Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Louise loses it

I have no clue, nor does she

Students are an unceasing source of mystery and confusion. Some students are exceptionally astonishing. My colleagues and I put our heads together and try to figure them out. We usually have to give up because explaining the inexplicable is difficult. Then we end up just swapping stories about the weirdest students we have known. One of my little mysteries is “Louise,” a student who enrolled in one of my arithmetic classes.

Arithmetic is the absolute bottom-level entry-level math course. Students who take arithmetic in college are often math-avoiders who suffer from math anxiety. Perhaps that explains why Louise draws a blank time and time and time again. Here's a message she sent me near the end of the semester.
From: Louise
To: Zeno Ferox [zenoferox@sbcglobal.net]
Subject: Arithmetic question

Can you tell me how to do convert the fraction to a decimal and to convert decimals to a fraction?

We had just covered this exact material in class. We had filled out a worksheet together, students working the problems first and then the teacher (me!) putting detailed solutions up on the board. She had apparently retained precisely none of it. She wasn't asking for a clarification on some detail. She was asking for elucidation of the entire topic.
From: Zeno Ferox
To: Louise
Subject: RE: Arithmetic question

I'm not sure what I can tell you that isn't already in the final section of our textbook, but I'll try to summarize it.

(1) To convert a fraction into a decimal, use long division. The fraction 5/8 turns into 0.625 when you divide 8 into 5.

(2) To convert a decimal into a fraction, read the decimal aloud and do what it says. For example, the decimal 0.45 is "forty-five hundredths," so just put 45 over 100 and you get the fraction 45/100. You're not done in this case because you can reduce the fraction to 9/20, which is your final answer.

I hope this helps. You'll find more examples of these processes in your textbook.

She soon wrote back.
From: Louise
To: Zeno Ferox [zenoferox@sbcglobal.net]
Subject: RE: Arithmetic question

It's gunna be on the test right

If it wasn't going to be on the test, it would be the first time all semester that I had presented material in the class but skipped it on the chapter test. It was a forlorn hope on her part.
From: Zeno Ferox
To: Louise
Subject: RE: Arithmetic question

Yes, Louise, it will be on the test.

Louise came back with a reasonable request for assistance, but her luck was bad. She asked for help on the day before the exam and she apparently couldn't come to my office hour. And I was seriously booked. (And she hadn't come to my office all semester, so I wasn't sure she even knew where it was.)
From: Louise
To: Zeno Ferox [zenoferox@sbcglobal.net]
Subject: Arithmetic question

are u gunna be in your office around 10:20 on monday

From: Zeno Ferox
To: Louise
Subject: RE: Arithmetic question

I am going to be in my office during my regular office hour from 9:00 till 10:00 on Monday. After 10:00 I will be working on faculty scheduling and probably will not be in my office. If you're in the math building after 10:00 you can check whether I'm available to help you, but there's no guarantee after 10:00.

If you can't come to my office during my office hour, try going to the Student Help Center where the math tutors can help you.

She didn't, by the way, come by. I did some of my scheduling work in my office, checked back periodically when I was out working with the department chair, and my colleagues in the adjacent offices told me I had no students come by after my office hour.

Louise did, however, have another question to e-mail me.
From: Louise
To: Zeno Ferox [zenoferox@sbcglobal.net]
Subject: Arithmetic question

if i do good on this test will my grade go up

From: Zeno Ferox
To: Louise
Subject: RE: Arithmetic question

Of course, Louise. That's how it works. If you do well on an exam it raises your grade.

Unfortunately, you have been earning poor grades on the exams and quizzes so far, which means you have to do particularly well on the remaining exams if you want to pass the class. You need to start earning scores in the 80s. If you earn scores in the 80s on next week's exam and the practice final and the final exam, you will pass the class. If you continue to score in the 70s or below, you will not pass. It will be a challenge to pass the class, but it's not impossible.

The phrase “continue to score in the 70s” was a polite fiction on my part. Louise had yet to see a score in the 70s. In fact, she had yet to see a score in the 60s. Her only chance of eking out an average of 70% and squeezing by with a C was to start an unbroken string of A's and B's. In theory, it was still possible for her to pass the class, but only in theory. In theory, the sun might not come up tomorrow.
From: Louise
To: Zeno Ferox [zenoferox@sbcglobal.net]
Subject: RE: Arithmetic question

oh wow i thought it would be around 70 percent.what if i do good on next weeks exam and bad on final exam will it go up.

Hope springs eternal, as apparently does denial.
From: Zeno Ferox
To: Louise
Subject: RE: Arithmetic question

No, Louise, you have to do well on all of the remaining exams if you want to pass the class. That includes Exam 3, the practice final, and the final exam. You need to earn a B on each one to offset the low grades you got earlier in the semester. If you do not get a good grade on the final, your score will not rise enough for you to pass the class. There aren't a lot of alternatives for you right now. You need to do consistently well right to the end of the semester.

I got one last message from her.
From: Louise
To: Zeno Ferox [zenoferox@sbcglobal.net]
Subject: RE: Arithmetic question

well i am trying my best to pass the class. i also go to turtoring

I had my doubts that she was really trying her best, but I did believe that she was going to the math tutor. I mean, someone was doing her homework for her. Louise handed in homework sets that were neat and accurate (and transcribed in her own handwriting), but she was completely incapable of replicating anything like her homework solutions on her exams. She also never had anything to contribute during small-group work, when Louise always relied on her partners to carry her. Nor could she give any coherent answers when I queried her one-on-one in class while wandering about and checking with the students while they were trying to solve the problems on their worksheets.

This story doesn't have a lot of suspense to it, does it? Louise showed up for the next exam and flunked spectacularly, earning the worst score in the class. It was as if she had walked in cold without ever having seen any of the material before. It was a wipe-out. Yet she persisted in thinking she had a chance right till the last minute.

I am as mystified by her as she is by arithmetic.

12 comments:

Eamon Knight said...

Every so often I am brought up short by the realization that there are adults in this world who are utterly, uncomprehendingly, and (sadly) probably permanently ignorant about things that to me are second nature -- knowledge that's part of the basic furniture of my mind. I mean, decimal fractions (and converting to/from proper fractions) are, what -- middle school stuff? I must have learned that sometime around puberty, even *despite* the obvious distractions of that period....

Anonymous said...

Eamon,

It's fifth grade stuff. My son's been learning it this year.

intrinsicallyknotted said...

*shudder* I really, really don't understand how a person can make it through high school and not know this stuff. I am perpetually amazed when I am tutoring and a student demonstrates this level of lack of understanding.

ods15 said...

Am I missing some kind of culture or United States community college thing? Why the hell are you teaching decimal fraction in *college*???

I just started university this month, the *easiest* stuff I've seen so far in this single first month were at least as difficult as moderately hard integrals...

Decimal fractions??!?

Interrobang said...

Her grammar's atrocious, too, and she's got an overestimation of her own competence. I wonder if she's had an eval for learning disabilities. The "gets the homework right but can't do it in class" thing stands out for me, because that's exactly how it works with me, too -- I can do it as long as someone's been coaching me right there, but give it a half hour with no reminding, and I'm as good as blank again. Nobody ever was "doing my homework," either; I just have approximately zero retention for math beyond a certain level. (I seem to top out at simple algebra.)

Either way, it sounds like she needs more help than you're able to provide; I hope she gets it.

Zeno said...

Yes, ods15, you are missing something about American community colleges. We are colleges, in that we can provide all of the instruction of a two-year college curriculum, but we also provide adult education for people who need to start essentially from zero. That means the high school curriculum (algebra and trig) as well as a "refresher" in grammar school arithmetic for those who don't remember any.

It can be a challenge, that's for sure. The semester that I tried to teach arithmetic to "Louise" was also the semester I taught a multivariate calculus class during the preceding period. Talk about whiplash of the brain...

Sili said...

Why was she even in the class?

I first wrote "Why did she even try to learn maths?", but it just doesn't sound right.

I can't remember when I learned fractions - I'm that way with almost everything I've learnt before uni. It's just sorta slipped in there without any sorta chronological tag - of course, my life has been pretty uninteresting, so there've never been any nice pegs to hang events on.

Interrobang, I don't think it's fair to attack her 'grammar'. She's using simplified spelling, but is easily comprehensible.

There might be a coupla conjunctions lacking, but "attrocious" is too strong.

llewelly said...

Beyond the 'obvious' idea that someone else was doing the problems and Louise was merely transcribing the steps and answers - when I tutored, I encountered a number of people who were perfectly capable of doing the exercises with 99% accuracy ... provided they were given large amounts of time. These people were doing 5, 4, or even 3 problems in the time the instructor expected them to do 10 or more problems. Thus they'd complete all the homework, turn it in, with all right answers, but on the test, they'd get a few problems done, look up at the clock, and realize they didn't have anywhere near enough time. Panic or resignation would follow.


I'd grown up surrounded by teachers and parents who subtly and not-so subtly belittled 'rote work' and 'memorization' and 'repetition'. So it took me a little while to figure out the solution - but once I did, it worked on everyone I tried on. It wasn't easy to convince these people that no, the assigned homework was really not sufficient - but once I had them doing all the exercises in every chapter, their test scores inevitably rose to As. Incidentally, this seems to work for people who have trouble doing the homework correctly in the first place. The difficult part is figuring how to get someone to devote that much time to one class. And I was working with engineering majors, who KNOW that if they can't do well in the math classes, they'll really, really suffer in the engineering classes.

llewelly said...


*shudder* I really, really don't understand how a person can make it through high school and not know this stuff.

Haha. 3 of the guys I played D&D with in my late teens and early twenties got all the way to 10th grade without even knowing how to read . We had to tutor these guys in reading and arithmetic just so they could play the game! (There was a 4th guy in our D&D circle who got to 10th grade without knowing how to read as well, but he picked it up before I met him.)


3 of these guys eventually turned into the sort that read 3 or 4 novels a month - the 4th, last I saw him, was the sort who read 3 or 4 novels a week. Something I stopped doing when I entered college.

Corey said...

Zeno...I feel your pain.

I occasionally teach intro psych and there's always one who doesn't show up for the class (just showing up gets you 5 extra percentage points), flunks the tests, doesn't bother to show up for the retakes I offer (in class mind you), and bombs the final. Then after grades are posted.

"Why did I fail?"

"Well, to be honest, you didn't come to class. You had the opportunity to retake the test and didn't."

"Oh."

My favorite was when the kid's dad emailed me directly and asked for the grade. I wasn't aware of FERPA at the time, but was pretty sure that I couldn't release an adult's private info. I told the guy to talk to his son about it.

Zeno said...

Llewelly raises a good point that I did not address. What if Louise were merely slow and could do the math, but just needed more time? I have reason to believe that was not the case. My students had more than an hour for each exam. Most of the students were done in half an hour (or even less). Louise would be the last one to hand in her exam, so she certainly took lots of time, but it wasn't as though she got half the problems right and just didn't finish. She got nearly nothing right. On one exam, her score was 9%. Very few problems were blank; their solutions were just nonsense.

I continue to think that the likeliest explanation for her correct homework is that she did it with a study buddy or tutor who basically did the work for her.

But it remains a puzzling case.

P.S.: I'm not sure of the significance, but I'm posting this from off-site and my security word is "misall". How apt.

Chris said...

Zeno said "What if Louise were merely slow and could do the math, but just needed more time?"

Then she would have had that accommodation relayed to you through your CC's disability office. My son takes his tests in the testing center where he gets unlimited time. He passes (though sometimes he failed which gave him a reality jolt), and has gone from the basically high school level math to the 100 level business math courses.

He does know how to convert decimals and fractions.

I agree that her "tutor" essentially did her homework for her. I once tutored someone in high school who expected me to give her the answers. I tried to explain it to her, I tried to get her to do the problems, but she would not. I got frustrated and yelled at her, and was fired.

I am a firm believer that one cannot learn math unless you do it. This means even the simple arithmetic problems (though I always hated the speed tests!), and any concept in trig, calculus and on. That is how you learn the relationships between the concepts.

It is not a foreign concept. A person gets better at reading by reading, a musician gets better at music by playing their instrument and an artist gets better at art by doing their art.