Tell me sweet little lies

The following scene has taken place, pretty much as described, several times over the past fourteen years — obviously the details vary from time to time, but the canvas is always the same: I am helping a freshman physics student in my office. The person came to ask for help or clarifications, typically on a homework problem.
Me: OK, so, we are then left with the following ratio, where you have at the numerator g, and at the denominator the square root of g. The ensuing simplification leaves us with just the square root of g
Student: Excuse me… how did you get that ?
Me: You mean, how did I arrive at that ratio ? OK, let me redo the algebra for you…
Student: No, I have followed up to this point… but, how do you go from the ratio to having just the square root of g ?
Me: Well… um… you have g at the numerator… its square root… at the denominator… (I can tell that the person is not following… stares at the paper as if it contained hieroglyphs)
Student: I am sorry, I do not understand… how does that work ?

I am going to tell you now, the reader, what I honestly feel that I should tell the student, in a situation as described above [0]. It is also what I used to tell the student, in my early years in this profession; over the years I have learned to tone it down, to be more ambiguous, vague — for my benefit, I have to confess, not that of the student.
So, I am going to tell you that if you cannot follow a simple algebraic manipulation (such as the above fraction simplification), it means that your algebra background is seriously deficient. The problem is, if you cannot do algebra you cannot possibly do physics, simple as that. Anyone who tells you the contrary is either crazy or a con man — in any case someone who has no genuine interest in your future, your education and your success.
So, the thing for you to do at this time, instead of wasting your precious time, hopelessly struggling with material for which you do not have an adequate foundation, is de-register from the course, and spend a term to take remedial algebra. While that might have the undesired, short-term effect of delaying your graduation, the long-term benefits, in terms of better grades and easier learning, will greatly outweigh the inconvenience.

Naturally, this advice implies no judgment whatsoever on my part on your scholarly ability, your intellect, your motivation to learn. I am simply suggesting that you spend a minimal amount of time (a term is enough — nothing, in the big scheme of things) shoring up a part of your high school background which is not as strong as it should be (obviously to no fault of your own), and without which you are bound to encounter needless difficulties, and do worse than you could and should — not just in physics, but in essentially all future courses with a strong scientific/technical component.
For me to recommend that you stay enrolled, that none of that really matters, that in the end you will do well anyway, is akin to a ski instructor telling someone who has put on skis for the first time in her life, standing on the edge of a black slope “Sure, go ahead — you’ll be fine, it’s no biggie, really”.
Is the skier surely going to kill herself ? Well, maybe not, but one thing seems clear: that is no way to teach someone how to ski. Because of curving and rampant grade inflation, a student may even be able to scrap a passing grade, but the weakness of one’s background in algebra will remain a problem, whether transcripts reflect it in full or not. I think my duty as an educator is to warn against that, as opposed to keeping quiet, pretending that it is not an issue, smiling hypocritically.

Well, like I said, the above is what I used to say in my early years in this profession. Based on my experience, however, it is advice that goes nowhere. It is typically taken by the student as a personal offence, and therefore often resented and practically always ignored. It can also set the stage for a difficult interaction with that student through the rest of the semester.
It is simply not what students want to hear. An instructor speaking candidly and honestly, for the sole purpose of helping students do the best thing, will be called “mean-spirited”, “arrogant”, “discouraging”, “elitist”, accused of “denigrating”, “giving up on” students. That instructor will likely face criticism by administrators as well, and possibly even by disingenuous colleagues, self-righteously sentencing that “a good instructor will be able to teach anything to anyone” — a fairy tale which may make for nice movie story lines, but which has little to do with how real life works.

The thing is, the goal of the University these days is not seen as educating, but delivering a product to paying customers. University wants to sell as many degrees as possible, and customers are always right. Therefore instructors must do whatever it takes to keep customers satisfied — if they are not, instructors are not doing their job.
Anyone working in retail will tell you that customers want to feel good about themselves, and any good salesperson will know how to flatter them, and keep the transaction as seamless as possible. In our case, they want to know that they will pass the course (the code word is “encouraged”), and that any annoyance, anything that looks difficult, will be removed by a “good” instructor. Thus, the job of the instructor is that of finding a way to make students pass, regardless of their actual performance, as painlessly as possible. And all of this should be done while retaining an appearance, a pretence of rigour — a delicate balancing act indeed.

In fact, in many respect, one is expected to act like a bad salesperson. A professional, responsible one (e.g., selling motorbikes, or firearms) will be expected to warn customers that may seem unable to make the proper use of the product that they are wanting to purchase. Good salespersons will not regard making the sale as the only priority — they will be rightfully concerned about a customer walking away with something that in the best scenario will not do any good, in the worst case may actually cause trouble. An instructor, on the other hand, has apparently no business thinking of what is best for the customer.

So, what do most of us tell the students in the above situations ? Well, essentially sweet little lies. We try to tell students, one way or another, that they really should try, if at all possible, to refresh their algebra. Deep inside, we know the truth. It is inescapable — “You, my dear student, may pass the course and even get that degree. However, there is no such thing as learning physics without algebra. It is simply not going to happen”. That is what we all think, whether we admit it, to others or ourselves, or not. But if they ask us “What do you recommend that I do ?”, we stay away from the dispassionate truth, because it will almost always come back to bite us.
As someone said once “fool me once… shame on you… fool me twice… um… er… can’t fool me again…“.


[0] Think I am making it up ? That things cannot possibly be that bad ? Well, if you do, I have got some Enron stocks for you…

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15 Responses to “Tell me sweet little lies”

  1. pika Says:

    While I am not in physics, this sounds just sooo familiar – in particular, when I teach the Intro to geocomputation course, there is no way students can understand and pass it without algebra and 2D and 3D geometry (which involves vectors and matrices, so knowing linear algebra is absolutely necessary).

    My solution is the following: as the first step I send the problematic students to these resources:
    Further, I tell them that they have 3 weeks’ time to work (on their own) through the relevant topic from this website, i.e. Algebra. Then, although I am not a maths teacher, I give a test on this topic. Then, I make an indivitual appointment with each student during my office hours, when I mark their test in front of them, so that they see exactly what they can not do and where the problem lies. Then I tell them that they have to fix this, as otherwise they won’t pass my course – I don’t care how they fix it, if they get extra grinds or whatever, but I tell them that they have to fix it or else stand no chance with my course and the rest of the program. And off they go…

    So far I have to say, this has worked with everyone, plus it does not take much of my time to do it – 1 hr to proctor the test and then marking the test, but that is during office hours anyway. I think the really relevant part of this process is that they see me marking their tests – I think that this convinces them that yes, they do have a problem. But I don’t know, it’s only the third year I am trying this out, so perhaps I was just lucky to have students who were motivated enough to actually do something about their maths problems…

    • Massimo Says:

      I tell them that they have to fix it or else stand no chance with my course and the rest of the program. And off they go…

      Good for you. In my case, it does not work at all. It just doesn’t. The more forcefully I tell them the same thing, the angrier and more resentful they become. And they absolutely refuse to drop the course.
      They tell me that they “have” to graduate that term (you may not know this, but freshman physics for life science majors is typically taken in the last term of the senior year), that it “has been a long time since they took algebra” (admittedly they never claim to have learned it in the first place), that “this is not an algebra course anyway, and algebra cannot the determining factor”, that “they are willing to work very hard even if this algebra thing is a bit of a problem”, and that I, the professor, have to be “patient and understanding” with them — in other words, I am the one with the problem…

  2. pika Says:

    The more forcefully I tell them the same thing, the angrier and more resentful they become. And they absolutely refuse to drop the course.

    Hm, maybe it’s a cultural thing from the different sides of Atlantic? Or maybe I was just lucky so far not to encounter any students like that. Or maybe I’m just scary. 😛

    What happens if you don’t do anything and they fail the physics course?

  3. Massimo Says:

    What happens if you don’t do anything and they fail the physics course?

    Well, see, that’s the thing, many of them actually won’t. Grades are curved, only a tiny fraction of the class will actually fail, and that means that many unqualified and utterly unprepared students will move on to the next stage. You may say that this would have been said by professors back in my student days too… ‘cept many of us had to take exams two, three times before actually passing…

  4. prodigal academic Says:

    I teach mostly sophomores, with some juniors and a smattering of seniors, almost all of whom are planning to go to med school, vet school, or dental school. I do not curve the course, so students do know about what they will get at the end.

    Many of them have weak math skills, weak study skills, or both. After my first exam, where the mean is usually a B-, I tell the whole class what I found the most common problems to be, and go on to explain that the amount of work required by this course (and university in general) is a lot less than the workload in med school, which is less in turn than the work required by a resident so they should think about how much effort they are putting in now, how much more they need to do to do better, and what this means for the future.

    A few weeks after this speech, I’ve had students thank me, saying they are reconsidering med school, and are glad to be able to do this as sophomores rather than after graduating with a premed major unable to get into med school. I think it makes a big difference to be addressing a large group vs. singling someone out in terms of whether they hear the message as concern or insult.

  5. Massimo Says:

    After my first exam, where the mean is usually a B-, I tell the whole class

    Sure, I tried that too, and I do it these days as well, I don’t think it does anything either — and hey, I am sure it is because I don’t do it well. My sense is that, whenever addressing the whole class, each one of them thinks “he is surely not talking to me”, or simply ignores me. They need the course to graduate, they know that by hook or by crook they will pass, and they don’t change anything…

  6. Ian Says:

    Perhaps its worth trying some of the new alternative/interactive physics teaching methods coming out. The UBC Carl Wieman Science Education Institute has a lot of good, proven and effective research on the subject

    I bring this up because I think the algebra issue probably covers easily 1/3 or more of your class (I’m guessing), and if you can transform the lectures in such a way that students are working in groups more or discovering their weaknesses ahead of time they can either work it out amongst themselves (saving you frustration) or at least present more thought out questions then “what is g/sqrt(g)?”

    • Massimo Says:

      Look, I am sure you are right and hey, I’ll try anything once but, you know what ? I think that if a student really wants to learn, (s)he cannot be prevented from doing so, even by the worst instructor. But there is a difference between wanting to learn and wanting a degree.

      • Ian Says:

        Absolutely, however the worst instructor can often turn half-interested students off while the best can create more interest.

        I wouldn’t be too cynical either, while a lot go into university because “that’s what you do after high school,” they usually try to take things that somewhat interest them (since they expect a job in that field after). Of course some of your physics classes may be the exception where students are forced to take “rounding” courses to give them exposure to different fields (something I think has merit), but hopefully they can at find something interesting in seeing an analytical approach to understanding the world around us.

  7. mareserinitatis Says:

    I once had a conversation with an undergrad in physics while I was doing my MS. He told me about his plans to take junior level emag without intro to dif. eq. I told him he was nuts. He said that the prof was going to work with him on it, and he was sure he’d be fine.

    Sure enough, failed the course and ended up dropping from the program.

    I think the problem is that people feel like they are on some sort of timeline and deviating from that timeline is far worse than being unprepared. It’s all a race.

    • Massimo Says:

      Sure enough, failed the course and ended up dropping from the program.

      It’s precisely in order to avoid these unfortunate outcomes that the bar for pass is set so low — as low as it takes, basically.

      • mareserinitatis Says:

        Here’s a thought: perhaps the big problem here is the the issue between finances and knowledge. I don’t mean strictly the fact that colleges view students as customers, but that it’s rare for a student to be going through college without some form of financial aid or loans. For a lot of people, not passing a class means losing their aid.

        NDSU has (or had when I was an undergrad) a policy where classes that were retaken would have the most recent grade replace the one when it was originally taken. Presumably, if you took the class a second time, you would get a better grade and not be at such high risk for financial aid problems. A lot of people complained that some would retake classes so that they’d get As where they had Bs in an effort to push up their GPA. I almost never saw that happen, but I did see people replacing Fs with Cs.

        Perhaps the problem is that there is too high a price for failure, and until someone can find an equitable way for people to have second or third chances to learn and be granted time to do so without the pressure of getting through along a specific timeline, the emphasis would shift away from throughput and back to knowledge.

  8. Hope Says:

    That’s a terrible situation, and I appreciate your point about having to be a bad salesperson. But you said it yourself:

    They need the course to graduate, they know that by hook or by crook they will pass, and they don’t change anything…

    The university sets up the rules, and the students learn the rules and then play the game accordingly. You cannot honestly think that students would spend an extra term in college to do well in a class that they probably view as only tangentially related to what they want to do when chances are, they will pass anyway.

    Re: your point about the customer service mentality at uni’s, how far up the ladder do you think this goes? Meaning, do you think that very selective schools have adopted this stance, too, or can they get away without it, since they have plenty of “customers” waiting in line to get in at the door?

  9. Massimo Says:

    You cannot honestly think that students would spend an extra term in college to do well in a class that they probably view as only tangentially related to what they want to do when chances are, they will pass anyway.

    No, I am not blaming the students in the least, they do what they have been told to do and do not know any better. The point is, our job as educators should be that of putting them on the right track, not letting them go on on the wrong one, giving them illusion of competence and preparedness — and I think it used to be that way.

    do you think that very selective schools have adopted this stance, too

    Sure. There, the problem is that they have to contend with wealthy donors and alumni, whose offsprings need a degree from that same institution, as a springboard for their political career…

  10. Bentley Says:

    I have even had pupils go round myself and speak with the dean about their own poor preparation (in prerequisites) being reflected in their finals results, with the dean then trying to throw a spanner into the course content the next time round. That duffer (frankly) says it is to accommodate pupils of “non-traditional backgrounds”, nevermind he is proposing that the already calculus-deprived physics content be further stripped of “nonessential” algebra, basic maths, and anything else requiring the use of your loaf. The result isn’t similar to physics – they are to eachother like chalk and cheese! Sometimes the sense of entitlement is so strong that the parents, whose little darlings just did so well on their A-levels and even the eleven plus, do indeed bring in the solicitors, in particular when darling is near enough that threats can carry them from a non-honours to a third.

    The clots and their enablers are intent on dumbing it down, it seems for everything. And I do think you have it misdiagnosed – it isn’t the punter philosophy. This illness has spread even into our junior sports leagues. Nobody says it, but our society is becoming averse to the notion of winners and losers, success and failure. Every bloke who plays is supposed to win a prize. Every test taken with “earnest interest” is supposed to be awarded at least a pass. Talk about lies. We are supposed to pretend that talent, aptitude, competence, and discipline can be substituted with busyness or worse, mere presence, or worse still, that such things are fictional and “justice” is equivalent to not having any meaningful standard.

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