Are the “kids” learning?

Ok, I’m going to go off topic for a bit and talk about Higher Education. Wait, wasn’t I supposed to create a site for topics about biomedical research, higher education, and career crap?

Anywho, back to the topic at hand.

As most may know, I have been an adjunct assistant professor of biology for quite some time. In particular, I have been teaching a gen bio laboratory course during this pandemic. Like many educators, the pandemic has thrown us into a whirlwind of changing how we teach and ensuring that our students are getting the most of college experience during a pandemic.

I think that we and the system are failing.

Issues with the course:

For one, I understand that it’s merely impossible to virtually teach a laboratory course. While the course coordinators have complied a list of at-home experiments for the students to conduct, it’s just not the same as being in a laboratory environment. Since we have STEM and non-STEM majors enrolled in my course, I know that many of my students have very limited experiences with science and laboratory courses. Using a web app to view specimens through a microscope simply is not the same as doing it in real life. Learning how to use a spectrophotometer by watching a YouTube demonstration is not the same as “playing” around with or troubleshooting issues with the instrument. Ok, I know we cannot do much about the set up of the course . . . unless we send students the instruments that they might need for this course.

Are they learning anything?

This past weekend, I administered my second exam and the overall scores have been worse compared to previous semesters. Perhaps, I’m doing something wrong because the content is the same and (in my opinion) the exam difficulty is the same as in the previous semesters.

The exam scores were lower even though the students have access to their notes and online resources. This is really confusing to me because my exams are closed-book/notes when I teach face-to-face. Why were the students performing better on exams in person with no access to their notes, books, and online resources compared to my current students who are taking the course virtually? One reason, I do not think my students are studying for the exams. Some probably figure that oh this exam is open book so I do not need to study.

Seriously, it cannot get more simple than this.

I have to admit that I was disappointed with some of the submitted exams because many students did not bother answering the short answer (typically experimental setup and data analysis types of questions), for which I give partial credit. For example: How would a researcher set up an experiment to determine if sample(s) A, B, C, and/or D contain a reducing sugar? Please indicate which positive and negative controls the researcher should use. On my last exam, about 30% of the students did not bother answering or trying to attempt the question. On the other hand, I have noticed that some students copied and pasted answers from online sources, which did not even relate to the question.

Assessing comprehension:

For my college, we are not allowed to force students to turn on their cameras. To be completely honest, I 100% agree with this rule. Personally, I’m not a huge fan of inviting people into my home (in-person or virtually) unless I invite them so I can understand this rule. However, this rule is a bit problematic while teaching through Zoom. When teaching in person, I can see if folks are confused, paying attention, sleeping, etc., but I do have that luxury when students’ cameras are turned off. I try asking open-ended questions, administering polls, and/or assigning quick problem sets to determine the level of understanding. Usually, I get the same few students who participate and crickets for the rest of the students. Last year, I did breakout rooms, but they did not work because very few students discussed the topics at hand. Break-out rooms did work (kinda, sorta) during the first semester when we went into lockdown. I think they worked that semester because we started the semester in person so the students already had somewhat of a working relationship with each other and me.

I’m not 100% sure if I was supposed to do this, but I asked my students to respond to an anonymous survey in the middle of the semester just to see how I was doing as a professor. I even gave extra credit points as a means to “bribe” them into doing the survey. 😉 Here are the results from last semester.

The material is being taught at an appropriate pace
The quizzes are too difficult
The professor encourages in-class participation
The professor provides clear and concise explanations

The professor’s use of visual aids and Blackboard materials is helpful

The professor is available to meet outside of class hours

Looking at my results, it does not appear that I’m doing a horrible job; However, I must be missing the mark somewhere. Oh, below are the results from the official end-of-the-year survey that the college administers.

As you can see, my approval rate was significantly higher than the other gen bio sections and other courses offered by the department.

Other educators

Recently, I learned that one of the lecturers does not even lecture. The professor merely assigns readings and asks the class to submit worksheets after completing the readings. Ok, what someone does in their section should not be my concern. However, many of the students in my lab section are in that professor’s lecture section. This would not be an issue, but our laboratory course serves to reinforce what the students are supposed to learn in the lecture. It’s hard to supplement concepts in a laboratory course if they have not been learned in the lecture course. To be perfectly frank, I do not think that introductory courses should be based primarily on independent work. While I am a fan of independent/discussion-based courses, I think they should be an option when students are enrolled in higher-level courses (e.g. 3000+) NOT introductory courses (1000-2000s) in their majors. Perhaps, I’m just too old school or basing my opinions on how I learn.

After going through this rant, for me as an educator the cons of virtual learning far outweigh the pros. Not commuting to the college (a 45-65 min subway ride each way) on Saturdays and Sundays probably is the only pro that I’ve seen from TFH (that’s teaching from home).

One saving grace: it looks like this semester might be our last completely virtual semester. Hopefully, next semester I’ll be teaching in an actual lecture hall and/or laboratory.

Question(s) of the day?

If you could do or redo college again, would you want to do it virtually or in person? This question is purely referencing the learning aspects of college, not those relating to social life.

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  1. My undergrad was taught entirely in person which I loved. I was concerned when starting my graduate degree – which is completely online – because I didn’t know how well I would be committed to virtual learning. Turns out I loved it immensely, but by then I had great study habits.

    I digress. Your frustrations with other professors on their education styles which have direct consequences for your lab class are valid. I would be irritated!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Sometimes, I feel like we are throwing our students into the ocean without a lifeboat, paddle, or life jacket and asking them to swim back to shore.

      I think that once you have proper study habits down and are far enough in your education that virtual or independent learning is a wonderful option.


  2. This is really interesting. I would not have worked at all if I’d not been in seminars with a gimlet-eyed tutor asking me actual questions (I’ve changed since then; I had to work really hard to get to university then I let go!). It sounds really stressful for you not being able to see your students and get them engaged with their lab work.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. In-person 1000%. I’ve seen what happened with my teenage daughter when she was in virtual school last year vs. in-person this year. She’s always been an A and B student but really struggled when it was virtual. Her chemistry class was virtually and it was awful. Like you said, you just can’t teach a lab online. I’m the same as her, too. I would always prefer to learn in-person than virtually. I took a couple of classes online for work which had been in person before and I felt like I didn’t learn as much online. I even took a First Aid/CPR refresher online because it wasn’t offered in person and I definitely feel like that wasn’t the same.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I could not imagine being in a virtual environment as a high school or even as a college student. Maybe it would not be so bad for a literature or history course bc I seem to do “ok” in my virtual book club. Then again, I should ask the organizer for my “grade”.


  4. I could never have done virtual learning for high school or college. Just doing it for my personal trainer certification was tough… I did the package where I at least got a physical textbook so I could sit and read/take notes without staring at a screen. Then I only had to do the activities and quizzes online which weren’t as bad. Courses like science and math I need to see problems/formulas written out and and worked through and be able to ask questions and I imagine virtual learning makes that even harder.

    That’s a bummer a different professor teaches the lecture… I remember taking general bio over a mini mester in college and the same professor taught both the lecture and the lab.

    Oh and are textbooks even a thing anymore? My friend’s stepdaughter is in high school and asked for help with math homework. My friend asked her to see her textbook to see an example problem. The girl said there wasn’t one, friend asked if it was online (since the kids all use chromebooks) and she said no… apparently she just gets worksheets to complete on the Chromebook and that’s it?!?

    I don’t think the education system in this country was the greatest to begin with compared to some other countries and I feel this virtual learning is just flushing it down the tube completely.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I agree with everything.

      During my college years, sometimes it was hard to have the same professor for the lecture and lab components of a course.

      I feel like textbooks (unfortunately) are becoming a thing of the past because of their cost. I remember spending close to $1K+ on textbooks during my college years (early 2000s). Actually, I lie. I spent that much until I found – most of their books were half the amount of what my college bookstore was charging.

      The think the pandemic caught us off guard so there really were not any guideline put into place to teach virtually. Like so many things, this pandemic has shown us how broken our education system is. Hopefully, this will open the eyes of the TPTB and they’ll iniate some beneficial changes. That said, I am not holding my breath.


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