Last semester I taught a physics lab for the first time in my life. I have not yet managed to work-up the nerve to read the comments that the students gave me when the class wrapped-up, but they must have been alright, since they gave me another lab section to teach this term. But now, based upon a directive coming in from “above” (they didn’t say precisely where, but I surmise it’s from some level of university bureaucracy) they’ve changed everything around, not only from the previous section, but from any lab I’ve ever heard of.
And these changes, frankly, suck.
First of all, they’ve done away with the experimental error component of the lab. For those of you not in the know, this deals with a system of techniques devised by statisticians that experimental scientists use to determine “uncertainty” (i.e; how well a particular result is known): for example, you could say “the speed of light is three hundred thousand kilometres per second, give or take two thousand”. Needless to say, as the sciences by no means trade in any sort of absolute truth, quantifying error is a very important thing to know how to do: in fact, at the level of a first year lab, I would say that quantifying experimental error is far more important than the actual results: I don’t think that these students will be overthrowing Galileo anytime soon.
But apparently, it’s been decided that this isn’t important. Maybe it hurts the kids self-esteem or something, or causes them to start doubting the validity of absolute knowledge.
The other directive that I was given is that class averages should never be allowed to exceed 80%. This seems like a weird thing to couple with the above directive, since most students lost their marks on experimental error, and in any case, it seems like students should be marked based on what they actually accomplished, not by some arbitrary administrative standard, but what do I know? I’m not paid a six digit salary to come-up with these brilliant ideas.