One of the big problems that Occupy Math faces is that the high school students coming into his first year classes do not really know the math that their transcripts say they do. This problem was covered in the earlier post School Math: Epic Fail. More recently, a report found that the percentage of sixth graders meeting the provincial math standards has been declining for a decade. The province is moving to address this problem by requiring teacher candidates to pass an exam in math skills and pedagogy, which is causing concern and protest. The teachers’ union is against this test but has not proposed another plausible way to reverse the decline in math scores. This post is a discussion of the issues surrounding this situation.

# Math Fear

# Timed Exams are Toxic

One nice thing about being a professor, at least at the universities where Occupy Math has worked, is that you have a great deal of latitude in choosing your textbook(s), method of instruction, and especially your method of evaluating the students. Occupy Math has already posted about fair tests. Today’s post is about some related topics. The most basic one is to question the point of having tests at all as they are nearly useless for what happens after school and are often corrosive to learning and the student-teacher relationship. Because there is no chance we will give up on tests — in spite of the obvious damage they do to students and education — the post will also look at the alternatives in designing a test, including the mis-named cheat sheet. Occupy Math has an endless, low-level conflict with his students about this name.

“Can we have a cheat sheet?”

“No.”

“But you said…”

“No, I absolutely forbade cheat sheets. Cheating is not allowed. Also, if ‘I said’ why are you asking again? For that matter, what I said has no weight. What does it say in the course outline I’ve told you to read more than five times?”

(different student)

“We can bring a page of notes to the test.”

Occupy Math smiles and nods.

# I Can’t Do My Kid’s Math Homework!

This post looks at two things, the way we keep changing the curriculum in mathematics and the impact this has on parents. Occupy Math has watched the province of Ontario require the use of textbooks based on curricula they had not yet finalized. The situation in the United States is better. More than forty states have adopted the Obama era Common Core standards, but even these are the subject of suspicion in some quarters. The second issue in this post is that of supporting parents when the curriculum changes. Parental involvement is strongly correlated with student success. It is pretty clear that ambushing parents with a new curriculum is a bad way to help them stay involved in their children’s education. An ambushed parent often objects, “this isn’t the way I learned math,” in a suspicious (or hostile) tone of voice. The case for the new methods of education absolutely needs to be made, including making the case to the parents, and material to support the parents coping with the change would be helpful. In the rest of the post, we will look at why we keep changing the way math is taught and brainstorm about ways to help parents.

# Adversarial Grading Encourages Cheating

Occupy Math has recently become the chair of his department, which means that he must review and sign every academic misconduct finding filed by members of the department. He also gets copies of how the Dean’s office decided to resolve the accusations. During the pandemic, the amount of cheating has gone up considerably, but it turns out that is just the first part of the awfulness. Another duty of the chair is giving faculty a sympathetic ear when they are having a difficult time. The students who are trying to cheat are mostly amateurs — they get caught because the faculty have set traps, but also because they cheat in a terribly obvious fashion. This post may help cheating students kick up their game, but that is not its intended purpose. A silver lining of the pandemic is that it highlights things we need to fix. The explosion of cheating highlights that the adversarial system of determining grades, always toxic, is extra-toxic right now. Surviving a disaster is something human beings do well, but they accomplish it by cooperating, something that an adversarial student-instructor relationship interferes with. This post looks at a number of aspects of academic dishonesty during the pandemic.

# Virtual universities: we’re not ready yet.

The Covid pandemic has put a lot of students online — taking classes remotely, through the internet. The people who figure out how to run universities have had a disturbing reaction to this — if you could get rid of half the buildings, then a university would be much cheaper to run. Also, with no need for physical classrooms, we could let class sizes grow from their current level, maxing out in the low thousands, to hundreds of thousands or even millions. Tuition could be reduced to much lower levels while still permitting a vast increase in revenue. From a administrative planning perspective that does not involve students or instructors, this looks like a recipe for paradise. This post is about the serpents, and there are many, in that paradise.

# Classroom War Stories

One of the funny lines in Back to the Future is when, after Marty says “Heavy …” one too many times, Doc. Brown asks him if there is a problem with the earth’s gravity in the future. Occupy Math has been running the gravity a bit high lately with many serious posts and (this is why we need editors) his editor has recommended a light-hearted post. Occupy Math will go through some hopefully amusing and possibly tragi-comic stories about things that did not go well during teaching. Two serious points are hiding in the comedy. First, many of these stories illustrate less than spiffy approaches toward passing a math class when you hit university. Second, if you are not enjoying your math class, neither is the instructor, and there is room to negotiate a better world for everyone.

# So you are taking your first university midterm?

In a recent post Occupy Math tried to provide some good advice for taking your first university math class. In this post, Occupy Math turns to tactics for exam survival. One of the most effective techniques, when it is available, is to discuss the exam format with the instructor. Occupy Math gives some ideas for different ways an exam can be conducted — and some of these make the *instructor’s* life easier. Immediately below the fold we will begin with the more generic good advice and then move on to the innovative ideas.

# So you are taking your first university math class?

This post looks at how students just starting university can think math is hell while the professor looks at the papers he is grading in stunned disbelief because the students appear to have learned *nothing* in their previous twelve years in school. Occupy Math usually teaches a first year university class, either calculus or calculus mixed with physics. The material is not too hard in an absolute sense, but for many of the students it is quite hard. This post is about the reasons for the different perspective: the math professor thinks the material is pretty basic, but students — who finished a complete high school course of study in mathematics! — think it’s hard-to-awful. It turns out there are several reasons for this disjunction of experience. They include many factors including really bad design of the high school classes, active parental sabotage, administrative handicapping of teachers, and a failure to teach effective study techniques.

# Resisting Insane Textbook Prices

There is a crisis in the price of textbooks. Occupy Math paid eighteen dollars for the calculus book he used for his first two courses in calculus. The calculus book used for the first-year for-majors calculus course at Occupy Math’s institution costs more than ten times that, though the price varies from year to year. Worse, after you buy many textbooks, you have to cough up a hundred dollars for access codes to let you get to the on-line material that comes with the book. The professor may well assign parts of the on-line material, from exercises to pre-generated homework problems, so access to the on-line material is not optional. With a book, roommates or study-buddies might buy one copy and share. The on-line materials track *one* person’s progress and grades, so sharing is impractical. This post is about the mechanisms behind insane pricing and some resistance strategies.

# Medical tests that use third grade math

If you want to be a doctor you need to earn a university degree with good grades in hard classes and then go to medical school after which you do an apprenticeship (residency). In addition to the four years of university, medical school and the residency take about eight years –making it about twelve years of post-secondary education. Given this remarkable level of preparation, why are a large number of the diagnostic protocols used by medical doctors way too simple, ineffective, and generally something a high-school drop-out could probably run? In this week’s post we look at the problems with threshold-based medical protocols.