Author Archives: Patrick Culbert

Why Do We Grade?

I hate grading. I happily give feedback to students, but I hate grading. This is especially true with the (false) precision of the 100-point grade scale here at UBC (in contrast to my undergraduate experience with the somewhat coarser grades of A, A/B, B, B/C, etc.).

Do I at least think that a student who receives an 87 on my exam has better achieved the learning objectives than a student with an 83?


But am I confident that if I rewrote the exam and they took it again, they would get those same scores?

Again, no.

But surely, I am at least certain that if I regraded those exams, the scores wouldn’t change.

Still no.

When I was a student, I viewed grades as objective measures of my learning. Now that I’m the one giving grades, they feel especially arbitrary. More alarming though, I see firsthand how grades warp students’ motivations in a manner that actively impedes their learning.

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Are You Using Think-Pair-Share Correctly?

Do you use think-pair-share in your classes? Are you doing it right?

Recently, I (virtually) saw Eric Mazur speak on Peer Instruction, his teaching technique that incorporates a variation of traditional think-pair-share (Mazur, 1997). This reminded me of key aspects of think-pair-share that I had either forgotten or haven’t always implemented. Thinking back to my experience as a student, I think instructors often miss key aspects of think-pair-share, reducing its effectiveness.

You may be thinking, “Really? Isn’t the process fully explained in the name?”

Sort of, but there is surprising nuance involved in well-executed think-pair-share, especially the highly effective version used in Peer Instruction.

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Why Don’t We Grade Dissertations?

This week in my graduate course on teaching and learning, we considered assessment. I was mentioning how, in undergraduate STEM courses, traditional approaches (e.g., grades heavily based on high-stakes exam and quizzes) are typically perceived to be absolutely essential. This idea is so ingrained that we don’t even consider that there could be alternatives. This isn’t the case for all of higher education though. As I was pointing out that we don’t grade dissertations, I was suddenly reminded of something from my past. During my postdoctoral appointment at Humboldt University in Berlin, I learned that German Ph.D. students receive a grade on their dissertation and defense. That struck me as absurd at the time, but it didn’t even occur to me that traditional grading in undergraduate courses might be similarly troublesome.

To confirm my memory, I posted a quick poll on Twitter . . .

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Academic Integrity and Irony

Because experimental research in teaching and learning is a difficult undertaking (especially in actual classrooms rather than the laboratory), we lack evidence-based guidance for some aspects of our teaching. Where evidence does exist though, I strive to incorporate it into my practice. So what happens when I realize that my evidence-based practice is based on (apparently) fabricated data? First, I take a moment to appreciate the irony that the alleged fabrication was in a study of honesty.

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Do Students Need to Learn Facts in the Age of Google?

Yes. Next question.

Okay, like all things, this is more nuanced. When this question is posed, the intended point is often that students should be engaged in higher-order learning rather than spending all of their time memorizing disconnected facts. I generally agree with this sentiment, but in order to engage in higher-order learning, students need a solid grasp of the relevant facts and how they are related. In some ways this is obvious, but other reasons behind this may surprise you.

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Second Chances at First Impressions

[Author’s note: I had nearly finished this post in January 2020, but during the ensuing pandemic chaos, I pushed it aside until now. This is essentially a pre-COVID time capsule, though I’ve added a post-COVID epilogue.]

A few years ago, I underwent peer evaluation of my teaching as part of a reappointment review. While being observed by a colleague, I was quite thrown off my game as he frequently stood up in the back of an auditorium full of seated students. I was baffled about what he was doing. Later, he explained that he was standing to see how many students were using their phones. Most of them, apparently. How did my course arrive at this point?

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I’ve Been Studying All Wrong! – Video

If you’ve read my previous posts, you’ll know I’m a big fan of applying cognitive psychology in my teaching. I’m a strong proponent of teaching students to use effective learning strategies, especially retrieval practice and distributed practice. I give a talk on the topic, often as a guest lecture. About a year ago, I recorded a video version of this talk, aimed at students. Please enjoy and share as you see fit.

When This Is All Over, Keep Recording Your Lectures

How will the successes and failures of your online pivot change the way you teach?

The year 2020 was awful for so many in academe, so I refuse to talk about the “silver linings” of Covid-19. That framing insults those who have struggled or lost loved ones. As educators, however, many of us have learned some valuable lessons from our foray into online teaching, and I hope that when things return to “normal” — summer 2021 at the earliest at my institution — we will apply those lessons to our in-person classrooms. Personally, I plan to continue recording and posting all of my lectures.

In my field of ecology, large-scale, controlled experiments are often infeasible, so we sometimes rely on “natural experiments” — that is, the occurrence of certain events, like wildfires, that allow us to study their effects observationally. My natural experiment with recording my lectures actually began just before the pandemic but turned out to be very helpful afterward in shifting my courses to a virtual classroom.

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Reflections on a Philosophy of Teaching

Teaching philosophies are unique documents. They are incredibly personal and thus quite challenging to write. They also behave a bit as a diary, reflecting ourselves from a very specific place and time. It’s been over a decade since I wrote my first. I’m not quite sure where that original document lives, which is all the better, as I imagine a re-reading would involve a fair amount of cringing. I’ve revised my philosophy a number of times, usually for job applications but most recently for my tenure package. I (somewhat facetiously) made a graphic of this revision cycle.

This figure aims for a laugh, but at a deeper level, I appreciate having a document that grows and changes as I do. Each revision is an opportunity to reflect on that growth.

I’ve never shared my philosophy publicly, but I’m now feeling brave enough to do so. I can’t imagine any of this document will surprise colleagues or readers of this blog, but hopefully it will give readers some food for thought as they reflect on their own practice. Here we go:

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An Online Field Course: Seeking Already-Invented Wheels

Many students feel they should be paying reduced tuition this fall if they aren’t getting the normal face-to-face university experience. I fully appreciate their perspective, and I do believe they are missing out by not being here in person. That said, many students don’t realize the tremendous time, money, and other resources we are expending to produce the best online learning experience that we can.

Creating an online field course is clearly a quixotic endeavor. If I had 6 months or a year to work on this full-time, I could create a really spectacular online field course (though still not as good as the real thing of course). Instead, I realistically have 6 weeks where I can work half-time on this. I’m in triage mode, as I imagine most educators are.

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