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I had asked all of the students during introductory class why they were taking this particular course. And one of the students replied they were taking it for the credit hours. I found it disrespectful and chewed the student a bit in the class. And it might have impacted my grading for that student. What should be the proper reply to such an answer? Should I ask them to drop the course?

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    If your university has credits requirements, isn't it unavoidable that students will take some courses solely to comply with them rather than out of interest for the topic? This was surely the case for me and many people I know Aug 18 at 8:24
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    I have to say, I'm a bit concerned that you "chewed the student a bit in class". Don't ask questions you don't want to hear the answer to ...
    – xLeitix
    Aug 18 at 13:05
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    Also, in case this wasn't obvious, there are more students in your class who are in it only for the credit - they just have learned to not tell people in authority things they don't want to hear.
    – xLeitix
    Aug 18 at 13:06
  • 92
    If I were the student you "chewed" in front of the rest of the class, I would be considering an academic complaint. Your Dean would certainly hear about it. As you reported it, this was distinctly unprofessional at best, and possibly serioius misconduct.
    – BillOnne
    Aug 18 at 13:30
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    If you punish people for being honest, they will stop being honest with you. A useful lesson to learn, for teachers, managers and parents alike.
    – Heinzi
    Aug 18 at 16:58

14 Answers 14

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+300

Let me take a slightly more sympathetic approach to answering this, even if I do ultimately come to the same conclusion as others. I will then offer some concrete suggestions.

As someone who teaches a lot of compulsory classes that students really don't want to take, at least at first (yay, stats for biologists 101), let me start by saying I sympathise with the feeling when students don't want to be there.

Someone up-thread asked why you want to be a teacher. For most of us, we are absolutely in love with our subjects and have dedicated our lives to their pursuit. Many of us, even those that value or enjoy teaching, are, or at least started off as, primarily researchers. It’s more than just a dedication to the subject; it’s a dedication to the life of the mind - irrespective of its utilitarian consequences. We often, at least initially, value teaching as a way of allowing others the same access to the life of the mind as we had. Far from being more interested in our power over others, rather than education, it’s the exact opposite. We'd do away with grades if we could and are only interested in students coming and really learning.

It then seems to us that someone who is there for the credits is not interested in learning. They are just interested in getting a licence to get a job, and they'll do the learning to get it, they suppose, if they have to.

I have often felt like saying "If you're here for the credits, come to me at the end of the lecture, and you can have them, then we don't need to waste each other's time further".

Of course I shouldn't and don't ever do that. It would obviously be against university rules. But it would also be wrong. Apart from anything else, the student loses the opportunity to learn, even if they don't realise they wanted it.

As others have outlined, there are many reasons why a student might take your class without a preexisting interest in it. They might need the credits to continue with their degree - this isn't just about "getting a piece of paper"; they might not be able to learn about the things they do want to learn about without keeping their credits up. Also, making someone feel like they don't belong in a class is not a good way of creating a welcoming, safe feeling, productive learning environment for others in the class, let alone that student.

Over time I've come to realise that while I might have thought that there was something almost morally superior about learning for its own sake, that was my prejudice, and letting go of that is essential to your own happiness in your job. Because, surprise, you are going to have to deal with many students taking your class for credit, perhaps even the majority, over your career.

You have a chance now to make the student love your subject, or alternatively (like with my stats class), teaching them something they will only realise was important later.

In terms of grading. I actually don't see how perceived enthusiasm can't help but affect our grading when we are grading anything that isn't 100% objective, right or wrong answers. I might even go so far as to say that anyone who claims otherwise is fooling themselves. So good on you for identifying biases that might stay unconscious for other people.

However, acknowledging our biases is only any good if we act of this knowledge to counteract our biases. Perhaps just self knowledge is enough to reduce our bias, but I think probably not. This is why I think anonymous marking is important in summative assessment where possible. Many online marking systems will allow you to hide the identity of students until after all the marks are finalised. Or you can ask students to put their student ID on the paper, rather than their name.

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    While I agree with some of the things you said, I'm very concerned that OP @AliMustafa accepted your answer out of all because he chose to interpret your answer as an affirmation of his grading "policy". OP, please listen to all advice in this thread and not just the ones you like to hear; and realize that as a teacher, your responsibility is to grade the students fairly, and not based on some prejudgement you took up on the introductory class because a student gave an honest, realistic answer to you instead of some PR-like lie. Ian, I'd consider emphasizing this in your answer.
    – Neinstein
    Aug 21 at 12:55
  • @Neinstein Virtually every class I took as an undergraduate included a "participation" component, which is a proxy for enthusiasm in all the ways that are of any importance, since by definition it favors students who engage with the material in ways that the instructor finds emotionally rewarding. OP is simply being a little bit more "honest and realistic" about his emotional reaction to students than is typically the case with university instructors.
    – tbrookside
    Aug 21 at 13:37
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    @tbrookside also - "participation" is not really "enthusiasm", it's more about engagement and activeness. And you really cannot decide on the final (subjective) "score" for participation based on a single (and honest) answer on the introductory lesson. This is not OK in any way.
    – Neinstein
    Aug 21 at 20:41
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    @Neinstein No, I chose his answer because he proposed a solution, i.e., anonymous grading. I would have mentioned it when I picked it as an accepted answer, but I gave all of my rep as a bounty and couldn't even comment. The rest of the people have made excellent points, but they are primarily about shaking the instructor's conscience and are internal. There should be external mechanisms and checks rather than expecting the instructor to take the high moral grounds (which they should). But since we are fallible, finding solutions to our biases is better. Aug 21 at 23:51
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    @AliMustafa Nice to hear. Sorry for my untrue concern then.
    – Neinstein
    Aug 22 at 6:21
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As Alessandro Codenotti wrote in the comments, it's unavoidable that students will take courses solely to comply with credits requirements. It's also unavoidable that some people simply will not find your topic interesting. This doesn't mean they shouldn't take your course - the final exam presumably only tests the student's mastery of the material and not their passion for the subject. If they are not interested but can still learn the topic, that's more power to them and they deserve a good grade.

Since their motivation for taking the course isn't really relevant to you, commend them for their honesty and say you hope they'll learn something interesting from the course, then move on.

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    Upvote for "commend them for their honesty"
    – Nobody
    Aug 18 at 9:11
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    Being a student, to me this is the perfect answer! It's truly unfathomable to me how some teachers seemingly completely forget that they themselves too once were students and that such things are just unavoidable. Aug 18 at 20:11
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    Precisely so. You're not there to win a popularity contest, you're there to teach people a specific syllabus.
    – Valorum
    Aug 18 at 22:21
  • @Valorum and they are there to learn, it is a partnership. If they don't bring some interest with them, they are making their job more difficult rather than yours! Aug 22 at 19:16
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Your response to this is very toxic. If being honest in regards to the attendance of your courses results in hostility and possibly poorer grades, then nobody will continue to be honest with you in the future. I would hope that everyone recognizes that this is an inherently bad learning and teaching environment.

In addition, in this day and age, if your goal is to acquire a degree, you will have to chew through courses solely for their credit points. It is 100% inevitable. Should a student give up on their bachelor's or master's because you deem their reason for participating in your course not good enough? That is a ridiculous line of thinking and is out of touch with reality.

It is not your place to judge any students reason for participation. They are all adults and they chose this, and your job is to teach and help them pass your course. If they pass, it's because of merit and not because of some arbitrary reason you deem good enough.

As for the question in the title, those not interested in the course will helpfully sort themselves out by simply not interacting with you more than they need to.

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    >> in this day and age == since forever
    – mcalex
    Aug 19 at 8:22
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This is a structural issue at many (probably most) institutions, and isn't the student's fault. They may have a specific goal but the institution requires them to take certain other courses. You've probably dealt with this in life as well in many places. Who enjoys spending a day at the passport office? Should the passport official turn you away because you admit that you are willing to fill out a form but don't enjoy it? Of course not!

What you can do is teach the course so well that the student realizes its importance, relevance, or just how fun it can be! Do your job!

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    One of the reasons for encouraging students to take courses they might not have otherwise is that they may learn something anyways, or find an interest they did not know they had, thanks to instructors who are passionate about their topics and convey this to their students.
    – Bryan Krause
    Aug 18 at 14:05
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    This isn't an issue, but a feature of the US system, at least. Aug 18 at 17:47
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    @JamieB 4 year universities are not job-training programs.
    – Bryan Krause
    Aug 18 at 18:56
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    My university (as many in Poland still do, I suppose) didn't have something like choosing classes. You chose your programme, which later split into several tracks, and that's it. For some reason as CS students we had a single electronics and metrology class, taught by two professors. Attendance in the lectures was around ~2%, the professors still took it in good humor, being aware of the realities of ours system. Hell, they even made it relatively easy to pass, aware that we are forced and almost none of the students have any interest in it...
    – jaskij
    Aug 18 at 22:55
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    So true! I took a linguistics course because I was obliged to take enough gen ed credits to graduate, and it looked like the path of least resistance. Turned out that the topic and teachers made that course one of the most fun courses I took in all of college! I still find little ways to sneak what I learned there into my daily life.
    – Cort Ammon
    Aug 19 at 19:05
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You don't.

This is unavoidable. If the system requires the students to collect X credits, but they are only interested in courses totaling Y < X credits, they will take X - Y worth of courses solely to get the credits.

There is nothing wrong with this. The student will take courses they wouldn't choose on their own, which will expand their knowledge in other directions than their main interest. They may find it more interesting than they initially thought, and focus on the topic more in the future.

And it might have impacted my grading for that student. [...] Should I ask them to drop the course?

I find this statement very concerning. You openly admit to have a big negative bias on the student as if it was a natural thing. It is not. Not only is it a serious misconduct, but it is totally uncalled for. The reason for the student taking the course is totally irrelevant for their grades, and does not reflect their work at all. Frankly, this have been the introductory lesson, and you are already deciding on lowering their grades. Please, grade the students fairly, based on their performance, and not on your prejudgement.

Depending on the way you "chewed" the student, I would also be concerned about the student sensing your negative bias. This could reflect on your student ratings and may also reach the dean as a complaint if the student feels discriminated or harassed. The other students may also be repelled by your reaction. I'd suggest that you may want to sort this out.

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OK, I was sort of in the students' shoes at one point in my life and I believe the correct spin on the matter is "You guys took this for credit? Good, because that's all the more people I can convert to having the same love of the subject that I do".

I mean, let's be real, cultivating interest is the main point of having a lecturer. If a person is determined enough, then they could most likely learn any subject from any field by themselves using public resources.

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    And if you don't convert them, then be satisfied that you've at least introduced them into a subject you love and let them be into their personal subject of interest.
    – CGCampbell
    Aug 19 at 10:48
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I will not repeat the numerous excellent points in other comments (in brief, it is not the student's fault for being honest that they are required to take some courses that they are not required to take), but I will add one point to answer your question of what you should do.

After chewing out a student in the class for such a reason, the responsible thing for you to do would be to follow up with an apology in front of the same class for humiliating the student for no good reason. Such an apology would probably greatly improve all of your students' perception of you (which you have probably severely damaged, whether you realize it or not) and would also greatly help you to become objective and fair in grading the student whom you had chewed out.

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  • Very good point. If the student had an Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD) they may be likely to give very honest answers to direct questions and not pick up on any subtext or "social" aspects to questions. "chewing out" such a student for an honest answer to a direct question could be the basis of a very serious academic complaint. This may be more of an issue for some subjects that others, but it is worth considering the SPLDs or other issues that may affect students in your class. Aug 22 at 19:22
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I think you should first figure out the following:

  • Why are you a teacher? Do you teach because you want to help people learn, do you teach beause you want to have a sense of authority and this was the simplest way to get there, etc?
  • What are the policies of my institution? For example, does our college only teach to people that say publicly they want to be there. If the answer is No, as it should be, you're in violation.
  • Are you the kind of person that takes offense easily?
  • Do you need to discuss with the student further, maybe involve their advisor and figure out a way for the student to take classes that they are interested in - which might not be possible.
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    I agree with where you're coming from, but I think you should add why you think these questions should be asked - what did OP do wrong, what makes it appear OP just wants to excercise power above the student, why may they be easily offended - because without such comments the answer could come off as passive-agressive and offensive, making OP miss the whole point.
    – Neinstein
    Aug 19 at 11:57
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    You're not wrong, but don't forget that for many academics, the only reason they are teachers is because they are forced to and have no choice but to teach classes if they want to be able to do their research. It's a stupid system that forces bad teachers on students and wastes the time of researchers, but it's the system we have. I used to love both teaching and research but most researchers I know would be ecstatic if they could do their research without needing to teach (undergraduate, at least) courses.
    – terdon
    Aug 20 at 11:50
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Consider the various service and administrative requirements at your school that are part of your job. For example: serving on a committee, writing reports, submitting grades, undergoing mandatory training (harassment, workplace bullying), vaccination requirement, etc. Whatever.

Now, let's say for the various tasks in this vein that are required of you, an administrator showed up and asked, "Why exactly are you [serving on this committee/writing this report/etc.]?"

And if you responded with "Because it's required for my job" instead of, "Because it's so inherently exciting!", then the administrator suggested that this was disrespectful and that you should be fired, how would you feel about that?

You should treat the student the same way you think you should be treated in this analogous situation.

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Not only will there inevitably be students who aren't really that interested in your class, it is quite likely that at some point you will have to teach a class that you are not really that interested in. Unless you're in a very privileged position, everyone has to teach entry-level courses some time and after a few repetitions of the same material it gets old. Or you have to pick up someone else's class because they got sick at the last minute and it's not really your area, or you just have other stuff in your life that you would rather be doing at that exact moment.

Would you rather have students appreciate that you are still doing a good job of teaching even if there are maybe other things you would rather be doing, or would you have them deem it unacceptable that it wasn't your very favorite thing even if you still do a good job of teaching?

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There is a very good text about the systemic reasons which force students to attend to classes which they are not interested in. It is called No cops in the lecture hall: cheating and what (not) to do about it and you can find it here. I always wanted more people to read the text, and this is a good opportunity because it fits perfectly. It is not your job to morally police your students, which are grown up people and know what is good for them and what not. People are interested and motivated if they have the freedom to do what makes sense for them in their situation, and when they are not forced by external pressures. You do not know the situation of your students.

Edit: Since I was asked to, I will try to summarize the argument of the essay in my own words. But be aware that the argument lives from the long explanation, the personal experience and the examples given in the text, which are hopefully relatable to any reader who has gone through school and university.

We do, as a matter of fact, live in a capitalistic society. As a consequence people in all countries of the world, even in the more wealthy countries, do not have a right to live, eat and be healthy per default. Instead they must either work, or they must be rich to begin with. For example in Germany (which is the country where I live), even though the state will prevent you from starving if you are unemployed, the money you get is by no means enough to live in dignity and it doesn't allow you to be an active part of society. In most countries of the world poor and unemployed people have it significantly worse. In the US the only good way to access health care is employment, and the state doesn't do very much to prevent homelessness (correct me in the comments if I am wrong).

On the other hand a school education and often also a university degree is often necessary or extremely useful if you like to get employed. Especially mathematics is an integral part of many degrees, and students have to pass their mathematics exams in order to have a reasonable chances for a well-paid job. (I am thinking about programmers for example.) It is thus not surprising that students will sit in courses (and even whole programs) in which they are not interested in to begin with, and which they only attend for the credits. It would be weird to blame them for it, since wanting a good job, a secure future and a life in dignity is a very good reason to go through higher education. Studying just for the sake of it is a privilege of the wealthy. Of course at some point (be it a PhD or a postdoc) you can expect people to do it because of their interest in the subject, but a mathematics undergraduate degree (or worse, mathematic lectures for non-mathematician) is way to early in my opinion. Here are the facts:

  • The language of mathematics, as practiced as a professional discipline, is esoteric and inaccessible to an overwhelming majority of people. (Cited from the essay)

  • People who do not perform conventionally well on mathematical assessments are often shut out from opportunities to secure the basic essentials for life (for example, being hired for a job, even if the job has little or nothing to do with what one might see in a mathematics course). (Also copied from the essay)

As a consequence people will go to mathematics courses not because they like them, but because they need to do them. And they will cheat if they do not have the resources or abilities to complete the course with good or reasonable grades. I understand that this goes against the grain of a teacher, who really likes their subject and wants to share their excitement about it with their students. You can do that anyway: Make the requirements to pass the course as low as you can (without getting into trouble). Allow your students to engage with you and your material independently from grades and course requirements. Those who are interested will engage with you and be happy to learn, and those who can not or don't want to won't learn a lot anyway if you force feed them. Their is no reason to think less of them. They will have very good reasons why they sit in your course, and they will put effort into those things in their life which are most important to them in their current situation. You are doing no harm whatsoever if you let students pass and give them good grades even if they do not engage actively with your course material. And what you really shouldn't do is punish them for a situation, which isn't their fault. After all, is it the job of a university to teach mathematics and do research together, or is it the job of a university to gatekeep and decide who is worthy of employment, success and a good life?

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    Thanks for this excellent contribution! I mourn that you are being downvoted for sharing this view. Aug 19 at 17:02
  • @DanielR.Collins I have :)
    – Nico
    Aug 21 at 18:34
  • Thank you for expanding on the linked article. However, the conclusion that one should "let students pass" in any case is catastrophic in a scaffolded multi-course sequence, and can result in harmful or even deadly consequences for professionals working in medical, engineering, etc. fields. Aug 22 at 19:42
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    @DanielR.Collins There is of course no principle which applies to all case at once. Of course there are situation where it is important to test that a person knows their stuff, for example medicine and engineering, as you said. I also wouldn't like people to get drivers licences without a test. However most of the exams that I have written in my life haven't been of this type!
    – Nico
    Aug 23 at 10:46
  • @DanielR.Collins Also we do not ask PhD students to write 3 exams every semester, and their work can certainly be safety critical too.
    – Nico
    Aug 23 at 21:48
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I'll add to the other answers that, depending on how dramatic the actual incident was, you might consider saying in class that your question and response to the answers were a bit out of line. The targeted student and others might appreciate it, and it might help you get back any respect you might have lost. If it wasn't a big deal in the classroom, you should probably not do this.

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I guess the fundamental issue is whether your course is filtering, or is educating/exposing students. If you are required to give a sufficient number of bad grades, etc., then, really, I don't see any truly educational content in the issue.

Yes, the more delicate, interesting, and important issue is about classes that kids have been coerced, one way or another, to take. Ideally, yes, the course is "good for them". But they will often have heard gossip in advance, and be somewhat hostile, or, at best, indifferent. Even in my graduate courses, often a large fraction of the people have imbibed a skeptical, if not hostile, attitude. So I view my job as two-fold: explaining the why, in addition to the what, ... and maybe, further, saying that, yeah, of course, I do trust their sensibilities, and that I'm not here to attempt to beat them down by trying to invalidate their own judgement. :)

Occasional snide comments about Central Administration do tend to suggest that we're all on the same side. :) Seriously, I do want to communicate to the students (undergrads or grads) that I am not "tool of the administration", or any such thing.

In that context, for people who've shown up "just needing credits", I take it as a challenge to tweak them, getting them "sucked into" engaging with the topics. That kind of thing. And, if they don't, well, I can't begrudge them that, and I won't disparage them, although I might give them advice.

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In your situation, here is what I might say.

Good morning, students! If you remember, yesterday I asked why you were here, and one of you said "just for the credits", and I said some pretty harsh things in reply. I've had some time to think about what I said, and why. And the first thing I want to do is to say sorry, without any reservations at all, to [insert student's name]. And I'd like to say a bit about why.

Let's imagine something together. Imagine if I said right now, "I will keep teaching this course, but from now on, none of it is for credit. I will deliver my lectures, but the university won't officially count it as attendance. I will set you assignments and mark them, but the marks will not count towards any final grade. And you will sit your final exams, but the grade will not appear on your transcript. You will have to find another course to fill out the credits you need."

If I really meant that, I'd expect very few of you would turn up to my next lecture. I'd expect some of you to walk out right now!

But what this demonstrates is that all of you are here for the credits. Of course, some of you are also here because you are deeply passionate about standard deviations and F-tests. Some of you are here because you really want to be here. But all of you are here because you need to be here.

Indeed, I too am here because I need to be here. I love stats. I love teaching you all about stats. But if the university told me tomorrow that I was now going to do it for free, that I would no longer be paid, I too would walk out of class. I am here teaching you statistics for the cash, just as you are here learning statistics for the credits.

Is there anything wrong with that?

Well, for starters, there is a little voice in my head right now saying, "No! No! Students should be here purely for the love of the subject! It's a shame if they're only here because they need to be!" But my reply is that over the course of life all of us do many things mostly because we need to. We should not be ashamed of that! Interestingly, the people who can devote their energies purely to what they want to do are usually people who somehow have extra time and money to meet their basic needs. They also happen to be people with extra time and money to shape culture and tell others what is right and wrong. It is a mighty suspicious coincidence that they end up glorifying 'doing what you want to do' and putting down 'doing what you need to do', isn't it?

But here is my other fear. I would feel very sad if you felt, week in, week out, that dragging yourself to my class was an unenjoyable chore. Just because you need to be here doesn't mean it has to be a terrible time! In fact, because you need to be here, it is my job to make sure that, at least some of the time, you want to be here! And the wonderful thing is that as humans, we are wired to love learning new things, both because we crave novelty and we enjoy the feeling of a good logical puzzle clicking together. If I am doing my job well -- if I am showing you that the statistical tools in this course are sensible, useful, and vital for modern life -- then I am sure we will have many wonderful 'aha!' moments together, and you will enjoy coming here.

So, please come along with me on this journey. I will do my best to teach, and I hope you will do your best to learn, and together let's do our best to explore the wonderful world of statistics. Precisely because we need to be here, let's make it a joy to be here. You've come here for the credits. I've come here for my paycheck. But let's see if we can come away with a love of statistics.

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