Wednesday, February 26, 2014

I gave my students the exam questions ahead of time, and their grades dropped (kind of)

One of my professors in grad school used to say that he could put a photocopy of the exam outside his door a week before it was given, and he would still get a normal distribution of grades. But I have fond memories of an undergraduate psychology class where the professor gave us a bank of questions (without answers) as our "study guide", and then chose a number of them to be our exam. I never got below a 99% on any exam in that class.

This semester I experimented with my Introduction to Biological Anthropology class. Rather than giving the students a traditional study guide, as I have for the last six years, I gave them my question database, the database from which I had chosen questions for exams in previous years. They were given around 100 questions and told them that I would randomly pick 20 to be their exam. Questions included multiple choice, "activity" questions (for example, given a scenario, how would you use Hardy-Weinberg to predict the frequencies of genotypes in the next generation, if no evolution occurs), fill-in-the-blank, and essay questions. 

I chose a mixture of questions for the exam, including one essay. Compared to previous years, I noted three major changes in grade distributions, some of which I would have predicted, but others are...odd.

  1. More students got A's, and particularly high A's. Students very rarely got above 95% in previous years, but this year 2 students got 100%. The percentage of students who earned an A doubled, from around 10% in previous years to over 20%. This makes sense to me.
  2. But...far more students failed the exam. I usually have around 10% of the class fail, this year it was nearly 20%! I usually have a bimodal distribution of grades, but this year the bimodality was greatly exaggerated. Few students earned C's. They either did very well (over half the class got an A or B), or they did very poorly (38% of students earned below a 70%, with the majority of them failing). I find this baffling. My TA suggested that some students decided their time would be better spent reading over their notes and "winging it" on the test than actually going through all 100 questions. In other words, for students who didn't want to put much time into studying (for whatever reason, legit or not), the questions were a turn-off and they studied less.
  3. But...based on their essay answers, the students actually understood some core concepts better than in previous years. I don't know that this reflects the test format as much as the active learning activities and opportunities for feedback that I added to the course this year. Regardless, the essay answers showed that almost all students had mastered the basics, and more students had a deep understanding of evolution and race than in previous years. (The students were given essays on those two topics and asked to pick one). If the essay grades hadn't been so high, the bimodal distribution would have been even more exaggerated. On the basis of non-essay questions alone, around half the class received an A or B, but there would have been no C grades at all, and a full third of the class would have failed the exam.
I decided not to curve the exam. How do you curve an exam when the number of A's doubled? I'm hoping students will step up their studying for the next exam, but if I have the same distribution, I may go back to a standard study guide.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Intro Biological Anthropology Classes Should Talk About Racism

I've taught an Introduction to Biological Anthropology class for six years now, using three different textbooks. While all of them talk about human diversity, none of them discuss racism in the modern U.S. I think that should change. And if it doesn't, then more professors need to add their own section on racism, bias, and structural inequality to their classroom.

Many professors feel that the discussion of racism properly belongs in a Cultural Anthropology class, but Biological Anthropology is a popular science gen ed at many universities; this class may be the only shot we get to reach a large segment of our student body.

Human biodiversity is a core focus of Biological Anthropology, and some professors feel that racism and modern race relations are topics that stray too far from the biology. But our students experience human biodiversity through the lens of race. Their entire perception of biodiversity is seated within their cultural understanding of race, and while we try to teach them why the culturally-constructed category of race is not synonymous with discrete categories of variation, we should also teach them why the hell we care.

Universities can be radically different in their demographics, but college students by and large are more likely to be white and middle or upper class. Many of my Euro-American students tell me that they've never thought seriously about race, a sure sign that they've had limited exposure to the experiences of people of color in this country. Intro to Biological Anthropology is a chance to change that. I can't let the opportunity slip away.

Some professors shy away from these difficult conversations, concerned about student complaints, helicopter parents, accusations of indoctrinating students, or just the general fear that accompanies most conversations about race in this country. If you're wondering where to start, some teaching techniques that have worked well for me include:


  1. I begin the unit on race by showing this video of Jay Smooth on how to talk about (and listen to others talking about) race without freaking out.
  2. I use examples of how racial systems are created and perpetrated in order to uphold social and power structures at the same time as I'm explaining the difference between human biodiversity and race. Race isn't just a cultural construct, it's a power construct, and underlining that fact helps students understand the difference between the concepts of biodiversity and race, while at the same time teaching the importance of structural inequality and bias.
  3. I include at least one lecture on the history of the study of human biodiversity, showing students how racist cultural contexts shaped the science of human nature, and tying racist historical arguments into modern scientific racism. For example, I spend one lecture talking about the history of IQ tests. I demonstrate why the concept and implementation are flawed, and then show how interpretations of IQ were used by the political and social elites to create immigration policy, eugenics laws, and justify the poor treatment of people of color, women, the mentally ill, and individuals with lower socioeconomic status. After introducing students to the arguments of people like Henry Goddard and Francis Galton, I then introduce students to modern arguments along the same lines (like this, for example, or this, or even this), and ask them to apply class concepts to critique these arguments. This maintains a focus on important evolutionary and biological concepts such as the complexity of human diversity, heredity, and the role of the environment in gene expression, while equipping students with the weapons to combat misinformation in their daily lives.
  4. This year, I finished the segment on race with an in-class discussion on segregated housing, its historical roots, why it continues, and what long-term consequences result. I had students listen to House Rules, an NPR segment that discusses housing discrimination. This segment highlights both historical and contemporary racism, and since one focus of the story is on the heroic efforts of Republican politician George Romney (father of Mitt) to end racial segregation, the piece has the advantage of a certain political neutrality. (OK, nothing is politically neutral when it comes to race, but at least it's harder to argue that the story is a piece of leftist propaganda.) In class, the students discussed the story and reflected on what they had learned. This lesson strays farther from basic class concepts than the lesson on IQ, but you know what? In a country where black children can be shot with impunity because their skin color makes them "threatening", I'm not going to apologize for teaching about racism every chance I get.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

My Religion, My Science: Thoughts on the Nye-Ham Debate

Full disclosure: I am a woman of faith. I am a devout and practicing Catholic. I believe that God can be seen in all of creation, and that Truth can be found in his Word. I also teach human evolution.

Fuller disclosure: I didn't watch the Nye-Ham debate.

I didn't watch it because I doubt Bill Nye presented any new information about evolution (I teach this stuff, it's not like I'm uninformed), and I'm not a member of Ken Ham's church, so he's not the person I would turn to on matters of theology or Christian practice.

I didn't watch it because there's hardly ever a point to this kind of "conversation". Most people watching have chosen their "side" already, and nothing presented in a debate between creationists and scientists is going to change their mind.

But most importantly, I didn't watch because the "science vs. religion" trope gives the impression to religious people that we cannot believe science, even if our religion has no problem with evolution. Many people have no better religious education than they have science education. They hear the media message that "religious" people can't believe in evolution, so they think it's true for their religion as well, even if it's not. I've had a number of students tell me that they can't believe in evolution because they are devout Catholics. But there is no conflict between Catholicism and evolution. Blessed Pope John Paul II even said so! Catholic schools have been teaching evolution for generations. Yet, since students don't have religious education on this topic, they assume that the media message of "science vs. religion" must be true for their religion, just as it is for, say, a church that believes in young earth creationism.

I didn't watch the debate because it demeans both science and religion. Not everyone likes Stephen Jay Gould's argument that science and religion are nonoverlapping magesteria, but I think it fits well in this case. Events like the Nye-Ham debate put the evolutionary theory of human evolution on the same level as the Biblical explanation of human origins, but the truth is, they aren't even playing the same game.  Science is the study of what is knowable, physical provable or disprovable. Religion concerns itself with a higher Truth that is, ultimately, based on faith and not physically provable (or ever fully knowable). If Ken Ham wants to believe in the literal truth of Genesis, as an act of faith that is unrelated to any physical evidence, then he is absolutely within his right to do so. But there can be no debate between faith and evidence. That's the point of faith, it needs no evidence.

But when creationist arguments descend from the realm of faith and enter the realm of the physical, the measurable, the quantifiable, the empirical, then they've entered the domain of science, and they're going to lose the case on the merits of the evidence every time.