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.