Sunday, December 04, 2011

Lab Report

I was reading about Miss MSE's lab-teaching joys and it reminded me of when I was TAing

Bear in mind that Snooty U, as an institution, doesn't care about the science TAs and generally ignores them.  There is no training, there are no standards, and mileage varies widely.  (The grad school has some opportunities for individuals, but it's caveat magister.  Or possibly caveat discipulus.)

So I TA'd for a lab course that was, apparently, organized by monkeys.  We were given the labs, but no syllabus, no guidelines, and no outline of the accompanying lecture.  (Possibly because the lab bore it no resemblance.)  This is going to sound really mean, but I took the opportunity to rigorously enforce Good Science Writing.  I wrote my students a syllabus with the following criteria:

1) Your first lab report will be marked and returned.  I will grade the second version. 
2) After the first lab report, you will lose a point for each spelling or grammatical error.
3) You can write as much as you want (in Times 12 point with one-inch margins), but I will stop reading after five pages. 
4) Plagiarism will get you a failing grade.

After the first batch of lab reports, which were, with two exceptions, truly appalling, I got nice, concise, five-page, well-organized reports.  After the second batch, which lost a lot of points for grammatical errors, they were much better-written.  And after a couple weeks of me writing the most appalling errors up on the board(without attribution; however, in genetics, "compliment" and "complement" are very different)... they started proofreading, too.

Low grades are an amazing motivational tool.


  1. This inspired me to finish a post on a related topic. Sigh. I recently went through some of the pedagogical materials I read before starting my job, and was reminded that there's some correlation between being a good teacher and LIKING STUDENTS. Uh OH! I wonder if for Snooty U students, the issue was not NOT KNOWING, but being too lazy to bother, whereas with my own Medicore U students, punishing them thusly would just be cruel?

  2. Definitely, they were mostly lazy. The two young women who'd been working in bioscience labs turned in word-perfect reports the first time; I actually used one as a good example (I did ask her first). Based on how awful the first round was, I think they didn't know how to write a lab report, but I did have faith that they should know how to SPELL. And hey, spellcheck!


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