Tall, Dark, and Mysterious

10/22/2004

Data retention

File under: Those Who Can't. Posted by Moebius Stripper at 4:56 pm.

One of these days, I should post about how much I like my students. I really do. I have a handful - as in, I can count them on the fingers of one hand - that I wish weren’t in my classes, but the overwhelming majority of the ones I’ve actually spoken more than a few words to are mature and eminently reasonable people; of those, a substantial portion are also putting in the effort required to master the material I teach. Swear to God; I don’t know what I did to deserve this.

Anyway, my precalculus students wrote a test the other day. I tend to make my tests “semicumulative” - 90% of the test is drawn from new material, and the remaining 10% is culled from topics they were exposed to before the previous test. On this test, their second, I put two questions that could have been on Test #1; of these, my students were to choose one, and I’d count the better one. One of my top students came to me after the test and mentioned that she’d done almost perfectly on the new material (she had), but couldn’t get more than half marks on either of the “old” questions. She wasn’t complaining; she was commenting that she’s clearly able to learn and understand the material, but that she has trouble retaining it. She asked me if I had any advice.

I didn’t offhand, but I told her that hers was a valid and worthwhile question, and that I’d think about it over the weekend and see if I could come up with any useful advice. I know that there are a number of experienced high school and university math instructors reading this blog, and I’d love to hear if you have any insights into how math students (and students in general) could better retain the material they learn - as well as how math teachers could teach for better retention. (Please ping this post if you think your readers might have any ideas!) Every year in grade school and high school, math teachers spend several weeks reviewing the previous year’s material, so this is clearly a pretty widespread problem.