Tuesday, September 26, 2006

A student stays the course

Problem? What problem?

The average score on the business calculus exam was 83%. Since I thought that the exam was reasonably challenging, I was pleased with my students. Of course, that didn't extend to everyone. I was quite worried about a select few. Especially the student who earned 7%.

I wrote a note on her exam paper: “Come see me. We need to talk.” She had probably earned most of her points by accident. I mean, when you scatter dots all over a Cartesian grid, some of them have to lie on the graph of the given quadratic function.

A week went by with no response. It wasn't easy to catch her before or after class. She had a tendency to come to class a couple of minutes late and vanish with most of her classmates within a nanosecond of dismissal. But finally I caught her, calling her by name as the class broke up and before she could quite escape.

My student came up to me with her lips pressed together, as if viewing something distasteful. Her face was otherwise blank.

“I'm afraid you're not doing at all well in the class. What are you doing to improve the situation? What are your plans?” I asked.

For some reason, my words seemed to surprise her. She said, “I'm going to keep doing what I've been doing.”

My turn to be surprised. I became uncharacteristically blunt.

“Then you're going to flunk the class. If you expect to transfer to the university as a business major with credit for this class, you won't have it. You'll have to start all over again. Right now you can't plot points and you can't graph lines, which you should have learned in algebra. What you need is lots of study time and a tutor to get you back on track.”

I suggested she go to the campus learning center to request a tutor. I told her if she brought me the tutor request form, I would sign it to indicate she needed math help. Since I appeared to be done, she turned and left, saying nothing. I don't expect to see that tutoring form.

The world is full of stories of clueless students. We teachers swap them back and forth like folk tales. But this is the first time I have had a student return to class after wiping out so abysmally on the first exam. In addition to the 7% on the exam, my student has racked up no better than 12% on the homework and quizzes. My grading scale is traditional, with 60% being the break between D’s and F’ and 70% the break between C’s and D’s. If we continued that pattern downward, I guess my student's grade is around a J or a K right now. She'd have to soar to reach an F.

And yet she's content to do nothing.

I wonder if the business calculus class is just a placeholder for her—units that she needs to maintain full-time or half-time student status for some reason. Perhaps financial aid. Some of my students are allowed to live at home with their parents so long as they maintain a certain number of units in school, although I doubt that's my student's situation; she's not a teenager. I just don't know.

One of my younger colleagues has a keen sense for student attitudes. When I told him about my stubborn student, he nodded his head and said, “You've made yourself a nuisance to her. Some students can maintain the illusion that they're doing fine in the face of all kinds of contrary evidence, but when you specifically tell her that she's failing, it becomes your fault. Everything was fine until you said that. She's probably upset with you now.”

I suspect my colleague is right. It's not nice to let the air out of a student's fantasies. A student once asked me how much longer it would take until his unbroken string of D’s added up to a C. Questions like that demonstrate unequivocally that math has not been learned.


TheBrummell said...

Do you see many female students who might be trying for a "MRS" degree?

I'm wondering if this student you described might be in the class for the sole purpose of meeting single men with good future earning potential. Female friends with Computer Science or Chemistry degrees explained the strategy to me - apparently it's not uncommon in some majors.

Zeno said...

Hmm. I wonder. That possibility hadn't occurred to me. Maybe. However, it's not as though she spends any time chatting up potential eligibles in the vicinity of our class.

I tend to take students at face value—as students—until they give me reason to think of them otherwise (usually as non-students).

She was in class today, by the way, with no tutor request form in hand.

Anonymous said...

I used to tell students (at a former school) that I do not curve grades -- "No miracles will happen in this class" -- but with the students nowadays, I think they wouldn't hear that even if I said it.

eProf2 said...


Financial aid, scholarships, and veterans' benefits were some of the reasons why my students would sit there and take an F in order to continue to collect their checks. When I'd tell them they may have to pay it back or will lose their eligibility for future financial aid, they'd tell me they didn't care as they were trying to maximize their income for the moment and to hell with the future. This was especially true in the late 60s and 70s with Vietnam vets who could repeat classes over and over again as the VA wasn't looking at anything more than the student/veteran's attendance and not at their grades. I had a veteran who signed up for my class five quarters in a row and earned five F's. He rarely attended class and I only knew him from the role sheet.

By the way, and you'll get a kick out of this: I start an interim dean job at "a large southern CA community college" (paraphrasing your profile) next Monday for the rest of the academic year. Maybe I'll have the same debate over statistics with my counterpart in Math and Science as I've been having with you. Any progress on your research? Maybe we could use two schools with two control groups to get a bigger sample and for comparison purposes.

eProf2 said...

That's roll sheet!

A little night musing said...

>>>When I told him about my stubborn student, he nodded his head and said, “You've made yourself a nuisance to her. Some students can maintain the illusion that they're doing fine in the face of all kinds of contrary evidence, but when you specifically tell her that she's failing, it becomes your fault. Everything was fine until you said that. She's probably upset with you now.”

This is an interesting take on it. I also suspect your colleague is right, about many students who are not doing well at any rate.

I have also been puzzled and frustrated by these sorts of responses. But I am reminded of one of my early teaching jobs, in which we new folks were advised to "just teach and don't annoy the students, concentrate on your research." I had no very good idea of what was meant by "Don't annoy the students," but over the course of my first semester there my office mate and I came to the conclusion that it was not bad grades that "annoyed" and we could give whatever grades were deserved without a flicker of annoyance: what "annoyed" the students was any suggestion on our part that they were responsible for those poor grades or that they could possibly improve the grades by changing their behavior.

Hmm. I'd forgotten this until now.

Is it just a "locus of control" problem with this subset of students?

Interrobang said...

Is it just a "locus of control" problem with this subset of students?

I'd say so, yes. I used to teach Business Writing at a community college in Southwestern Ontario, and I've had exactly the same kinds of students. I had one who I knew was going to be a problem right from Minute One, and I told him what to do if he wanted to have a shot at passing the course, he said, "Well, I'm not going to do that, so it doesn't matter anyway." I failed him, eventually.

I had several students who really genuinely believed that they should get an A (not a passing grade, an A) because they had shown up to a majority of the lecture sessions and handed their assignments in on time.

Whatever it is, it isn't confined to mathematics, and it isn't confined to the United States, either.

Anonymous said...

Well, in a way, you are lucky. If you were teaching this student in many high schools in Texas, her failure would be entirely your fault in the eyes of the administration and would be reflected accordingly on your evaluation. One of the reasons I am now retired from a career that I loved.

Anonymous said...

As another community college math teacher, I've seen this phenomenon too. A student in an arithmetic class once insisted on his right to sit in class and not work. As is usual for remedial classes in college I had students work at their desks. This fellow would sit slumped at his desk, he would not even take a pencil in his hand. Another time, I had the coach of the sports team put pressure on me to readmit a failing student to keep him on the team. Many have been the students who desire to keep on, though failing, to avoid having to repay a grant or loan.

Anonymous said...

A couple of years ago I had a Business Math student who earned a stellar F by getting 10's and 20's in all quizzes and exams and refusing to do anything about it. She even showed up for the final, where she scored in the 20's too. And then the first day of the following semester, she came to my office to ask me to change her F to a passing grade because otherwise the system wouldn't let her register for the next class in the Business Math sequence. She acted as if she sincerely thought that I had made a mistake when assigning her grade and now she was pointing my mistake out to me. I tried my best to keep a straight face while I told her that there was no way I would change the grade. "But I didn't miss a single class!", was her indignant response. I then spent the following fifteen minutes trying to make her understand that I couldn't give her Business Math credit for getting out of bed and driving to campus. Eventually she realized that indeed I wasn't going to change her grade, yelled "I can't believe this! You are the worst professor I ever had!" and stormed out of my office. I replied "Thank you!", but I don't think she heard me.

Anonymous said...

Why does this remind me of religion?