The Skeptical Teacher

Musings of a science teacher & skeptic in an age of woo.

Posts Tagged ‘university’

The Real Meaning of Grades and the Importance of Standards

Posted by mattusmaximus on June 4, 2013

*Sigh*… at the end of nearly every single semester that I teach, be it high school or college level, I have to deal with the same thing over and over again: grade grousing.  After grades for the semester have been posted, it is inevitable that I have to address some kind of request from a (former – note the semester is concluded) student asking me to increase their grade.  Most notable are the requests from students who missed an excessive number of classes, failed to turn in the required work, or who performed abysmally on exams (or a combination of all of the above) – yet they feel they deserve a better grade anyway.

Rather than go on in my own words, I would like to pass along the wise words of Prof. Kurt Wiesenfeld, a physics professor at Georgia Tech (at the time the article was written) back in 1996.  These words are just as important now as they were then, and for those of us who consider ourselves skeptics and hold to high standards of evidence when confronted with extraordinary claims, I think the connection is obvious…



© Copyright NEWSWEEK Magazine, 1996

Many students wheedle for a degree as if it were a freebie T shirt


Kurt's PictureIT WAS A ROOKIE ERROR. AFTER 10 YEARS I SHOULD HAVE known better, but I went to my office the day after final grades were posted. There was a tentative knock on the door. “Professor Wiesenfeld? I took your Physics 2121 class? I flunked it? I was wonder if there’s anything I can do to improve my grade?” I thought, “Why are you asking me? Isn’t it too late to worry about it? Do you dislike making declarative statements” After the student gave his tale of woe and left, the phone rang. “I got a D in your class. Is there any way you can change it to ‘Incomplete’?” Then the e-mail assault began: “I’m shy about coming in to talk to you, but I’m not shy about asking for a better grade. Anyway, it’s worth a try.” The next day I had three phone messages from students asking me to call them. I didn’t.

Time was, when you received a grade, that was it. You might groan and moan, but you accepted it as the outcome of your efforts or lack thereof (and, yes, sometimes a tough grader). In the last few years, however, some students have developed a disgruntled-consumer approach. If they don’t like their grade, they go to the “return” counter to trade it in for something better.

What alarms me is their indifference towards grades as an indication of personal effort and performance. Many, when pressed about why they think they deserve a better grade, admit they don’t deserve one, but would like one anyway. Having been raised on gold stars for effort and smiley faces for self-esteem, they’ve learned that they can get by without hard work and real talent if they can talk the professor into giving them a break. This attitude is beyond cynicism. There’s a weird innocence to the assumption that one expects (even deserves) a better grade simply by begging for it. With that outlook, I guess I shouldn’t be as flabbergasted as I was that 12 students asked me to change their grades after final grades were posted.

That’s 10 percent of my class who let three months of midterms, quizzes, and lab reports slide until long past remedy. My graduate student calls it hyperrational thinking: if effort and intelligence don’t matter, why should deadlines? What matters is getting a better grade through an undeserved bonus, the academic equivalent of a freebie T shirt or toaster giveaway. Rewards are disconnected from the quality of one’s work. An act and its consequences are unrelated, random events.

Their arguments for wheedling better grades often ignore academic performance. Perhaps they feel it’s not relevant. “If my grade isn’t raised to a D I’ll lose my scholarship.” “If you don’t give me a C, I’ll flunk out.” One sincerely overwrought student pleaded, “If I don’t pass, my life is over.” This is tough stuff to deal with. Apparently, I’m responsible for someone’s losing a scholarship, flunking out or deciding whether life has meaning. Perhaps these students see me as a commodities broker with something they want – a grade. Though intrinsically worthless, grades, if properly manipulated, can be traded for what has value: a degree, which means a job, which means money. The one thing college actually offers – a chance to learn – is considered irrelevant, even less than worthless, because of the long hours and hard work required.

In a society saturated with surface values, love of knowledge for its own sake does sound eccentric. The benefits of fame and wealth are more obvious. So is it right to blame students for reflecting the superficial values saturating our society?

Yes, of course it’s right. These guys had better take themselves seriously now, because our country will be forced to take them seriously later, when the stakes are much higher. They must recognize that their attitude is not only self-destructive, but socially destructive. The erosion of quality control – giving appropriate grades for actual accomplishments – is a major concern in my department. One colleague noted that a physics major could obtain a degree without ever answering a written exam question completely. How? By pulling in enough partial credit and extra credit. And by getting breaks on grades.

But what happens once she or he graduates and gets a job? That’s when the misfortunes of eroding academic standards multiply. We lament that schoolchildren get “kicked upstairs” until they graduate from high school despite being illiterate and mathematically inept, but we seem unconcerned with college graduates whose less blatant deficiencies are far more harmful if their accreditation exceeds their qualifications.

Most of my students are science and engineering majors. If they’re good at getting partial credit but not at getting the answer right, then the new bridge breaks or the new drug doesn’t work. One finds examples here in Atlanta. Last year a light tower in the Olympic Stadium collapsed, killing a worker. It collapsed because an engineer miscalculated how much weight it could hold. A new 12-story dormitory could develop dangerous cracks due to a foundation that’s uneven by more than six inches. The error resulted from incorrect data being fed into a computer. I drive past that dorm daily on my way to work, wondering if a foundation crushed under kilotons of weight is repairable, or if this structure will have to be demolished. Two 10,000-pound steel beams at the new natatorium collapsed in March, crashing into the student athletic complex. (Should we give partial credit since no one was hurt?) Those are real-world consequences of errors and lack of expertise.

But the lesson is lost on the grade-grousing 10 percent. Say that you won’t (not can’t but won’t) change the grade they deserve to what they want, and they’re frequently bewildered or angry. They don’t think it’s fair that they’re judged according to their performance, not their desires or “potential.” They don’t think it’s fair that they should jeopardize their scholarships or be in danger of flunking out simply because they could not or did not do their work. But it’s more than fair; its necessary to help preserve a minimum standard of quality that our society needs to maintain safety and integrity. I don’t know if the 13th-hour students will learn that lesson, but I’ve learned mine. From now on, after final grades are posted, I’ll lie low until the next quarter starts.

WIESENFELD, a physicist, teaches at Georgia Tech in Atlanta.

From NEWSWEEK JUNE 17, 1996

Posted in education | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Creationism 25-Years After Edwards v. Aguillard

Posted by mattusmaximus on June 9, 2012

As a quick follow-up to my last post, I wanted to share with you all the following YouTube video from a symposium on the topic of how creationism has mutated and spread around the world in the last 25 years, after the famous Edwards v. Aguillard Supreme Court decision which found that teaching creationism as science violated the U.S. Constitution.  Give it a look…

Symposium | Why Does the Debate Matter?

On May 11th, 2012 Stanford’s Constitutional Law Center, along with the Center for Law and the Biosciences and the National Center for Science and Education (NCSE) hosted the symposium, “Science and Religion in the Classroom: Edwards v. Aguillard at 25.” Nathan Chapman (Stanford) moderated the panel, “Why Does the Debate Matter?” featuring Michael McConnell (Stanford), Hank Greely (Stanford), Ronald Numbers (Wisconsin), Michael Ruse (Florida State) and Eugenie Scott (NCSE).

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Thunderwood College: Being Honest About Fake Diplomas

Posted by mattusmaximus on November 27, 2011

I think one of the reasons why so many people get bamboozled by pseudoscientists of various stripes is because many of these pseudoscientists are credentialed… that is, they appear credentialed.  Take, for instance, one of the most prolific charlatans in pseudoscientific circles in recent years: Kent Hovind, also known as “Dr. Dino”.  Kent Hovind is a well-known creationist and Christian evangelist and is known as “Dr. Dino” because he has a doctorate (PhD); this is a widely advertised bit of information (that is, advertised by Hovind himself and his followers) and it seems, to the unprepared eye, to lend some kind of validity to Hovind’s claims.  After all, with a PhD after his name, shouldn’t we give someone like Hovind some degree of credibility?

Well, not necessarily, especially in light of some rather embarrassing facts regarding Kent Hovind’s supposed “education”.  First, Hovind’s doctorate is not in evolutionary biology (this is relevant because he is such a strong critic of evolution), nor is it in any branch of science or even in the philosophy of science; in fact, Hovind’s degree is in Christian Education (whatever that is).  Furthermore, his PhD was obtained through correspondence from Patriot University in Colorado Springs, Colorado (now since renamed to Patriot Bible University in Del Norte, Colorado).  What is especially interesting is the fact that Patriot Bible University is (and was) a well-known diploma mill, being a non-accredited institution which does not meet accepted academic standards to award degrees.  So, in essence, this means that Kent Hovind’s doctorate is basically meaningless.  But that won’t stop him, as well as other pseudoscientific charlatans, from obtaining questionable degrees and referring to themselves as “experts”.

As I mentioned earlier, this is a problem which is much larger than a few creationists using non-accredited institutions and diploma mills to give them a veneer of expertise.  In fact, to get some idea of just how big of a problem this is, check out these links to more information on how widespread is the phenomenon of non-accreditation…

List of unaccredited institutions of higher education

List of unrecognized higher education accreditation organizations

As a way of poking fun at this kind of academic dishonesty, there is a spoof website called Thunderwood College which will award you a degree in pretty much anything in mere minutes, yet they are completely open and honest about what they’re doing.  Just take a look at their page explaining accreditation…

Completely Non-Accredited.

At Thunderwood College, we will neither lie to you by claiming that our institution is accredited, nor will we attempt to defraud you by claiming accreditation from an unrecognized accreditation body.

What Is Accreditation?

In the United States, the Department of Education and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation maintain an official list of accreditation bodies whose accreditations are accepted by the academic community. Other countries generally have similar rules. There is also a long list of completely bogus organizations that offer accreditation to any “university” who wants it. Institutions claiming accreditation from one of these sources should be treated with great skepticism, and it should be understood that degrees issued by these institutions are not recognized by the academic community. Many online colleges who issue degrees based on your “life experience” can claim to be accredited, and so they are, but it’s not an accreditation that holds any water. Your cat could accredit those institutions just as well.

Why Thunderwood?

Why not Thunderwood? It is no different from the thousands of other unaccredited “diploma mills” where people get their degrees in unsubstantiated quackery such as:

  • Chiropractic
  • Reflexology
  • Acupuncture
  • Parapsychology
  • Naturopathy
  • Intelligent Design
  • Holistics
  • Healing Touch
  • Magnetic Therapy
  • Reiki
  • Feng Shui

…and many, many more!

So the next time that you are confronted with a potential pseudoscientist who seems to be making some whacky claims, and especially if they are going out of their way to list how amazingly educated they are in whatever field they wish to impress upon you, take a few minutes to dig into their educational background.  What you discover might be, if you’ll pardon the pun, quite educational :)

Posted in education, humor | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

Educator Grants Available from the James Randi Educational Foundation!

Posted by mattusmaximus on October 16, 2011

I am happy to report that the James Randi Educational Foundation is now awarding education grants to help educators with the development and implementation of lessons and curriculum related to teaching skepticism and critical thinking skills.  Read on for more information…

… Right now, the JREF has a limited number of educator grants (up to $500 each) available to help offset the cost of developing or improving critical thinking and scientific skepticism programs in the classroom.  Preference is given to projects aimed at creating educational content related to science or critical thinking through examination of the paranormal and pseudoscience.

Funded projects can include (but are not limited to) working with JREF educational modules (and related media) or developing new content to be made available to the educational community through the JREF.

If you’re interested in working with the JREF to share critical thinking tools with your students at a time when it matters most, please reply and let me know. I’m happy to answer any questions you have, discuss your ideas for projects, and explain the simple grant application process. For more information or to apply, contact:

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JREF Provides Educator Grants for 2011 – Apply Now!

Posted by mattusmaximus on May 17, 2011

As a way of putting the ‘E’ in JREF, I wanted to pass along to you some info I received from my skeptical education colleague, Michael Blanford, that the James Randi Educational Foundation has opened up the application process for its 2011 Educator Grants.  These are grants provided to professional educators (elementary, middle, high school or college teachers as well as less formal educators) in the hopes that they will be able to develop and hone their teaching skills to help promote critical thinking.  Read on for more information…

Apply for 2011 JREF Educator Grants

The JREF awards grants to educators who are inspiring a new generation of critical thinkers. These grants help pay for developing and improving programs that teach critical thinking and scientific skepticism in the classroom and beyond.

We award grants to educators of children grades K-12 for projects that promote critical thinking through the examination of the paranormal and pseudoscience. Grants are not limited to traditional classroom teachers and those from museums, camps, community centers, and other informal educational institutions are encouraged to apply.

We’re accepting proposals for 2011 grants until July 1st, so please apply or share this information with a deserving educator you know. Here are the 2011 grant application forms and additional details.

So if you are an educator or know someone who is who might benefit from one of these grants, please pass the info along to them and encourage them to apply! :)

Posted in education, skeptical community | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Scientific Literacy Among Americans Is Better Than Thought… And Getting Better

Posted by mattusmaximus on February 27, 2011

Often you will hear scientists, skeptics, and cheerleaders for science lamenting the sad state of scientific knowledge among the population at large, at least in the United States.  We continually get the message that our children are not being properly educated in science as compared to other countries, and this leads to all manner of hand-wringing.  However, as some recent research suggests, it may not be true.  In fact, the state of science education and scientific literacy in the United States may actually be better than almost all other nations and – dare I say it? – getting better!

Scientific Literacy: How Do Americans Stack Up?

… according to a Michigan State University researcher, while Americans are holding their own, they are not even close to where they should be.

Participating at 3:45 p.m. PST today in an American Association for the Advancement of Science symposium, titled “Science Literacy and Pseudoscience,” MSU’s Jon Miller said that Americans, while slightly ahead of their European counterparts when it comes to scientific knowledge, still have a long way to go.

“A slightly higher proportion of American adults qualify as scientifically literate than European or Japanese adults, but the truth is that no major industrial nation in the world today has a sufficient number of scientifically literate adults,” he said. “We should take no pride in a finding that 70 percent of Americans cannot read and understand the science section of the New York Times.”

Approximately 28 percent of American adults currently qualify as scientifically literate, an increase from around 10 percent in the late 1980s and early 1990s, according to Miller’s research. … [emphasis added]

Now, I have to agree that an adult scientific literacy rate of 28% is unacceptable, especially at the beginning of the 21st century.  However, the fact that we started out at around 10% in the late 80s (yikes!) and have almost tripled the scientific literacy rate gives me some real hope for the future of our species.

Also, to put things into perspective, I’d like to show you one of the charts from the research paper (the original paper is available in PDF format here)…

So what has led to this almost three-fold increase in scientific literacy in the United States?  There could be a variety of factors at play here: better secondary and post-secondary education in science and related fields, the rise of the Internet, the increasing visibility of pro-science groups such as the National Center for Science Education and the James Randi Educational Foundation, etc.  Personally, I wouldn’t be surprised if all of the above had some influence on these results, and while it isn’t enough progress for my liking, at least we’re moving in the right direction :)

Posted in education, skeptical community | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Creationist Lawsuit to Force Universities to Accept Their Curriculum Ends at the Supreme Court

Posted by mattusmaximus on October 19, 2010

Here is some excellent news, folks!  In a twist of reality that was almost weirder than fiction, back in 2005 a group called The Association of Christian Schools International filed a lawsuit against the university system of California because they claimed that the university system violated the constitutional rights of applicants from Christian schools whose high school coursework is deemed inadequate preparation for college.  In other words, the Christian school coursework was pushing creationism as science (and not teaching evolution), and the university system said that was inadequate preparation and refused to accept the “science” credits of those students.

Aside: one can easily see the slippery slope here.  If creationists were to get away with this kind of malarkey, then how long until New Age gurus demand that their quantum flapdoodle nonsense be accepted as “physics” credits for universities?

Well, it all came to the end of the line recently for the creationists in this case, because a few days ago the Supreme Court of the United States refused to hear the case, essentially locking in lower court decisions against the creationists :)

Read more about it from the National Center for Science Education…

The end of ACSI v. Stearns

On October 12, 2010, the Supreme Court declined (PDF, p. 12) to review Association of Christian Schools International et al. v. Roman Stearns et al., thus bringing the case to a definitive end. The case, originally filed in federal court in Los Angeles on August 25, 2005, centered on the University of California system’s policies and statements relevant to evaluating the qualifications of applicants for admission. The plaintiffs — the Association of Christian Schools International, the Calvary Chapel Christian School in Murrieta, California, and a handful of students at the school — charged that the university system violated the constitutional rights of applicants from Christian schools whose high school coursework is deemed inadequate preparation for college.

Creationism was prominent in the case. The plaintiffs objected to the university system’s policy of rejecting high school biology courses that use creationist textbooks as “inconsistent with the viewpoints and knowledge generally accepted in the scientific community.” Michael Behe, a proponent of “intelligent design” creationism, served as a scientific expert witness for the plaintiffs, although his defense of the creationist biology textbooks was unavailing. Wendell Bird, one of the attorneys for the plaintiffs, is a former employee of the Institute for Creation Research; he defended Louisiana’s 1981 “equal time” act all the way to the Supreme Court, where it was ruled to violate the Establishment Clause in the decision in Edwards v. Aguillard (1987).

Relying in part on the view of defendants’ expert witnesses Donald Kennedy and Francisco J. Ayala (a Supporter of NCSE) that the creationist textbooks were not appropriate for use in a college preparatory biology course, the trial judge in ACSI v. Stearns granted the defendants’ motion for summary judgment on August 8, 2008. The plaintiffs appealed the decision, but in a January 12, 2010, ruling, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the district court’s decision, which is now reaffirmed by the Supreme Court’s decision not to review the case. Documents from the case are available on NCSE’s website, in a special section devoted to ACSI v. Stearns.

Expect to hear the creationists moan on and on about “activist judges” and “religious discrimination” and similar goofiness.  While I relish this admittedly important victory in the courts, I am not going to fool myself that these folks will simply go away quietly – they’ll be back, with another frivolous lawsuit or some other angle to attempt to tear down good science education.  So keep your eyes & ears open…

Posted in creationism, education | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Institute for Creation Research Loses Texas Lawsuit Over “Master’s” Degree in Creation Science

Posted by mattusmaximus on June 23, 2010

In a bit of good news from our friends at the National Center for Science Education (NCSE), it appears that the young-earth creationist organization called the Institute for Creation Research (ICR) has lost its court battle in Texas against the Texas Higher Education Coordination Board.  Apparently, ICR was suing the Board for it refusing to recognize the ICR’s “Master’s” degree in science education.  If ICR had called it a Master’s degree in pseudoscience education, then perhaps things would have gone differently ;)

Anyway, read on for the full update from NCSE on this welcome development…

The Institute for Creation Research suffered a significant legal defeat in its lawsuit over the Texas Higher Education Coordination Board’s 2008 decision to deny the ICR’s request for a state certificate of authority to offer a master’s degree in science education from its graduate school. A June 18, 2010, ruling in the United States District Court for the Western District of Texas found (PDF, p. 38) that “ICRGS [the Institute for Creation Research Graduate School] has not put forth evidence sufficient to raise a genuine issue of material fact with respect to any claim it brings. Thus, Defendants are entitled to summary judgment on the totality of ICRGS’s claims against them in this lawsuit.”

As NCSE’s Glenn Branch explained in Reports of the NCSE, “When the Institute for Creation Research moved its headquarters from Santee, California, to Dallas, Texas, in June 2007, it expected to be able to continue offering a master’s degree in science education from its graduate school. … But the state’s scientific and educational leaders voiced their opposition, and at its April 24, 2008, meeting, the Texas Higher Education Coordination Board unanimously voted to deny the ICR’s request for a state certificate of authority to offer the degree.” Subsequently, the ICR appealed the decision, while also taking its case to the court of public opinion with a series of press releases and advertisements in Texas newspapers.

The issue was not, strictly speaking, about accreditation, but about temporary state certification, which would have enabled the ICR graduate school to operate while it sought accreditation. When in California, the ICR graduate school was accredited by the Transnational Association of Christian Colleges and Schools, which requires candidate institutions to affirm a list of Biblical Foundations, including “the divine work of non-evolutionary creation including persons in God’s image.” TRACS is not recognized by the state of Texas, however, and after the ICR moved from Santee, California, to Dallas, Texas, the ICR expressed its intention to seek accreditation from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools.

Finally, the ICR filed suit against THECB in 2009, accusing it and its members of imposing “an unconstitutional and prejudicial burden against ICRGS’s academic freedom and religious liberties.” The prolix style of the ICR’s initial complaint — which the Dallas Observer (April 20, 2009) quipped “reads kind of like stereo instructions” — was apparently continued in its subsequent documents; the court complained, “It appears that although the Court has twice required Plaintiff to re-plead and set forth a short and plain statement of the relief requested, Plaintiff is entirely unable to file a complaint which is not overly verbose, disjointed, incoherent, maundering, and full of irrelevant information” (p. 12).

In summary, the ICR claimed that THECB’s actions violated its rights to free exercise, free speech, and equal protection, its rights to procedural and substantive due process, and its rights under the Texas Religious Freedom Restoration Act, as well as that “Standard 12″ — the civil regulation on which THECB’s decision was based (19 Texas Administrative Code sec. 7.4(14)) — was vague. The court found merit in none of these claims. With respect to the free exercise claim, for example, the court found that “the Board’s decision was rationally related to a legitimate governmental interest, and there is no evidence the decision was motivated by animus toward any religious viewpoint” (p. 24).

Posted in creationism, education | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

“Creation Science” Degree in Texas?

Posted by mattusmaximus on March 21, 2009

Wow, just when you think that creationists couldn’t get any more crazy with their arguments and tactics, they surprise you.  According to this article, there is a bill that has been introduced in the Texas House which would allow the Dallas-based Institute for Creation Research to actually grant science degrees!  And guess what they want these degrees to be in?  Could it be actual science based upon evolution?  Nope, the ICR wants to be given the right to grant science degrees based upon creationist pseudoscientific nonsense.  You can’t make this stuff up.

According to the article…

If House Bill 2800 is enacted, it will make ICR exempt from state regulations thereby allowing them to grant science degrees. As put by NCSE, the bill will “exempt institutions such as the Institute for Creation Research’s graduate school from Texas’s regulations governing degree-granting institutions.”

In other words, the creationist nutjobs at ICR are attempting to get special privileges which would allow them to get the benefit of granting science degrees without actually meeting the requirements of science. I guess their strategy is that if you can’t win the game, just try to change the rules.

But there’s more…

According to ICR’s Web site, they “[equip] believers with evidence of the Bible’s accuracy and authority through scientific research, educational programs, and media presentations, all conducted within a thoroughly biblical framework.” To that end, it seems, they take discoveries and force them into current biblical understandings of… things.

I don’t know whether to laugh or cry at statements like these. These creationist nutjobs literally believe that evidence in nature should be ignored if it contradicts their view of the Bible! Wow, talk about being disconnected from reality.

The bad news is that this bill (House Bill 2800) has actually been introduced in the Texas House. The good news is that it has only one sponsor, Rep. Leo Berman, so far, not to mention the fact that the situation is providing a lot of entertainment for skeptics & science allies. :D

In closing, I really like how Dr. Phil Plait – the “Bad Astronomer” and President of the James Randi Educational Foundation – put it…

stupid it burns

Posted in creationism, education | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »


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