Grading Heartbreak

Last spring my grading heartbreak was two students who thought Representatives and Senators were appointed by the president. This term my grading heartbreak is two students who think the United States has a unicameral system…and said that after defining unicameralism and bicameralism. Oi.

Something else that perpetually troubles me is that so few students understand the question “why?” Here’s the question they were given (irrelevant part redacted).

Explain unicameralism, symmetric bicameralism, and assymetric bicameralism…What type does the U.S. have and why?

Except for those two, everyone knew the U.S. has symmetric bicameralism, but only two (out of 39) took a reasonable stab at why the U.S. has symmetric bicameralism. All others (who didn’t simply skip that part of the question) said it was because the House of Representatives and the Senate had roughly equal authority.

No, that is the definition of symmetric bicameralism. So the students are saying “the U.S. has symmetric bicameralism because it has symmetric bicameralism.” They don’t get that. Good students don’t get that. I get this kind of thing on most “why” questions. E.g., “Why does the U.S. have federalism?” “Because power is divided between the state governments and the federal government.”

I’m not mad at students about this. I’m just frustrated at the difficulty of teaching people to understand the difference between explaining why something is and just restating what it is. I don’t think it’s necessarily the students’ fault–they’ve obviously never been trained to think about what “why” actually means. This is a frosh course, though, and I’d like to think most of them learn by time they graduate. I’d really like to think that.

About James Hanley

James Hanley is former Associate Professor of Political Science at Adrian College and currently an independent scholar.
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18 Responses to Grading Heartbreak

  1. Troublesome Frog says:

    The red mark “WHY?” was something students of a particular econ professor of mine used to dread. When “WHY?” showed up next to your answer, you were surely not getting much credit. A mathematical proof was helpful, but it wasn’t WHY. A definition was good, but it wasn’t WHY. WHY could usually be summed up in a sentence or two, and God help you if you didn’t.

    That was a top notch class. It helped me decide to add econ as a second major.

  2. James Hanley says:

    What was your first major?

    Double-majors have become increasingly common, it seems to me. On the one hand, that sort of inflates the standard once again, so students coming out of college not only need internships and study abroad, as well as good grades, to get noticed, but maybe a double-major, too. On the other hand, I like it because it helps ensure broader depth to the students’ education (in most cases; I knew a student double-majoring in Women’s Studies and Feminist Studies, which probably adds more depth without adding any substantial breadth.)

    Our major is flexible enough that students are able to easily double-major, and about half my majors do. The most common is a double-major with History, but Criminal Justice is common, and we’ve had some Environmental Studies students, English, Communications and Journalism. My favorite were the two Math/Political Science double majors–two at the same time, graduated the same year, and I’d be surprised if I ever have another, but I hope so. But strangely, no Econ/Political Science double majors, which probably is because we have so few Econ majors anyway (it’s primarily a service department for Business).

  3. Troublesome Frog says:

    I started as a Computer Engineering / Engineering Management double major. Honestly, accounting classes made me sad. To this day, accounting makes me sad. Econ seemed much closer to reality. My university offered a BS in Economics that stressed mathematical modeling (sort of the grad school prep track), so I dropped Engineering Management and added Economics. The great faculty in that department didn’t hurt either. Double majoring across two different schools makes for some nasty general education requirements, though.

    The engineering degree pays the bills, but the econ degree has kept me out of trouble and given me a lot to think about. I really think that most people go through life without learning how to think quantitatively about value, and that’s a terrible handicap. Our high schools teach a semester of econ, but I don’t think it’s really taken seriously and I suspect that a lot of the instructors don’t really have a good enough command of the material to answer the dreaded WHY.

  4. AMW says:

    I presume the “why” for U.S. symmetric bicameralism is to come to an acceptable compromise in divvying up the political power between states with large and small populations. Equal representation in the Senate makes the small states happy, and gives them a generous minimum in their representation. Proportional representation in the House makes the large states happy, and ensures that a majority of *people* can’t be overridden by a majority of *states*.

    Is there more to it than that?

  5. James Hanley says:

    AMW, There are actually two correct answers, either of which I would have been happy to see. Yours is one (although to really knock it home you’d want to reference that this was the logic of the debate at the Constitutional Convention). The other is a little more abstract, which is that larger, more diverse, countries are more likely to have bicameral systems. That’s sort of the broader political science answer (although it doesn’t get to the symmetric power issue), while the answer you gave is essentially our particular case study of that general principle. Either one would have resulted in full credit. In an upper division course, though, I’d want both.

  6. Matty says:

    larger, more diverse, countries are more likely to have bicameral systems



  7. James Hanley says:

    Because big countries have legislatures with two chambers!

    OK, because two chambers tend to do a better job of representing a diverse set of interests than a single chamber. One of the more interesting cases is Canada, an asymmetric bicameral system, which has an appointed Senate, with specific rules, or at least efforts (I’m not an expert) that ensure representation for certain minority groups (First Nations) and small provinces. They don’t have real legislative authority, nor do they have to worry about re-election, so they can tackle whatever issues they see as being under-addressed, study them, and provide recommendations to the the chamber with real legislative authority. I haven’t studied it in-depth enough to take a firm position (I am dubious about the appointments being for life), but superficially at least it sounds like a pretty attractive idea.)

  8. D.A. Ridgely says:

    I’d walk a mile for a cameral.

  9. Lancifer says:

    “Why” is not a question we attempt to answer in math or physics.

    I’m afraid that why falls into the realm of metaphysics and/or philosophy.

    God help it.

  10. Troublesome Frog says:

    The kind of “why” I’m talking about is almost certainly something you expect from your introductory physics students. If you ask why people don’t fall out of roller coasters when they go upside down, you’d probably be happier with an explanation of why the centripetal force vector points the direction it points rather than juts having them regurgitate the equations at you.

    Sure, at some point there’s no “why” in physics. It’s just the way the universe is put together. But the more everyday constructs have a nice intuitive explanation that comes straight from our mechanistic understanding of the universe. The same is true in a lot of economics. The “why” is all about cause and effect–not so much about philosophy as simple mechanical stuff. And if you can’t get a good intuitive grasp of how the moving parts butt together, you end up kicking equations around and coming up with stupid results that a simple sanity check could have caught.

    I’ve often noticed that the world seems to be broken into two types of people: One type has a mechanistic cause-and-effect way of looking at the world and the other doesn’t. This is really apparent when I watch people debug software. There’s a subset of people who simply can’t see a bug and think, “Something caused this. I’m going to make a list of places it could have originated and then test to see where the issue is..” They just poke around randomly until they get lucky. I simply can’t figure out how those people navigate everyday life.

  11. Matty says:

    They just poke around randomly until they get lucky. I simply can’t figure out how those people navigate everyday life.

    Have you been spying on me?

  12. Lancifer says:

    Troublesome Frog,

    OK, in that sense physics does address “why”, although this is really a variation on “how” and “if” and “when” since physics ultimately is based on mechanisms and probabilities (at least at the quantum level).

    Why is often a philosophical construct. Such as why are the “fundamental constants” what they are. One answer is what I consider the odious “Anthropic Principle”. I prefer the idea that there is no answer to this question because it is an invalid question.

    I’ve often noticed that the world seems to be broken into two types of people: One type has a mechanistic cause-and-effect way of looking at the world and the other doesn’t.

    Yeah, there is the “right brain, left brain” business but I find that many of the explanations of this theory rely on “just so” stories.

    I’m pretty artistically talented (except for music) and actually scored higher on the verbal part of the SAT than the Math part, although I scored above the 90th percentile in both. I’m not bragging (although it sounds that way now that I read it) just pointing out that I’m not sure you could say whether I’m “right brained” or “left brained”.

    I think many people are trained to think in certain ways by their parents, their peers and their schools.

  13. Dr X says:

    Yes, the right brain/left brain thing as it is popularized is baloney. Functions in the brain do have a lateralizing tendency, but things are much more complicated than left brain logical and right brain creative. Here’ a decent, brief commentary on the myth.

  14. James Hanley says:

    Pish, that’s just what a right-brain person like you would say.

  15. Troublesome Frog says:


    I’m kind of in the same boat with you. I had perfect SAT scores in both verbal and writing (although I’ve been doing tech work so long that it would be hard for anybody to tell these days) and always struggled to avoid misplacing symbols when I was manipulating equations. Math and physics were just much more interesting because I always want to know how stuff works. This is good for me because I don’t have much of an artistic side to lean on. I think that languages were really just lists of rules that were pretty easy to keep track of.

    I think you’re right about learning how to think. I tend to do a lot of things that my intellectual mentors did. I’m glad I spent a lot of time with “old school” engineers and applied mathematicians who learned their trade before computers came around and made us all stupid. When some coarse guesstimation or elegant thought experiments are in order, those guys are seriously dangerous.

  16. Lancifer says:

    Troblesome Frog,

    I tend to do a lot of things that my intellectual mentors did. I’m glad I spent a lot of time with “old school” engineers and applied mathematicians who learned their trade before computers came around and made us all stupid.

    I blame calculators and smart phones. The majority of my students can’t find a common denominator or even perform simple division let alone put together a series of problem solving steps based on deductive reasoning.

    They think they are going to Google and facebook their way through life.

    Of course James Hanley and I have noted in the past that teachers have traditionally felt that each generation of students was deficient compared to it progenitors. Could just be GOMS (Grumpy Old Man Syndrome). I seem to remember my mentors making similar complaints.

    Still I don’t see the predicted “leap” in productivity and creativity that was often predicted by those heralding the dawn of the “information age”.

  17. Lancifer says:

    That first paragraph should have been blockquoted. I’m not sure what went wrong.

    (Damn computers.)

  18. James Hanley says:

    Young whippersnappers of this generation can’t even handle basic html as well as prior generations could! (FIFY, Lancifer)

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