Sunday, December 17, 2006

Examining Students

We are still in the midst of final exams at my university. I refuse to do multiple choice exams, so I have to come up with just the right number of unambiguously worded questions that relate to my course's most central concepts and that ideally will challenge the students to integrate among concepts, but not in a way that is impossible within the time limits of the exam or that is unreasonable given the format and content of the course. I can do this, but it takes a lot of time. In fact, it takes me so much time that I will do almost anything to avoid having to make up more than one test. Fortunately, my class this semester is not so huge, and the students will likely all show up for the scheduled exam. And then I have to grade the exams and scientifically/magically convert number grades into letter grades, but I am not ready to think about that yet.

My husband is teaching a large course for non-majors this semester, so he is dealing with the usual end-of-semester chaos. One interesting thing about his course this semester is that 99% of the students who come to his review sessions and 100% of the students who come to his office hours are female students. His class reflects the gender balance of the university, which is similar to the nationwide trend of being 55 female : 45 male or thereabouts. I had a similar experience with the big non-major class I taught last year, and we have been musing about whether talking to the professor has become a female-associated type of activity.

In the course for science majors that I taught this semester, males outnumber female students by a lot. So far, the only students who have contacted me for help about the final exam are the male students, so any trend is confined to the non-majors classes and not upper level science classes.


Anonymous said...

I taught a mid-level majors computer science class this summer (40 students) and people who came to see me during office hours was mostly females. But it wasn't a 99% split or anything dramatic like that. The class as a whole reflected the usual male skew in computer science.

Also just from eyeballing the grades, females seemed to get higher marks in general.

Anonymous said...

Maybe it's like high school at the beginning, and it's not "cool or masculine" to show that you need to put effort into getting good marks. If you study, make sure you do it while no one is watching. It probably goes away after a year or two.

Personally, I thought that everything was in the textbook and the prof wasn't going to tell me the answer anyways (there was more hope that the TA would actually). Whenever I talked to a prof, I'd ask them questions outside of class material that I was interested in when I read ahead in the book. Now that I think back to it, most professors probably dreaded talking to me just because of that. And probably made fun of me to their colleagues and grad students later on if my latter experience is any indication. Who wants to answer stuff like: "what is the true nature of an s orbital if the electron density is mostly at the nucleus and electron capture doesn't occur", when you're teaching an introductory class?

But I'd also feel bad for the prof who had to teach ~300 students and I didn't want to waste their time when I could figure something I didn't know out given enough time. Those introductory classes were hell. After I stopped going because it was pointless, I felt even worse for asking the prof for help. If they put in the effort to teach and I didn't show up (even though the room was unbearably hot and overcrowded and I kept falling asleep), why should I expect them to help me?

So, I was wondering, do any current students ask you about material that's outside of the syllabus but is related to the discipline? And if so, what is the gender ratio?

Female Science Professor said...

I love it when students ask me questions about material outside the course -- something they've been thinking about from some other experience they've had or something they've read or just another question that occurs to them because they are curious. I know that many of my colleagues are thrilled to get this kind of question as well. It's also great that you are aware that it's best to try to figure things out yourself about course material before asking the professor -- but if you are curious about something or really do have a question, you should definitely ask.

mapletree7 said...

Why no multiple choice tests?

Anonymous said...

Maybe it's an extension of the stereotype that men who are lost won't stop and ask for directions!

Anonymous said...

I don't recall my non-majors undergrad classes well (aside from chemistry), but in my major classes and my chem classes, almost everyone (like, all but 2-3 students) went to the review sessions--including the male students who goofed off and liked to pretend they didn't work hard (although most of them did). Granted, I went to two small liberal arts colleges, where interacting with the professor and taking advantage of office hours were strongly encouraged. I suspect that gender trends there would be hard to pick out without surveying across a variety of departments and sizes of institutions. I read Rebekah Nathan's My Freshman Year and found it very interesting, but largely inapplicable to my experience at small lib arts colleges, so I think institutional culture can vary quite wildly in terms of academic behavior.