Archive for the ‘Academia’ Category


An open letter to my students (revised)

November 9, 2016

Dear students:

As I write this, it appears that the United States has elected Donald Trump as its next president. Many of you undoubtedly have strong feelings about this outcome. But are those feelings relevant to our study of biology? Yes, they are. Therefore let me make the following two points.

First, this election did an amazingly good job of segregating us into rival camps of people who cannot even begin to imagine how the other side feels. It is easy to dismiss people for supporting a candidate who seems completely abhorrent. Yet all of us — Trump-haters and Clinton-haters alike — must continue to work together in lecture and in lab. It won’t be easy, but we must do our very best.

Second, I want to acknowledge that the rhetoric of this campaign may have felt threatening to some of you, especially those who have experienced discrimination or harassment in the past. You may be worried about your future under a president whose attitude toward traditionally marginalized groups has seemed at best insensitive and at worst downright hostile.

I fervently hope that any such worries will not derail your studies here at UW-Bothell. Please be assured that you are welcome here -– all of you. We, the faculty and staff who teach you and support you, want you to succeed -– all of you. Your lives matter to us. Your futures matter to us.

One of the great paradoxes of education is that people learn the most in circumstances when they are uprooted, made to feel uncomfortable, challenged with seemingly impossible tasks. Thus, we cannot protect you from all discomfort. A university is not simply a gigantic “safe space” for self-affirmation. But it IS a space where you have mentors, friends, and allies to help you get focused, get tough, and get things done. So: please, please, please continue to ask for help when you need it. We want to help, and we WILL help -– no matter who’s in the White House.

I’ll see you in class.

–Dr. Crowther

[Update: Danny Caballero, a physics professor at Michigan State University, has written a good letter in a somewhat similar spirit.]


Greg’s crackpot theories, #3: why introverts love teaching

October 14, 2016

Yesterday at an interview I found myself trying to articulate why I find teaching so fulfilling.  Here is an expansion of what I said there.

  1. I am an introvert who is not especially comfortable at parties and dislikes small talk (i.e., conversations where the main goal is simply to be friendly rather than to discuss anything in particular).
  2. Nevertheless, to be happy, I need to connect with people beyond my family. In fact, I crave such interactions.
  3. Therefore, teaching is fulfilling in part because it is a form of social interaction with rules that are helpful to introverts.  There is no awkward casting about for something to talk about for a couple of minutes; an agenda of substantive topics provides fodder for months of ongoing, “meaty” discussions.  Likewise, there is less of a need to figure out who wants to interact with whom; the circle is pre-defined to include everyone in the course.  Finally, as the designated expert in the room, I have the privilege of offering my perspective without needing to fight for attention.  And as the moderator of the conversation, I can help other introverts find their voice as well.

[Update, Oct. 21: distinguished bio-blogger and fellow introvert Stephen Heard offers related thoughts.]


More mandatory fun

September 25, 2014

As a follow-up to the summer’s odd teaching slides, here are some new examples fresh from this fall’s Anatomy & Physiology course (BIOL 241).

Dr. Alfred Yankovic, Adjunct Professor of Medicine

Red Rover: the nano version


Best Guns N’ Roses reference I’ve ever seen on a college’s home page

August 14, 2014

From Bates Technical College in Tacoma, Washington….



More juxtapositions

July 18, 2014

I have a soft spot for oddly juxtaposed teaching materials, e.g., a handout covering both lab-grown meat and the structure of the song “Hound Dog.”

Here are some strange bedfellows that appeared in animal physiology this spring and summer.


Above: two ways to convey the idea that most sodium ions (chemical symbol Na+) is outside cells rather than inside.

Above: Clostridium botulinum toxin, an inhibitor of the salt glands of marine birds … and the facial muscles of wealthy humans.

Above: In retrospect, this illustration of the importance of blood pressure regulation may have been too oblique.


Mumbling towards clarity

May 13, 2014

Here’s a lesson that faculty like me need to re-learn every so often: our assignments aren’t nearly as clear to our students as they are to us.

My biology writing course (ENGL 299C at UW) currently requires the paper described below. It’s a modification of a previous assignment, so I’ve had a chance to polish it. Feel free to admire its elegance for a moment.

If I had passed out this assignment in class, then immediately asked the students if they had questions, I probably would have gotten few to no inquiries, and would have congratulated myself on another masterpiece of lucidity.

Instead, I made the students submit questions about the assignment along with their first draft. Their responses, when solicited in THIS way, suggested danger lurking around every turn of phrase! Would they as reviewers know the identity of the authors? Should the review be written to the authors, or the editors of the journal? If several different methods are used, what constitutes an “experimental strategy”? What’s the difference between evidence and data? If supplementary figures are cited in the references section, should they be considered “previous literature”?

We spent about 35 minutes of class time discussing these excellent questions and many others.

If we want useful feedback from students, we need to ask for it in the right way, after they’ve had a chance to reflect on an issue and are motivated to talk about it.

Paper 2: journal-like peer review (final version)

This “paper” will be a peer review of the article you’ve been reading (Wahl et al. 2013 or Vlad et al. 2014). For this assignment, we will imagine that the Wahl et al. or Vlad et al. manuscript has just been submitted to a journal, and that you have been asked to review it for the journal.

Most review forms ask reviewers to summarize and assess a paper’s hypothesis, the claims and evidence, use of previous literature, and writing effectiveness. You will address all of these issues in the discrete sections listed below. You should keep these discrete in your submission, rather than combining them into a single narrative. As with a real review, your audience is the journal’s editors and the manuscript’s authors. However, note that journal editors are in charge of many articles on diverse topics, and that English is not the native language of many editors and authors; thus, your writing should be clear and straightforward even in this context. Your tone should be somewhat formal, although you can still write from the perspective of a reader (“I was confused by…”) rather than making pompous pronouncements (“This was confusing…”).


Please write 150 to 300 words (1 to 2 paragraphs) that address the following questions.

What is the central hypothesis of this study? (Be as specific as possible. Use one or more direct quotes from the paper to assess whether it is defined clearly.)How was this hypothesis tested in this study? (What was the experimental strategy? What predictions does the hypothesis make?)


Identify the 2 to 4 most important conclusions of this study, and write a paragraph (150 to 300 words) about each. How does each relate to the central hypothesis? What is the evidence on which each is based, and how strong is this evidence? Consider the appropriateness of the organisms chosen, the measurements made, and the data reported. What alternative or additional measurements might have strengthened the evidence further?


Among the sources cited by Wahl et al. or Vlad et al., identify 2 that are especially important. For each one, directly quote (with quotation marks) what Wahl et al. or Vlad et al. say about this source, then rephrase this in your own words to demonstrate your understanding. Briefly state how this source adds to Wahl et al. or Vlad et al.’s paper. Go to the source itself (you should have full-text access to it) and compare it to what Wahl et al. or Vlad et al. say about it. What specific parts of the source (figure/table number, etc.) correspond to Wahl et al. or Vlad et al.’s claims about it? Did Wahl et al. or Vlad et al. encapsulate the source accurately? Briefly explain.


Identify one paragraph in Wahl et al. or Vlad et al. — not the abstract or first or last paragraph — that you think would benefit from rewriting. Use at least 2 concepts from ENGL 299C (reader expectations, omission of needless words, transitions/pointing words, reverse-outlining) to explain the problems that you see. Rewrite the paragraph and briefly explain how your version addresses these problems.


Prof Don’t Preach

March 24, 2014

The song below is dedicated to the hordes of students in PhD programs at the University of Washington and elsewhere — especially those who remember the 1980s. It’s not my best or most polished parody … but the idea came to me in a dream, and when I woke up humming, “Ohhhh, I’m keeping my thesis,” I was tickled enough to spend an hour fleshing out the lyrics. So here you go!

Prof Don’t Preach
(a parody of “Papa Don’t Preach” written by Brian Elliot and recorded by Madonna; new lyrics by Greg Crowther)

Professor, I know you’re going to be upset
‘Cause I was always your protege,
But you should know by now (that)
I need to finish.
You’ve been my adviser for seven years;
I need your help, professor — let’s be clear:
If we can’t work this out,
I’ll convene my committee….

Prof don’t preach!
I’m in trouble deep.
Prof don’t preach!
I’ve been losing sleep.
But I made up my mind:
Oh, I’m keeping my thesis!
Oh, I’m gonna keep my thesis!

The firm says that it’s going to hire me
As soon as I receive my PhD.
Maybe I’ll be all right; it’s a sacrifice.
But my friends keep telling me to give it up,
Saying I’m too young, I ought to live it up.
What I need right now is to schedule my prelims….


Professor Gray, if you could be in my place,
With three full square feet of office space,
You’d give me your blessing right now,
‘Cause I’m not in love
With this life any more….


Doctoral candidate Madonna L. Ciccone. Photo from


Civil discourse

December 30, 2013

A recent, typically excellent post at Dynamic Ecology addressed the question of “How do you critique the published literature without looking like a jerk?”

While I like Brian and Jeremy’s suggestions, they don’t capture the extent to which perceptions of jerkiness depend on very specific choices in wording, rhetorical structure, etc. I want to emphasize here that small changes can make a big difference in how you are perceived.

Brian and Jeremy did provide the following language/writing tips (paraphrased by me):

1. Don’t make ad hominem attacks.

2. When possible, identify possible solutions to the problems you’ve identified.

3. Don’t heap too much scorn upon one individual paper or scientist if the problem is common to multiple sources.

4. Focus on facts rather than opinions.

To these, I add the following additional pointers for avoiding the label of “jerk.” (Some were taken from A guide for new referees in theoretical computer science by Ian Parberry, which I consider relevant because standards for pre- and post-publication review should be similar.)

5. Define the viewpoint from which you conducted your evaluation. What do you know about and care about? What do you NOT know about or care about? Confess possible biases.

6. Acknowledge the positive aspects of what was done.

7. Be as specific as possible in your criticisms. Statements like “the data in Figure 5 were misinterpreted” are both more justifiable and less catty than “this study adds nothing to the field.” If you are questioning one particular paper, consider your target to be the paper rather than the scientist(s) who wrote it. “What’s wrong with this paper?” is usually a reasonable question to ask, but “what’s wrong with these scientists?” often registers on the jerk-o-meter. Also be specific in providing references. Claiming support from unspecified sources is sloppy and rude, but even incomplete citations such as “Johnson 2012” may be more ambiguous than helpful.

8. Give the most space to the most important problems. Don’t dwell on minor flaws. Harping on spelling errors makes you seem like a jerk.

9. Avoid unnecessarily dramatic language. In a manuscript review, I once identified four problems as “critical flaws.” A colleague noted that my concerns would be just as clear if I used a softer phrase such as “main flaws.”

In compiling this advice, I became curious as to how well I follow it, so I rated my past critiques of Lore of Running by Timothy Noakes, Born to Run (part 1; part 2) by Christopher McDougall, “Metabolic Factors Limiting Performance in Marathon Runners” by Benjamin Rapoport, Wheat Belly by William Davis, and “Misconceptions Are So Yesterday!” by April Maskiewicz and Jennifer Lineback. Results are below.

self-critique of my critiques

By my own reckoning, I’m not a complete hypocrite, but there certainly is room for improvement.


Instructors should share self-assessments with students. Do they?

November 17, 2013

In the world of higher education, and perhaps the world of education in general, instructors are expected to engage in “reflective teaching.” That is, we think about and document what is working in our courses, what isn’t working, and what might be done differently next time. (Here are two end-of-course examples: my self-assessment for Music+STEM and my self-assessment for BIOL 485.) This is appropriate and useful. Furthermore, I believe that we should share these self-assessments with our students, for the following reasons.

1. Having to share self-assessments ensures that we actually do self-assessments. Even if most of us are already doing them, as we should be, a little extra motivation never hurts.

2. Sharing self-assessments models metacognition for students. “Metacognition” refers to the fact that we want students to think about the study habits that do and do not work for them. Our explanations of how we optimize our teaching practices may offer parallels to how they can optimize their learning practices.

3. Sharing self-assessments counters the “instructor as policeman” stereotype. Course syllabi are often packed with rules that students must follow … or their grades will suffer! Those admonitions may be necessary, but they imply that the instructor is the students’ adversary — someone whose main job is to uphold the rules of absenteeism, lateness, plagiarism, etc. and punish any violators. In contrast, an instructor who shares self-assessments indicates that he/she actually cares about what the students learn and strives to support them as effectively as possible.

4. Sharing self-assessments provides accountability. Students and their parents/guardians periodically wonder about whether their education is worth what they’re paying for it. Instructor self-assessments underscore that the students aren’t just getting the same old course that their predecessors had — they’re getting a new and improved version of it!

5. Sharing self-assessments encourages students to take course evaluations seriously. Students are more likely give thoughtful feedback if they see evidence that the feedback is received and acted upon.

Some possible objections to instructors’ sharing of self-assessments with students, along with my rebuttals, are as follows.

1. “Sharing self-assessments requires extra work/time.” Not really. We should already be doing self-assessments and documenting them in some way, so posting a PDF file to a course website or spending 3 minutes of class time on them should not be a big deal.

2. “My course has some significant problems, and I don’t want to draw additional attention to those.” Students recognize and gossip about such problems anyway. Why not take the opportunity to explain how the problems can be addressed?

3. “I’ve gotten important feedback from students that I shouldn’t share publicly.” One should certainly respect students’ privacy and anonymity, but feedback can almost always be discussed at a general level without quoting or referring to individuals.

4. “Most students wouldn’t be interested in my self-assessments.” This may be true, but the ones who are interested are probably the ones who care most about the course. Don’t you want to serve those students well? As an analogy, think about the “cool links” on course websites that lead to sites where students can explore material in greater depth. Most students won’t care about those either, yet those who are most invested in the course may find them quite valuable.

5. “I do share this sort of information with my students! For example, when we went over the last exam, I pointed out the topics where confusion was most prevalent.” That’s good, but did you take the additional step of discussing how the confusion might be reduced in the future? Being explicit in this way makes it clear that you take personal responsibility for students’ difficulties.

Convinced of the strength of my argument, I’m now wondering whether other instructors actually do share self-assessments with students on a regular basis. As an attempt to find out, I performed a quick survey of websites of undergraduate biology courses offered at three institutions: Bellevue College, the University of Washington, and Western Washington University. Many course websites (or subsections thereof) were password-protected and thus off-limits to me, but I still was able to access 46 of them: 12 at Bellevue (Biology 100, 130, 160, 162, 199, 211, 213, 241, 242, 260, 275, and 312), 19 at UW (Biology 118, 119, 180, 200, 300, 317, 356, 401, 411, 417, 427, 433, 442, 452, 453, 454, 476, 480, and 488), and 15 at WWU (Biology 101, 140, 204, 322, 325, 326, 345, 346, 348, 349, 416, 432, 445, 462, and 497). For each of these courses, I found a home page with links of multiple files: syllabi, schedules, handouts, rubrics, slides, etc. (If all I saw was an online syllabus, I didn’t count that as a “course website.”)

As far as I could see, none of these 46 course websites included substantive comments on past or current successes and failures of the instructors’ teaching or changes that may be made in the present or future. The closest thing to self-assessment that I found was this note in an answer key for a Biology 401 exam: “I added 6 points to everyone’s score … to account for several locations in the exam where most of you were not clear on how specific you had to be (Q7), how to describe your experiment (Q8) or what type of control you should provide (Q8).” Here was a semi-admission of a problem, at least.

My survey results come with important caveats (beyond the obvious issue of sample size), though. First, I looked at these websites quickly and didn’t check every single file, so I certainly could have missed relevant tidbits. What I can say is that I didn’t notice any sections on assessment of course effectiveness (as opposed to assessment of individual students’ performance) in the syllabi, first-lecture-of-the-term slides, and quiz/exam keys that I did check. Second, instructor self-assessments may be more likely to be included on the password-protected pages that I couldn’t get to. Third, instructors might discuss self-assessments in class even if there isn’t online evidence of this. For example, I’ve heard that Scott Freeman tells his students how research on his courses drives changes in these courses, though the Fall 2013 UW Biology 180 website does not appear to address this. Likewise, an instructor who collects mid-quarter student feedback on notecards and then discusses the feedback during a later class session might not document this on the course website.

Given these caveats, I’m not sure what (if anything) can be concluded about college biology instructors’ frequency of sharing self-assessments with their students.

What do others think?


Misconceptions about misconceptions?

October 28, 2013

In checking my Google Scholar profile the other day, I was happy to find that a recent paper in CBE Life Sciences Education cited my 2012 review article on the use of music in science education. I was less happy to discover that my paper was cited as an example of bad pedagogy.

April Cordero Maskiewicz and Jennifer Evarts Lineback summarize their own paper as follows:

The goal of this paper is to inform the growing BER [Biology Education Research] community about the discussion within the learning sciences community surrounding misconceptions and to describe how the learning sciences community’s thinking about students’ conceptions has evolved over the past decade. We close by arguing that one’s views on how people learn will necessarily inform pedagogy. If we view students’ incorrect ideas as resources for refinement, rather than obstacles requiring replacement, then this model of student thinking may lead to more effective pedagogical strategies in the classroom.

I find this position interesting and sensible. I agree, of course, that how we teach should be based on research on how people learn. More specifically, I’m sympathetic to the viewpoint that (in the authors’ words) “Learning … is not the replacement of one concept or idea with another”; rather, “students learn by transforming and refining their prior knowledge into more sophisticated forms.”

The article provides two useful examples of how instructors can build upon students’ naive views of evolution, rather than simply rejecting them as wrong. So far so good.

Then comes the section “The use of the term misconceptions in current BER [Biology Education Research] Literature,” in which Maskiewicz & Lineback assert that many instructors have been slow to adopt this transform-and-refine-prior-knowledge view of learning. It’s a significant point because if everyone already holds this view and teaches according to it, there’s not much to discuss. Accordingly, Maskiewicz & Lineback searched the past three years of CBE Life Sciences Education for problematic as well as enlightened uses of the word “misconception.” Here’s what they found:

In some of these articles, the authors seemed to equate misconception with the more traditionally accepted definition of a deeply held conception that is contrary to scientific dogma (Baumler et al., 2012; Cox-Paulson et al., 2012; Crowther, 2012). Others, in contrast, seemed to use the term to reflect an ad hoc mistake or error in student understanding, one that exists prior to or emerges through instruction but, in either case, is not robust, nor does it interfere with learning (Jenkinson and McGill, 2011; Klisch et al., 2012). The authors who considered misconceptions to be “deeply rooted” spoke of instructional strategies designed to specifically elicit, confront, and replace students’ incorrect conceptions (i.e., Crowther, 2012). In contrast, authors for whom misconceptions were more tentatively held and/or emergent, suggested that students’ incorrect ideas can be amended through tailored instruction grounded in those ideas (i.e., Klisch et al., 2012). This latter perspective on learning is consistent with approaches supported by recent research in the learning sciences community (Carpenter et al., 1989; Ruiz-Primo and Furtak, 2007; Pierson, 2008).

Not only am I being dissed, but Baumler et al. (2012) and Cox-Paulson et al. (2012) are too! So, do we deserve it? Let’s look at the use of the term “misconception” in each of the articles cited.

From Baumler et al. (2012):

Questions of conservation lend themselves well to a “teachable moment” regarding the choice of nucleotide versus protein BLAST. In one group of 28 students, students were asked to provide a written response justifying their choice of using BLASTP or BLASTN. Twelve of the 14 pairs of students provided answers that were complete and exhibited clear comprehension of relevant concepts, including third position wobble. One pair gave an answer that was adequate, although not thorough, while the last pair’s response invoked introns, an informative answer, in that it revealed a misconception grounded in a basic understanding of the Central Dogma, concerning the absence of splicing in bacteria.

From Cox-Paulson et al. (2012):

Student misconceptions about DNA replication and PCR have been well documented by others (Phillips et al., 2008; Robertson and Phillips, 2008), and this exercise provided an opportunity to increase understanding of these topics.

From Crowther (2012):

My own opinion is that songs can be particularly useful for countering two types of student problems: conceptual misunderstandings and failures to grasp hierarchical layers of information. Prewritten songs may explain concepts in new ways that clash with students’ mental models and force revision of those models, or may organize information for improved clarity (e.g., general principles in the chorus, key details in the verses, other details omitted). Songwriting assignments could have similar benefits by forcing students to do the work of concisely restating concepts in their own words and organizing the information in a musical format. As an example of using music to counter misconceptions, I once team-taught a “biology for engineers” course in which my coinstructor complained that many students failed to internalize the difference between genotype and phenotype. I wrote and performed a song to drive home this distinction, the chorus being, “Genotype, ooh… It’s the genes you possess—nothing more, nothing less! Versus phenotype, ooh… Your appearance and health and reproductive success!”

Note that these were the sole instances of the word “misconception” in each article. Do they illustrate what Maskiewicz & Lineback say they illustrate? I don’t think so.

The first claim made by Maskiewicz & Lineback is that some papers (e.g., the three cited) consider misconceptions to be “deeply held” or “deeply rooted.” None of the papers cited uses either phrase, nor do I see any discussion of misconceptions’ deepness in the passages above.

The second claim is, “The authors who considered misconceptions to be ‘deeply rooted’ spoke of instructional strategies designed to specifically elicit, confront, and replace students’ incorrect conceptions (i.e., Crowther, 2012).” The “deeply rooted” business aside, is Crowther indeed advocating wholesale swapping of students’ incorrect conceptions for correct ones? No. “Prewritten songs may explain concepts in new ways that clash with students’ mental models and force revision of those models.” That is, the models should be revised — NOT discarded! As far as I can tell, this is consistent with Maskiewicz & Lineback’s recommendations up to this point. (Later in the article, they propose abandoning the term “misconceptions” altogether.)

I suspect that Maskiewicz & Lineback found the above wording (with its talk of clashing, forcing, and failures) overly adversarial, and I concede that the tone is not ideal. But the passage is basically agreeing with them!

Not being an expert on addressing misconceptions (or whatever they should be called), I was glad to get Maskiewicz & Lineback’s perspective. But if their best example of the problem is a paragraph that neglects to mention the positive aspects of one particular misconception, perhaps the problem is not as big as they are making it out to be.