EducationPop Quiz

Pop Quiz: Ramping up

Is that light at the end of the tunnel an oncoming train?!

It’s that time again, when we revise our syllabi, check the calendar for important dates, stock up on supplies, and prepare for the onslaught! A new semester/year is about to begin.  Is this the year we get through evolution without being told we’re going to someplace really warm when we die? Is this the year we don’t catch someone plagiarizing?  Is this the year when the course management system doesn’t fail spectacularly at some inopportune moment?

Even though I have been teaching for a while now, my classes have never been the same from semester to semester in terms of structure, mostly because I have some seriously lofty goals for my students beyond learning content.  I (like Peter Nonacs explained in his creationism series) want my students to leave my courses with the ability to think scientifically about any topic, including their sacred cows.  I have approached this goal in many ways, and continue to refine my attempts to allow the majority of students to gain this skill without alienating them.  I try to keep what works and tweak what doesn’t, because why reinvent the wheel?  This semester I’m trying a sneak attack, where I take an already discredited idea and present the evidence for and against it to teach the mechanism of thinking, then move on to currently controversial ideas.

I’ve been teaching long enough that trying new approaches and techniques no longer unsettles me, but sometimes my students demonstrate their displeasure with the departure from what they expected.  I’m always up front with them, explaining what I’m doing and why, but it’s so much clearer on my side of the desk…

Often it’s the discomfort of the students that does drive my desire to change my approach.  It’s hard to teach someone who feels attacked.  Part of this semester’s approach is helping students recognize their internal biases that limit their ability to be scientific without them feeling attacked for those biases.  (A big part of that is recognizing when you’re willing to give up such a bias, or not.) I have no idea how that’s going to work out yet.  I’ll get back to you if I’m successful!

Many teachers and professors, especially if there are external factors at work in their world, may not have such luxuries as comfort with change, and so stick with what is accepted practice.  Many still try to change things in ways they can manage and stay within acceptable bounds.  Change however always brings the risk of failure, which scares both the teacher and the students.  It took me a while to have sufficient confidence to make big changes with the hope of major shifts in outcome (tenure helped a lot!).  But little things can be just as effective, too.

Here’s my question to you: what’s the one thing, as a student or as an instructor, that you struggle with every semester? How are you tackling it this time?

The Pop Quiz is a question posed to you, the Scholars of Doubt. Look for it on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays in the afternoon (ET).

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Apostrophobia is a college professor at a women's college in the US. She teaches biology, does pedagogical research on her guinea pigs (aka students), and has an existential fear of misplaced apostrophes.


  1. August 20, 2014 at 3:17 pm —

    I have a lot of anxiety about facing an all new group of kids every single year. My 11th year (which started yesterday) was no better than my first or second in this regard. I build it up and up in my mind, and have crazy dreams (like you wrote about before)… And then the kids show up, and they’re fine. Many of them are really excited to have me as their instructor, and they listen, and ask great questions, and are very respectful (on average). The ones who aren’t so respectful are quickly put in their place, and I remember that, yeah, I am good at this.

    • August 20, 2014 at 7:58 pm —

      Just to give credit where it’s due, Jennifer wrote about the dreams. I usually don’t remember mine! Otherwise, I totally get the new cohort fear and do think about how to handle dysfunctional groups, which prevents sleep for me.

  2. August 29, 2014 at 1:06 am —

    The student who comes to all the lectures and my office hours, asks lots of questions, and is obviously working their butt off to understand the material. And they are still barely pulling a C in the class. They sit in my office with tears in their eyes as medical, dental or vet school is slipping away, and ask “What am I doing wrong? How can learn this stuff?” Still haven’t figured out what I can say to these kids.

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