Tall, Dark, and Mysterious

3/22/2006

Your stupid misconceptions addressed

File under: Righteous Indignation, Those Who Can't. Posted by Moebius Stripper at 9:42 pm.

Things are pretty busy here at TD&M Headquarters: I’m away on business working long hours; I’ve been spending a lot of time in the studio; and, oh yeah, I’ve been taking care of everything that needed to be taken care of before my new condo officially became mine. Why, I’d have nothing worth blogging if it weren’t for the fact that one of my former students recently took me to task in the comments section on my most recent post!

Just kidding! Reader Carolyn wasn’t one of my students; rather, she’s a genetically engineered composite of every student that every academic blogger has ever complained about. O Lord, thank you for this bounty.

Hi, I just happened to come across your website while searching for something on Google.

Welcome! Make yourself at home, and above all, don’t be shy about telling me what you think of me and my blog!

I have read a lot of your posts and some of them are pretty interesting, while others are kinda depressing.

I am currently an undergraduate student, and therefore your posts about education interests me the most. I’d like to say that some of them are not totally fair, this is, of course, from a student’s perspective, and as we all know, a students’ perspective is often different from that of the teachers. :)

Yes, different. Bear in mind, though, that all teachers once were students, whereas few students once were teachers.

It’s called perspective.

First of all, I’d like to state that I am not a bad student, nor a lazy one. In fact I’m a pretty good student, if not the best in my school. Still, I found that playing bingos made of students’ mistakes is a cruel idea.

You should see the bingo card I made from students’ complaints about my blog.

Well, yes, I can see the humor in it, but still, in my homeland, there is an old saying: there are no bad students, there are only bad teachers.

And you left your homeland, yes?

I understand a teacher’s frustration when he can not make a student understand something, I also understand that certain students can be irritating, but, it’s not very professional to make fun of your students that way, well, not even on a website. You know not everybody in this world is very bright, but if you are not tolerant of this, you shouldn’t be teaching in the first place.Maybe I am taking it too seriously , but I feel very sad when I think about the possiblity that my own teachers may do the same with our mistakes.

Let me provide some never-before-published context to Precalculus Bingo, one of whose squares is “(x+y)^2=x^2+y^2″. Students are taught to expand (x+y)^2 in grade nine, if not grade ten; they then use it again in grades eleven and twelve, both of which were prerequisites for the college math class I taught. I had them expand such a quantity on their first quiz. Three quarters of them made the mistake on the bingo card. I spent ten minutes the next day going over it; I explained how they could substitute values for x and y and see that their fabricated identity didn’t hold; I showed them how to expand it.

A week later, I gave the same question on the next quiz. Nearly as many students got it wrong. Again I went over it in detail; again I explained how to expand algebraic expressions. I announced that I’d spent over half an hour on that one question, plus they’d had plenty of similar ones in the homework; I told my students that if I ever saw that mistake again, they’d get a mark of zero on the question. Consider yourselves warned, I said.

Five students made that mistake on the test. This is the sort of mistake I put on my bingo card.

Secondly, about grade inflation. I’d like to say that grades are not accurate indicators of one’s ability and will never be. I am not saying that people who always get D’s can actually be bright, though many famous scientists used to be terrible students when they were young (Albert Eistein for one). Therefore, I see no point for a teacher to take it to the extreme and say “oh, I am gonna be a super strict teacher and give the whole class a D average just to prove I am a committed teacher who cares about my students”.

Oh, and I said that where? Nowhere. I did, however, say this:

Precalculus I is a prerequisite for Precalculus II, which many of my students, such as you, are going to need to take. And Precalculus II is harder than this course, and builds upon it. A mark of C+ or higher, from me, means that you have the background that you need to pass Precalculus II. If I just increase marks of D’s to B’s, that doesn’t mean that a D student has the understanding they need for Precalculus II - they’ll still fail it. So I wouldn’t be doing anyone any favours if I made this course, or my tests, easier. It’s only by showing me that you have C+ understanding, or more, of this class, that I will be able to see that you’re prepared for Precalculus II.

I, and every single other teacher who does not run an independent school, have a curriculum to follow. Mathematics is cumulative; I need to know that my students have attained the level of understanding that they need to move on. Which kind of flies in the face of your “marks don’t mean anything, so give me an A” theory, so feel free to disregard. After all, students often have a different perspective from teachers.

From my experience, the real learning does not take place in school anyways.

And this translates into a mandate to give higher marks…how, precisely?

If a person is really commited to learning, he/she can always borrow books from library and study on his/her own without going through any kind of formal education. Since you are a college professor, I would assume your students are old enough to do this if they want to.

That’s two uses of the hypothetical syllogism in as many sentences, so let’s address both antecedents right now:

One - here’s a real-life conversation (abridged) that I had last term:

Student: I was never good at math and haven’t taken any math courses for the first three years of my degree. What do you suggest?

Me: Well, I’ve placed some high school math books on reserve in the library, and -

Student: Where’s the library?

Two - speaking of learning stuff on one’s own: sidebar sez, erstwhile college instructor. Run along, look it up on your own outside the classroom; I’ll still be here when you’re done.

Then, what’s the real point of going to university or college? learning? well, maybe, a little bit. I don’t think that learning something in three months and then getting tested on it(whether it’s math or statistics) can make one more educated.

Then get out of the classroom; you’re wasting your time.

Therefore, in my humble opinion, an important aspect of going to school is getting regonized for one’s abilility. That’s what the grading system is for. It is to show the future employer that a person is intelligent enough to perform certain tasks. Therefore, grades are important to students and will always be.

A summary:

  1. Grades are meaningless.
  2. Therefore I should give higher grades.
  3. You don’t really get educated in school, remember? Grades are meaningless.
  4. Grades are a means of recognizing students for their ability.
  5. Which was not acquired or honed in the classroom in which those grades were assigned.
  6. Making grades kinda disconnected from the grader and the material being graded.
  7. Still, because they determine employment prospects, grades are super important to students.
  8. But still meaningless.

Good to know.

Many would be idealistic and say university is about learning, I would beg to differ and say it’s 50% about personal growth and 20% about learning and 30% about the degree.

Well, that’s a load of 95% bullshit.

Seriously: I hate, hate, hate it when people think that their unfounded theories gain legitimacy by virtue of having made-up numbers attached to them. That right there is a reason that every member of a democratic society should learn statistics: so that they’re not so dazzled by numbers that they accept uncritically every statement that invokes them. Nonetheless, even if we accept your made-up statistics, how does the fact that university is 50% about personal growth mandate me giving higher grades?

This leads to the whole “students complaining about marks” question. I wouldn’t lie and say I have never complained about a teacher giving us a unreasonably hard test or about an irresponsible TA marking over-strictly. I actually do it a lot, though not always directly to the professor or the TA’s.

And we take your complaints very very seriously. Sometimes we even blog about them!

I have to say that students, as payers of their education, should have the right to question an unfair mark, if they indeed have the reason to.

And they do have that right; it’s a free country. Hell, I even let my non-paying scholarship and bursary students question their marks. The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees them the right to ask questions; who am I to rescind it?

I have found, from my undergraduate experience, that professors and TA’s can be totally unreasonable and unfair when marking students’ tests. I can understand that from a teacher’s point of view, you may not think you have done anything wrong. But from the students’ point of view, we have not done anything wrong neither. And there is no reason why you must be absolutely right, and we must be absolutely wrong.

Yes, there is a reason: I have two degrees in the subject I teach, and you have none. I am familiar with the curriculum; therefore, I know what students need to know in order to advance to the next course, and you don’t. I have a broad background in my subject, and I know how the various threads of it fit together; consequently, I know what types of mistakes are serious, and which types are minor - and you don’t. I bring a decade of study and experience to the table, and I base my judgements on that. You bring only a sense of entitlement. There’s a chance you’re right and I’m wrong about a test or a grade, but frankly, the odds are against you.

One important thing about academia is the freedom of thoughts, the freedom of argument and sharing our different views. I’m sorry if I have sounded rude, but that’s the way it is.

You don’t sound rude; just ignorant. After all, you’re espousing the view that learning is only a minor function of the academy, whereas providing a forum where people wave around their baseless claims so that they can compete with one another on equal footing is “one important thing” about it. You don’t need university to “share [your] different views”; you can do that at a coffee shop, a park, or a party. You can even complain about how unfair your teachers are in all of those forums.

If you are going to outright dismiss the superior expertise and background of the people charged with expanding your worldview and not merely validating it, then there is no point in you going to university.

People are biased creatures you know, even the brightest man can make mistakes, and I don’t think every professor belongs to the brightest catogary.

Yes, everyone can make mistakes. I have certainly done so in setting tests or grading, and I have made amends - successfully, from what I’ve been told - whenever that came to my attention.

A low grade or a difficult test, however, is not prima facie a mistake.

Finally, I want to agree with you that the Canadian, and actually the whole North American education system doesn’t prepare a lot of people well for an university education. . Since I have studied for quite some time in East Asia, I have a comparison. It’s true that the education here is pretty slack. From your posts I can see that you are quite fond of the education of “your time”, and I am kind of suspicous of this.

Well, “my time” had its advantages and disadvantages. On the one hand, I’m feeling more than a shade nostalgic for those halcyon days when we didn’t sass our elders like you’re doing now. On the other hand, walking to school barefoot in the snow kinda sucked.

In fact, I find this generation of students to be a lot brighter on average than the previous generations, in many aspects (technology for one).

I tutored a grade 12 student this summer. He was weak in basic algebra, so we spent some time going over the basics. I went through one linear equation step-by-step, and then pointed to the last line and said, “So - x equals five times two,” and paused.

“Holdonasec,” said my student, and darted upstairs. I waited for two minutes until he returned with his backpack. He threw the bag on the floor beside him, opened it, and withdrew a pencil case. Slowly, he opened the pencil case, and pulled out a fucking graphing calculator. He then keyed in, 5, x, 2, = before triumphantly declaring, “Ten.”

Every generation has geniues and idiots, and it’s hard to compare.

No, it’s easy to compare: a first-year statistics course’ll provide you with the tools to identify trends. See your local university for a statistics class near you! If you think that you can’t analyze data because it can’t always be linearly ordered, then your university education has been for naught.

Easter education is probably the strictest and the most rigorious in the world, but they produce far less Nobelist than North America, and there is a reason for that. This is where a rigorous education is simply not enough.

In any first-year statistics course - you know, the one whose content you obviously don’t get at all - one learns that one can’t compare data sets by looking at the outliers.

Go learn about what that means - independently, in a library - and then we’ll talk.

well, this was a long rant. Just wanted to share a student’s point of view, somewhat different from yours. Maybe you find these ideas unimpressive, but at least it will help you understand better what your students may be thinking. I see you are a committed and serious teacher, these are what you want to know, right?

Well, inasmuch as gazing into the abyss can be educational, sure.