Wednesday, November 13, 2013

A few student stories....

A recent post where I talk about how insane it is to teach calculus to students that refuse to learn how to add fractions reminded me of a few other stories, which I thought I'd share.

I’m not feeling so bad after the other math teacher said what happened in his calculus class. He told them that they, the students, were going to make up the final exam: each student was to write down 5 problems and answers, and turn them in. He had 9 students, and he told them he would take 15 out of the 45 questions to use on the final. Out of 9 students, zero turned in problems. It’s brutally hard to teach much when so little effort is being put forward.

     I taught three sections of algebra one semester, but for some reason all the problem children were in the Tuesday/Thursday course (which tends to do worse, since the class only meets—coming to class is the bulk of student effort—twice a week, as opposed to the three times of the MWF class). The top student scored an F+ on the final (unlike the many A’s and B’s of the other two classes), to give an idea of the “good” students there. Four students in the problem class showed up over an hour late to take the final exam, a new record.

     The bad students were over-the-top. One student took the trouble to write me a hate letter after failing the third test. “you dont teach to good” was the first statement, and every single line had at least one grammatical error in it. The gist of it was, of course, that her inability to learn was my fault. She really needed to pass the course, and was “dong great” in her other courses. She needed math so that she could eventually become a nurse.

     Since she bothered to hand write a letter, I wrote back. I gave her the chance to prove me wrong, by learning the material from 8 pages in the book, over the course of three weeks. If she could learn 8 pages on her own, that would give me reason to believe she was right, that I can’t teach. I told her if she could answer questions about those 8 pages, I’d pass her in this course she so desperately needed to pass. Three weeks came and went, but she didn’t take me up on the offer: she never bought the book. I actually had several students not bother to get the book even though they get plenty of loan money for it. One complained she wanted her $400 back for the course; at least she won’t have to resell her book (doubtless it would have been in “like new” condition if she had bought it in the first place).

     Thanks to administrative pressure, I took another chapter out of the course material (I’m was barely covering half of what we tell accreditation we glad to be gone from that place). The A students still get A’s, but it doesn’t really seem to help the F students any. I always get the student with the F, F, F, and F on the tests, then turns in a blank sheet of paper for the final, and then hopefully asks if he/she passed…but this semester had at least five such students. I did what I could to not have them complain to the Dean about what a monster I was, because invariably I’m asked to not be such a meanie. An evil part of me wishes some of these students succeed in becoming nurses and take care of the Dean’s children when they need real medical help.

     Most of these “all F” students wanted to know what they could do to pass, hoping for extra credit on the last day of the course. This doesn’t happen in a vacuum, I know at least one teacher here gives about 50% of the grade via extra credit. A few other students just wanted flat out a better grade. “I know my average is  45, but can’t you just round that to a 70 so I get a C?” Yoiks.

     I did have a great highlight in statistics. One student was really annoying with the questions, flurries of them, and always basic stuff that the rest of the class knew and learned weeks earlier. “What’s that x with a bar over it mean again?” “What’s that u looking thing?” “How do you know where the = sign goes?” “What’s the x thing mean again?” “How do you know .02 is lower than .05?” “How can you tell when the numbers are negative?” “Wait, what’s that x thing?”

     Just an endless barrage, and it slowed the class down to a crawl. Finally, another student snapped, and snarled at her:

     “Why don’t you just study?!”

     The class laughed uproariously, and the student chilled out a bit, at least for one class. It was all I could do not to laugh as well. I wish I could catch the oceans of annoyance in the inflection on “study”, it was quite remarkable.


  1. I remember J.F. Adams lecturing once and a student saying, "Excuse me, I don't understand that"; Adams replied, "I suggest you go home and read a book on it until you do understand it."

  2. I used to teach a course in dynamics. One concept in that field is angular acceleration and it's represented by the Greek letter alpha. One year, I had a student who kept referring to that symbol as "fish thing".


  3. I'll probably list some more when I run into a slow period....check out Academic Water Cooler, they're big on student stories there.

    I'm reluctant to criticize students, even the, well, losers. They shouldn't be in college, faulting them for looking bad would be like faulting me for doing terribly in the ice dancing in the Olympics.

  4. I had no problem working with students who weren't Mensa material but one thing that made my life miserable were students who did no work whatsoever (and I had lots of those) or simply didn't catch on that they were trying to work at a level well past their limitations.

    In fact, one of my favourite students was a kid who thought that 60% in a course was an achievement for him, but he appreciated whatever I could do for him. Mind you, he came from a culture in which teachers were given as much respect as the physician and the priest.

    As for AWC, I'm quite familiar with it as I've posted some comments there. But I've also followed its predecessors Rate Your Students and College Misery.