Prof flunks majority of students, is pulled from class

Tyler Cowen links to a news article about a biology professor who got removed from a class after failing most of her students on an exam.

The article quotes lots of people, but what I wonder is: what’s on the exam? It would seem to be difficult to make a judgment here without actually seeing the exam in question.

12 thoughts on “Prof flunks majority of students, is pulled from class

  1. Reminds me of my Asian Philosophy course as a sophomore. Since this fulfilled 2 requriements (non-Western and humanities) and the professor was a great lecturer, it became a popular class.

    The instructor did not like the fact that 59 students had been allowed to register and decided to haze us out. At the end of the semester, there was 1 A, 2 B's, 3 C's, and the rest D's, F's and drops.

    There were protests, but they went nowhere.

  2. Two disturbing things for me are : she has taught for 30 years, and no one informed Homberger of concerns before removing. For me, administrators failed absolutely because they could not find an acceptable solution to both students and teacher.

  3. What confuses me in the article is the timing. 90% were failing as of the 1st of 4 exams. That sounds fine, if unconventional, to me. You make the students worried they'll fail, convince them you're not taking anything less than their full effort, and let them rise to the challenge. I can understand the administration not finding a 90% fail rate for a class acceptable: you do need to keep students moving through their programs, and keeping students back over gen-ed requirements is harsh. But honestly, shouldn't a professors goal be to get the students to try as hard as possible? Keeping everyone's grades low at the start and boosting them all by the end sounds like a very reasonable way of scaring them into trying.

  4. We had a math teacher get into a somewhat similar situation. He taught an upper level course in algebra for math majors, and on the exam two out of twenty-five students passed. The students protested and it was decided that he could continue to teach the course, but would no longer be allowed to make the exam.

    They may have had a point. The protesting students brought the exam to another researcher at the department, who had written the course course material. He was just barely able to scrape together a passing score within the time allotted for the exam. The teacher in question had very high ideals for what should be required for anyone to call themselves a mathematician.

  5. "But honestly, shouldn't a professors goal be to get the students to try as hard as possible?"

    The mission of universities should be to educate. That should be the goal. Motivating students can be a means and it should not be confused with the ends. I do not give points to students for trying. The reward for trying is learning and improved test scores.

    We don't know what the expectations were for the students and we don't know how the students performed. If the students did not know or understood the material they should not pass.

  6. I think having Prof A make up the exam for Prof B's class — with Prof B not getting to see the exam in advance either — is a pretty interesting idea. Andrew, maybe you can recruit some people in your department, and give this a try.

  7. Phil – that's standard at Oxford – the Profs almost never make up the exams for their own courses.

    Also advantages in lessening power concerns between Profs and their students.


  8. High school students who take AP classes of course know all about this. Someone else is writing the test. My AP calculus teacher scared the bejesus out of us and we learned what it meant to study. We pretty much hated her at time. I can't speak for her, but having taught a range of students, I appreciate what it would have required of me to have my best students hate me for the whole school year except possibly after the AP exam. Is it possible that those administrators have never taken any class like that, where they had to bring their study habits to the next level?

  9. FH: Thats why those student evaluation forms probably should not be handed out before the final "except possibly after the AP exam" and perhaps even after the program is completed.


  10. Obviously the administration screwed up in some ways – not talking to the prof and/or sitting in on the lecture seems pretty unforgivable – but there are two issues here that make me skeptical about the prof as a teacher:

    1. Multiple Choice tests with 10 possibilities aren't hard, they are stupid. If you want to make multiple choice harder, punish wrong answers to discourage guessing, but 10 answer options are just confusing and – if we see the test as an exercise in measurement – just increase measurement error (just as 10 answer options on a survey would).

    2. By scaring students through bad grades/threats to fail a class you may get them to study, you won't get them to learn. For that, you need to interest and involve them. Among other things, by having less boring assessments than multiple choice questions.

    Finally in a context where a certain grading standard is common, a professor has – for reasons of fairness – to adhere to that standard. It's hugely unfair if people who happen to take the same class one year before or after – and whose grades are thus indistinguishable to potential employers or selection committees – are graded on an entirely different scale.
    Grades should, in my opinion, mainly be useful to students and tell them where they stand. It took me a couple of years to get used to grade inflation, but since my (inflation adjusted) students get upset about an A- or a B+ it's pretty easy to use inflated grades to tell students that they should do better.

  11. My first year teaching in underserved high schools included this dilemma.

    I had laid out the grading criteria and everything, and DID give credit for effort. I told my students that simply for following instructions properly/fullfilling the requirements of the assignment they could get a B+, and explained to them the math of how 0's average in with 90's.

    My first semester, 2/3 of my students did not get passing grades.

    I was shocked, and checked with my colleagues. They all said that if I had been clear and had a grade book to back it up that I'd be fine. The said that this was not unusual at this school, as students simply did not do homework, and then that showed up in their performance on tests and exams.

    The here was that the patterns in my classes fit those of the rest of the school. Though I was disgusted and disturbed — and revisited a lot of things the next semester — no one else was concerned.

    If this department and this instutions are not accustomed to this kind of failure rate, there are going to be problems. It's about expectations.

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