a trade?

Preamble: If I estimate where my wealth would be if I chose a vocation over undergraduate and graduate school, I could easily have bought a house by now. After five years at university and two bachelor’s degrees under my belt, one in Chemistry and one in Forensic and Investigative Sciences, I started out earning an annual salary of less than $45,000 and had $18,000 in student loans (thanks to my middle-class parents who could afford to help me pay for college). Thank goodness I was also living at home and not paying rent because rent on Long Island (NY) would have been more than two weeks of my salary. I went back to school 1.5 years later, working toward a PhD in Chemistry and making enough to save a little (thanks to my wife, who is also in graduate school, and our relatively low rent). If and when I graduate and find a teaching position at a university, there’s a good chance I will be making just a few thousand dollars more than my starting salary out of college. To sum it all up, that’s 11 years of schooling, $18,000 in student loans, and little in savings. Meanwhile, I could have spent 2 years at a vocational school, earned money while taking classes, and started out making $45,000 a year, according to nprEd’s recent article, High-Paying Trade Jobs Sit Empty, While High School Grads Line Up for University.

So what’s wrong with learning a trade? Nothing.

In the United States, most vocation professionals are well respected and well paid. Then why aren’t more high school graduates going to vocational schools and earning certificates and associate degrees? The nprEd reporters highlight both the high demand for vocational workers in the United States and the contradictory high school-to-four-year university pipeline view of many parents, schools, and high school students. The imbalance is likely caused by the negative stigma around vocational work. Parents want more for their kids; they don’t want their kids to have to work “dirty jobs.” Plus, vocational work is for people who can’t cut it at 4-year universities, right? Hopefully this mentality changes, and soon because we need more people skilled in vocational work!

Based on the article, vocational work sounds like a good career/first serious job choice. There are more jobs available, workers are paid well, they start earning several years before university graduates, and they are re not swimming in debt from tuition at a 4-year university. Also noteworthy, salaries for jobs that require a bachelor’s degree are declining while demand for vocational workers is pushing salaries up up up!

Students at university should have a good plan for when they graduate. Instead, many of them come to college because they think they are supposed to or they have to in order to get a job. When I ask my undergraduate students what they want to do after they graduate, most of them stare back at me terrified and respond with “I don’t know.”

The moral of the story is, not everyone is fit for a 4-year university just like not everyone is fit to learn a trade. But, we need to do a better job of helping middle and high school students choose the path that’s right for them and prepare them for their futures.

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