Considering Latin names and the -ologies through the lens of mindful teaching

As part of the undergraduate wildlife conservation curriculum, students are expected to take several different “-ologies” courses. These courses are focused on a specific group of organisms, covering key concepts in their biology and natural history as well as basic identification. Most of these classes are split into a lecture focused on biology and natural history and a lab section focused on species identification and field trips. Some of these courses, like dendrology and wildlife field biology, are required for all students, while others, like mammalogy, ornithology, herpetology, and ichtyology, are part of a list that they must choose a specified number of courses from. Regardless of which classes they choose, the biggest complaint from students in these courses is almost always identical: Why the heck are they required to learn Latin names along with identification?

The more we talked about it, the more I started thinking that maybe we should drop the Latin names component of ID-based courses, or at least rethink the way we assess and grades students. Are we testing their ability to identify species, genera, families, etc., or just their ability to memorize Latin names and regurgitate them? On one hand, Latin names provide a useful common identifier for things that may have many different common names. They can help us look at the relatedness of different organisms. For example, species within the same genus are more related than species in different genera. And they can highlight unique traits that aid in identification or describe that organism’s natural history. For example, the Latin name for island fox  is Urocyon littoralis, which roughly translates to “coastal tailed dog”. Kinda neat, huh?

Fast forward to earlier today, while I was going through this week’s reading on mindful learning. Through the lens of mindful teaching, the Latin name debate seems to boil down to one question: does requiring students to learn Latin names encourage mindful or mindless learning? I think that the answer really depends on how you approach it, and on how you include Latin names in course assessments. If you include Latin name sin your curricula, why are you including them? Is it clear to the students? Are you framing the usefulness of Latin names, or presenting them as a mandatory memorization requirement without context? Are you encouraging students to think as they learn and ask questions about what these names mean? Are Latin name quizzes and tests a major component of course grades, or just one of many things being assessed?

So how does all this relate to finding my teaching voice? In considering the pros and cons of Latin name memorization  in  ‘ologies classes, I thought about the things that I want to encourage in my students. I want them to be engaged and excited. I want them to think critically and apply what they’re learning. I want to instill a sense of curiosity and help them learn the skills to find the answers they seek. To do this, I need to think critically about whether or not the assignments, assessments, and grading system in my class contribute to these end goals. As a teacher, I aim to let my students know both what we’re doing and why we’re doing it, and be a part of the feedback loop to help keep things moving in that direction. As I continue to find my teaching voice, I hope to remember to listen to the voices of my students along the way.

Critical Pedagogy: Thoughts on alternative grading approaches

During this week’s class on critical pedagogy, we discussed several different grading approaches, and briefly touched on the pros and cons of them. Some of the approaches are ones that I was unfamiliar with, so I did some follow-up research to learn more.  For my blog post, I’d like to briefly summarize what I learned about these different approaches, share links to resources I found helpful, and offer my thoughts on how we as teachers can use them to improve our grading systems.

Traditional grading: Weighted percentages/points

In a traditional grading approach, the teacher will specify a series of assignments, tests, and quizzes, and assign weights to each of them in the form of percentages (i.e. tests are 50% of your final grade, quizzes are 25%, final grades are based on a weighted average) or points (i.e. each test is worth 200 points, each quiz is worth  25 points out of the total 1000 points possible for the semester). This is the approach that many students are most familiar with. It’s clear from the beginning what is expected, and students can keep track of how they’re doing using simple math.

Additive grading 

In an additive grading approach, students start the semester with a clean slate (in other words, zero points), and work to accumulate points towards their desired grade by completing tasks from a list of options. Different assignments may be worth more points based on the difficulty and effort involved. Teachers may specify criteria for selection (ex. at least one assignment from each category) or leave it entirely up to the students. One benefit of this approach is that it is based on rewards, so fear of failure is less of a barrier to student success. It’s also more flexible than a traditional approach, where all students are required to complete the same assignments. However, this approach may backfire by shifting student motivation away from learning and towards simply earning enough points to be done or reach their target grade.  This article offers a great summary of an additive grading approach and describes its similarity to video game rewards systems:

Subtractive grading

This approach is also described in the article linked above, and is pretty much the opposite of additive grading. Rather than a clean slate, students start with full points, then keep or lose those points based on their performance on assignments and tests. While the motivation to keep their A may be a positive motivation for some students, fear of losing their A can hinder performance for others. It seems to me like it could also lead to greater student dissatisfaction, since students who get lower grades may feel like something was taken from them unfairly. As a student, I have had teachers try this, and it stressed me out a lot. I felt like I had to aim for perfection to avoid ruining my grade.

Contract grading

In a contact grading approach, students are presented with the criteria to earn a certain grade, and assured that if they meet these criteria, they will get that grade. I found this topic a bit confusing, but found some great resources that helped clarify things. This article describes both contract grading and portfolio grading (our next topic), and grading in general from the viewpoint of a PhD student preparing to teach their first class:

I also found this great example of a grading contract created by Jennifer Hurley:

Contract grading seems like a great way to foster a sense of student agency and mutual respect while clearly laying out expectations, but I have some concerns. First, it seems like it could be really stressful not knowing until the very end of the class what grade you’re on track for. This could be mitigated by regular status updates for students throughout the semester. Second, depending on the criteria to earn higher letter grades, this approach could make it super difficult for students to earn an A. I don’t think that As should be the end goal of education, but for students who want/need to keep a high GPA, this could create a lot of stress.

For example, as an undergraduate, I was on an academic scholarship that required at least a 3.5 cumulative GPA. This effectively translated to at least an A- or B+ in all courses, or a combination of one or two lower grades and the rest As to balance out to at least a 3.5. After a semester of difficult classes, my GPA dropped below the 3.5. requirement, and I was told that if I didn’t bring it back up the next semester, I would lose the scholarship. For me, that meant losing my housing (the scholarship was tied to living in an Honors dorm) and financial ability to stay at the university. I managed to get back above a 3.5 and keep the scholarship, but that next semester was incredibly stressful, knowing that anything less than an A was too low. If I was in a class that used contract grading, I would have been even more stressed out, especially if the contract reserved As for exceptional performance only.

Portfolio grading

Portfolio grading encourages continuing student improvement by basing grades on final products, rather than intermediate products, although feedback is provided throughout the course. It may also allow students to select what they feel are their best works from a course to submit for grading. This approach seems more common in the humanities. This web page includes more information and links to articles discussing pros and cons:

Curve/Rank-based grading

In this approach, students are all compared based on their performance and assigned grades relative to each other, for example the top 10% of students get an A, the middle 50% get a C, the bottom 10% get an F, etc. I think that this is by far the worst approach. By pitting students against each other for the best grades, it fosters a hypercompetitive learning environment rather than a collaborative one. It can also be incredibly discouraging to students to know that no matter how hard they work and how well they do, their grade is heavily dependent on factors outside of their control.


While there are many different ways to grade, I think that no matter what approach is used, a good grading system is one that:

  1. Clearly specifies expectations
  2. Allows for flexibility and individual variation
  3. Encourages student learning and growth (rather than grade-grubbing)

I personally think that additive grading and contact grading are great ideas, and would like to include these in future courses. What  are your all’s thoughts?


My experiences with online and distance learning: The good, the bad, and the ugly

This seems like an especially well-timed blog topic, given that I missed last week’s class while traveling for a conference and am catching up via the class recording. (Note for Anurag: I also prefer to leave my shoelaces tied in between wearings. There are dozens of us!) I’ve had a few experiences with online and distance learning, and would like to share some of the highlights and lowlights in this blog post, and some general thoughts on online teaching.

The Good: This class and Preparing the Future Professoriate’s online recordings

Due to conferences and work-related travel, I have had to miss a few of the evening grad classes and catch up afterwards by watching the class recordings. Although this approach lacks the in-person interactions and ability to chime in on discussions that being in the class offers, I feel like I still got all of the material and information.  It helps that the class is already designed in a way that allows for easy online sharing and participation. Having an actual voice recording and video feed allows for a personalized feel, as opposed to just an online Powerpoint. It also helps that the instructors are dynamic and engaging, posing questions and working to get people engaged.

The Bad: Finishing up a traditional statistics class from afar

As part of my dissertation research, I have spent 5-7 months of the past 3 years living in Long Island, New York, conducting fieldwork and collecting data. This has been great for my research, but has made it a little tricky to fit in all of the classes that I need and want to take for my degree. During my first field season, I got permission from the instructor of an introductory statistics course to take the class in-person for the first half of the semester before I left, and finish it from afar while I was in New York. This entailed going through the posted slides and recorded lectures, and completing and emailing the homework assignments and tests within a specified time period to match up with the class schedule. I did great during the in-class portion, but as soon as I started field work, my performance in the class tanked. I was very busy with field work, and the class soon became an afterthought on my priority list. The professor would record lectures, but I found myself just flipping through the slides and only half-absorbing the materials. While the professor was always responsive to emails, I rarely took the initiative to ask for clarification when needed. I would cram-study before tests, then forget the information almost as quickly as I had learned it. Tests and homework were squeezed in between long nights out trapping foxes and long days conducting sign surveys and getting data downloads from our GPS collars. I passed the class, but ended up having to re-learn most of the material later on when working on analyses. Since then, I have learned not to attempt taking classes from afar during field season.

The Ugly: The Virginia Tech Math Emporium

During my freshman year of my undergraduate studies at Virginia Tech, I had the joy of taking introductory calculus at the Math Emporium. This news articles summarizes the pros and cons of the “Empo” much better than I ever could:

Long story short, the Empo is a massive alternative learning system for introductory math classes. When I took the class, material was split into online modules with a short lesson and practice problems that could be completed online, and quizzes and tests were proctored in an off-campus computer testing center. It was a disaster. The online modules were tricky to navigate and often glitched, and the practice problems were way easier than what was on the quizzes and tests. The physical environment was miserable, with hundreds of computers set up in a large converted retail space. Interaction with an actual human being was limited to a handful of TAs that would roam the Empo and could be summoned to your work station using a red Solo cup placed on top of the computer. Despite having completed a high school class series that covered calculus, differential equations, multivariable algebra, and other more advanced topics, I struggled to earn a “B” at the end of the semester. Overall, it was a terrible learning experience, and the following semester, I was relieved that the other calculus class I needed for my degree was offered in-person.

Based on these experiences, if I ever end up teaching a class with a significant online or distance learning portion, I aim to:

  1. Record and share videos of the actual lectures (not just post the slides)
  2. Incorporate regular opportunities for student-teacher interaction, via chat room “office hours.” If there are students taking the class from afar, they would be required to check in each week via chat or email, to discourage repeating my poor approach to distance learning.
  3. Facilitate student interaction using collaborative technology, such as Google Docs, online discussion boards, etc.