Friday, January 29, 2010

A final exam on grading

Teach Philosophy 101 has a thought-provoking "final exam" on grading, aimed at instructors. All of the questions raise important issues about grading, but here are a couple of the exam questions that struck me. Curious to know how ISW readers would answer them:

3. ESSAY QUESTION: Student X writes an excellent paper and gets an A. Student Y writes a poor paper but takes advantage of the offer made to all students in the class that they may rewrite their paper as many times as they wish. After several rewrites (responding to the teachers comments each time), student Y finally produces a paper that is as good as student X’s original paper. Is it appropriate for them both to receive the same grade? Does that send a misleading message to external audiences?

7. TRUE OR FALSE?: Although many teachers say that they want students to learn higher order mastery of the material (such as understanding and applying the material), they often grade their students on material that is less significant but easier to grade.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

A frustration: Evaluating reasoning vs. evaluating premises

Here's a frustration I have in teaching reasoning to students.

I don't teach logic or critical thinking, but do feel compelled to give students a foothold in logical reasoning in introductory level philosophy courses. So in my introduction to ethics courses, I introduce students to the concept of an argument and try to put them in a position to begin evaluating the arguments we confront in the course.

Since this is not a formal logic course, I try to keep things loose or informal, stating that arguments should have (a) good reasoning, and (b) premises that are true (or for which there is compelling evidence). And when they have (a) and (b), I direct them to call such arguments 'sound'. As I said, I'm pretty loose about all of this, particularly (a). I don't distinguish among inductive and deductive arguments, don't go into validity or fallacies, etc. The aim here is simply to get them to appreciate two dimensions of argumentative strength: the reasoning and the veracity of the premises.

So the frustration is this: (a) just seems to pass students by. When we begin to look at actual arguments, students rarely if ever ask questions about, or criticize arguments for, their reasoning. All of their attention is directed at assessing the truth of the premises. And this is so even though I underscore that both (a) and (b) are crucial to arguments; that criticizing an argument for its reasoning is in many respects a more effective form of critique, since often times whether a premise is true is more contentious than whether the reasoning is good; etc. But it seems like in my efforts to teach "reasoning," the students don't latch onto the importance of reasoning!

I'm not sure why (a) doesn't get a grip on the students. (One thought I had is that it requires them to think relationally rather than atomically, which is perhaps more challenging?) In any event, I have three questions for our readers:
  1. Does our experience echo mine — that students tend to evaluate arguments solely in terms of the veracity of their premises rather than the strength of the reasoning?
  2. And if so, what explains this tendency?
  3. How might we, as teachers of reasoning, counteract it?

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Reading Student E-Mails

Now that my long sabbatical is effectively over (sigh), it’s time to start thinking about school again and about issues that haven’t crossed my mind in a while. As I was putting together my syllabi, one of them struck me: the issue of how to write a proper email to a professor. Perhaps it’s just me, but I get the distinct impression that with respect to emails the writing skills of many of my students has degraded to an almost embarrassing level. The problem is so bad at times that I keep reminding myself to put some policy about it into my syllabus, but I never get around to doing it (which is why I thought of it while crafting a syllabus). The main reason it never makes it into the syllabus is that I’m not convinced yet that this is just a personal problem that I have with email correspondence, or if this is really a problem that lots of people see and think needs to be addressed. Moreover, I’m not sure it’s my job to combat it.

If you are a professor, you know what I’m talking about. Over the years I have received more and more emails that look like this:

——-#1 ———-


Where’s the assignment for this week



—–#2 ———–


Where’s the assignment?



—— #3 ———-

i prolly wont’ be ther today im sick



—–#4 ———–

send me the paper assignment i wasn’t in class


I could go on and on, as there are endless versions of these things. I’m sure many of you have favorite versions or pet peeves. Some of the emails I get are just careless, and some are just rude. Overall, I think, the main problems that I see boil down to:

1. The addressee is not addressed at all, or is not properly addressed. If I’m addressed, it might be as “hey” or as “Panza”. Just to be clear: I don’t want to be called “Dr. Panza” – that’s not my beef. Actually I ask students to call me “CP” so that will do. My main issue here is that “hey” is far too informal (I’m your professor not your buddy) and “Panza” is rude (only my best friends call me that).

Although I’m not a stickler for hierarchy, this _is_ a student/teacher relationship, and a properly composed email really should have an addressee. This doesn’t mean that our relationship can’t be somewhat informal, because it can be (mine often are). However, “hey” or “Panza” come off as rude (though I don’t think it is intended to come off this way most times). Ways of composing an email to a friend don’t immediately carry over to the ways you can speak to a professor, even one you know well or one that you goof around with to some degree.

2. The email is not signed. Why not?

3. The email uses no proper capitalization and is full of spelling errors or IM speak. Again, this is not an email to your friend, so “prolly” and “coulpa” and other such words should actually be spelled out. Frankly, a badly composed email at this level gives off a very bad impression about you, your intelligence level, and your character (it says that you are disrespectful, lazy, etc.). Why would you do that?

4. The email demands things without the required softening language. “I need X” or “Get me X” is not appropriate way to talk in a student to teacher email. Something like “Could you send me X?” is perfectly appropriate, sends the same message, and maintains a respectful tone.

5. There is no subject line in the email at all. This is a basic courtesy. People get lots of emails, and often need to prioritize which ones get read when. Besides, I like to know what it’s about before I open it.

6. The email has an attachment inside with no subject line and with no writing in it at all. Something like “CP, here’s my paper. Thanks, Poindexter” will do.

It all boils down to a few things for me.

a) If you don’t know the person well on a friendly non-formal level, then you should write an email the same way you would actually type a letter that you would print and send in the mail (not that this happens anymore!). Moreover, you should type that letter remembering that this is a form of communication like any other – and so it says something about you. It leaves an impression. If you were talking to your boss at work, you wouldn’t slur your words or use IM speak or say “hey” or call your boss by her last name only or say “get me X”.

b) A teacher-student relationship requires _some_ level of respect going up and down. Much as it offends sensitive ears raised in the “consumer model” culture, the teacher/student relationship _is_ a hierarchical relationship – I know more than you do about this subject, and I’m going to teach you that material. But for that relationship to work right requires respect on both sides, even if that respect has different rituals depending on the role you are in (student or teacher). I will always be respectful to you, so be respectful to me. Communication (in class, in office, and email) counts.

I’m also worried, to be honest, that these students will graduate thinking that this way of conducting a virtual email exchange is okay, and then will be embarrassed in the workplace (or worse yet, never know that they’ve created a sloppy impression of who they are for others to take away from such exchanges).

Do we instructors have a responsibility to stop students from writing emails like this – to at least make it clear that it is unacceptable? If so, how do we put that into practice?

Of course, it is also very possible that I shouldn’t be worked up about this at all. It could be that bosses come from the IM culture too, so they don’t care. Soon enough, professors will email students and other people the same way. So it could be that the offense I take from these emails is an artifact of me being brought up in a non-internet world when I was their age. As a consequence, acceptable written communication, for me, has a different set of rituals. Is that right?

Should I lighten up, or is this really a growing problem that needs to be addressed?

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Making Asian Studies (More) Interdisciplinary

One of my many projects over sabbatical was to rethink my Asian Ethics course. The main population of this course consists not of philosophy majors (though they enroll too, but I teach a more specific and directed course for them), but rather two main groups of students: first, and foremost, those seeking to fulfill the Ethics component of our general education requirements at my university and secondly, students enrolled in Asian studies.

A major source of weakness in the course before, as I saw it, was that it focused a bit too heavily just on seeing texts from a philosophical point of view. Students enjoyed the course, but I personally found it a bit stiff. I felt that students didn’t really come away appreciating the Asian component as much as they could have. Instead, they got a course in ethics using Asian texts. To fix this, I though, I needed to make the course more interdisciplinary. So I’ve made some changes. Not huge ones, but I’ve made a start.

The major alteration in the syllabus is the inclusion of guest speakers. I invited six professors to come and speak to the class on a variety of topics (I tried to insert the acctual schedule for the semester, but Blogspot can't handle it -- so I'll just point out that we cover these major texts, first Analects, then Dhammapada, then Bhagavad Gita, then Tao Te Ching, then Zhuangzi, with some other smaller authors put in here and there. If you'd like to see the schedule more specifically and how the course is laid out, see my reproduced post at my own blog, here, where the semester scheduled readings table came out fine in the post:

In any event, with respect to each talk, here’s what I was envisioning:

1. History talk: students reading the Analects (and the Tao Te Ching, later on) need to have some appreciation and understanding of the specific challenges (understood in a variety of ways) that existed for people living in pre-Qin China.

2. Meditation talk: this interactive session on Buddhist meditation techniques (students are expected to actually do the techniques in class) occurs right after reading about it and studying its importance in Dhammapada. Reading about meditation and its uses is one thing, doing it is another!

3. Psychology talk: the point here was to show students that ancient Confucian thought is not dead, or confined to the ancient Chinese world. Can key Confucian beliefs and ways of thinking be seen in modern China? If so, how would you set up psychological experiments to test for the presence of Confucian thinking? Also here some emphasis on how these results might affect modern concerns (for instance, cross-cultural discussions of human rights) will be highlighted.

4. Literature talk: anyone who teaches Asian texts cannot help but admit that there are obvious literary dimensions to these works; as such, dissecting them simply from a philosophical point of view is short sighted. Specifically, this talk will focus on the beauty of reading Zhuangzi from a literary perspective.

5. Art talk: when trying to think about what (if any) differences exist between “western” and “eastern” ways of thinking about the world (or differences between various “eastern” ways of thinking), looking at art can be revealing. The ways that the artist comes at the work and develops it reveals a lot about his/her conceptual presuppositions. This talk would highlight some of those possible ways of approaching Asian artwork.

6. Calligraphy talk: my hope here was that, in starting the Tao Te Ching, students would come to feel the Chinese language by trying to work on writing the characters themselves. In the class, we focus for a day on the first poem of the TTC, so in this class the hope is that students can learn to appreciate Chinese philosophy even more by having an actual experience in trying to see what goes into actually writing it (they would focus on the first line of the TTC, which has few characters.


In trying to make Asian studies (in this case Asian Ethics) more interdisciplinary, I’ve started at the ground floor, obviously – spicing up the semester with talks from people with expertise in Asian studies from other areas. Of course, a more ambitious effort would go much further than this in trying to make such courses truly interdisciplinary. It’s a big task, however.

If anyone is willing to leave their thoughts, I’m curious about (a) what your thoughts are about this current attempt I am trying out this semester (on any level – for example, any other possible talks you would try to include, in an ideal world? An obvious glaring problem in this schedule is the lack of talks about India, but this was more of a scheduling problem with the professor I was hoping to bring in). But also (b): how could the project of making courses like this one more interdisciplinary be conducted in an even bolder and far more innovative and ambitious way?

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Evaluating your teaching evaluations

Inside Higher Ed's Rob Weir doles out his own thoughts on what to do once you get back those student teaching evaluations. Here are Rob's general thoughts, followed by my own:

There's inevitably something negative. Weir notes
Stay in the profession long enough and you’ll soon learn that it’s impossible to please everyone. Even if your class featured naked fire-jugglers, at least one student would still complain it was “boring.” You’ll also learn that some complaints are simply reflexive. When have students not grumbled that the workload was too heavy? Or that some courses were scheduled too early in the day? And even if you held office hours 23 hours per day, someone would complain you were hard to reach.
Too true -- someone always has a negative experience in your class. When this happens to, I remind myself that there's a few students who frankly aren't suited for college life. No amount of effort or engagement on my part is going to please those who flat out hate the educational experience.

Give the evaluations just the importance your institution does. If you're on the tenure track, you should definitely have a clear picture of just how much student evaluations matter in evaluating your teaching.

Look for the trends in the data. The overall picture matters much more than scores in one course or on one particular question.

Here are some additional thoughts I'd add:
Go after the low hanging fruit. Most student evaluations I've seen ask big picture things ("Was this course a valuable learning experience?") and more directly behavioral things ("Were the lectures organized?", "Did the instructor return graded material promptly?"). Your best bet for improving your evaluations is to focus on those specific behavioral criteria.

Keep your audience in mind. Students in your upper-division or majors courses are more likely to find the material you're teaching engaging, but Gen Ed students can be tougher to reach. Expect lower evaluations from underprepared and less interested students.

Don't sweat small differences. If your institution is like mine, student evaluations are quantitatively compacted, i.e., they tend to fall within a fairly small numerical range. One implication of this is that a small swing in raw numerical results can lead to a larger swing in comparative or percentile scores. So (hypothetically) if 3 students in a class of 35 had rated you one level higher on a given question, you would have ended up in the 70th percentile among the instructors you're being compared to instead of the 50th percentile. That's the sort of small difference you shouldn't take too seriously. Again, look at the overall patterns in the data, not minute variations that are likely to be statistical noise.

That being said, I'm neither a skeptic nor an uncritical booster concerning student evaluations of teaching. Students evaluations vary in design, and some will identify good teaching better than others. What students say is one element in a larger body of evidence that can tell us something about quality teaching.

Incidentally, Terry Doyle at Ferris State University has written an excellent summary of the research on the validity and effectiveness of student evaluations . Great advice, and definitely worth checking out.

So how do other people interpret their evaluations? Any other advice you'd share?

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Groups: Random or self-selected?

This term, I'm organizing all my students in my lower-division ethics courses into learning groups. (For those of you who use the Blackboard CMS, the latest version makes it very easy to create such groups.) I plan to use the same groups throughout the quarter, for a wide variety of in-class and online activities (more on that later).

But the question I'd like to raise now is this: I used Blackboard's group building feature to place the students in randomly selected groups. I simply announced to students which groups they are in during the first meeting of the term. I think that randomly created groups are better, but I can imagine some reasons for permitting students to select their own groups.

Letting students select their own groups has some obvious advantages. First, if there are students in class who already know one another, then their groups are more likely to function well and have some initial momentum. Students might also feel that selecting their own groups is more respectful of their autonomy and maturity than being placed randomly in groups by their instructors.

But I opted for randomly selected groups, for what I think are decisive reasons. First, I need my groups to get organized quickly. I teach in ten week quarters, and if I let the students select the groups, they might take several weeks to do so. Second, random groups are likely to be more diverse than self-selected groups, in terms of gender, background, academic major, and the like. And it seems to me that a group benefits from the intellectual and cognitive diversity that may result. Lastly, being placed in random groups more closely resembles how students will later have to work in groups once they are employed. In workplaces, students may be asked to complete projects with people they have never met and who are fundamentally different from them culturally and in terms of their skills. So random groups prepare them for an important challenge later in life.

So: which is better — randomly selected learning groups or self-selected groups?