Tall, Dark, and Mysterious

3/9/2005

Victory has never tasted so sour.

File under: Those Who Can't, Know Thyself. Posted by Moebius Stripper at 7:59 pm.

This test was even more poorly done than the last one, and I thought it was easier. (It was one of those tests where in preparing it I found myself wondering, “What the hell have we COVERED in the past month? What can I test them on?” about fifty times, and the content of the test reflects that. Most of the questions are as routine as could be, with only a small handful that require a smidgen of insight into the material.) Might have something to do with the fact that attendance - which was crappy on the second day of class - has been dwindling. I have a couple of students, educated in the Eastern hemisphere, who declared to me on the first day of class that they’d seen all this stuff before. I suggested that they sign up for calculus instead, but they told me that they’d prefer to skip all classes but the tests and pocket the easy A.

Half of them failed this test.

Has anyone who reads this successfully taught a class full of supremely unmotivated university students who don’t even have a passing knowledge of junior high-level math? It’s that combination of apathy and mathematical weakness that’s the killer. I’d love to give assignments, but from past experience assignment marks tend to be preposterously inflated, because there are always a handful of students (or undergrads who work in the tutorial centre) who are willing to “help” their friends/clients (read: do the work for them). Speaking of the tutorial centre - some of my kids who work their asses off for this course in the most wrong way imaginable spend hours there every week, and appear to be none the wiser for it. I suspect that the tutorial centre is a valuable resource for students who got stuck on a problem and have specific questions about it - but not for students who bring their textbooks and notes there and declare that they don’t know how to do any of the problems, and would the tutors please show them. I often get students started on a solution, and then send them away to think about it; apparently many of them have been carting off their half-solutions off to the tutorial centre to get them finished them off.

I’ve posted a copy of this phenomenal article, How To Read Mathematics outside my office, and I’ve expanded on many of the strategies in the classroom, but I don’t think anyone’s listening. They want the magic formulas, and they get very agitated when I don’t provide them. No wonder they hate math. If I thought that math was all about magic formulas, I’d hate it too.

Lately I’ve been thinking that if I ever teach a course like precalculus (and, truth be told, at this point my frustration with it trumps my desire to rise to the challenge of being the instructor who got it right), I’ll have the students keep “math diaries” - when they work on the problems, particularly the applications, they’ll have to write a few sentences about how the approached the questions, and I’ll grade their work. Has anyone tried anything like that? I can’t imagine it’s a worse idea than anything I’ve tried thus far in my spectacularly unsuccessful attempts to convey the idea that equations actually mean something. My reservations at this point are: 1) cheating is still an issue, though less so than it would be with straight assignments, since “explain in your own words” would be an explicit part of the instructions; 2) I’m already so completely swamped with the three-preps-four-classes courseload that I can’t imagine where I’d find the time to prepare the additional worksheets and do the additional grading; every week, I plan sixteen hours of lectures, set one test and two quizzes, and grade 30-50 test papers and 60-70 quizzes, and I’m collapsing from exhaustion every week as it is; 3) I don’t know where I’d find the time in the curriculum to spend this extra time requiring my students to do elementary school- and high school-level math - which is where I’d have to start. But if I thought this was a good use of class time and homework time, I’d do it.

Does anyone have any experience with math homework in lower-level, required math courses in a university that never evaluates these students on anything other than timed tests and quizzes? Any thoughts?