Principles of Biology FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions)

Introduction - There are lots of rumors and hearsay about this course, since over 1500 students per year are enrolled. Many of those students get "facts" about Biology 198 from their housemates, siblings, or some guy they meet in a bar. Unfortunately, very little of it is true. The instructors of BIOL 198 therefore have developed this FAQ list to attempt to provide factual information. It is hopefully more accurate than what you hear from your brother's roommate's sister, or wherever else you might have gotten your information about this course. So here it is. The FAQ is provided so that we can dispel some of the misinformation, and concentrate on what we think is really important, which is the education of KSU students in the biological sciences.

History of the course and current structure - In 1994 the Division of Biology embarked on a thorough evaluation of our introductory course, BIOL 198. A task force of faculty members was appointed to look at current and developing models of instruction in introductory biology. All faculty members in the Division served on thematic committees to advise this taskforce on topics that should be covered in our introductory biology course. The task force decided to abandon our old format (Audio-tutorial) and devise a course using the studio format, which has proven to be successful in other introductory science courses (e.g. Physics, Chemistry). In 1996 we hired a faculty member to oversee the development of the studio version of BIOL 198. In summer of 1997 the new format of the course was tested, and fully implemented in the fall of 1997. Our studio model involves 2 separate 2-hour sessions per week, with a maximum of 80 students in the studio. Although it is an introductory course, it is taught by all of our regular faculty members (usually two faculty members, two GTAs and one or more undergraduate students per 80 students in each section). With few exceptions ALL biology faculty members teach in this course once per academic year. This is neither a traditional lab, traditional lecture, nor a “computer lab”. Elements of all of these are combined to allow students with various learning styles to achieve success in learning introductory biology. We have good evidence that this studio format is very effective in teaching introductory biology, compared to traditional lecture/lab courses at LSU, Ohio State University, and Cornell University. These data have been published in 2008, in a reputable journal called Cell Biology Education (click the hotlink to get a copy of the article). The Division of Biology thus commits a lot of resources (two full-time faculty members and two GTAs) for each of the 8 -10 sections every semester (as well as one section in the summer semester).

Questions and Answers - If you have a question that is not covered in this FAQ, please send it to , and perhaps it can be answered and added to the list below.

MISCONCEPTION: There are no teachers, and no teaching; students are expected to learn everything by themselves, using computers.

Fact: Curiously, this misconception seems to come from the simple fact that this is not a traditional lecture course with a lab. Apparently giving a lecture is synonymous with "teaching", and listening to (or sleeping through) a lecture is synonymous with "learning." Anything else is considered to be "learning on my own!"

While it is true that we don't lecture much, we do certainly teach in this course. And we will give you some of the best professors at KSU as your instructors! Teaching cannot be solely defined by someone giving you a traditional lecture, and thus the absence of a traditional lecture cannot be equated with the absence of teaching. Additionally, regardless of the format of a course, and no matter how many or how skilled the teachers, learning IS something that you always do "on your own." Nobody can learn for you.  We teach you, and help you learn, in many different ways in this course, as you will see from reading further. You will have many tools (textbook, studio manual, web tutorials, study guides, review sessions, etc.) to help you learn, and we don't require you to generate these tools "on your own." Many of these are provided to you by the teaching staff, and many of them are a lot harder to prepare than a standard lecture from last year's notes! But you will have to take advantage of them in order to learn, just like you have to take advantage of teacher-provided tools in a more traditional lecture class.

Fact: The course uses computers as an adjunct teaching tool in a studio-model format. The studio format, which integrates lecture and lab, is perhaps the most effective instructional format yet devised. Computers are an integral part of the course, but students also benefit from ALL of the approaches that modern educational research has identified. It is also the only introductory course on the KSU campus in which all the faculty members in the department (including the head of the department) are required to participate as instructors. For more details about the facility and the pedagogical model, please see the PoB dedication brochure (Acrobat .PDF file). For an interesting 1970's flashback, click here to see how this course was taught in the good old days; one of the students in this picture may be your parent or even grandparent!

The studio format allows students to actively learn material by investigation and then application of that information in a problem-solving format.  There is an initial pre-class assignment, either readings from the textbook or the studio manual, or an assignment handed out in the previous class. The 2-hour class sessions start with a brief consideration of this pre-class assignment, then a brief (15-20) minute overview of the material for that day, delivered by one of the faculty instructors. This is followed by the lab experiments for the day. In some cases this involves computer tutorials or interactive exercises. In some cases this involves use of microscopes, test tubes, plants, animals or other more traditional biology lab materials. In some cases this involves interactive participatory games or activities. There are many class sessions where computer work is absent or minimal; students are absolutely not expected to learn everything from a computer. In all cases the faculty, graduate teaching assistants, and undergraduate practicum students circulate throughout the studio, answering and posing questions, and helping our with practical details (e.g. helping students find the appropriate cells under the microscope). Students fill out answers to questions in a studio manual, which is the primary source of information needed to adequately prepare for the exams. About 20 minutes before the end of the studio session, the instructor delivers a wrap-up lecture, often relying on student participation and input, which is designed to ensure that all students have the proper understanding of the concepts and details covered that day.

As noted elsewhere, educational professionals have found that students typically learn in one of four ways. Some students are visual learners, who learn the material most efficiently by seeing pictures, graphs, or animations. Some are auditory learners, who learn the material best by hearing someone else explain it. Some are Read/Write learners, who learn best by reading text and/or writing down answers to questions. Finally, some students are kinesthetic learners, who learn best by "doing" or collaborating with their lab partners in learning. All of these four modes of learning are possible in the studio environment to a far greater degree than they are possible in the typical lecture-lab arrangement for introductory biology. Visual learners benefit from the many graphic tutorials, animations, and other visual material used in the studio. Auditory learners benefit from the introductory and wrap-up lectures, talking with their lab partners, and the review sessions (see below). Read/Write learners benefit from taking notes during the introductory and wrap-up lectures, writing in the studio manual, reading the textbook, and reading the study guides (see below). Kinesthetic learners benefit from the many lab experiments and demonstrations, and from interacting with their lab partners. Finally, since all students are paired with lab partners, it is also possible for students with different learning styles to teach each other, providing insights gained from their own perspectives on the material. In addition, we have prepared a series of web pages to allow students to determine their own optimal learning style, coupled with specific strategies that will work well IN THIS CLASS for each learning style. Complaints are commonly heard from students (primarily auditory learners) who believe that they would do better in a lecture course. But these same students would do poorly in a typical lab, and students with any of the other three learning styles do not learn well in a pure lecture situation. The studio format, although it is not optimal for any ONE of these learning styles, is the best way to provide a good learning experience for ALL of these learning styles.

Beyond the 2-hour studio class there are additional opportunities to learn the material: 

Given this smorgasbord of choices and approaches for learning, it is clearly just plain wrong to conclude that we depend solely upon the computers to teach the students in this class. Quite the opposite, we rely on every possible pedagogical approach to ensure that ALL students have opportunities to succeed in Principles of Biology.

We do understand that students who are auditory learners, and who think that they can only learn from a lecturer, are often upset with the format of this course. Regardless of the fact that auditory learners can learn well in a studio format, this perception can lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you think you can't learn here, if you think that there is "nobody to teach me", you won't learn much. But that is untrue, and those who desire a lecture need to understand that lecturing and teaching are not synonymous. Just as there are lots of ways to learn, there are lots of ways to teach, and lecturing is only one (not-so-effective) way to teach. Here is the best analogy I know; perhaps it will help. If you get in a car and drive somewhere that you have never been, you can probably drive there again later. If you are in the back seat, and someone else is driving, your potential for getting there again on your own is not so high. The studio model is that we give you a map, lots of road signs, and we let you drive there. When you get to the test (analogous to driving there again later), you will be more likely to be successful. The lecture model is analogous to having someone else drive, and you are passively sitting in the back seat. When you are tested (can you drive there on your own?), you are less likely to be successful.

In the studio model you are in charge of learning much more directly than in a lecture. But the fact that you are in charge is NOT the same thing as saying that you do this "without the teacher's help". There is plenty of help (maps and directions). You just don't have a driver, and it makes some folks uncomfortable when they have to drive there on their own. But this has proven to be the best available way to teach intro science courses, leading to greater learning and retention of that learning. Teachers can be drivers (lecturers), or they can be mapmakers (writers and web-page designers), or they can be direction-givers (studio instructors, review session instructors). But all of them are teachers. And all of them can help YOU learn, if you can unconvince yourself of the notion that you won't be able to learn in this scenario.

QUESTION: My advisor told me that I would get a better grade and not have to study so much if I took introductory biology at a community college. Why should I take this course at KSU?

Your advisor was probably right that you wouldn't have to study so much if you took BIOLOGY 198 at a community college. Depending on how much you did (or didn't) study, you might even get a better grade that way. But you probably wouldn't learn as much biology as you will learn in BIOLOGY 198 at KSU. This is a university, and you are paying for a university education, which means that you are paying for the best education possible. If the quality of the education is a high priority (if you don't think so, you might not belong at a university), then you need to know a few things about this course and how we teach it at KSU.

With only a few exceptions, ALL of the faculty members in the Division of Biology participate in teaching BIOLOGY 198. And Biology has some of the best professors at this University. There are just a few dozen active KSU professors (in all colleges) who have earned the title of University Distinguished Professor; 9 of these are in the Division of Biology and ALL of these (including the director of the Division of Biology)  teach in Biology 198 at least once every two semesters. There have been 21 recipients of the Coffman Chair for university Distinguished Teaching Scholars so far; 2 of these are faculty members in the Division of Biology. Biology faculty members annually win teaching awards in the College of Arts and Sciences, and regularly at the University level. All of our studio sections have at least one (and usually two) faculty members as primary instructors; you will be learning biology from active biologists who are successful in their field and excited about biology. It is unlikely that you will find a similar situation, where ALL faculty members participate in delivering an introductory course, in any other KSU department or even any other university. The resources that we bring to this course, and the quality of the instructors, means that (like you) we have a lot invested in your education. This also dictates that we have high standards; we expect you to know a lot of biology when you have completed the course. And, as noted elsewhere on this page, we offer you a lot of help so that all your hard work can be rewarded with a good grade as well as a good education. So if learning a lot of biology from some of the best faculty members at the university is something that appeals to you, you should take this course. If sliding by with minimal effort appeals to you more, then please do take this course at a community college...

RUMOR: Biol 198 is a "weedout course."


Fact: There are no weedout courses in Biology. In fact, I don't know of any such course here, or at other universities. The implication of that term is that the instructors consciously TRY to fail some percentage of the students. In actuality, we would be ecstatic if there were no F's in this course. We only want you to learn the material, and if you all got A's or B's that would mean that all of this hard work actually paid off in newly gained knowledge. So it is actually insulting to the staff, who want all of you to succeed, when you use that term "weedout". We don't want you, or your friends, or any set percentage of the class to fail. We want you to succeed, and to learn Biology, since that is our career, our passion, and our life's work. Can you think of one logical reason why would we want you to NOT learn the stuff to which we have dedicated our careers????

That said, it is possible that this course does function to eliminate people from the college ranks. That is not because it is designed that way, but because it is a HARD course. It requires the assimilation of lots of knowledge. It requires students to be consistently dedicated to learning. It requires lots of attention, and the ability to say "no" when some other temptation gets in the way of preparing or studying for this course. Quite frankly, lots of college freshmen DON'T have one or more of these qualities, and so they fail. That is reality. We probably will never see the day when everybody passes this course. But the instructors cannot be blamed for a single student failing this course. People in this course get the grades they EARN, and some people will always EARN bad grades, unfortunately. However, as noted below, lots of people get good grades in this course.

So please don't confuse a HARD course with a WEEDOUT course. Please don't confuse failures on the part of the students with a fictitious conspiracy on the part of the instructors to fail part of the class. That is not fair to the folks who work very hard to make sure that you and your classmates understand this material. I hope you won't use the term "weedout course" again. I also hope that you can correct "others" when you hear them use the term, and point out to them the implications of that insult.

RUMOR: Half of the class fails this course every semester.


Fact: We would/should all lose our jobs if half of the students failed our introductory course every semester. Think about it.

Fact: Here is the average grade distribution for the most recent semesters. Note that 14% of these students got an A, and nearly half the class (41%) got an A or a B. Only 12% failed. This grade distribution has not varied much in the last 10 semesters. In addition, there are no significant differences in the grade distributions for the fall vs. the spring semesters. So these are the real (not rumored) numbers. While this number of F's is higher than we would like to see, it is still a long way from "half the class."  

BIOL 198 grade distributions

MISUNDERSTANDING: The tests are not written by my instructor; they are written by some guy who doesn't know what is going on in the class!


Fact: The tests are written by the course coordinator. There are currently several faculty members who have that role, depending on the semester; the coordinator for the semester you are taking the class can be any one of these four. All of these coordinators have been involved in developing and modifying the course for many years, and all of them are involved in writing and annually revising your studio manual. Most of these coordinators also teach a section (or several) of BIOL 198 each year; they are not disconnected from the course at all. It is likely that they actually do "know what's going on." Finally, the tests are written by one person, but reviewed and revised by four or five professors who are teaching in the course that semester. Questions which are unfair, misleading, or otherwise inappropriate are usually weeded out by other folks who also "know what's going on."

Some students wonder why their individual studio instructors don't write individual tests for their sections. The answer is a single word: fairness. There are ten sections for the course. If individual instructors wrote tests, there would be ten different tests. It is extremely unlikely that all of these tests would be equally difficult (or equally easy). So if your roommate or sibling was in a section where the professor wrote tests that your pet iguana could pass, and your professor wrote tests that seemed like root-canal surgery, would you think it was fair? Probably not. Would you complain? I hope so. So we have one test, written by the course coordinator, which covers the OBJECTIVES which are supposed to be taught in every section.

STUDENT PERSPECTIVE: I studied hard and I know all of the material but I still do poorly on the tests. I hate those tests, they don't test me over what I have learned.


Fact: There are lots of reasons why this can happen. Sometimes test-taking performance can be improved by looking at the sample exam, and sometimes it can be improved if students quit thinking that the questions are designed to trick them. Lots of times test performance can be drastically improved if you take time to read the questions and answers more carefully; far too many easy points are lost in haste. But over the years we have found that the most common reason is that a student has fooled himself or herself into thinking that they know the material, but they really are pretty vague on a lot of things. Then when they get a bad grade, they can't blame themselves (god forbid!), so it must be a bad test. There have been many times when I have talked to a student about the tests, and asked them a simple question, or looked at some of their other answers on the same test, only to find out that their grasp on that material was pretty marginal. So don't fool yourself. If you haven't spent 8-10 hours per week outside of class working on this course, the odds are that you are not mastering the material. If you honestly think that you do know the material, ask your instructor to give you a short oral quiz over the objectives. If you really do know that stuff, and still are doing poorly on the tests, then perhaps you fall into the next category. But you would be in the minority…

Fact: Some students really have trouble taking tests. Usually this problem is identified long before they get to college, but in a few rare instances it is not. Some students who haven't had test anxiety previously might psych themselves out before a college test, and that has happened more than once in BIOL 198. The solution to that problem might involve trying consciously to relax before a test, and certainly involves NOT believing that the test questions will be tricky or that we are trying to flunk a certain percentage of the class (see above). Ironically, the best way to reduce test anxiety is to do well on one test, so if you can get over that barrier, you will have an easier time on the subsequent exams. We all would be willing to work with any student who suffers from test anxiety, and there are many strategies that can be suggested to alleviate this problem. So contact your instructor and see what they can do to help if you do fall into this category.

STUDENT PERSPECTIVE: I don't know what to study for the tests; the questions are over insignificant things and not the major things that I studied.


Fact: This is a statement that we hear repeatedly. However, there are probably very few courses on this campus where the instructors are clearer about what you NEED TO KNOW. 

As pointed out in the Syllabus, the tests will attempt to probe your understanding of the OBJECTIVES that are written at the very front of each day's studio manual material. Each question on the exams relates directly to one or more of those OBJECTIVES. There are usually about as many OBJECTIVES  for each module as there are test questions, so there is often a 1:1 correlation between OBJECTIVES and test questions. 

In order to help you figure out what to study for the tests, we provide study guides in which the important concepts for understanding the OBJECTIVES are highlighted, bold-faced, and/or underlined. During the review sessions, we only answer questions that pertain to these OBJECTIVES; we won't waste your time on peripheral material. Your ability to understand any particular OBJECTIVE will depend upon reading the textbook in some cases, or doing the lab exercises in some cases, reading the web material in some cases, or (most commonly) some combination of these three. So if you focus on the OBJECTIVES first, you can quickly figure out what to study (textbook, studio manual, or web pages) by figuring out where each of those OBJECTIVES is covered. Don't waste your time speculating/hoping about things like "I wonder if the stuff in this chapter is going to be on the test" or "I wonder if I will have to remember the results of this experiment for the test". If that chapter material or the results of that experiment are critical to your understanding of the OBJECTIVES, then you should study it and learn it.

So if it wasn't clear before, it should be clear now. In order to study for the test, concentrate on the OBJECTIVES. A good strategy might be to write out each OBJECTIVE as you study, write out a 1-2 paragraph summary of each objective, and ask one of your studio instructors or study partners to check these paragraphs and see if you really do understand that OBJECTIVE. If you do have a good grasp of the OBJECTIVES, you will always get a good grade on the tests, because they are the basis for the test questions. 

STUDENT PERSPECTIVE: The test questions are tricky.


Fact: Let's be brutally honest here. The people writing the questions all have Ph.D.s from prestigious universities. If we wanted to write tricky questions, or at least questions that could trick college freshmen and sophomores, it would certainly be no challenge. But things that are not challenging are quite unrewarding. Believe it or not, college professors are human beings just like you, and generally like activities that are rewarding. Believe it or not, it IS rewarding to find out, from the answers to a test question, that a large fraction of the students in the class have actually mastered an important concept. We truly enjoy it when a large fraction of the class answers a question in such a way that they must have mastered a difficult concept. That cannot happen if the questions are "tricky." So we gain nothing, and you gain nothing, if the test questions are designed to trick you. Sorry.

Fact: It has been scientifically proven that most students have been trained to believe that a multiple-choice question is "tricky" if it requires them to do anything beyond mere memorization of the material. Multiple-choice test questions which require synthesis of facts and concepts, or questions which require analysis of new information in the context of known information, will always be considered "tricky" by those who prefer to merely memorize. It is unfortunately true that some (but not all) questions on Biology 198 tests will require you to synthesize and integrate information which you have learned in class. It has also been scientifically proven that you will remember the information longer if you can use it in those situations. And we do want you to remember this information, because we think that some of it is quite important. It may even be useful in other classes you take here at KSU; it certainly will be useful if you want to be an informed citizen, patient, parent, gardener, farmer, doctor, accountant or anything else that involves interacting with other living things. Memorization is not good enough any more... Sorry again.

Fact: The test questions are actually written by one person and reviewed by several others. Any question that is unclear, or incomplete, or fails to account for a fact which appears in the readings or in the studio manual, gets changed or eliminated. Sometimes a bad question still gets through this process. If, after the tests are graded, we notice that a significant number of students misunderstood a question, we change the grading so that those students get credit for our mistake. Those are the facts. Trick questions serve no purpose in this course, and are actively eliminated during the test writing process.

Fact: Most of the complaints about "tricky questions" would never come up if students would read the questions CAREFULLY, and also read ALL of the answers before hastily marking their grade card. Just carefully read the question on the page and answer it. Use your time to think about the information requested by the question, and quit trying to "figure out the trick." You'll do a lot better on the tests, and maybe your stress levels will even decrease.  If you don't believe that, perhaps you should take a look at the sample exam. Also see the FAQ below about why we use multiple choice questions with answers like "some of the above."

Fact: Finally, and probably most importantly, if you are making the assumption that we purposefully write test questions that are tricky, you are operating on a different set of assumptions than the persons writing the questions (see above). And it should be obvious that if you are operating on a different set of assumptions than the person writing the question, it is much more likely that you will not figure out the answer that the test-writer had in mind. If you assume that the test questions are written to test your knowledge of biology, and that they are written to be as simple as and clear as possible, your assumptions are much more in line with those of the test writer, and your ability to deduce the correct answer will be much more in line with that test writer as well. When you and the person writing the test are looking for the answer in the same way, using the same assumptions, you probably will get a better grade on the test...

STUDENT PERSPECTIVE: I would do better on the tests if there was only one correct answer. I hate those questions with "all of the above," "some of the above," "none of the above."


Fact: Perhaps you, and many others, would indeed "do better" (if that is strictly defined by a higher grade) if there was only one answer. However, if we define doing better as having a better understanding of biology, that changes the picture somewhat. And since our main goal in this course is to help you understand biology, these types of questions are necessary.

The problem is that:

1) we cover a lot of material in this class.

2) we have to write questions that FAIRLY cover all of the material (we also can get complaints like "I studied all this stuff and NONE of it was on the test!" You may never say this, but you are only one of 750 students in the class. We have to write tests that are fair to all of them.)

3) In order to cover the mass of material fairly in 20 or 30 questions, we absolutely have to include more than ONE fact or concept in a question.

4) The best way to accomplish that is to have multiple correct answers.

Sorry, but that is the reality, and that is why we probably can't change the test questions in the way that you suggest.

That said, we would also humbly suggest that if you KNOW the material, and if you READ the questions CAREFULLY, you should have no trouble with this sort of question. By the time you get to college you should be able to study and understand the material, and you should be able to read the questions carefully and critically. We don't think that 30 questions in 60 minutes is going to make you hard-pressed for time... It does take some logical thinking, but we also would humbly suggest that a college student should have no trouble with that either. Hopefully you don't really believe that your success in this class hinges on the TYPE of questions on the exams. There are a lot of other variables (e.g., time spent preparing, time spent studying, time spent working with your partner in the studio, etc.) which are a LOT more important.

STUDENT PERSPECTIVE: Multiple-choice, computer-graded exams are impersonal and not a good way to test my understanding of this complicated material.


Fact: They are indeed impersonal. And it is hard to write multiple-choice questions that adequately test students over this material; it is a LOT harder to write those questions than it is to answer those questions, believe me. But, as noted above, if you really know the material, the TYPE of question or the format of the test is quite irrelevant. Your success in this course depends a lot more on YOU than it depends upon the type of questions on the tests. In other words, if you are not doing well in this course, it might not always be somebody else's fault...

But this somewhat unsatisfactory testing method is dictated by the economic realities at KSU. Do the math.

So, for 750 students and an average exam with 30 questions and a minimum grading time of 30 seconds per question, it would take 187.5 man hours per exam just to do the grading (not counting all of the other things like recording grades, dealing with ambiguous questions, dealing with students negotiating about their answer, etc.) We do have GTAs assigned to this course. But we'd prefer that they spend that amount of time actually teaching (an interaction that requires a human being), rather than grading (an activity that can be easily done by machines). So we use the most efficient grading method for our exams, and currently that is the ScanTron card system (which still takes a lot of man-hours away from actual person-to-person instruction in the classroom).

Fact: If you really want to have a more personal approach to grading exams in this course, you should probably ask your legislators to increase the GTA budget for KSU by about five-fold. Less than half of the teaching assistants in Biology are supported by the state of Kansas (the rest are supported by research grants to individual faculty members). If we had five times the number of state-funded GTAs, we could offer lots more lab classes, lots more field trips, lots less impersonal grading, and a higher quality education. But we don't have those positions, so we do the best we can with the limited resources available to us.

STUDENT PERSPECTIVE: Another permutation on this topic is "The exam has many questions that have multiple blanks, per question. A question that has two or three blanks per question is valued the same as a simple question about the color of film over a test tube. I believe (if I counted correctly) there were five questions on the exam that have three blanks per question; and, fourteen questions with two blanks per question. That is twenty six additional questions packed into the exam hidden within the thirty questions. So, say I know two out of the three answers regarding question 21 (version 2) but I miss the third. This means I miss all the points for this question because I in fact knew 66% of the answer. And, these three answers are in total valued at the same value of my test grade (3.33%) as a simple question.  I do not see why this exam was not broken down into 56 questions"

Fact: Knowing 66% of the answer isn't the same as knowing the answer. Knowing 66% of the controls in an airline cockpit is not the same as knowing how to fly, and I sure wouldn't want to get into a plane with a pilot who only knew 66% of the things expected of a pilot. Unfortunately 66% is not good enough for this class, and not good enough for living your life, so please get used to the idea that you are expected to know 100% of it in order to get credit.

Fact: As noted above, part of the perceived problem with our test questions is that it is difficult to write multiple choice questions that go beyond rote memorization of simple facts. But concepts and relationships are important in biology, and the test questions MUST test your understanding of concepts and relationships. Hence they have to have multiple "blanks"; that is just a reality imposed by the necessities of grading tests for a class this large. Furthermore, it is highly likely that your grade on a multiple- choice exam, where you can often get the right answer by guessing, will be HIGHER than on an exam (like our makeup exams) where you actually have to know something and be able to write a sentence or two on your own.

STUDENT QUESTION: Why don't you provide us with copies of old exams for us to use as study guides?

Reasons: There are lots of reasons why we don't provide old exams to current students in this course. Here are some of those reasons, in no particular order

STUDENT PERSPECTIVE: "I disagree with the attendance policy in this class. It isn't right for my learning style, and isn't right for a college course. For you to penalize me for missing more than 3 classes because you place a higher (de facto) value on the "hands on" approach over the "read the book" style is completely without merit. People who do not read the book do not have a similar knock on their grade (assuming they learn the same amount in the lab that I get from the book). I do well on the tests and for you to penalize me for conforming to my learning style is absurd.

Furthermore, with the attendance policy that you have, the statement "people who miss class do worse" is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Let the students control their own destiny with their grades. If missing class hurts a particular student's TEST SCORES, it is their fault and the will suffer the consequences, but leave them the choice. This isn't a community college, as you so often point out, so please don't baby-sit us with an attendance policy."

FACT: I won't argue with what you say about your learning style. And if we could customize the course so that it was perfect for every student, we would do that. But in the real world, with limited resources, we have to teach a course that maximizes opportunities for ALL of the students. Compromises like that always result in situations which are not optimal for ANY one student, but it is the only reasonable compromise from the instructional side of this equation, I fear. I can empathize with your frustration, however, because I am a read-only learner as well, and I skipped my share of classes in college (back in the late Cretaceous, of course). But there are good reasons for the attendance policy, even if, from your individual perspective, it doesn't suit you, or your style of learning, perfectly.

Here is a little background about the attendance policy, which I hope will allow you to at least understand our perspective, even if your perspective as an individual student is going to be different.

We cover a lot of material in this class, and we need to do that in order to give all of the students a solid background for their subsequent courses. And since this is an “active learning” class, where the learning is based on what you do in class (not on a lecture), being in class for a studio format course is a lot more important than being in class for a lecture (although you should attend those lecture classes too). Additionally, much of the learning you will do is based on your interactions with your peers, the other students at your table. So a lot of the learning needed for this class depends heavily on your presence in the studio classroom.

Furthermore, we have actual evidence that says your learning (at least based on what we can measure in test scores) suffers if you don’t attend classes. The figure below shows the average exam scores for students from 6 BIOL 198 sections in recent semesters, as a function of the number of absences they have accumulated. These are end-of-the-semester grades and absence totals for those sections. It is clear that there is a negative correlation between exam grades and absence totals. It is also clear that students who have three or more absences are at risk for getting a D or F in the class. You don’t need four hours of D or F on your transcript, and frankly, we would prefer not to hand out D and F grades as much as possible. So we have that attendance policy to encourage you to come to class, since coming to class will enhance your learning and your exam scores will reflect that.

Granted, there are some students who could get an A or B in the class even if they missed half the classes. Those students are not happy with the attendance policy, because it doesn’t suit their particular situation. But MOST students learn better if they come to class, and we have to write course policies to benefit the majority of our students rather than cater to a special few.

 Alternatively, we could do as you say, and let students twist in the wind of their own bad decision-making. Frankly, there is justice in that. But the attendance would immediately go down, the average grade would go down, the average amount of learning would go down, and we would either have to endure a lot of heat from students, parents and upper administrators, or we would have to dumb down the course. Neither of those options is attractive. Your mileage may vary, but we are the ones who have to deal with ALL of the consequences of that decision right now.

STUDENT PERSPECTIVE: I need to miss a class because of (fill in the blank), which is a (legitimate obligation, university-sponsored event, horrible contagious disease, other). I think I should be excused and not have that missing quiz count against my total of absences.

Fact:  The policy in this course is to allow all students up to three absences; the three lowest daily quiz grades will be dropped before calculation of the quiz percentage. Any number of absences beyond three will negatively impact a student's grade. As noted above, this attendance policy was implemented for good reasons, and will only be altered when a better policy is proposed or devised. But one of the details of the attendance policy is that all absences are created equal; there are no "excused absences".

The reason we have this policy is that it simplifies matters for everyone, and it is ultimately more fair to all the students in the class. There are 8-10 sections of this course, with 600-750 students enrolled each semester. If we allowed excuses for absences, the various faculty members in those multiple sections would be required to evaluate the excuses. Is a head cold equivalent to a broken ankle? Is a note from a doctor equivalent to a note from a volleyball coach? Is a note from a volleyball coach equivalent to a note from the band director? Is play practice equivalent to a flat tire on the way to school? Is a funeral for a family member equivalent to a funeral for a close friend? As you can see, this rapidly becomes a system of arbitrary value judgments, and it is inevitable that different instructors would evaluate different excuses differently. That leads, automatically, to unfairness. And acrimony.

So the current policy, where ALL absences are created equal, is actually more fair to ALL students, and it allows our instructors to focus on the real job of instruction, rather than agonize over the relative merits of various excuses for an absence. Hopefully you can understand this from our perspective, even though it may not be the best news from your perspective.

STUDENT PERSPECTIVE: I am really really close to getting a grade of (pick your favorite grade here), and I could really use some extra credit. But extra credit opportunites are not available in this class! Why not?

Faculty Perspective: Again, the reason we have that policy is to fair to everyone. In a multi-section course, one instructor in one section might say that some activity or paper or report or whatever would count for some extra points. Another instructor in another section might not agree with one of more of those counting, and might not agree about the number of points. Depending on what section you were in, you could get wildly different amounts of credit for wildly different activities. And, as we all know, if your friend or roommate gets credit for something that your instructor refuses to give you credit for, it is unfair. And you should complain. Loudly.

We don’t want to put instructors in a position where they have to set and enforce variable standards in that kind of environment. So the fairest thing to do is to allow no extra credit for all sections, which is the only way we can ensure that standards are set and enforced fairly and equally. We also need to make it very clear in the syllabus and in the class that no extra credit is possible in this class. This also allows more time for our instructors to do what they do best, which is to teach biology.

updated 4/2017 by D.A. Rintoul

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Kansas State University
April 4, 2017