Thursday, December 21, 2006

Unfair: Biology Lab Practicum

I am infuriated.

It’s because of my Biology Lab Practicum (Final.)

I did relatively poorly on this final. I am a good student. This grade is completely different from my usual performance in this class.

There are two reasons for this:

1. The final was not composed, created, or in any way made up by the Professor who teaches my Bio Lab. It was instead created by the Head Biology Professor. I feel like I have been penalized because I was not in the Head Biology Professor’s class. I did receive a review sheet from the Head Biology Professor. I thought it prudent to divide my time between studying from this review sheet and from my lab notes. My lab notes, however, as taught by my Professor, are much more conceptual in nature (focusing on ideas and vocab terms.) The final focused on a methodological approach to Bio Lab: it was detail-oriented, focusing on chemical equations, an understanding of all the steps in the experiment, and which gases were emitted at what time.

2. After speaking to several students, I am almost entirely convinced that the final given on Monday and the final given on Tuesday were the same exact test, with the same exact questions. The questions were not, to the best of my knowledge, rewritten, reworded, or refocused to test the same concepts differently. This means that there is a good chance that there are students who took the test on Tuesday with prior knowledge of its content. This is monstrously unfair. It is very different from the Midterm, where the questions were changed and reworded.

I personally know that there is a good chance that students took the test with prior knowledge of its content because I, a Monday test-taker, was asked by another student what questions were on the test. I did not answer her.

I think the system would be much improved if:

1. Everyone took the final on the same day
2. Finals were composed by the professors teaching the material, or we should be informed that we should ONLY study the Head Biology Professor’s review sheet to the exclusion of our own lab notes

Because of my grade on this Lab Practicum, my entire Biology Lab grade suffers. I now have an average that is a full letter-grade lower than my usual performance in this class.

I feel that this does not accurately reflect the time, effort and energy I have put into Bio Lab. I think it is unfair that I am expected to take a test that was not composed by my professor, and especially unfair for my grades to be compared to those of others who had every opportunity (if I am correct, and I think I am) to cheat.

I am as of yet unaware as to how this grade appears on my transcripts. Even if it is averaged into my Bio Lecture grade, it is the principle behind this that bothers me. I cannot understand why our Midterm was made into such an important affair- the window to the classroom was blocked with paper, the questions were reworded and changed- and the actual Final is treated like a walk in the park, with no precautions, safeguards, or check-systems in place.

This is truly unfair.

Addendum: I neglected to study as much as I could have for this test, based on certain assumptions I made about the material. I did not study to the extent I could have, and do not deny that a certain part of the blame rests on me. Some of this is my own fault.


Anonymous said...

One of the things I hated the most about YU was that so many classes had "mesorah." I.e. tests from previous years which were coincidentally identical to this year's. The teacher never said this or handed them out to make things fair, it was simply the students who knew older kids who had taken the class that got 100% on every test. This made up probably half of the class.

Anonymous said...

Yes, life isnt fair. It will only get worse. Either study harder, or work getting old tests. Dont hate the player, hate the game.

The avg YU GPA is something like 3.9, so anything other than an A really puts you behind the curve. Wont look good on your graduate school apps.

Anonymous said...

Umm...the average YU GPA is not anywhere near 3.9 - I'm not sure where you're getting your info from, anonymous. And you don't need straight A's to get into grad school. That's just silly.

There is a grain of truth in that you 'need', for certain courses, to have old tests at hand (case in point: Organic Chemistry - tomorrow morning's the final and I just got copies of old finals a few hours ago = not good). It's just a part of the YU experience; some like it, some hate it.

Anyway, don't worry about your grades too much, Chana. Slowly but surely you'll adjust yourself to the system and develop better "YU-test-taking" skills.

-Yair :)

Anonymous said...

So this is why you were upset before! I don't blame you. Hopefully, your professor will be lenient. I failed calculus miserably, but my professor gave me a C+ because, well, everyone else failed too. That doesn't make this test fair by any means, but hopefully they'll be nice about it.

"Mesorah" has always been a big part of YU. Last year, for my Bible course, everyone got copies of the test beforehand. Everyone except me, that is. I was the only one who legitimately took the test, and I walked away with an A-. Very respectable, but behind everyone else. It annoyed me that I put more effort into it than anyone else, and I walked away with the poorest grade.

However, this sitch is not exactly the same as Mesorah. This isn't giving an old test; this is giving the same test two days in a row, giving the Tuesday takers a significant unfair advantage. That is absolutely ridiculous.

Anonymous #2: Aside from the fact that your assertions are totally off-base, it would really help if you were a little supportive here.

Well, Chana, I now understand why you were "pissed off" before, and I sympathize. I guess you could try to complain, but I don't know how far it will get you. But even if they can't change your grade, maybe they can be more fair in the future.

I wish I could help, but the best I can do is offer encouragement. This is only one grade,and you have a long way to go in college, so you can still improve your GPA drastically. And at least this course isn't for your major. I know this doesn't change the fact that the principle of the whole thing is corrupt, but hopefully, it makes the sitch seem a little less bleak.

Have a good shabbos!

-Taz (yeah, Blogger's still being evil)

Anonymous said...

Welcome to college- and not just Stern and YU; "Fair" is not the way things are done anyway. This same situation occurs in the hallowed halls of the Ivies and other elite institutions as well. Professors make the rules Period!! A good lesson for you Chana is that, at least in this situation, you are not in charge and you will have no choice but to roll with the punches. One day in life your boss will be out of his mind, and you will have to live with it too or leave your job. This is good experience for where it really counts. Also, perhaps accusing your peers of cheating when you really don't know this to be the case is not a decent thing to do. Now if I am correct- you and your supporters will jump all over me and others who dare to think that perhaps you aren't exactly on the mark- but I think a little constructive criticism is good for everyone.
Good Luck on all your finals and in learning the important lessons in life.

Anonymous said...

Why should anonymous #2 be supportive if anonymous #2 doesn't feel support is in order? Chana is a big girl- she too could be wrong.

Anonymous said...

stern grad,
students at Stern DO cheat! Chana is not the first person to state this proven fact . I'm sure she will not be the last. It's a shame that cheating is being allowed/tolerated in this Torah institution for years now.So...accept it for what it is. Unless,you cheated yourself and the truth is a bit too much to handle.

Anonymous said...

No I never cheated nor was I aware of anyone personally who did. I am actually a far more aged alum than you might realize- there is so much about your generation that disturbs me in addition to any cheating which you say is a "proven fact" (whatever that means)

Anonymous said...

stern grad,
did it EVER occur to you that your generation has a LOT to do with the way our generation is turning out? Psych 101-pure and simple.

Chana said...

An entire conversation based on anonymousi!


Dear Everybody,

A) You are quite correct that I could be wrong. Let me clarify. Even if NOBODY cheated, and everyone took the test, the fact that there was a clear OPPORTUNITY to cheat is the problem.

B) I admit that I am biased because I did not do well. HOWEVER, even had I done incredibly well on this test, I believe I would still be disturbed about the way this was handled.

C) This "life's not fair" philosophy doesn't fly well with me. I understand that things do not always go my way. However, when things COULD be remedied, I see no reason not to try to have them remedied.

D) I am really not such a terrible person as to "jump all over me and others who dare to think that perhaps you aren't exactly on the mark."

For everyone's information here:

1. One girl I spoke to actually SAW people cheating on the Biology Lecture Test

2. A different girl I spoke to saw people cheating on the Bio Lab final last year (actually speaking to each other and looking over each others' shoulders in the middle of the final!)

I am most interested in the comment of one anonymous who says tests are run this way in the Ivies. Can any of you confirm? Is it true that the same test is given on two separate days as a final? Do people really trust that much to the Honor Code?

Anonymous said...

"I am actually a far more aged alum than you might realize- there is so much about your generation that disturbs me in addition to any cheating which you say is a "proven fact" (whatever that means)"

Whoever wrote this ridiculously naive. There has always been lots of cheating and there is no indication in any study conducted that its more prevalent now than before. In fact, in the mid 90s, YU openly undertook (or claimed to) an effort to stem the amount of cheating and mesorah which had been going on for decades.

Also, although the avg YU gpa is not 3.9, it is very very high, and if you were to ask admission officers at top graduate schools, they discount yu gpas more than they do for any other school due to the disparity between the high gpas and student quality. The dean of admissions of columbia law school once even openly said this at an columbia undergrad presentation.

SJ said...

Chana, sorry about the annoying bio final..I was actually in the same situation as you when I took it last year--the test was created by the head bio professor, and I wasn't in her class. It's definitely frustrating. As is the ability and reality of cheating. But opportunities to cheat will always exist, even if they are not so blatant as giving the same test two days in a row (for example, the case you mentioned of people speaking and peeking during the lab final last year). Ultimately the only REAL way to fix the problem is to teach students that cheating is not ok. The fact that so many students don't see a problem with it is pretty sad, in my opinion.

I totally feel your pain, but stay strong! Though cheaters may prosper in the short run, ultimately you'll come out on top!

SJ said...

P.S. You have more anonymi than I've ever seen! I wonder what caused the sudden influx? :)

Lab Rab said...

I would have kept silent, but somebody over at my blog asked me to donate my perspective, particularly as a YC lab instructor. I hope you all find this useful.

1. It is the responsibility of the department to communicate exactly what the format of the test will be and what types of questions will be asked. It seems that the review sheet may have accomplished this.

2. If your supposition about giving the same final on two different days is correct, that would be extremely disappointing.

However, I disagree with you about your notion that every teacher should give his/her final. While that does have certain advantages, i.e. the final can better test the material taught, it also has some disadvantages - viz., you no longer have uniformity within the course. Ostensibly Biology I is being taught as one course with multiple sections, as opposed to five or six different courses.

I may add that writing a good and fair test is not as easy as it appears, and especially if your lab instructor is relatively inexperienced, the senior lab teacher may not trust him/her with writing his/her own questions.

In my case, I don't write the tests, which gives me greater flexibility in my review sessions; but having done this a number of years, I have a good sense of what types of questions will be asked, and I use that information to help my students review.

Now, as for the global issue involved -

One of my hardest jobs as a teacher is counseling a student who studied crazily, got thrown by a difficult question, and performed poorly on the exam. Especially since many of my students are obsessive-compulsive premeds who are convinced that a B+ in lab will ruin their chances to get into medical school.

The short answer is that one grade in isolation doesn't matter; and especially if they improve in second semester, I will write them an outstanding recommendation anyway.

The long answer, which I probably won't complete here, has to do with life lessons. College is a transition period between high school, when you are rewarded solely for high grades, and the working world, when you are rewarded for producing results effectively and efficiently. At a certain point, the calculus relating "effort" with "reward" stops functioning. The first time a person learns that lesson is always very difficult, and they respond much like you did. "Yes,'life isn't fair,' - but that's just a philosophical statement; my life should always be fair!" Well, why should you be better than the world?

The Bible speaks about the infinitely efficient worker - in the messianic era. לא יגעו לריק ולא ילדו לבהלה כי זרע ברוכי ה' המה וצאציהם אתם. [They shall not labour in vain, nor bring forth for terror; for they are the seed blessed of the LORD, and their offspring with them (Isaiah 65:23).] Until then, we just have to try the best we can - and above all, be compassionate and ethical people.

If you're at Stern for shabbos, please come by and say hello; I'd be happy to discuss this with you further. Shabbat Shalom.

See also Prof. Justice's post about students schnorring for grades. I related to it a lot.

Chana said...

Lab Rab,

Your comment is very beautiful and thoughtful. There is only one part of your statement that I wish to challenge.

The long answer, which I probably won't complete here, has to do with life lessons. College is a transition period between high school, when you are rewarded solely for high grades, and the working world, when you are rewarded for producing results effectively and efficiently. At a certain point, the calculus relating "effort" with "reward" stops functioning. The first time a person learns that lesson is always very difficult, and they respond much like you did. "Yes,'life isn't fair,' - but that's just a philosophical statement; my life should always be fair!" Well, why should you be better than the world?

There is a difference between circumstances or events beyond my control being unfair, and something that can be remedied and fixed being unfair. If there were circumstances beyond my control at work, if the world itself hated are quite correct, why should I be better than the world?

However, the issue here is that I am almost positive the same exact test was given both days. (I say "almost positive" because I have not yet asked the Head Biology teacher, but I mean to do so.) This is not "life" being unfair to me. This is a system, a flawed system, a system that can and should be remedied and fixed, at work. In this case, life lessons are not at work. Resignation to the way a system works is at work.

Resignation, cynicism, hard-life-lessons...they may have their place, but they do not have it now; they do not have it here in this situation, they do not have it with me. I am an idealist. I believe in changing things. This is something that should be changed. This is not something to which I should resign myself.

That is why I am complaining. Because this is something that is completely within our power to fix, not a circumstance, an event beyond my control, a thunderstorm that ruins an outdoor wedding, someone else crashing into my car. This is not life. This is a system.

At this point, I am not worried about changing my grade, or getting a higher grade. It will not happen. I would, however, like our final at the end of the year to be different from one day to the next. That's what I'm going for here.

Chana said...

Also, Lab Rab,

I want to thank you very much for explaining why the Head Bio Professor would write the test as opposed to my own professor. Your idea is very logical and coherent. My own Professor is new to the school; it does make sense that perhaps they do not trust her to write her own questions. I am satisfied with this answer. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

lab rab,
you were careful NOT to address the issue of cheating both at YU and Stern? How come? Afraid of ramifications?

Chana said...

Although, I do have one more point to make, Lab Rab-

Why is it that for the Midterm my Bio Professor was allowed some input/ either to write the Midterm, or to at least help compose the Midterm, and she had absolutely nothing to do with the Final? If your idea is to hold true, I don't understand why the same policy that held by the Midterm can't hold by the Final. Why can't my teacher at least help compose some of the questions on the test?

e-kvetcher said...


I don't know if you implied this in your post, but I would certainly go over the test with your professor at the first opportunity you have. If you can show that you do know the material, you may be able to get more partial credit for the answers, and if you do so question by question you may be able to significantly affect your grade. At any rate you don't lose anything by trying. Many times the grader will look for the opportunity to give you the benefit of the doubt.

Unfortunately for me, I didn't find out that people did this routinely at my school until my senior year :(

Good Shabbos.

Lab Rab said...


I see your point about changing a situation that should be corrected - and I agree with it. Frankly, our system (YC chem department) works because the single test is administered all at once. To administer one test on two days is irresponsible.

However, I think when people say "life is unfair" they mean specifically situations brought about by human decisions out of our control, as opposed to acts of God.

In this case, your bio department head undoubtedly thinks that this system is the best for providing a balanced evaluation of all students in the class. You disagree; you think you can show how this system is counterproductive; and you MAY be able to sway her to your point of view. Ultimately, however, you have no direct control to change what you think is obviously wrong. And that is what is "unfair" about life.

The world needs a few more idealistic college students; don't let this sobering twenty-something hold you down. Good luck with making a difference. I guess my point is - I wouldn't be terribly surprised if you didn't, and if that happened I would hope that you wouldn't let it get you down.

Re: midterm vs. final - you'll have to ask your teachers.

Anon 12:44 - (the one concerned with my not talking about cheating at YU/Stern) -

I choose not to address the issue of cheating because I fail to comprehend exactly what there is to discuss. If you wish for me to confirm that a small amount of cheating does take place at YU, my experience is that it does. I find out about approximately one or two instances a year in my department.

A vigilant teacher minimizes the opportunity for cheating by looking for obviously copied responses, varying test composition, and proctoring with hawkish eyes.

Not every Jewish person has fully internalized Jewish values. In particular in this instance, the temptations are great and the rationalizations are rampant. Nevertheless, a few wayward individuals should not serve as an indictment of the entire system.

dbs said...

'Mesorah' is the reason that I did not even consider YU. (I went to a high school in which cheating was considered to be a legitimate method of reducing bitul torah for studying.)

Other universities do not recycle the same tests year after year. They do not give the same tests on multiple days. And they CERTAINLY don't do this in hyper-competative pre-med requirement courses. Sure, there is an honor system, but that goes with a deeply rooted commitment on the part of the faculty to test and grade fairly.

Cheating at YU has a certain institutionalized feel to it. If cheating requires some complex subterfuge, then those who do it can't escape the knowlege that they are bilking their teachers and fellow students. But when all it requires is to look at openly circulating material, it feels far more legitimate.

(In my own experiance at Penn, I never heard of a departmental test being recycled year to year. There was a unified test for first & second year calc. It is true, though, that professors had pretty much cart blanch in terms of how to grade.)