Tall, Dark, and Mysterious


This is not my fault.

File under: Those Who Can't, Queen of Sciences, Know Thyself. Posted by Moebius Stripper at 9:46 pm.

I’m generally pretty candid and introspective regarding my flaws as a teacher, but dammit, there is NO WAY that I could possibly be so bad as to bear any responsibility whatsoever for this one student of mine - the one who needs a B - writing, by way of interpreting a confidence interval for a quiz, What this means is that we are 95% sure that the mean, which is equal to 123, is between 15.05 and 16.95. No amount of bad teaching can produce such nonsense. I may not have been presenting the finer points of sampling as clearly as I might have, but, as God is my witness, I have not been unteaching my English-speaking, college-aged students how the positive real numbers are ordered.

Speaking of this student and confidence intervals: she’d been in my office a few days prior to ask me about the “complidance interval”. She kept repeating this word, “complidance”, and it was fingernails across a chalkboard every single time, to the point that I just wanted to yell CONFIDENCE. IT’S A COMMON ENGLISH WORD THAT MEANS THE SAME THING IN STATISTICS AS IT DOES IN ENGLISH. If this were one of my Asian immigrant students whose English is shaky, I’d have been able to say Actually, it’s ‘confidence’, and my student would have giggled shyly and said, Oh…yes… and then tried it out - con-fi-dence, yes? But Needs-a-B is an anglophone, and a grownup, and correcting anglophone adults on their English is bad etiquette. It humiliates them. It’s like telling someone they have bad breath. So I responded by offering, in effect, what I suppose are the breath mints of mispronounced English, answering every question about the complidance interval in full sentences - Well, to find the CON-FI-DENCE interval here, we need to find the margin of error… And it didn’t take. Now I wonder if I’m even spelling “complidance” correctly. Maybe I’ll find out on the test.


  1. I didn’t know that God existed.

    - wes — 3/21/2005 @ 12:31 am

  2. Maybe she read it wrong… the “fi” can look like a “pl” with a particular kerning.

    “never ascribe to stupidity what can be explained by poor eyesight/hearing/handwriting”

    You could try this: don’t correct, just ask them if they said “confidence” or … that other word (sorry I can’t repeat it, like chewing on aluminum foil). The word is afterall a technical word so it could (conceivably) be some weirdo word never seen before. Just tell the student exactly that, that it’s the same as the word “confidence”.

    Then again, you’re the teacher, if anybody can do correction it’s you.

    - Mitch — 3/21/2005 @ 3:03 am

  3. I went through this with ‘commutative.’ So many students were spelling it ‘communitive’ that I thought I must be mispronouncing it.

    - Sanctimonious Hypocrite — 3/21/2005 @ 6:43 am

  4. complidance lol oh man….

    Which is worse, complidance intervals? Or “I’m way to smart to be in this class, you are such a waste of my time, now how do I do a confidence interval? I was to tired to come to your pitiful class that day. I am applying for a transfer to MIT after all. Will you give me a recomendation?”

    - Shinobi — 3/21/2005 @ 11:35 am

  5. Wes - He exists, He watches over my classes, and He weeps. Why do you think it rains so much on the south coast?

    Shinobi - can’t they both be bad? We can appeal to the Axiom of Suckiness here: If A sucks, but B sucks more, then A still sucks.

    - Moebius Stripper — 3/21/2005 @ 12:29 pm

  6. I must admit that sometimes I have to double-check whether it’s “indeterminate” or “indeterminant”.

    - Rudbeckia Hirta — 3/21/2005 @ 12:50 pm

  7. I feel your pain. Every year, I struggle with students who cannot grasp that “vertices” is the plural of “vertex.” And I make sure to OVER-emphasize this when speaking, just as you do. Now if I can just deal with the students who wrote (2x+1)^n = 2x^n + 1 on the Discrete Math test (a class which has Calc as a pre-req), and other similar errors, I will be happy (note: this was not arithmetic over GF(2)).

    - William — 3/21/2005 @ 12:52 pm

  8. Worse, more bad, less bad. You’re right, it still sucks.

    - Shinobi — 3/21/2005 @ 1:15 pm

  9. Appropos of William’s remark … I love cool plurals like vertices and foci. Sometimes (don’t tell anyone) I go out of my way to fit them into conversation. I’m helped in this endeavor by owing a Ford Focus.

    - wes — 3/21/2005 @ 4:15 pm

  10. William, did they pluralize “vertex” as “vertexes”, or did they singularize “vertices” as “vertice” (pronouced “verticee”)? “Vertexes” I can take, but I can’t hear “vertice” without cringing. (Ditto for “matricee”, apparently the singular form of “matrix”.)

    - Moebius Stripper — 3/21/2005 @ 4:57 pm

  11. Some use vertexes as plural. The worst offenders use
    ver-ti-see as the singular. I do confess to sometimes having grammatical doubts in the midst of a lecture (while writing on board), in which case I usually erase and opt for a simpler sentence.

    - William — 3/21/2005 @ 5:38 pm

  12. On a similar note, am I the only person who uses the highly non-standard “kleenices” and “duplices” as plural forms of “kleenex” and “duplex”, respectively?

    - Dr. Matt — 3/21/2005 @ 8:07 pm

  13. Well, today we (by we I mean me and people in my office who were amused) ended up using alia instead of aliases because “we” couldn’t remember how to form normal plurals.

    I find myself often (actually always) pronouncing dice without the -s sound when I want to say die (I have that fun dialect where the two have real actual different vowels) and I have to restart the word; I use words like vortex and matrix less often, but I will admit to having done matrice(e) a lot because I started out saying the wrong version of the word.

    Everyone loves linguistics, no?

    - wolfangel — 3/21/2005 @ 8:24 pm

  14. Kids in junior high do this all the time. Mostly it’s intentional, and when I correct them with the word “detention” it seems to clear-up their speech impediment. I don’t guess there is an equivalent to detention in College…

    - EdWonk — 3/22/2005 @ 12:04 am

  15. Please tell me I am not the only one bewildered by the use of “suppposebly” in place of “supposedly”?
    I keep hoping someone will use it in a scrabble game which would at least give me an excuse to make them look it up in a dictionary.

    - cal — 3/22/2005 @ 7:21 am

  16. The use of the plural of anyway, makes me want to gouge people’s eyes out. But not as much as when people use whenever when they are talking about a specific instance. “Whenever we were eating lunch today.” OWWWWW. Aaaaanyways…..

    - Shinobi — 3/22/2005 @ 8:52 am

  17. The best plural to drop into conversation is “fora”.

    As I have said in this and other fora. ;-)

    - Marshall Clow — 3/22/2005 @ 9:09 am

  18. Just spoke to Needs-a-B, who wants to know if the mistakes she’s making on all the tests she’s failing are “minor, or serious.” Because she studied for three whole days for this quiz.

    She is 95% sure that 123 is between 15.05 and 16.95, and she can’t solve the equation E=t*s/sqrt(n) for n. What am I supposed to say?

    - Moebius Stripper — 3/22/2005 @ 3:54 pm

  19. Serious?

    - wolfangel — 3/22/2005 @ 4:59 pm

  20. Minor or serious?

    More like ludicrous. (Poor thing.)

    P.S.: What happened to arithmetic problems for commenters?

    - TonyB — 3/22/2005 @ 6:57 pm

  21. My Algebra II teacher could not, for her life, pronounce “asymptotes.” She would always say “ass-muh-totes” instead, and I would giggle heartily. I still fall out of my chair any time I hear that word.

    - Erin — 3/22/2005 @ 8:15 pm

  22. Ha, my high school math teachers were French-Canadians who pronounced everything incorrectly, in the emph-A-sis-on-wrong-syl-LAB-ble way that French-Canadians speak English. It wasn’t until years later that I found out that there was no such thing as an as-SAMP-tote.

    TonyB - the arithmetic problems weren’t much of a spam trap, and spam isn’t as much of an issue anyway for WP1.5, ergo, they are no more.

    - Moebius Stripper — 3/22/2005 @ 8:29 pm

  23. Do you give partial credit? Because you could point out that if the mistakes were minor she’d be getting a lot more partial credit.

    And on the complidance issue…

    I’ve actually been thinking about a similar thing: my students sometimes use the wrong terms referring to things (for instance, a student I had last semester continually referred to the “states” in a graph, because we had been studying finite automata first before ever talking about graphs on their own). My feeling was, forget the terms worry about the concept more .. but now I think I’m wrong about that. If they don’t have the vocabulary right nothing will make sense and they can’t learn properly.

    One of the big issues in Comp Sci theory is the distinction between a Turing machine (M), a string _describing_ a Turing machine ( ), the language accepted by a Turing machine (L(M)) and languages about Turing machines (for instance { | M accepts the string }). Students would get confused and think M and were the same thing, and not understand that the M in { | M accepts } and another M in another set description weren’t related objects. I tried to fix misconceptions but I didn’t do enough, I think, to address the core issue of these various types of things that are all different from one another.

    So my point is, the next time she says “complidence,” correct her, loudly and clearly and drive the point home. It’s just as important as the actual concept, if not more so.

    - Moses — 3/22/2005 @ 8:33 pm

  24. Just for readability: I forgot that angle brackets don’t show up b/c of html issues. All those blank spaces that don’t make sense should be “M”s basically, only we actually use angle brackets for that notation.

    - Moses — 3/22/2005 @ 8:35 pm

  25. One word: Asymtopes.

    One awful, unbearable word …

    - Tarid — 3/22/2005 @ 9:25 pm

  26. Moses, that’s a good point regarding the language. And I do give partial credit…and when someone is failing my class, that’s not a matter of twenty teeny tiny minor mistakes adding up. That’s a matter of missing the boat.

    - Moebius Stripper — 3/23/2005 @ 9:55 am

  27. Oy. I feel your pain. And for what it’s worth, there are social science folks out there (I am one of them) who appreciate greatly those of you that teach these classes that are prerequisites for some of ours.

    I teach the research methods course in my dept. and the Stats class is a prereq. (Of course, some of the other departments require the 2-class sequence for their research methods classes, but our ‘wise’ non-academic president said “Students majoring in [your major] don’t want to have to take math.” And that was the end of that.) The last third of my methods class is stats (and SPSS) and I’m constantly amazed at how many students literally do not understand mean, median, and mode even though they’ve all taken Stats I. Thus, I can only imagine what you go through while teaching this class; I’m not sure how you manage it, but you have my respect.

    - Cheeky Prof — 3/23/2005 @ 3:11 pm

  28. Cheeky - I greatly appreciate the social science academics out there who see statistics as something more than a class that will weed enough students that they can handle the ones who are left. And I’m glad that your research methods class is so statistics-heavy; my brief foray into sociology, in my first year of undergrad, involved a textbook written by someone who obviously would have benefitted from a class like yours. It was almost ten years ago that I took that class, but I specifically remember articles approvingly citing studies in which A and B were found to have a correlation coefficient of 0.000001. “See, they’re related!” cried the text. “Because the CC is positive!!” ARGH. I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of students coming out of that class graduated knowing little about how to discriminate between sources: they’d have one study that was done rigorously, and another for which data was compiled from the 1% of magazine readers who opted to mail in responses, and cite them both as being equally reliable.

    Hopefully my students will at least remember what the mean, median, and mode are a term from now. I’m less optimistic that they’ll remember much about confidence intervals and such, but if five years ago they at least remember what questions to ask (how big was the sample? how was it chosen? what’s the margin of error?) when they read about a study or a poll, I’ll be pretty happy.

    Oh, and an aside: Needs-a-B came to my office hours today with her friend. The good news is, she asked me some questions that indicated that she’s beginning to grasp some of the important concepts - she’s definitely getting a feel for what sorts of things she should be studying. However, she asked me once again if the mistakes she made on the test she failed were “minor, or serious.” I hadn’t given her the straight, honest answer (”serious”) when she’d asked me the first time; I figured there was no point in essentially saying, “yeah, you suck.” Instead I explained the big important concepts that she had obviously missed, and we went over that. Since I hadn’t answered the question directly yesterday, she asked it again today. Again I gave the earlier answer (”here’s what you did wrong”), but added that she was obviously understanding the material a lot better now. I guess I didn’t realize that she knew that the right answer was “minor”, and she just wanted to see if i knew, too. At this point in the conversation her friend said, “they’re minor mistakes, see, you just got the variables mixed up”, and Needs-a-B was happy. Gee, they don’t need me for anything!

    - Moebius Stripper — 3/23/2005 @ 9:09 pm

  29. Needs-a-B needs more of a reality check than her friend is willing to give her. I agree that pretty language doesn’t do a good job of disguising “yeah, you suck”, but I think she needs to hear something like, “yeah, your mistakes were pretty significant.” There’s hope for her if she then says, “At the 5% level?”

    By the way, next she’s going to come back and point out that her grade should be higher because those “minor” mistakes don’t count now that she’s starting to get it.

    - TonyB — 3/24/2005 @ 12:34 pm

  30. It’s not like I told her “no, you’re doing fine, no big deal.” I explained that the answers she’d given had missed the point of the theory. I wasn’t sugar-coating anything, I just wasn’t saying, “they’re serious mistakes” and leaving it at that. And I do think she’s beginning to really get the material, hallelujah.

    Feel free to speculate, TonyB, but I’ve dealt with this student. She won’t complain that she deserves a higher grade; she’s too insecure for that.

    - Moebius Stripper — 3/24/2005 @ 4:06 pm

  31. You’ve dealt with her directly, so I’ll concede the point willingly.

    Can I trade you Needs-a-B for My-Life-Is-Ruined-If-I-Don’t-Get-An-A? She’s eking out a B right now but says she has to get an A because she is an A student. Um. Right.

    - TonyB — 3/24/2005 @ 7:07 pm

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