Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Life in the Pissant Swamp: The Strange Case of High Maths Anxiety

Life gets curiouser and curiouser in the passant swamp each and every year I remain within it. One of the most curious of the academic curiousers is what I want to call high maths anxiety. If one were less charitable, I suppose, one could call it maths illiteracy.

First a bit of background about grades in my classes. In all my classes I use a simple and standard old grading technique. There are a total of one hundred points in my classes. There are usually five assignments in my classes so each assignment is worth twenty points. This should make it easy for students to calculate percentages but it sometimes doesn't. Often times at the end of courses I engage in grade welfare or grade inflation giving students extra points because if I didn't some of the students would have a difficult time climbing out of the lower reaches of the grading scale. The reasons for student low performance, by the way, are relatively easy to understand. Some students don't come to class or participate in class, participation is worth twenty percent of their grade, so they lose twenty points or twenty percent of their grade for the course right off the bat. Many of these same students don't make use of discussion alternatives I provide them and note in my syllabus such as coming to office to talk to me about what went on in class on a given day or emailing me what they want to discuss about the class on a given day. The only students who do these are generally the ones who are already going to get A's and B's.

Speaking of student problems some students typically have other non-math related problems in my classes as well. Some students, for example, lose points on their papers or examinations for a variety of reasons. Some don't put their papers in the correct place in Blackboard though I give them two free opportunities to get it right in the early days of the class, though I tell them in the syllabus how it is done--some students presumably don't read the syllabus or don't read it carefully though I make them do an assignment which affirms that they have indeed read it--some students simply don't take the time to make sure they have done it correctly raising questions about student effort, while some simply refuse to go to the IT room to get help getting their assignments in the right place, again raising questions about student effort. I do, by and large, only engage in free point grade welfare or grade inflation if students have made an effort and if students haven't made more than one mistake on Blackboard or turned in papers late during the course of the term.

The other grade welfare thing I often do is to give students the opportunity to do extra credit. I allow students the opportunity to earn twenty points of extra credit in the class. It is this extra credit and its contribution to math anxiety that I want to talk about in the rest of this blog because for some reason it causes some students problems. So anyway, I get this email from a student today who claims that his/her extra credit assignment is lowering his/her grade. I wrote back and asked the student to do several things. I asked her to go to the syllabus for the class, to write down how many total points there are in our class, to write down the number of points, according to the syllabus, he/she has to have in order to get a A- or an A, to go to Blackboard and to look at how many points he/she has now, to calculate what letter grade that would that be according to the syllabus, to write down how many points he/she had to earn on the final exam to get a A- or an A, and then to send all this information to me.

I can only hypothesise about what is going on here. Either the student is adding twenty extra credit points in to the total number of points for the class and the points needed for an A or he/she--it should only, of course, be added to the total number of points that can be earned in the class--or is failing to note that one assignment worth twenty points still remains for him/her to take. What the student should be doing, of course, is be aware of the fact that when you add 20 extra point to the total 100 points in the class--you add it to the numerator and not, obviously, the denominator--you get 120/100. I find it incredible that college age students seem not to be able to figure out this simple equation. What is perhaps even more remarkable is that some students think that the total points per class game has suddenly changed at the end of the semester and instead of what it says in the syllabus, which is regarded as a contract between the teacher and the student, that there are a 100 total points in the class, there are suddenly 120 total points in the class. Whatever the thought process all of this is problematic and makes one wonder about how people think these days and why they "think" the ways that they do.

Problematic thinking particularly when it comes to maths, by the way, is not something that I have not seen before at modern academic institutions I have taught at since the 1980s. I had a few students at SUNY Aardvark during my dismal years there who did not know that twenty of a hundred was twenty percent. They didn't read the syllabus or read it carefully either since they claimed not to have seen the grade breakdown for the class. Needless to say my grade breakdown was clearly present in my syllabus. Hey, perhaps I need to write another essay about Syllabus Anxiety.

Addendum: Another student has written me and asked me the same question the student I focus on in this blog did. Once again I have to wonder, what part of extra in extra credit do these students not comprehend and why are some of them able to accurately take data from my syllabus, which notes and has noted since late January that there are a total 100 points in the course and generalise it to their grade? I find this absolutely remarkable and I find it very revealing about the contemporary state of critical thinking or lack thereof in America. How is it that some students seem not to have the critical thinking skills necessary to figure out a simple math problem that even I, a math moron, can make sense of, like this? RIP, Liberal Arts.

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