Monday, May 24, 2010

Domesticated Foxes and Feral Dogs, Oh My!

Continuing with the “animal theme”….

The previous post introduced the situation brewing at Louisiana State University (LSU) over the mid-semester removal of Dr. Dominique Homberger from her position as instructor of an introductory biology course.

A number of critics have seized on the format of her test questions as evidence of unfairness. Specifically, some are questioning the fact that she often gives 10 possible answers rather than the expected 4 or 5.

So I thought it might be of interest to take a look at a couple of questions from one of her exams and see what the fuss is all about.

The first question is largely based on a 1999 essay in American Scientist on the domestication of foxes in the former Soviet Union.

The second one draws on a recent Financial Times article on feral dogs in Moscow.

If you wish to test yourself, read the articles first, then take a look at the questions.

Here are the questions:

1. Choose the incorrect statement.

a. In domestic mammals, piebald coat color is seen frequently in dogs, pigs, cows, and horses.
b. Foxes that have been selected for tameness frequently also have a white
"star" on their forehead.
c. Domesticated foxes and dogs frequently have rolled tails.
d. Giantism and dwarfism is [sic] common among all domesticated mammals.
e. Domesticated mammals reproduce more frequently and more independently from [sic] particular seasons.
f. Overbites and underbites are more commonly observed among domesticated
mammals than among wild mammals.
g. Human beings display some of the characteristics that are seen in
domesticated animals.
h. Feral populations of mammals (e.g., dogs) usually lose the characteristics
of their domesticated ancestors.
i. There is no connection between the tame disposition and the morphological
characteristics of domesticated mammals.
j. Hormonal imbalances during development may be responsible for the
morphological characteristics of domesticated animals.

2. Choose the incorrect statement.

Feral dogs in Moscow ...

a. tend to have a similar look, with erect ears, thick fur, wedge-shaped head,
and almond eyes.
b. look like a breed apart and very unlike the purebred dogs from which they
may have descended.
c. vary in the color of their fur.
d. typically have a rolled-up tail.
e. tend to establish and defend territories.
f. are much less aggressive than wolves and are more tolerant of one another.
g. are an excellent example of feralization, which is the opposite mechanism
of domestication.
h. rarely wag their tails and do not show affection toward humans.

Although I could not replicate exactly the same conditions experienced by the students, I first read the articles and then tried to answer the questions.  I selected 1. c and 2. d.  However, I answered the questions shortly after reading the articles, whereas the students would have likely had time to forget  some of the details.  The fact that both "incorrect statements" dealt with curly tails (being a feature of domesticated, but not feral animals), however, was a big help in confirming the right answers.   

My critique of these questions and the reading assignments:

These are not difficult questions that require a deep understanding of evolution, genetics, or the process of domestication of animals to answer.  Although the questions focus on apparently minor facts in these articles, they could have been answered if the students read the assignment and connected the dots between morphology/behavior patterns and domestication/feralization. 

These questions mainly test reading comprehension, because answering the questions requires no prior knowledge of science or the concepts involved.  One could conceivably even answer the questions based on the photographs in the article alone (since it's clear that the silver foxes and the feral dogs depicted in several photos have straight tails).

So, I think the questions are not very challenging (i.e., they require nothing more than reading comprehension)—but that’s not the complaint of the students or some of Homberger’s critics. Critics seem to focus on the fact that there are more than 4 possible answers, i.e., the questions are somehow rigged to be overly difficult.  Yes, the odds of guessing the wrong answer are greatly increased with 10 possibilities.  However, it seems relatively easy to eliminate many of the correct statements--if one had read the articles. So it's possible to narrow the options down to at least 4 or 5, maybe less.  I doubt, however, even if faced with only 4 or 5 options, a student could pick out the incorrect statement, if they had not read the assignment.

If all the questions were like these two, then I would conclude that the students' grasp of concepts was not being adequately tested.  But without seeing the other test questions, it's impossible to tell.  It may be that because these questions were based on outside reading (and not lectures) that the difficulty was kept deliberately low, testing only that the students read the assignment.  If I had gotten a question like this on a college exam, I would have viewed it as a "give-away".  But then, I was the type of student who read all my assignments.

Some critics have said that the reading material was "too difficult" for university students.  I find this mind-boggling.  Any student who had difficulty reading and comprehending these articles has no business being in college.  Both articles were interesting, easy to read, and did not contain material that required an advanced degree to understand.  I imagine Dr. Homberger was attempting to provide examples that students might find more appealing or understandable than those given in textbooks.

I have yet to come across any blogger or commenter who actually read the assignments and then tried to answer the questions. They all seem to take sides based on whether they think 10 possible answers is fair or not. 

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