TO: BIOS 101 Students


RE: Grades and grading philosophy


About this time of the semester, many students start to get concerned about their grades.  Consequently, I start getting e-mails and questions concerning grades.  This concern is to be expected, and in fact one of the evaluation questions at the end of the semester, when you get to rate me, will be one something like: were you informed about your grades?  So here, below, are some comments about grading in these large classes.  I will also post a final spreadsheet, ranked, of the fall, 2009, grades, the same data shown on one of the PowerPoint slides presented the first day or two of class as an example of a frequency distribution.


(1) Grading philosophy and instructional goals:


            Very early in my teaching career it became obvious, at least to me, if not to my colleagues, that in large classes three multiple choice exams and a multiple choice final did not produce the kind of scientifically literate society that our nation needed.  All those exams did was separate the readers from the non-readers, but they did allow an instructor to assign letter grades easily and students understood clearly where they stood, in terms of grades.  So I started adding ways to accumulate points, and as the years went by, I became more and more convinced that those additional point-earning opportunities were an effective way to improve the scientific literacy of my students, and such improvement became my goal.  Below is a definition of “scientific literacy” provided by the National Academy of Sciences, the distinguished group of scientists in the United States (UNL has one faculty member who is in the National Academy; he’s a plant pathologist).



Scientific Literacy 

Scientific literacy is the knowledge and understanding of scientific concepts and processes required for personal decision making, participation in civic and cultural affairs, and economic productivity. It also includes specific types of abilities. In the National Science Education Standards, the content standards define scientific literacy. 

Scientific literacy means that a person can ask, find, or determine answers to questions derived from curiosity about everyday experiences. It means that a person has the ability to describe, explain, and predict natural phenomena. Scientific literacy entails being able to read with understanding articles about science in the popular press and to engage in social conversation about the validity of the conclusions. Scientific literacy implies that a person can identify scientific issues underlying national and local decisions and express positions that are scientifically and technologically informed. A literate citizen should be able to evaluate the quality of scientific information on the basis of its source and the methods used to generate it. Scientific literacy also implies the capacity to pose and evaluate arguments based on evidence and to apply conclusions from such arguments appropriately. (National Science Education Standards, page 22)

Reprinted with permission from National Science Education Standards. Copyright 1996 by the National Academy of Sciences. Courtesy of the National Academy Press, Washington, D.C. 

National Science Education Standards:

            One feature of these large classes, such as BIOS 101 in Henzlik Auditorium, that is not always recognized by instructors is the student diversity.  Remember that you are a random sample of about 250 people from all over the world, from all kinds of backgrounds, who have chosen to attend UNL and take General Biology, often at the advice of relatively clueless advisers who accept some 18-year old person’s stated career goals as absolute and fixed.  I decided a long time ago to start matching that diversity with an expanded list of graded activities, and in the past 5-7 years, have used those graded activities to accomplish (I hope!) some more larger and more noble goals than simply being able to read labels on processed food from a vending machine.  So here is what I hope to accomplish with the graded activities:


a. Friday writing:


1. Get you to handle one piece of original science (= “primary literature”) in addition to the highly summarized and simplified textbook, and encourage you to read that piece of scientific literature again and again.  Thus you get a minor lesson in real scientific work.


2. Become well acquainted with at least one non-human organism (some member of your genus).  Remember that Homo sapiens is only one out of over a million species on the planet, and at least 250,000 of those species are beetles.  Biology as a discipline is exceedingly broad and most of that breadth concerns non-human organisms.


3. Provide an opportunity to do something original on a regular basis, then reflect on that product.  This kind of activity is probably the most common behavior of successful scholars regardless of their areas of expertise.


4. Examine biological materials in diverse ways; in other words, do the same thing that professional biologists do in order to study biology (and yes, we all study biology, and have to learn new material, every day for our entire lives).


5. Improve your communication skills.  Yes, in my opinion, and in the opinion of just about everyone I know, regardless of their institution, who teaches large introductory biology courses, the electronic age is rapidly destroying student communication skills.  This goal is simply idealism on my part; my nation needs people who can read and write.


6. Provide an opportunity to earn points for those people who, for whatever reason, simply cannot do well on multiple-choice exams regardless of how much they study the material.


7. Encourage you to put value on your own work, and on the tangible evidence of accomplishment (portfolio).


b. Attendance:  The first rule of success in life is: Get up and go to work.  I do try to make lectures meaningful, and diversify the delivery (e.g., using the document camera), although no faculty member is a stand-up comic who can compete with the entertainment industry.  But I put a lot of work into BIOS 101, and expect students to show up for class.  I know that if attendance was not worth some points, it would fall to about 66% (80+ people absent every day), and I consider that an insult to a faculty member.  So I pay you points to follow the first rule of success in life; I hope it pays off later.  As a bonus, the attendance quizzes are also a way for me to solve, in a minor way, the growing attention-span problem among college students.


c. Mastering Biology:  I adopted MB based on two things: first, the response of students in other courses taught by other faculty members, and second, use of your textbook.  I also reviewed the MB materials and decided that using them would increase the value of your text and at the same time would be an independent way to learn vocabulary.


d. Exams:  Exams are the standard graded activity, and in large classes, multiple-choice tests are about the only way to deliver an exam.  I do provide old tests, however, again to diversify your study habits and help with vocabulary.  With my tests, I hope to encourage development of reading skills, vocabulary acquisition skills, and understanding of the way scientists think and communicate.


(2) Your grades:


            Because of the diverse kinds of graded activities, each with a specific goal, it’s not always easy to provide an exact letter grade for a student, especially in the middle part of the semester.  You, however, can easily estimate your own grade from the information given in the syllabus.  Assume you will finish the course in the same way you’ve finished the first half, then give yourself the proportionate number of points for each graded activity, and add them up.  I estimate that 90% = A, 85% = B+, 80% = B, 75% = C+, 70% = C, 65% = D+, 6-% = D, and below 60% = F.


            I’ll post a spreadsheet, in Blackboard, of the final grade roster for 2009.  The graded activities this year are somewhat different (Mastering Biology, fewer portfolio points), but you can get a sense from that spreadsheet of what the various graded activities do to the overall class average.


(3) Final comments:


            I decided after my first-ever large class at UNL, in the fall of 1966, that regardless of how much effort I spent trying to produce a scientifically literate society, I was going to find some way to make this kind of teaching activity a rewarding one for me, too.  I want to walk out of some auditorium at the end of the semester believing that whatever time I’ve spent doing BIOS 101 (or some other large 100-level class) has given me a feeling of accomplishment and provided me with information that not only I, but also my fellow faculty members, can use to make this world a more educated and rational place in which to live.  All those diverse graded activities, beyond the multiple-choice exams, contribute significantly to this feeling of accomplishment, and in many cases, to the quality of instruction not only at UNL, where faculty members share ideas, but also at other institutions.  My books On Becoming a Biologist, Teaching in Eden and Outwitting College Professors are widely read across the country, and most of the material in those books came from interactions with students and subsequent efforts to diversify instructional activities.


            I know from past experience that a whole lot of you would rather be told flat out that “you’re making a C” instead of being told to look at all the graded activities, follow the syllabus guidelines, estimate your own grades, determine what you need to do in order to improve, and get to work.  Sorry about that, folks; I’ll never go back to three multiple-choice exams and a multiple-choice final as the only way to help my nation become more scientifically literate.  For those who needed a signed grade sheet in the last couple of weeks, I estimated that grade based on your first exam score and my knowledge of last year’s final spreadsheet.  In the meantime, you’re all old enough to have children, vote, get married, drive a 3000-pound vehicle 75 MPH on the Interstate, join the military and be trained to kill someone, design a controversial blog, and read a banned book.  If you’re still mystified about your grade, then get out all your papers, record the numbers, use the syllabus as a guide, and project where your average will fall at the end of the semester.  After you’ve tried that, then I’ll be happy to talk to you about the results individually.