That’s Because You Can’t Bullshit Science

An interesting tidbit of pseudo-scientific news from nature.com:

Durham University researchers think that physics, chemistry and biology are a grade harder than drama and media studies and three-quarters of a grade harder than English at ‘A-level’, roughly equivalent to high school diplomas. (…)

“This research shows that science and technology subjects are much more severely graded than subjects like media studies and art,” says Robert Coe, author of the new report on the subject that’s stirred things up (press release).

To reach this conclusion Coe reviewed a host of previous attempts to determine the relative ‘difficulty’ of subjects and conducted his own analysis on examination data from 2006. His work found similar results from five different statistical methods, all of which are rather complicated (maths is hard remember).

These methods either compare the performance of the same candidate in different exams or compare exam grades between people of similar ability, as determined by a reference test of some kind. Science and maths subjects were all at the top of the difficulty range.

Just to stoke the fires a bit, Coe notes, “A student with a grade C in Biology will generally be more able than one with a B in Sociology, for example.”

Duh! No shit sherlock. That’s because science and math can only be graded objectively. You either get it or not. You either answer the question correctly, or incorrectly. There is a leeway for partial credit there, but in most cases to get it you still need to show understanding of the problem. Media studies and art on the other hand… Let’s face it, I don’t even know what media studies is.

Grading art is problematic, because we do not have a quantitative measure for creativity and originality. One art teacher may thing your work is brilliant and innovative, while another may consider it shallow and unimpressive. It is all matter of taste and opinion. And of course some people simply lack the talent or the spatial skills to actually create good art. Therefore most in class art projects are graded on how well students followed the directions, and how much work and effort they put into their work. Which again is a subjective measure.

In a lot of humanities classes, the grade reflects how good you are at bullshitting and not your mastery of the material. Let me tell you a little story. My senior year in college I took “Cultures of the Middle East” class because I needed to fulfill the “Non Western Perspectives” course requirement. The final exam was part general knowledge based multiple choice quiz, and par essay in which we would have to discuss one of the 6 short stories which I neglected to read. Before the test a friend who did read them primed me with basic plot outlines, and names of main characters. The test question was to compare and contrast the changing roles of women in the middle east as depicted in the stories. I got and A. Why?

I assume it’s because the grader was looking for specific set of issues, ideas – or key buzzwords to be mentioned in the paper. And I was able to hit all of them based on what I knew about social customs in the area, the brief plot outlines and the general direction of in-class discussions. In a very similar way many literature and sociology and philosophy students can cost through classes relying on nothing more than cliff notes and a decent writing style. More often than not your task when writing a paper for one of such classes is to interpret, analyze or express an opinion and argument using examples. Very often your thesis may be wrong and misguided but with a little creativity you can make up argumentation to support it and make it look like the text is supporting them and get away with it.

Science and math are really clean cut, formalized and no nonsense subjects. You can’t gloss over details. You can’t “creatively” interpret your data. It is due or die. You just have to learn it, and understand it – there is no room for bullshitting, hand waving and any of that stuff. So it’s not that science is inherently harder. It’s because science is inherently easier to test accurately. It is not very difficult to design a decent set of questions which will test ones knowledge of a given scientific subject – and it is fairly easy to grade. Here is the answer key – if the students write something else, mark it wrong. That’s it.

Art, sociology and literature on the other hand… It takes some skill and experience to make up questions that will show that students really “read” the assigned text, and really understood it.

But that’s just my opinion. Feel free to prove me wrong and argue in favor of your favorite subject in the comments.

[tags]science, math, art, subjects, grading, school[/tags]

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11 Responses to That’s Because You Can’t Bullshit Science

  1. Ian Clifton UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Linux says:

    It’s hard for me to be objective on this because I always did well in all subjects. Math was extremely easy for me because it was all procedure and no contemplation. Science was interesting (though many teachers/professors seem to put more emphasis on names of parts as opposed to functions, which seems backward to me), which is what made it easy. When things are fascinating (like my satellite communications courses were), I absorb every morsel of knowledge like some sort of sponge. In general, I’d say English teachers are more likely to be more lenient with grading, but they’re also more likely to be semi-arbitrary. I’ve had multiple English courses where I got an A on everything all the way through and then ended up with a B+ or A-. In a math class, if I earned an A on each test, I always got an A in the class.

    The issue of subjective grading is a big one in English (and other subjects, I assume). It’s becoming more common at the secondary level to use rubrics for everything, mixing some objective goals with subjective ones. For instance, a specific poem type can be required to have a certain number of syllables, particular rhyme pattern, or specific focus, but there still has to be part of the grade on “ideas” and “content,” which aren’t so easy to grade.

    In a way, that’s what makes English more interesting to me than math, there are many perspectives. During one of my teaching lessons I told all the students that I was going to perform an action and I wanted them all to write a short sentence saying what I did. I then jumped up onto a waist-high table and looked down at them. After the initial gasps, everyone wrote furiously. I called on students to share what they wrote and all of the answers were different. One even wrote “That was cool!” haha.

    In a way, I’d say something like math is “harder” in the sense that you have to have a specific tool/knowledge set to approach the problem. If you come to class and don’t know what a polynomial is and you have to solve polynomial equations, you’re probably not going to do well. If you come to an English class and have to write a quick essay on a specific theme, you already have some background on that and can generate ideas from there, even if you missed the previous class that was entirely devoted to a discussion on that theme.

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  2. jenn UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    This was a great post title to wake up to!

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  3. Alphast NETHERLANDS Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux Terminalist says:

    I guess that what you mean is that “hard science” is actually a lot easier to assess than “human sciences” and art. So the grading puts a lot more work on the teacher and a lot less on the students in human science. It is true for instance, that assessing the knowledge, understanding and technique of a sociology student (or, like me, of a political science student) is a lot more difficult than for a math student. Especially if the teacher uses a multiple choice quiz. The topic is very hard and to make sure that the student got it right, the only way is to make him/her write an essay (in limited time), read it and assess it. But of course, that requires work (and a lot of it) from the teacher. Another good way (which was used in my University) is to include a continuous control all over the year, with a mark counting for the final exam. This way, the teacher gets a much finer idea of how the students are performing and understanding the topics. It also allows the students to show creativity, group skills and research skills (absolutely necessary in human sciences and a lot more absent from hard sciences). The teacher can see over the year if the students are showing progress, if they are just copy pasting text from the internet or if they are really grasping the concept and expressing their own ideas with their own words and arguments.

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  4. Matt` UNITED KINGDOM Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    I’ve always found maths/science easier because of the higher degree of precision – there’s an answer, I can work it out, when I’m done and the answer is right I get the marks. Sorted.

    Things that require interpretation and opinions and arguments and all that kind of bullshitting around, I find harder to do. Less so as time went on, to the point where I was actually pretty proficient at picking out what point I wanted to make and how to use the sources to support it, but yeah… it was always bullshitting, I just got good at bullshit.

    It’s a different skill set I guess… and if it’s marked more leniently then raise the grade boundaries to compensate, or lower the thresholds on the science papers to make them easier (would be better to make the humanities harder though – raise standards a little)

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  5. e UNITED STATES Safari Mac OS says:

    What can I say, being on the humanities end of it? Work for our students is scored holistically and analytically. There is a good explanation of the two in my field presented in this link. Now imagine if your non-math & science teachers would grade your papers on grammar (the only thing you can grade objectively) rather than content and relevance to your thesis argument? How competent do you think people’s technical writing skills are? Dangling participles, homonyms (it’s/its; their/there; etc.), punctuation…ah, the list could go on. Also, a scary trend is that there is little differentiation for college students with respect to types of writing and audience (email to prof vs. text message to friend).
    This does not exist for the sciences…there is no grey area in testing and other forms of evaluation. Plus, if you ever look at my syllabi you would immediately note, like @Alphast mentioned, there are so many components that comprise the final grade that evaluation is continuous simply because of how we score students. It should not be contingent upon just a paper and a final exam. (I hear my humanities and social studies colleagues screaming now that they have enough work to grade as it is…)
    Just one last comment re your experience with the gen-ed course. You got away with it because of the audience to which the course was catered. If you were in a non gen-ed environment, that (I hope) would not have happened.

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  6. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    First off, thanks for the clarifications from the non-science people. Good to know that a lot of people are taking the problem of grading things like “crativity”, “perspective” and “originality” seriously.

    I still think that doing this requires a competent teacher and those are not always around. :(

    @e – if we were graded on grammar and spelling my GPA would have been much, much lower. English is not my first language and on top of that I’m dyslexic.

    But yeah, I’m sure that if I took few 300 and 400 (or graduate level) classes in humanities and non-science subjects I would probably see a much different picture.

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  7. Adam Kahtava CANADA Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    [quote post=”2574″]one art teacher may thing your work is brilliant and innovative, while another may consider it shallow and unimpressive.[/quote]

    And another art teacher might think your art is brilliant and innovative, but not realize you copied it from another artist.

    Great post!

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  8. e UNITED STATES Safari Mac OS says:

    [quote comment=”9568″] English is not my first language and on top of that I’m dyslexic.[/quote]
    Well, then I must commend you b/c you have a high level of proficiency in English (in your blog posts, at least, since we’ve never spoken). I wish some of my American students were able to piece together a short paper half as well as you write.

    It’s always a pleasure to read your posts and thanks for frequently providing food for thought across a range of topics.

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  9. Anonymus UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    This is precisely why I love math & science. There’s no “gray area”, it’s either “black” or “white”. One of the greatest things I love about it that if you don’t know the answer, you can figure it out. The only thing I actually learnt from my English classes is how to write in APA instead of MLA, something I could have taught myself.

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  10. asdjkl UNITED STATES Google Chrome Windows says:

    While I agree that it is difficult to test accurately in humanities, (hard) science/math IS inherently harder than humanities. Humanities majors lack respect for the technical subjects because they never take the high-level math/engineering courses–their impression of math/engineering is based on some cookbook math recipe class (Calculus, MultiCalc, Statistics). In contrast, technical folks often do take upper level and graduate level humanities courses–and excel in it!

    At the highest level, graduate research in sociology, anthropology, etc. are do-able by the everyman. It requires hard work, understanding of the problem, good communication skills, etc, but anyone can do it.

    No matter how much training in math or the hard sciences one has, graduate and upper undergraduate courses are just plain difficult and time consuming. Specifically, PhD research in math/hard sciences is plain difficult for me and I think of “giving up” in the sense of switching into less theoretical work in engineering. On paper I’ll still have a PhD in El. Eng., but we feel some real respect for my Chinese/Indian cohorts who do the real “heavy lifting” for our field.

    We shouldn’t beat around the bush. Not only are technical subjects (past year 1) much more difficult than the humanities, but they are graded harsher.

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  11. Jordan UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Linux says:

    I agree completely. But, of course, as someone who will be doing electrical engineering in College, I am a bit biased toward STEM.

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