Lots of discussion in my feeds about this Daily Princetonian piece, “Why won’t anyone teach me math?” by first-year student Abigail Rabieh. She just took Math 202, an intro to linear algebra, and the experience was so lousy she’s done with Princeton math for good. That’s bad!
So what was wrong with Rabieh’s class?
“Though I passed MAT 202 class just fine, my experience in it was miserable. The way the course was run did not at all set up students to succeed — or even learn math. For example, though we were provided with practice problems to prepare for our exams, we were never given solutions. My class consistently begged my professor for these, yet all he could say was that not providing them was departmental policy, and it was out of his control.
This begs the question: what interest does a department have in making it impossible to study? Study materials are given so that students can learn the course material and prepare adequately for the exam. Solution sets are part of this: to properly learn, one needs to be able to identify their mistakes and understand why they are wrong. This struggle was reflected in our exam averages, which were, respectively, in the 50s, the 60s, and the 30s.
I am far from the only person who felt this way about my class. MAT 202 has an abysmal rating of 2.71 on princetoncourses.com during the spring 2020-2021 semester. The evaluations on the Office of the Registrar’s website are no better. Students described the course as “disheartening” and said they “lost a lot of respect for the Math department after taking this course.” The advice that came up again and again in many reviews was: “Don’t take this class unless you have to.”
A lot of math teachers instinctively reacted to this with defensiveness, and I was one of them. After all, what’s so bad here? You hand out practice problems for an exam because you want students to do the problems, not because you want them to read the solutions; the mechanism is that the student works all the problems they can and then asks in office hours or review session about the problems they couldn’t do. I don’t think it’s bad to include solutions, but I would never say that not doing so makes it “impossible to study.” Student evals, well — the literature on their unreliability is so vast and I’m so lazy that I’ll only just vaguely gesture at it. And of course, most people taking Math 202 are not taking it for intellectual broadening, as Rabieh admirably was; they are taking it because somebody told them they had to. That makes the evaluations impossible to compare with those for a course people take on purpose. And as for those exam scores, well — a median in the 30s is too low, that would mean I’d made the exam much too hard. A median in the 60s, on the other hand, seems fine to me, an indication that I’d written a test with real challenges but which people could mostly do.
But you know what? Our students, especially our first year students, don’t know that unless we tell them! A student who got into Princeton, or for that matter a student who got into UW-Madison, has probably never gotten a 60/100 on a test in their entire life. No wonder it’s demoralizing!
What we have here, as they say, is a failure to communicate. Rabieh came away feeling like her teacher didn’t care whether she learned linear algebra. I’m sure that’s not the case. But I think we often don’t explicitly demonstrate that care in our classrooms. It makes a difference! We are asking the students to care about our stuff and if we want them to respond, we have to show them that we care about their stuff. What do I mean by that, explicitly? I mean that if we think the median score on an exam is going to be in the 60s, we should tell students in advance that we expect that and talk about our reasons for writing the exam that way! I mean that we should ask for student input on how the course is going before the semester is over — three weeks in, send out a survey asking for suggestions, and then talk to the class about the feedback you got, showing them you want their input while you can still make use of it. It means that if you teach a crappy lecture one day — it happens! — be open about that the next time and talk about how you intend to present a better one next time. And I feel like these are mostly “things I already do,” which could just be self-flattery on my part, so let me add this: it might be that showing students we care could mean making nice prepared slides like the professors in all their non-math classes do, instead of just showing up and writing on the blackboard. (Doing this would be a huge change for me and it exhausts me to think about it — but would it be the right thing to do?)
We don’t really talk about this stuff when we talk about teaching. We mostly talk about content and logistics; in what order should we present the material, how much should we cover, how many quizzes should we give, what should our grading policy be, should we hand out solution sets for practice problems? That’s how we think about what good teaching is, and that’s how our students think about what good teaching is, and that’s why that’s the language Rabieh reached for in her article when she wanted to explain why she had such a bad time. But I don’t think it’s actually the problem.
I’ll bet her teacher did care. Most of us do. But it often doesn’t show; let’s say it out loud! And strive for a classroom where we’re working as partners towards a goal, not just trying to get to the end without feeling like we’ve failed.