Students and Units

Ploughing through more lab reports today, I find myself going from frustration to anger to bafflement. Why do students so consistently omit units when they draw their graphs? I just don’t get it. No matter how often I say it to them, they still do it. There has to be some deeper significance to this. Perhaps it reflects an inability to focus, a lack of attention to detail. Maybe it’s a consequence of the times we live in, times when we all have shorter attention spans and where distractions are many. Or, maybe it’s that they are so consumed with the mechanics of whatever plotting package they are using that they forget about the content. (One thing I have noticed is that when plotting graphs in Excel, students tend to lose sight of cause and effect and often plot the independent variable on the vertical axis! In other words, they’re generating the graph without really thinking about what it means.)

Actually, I think the lack of attention to detail in students’ work and a real lack of precision in their use of language are two of the biggest challenges we face in education. It’s not obvious how to deal with this because it’s a social and cultural one as much as an educational one.

Back to those reports…………….

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About Greg Foley

A lecturer in Biotechnology in Dublin City University for more than 25 years. Trained as a Chemical Engineer in UCD (BE and PhD) and Cornell (MS). Does research on analysis and design of membrane filtration systems.
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3 Responses to Students and Units

  1. Pingback: Ninth Level Ireland » Blog Archive » Students and Units

  2. cormac says:

    I think it’s because they often forget that science is concerned with physical things, not numbers or algebraic quantities. I don’t mind so much when students get an answer of 100 cm when they mean 100 m, but it amazes me when they get 100 cm instead of 100 seconds! Somehow the link with actual physical quantities often gets lost in the algebra…

    • Greg Foley says:

      When I teach fluid flow I like to remind them that the speed of sound is about 330 m/s so if they calculate a velocity of 5 zillion metres per second, something has gone wrong. In fairness to them, though, many quantities in engineering have non-intuitive units like m/kg or W/m^2K.

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