A laptop ban at last

More than three years ago, I wrote a blog post about the debate over allowing cell phones and laptops in class. In the blog post, I summarized a study by Mueller and Oppenheimer showing that students who took notes on a laptop did not do as well on conceptual test questions as those who had taken notes by hand.

I thought about this issue a lot more over this past summer, and about a week before this semester started I decided to take the plunge: No more laptops and cell phones in my nonmajors biology class. Here are some of the factors that influenced me:

This is the “Family Feud” style slide I used to explain why students shouldn’t use laptops in class (besides distractions to themselves).

  • I rediscovered the Mueller and Oppenheimer study, which suggests that the very slowness of taking notes by hand actually enhances learning.
  • I observed a few instructors teaching over the spring and summer semesters. From my vantage point at the back of the classroom, I saw that much of what happens on laptops has nothing to do with the class.
  • I recognized that goofing off on a laptop (or cell phone, to a lesser extent) is not just a private act; it distracts and influences neighboring students.
  • I talked to a student who took my class in a previous semester. She said that she prefers note-taking by hand because she can sketch diagrams as she goes.
  • When students have their noses buried in their own personal electronic devices, they are not interacting with their classmates. I want my students to get used to talking to each other.

I used the slide accompanying this blog post to introduce these arguments to my students. Before I revealed my Family Feud “survey says” answers, I asked how they would answer the question posed in yellow. They came up with two more arguments that I hadn’t thought of: (1) It’s disrespectful to the teacher; I think a tiny tear of gratitude came to my eye when I heard that answer. (2) Laptops can be used to cheat, e.g., students can look up answers to clicker questions instead of thinking about the material themselves. I’ll add one or both of those to the Family Feud slide next time I teach.

The only thing that makes me uncomfortable about imposing a laptop ban is that students are supposed to be learning to take responsibility for their actions. My class is mostly populated by freshmen and sophomores, and I’d like them to feel as if they are in a college class, not in “13th grade.” But I decided to experiment with a ban because I think the pros listed above outweigh this con.

And how have the students responded? Surprisingly well! I was prepared to give individual students permission to use their laptops under certain conditions, but none has asked. It’s only week 2, but things look good so far.

What about you? Have you ever banned laptop use in your class? How has it worked? If you are against banning laptops in the classroom, I’d be curious to hear your thoughts as well.

Next time, I’ll show you how I used the Mueller and Oppenheimer study in a classroom activity to win my students over. Stay tuned!

Posted in Instructional technology, Teaching | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments

Looking for a scantron replacement? Consider ZipGrade.

As I’m preparing for the upcoming semester, I have been trying to find ways to save money in my class. One obvious cost-cutting target is scantron forms. Yes, I suppose I could make my students buy them, but I have never felt right about that—it just adds insult to injury to make students buy something they must have for an exam.

Well, I just learned about one scantron replacement. It’s called ZipGrade. It lets you use your cell phone’s or tablet’s camera to scan in paper test forms (available free at the site). I just downloaded it and gave it a whirl, using my ancient iPad2 and two sample exams with two different keys. I have to say, I am impressed!

The basic idea is that you hover your phone’s or tablet’s camera over each student’s paper until marks on the four corners of the page align with a template that appears on screen. That’s the only part that took me a while to master, and it’s the only downside I can see for this app: Scanning student pages one by one is nowhere near as easy as feeding a stack of scantron forms into a machine. Keep this in mind if your class is large. Anyway, once the scan is complete, you can see the score on the screen right away, and if you want, the app can show you a picture of which questions the student got right and wrong. It saves the data immediately, and you can go on to scan the next one.

ZipGrade offers an amazing array of features. You can find a complete list here, but the most important ones for my purposes are these:

  • You can download free PDF test forms that you can print out and copy yourself.
  • Test forms have 20, 50, or 100 answer bubbles, but you don’t have to use them all. The only one with a 9-digit slot for the student ID is the 100-answer sheet, so that’s the one I’ll use for all of my exams.
  • You can create up to 5 unique answer keys per test.
  • The app does the item analysis for you.
  • You can assign a different point value to each question, including fractions of a point.
  • You can export the complete data set, including individual student responses, as a .CSV file.

Here’s a tutorial that shows you how it works. I’m not sure how long ago the video was created, but be warned that the pricing information is not exactly consistent with what’s on the ZipGrade website. That is, according to the website, you can download ZipGrade free and scan up to 100 papers per calendar month. If you need to scan more, you can pay $6.99 for a year. Other than that, the free and paid versions are identical. What a deal!

I know that ZipGrade has competitors, but I haven’t looked into them. And I suppose I should also say that I have no affiliation with ZipGrade and no stake in their success. I just found the app and thought I’d share it. If you have experience with ZipGrade or other scantron replacement tools, please share your thoughts by writing a comment.

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Trail cam images and data for your lab

Earlier this month, I went to my favorite conference of the year: the one for the Association for Biology Laboratory Education. If you don’t know about it, check it out. Each conference follows a workshop format, so you don’t sit and listen to people drone on about what they do. You actually get to try the lab activities yourself and see if they’ll work for your own class.

Welcome to WildCam Gorongosa!

At one of the workshops I attended at this year’s conference, I learned about a great resource from HHMI BioInteractive. (Loyal readers of this site may recall that I previously wrote about their wonderful rock pocket mouse evolution video.) The focus of the workshop was the resources posted at HHMI BioInteractive: Gorongosa National Park. This park, in Mozambique, was all but destroyed in that country’s civil war, but it is now rebuilding.

Before we came to the workshop, we watched a video called The Guide; it was a good introduction to the park’s history and to a young Mozambican who wants to be a guide there. After a brief discussion in the workshop, we launched WildCam Gorongosa, “an online citizen science platform.” We launched the WildCam and clicked “Get Started!” After a brief set of instructions, we started counting and identifying the animals photographed in camera traps. The site shows you one photo at a time, and you click the names of any animals you see, how many you see, and what they are doing in the photos. Of course, few people are experts on Africa’s wildlife, so you might not know your duiker from your eland. Not to worry, they provide a guide to the common animals, and they encourage you to take your best shot even if you don’t know what you are looking at. Lots of people look at each photo, and experts weigh in on those for which citizen scientists cannot agree. So there’s no real risk of messing up someone’s Important Science.

Sample trail cam image. See the baboons?

As we clicked through the pictures, we were encouraged to start thinking about questions we might ask about wildlife at Gorongosa. Each photo includes a button that shows information about the image: the camera’s identifier, the date the image was snapped, the season, the time (day/night), the distance to the nearest human settlement, the distance from water, and the biome where the camera is located. (Other resources on the site include an interactive map in which you can see the camera locations, the park’s major landscape features, the nearby villages, and so on.) It doesn’t take long before you start wondering: Do baboons always hang around in groups? How can duikers and oribi coexist when they seem to have such similar niches?

After refining our questions and framing hypotheses that we could actually test using the trail cam data, we were ready to get some answers. The data from more than 40,000 images are compiled in a database that you can access by going to the WildCam Lab. Click “Explorer.” You’ll get a brief introduction to the site, then you can download all the data or filter the dataset by species, habitat, season, time of day, date, distance to humans, and/or distance to water. Once you figure out what you want, you can download the data as an Excel spreadsheet and analyze them to your heart’s content.

The interface for filtering the data before download.

This blog post is highlighting just a part of the actual activity, which is spelled out in detail at the HHMI site — complete with educator materials, a student worksheet, and even a tutorial that shows students how to use pivot tables in Excel. And that activity only scratches the surface of what’s available at HHMI’s Gorongosa site. I haven’t looked at most of these materials myself yet, but just browsing through the resources, I see an animation of Gorongosa’s water cycle, a food web activity, a biodiversity activity, a human impacts activity, a biomes activity, an ecological pyramid activity, a lion-tracking activity, and so on. It’s really amazing.

I am planning to use the WildCam material in my nonmajors biology lab this fall, as a replacement for our rather silly animal behavior lab (sorry, isopods!). The activities at the Gorongosa site should get students to think about real data and engage in meaningful science, which are goals of all my nonmajors biology labs. They should also allow students to analyze animals (and plants) in their native habitats, doing what they do when no one is looking. For my students, it will be a window into the forests and savannas of southeast Africa from the comfort of our second-floor biology lab.

Wish me luck! In the meantime, big thanks are due to ABLE for sponsoring the workshop and to HHMI for making such high-quality materials.

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Radiometric Dating: Need to Practice?

Last year, we posted a video explaining how to do three types of radiometric dating problems; we wrote about it in this blog post.

Activity screen 1I am pleased to report that the prodigious Matt Taylor has now released an activity with four sample problems that your students can work. The first two problems are pretty typical. In question #1, students are given the half-life and % of the isotope remaining and must figure out the age of the fossil. In question #2, students are given the age and half-life, and they must determine what % of the isotope remains.

The last two questions are different. In #3, students are given the graph of isotope decay and told the half-life of the isotope; they must click on the part of the graph corresponding to a particular time. And in #4, students are given information about the % remaining of three isotopes and must arrange them in order based on their half-lives.

The video is designed to walk students through this content, step by step, and the activity can help students assess their understanding. We encourage you to share both resources with your students — or better yet, go through them together, pay attention when your students struggle, and use your insights to refine your teaching. (Yes, I’m looking right at you, teacher with a growth mindset!)

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One Good Clicker Tip

The end of the semester is not a great time to introduce a tip for using clickers; I am sure this post would have been more useful in January! But I can’t control when ideas for blog posts drop into my email, and I received a good one recently.

It’s an article called Clicking Your Way to Flipping Your Class, and it appears in Tomorrow’s Professor—an excellent resource for professors in any discipline. The Tomorrow’s Professor article that recently landed in my inbox is a reprint of an article that originally appeared in the February 2017 issue of the newsletter of the Federation of European Biochemical Societies (http://www.febs.org).

iclicker2 on notebook

iclicker2, ready for action. (Photo by M. Hoefnagels)

I’m not a big classroom flipper myself, but I am madly in love with clickers. What I like about the “Clicking Your Way…” article is its subject, clicker-based peer instruction. While I don’t follow the author’s methods to the letter, the article reminded me of one of the ways I use clickers in my class. (You can read about another way that I like to use clickers here: “Pointless” clicker questions.)

I use the iClicker2 and enjoy watching the LCD display at my computer as the students’ answers roll in. The display shows how many students have selected each answer choice in real time. If the question is easy or if the students have mastered the material, then I don’t spend a lot of time giving feedback on the question. Here’s an example like that:

What is the charge on an electron? (a) Neutral; (b) Negative; (c) Positive; (d) Depends on the element; (e) Depends on the isotope.

This question comes in the context of a series of questions designed to help students through the difficult concept of polar covalent bonds. Nearly everyone (98%) in my last class got this question right. I could replace it with a more challenging one, or I could keep it in and consider that point to be a cheap-and-easy, morale-boosting reward for participation. So far, I have opted for the latter.

For a more difficult question, the display often reveals that the class is split between two (or rarely, three) choices. Those are my favorite questions because they offer an opportunity for students to learn by teaching each other. Here’s an example of such a question; it requires students to enter a number into their clickers (yet another reason to love iClicker2), but it could easily be converted to a multiple choice question:

How many of the following processes actually exist AND produce two cells that are virtually identical to the original cell?

  • Meiosis in bacteria
  • Meiosis in animals
  • Meiosis in plants
  • Mitosis in bacteria
  • Mitosis in animals
  • Mitosis in plants
  • Binary fission in bacteria
  • Binary fission in animals
  • Binary fission in plants

The most popular answers are 3, 4, and 6 (the correct answer is 3). As the students enter their answers, I keep an eye on the display. I usually do one of two things if less than ~70% of the students are getting the question right. I may stop the polling (without showing the histogram) and say something like this: “Explain to your neighbor why you selected the answer you did.” After a minute or two of discussion, I poll the same question. Alternatively, I may choose the slightly quicker strategy of keeping the polling going while I tell the students something like “OK, most of you are choosing 3, 4, or 6. One of those is the correct answer. Pick one and explain your choice to your neighbor.” Either way, without any other intervention from me, student performance on the question typically improves.

I am always on the lookout for clicker questions that actually make students think. The blog post I linked in the previous sentence has one example of a good site for clicker resources, and here are some clicker questions from the University of Colorado Science Education Initiative.

Happy clicking!




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Cultivating a Growth Mindset in Your Students

This semester, I’ve been reading a lot about teaching with a growth mindset. I wrote about this topic at the end of last semester in a blog post called At the End, I’m Looking to the Start. Since that time, I have been studying Carol Dweck’s Mindset and Saundra Yancy McGuire’s Teach Students How to Learn. Dweck’s book provides a broad overview of the fixed and growth mindsets as they pertain to all aspects of life. Once you are sensitized to the difference, you can start working on making the monologue inside your head less judgmental and more constructive. McGuire’s book focuses on teaching college students, and it is exemplary because of its practical suggestions and positive, success-oriented stance.

2017-04-07 01.59.19 pm

Two useful books: (left) Carol S. Dweck’s Mindset and (right) Saundra Yancy McGuire’s Teach Students How to Learn.

This week I presented some of what I’ve learned in an hour-long McGraw-Hill webinar, “I’m Just Not Good at Science”: Cultivating a Growth Mindset in Nonmajors Biology. The webinar was about recognizing the fixed vs. growth mindset, not only in what your students say about themselves, but also in what you say about your students. I also shared many suggestions from McGuire’s book, notably about how to help students recognize problems in their own studying and how to help them develop more effective behaviors. In the last part of the webinar, I showed some of what I do in my own class.

The clip below is a 6.5-minute excerpt from the second part of the webinar. It’s about what you can do after you return an exam, when many of your students first become painfully aware that something is wrong. You’ll notice references to the chat window, which you unfortunately cannot see in the video clip. The end of the clip references the “study cycle,” something you can learn a lot more about in McGuire’s book; you may also be interested in this excellent short video introduction from Louisiana State University.

Incidentally, if you’ve read McGuire’s book you already know that she does not care for the phrase “study skills.” She prefers “metacognitive learning strategies,” which McGuire finds grabs student interest. I am not sure I agree, so I’ve gone with the simpler phrase.

If you’d like a link to the full webinar, please add a comment below and I will arrange to have it sent to you.





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Reblogging: GMOs vs. Artificial Selection

The Ricochet Science blog post below—written by a talented college senior—is an interesting introduction to the difference between GMOs and organisms that are the products of artificial selection. I want to share it with you because it’s informative and entertaining, but first I’ll clarify one point that isn’t completely clear from the original.

In genetic engineering, scientists use DNA technology to directly manipulate a genome. Genetic engineering produces genetically modified organisms (GMOs). A GMO may be a transgenic organism—one that has received DNA from another species—or may have had its own genes activated or deactivated to produce new phenotypes. For example, some cotton plants are GMOs that are transgenic because they have a gene encoding a bacterial toxin in their genome. The transgenic cotton plant is toxic to pests like moth caterpillars. If, instead, the cotton plant’s DNA were modified to boost the expression of an existing gene (perhaps one that promotes large cotton bolls), the cotton would still be a GMO, but it would not be transgenic.

With this clarification in mind, read on and enjoy the original blog post.

[Thank you to Matt Taylor for contributing to this introduction.]


Picture this, you’re making your lunch for class or work and you decide to pre-slice your apple because it’s easier to eat and heck, why not? Fast forward five hours, you’re already exhausted from the day and all you want to do is eat your apples with some peanut butter, but, SURPRISE! Your apple slices…

via Transgenic or GMO? What is the Difference? — Ricochet Science

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TED-Ed video: The Cancer Gene We All Have

My friend and colleague Michael Windelspecht recently produced a useful video about cancer. Complete with compelling animations, narration, and analogies, it’s a great launching point for in-class group work or for a homework assignment. The video’s explanations span from genetics and cell cycle control to cancer’s effects on the organism.

If you watch until the end at the link here (The Cancer Gene We All Have), you’ll see five multiple choice questions and three free-response questions to test your understanding. Below I’ve placed the video if you want to view it on YouTube, but you won’t get the see the assessment questions. Enjoy!

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Teaching cell chemistry with Legos

Behold, my trusty bag of Legos … well they’re not actually Legos because I couldn’t find a bag of plain old Legos. All of the Legos nowadays are sold in kits with wheels and roofs and other things I don’t want. So I bought a big bag of plastic bricks that LOOK like Legos. Here they are:bag-of-legos

I bought them because my students have such a hard time with the basics of cell chemistry for biology. The main idea I am trying to teach is that food consists of complex organic molecules (proteins, polysaccharides, nucleic acids, and fats) that are broken down into amino acids, monosaccharides, nucleotides, glycerol, and fatty acids via hydrolysis reactions in digestion. These small molecules enter the bloodstream and are distributed to cells, which use them to build their own large molecules or use them in respiration. It’s easy once you know how it works, but it’s pretty hard to learn it for the first time.

So I started using my Legos … err, plastic bricks … in Action Center, to help students use their hands to work with the ideas. Here is my strategy, in pictures.

1 — Food represents a mixture of organic molecules. Imagine that the assembly of blocks pictured below is a bite of a bacon, lettuce, and tomato sandwich. It contains proteins, polysaccharides, nucleic acids, and fats — the different shapes and colors of the bricks represent these different molecules.


2 — In the intestines, digestion (hydrolysis) breaks the food into smaller molecules.


3 — These small molecules enter the bloodstream, and cells take them up. Here are a bunch of monosaccharides taken up by a cell.


4 — The cell uses the monosaccharides in respiration (you’d have to smash a brick into bits to illustrate this idea). Or the cell may use them to build polysaccharides, like glycogen, by dehydration synthesis. Below is a “glycogen molecule.”


5 — Cells also absorb amino acids from the bloodstream. Here are a bunch of amino acids taken up by a cell. Notice that the monosaccharides in photo #4 all looked the same, because they were all glucose. The amino acids all look different, thanks to their different R groups.


6 — The cell assembles the amino acids into proteins, again by dehydration synthesis.


7 — Now if another animal eats this organism, what will happen to the proteins, polysaccharides, and other large organic molecule the cell has produced? Why, they’ll be dismantled again, in hydrolysis.

In my experience, building and taking apart these molecules has been really helpful to students in learning the connections between digestion, hydrolysis, dehydration synthesis, and respiration.

Try it yourself! And if you have other ideas for teaching cell chemistry that have worked for you, please share them here.



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At the End, I’m Looking to the Start

I turned in my course grades yesterday and thought I’d spend some time looking back at something that my TAs asked our students in lab to write about during week 1. After the TAs introduced themselves and talked about their portion of the class, we asked the students to combine my own day 1 lecture with the TA presentations to answer this question:

What are some of the obstacles that you feel might keep you from being successful in BIOL 1005?


Motivated students attend a study session outside of class.

Now that the final course grades are in, I thought it might be worth looking back at the answers to see if students correctly anticipated their own obstacles. Some students listed just one; others listed multiple obstacles. I have typed each one below, so some students are represented more than once in each list.


Students who earned an A initially perceived their obstacles as:

  • Not being able to comprehend the material because “science is not my strong suit.”
  • “I’ve never been good at science.”
  • “I do not particularly like science because I do not feel I’m good at it.”
  • “I am not the best test-taker even if I study really hard.”
  • Not understanding lab materials or information
  • Not being able to understand the material
  • Having limited time to study (from a first-year student enrolled in 18 hours)
  • Having limited background in biology
  • Not asking for help when needed
  • Course intensity
  • Feeling overwhelmed
  • Not studying enough
  • Finding the class uninteresting and not being motivated to work hard

Students who earned a B initially perceived their obstacles as:

  • “I’m not a lover of science.”
  • “I’m not a biology or science person.”
  • “I really don’t like biology so I can get easily bored.”
  • “I am not science brained.”
  • “Science has never been my best subject.”
  • “I have always struggled with science.”
  • “Science was never my best subject in high school. It was hard to stay interested in the material because it seemed pointless and I couldn’t connect it to things in my life at the time.”
  • “I’m awful at science. I’ve never been good at it. I’ve always struggled with it.”
  • Limited past experience with biology and science
  • Past experiences with science classes pose a mental obstacle
  • Language (this from an international student with limited English skills)
  • Not understanding how to do labs
  • Not understanding how the concepts fit together
  • Limited math skills
  • Not being comfortable with my lab group
  • Not having a diligent lab partner
  • Adjusting to college life
  • Nothing can keep me from being successful if I try as hard as I can
  • Not being very outgoing
  • Workload
  • Workload
  • Not being able to keep up with the pace
  • Lack of motivation to work on a class in which I am not interested in the topic
  • Not putting in the effort needed to succeed
  • Forgetting due dates
  • Not completing assignments on time
  • Remembering to check for course updates every day
  • Having commitments that force me to fall behind
  • Struggling to stay focused

Students who earned a C initially perceived their obstacles as:

  • “Me and biology do not really get along. I don’t get science.”
  • “I am not very good at biology.”
  • “Science and math skills and biology are not subjects that come easy to me.”
  • “I’m not great at science.”
  • “I have always had trouble understanding science.”
  • “I have never been passionate about biology.”
  • “Science is not my favorite subject, and it isn’t a subject I’m naturally good at.”
  • “I am not a science oriented person and understanding does not come easily to me.”
  • “I’m not very good with sciences.”
  • “Any science class is not my easiest course.”
  • Limited experience with biology
  • Difficulty of biology
  • Confusing terminology in biology
  • Discouragement and frustration
  • Time management
  • Keeping priorities straight
  • Lack of attendance
  • Lack of concentration
  • Forgetting to do assignments
  • Getting behind on homework
  • Keeping up with what is due and when
  • Finding the right time and place to study

Students who earned a D, W, or F initially perceived their obstacles as:

  • “I have to reread sentences with scientific terms several times before I can understand them.”
  • “I am terrible at science and have a hard time learning from a book.”
  • “I’ve never been great at math or science.”
  • “I have much more of an English/History interest than science and math so understanding certain concepts might be difficult.”
  • “I’m not the best science student.”
  • Lack of interest in the subject
  • I can’t usually connect with microscopic biology
  • I have forgotten most of the stuff I have learned about science and biology
  • Lack of prior knowledge about science
  • Language (from an international student)
  • I don’t like just studying definitions; I like hands-on activities
  • I may struggle with computational questions
  • I don’t have the best study habits
  • Keeping up with assignments
  • Not having time to complete lab activities
  • Study skills
  • Time management
  • Lack of focus, cellular devices, and difficult lab partners
  • Work and class load (this from a student who has two jobs, works 40 hours a week, and enrolled in 23 credit hours)

You may have noticed that I colored some of the statements red. Those all refer to a perceived, inherent inability to understand science. I found it interesting that this mindset accounted for 31% of the statements among students who eventually earned an A, 28% of statements from those who earned a B, 45% from those who earned a C, and 26% from those who earned a D, W, or F. You can probably see whatever message you want in those numbers, but what I choose to see reinforces the idea that success in science has nothing to do with whether a student is “a science person.” Heck, I remember myself asserting (as an undergraduate) that I couldn’t take science classes because “I am not a science person,” but I had never actually tried. Once I took chemistry and earned an A, my mindset about my own abilities flipped 180 degrees.

I have recently been thinking a lot about fixed vs. growth mindset, a concept popularized by psychologist Carol Dweck. If you have a fixed mindset about biology, you believe that you can’t do much to change your limited science talent — it is a “fixed trait.” In other words, if you believe you are simply not a science person, why would you invest your precious time trying to learn about biology? On the other hand, if you have a growth mindset you believe that you can develop your talents with hard work and by learning from your mistakes. On behalf of my own students, I am keen to learn more about how to shift a fixed mindset into a growth mindset.

I also colored a few of the perceived obstacles green; these are not specific to science but rather seem to be rooted in student anxiety about keeping up with a challenging class in general. Finally, blue statements represent students’ self-perceived limitations in study skills or time management.

I found it interesting that students who eventually received an A or a B seemed more likely to express anxiety about how difficult the course would be than those who earned lower grades. Students who ended up with a C or below were honest that a major obstacle could be their general abilities as students. In essence, students who ultimately did better were more likely to blame “a course that’s just too hard” for poor performance, whereas students who ultimately did worse were more likely to blame themselves. That’s the opposite of what I would have expected.

This represents a small snapshot of just one semester, but it may provide a little insight into the student mind. How can we use this information to improve the odds of student success? That’s a good thought question for the upcoming break.

Thank you to Matt Taylor for help with this blog post.

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