Wednesday, May 03, 2006

A date with failure

A conversation in the shape of the letter F

He came in on a Friday to talk about his grade. The situation was perilous, but it was not hopeless. Furthermore, as a calculus student, he was relatively free of the innumeracy that makes it so hard to talk nuts-and-bolts grade points with some people. Could he still get a good grade in the class? No. Could he still pass? Definitely.

We had three milestones left in the class: a chapter test on vector calculus, a 1000-word essay, and a comprehensive final exam. An unknown number of quizzes would also occur, but only those three major items were left as opportunities to have a significant impact on his grade. I pulled up the spreadsheet and showed him that he needed to score 88% on both the last chapter test and the comprehensive final to eke out a passing grade of C for the semester. Although he had never scored that high before, the target was not ridiculously high.

Then we considered the essay assignment, which was due in one week. My math students usually protest when they receive a writing assignment, but it's been my usual practice to assign an essay to my calculus classes. Some actually tell me I haven't the authority to make a writing project part of the class (think again, kids!), but most accept the burden quietly. (The one student who was actually delighted is now a grad student at the University of Nevada in Reno, where he just passed his Ph.D. orals in English.) The assignment is deadly serious as far as I'm concerned, although I naturally don't want it to have a disproportionate impact on what is, after all, a class in mathematics.

My intent is straightforward enough, and I give my students this statement on the assignment sheet:
Each semester that I teach calculus, I assign my students an essay on a mathematical topic. In translating your thoughts about mathematics into written form, you have to clarify your thinking sufficiently to move from symbols to words. This is a useful exercise that tends to enhance both your understanding of the mathematics in question and your ability to express ideas in an organized manner.
This semester the topics related to the concept of infinity or e, the base of the natural logarithms. My concerned student had chosen to write about e.

“Okay,” I said. “Be sure to do a serious job on the essay and it will boost your grade points and lower the target score on the chapter test and the final exam. It's not hard to get a good grade on the essay if you give it a good try and carefully follow all the directions.” The weight of the essay in the semester grade is approximately 5%. I showed him the impact of a 90% essay score on his semester grade.

“What if I get 100%?” he asked.

“I'm just trying to keep this reasonable,” I replied.

The result was on the computer screen: If he did a good job on the essay, his target score on the chapter test and the comprehensive final dropped to a little over 84%. I pointed out that shaving nearly four points from the previous target score of 88% made it just that more likely he could achieve his goal of passing the class. He replied that he would definitely do a good job on the essay. As he left my office, he gave every appearance of being ready to give it the old college try.

One week later

Same time. Same place. Same day of the week, but a week later than the previous scene. The essay is due in less than an hour. The student returns to my office and sits down. He opens his mouth and an incomprehensible gabble of absurd sounds pours from his lips:

“Can I pass the class without the essay?”

Excuse me?!

“I just wanted to know if I could pass the class without the essay?”

Are you kidding?! Where's your essay?”

“I lost it.”

“I'm sorry. Lost it?” (Actually, I'm the one who is losing it. He seems remarkably calm.)

“Well, actually I had two pages, but I didn't finish it.”

“Okay, then turn that in. That's better than nothing.”

“But I didn't bring it.”

I looked at him sadly. While it was fortunate that his grandmother had not died (again) and that his dog had not eaten his homework and he had not left a wheezing and hacking message about his migraine on my voice mail (sorry, kids, but you needn't cough while trying to persuade me you're missing class because of a headache), my student appeared not to grasp the magnitude of his misfortune. What was it I said earlier about calculus students having a better grip on numbers? Perhaps not all of them.

The grading of the student essays is going well. I should be returning them later this week. As for my concerned student, his reward for factoring a zero into his course grade is going to be a new target score for the upcoming chapter test and comprehensive final: 95%.

Sigh. As Gandalf would say: “You shall not pass!”

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