College Math Teaching

October 23, 2014

Being part of the problem…

Filed under: academia, basic algebra, editorial — Tags: , — collegemathteaching @ 10:55 am

I read about the relatively recently uncovered academic scandal at the University of North Carolina:

An eight-month probe has estimated that the “shadow curriculum” that existed at the University of North Carolina from 1993 to 2011 offered a grade-point boost from phony coursework to more than 3,100 students, including a disproportionately high percentage of student-athletes.[…]

A number of the students’ papers included brief introductions and closings with only “fluff” in between, according to the report.

“Hundreds” of the courses, the report reads, were independent-study. Yet when the university tightened standards on the amount of independent study a student could undertake, Crowder altered her program, creating courses she identified as lecture courses, but which mirrored independent study in that lectures never happened. The Wainstein report found 188 such courses between 1999 and 2011, in which 47.4 percent of the enrollments in these “paper classes” were student-athletes, who generally comprise 4 percent of the student population. Once Crowder retired in 2009, Nyang’oro sustained the practices for two more years until his retirement in 2011, albeit less voluminously.

In all the “paper classes,” the report found an average issued grade of 3.62, set against 3.28 for the regular classes in the department. Among student-athletes, though, the report found an average issued grade of 3.55, further above the 2.84 among student-athletes in the regular department classes.

The grade was based on one paper, which wasn’t merely scanned. But note the following: the average issued grade IN THE DEPARTMENT was 3.28???

Now this is far from the first public scandal involving university athletes, but university athletes aren’t the focus of this post.

I am thinking about what *I* have been complicit in over the years.

No, I’ve never given credit for incorrect work. And no, I’ve never falsified a grade.

But….well, let me start with a story from my youth.

When I was young, my dad wanted me to learn how to hit a baseball. So, he’d toss a ball at me when I was holding a bat. BUT, he’d often..deliberately hit my bat with the ball, so I got the impression that I was hitting the ball.

And, at times, it appears that I do that with my exams; I hit their bats.

If I gave what I considered *honest* exams in calculus and assigned partial credit honestly, I’d say that 70 percent of my “C” students would get D’s or F’s. About 50 percent of my B students would make C’s and perhaps 50 percent of my A students could get B’s. And I’d get called on the carpet…get complaints and accused of “not being student centered”…of “lacking compassion.”

What is going on?

Well, though we have a smaller percentage of students going to college now than in, say, 2009, check out the data:

Screen shot 2014-10-23 at 5.54.15 AM

When I was an undergraduate, about 50 percent of high school graduates went to college. When I started teaching college, it was about 60 percent…it rose to roughly 70 percent and is now about 65 percent. I think that we are seeing at least a little bit of “regression to the mean” effects.

Perhaps as a result, we are seeing things like this:

Algebra is an onerous stumbling block for all kinds of students: disadvantaged and affluent, black and white. In New Mexico, 43 percent of white students fell below “proficient,” along with 39 percent in Tennessee. Even well-endowed schools have otherwise talented students who are impeded by algebra, to say nothing of calculus and trigonometry.

California’s two university systems, for instance, consider applications only from students who have taken three years of mathematics and in that way exclude many applicants who might excel in fields like art or history. Community college students face an equally prohibitive mathematics wall. A study of two-year schools found that fewer than a quarter of their entrants passed the algebra classes they were required to take.

“There are students taking these courses three, four, five times,” says Barbara Bonham of Appalachian State University. While some ultimately pass, she adds, “many drop out.”

ALGEBRA? (and no, I am not talking about group theory or ring theory!)

Yes, that algebra.

So there are times when I wonder if I am participating in a fraud of a type.


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