Good counsel

I am still getting emails from the Mad Dad with whom I spoke yesterday. I’m not sure if I opened Pandora’s box, but this was my email response to him (some names have been changed to protect the innocent; I have indicated them in all CAPS).


I admire and appreciate your advocacy of your student, but as I mentioned in our last phone call, I am unable to provide you with any further details about your daughter’s situation without violating her federally protected educational privacy rights. I will, however, be delighted to discuss them with YOUR POOR CHILD WHO HAS NO IDEA YOU’RE DOING ALL THIS.

There is something I can discuss with you, however. It is an insight that might mean more to your daughter coming from you than me.

Your student is not the first straight-A student to fail a Calculus exam, and she is neither an outlier nor a failure because of it. (I was myself in the very same boat as YOUR STUDENT in 1993, except for Calculus 2.) In my 20 years in undergraduate education, there has not been a semester when I have not assigned a failing exam to a heretofore 4.00 valedictorian. It is not because I am inherently evil and have a quota to fill, nor is it because the student is too dumb for the material or too lazy to do the work.  Rather, more often than not it is that the grade-school and high-school strategies that the student has developed to study and recall mathematics are no longer aligned with those needed for university assessments.

When they’re my students and they come to my office frustrated or angry or despondent over their first exam, my professorial counsel typically involves two key points.

The first: start going to office hours regularly. (These are often students who haven’t come, for any number of reasons.) I routinely tell students that during office hours I am the dancing monkey to their organ grinder: it’s my job to give them the one-on-one attention they require that I cannot do in a larger lecture, to help them identify the shortcomings in their understanding or application of the material and give them advice on how to rectify them. Go to office hours and demand help. (THE EVIL PROFESSOR YOU WANT FIRED is currently running 3 office hours every day during the online switch, and I have never heard nor read a student complaint that he is unwilling to sit down and work with a student in them.)

The second: I help them go over their study regimen and provide them a plan to modify it. Usually, this is done one-on-one with the student in an office hour (hence the importance of the previous point), but there is some general advice I can give to any student from the get go. For example, regardless of whether or not the homework is assigned, delivered, or submitted through an online interface like MyMathLab (as it is in your student’s class), if the exams are paper-and-pencil, then ALL homework problems should be written down and completed with paper-and-pencil as well. Not only will this leave a hardcopy that an be used as study material (if you do it all online, you have nothing to show for your work), but it also will improve your test-taking on a paper-and-pencil exam, as cognitive science shows that performance on exams is negatively affected by a change in the medium from study to testing.

I have put together a collection of other general active study methodologies on the Math Department YouTube channel.  I hope these resources can be of help.

I think this is good counsel, and it has helped many of my students. I hope it can help yours, and as I said before, I think it would mean more coming from you than from me.

We are, all of us, rooting for your daughter’s success.

Best regards,

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