Archive for: October, 2010

Grade Anxiety for Professors

Oct 26 2010 Published by under teaching

A reader wrote to describe how she hates returning exams to students because some students will be getting back exams with low grades, or at least grades that are lower than the student wants. This is stressful for the student, of course, but also for the professor, in this case one who is relatively new to professoring. My correspondent wonders:

Have others felt this way? Does it ever get better?

I definitely feel that way, even now. I guess that means that the feeling may never completely goes away, and that's probably a good thing, even though it is stressful. I wouldn't want to get to a point at which I didn't care that some students were in distress about low grades despite trying hard in the class. Even when I teach a large class and don't know many of the students, I do know some and therefore feel terrible for them when, despite coming to my office hours and sending me questions by email, they get a low grade. It's even harder in a smaller class in which I know all the students.

During my first year as a professor, I felt bad for students who were getting back an exam or problem set with a low grade. I had always done well in classes, and getting a grade lower than B would have devastated me. I tried to smile at these students in what I thought was a sympathetic way, and I encouraged them to come talk to me to get help. To my horror, I got a comment on my teaching evaluations that said "She enjoys failing students. She smiles when handing back exams with low grades." In his or her unhappiness and anxiety, a student interpreted my sympathetic smile for glee. That freaked me out for many years, and for a long time I did what I could to avoid handing anything back directly because there seemed to be no good solution: a smile was bad, lack of expression could be interpreted to indicate that I didn't care, and a frown didn't seem right either.

Should I smile broadly at those who got A's, smile faintly at the B's, have a neutral expression for the C's, and then work my way through various stages of frowns as we descended into the lower grades? It was absurd, but I didn't know what to do.

The good news is that exam-return stress has decreased for me because now I am better at creating exams and I am better at conveying the consistent message that I care about the class and the students.

The times when I still feel bad are when a student who worked hard gets a low grade. In these cases, I may write a note on their exam -- something that is either encouraging or informative or that asks them to talk to me -- and I try to figure out what the problem was. Sometimes I can tell that there was a particular type of problem or a particular concept, and then I can help them with that for the next time. Most of these students know that I am trying to help them, so they don't feel angry at me for their low grades.

I hate giving exams (it is stressful to watch a class full of students taking an exam), I hate collecting the exams (some students won't even look at me), I hate grading (hate hate hate grading), and I hate handing back graded exams. Fortunately this is a small part of the course, and in between, there is a lot to enjoy about interacting with students, talking about interesting Science, and seeing most of the students do well.

Despite my loathing for all things related to exams, which I do have to give in all but a few of my classes, I wouldn't want to eliminate the human dimension of them. There would be some benefits to having students take exams alone with a computer, which graded the exams and gave them their score, but I refuse to give multiple choice exams and it is essential to my teaching that I know exactly how the students are doing in the class on each exam and therefore that I be a part of the exam process.

This term I had a new experience with exam-return. It was actually a quiz, and I was out of town for a few days, so a TA gave the quiz. I like to return quizzes and exams in the very next class if at all humanly possible, so the TA ran the completed quiz pages through a scanner that made a pdf document that was then e-mailed to me. I graded the scanned quizzes while I was out of town, made annotations on each, and returned the quizzes by email to each student. This worked well overall, but it was also kind of strange. When I hand back graded quizzes or exams in class, I typically do it at the end of class, and then students have a few minutes to ask me questions about their grades or my comments or whatever. I have an immediate sense for how the class is feeling about the quiz and if they are any problems or concerns. With the emailed quizzes, I got no information; there were no replies other than a few one word "Thanks" emails. I can't say I missed the stress of handing back quizzes, but I definitely felt more disconnected.

So, reader who sent the original questions, you are not alone, it does get better, but as long as you continue to care about your students, I think there will always be an element of exam-return stress. I hope that your stress will soon change from high levels of dread to a lower level of background concern.

12 responses so far

Don't You Remember?

Oct 21 2010 Published by under teaching

A compilation of several questions from several readers boils down to:

Don't professors remember what it was like to be a student?

That is: Don't professors remember what it was like to learn something for the first time? Don't professors remember what it was like to take a boring class (so why would anyone teach a boring class)? Don't professors remember that exams are stressful (so why would anyone give an exam, especially a stressful exam)? And so on..

Well, I think it's fair to say that we sort of remember and we sort of don't. Is it so different from how parents don't really remember what it was like to be a kid, or even if we do, we have changed our ideas about how adults should think and act?

In a way, it is different because parents are all-powerful and infallible beings, but professors who teach may still be learning how to do so, may be teaching a course for the first time (even if they are "old"), or may be trying out some new material in an old course. We are supposed to try to find inspiring and thoughtful ways to do so, but this isn't easy. It isn't that we've forgotten that we shouldn't be boring and articulate, it's just that teaching requires considerable skills, and some of us possess these skills in less abundance than our students would like, despite good intentions.

But consider this: In some of my classes, students give presentations. I am always very entertained by the fact that the vast majority of students create presentations of the sort that they would definitely hate if they were listening to the presentation rather than giving it. Even if I discuss in advance how to give a good presentation and even if these students know exactly what they like and dislike about presentations to which they have been subjected by professors, most of them will have dense, text-filled slides that they will read, word-for-word to the rest of the class. Most of them will have no clue how to explain a topic that they have researched intensely but about which their audience knows little or nothing. I watch the presenting students glance with annoyance at their fellow students who are sending text messages during their presentations. It is fascinating. We have much to discuss after the first round of presentations in each class, and presentations do start to improve after that (although some never let go of the text-filled, narrated slide mode of presentations).

I see the same thing when graduate students and postdocs give informal presentations in my department. For example, an individual who had mocked a professor who gave a text-slide filled talk just weeks before did the exact same thing in his own talk. Why? Why don't we all learn from what we observe in others? I don't think the main cause is related to age and distance from one's student days. Based on these examples, it seems to be human nature.

Even so, I think there might be an element of age to some of the situations that motivated readers to wonder whether professors remember anything about their academic youth other than their GRE scores. For example, when we teach a class year after year after year, we know exactly what questions students will ask, we know what concepts will be most confusing, and we can work to improve our explanations, examples, and presentations accordingly. Despite this, I have, however, noticed a tendency in myself to forget what exactly students know and don't know about some topics. That is, when you've explained something a billion times, you may start to forget that there are aspects of it that may be completely unfamiliar to students encountering the topic for the first time. Or, if you've spent many many years teaching a particular class, you might get bored with certain topics and decide instead to liven things up by talking about a new (but more complex) topic, skimming over or even skipping some elementary concepts. Each time I (re)teach a course, I have to think very carefully about the basis from which I should explain each important concept, and each time I have to (re)work out the logic of my explanations. Some things about teaching get easier with time, and some things get more difficult.

Not long ago, I spent 3 years working my way through the beginning, intermediate, and advanced undergraduate courses for a particular language that is useful for my research and my international collaborations. If you had asked me before I took these classes whether I remembered what it was like to take an exam, I would have said "Of course, I've taken a gazillion exams." I was very surprised to find, however, that I didn't really remember, at least not in a visceral way. But even though I was a 40-something professor taking a non-degree course pass/fail, I got very stressed out about the exams in those classes (in part because the exams were impossible, but that's another issue). Nevertheless, I know that the exams, and the act of studying for them, helped me learn important things, even though I hated taking these exams with every molecule of my being.

That's why my answer to the basic question is: yes and no. Yes, we remember, but maybe not in a visceral way, and even if we do remember, it doesn't necessarily influence whether we are good teachers or not.

Something that students could do to help us ancient, disconnected professors (and, therefore, help you, our students) is to ask substantive questions that help us figure out what you know and don't know and to give constructive advice (on evaluations, for example) about teaching style. And if that doesn't work, you could scream "You just don't understand!" and stomp out of the room, slamming the door. Maybe that will jog our memories of what it was like to be young.

12 responses so far

Ask a Science Professor

Oct 20 2010 Published by under Uncategorized

Elsewhere in the blogosphere and in occasional essays in The Chronicle of Higher Education, I am known as Female Science Professor (FSP), but here in this new Scientopic blog collective, I am just a Science Professor. Why am I here? Is FSP over? Will I, as Science Professor without the extra adjective, stop writing about women-in-science issues? What will I do in this new space?

Why I am here. I don't really have a good answer to this, but some people I think I like, at least in a virtual way, asked me to be here, and I decided not to say no.

FSP yet lives. I will still mostly blog over in my little corner of Blogspot as FSP, but once in a while I will also be over here. I hope that is not too confusing, but I have a (sort of) plan (see below).

What about the missing F? As a simple Science Professor, I will write about the same things I write about as FSP. I dropped the F from SP here because, if this is really SCIENTOPIA, I should be able to be what I want to be: a Science Professor who happens to be female but who is not constantly reminded that she is a strange and exotic creature: a mid-career, female professor in a physical sciences field. In my personal utopian Scientopia, no one would ever introduce me before a talk as an excellent example of a "female scientist", no one would accuse me of getting a grant or award only because I am female, and I would be paid as much as my male peers (for example).

What I will do here in Scientopia. As FSP, I get a lot of e-mail from readers asking for advice. Although I don't answer all my e-mail, some I answer privately, and some I answer in the form of a blog post. I am rather erratic about answering e-mail, depending on what is going on in my real life and whether I get to the e-mail before it gets lost in my inbox. Here, as a Science Professor, I will try to answer more of my e-mail questions from readers, or at least pose questions and issues for discussion.

I already have a bit of a back-log of questions, but feel free to leave a comment or send your own if you are so inclined. For this I will still use my FSP e-mail: femalescienceprofessor@gmail.com.

27 responses so far