Wednesday, December 22, 2010

What math is and is not

Robert Lewis has a great essay on math, as the most misunderstood subject.  I couldn't agree more! 

In addition to an analogy with sports training similar to one I have here, I especially liked his parable of the hostile party goer.  He is confronted by a man complaining that he was forced to memorize the quadratic formula, and yet has never had to use it.  Lewis compares this to the absurd notion that we should complain to our first grade teachers that we have not once had to recall the details of the ever popular Dick and Jane books.  Why would we need to spend so much time reading the books if the information contained within them can be so easily forgotten?  Of course, the answer is that we used the books to learn to read well.  Similarly, we practice (even memorize) math to learn to think well.

Lewis has captured exactly the problems most Americans have with mathematics and the ways they misunderstand the subject.  But what's next?  How can we correct this error for future generations?  I suspect it all starts with us: college math professors, especially those of us who get to teach future K-12 teachers.  We need to teach with an understanding of what math is, so they will have that understanding, so they in turn can teach in a way that their students appreciate what math is and what it is not.  I am not calling for a change in K-12 math curriculum.  That is too early to teach the nuances of math.  Instead, the teachers must present the mathematics in a way which respects the subject and prepares students to uncover the hidden richness of mathematics as they mature.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Attendance Issues

At about the midpoint of this last semester, students here at Coastal had a day off (a fall "student holiday").  Not surprisingly, many student took the day before off as well.  In my Math 139 classes, I had 15/40 and 11/37 attendance, respectively.  It got me thinking about my policy on taking attendance.

I have long held that whether a student wants to come to class is entirely their business.  They (or their parents) have paid for college, and if they want to (foolishly) squander their opportunities to learn the material, that is their choice.  This would be a fine policy if I did not plan on reviewing material until everyone understands.  But of course I do try to ensure that everyone learns the material and this is much more difficult when half the class is a day behind.  So even if it appears that the absent students are only hurting themselves, it does effect me as well as the responsible students.  Thus encouraging regular attendance is important.

I decided after that class to start sending around a sign-in sheet at the start of every class.  I did not change my policy on attendance at all (although the syllabus says I have the option of failing a student who misses too many classes, attendance is not factored into their grade).  Attendance shot up.  Not to 100% or anything close to it, but considering the course, there was a marked improvement. 

A couple of times students would ask if their grade would be effected because they had to miss an upcoming class.  I told them not to worry about it.  If anyone asked whether I was going to make attendance part of the final grade, I simply didn't answer.  It was all done with a wink and a nod, and honestly, I don't think I fooled anyone into thinking that their grade would go down if they missed a class (other than the missed opportunity to learn the material, but that threat had been there from the beginning). 

Today I got back my instructor evaluations.  In one of my "ways to improve" comments I got:

Take attendance at beginning of semester; I need a reason to come.
Who knew?  The point is, sending around an attendance sheet is almost no work for me, takes almost no time away from class, improves attendance, and is in fact appreciated by the students. 

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Uniformly bad

A little over half of the courses I have taught over the years have been "uniform" courses.  These lower level math courses have multiple sections each semester, so the department has decided to appoint a course coordinator to oversee all the instructors.  While there is some variation on how coordinated these courses are, usually it goes as far as common exams and group grading, although most instructors are allowed to write their own quizzes, group work (if any) and assign homework as they see fit.  I understand the allure of running courses this way, and there are many arguments in favor of this approach.  The problem is that not one of those arguments are for the benefit of the students.  Sadly, the more uniform we make our classes, the worse they will be for our students.

Not every college professor is a great teacher.  I think we have all run into professors who don't prepare classes well, don't write relevant exams, grade those exams unfairly, and fail to cover all the material the course is supposed to contain.  Ideally, uniform courses would correct these problems.  They do not.  Classes can still be poorly prepared.   Exam, unless the coordinator happens to be this bad professor, will be written well, but for students in the bad professor's class, they will not be relevant.  Exams will be graded uniformly over all sections, but not uniformly over the exam itself: one page might have a reasonable partial credit policy, while the next be all or nothing.  Worst of all, if this poor professor does not cover everything he or she is supposed to in class, then either those students will do badly on that part of the final exam (for not having seen the material ever) or all the sections will drop the material from the exam. 

The more uniform the course, the more uniform the level of instruction.  Unfortunately, this level drops to near that of the worst teacher in the group. Consider two examples, each occurring this last week.  In a class with common exam, graded communally, all sections had to delay returning exams because one professor was too busy to get his pages graded.  Another class, again will common exams, although not graded together, a professor decided to let some student take the exam late, resulting in a ban on returning (fully graded) exams to students in other sections.  Now in this case, neither professor is the proverbial bad teacher of the previous paragraph: both just happened to find themselves in less than ideal situations.  But because of the uniformity of the courses, this non-ideal situation spread to all the sections.  Getting exam back quickly is not the most important thing in a college course, but it does benefit students to see their graded exams as soon as possible, as they will then be more likely to look over their mistakes and remember why they made them.

I understand that math departments need to have standards and that universities need to be assessed and accredited.  We do not want some student coming out of calculus having just learned the basic derivative rules (without proof) and others getting a full course in real analysis.  Some level of coordination is necessary.  Here is how I would do it: everyone uses the same textbook, and everyone covers the same sections (with perhaps one or two optional sections, left up to individual instructors, as time permits).  Everyone has the same number of exams, worth the same percentage of students' final grades.   Exams are graded individually, but the coordinator sends out instructions on the level of partial credit to assign.  If the university has a final exam time for all lower level math courses, then there is a common final.  For all other exams, instructors are welcome to collaborate, and the coordinator can be the one to write these, but they do not need to do so.  That way, if one instructor misses a day and needs to push back his or her exam, there will not be conflicts.  All exams should be sent to the coordinator, for approval and record keeping.  That is all.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Separating proofs in low level classes

The semester has gotten off to a busy start, thus the lack of postings.  Anyway, this morning, I was thinking about a student who came to my office hours for some review on derivative rules.  He had forgotten how to take the derivative of $3^x$.  As he flipped through his notes, and eventually found the relevant page, he asked, "Oh right, is that where you sue the frog rule?"  You see, I had joked with my class that I call the logarithm rule for exponents the frog rule because the exponent jumps over the log.  Like a frog.  This of course has nothing to do with the derivative rule for $a^x$, except that when we derived the rule, we needed to use some properties of logarithms (we took the derivative of both sides of $a^x = e^{ln(a^x)}$). 

This got me thinking about a problem that I have noticed before.  Students seem to have a hard time distinguishing between the proof and the result.  This is not as much an issue in a higher level class, where proofs are common.  By then students understand what we are doing.  But in a first semester calculus class, many students are not aware of the important role of proofs in mathematics.  So what to do?

I admit that part of the blame lies with the way I present the material.  I try hard not to make my lecture into a list of theorems each followed by a proof.  Doing so makes the class rather dry, I think.  Plus, not everything we say in calculus comes with a detailed proof.  For the derivative rules, I think it is much nicer to start out with the desire to discover the rule, and then derive it.  That's what I did for $a^x$.  But with students furiously copying down everything I write on the board, the distinction between reason and result can be lost.

Here is my idea: tell students not to take notes.  I want them to see the reason something is true, and I want them to realize that finding this reason is important.  But I don't want them to miss the punchline.  In the end, a student who knows the derivative rules front and back is way better off than a student who has a book full of notes on how the rules were derived.  I think that such a tactic might actually improve understanding of the derivation.  If I tell my students that I just want to them to watch carefully what I am doing, then just maybe they will and see what is going on right then.  When I get to the result, I would tell everyone that this is the thing they should right down and memorize. 

I am sure that this would have improved my evaluations of trigonometry last spring as well.  Many students mentioned that they did not like all the time spent going over why something was true, they just wanted the facts.  I am not about to cut out proofs and derivations, but announcing ahead of time that it is not necessary to copy the whole thing down, might just do the trick.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Something is working

This fall I'm teaching Calculus I for the third time here at Coastal.  Perhaps because I just taught it at the end of the summer, I am finding that it is working particularly well.  I'm not entirely sure why.  Student interaction is good, and I'm sure that is helping.  But beyond that, the lectures seem to be flowing in a way they have not previously.

One possibility is the way I just happen to be presenting the material.  I thought I'd take a moment and record a couple of examples here. 

  1. To introduce limits, I started by asking how we might graph $f(x) = \frac{sin(x)}{x}$.  We had previously talked about the graph of $f(x) = \frac{1}{x}$, and what happens at $x = 0$.  We said that while you cannot plug in 0, you can ask what happens near 0.  So we tried that again.  What happens to $f(x)$ as $x$ gets closer and closer to 0.  We made a table, everyone agreed that the $y$-values were getting closer to 1.  Only then did I start using the language "limit."  I gave them the notation as a way to quickly write down what we just did.  This seemed much more natural than giving them a definition of a limit (out of thin air) and then showing them a bunch of examples.
  2. For left/right-hand limits, I only introduced them after we discovered the problem in finding limits if the $y$-values approach different values from each side.  I gave them a graph and asked them to find limits in a variety of cases.  We all agreed that at the jump discontinuity, the limit did not exist.  But of course, we can be more descriptive than this.  Coming from one side, the limit does exist.  Then I introduced that notation.
  3. For continuity, I drew two graphs, one continuous, and one with a jump discontinuity.  I asked the class what was different about the graphs.  We agreed that the continuous one was continuous and the other not.  I asked what other ways a graph might not be continuous.  We came up with a graph with a removable discontinuity and an infinite discontinuity.  Now, how might we say something about these in terms of limits?  
  4. Continuing with continuity, to introduce the difference between continuous at a point vs interval, I covered up the discontinuity and asked if the rest of the graph was continuous.  We agreed it was, so decided that we needed to express continuity at specific points.  This led us to the limit definition of continuity.  This was so much more natural than giving the definition, and then figuring out what it means.
That's all we have done so far.   I'm not sure if this luck will continue.  The common theme seems to be that instead of giving the definition and trying to apply it (which of course has it's place and value), I'm asking them to solve problems, then coming up with the math-way of saying what we are doing. 

I don't know if this is helping the students (we have not had any exams yet) but it definitely feels better to me.   I plan to make an effort to continue using this "technique" for the rest of the class and see how it goes.

Friday, August 13, 2010

The problem = equal signs

New research out of Texas A&M suggests that 70% of middle school students don't understand what the "=" sign means.  The article can be found here.  The key point, as pointed out in the article:
The problem is students memorize procedures without fully understanding the mathematics.
It is interesting that the problem runs this deep.  My calculus students have trouble solving velocity problems because they try to memorize the procedure instead of understanding the problem.  Of course, when they forget one step, they are completely lost.  This study suggests that even from the first time students are exposed to math, they are only taught the steps for solving math problems. 

I am not suggesting that we move to a "new math" style of instruction, where answers don't matter, and all the emphasis is on concepts.  However, if students really have this little understanding of even the simplest of math concepts, we are really missing the point of teaching math entirely.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Thinking vs Doing

Word problems are hard for students.  I've never really understood why before.  You read the problem, figure out what it is asking, figure out how to answer the question, and do it.  Usually the mathematics part is not that hard.  So why to students have so much trouble?

One of the reasons might be that many students have never been shown how to think about the problem.  So much of mathematics is about doing. Here are the steps you need to follow to solve an equation.  Here is the process to find the equation of the tangent line.  When you want to find the absolute maximum of the function, first... then... and finally... etc.  Many problems in mathematics are complex and require multiple steps.  When we teach students how to solve these problems, it is very tempting to teach them the algorithm for arriving at the solution.  No doubt there is value in learning how to follow a recipe, but as a method for solving a problem, it can be perilous.  If we simply follow the steps, it is all to easy to miss one without realizing it, resulting in a wrong, or even meaningless answer.

As professional mathematicians, this is rarely a problem, since while applying the problem solving algorithm, we realize why we are performing each step.  If we miss a step, we will notice immediately (most of the time).  But for a student who is first encountering a type of problem, this is near impossible.  They are worried about following the steps, not why the steps matter.  If they would just stop to think about what they are doing, they would realize that something has gone wrong.

Consider this example: in calculus, we ask our students some simple velocity problems.  We give them a formula for the height of an object at time t, ask them to find a formula for velocity, then ask them,
  1. What is the maximum height of the object?
  2. How fast is the object going when it hits the ground?
This semester, I asked how fast the object was traveling when it was 35 feet above the ground.  A student promptly plugged in 35 for t in the velocity formula.  Why would she do such a thing?  This particular student is usually very bright, and definitely hard working.  I suspect that her thought process went something like this. "Okay, one of these problems.  I need to plug something into an equation.  Here is a number.  Here is equation.  Here we go..."

I pointed this out to my class when talking about the problem the next day, and almost all of them agreed that at least one of their math teachers in the past taught them how to do word problems in this way.  To solve the word problem you need to find the equation, and plug in the number, and evaluate.  Quick, don't think about it, just follow the directions.  Now move along.  We cannot blame our students for this poor mathematics upbringing.  I show my students too many algorithms -- it is a fast and easy way to get them to find the right answer, before they forget how the algorithm goes.  In fact, last time I taught this topic, I think I pointed out to my students that questions 1 and 2 above are similar in that you set one of the equations equal to zero, solve for t, then plug that value into the other equation.  Now reflecting back on it, I feel embarrassed to have fallen into the trap.

I am not entirely sure how to fix this problem.  Certainly it is important to, whenever possible, challenge our students to think.  Give them time to struggle with a problem.  Let them figure out the solution without giving them a recipe.  Through practice, the students will come up with their own shortcuts.  This takes a lot of time, and can be frustrating for all parties involved.  But giving them yet another algorithm will only make the problem worse. 

I am reminded of a certain proverb about fish and fishing...