Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Forbidden teaching tips

Banned from the classroom!

Like most teachers, I have my own collection of favorite mnemonic devices, tricks that I share with my students who are having difficulty remembering key facts. Seldom do I use the product rule to differentiate a function without muttering, “The first times the derivative of the second plus the second times the derivative of the first.” I learned it thirty-eight years ago and it really stuck.

I also know some mnemonics that don't do much for me, though I may well trot them out in case they do the trick for some of my students. I remember my first encounter with what my trigonometry teacher called “that famous Indian princess, Sohcahtoa.” He wrote it on the board, all in uppercase letters, with hyphens: SOH-CAH-TOA. Then he explained it was how he remembered the three most important trig functions: “The sine is the opposite divided by the hypotenuse, the cosine is the adjacent divided by the hypotenuse, and the tangent is the opposite divided by the adjacent.” The story of this famous example of Native American royalty left me cold, since I never had trouble with the right-triangle definitions of the trigonometric functions. Some of my students certainly like it, though, and trot it out whenever they are momentarily perplexed.

That ain't right

It was one of my students who helpfully explained to me a memory device he used to recall the names of the three sides of a right triangle. Unlike most triangles, a right triangle has specific names for its sides, labeling the long side as the hypotenuse and the two shorter sides (which always include the right angle) as legs. My student posed his reminder in the form of an amusing riddle. Amusing to him, anyway:

Q: Why do mathematicians love right triangles so much?

A: I don't know. Why do mathematicians love right triangles so much?

Q: Because their legs are spread ninety degrees!

My student paused for laughter at the punchline, which his classmates dutifully and amply delivered. (Yes, he had delivered his riddle in the middle of class.) The only sound that came out of me was a kind of choking sound.

I have not shared the student's memory device with any other classes, despite its wonderful memorability. I also have trouble since then telling my students that right triangles are easy.

Lying down on the job

Professor Jane Doe came bustling into the math department's faculty room after a hectic session of introductory algebra. Jane had a story to tell her colleagues.

She had been in the unit on linear equations and their graphs. Jane had cheerfully explained to her students the difference between vertical lines and horizontal lines, the former having undefined slope while the latter have zero slope. Gesturing vigorously, as she was wont to do, Professor Doe had pointed out that horizontal lines were named after the horizon, so that was an easy way to remember that horizontal lines are flat like the horizon, while vertical lines go up and down.

At the end of the period, a student approached Professor Doe, eager to share her own way of remembering the difference between horizontal and vertical:

“Mrs. Doe, I know a good way to remember which way horizontal lines go. Just remember ‘whore’! Whores do their work horizontal. See?”

Math instructors spluttered their coffee at Jane Doe's story, laughing and choking. Jane was clearly still nonplussed by the student's helpful tip. In the awkward silence that followed, one colleague ventured a comment: “Whores don't do all their work horizontal.”

The faculty room quickly emptied out.


John Armstrong said...

When I took calculus the teacher threw out one for the quotient rule in a stage whisper. I still can't not think of it to this day.

"venereal disease is an ugly disease"

(v du - u dv)/ v^2

Mathew Wilder said...

Bravo to the teacher who knows his whores.

Hilarious story.

Anonymous said...

When a friend and I were taking an introduction geology course, we were trying to remember the Cenozoic periods. My friend came up with "People Eat Olives Mightily Poop Poop H".

The mnemonic device doesn't make any sense, but I still use seven years later.

jonathan said...

A one time student was teaching down the road, and was frustrated with kids multiplying algebraic fractions together without factoring.

"You factor, You cancel" written Bronx style "U Factor, U Cancel" and then abbreviated, well the kids remembered UFUC pretty easily.

Ken said...

Indian princess? Bleh. Not all that memorable, and you have to spell it right.

The mnemonic I came up with to remember the trig functions those many decades ago is much easier to remember - almost impossible to forget, really:

Sex On Holidays
Can Advance Happiness
To Outrageous Amplitudes

Eldritch Anchovy said...

I once had an elementary school math teacher who referred to improper fractions as Dolly Parton fractions, because they're bigger on the top than on the bottom.

Tom Foss said...

My high school biology teacher encouraged us to come up with our own mnemonic devices for the Linnaean classifications (Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, Species). My friend and I came up with one, sadly at the expense of another girl in our class (not out of malice, just unfortunate alphabetization), and there were years when I could remember only the device, not what it represents.

But somehow, I don't think I'll be able to tell my future Bio students "Kayla Purposely Causes Orgasms For Gay Strippers."