Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Draw me a ribosome

Those who have read Saint-Exupery's Little Prince will easily remember a key scene: the Little Prince, after appearing out of nowhere, stands in front of the narrator and asks: "Draw me a sheep!".

At our biology exam for 1st year students of medicine, dentistry and pharmacy, we often repeat the "Draw me..." request. Instead of a sheep, the object to be drawn is some important biological structure, such as an antibody molecule, a metaphase chromosome, a ribosome etc. When we hesitate between the lowest passing grade (3) and the non-passing grade (2), the outcome of the exam can be determined by the student's drawing.

We are now in the middle of the June examination session, a hard time for everybody. What makes it even harder are those students who not only come to the exam poorly prepared but are unaware of it or simply do not care. These young men and women do not receive their well-deserved 2s with dignity. Instead, they argue that their knowledge is actually quite good, claim to be very anxious, or start crying - in essence, try to bully us and make us reconsider the grade.

Today, I had to examine a student whom I had taught in the summer semester. He had memorized many details but had omitted the basic stuff, an unfortunate combination not uncommon among freshmen. His idea of a chiasma looked like this:

Because he didn't know his selected topics, I told him to draw a ribosome. The result is shown below:

After that, and after hearing that histones are ribosomal components, I gave him a 2. He started to protest. I told him that this behavior was not wise and sent him away, making it clear that the exam was over for him.

So far, not the most pleasant performance but nothing out of the ordinary. Then, however, the student did something that really took the cake. He went to another teacher from our department and complained to her. He claimed that he had written and said everything, just made an error in his ribosome drawing; every other teacher would let him pass, but I failed him and his friend because they were both Muslims, and I had an anti-Muslim blog!

He apparently meant this blog, because I have no other blog in English. The friend in question had talked just before and had shown even less knowledge of biology than our hero; the idea that histones belong to the ribosome was originally his. As for what other teachers would decide... if he is reading this, I'd suggest him to show the drawings to a third party, preferably a Muslim biologist. My opinion is that very few teachers would let such a student pass, and they would be making an error of judgement.

If that young man had paid more attention to my words during the semester and to the educational files I gave him to read, he would most likely pass. Instead, he wasted time to research me, looking for arguments that if he wouldn't pass, this would be my fault. Or maybe it was his friends who tipped him about my blog. If so, they'd better warned him that I like asking about the ribosome.

I hope that at his next try to pass biology, the student will pick another examiner, because I do not want to see him more than he wants to see me. This is sad, because the exam is our best opportunity for individual, personal contact with students. And this opportunity is skewed in an unpleasant direction. The students who are poorly prepared cannot pass and come again. They often fail to learn from their mistakes and try to take the exam the same way over and over again, hoping for a different result. The good students come only once, pass and we do not see them anymore.