Tall, Dark, and Mysterious


‘And why are there classes like this?’

File under: Righteous Indignation, Those Who Can't, Know Thyself. Posted by Moebius Stripper at 8:37 am.

If I didn’t know better, I’d swear that Rudbeckia Hirta was teaching one of the other sections of precalculus at Island U - that’s how applicable this post of hers is to my situation:

I know that in my department we teach THOUSANDS of students each year, and we only have a few dozen majors. Almost all of our teaching is to freshmen in other departments. These other departments tell us which topics they want their students to see and how many semesters we have to cover it (and it’s often too much stuff in too little time). Completing these sequences in math certifies that the student knows some basic facts, can be trusted to be in a certain place at a certain time more often than not, and can follow basic directions.

…as long as intro-level courses continue to be service courses taken by freshmen who haven’t yet learned how to study, think, or learn, nothing is going to change.

It took me six months to figure it out, but I finally realized that teaching precalculus is not merely a challenging task: it is an impossible one. And that’s a big part of the source of my stress over this course - even if you do an impossible task well, it’s still and impossible task and at the end of the day, you’ve still failed. You can’t win. My job description, according to the sample syllabus I was given at the beginning of the term, is to teach thirty students how to factor quadratics, solve simple algebraic equations, solve algebraic inequalities, graph various types of functions, approximate roots of polynomials, and solve exponential and logarithmic equations. That’s certainly tractable with an audience of students who come with the prerequisite knowledge and experience. But students who haven’t learned any of the basics in math, and who haven’t learned to “study, think, or learn” aren’t ready to do what’s required by the syllabus unless I limit myself to showing step-by-step how to do a very limited array of questions, which they will then mimic when they see those exact same questions on the test. But that’s not math, and I refuse to do it. So, my real job - which I have three months to accomplish - is to teach thirty students (most of whom have failed at least one math class before) how to do five years’ worth of math (remember, these are the students who can’t add fractions), how to read mathematics, how to think about and study the subject…and only then can I teach them what I’m technically required to teach them.

They have another test this coming week. They’re going to do poorly. And it’s not because they’re not working hard, and it’s not because I am a bad teacher. It’s because I am not a miracle worker.


  1. dumb question, (and I know you gone over the prereqs for these classes) but tell me again why the high school classes that your precalc class duplicates weren’t prerequisites for applying to the university programs these students are talking your precalc class for?

    - Jen — 3/28/2005 @ 9:27 am

  2. Don’t give up. My nephew reports that his Calc II class at Public Major Research University is taught by a Prof and all exams consist of 5 problems taken from homework — and you are allowed a cheat cheet (on which students copy all homework problems). So sadly, some folks are not teaching any math/thinking at that level or else have just given up trying.

    - William — 3/28/2005 @ 9:56 am

  3. I think I’ve seen some of that myself, Jen.

    (I’ve done two semesters of GTA work at a Technological University in the Great Lakes region ).

    There are a large number of students who take Algebra/Trig (even Calc!!) in high school, and learn a lot of formulas, button sequences on calculators, and such stuff.
    This subset of students don’t learn how to take the mathematical knowledge they have, and apply it to a generic problem. They often don’t perform arithmetic predictably.

    In my opinion, they haven’t had the right kind of math teaching for whatever courses they were in.

    I suspect this is what M.Stripper is mentioning in the post.

    - talon karrde — 3/28/2005 @ 10:08 am

  4. Um, well, I can answer that one: because they =did= take those classes, and they passed those classes. Even though they didn’t know anything. And colleges know that getting passing grades in high school classes means absolutely nothing.

    I’ve taught calculus to students who took calculus in high school (and passed, but didn’t get high enough scores on AP tests to place out of Calc 1) — and these are students who told me they didn’t know the formula for the area of a circle. Seriously. They had gone through algebra, geometry, and trig in high school, and had gotten decent grades in them. Forget about adding fractions.

    Anyway, that’s why colleges are more likely to rely on AP and achievement tests as prerequisites.

    - meep — 3/28/2005 @ 10:10 am

  5. I see my head explode everytime I contemplate that.

    - Jen — 3/28/2005 @ 10:28 am

  6. I’ve decided to talk to the department head to see if we can introduce placement tests for incoming students; those who don’t pass, won’t get admitted to precalculus. Because, as Meep says, the prerequisites don’t mean anything. I have a handful of students who, while weak, seem to have actually learned something prior to entering university. They tend to do all right in my class; hard work is generally enough to get them the C+’s they need.

    - Moebius Stripper — 3/28/2005 @ 5:43 pm

  7. M.S.

    While this is not math related, my principles class draws heavily on pre-reqs. The first day of class, I give them a disgnostic quiz - 10-15 questions that all involve necessary pre-req knowledge. There’s some accounting and some basic math. One of them typically asks a simple question like

    12/(square root of X) = 4, solce for X.

    I keep the quizzes.
    I then tell them that if they score less than 70% on the quiz, they have several options:

    1) PLan on spending a LOT more time working on the material
    2) Actually use my office hours to get regular help
    3) Get a regular tutor
    4) Drastically revise their expectation as to what grade they will get in the class
    5) Drop the class and re-take either after redoing the missing pre-req knowledge or at a time when you can do #1, 2, or 3

    I’ll often remind them of this after the first exam. A few get it, most don’t. The most gratifying ones are the ones who fail and then retake it with me the next semester after “getting religion”. I have one this semester who is currently the 6th best out of 50 students, after failing last semester.

    - Unknown Professor — 3/28/2005 @ 8:06 pm

  8. Hold on, William, you tell me that and then tell me not to give up? Shee ;)

    Unknown Professor - hey, if that’s the sort of non-math-related stuff you’re going to post here, post on. That’s a great idea…alas, if only I were at a single school long enough to make it work. I tried a sort of wimpy, noncommittal version of your diagnostic quiz earlier this term: I gave the precalc students a “stuff you should know by now” worksheet on the first day of class, and told them that if they were having any trouble with anything on it, to see me soon. Like, within the next two weeks, and even that was pushing it. I told them that they would need everything on that sheet in my class, so if they were having trouble, that needed to be addressed soon.

    No one came to my office. One student, who can’t set up the simplest word problem to save her life, came to me a few weeks ago after failing the second test. I asked her if she tried the simple word problems that were on the worksheet. Did I mean the worksheet I handed out at the very beginning of class? Yes, that one.

    Oh, she said, she did SOME of the problems on the worksheet, but she didn’t know how to do the word problems so she didn’t do them.

    I give up, dammit.

    - Moebius Stripper — 3/29/2005 @ 4:21 pm

RSS feed for comments on this post.

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.