How To Guarantee Enthusiastic College Students

I Didn’t Do My Homework

Apathy is contagious. I discovered this after only two of the forty-five students registered for the statistics class I teach bothered to do their homework over the weekend. This, incidentally, is an estimate on my part. Only thirty showed up for class on Monday, so I am assuming the fifteen who skipped were as lax as those who managed to (barely) clamber in.

I arrived two minutes before class was scheduled to begin, and there sat twenty-some kids, immobile and in the dark. Yes: not one could be bothered to switch on the lights. As usual, the shades were drawn because the previous class used the projector. No one was talking. Most look dissipated.

The situation for my High School Algebra Redux Sans Algebra 8 ante meridian class was similar; though these students also managed a dropsical appearance. This, incidentally, was a repeat of Friday’s class: those that showed then said that the missing “Went out” on Thursday night; the university I’m at has a reputation as a “party school”.

As usual, I started the statistics class by asking how they did with the homework. I do this because I do not collect homework. I warn students from the first day that this puts them at a disadvantage if they have no self discipline. They will be tempted to leave it undone, and since my exams are very much like the homeworks, they will do poorly on the exams. My prognostication was fulfilled, too: the median for the first exam (given the week before) was about 60.

I went down the row and queried, “What did you get when you tried the problem?” Answers came there none. After the tenth—yes, tenth—I gave up and asked, “Do you guys like me so much that you want to retake the class with me next semester?” Laughter and giggles. Actually, this was for effect of my part, because I’m only here for the semester.

The reader might wonder why such apathy? I asked the students. Seems the school’s football team was away and that many traveled with it. Upon returning, the travelers found their energy supplies sapped. It is also the case that (in my classes) the next exams are not for three more weeks. Plenty of time to cram.

Finally, these two classes are in the way of forced requirements. The algebra class is the bare minimum needed to graduate with a BA; the statistics is necessary for business majors, which most kids are. Not one student in either class wants to be in the class; by which I mean, they do not care to learn the material.

I know this because I asked on day one, “Tell me the truth. How many really want to learn statistics, want to really get into it? Or are you just here because you’re required to take the class?” Laughter, agreement with the later. I back this up with the evidence that only four kids (the same four) ever attend my office hours. These four—coincidentally?—also did well on the exams.

I don’t mean to exaggerate, but I put in significant time, usually on the weekends, preparing the classes, trying to find good examples, pertinent subjects, and so forth. In class, I try to will the material into the kids’ heads. In other words, I take it seriously. But when only a tiny fraction of the students do, I feel punctured, deflated, and just as apathetic as they do.

My Solution

I am not sure I can get away with it, but I’d like to try to the following: come next class, I will offer every student a C if they sign a pledge to never return to class. Those that want to stay have the possibility of receiving an A or B, but only if they merit it. If they choose to come to class but under-perform or fail, they will have to live with their grade.

My bet is that most would take the offer, and be grateful to no longer be forced to learn a subject they “don’t need” (the most common rebuttal when asked why they did poorly). The few that remained would earnestly try, and probably even be serious about assimilating the material.

What a joy it is for a teacher to find a student who wants to learn! This joy is magnified many fold when the student actually can learn. But the enthusiasm is enough.

Grade inflation would earn most kids a C, or C-ish, anyway. So why not?

P.S.. The situation is not entirely bleak. The upper level calculus course I teach is a pleasure, the ratio of enthusiastic to apathetic students the exact inverse of the required courses. It is the bright spot in my week. Thus one solution to guarantee interested students is to teach only high-level courses; of course, you can see why that fails.


  1. It’s odd to me that your students in your algebra sans algebra class are so uniformly bad. Even when I taught required subjects as a TA, I’d say the ratio was maybe 9 to 1, with 9 being generally involved.

    Maybe you need to rename the course. “Math for making money”?

    Actually this could be fun. What would be a good name for a required math for dummies class that might entice a few more to join in?

  2. OK and at the risk of being non-PC, in your algebra and statistics classes, what is the ethnic make up of the uninterested and interested students? How about your Calculus class?

  3. I think Ari has a point. I’ve a hard time learning anything that I can’t see a personal reason why I should. Being TOLD to learn whatever automatically puts it on the bottom of the must-learn list. I had a heck of time way back when with an introductory course that started off (for no particular reason it seems) with Euler rotations. I later discovered I should have paid more attention and had to learn all over again on my own but at the time it was on the same level as learning the intricacies of various grain shipment tonnages. A subject fascinating to some, I’m sure.

    Fact is: I’m essentially self-taught but OTOH everyone probably is.

  4. “I will offer every student a C if they sign a pledge to never return to class.”

    Geez, what a tempting idea! My dean or department chairman (both tough broads) would have my butt if they caught me pulling this, though.

    My approach has been to stand your situation on its head. My kids are all biology majors, who will be doing a fair amount of quantitative work in their upper-division courses, whether they realize it or not. So I shade the work towards applications–with lots of computer work–weight homework as 55% of their grade, and hold my office hours in the computer lab where it’s easy to find me, one at a time or in groups. I also offer continuing extra credit through a controlled system that gets students to work hard on SOMETHING to make up for omissions in their homeworks. Some kids still miss the boat, but overall I’m getting them to put more time on task, learning skills that are often of immediate use in their other science classes.

    Still, I thank goodness we just started the course block on probability modeling–the kids this semester are fascinated with gambling, and they can’t get enough of calculating odds and fair payoffs. Never were so many so interested in a hypergeometric distribution as when I mapped it to the Texas Lottery…

  5. There was a Twilight Zone episode that relates to this, one of the earlier in the series. It was about some [high school?] teacher, English or poetry or something like that, that became despondent & was going to commit suicide. Then some of his former students, all deceased, visited to tell him how some snippet or other really made a difference in their life.

    There’s a saying, “A mind stretched by a new idea will never return to its original proportions.” So just think, because you are, planting intellectual seeds that may someday sprout. Instead of thinking the kid’s apathy is the problem, consider that you’re time horizon for feedback is way too brief.

    Unlike other applied math, statistics is perceived by many as particularly abstract, bearing little or no perceivable relationship to what they see right before them. One can grasp the idea of adding, subtracting & so on, even calculus is an extension of this. But statistics is abstract, unintuitive (to beginners) and therefore SCARY. Thus, most students, especially those that are not in math, engineering or physics, find statistics VERY INTIMIDATING. Avoidance & procrastination might not refect apathy or indifference at all but rather be manifestations of fear.

    Try presenting the problems in terms of everyday language (some stuff by Malcom Gladwell comes to mind as does Leonard Mlodinow’s ‘Drunkard’s Walk’ — both of which present statistics in terms anybody can understand). Then introduce the math–the scary stuff of formulas, etc. When they see & understand the problem & the answer, the math’s relation to what they know won’t be so imtimidating because it will be linked to something they understand.

    To [try and] get their interest, use gambling examples (like the movie 21, based on the MIT Blackjack Team — which was in two levels, one using basic odds & teams & the other actually counting & tracking the location of certain cards in a deck & betting accordingly–an almost untraceable system). Show how this subject can be put to use to make money–especially by giving someone a sneaky advantage over others–and they’ll pay attention. I recall in Vegas spending an hour or two monitoring one Keno game’s balls, checking the numbers that came up in that interval and…sure enough…a pattern emerged. For $2 for two cards I picked the 10 or 12 numbers that never came up — one won for a $1000 payoff (this was much easier than trying to pick all the winners, but much less lucrative). Then next day I tried it again & the pattern was different, and much more random (maybe they changed things or not or I just happened to get very lucky…who really knows). Instead of showing how to calculate a proper sample size for a given confidence level for a new supplier’s production run, frame it in terms of how to set up a contract such that the sampling terms give you/them [the producer] of getting away with dumping an inferior product despite a sampling that indicates it is ok.

    There are similar themes in stock investing; Mandelbrot’s book, “The Misbehavior of Markets” may have some examples you could draw from.

    A little larceny lurks in us all. Try & exploit that. If they think they’re learning ways to get something for nothing, or to get a sneaky advantage, you’d be surprised how hard they may work for the “freebie” (logically that makes no sense, working hard to avoid work, but its true).

    If you’re already doing all that, perhaps we might consider euthanizing the students (i.e. dropping them from the class until they’re committed to trying).

  6. Ari,

    They are not all bad, of course. The ratio is the other way around. One student is there because the class is a breeze for him; but his reason for wanting an easy class is rational and sensible (I don’t want to say what the reason to protect this student’s privacy).


    No comment.


    I think I’d be in deep kimchi were I to try it. But since I’m a visitor, I am sorely tempted.


    I’ve got lots of gambling examples. And football examples, too, since so many enjoy it. Once in class—the ones that come, anyway—can be made to grasp the importance, and even understand. But once they return to the dorm and realize that it’s almost the weekend, or that the long weekend is over, they are distracted.


    Exactly: There needs to be a self in self-taught.


    And shake, rattle, and roll.

  7. Ken,

    I know a number of people who discovered that the best way to make a small fortune at the track was to start with a large one. They did this by consistently picking horses which never appeared in the money. Believe it or not, you can actually also lose your shirt betting on the ones that do.

    Your keno method sounds a lot like “the number is due” system.

    Sure, it will eventually come around but the trick is: will it come around on this bet? Probability theory says past history won’t change the chances of that. Actually, I would be tempted to bet against those numbers as their low frequency might be indicative of bias.

    Still, if Briggs doesn’t like the apathy he can at least try to reduce it by merging stats with what the students would condsiderr interesting. I suggest his highlighting of the pathetic Lions’ winning skills might do it. Or convert it to the calculating the schools own team’s chances. Oh, wait, this is calculus! Maybe he could get them to calculate how much area the hockey/lacrosse team’s lost teeth would cover at the end of the season if the teeth are lost at rate X and are of average size Z.

  8. Perhaps Mayor Bloomberg and the NYC Schools Chancellor could visit your class to see that which they have helped to wrought. Of course, they could likely benefit from some of the subject matter as well.

    I also guess from your response that many are getting out of your courses exactly what they have personally paid for it!

  9. The day will come when students will bet on what grade they will get, and if they fail to meet their goal, the cash gets divided amongst the students who do. Then that “I’ll never use this” intangible ‘C+’ becomes very real.

  10. Dav,

    The Keno “trick” was exploiting a pattern indicating that the balls were NOT equal (the Keno machine vacuums 20 of 80 numbered ping-pong-like balls). I.E. this was a physics exercise of identifying & exploiting bias as much as playing the odds. The balls might have been created “equal” (“fair balls”) but the number ink would be room for variation & weight, as would handling & wear & tear — leading to a situation in which the balls were different enough to respond noticably differently.

    We (I did this with a friend) picked a machine we’d observed for hours nonstop (no maintenance or other intervention); a machine in a somewhat distant location, having noticably fewer customers, so, presumably, more likely to have been neglected before we arrived.

    Out of 80 or so numbers that could come up there were a couple dozen or so that were unmistakable outliers for being selected quite often (presumably lighter); there were a few that were never selected, and a few more that were only very rarely selected. Going on memory (this was over a decade ago) I recall something like 10-15 balls demonstrating a clear unliklihood of being not selected, or being selected only rarely. I would hypothesize these were heavier. The rest seemed to be selected about what one would expect for “fair balls.”

    At any rate picking the first 18 of 20 (balls that would not be selected) was pretty easy, it was the last two that were iffy & I only got one right (20 of 20 misses). I got another with 19 misses out of 20 (that paid $5 for a $1 card). Basically it came down to which last pair of balls to pick — i.e. instead of having a sample space of 62 balls for those last two likely misses I had it down to about two to four balls. I picked those last ones by flipping a coin. If I had a few more $$ cash handy I would have bought another four or eight or etc. cards & played the odds as I saw it, expecting one of four to pay off (at $1000 this was a sure-way to win).

    And the operators that had to review the card for payout were visibly angry when they saw my “cheat sheet.” But that was legal & allowed, then anyway, under the rules.

    Later I went back to the same machine & kept a similar tally. And that time the pattern looked very random, what one would expect from equal balls, tubes, etc. I’ve no way of knowing if they changed the balls, but I bet they did. I & others I’ve known tried this on a number of machines since & the very clear non-random pattern observed that one time has never come close again.

    We got lucky…and were too cash-poor at the moment to exploit it to anything like its fullest.

  11. I am so thankful that we have graduate students teach most of the remedial math classes.

    It could be frustrating when we have some expectations for those students who haven’t learned basic arithmetic’s and algebra during the K-12 grades. While it’s never too late to learn, but I wonder what those students did at school during those K-12 years. It’s probably not much different than what they are doing now: nothing?!

    Today is Confucius Day (Teacher’s Day) and is supposed to be a holiday in my book.

  12. “What’s in “upper level calculus course”? Div, grad and curl?”

    In advanced calculus I had to learn Greens, Gauss and Stokes theorems which use those operators. Today div, grad and curl are being supplanted by differential forms.

    I am not surprised the upper level calculus course students are more enthusiastic. They are volunteers, not conscripts that have been forced to take the course. I took partial differential equations in the summer and only three students showed up for the course, The professor was going to cancel the course, too few students, but we begged and he relented and had us students teach the course instead. The professor did not allow you to use any notes when you were teaching your assigned lesson. You had to stand in front of the class for over an hour (summer classes were an hour and a half) and present the materiel from memory. Afterward the professor would ask questions about the lesson. We didn’t have any tests, but were graded on our lesson presentation. I never studied so hard in my life. You had to teach yourself the material, then you had to teach the other students.

  13. Totally wrong approach.

    Students are there to earn credits so they can get a diploma (unless they are there for some other self-serving reason, like to play football or find a husband or party hearty). Students earn credits. It is work. It distracts from their main pursuits. They do not enjoy it.

    You could try to make the class fun — but these kids know how to party and there is nothing you can do to impress them in that respect.

    Or you could make them earn the credit. All homework must be turned in, will be graded, counts as part of the overall grade. The students must work for it, whether they like it or not. Solve the problems and answer the questions correctly, legibly, and on time. Or no pass. Make that clear.

    More education will transpire with a whip instead of a feather. Your job is to teach. Sometimes the hard lesson is the best lesson.

  14. It’s like training a dog … except I’m not sure who’s the trainer and who’s the dog here. Anyway, the idea is that nothing is free. The dog doesn’t get anything (food, treat, praise) without performance.

    In my case, everything I want the students to do comes with marks attached.

    Every class I have a quiz. The quizzes are worth enough that attendance is good. I use a classroom clicker because it eases the marking burden. (That requires up-front effort to create multiple choice questions for the DVP.)

    Every week there is an online quiz on the required readings. I use Moodle. Again, it requires lots of work to make up the questions.

    Every month there is a test.

    Why do I do this (and why is the dean willing to give me time to make up the questions)? Our students have been slowly getting worse. (They all take a math exam at the beginning of first semester.) These days they have approximately zero study skills. They are not particularly lazy but they do need a lot of direction.

    The result is pretty good. Courses that used to get 50% retention now achieve 80%. The bosses notice the effect on the bottom line and we don’t have to reduce the quality of our graduates. Employers like that and continue to hire all our grads. Prospective students look at that statistic and continue to flock to our program. We get to keep our jobs.

    We are not the only local school to work hard on first year classes. I have been particularly impressed by the first year courses my son took. Good teaching, good assignments, prompt feedback. The students feel that they are getting their money’s worth. Unless you are a school like Harvard, you have to compete for students. You won’t get the students if they don’t think they will get value.

    If your school’s administration isn’t willing to put resources into the first year classes, then too bad for them.

  15. The more I think about this, the more I think a lot of the problem is that most people are just not mature enough at 18 or 19 to handle college.

    Hell, I probably wasn’t quite there myself. I was fortunate, I think, that I spent a year in-between high school and university at a community college. It served as a great bridge. I also did well in college thanks to a sponge-like tendency to soak up knowledge. I’d say about half of what I put on paper during exams was thanks to a broad knowledge base. I just love reading everything about everything and have since I was a kid.

    Matt, I’m willing to bet dollars to donuts that half the reason you did so well was your time in the military. Not only did you start college a fair bit older than other students, you were also an experienced adult. You had discipline, which other students lacked.

    Can’t help it with this link:

    I’m a big fan of the “gap year(s)” concept between high school and college. I think many (most?) people would benefit from it.

  16. Algebra sans algebra — we used to call that class “sportsmath.” If you want the kids to do the homework, you will have to collect it and grade it. If homework is only for the students benefit, then expect laziness to reign.

    In an upper-division course, I would say that collecting homework should not be necessary. They may not do it, but most will make the effort to learn the material.

  17. I also think that collecting homework is necessary.

    I’ll be completely honest: I’m motivated by sticks, not carrots. I like to learn, but I learn best when I have someone forcing me to complete assignments. If you give me a structured schedule with required milestones, I do very well. If you give me a midterm/final sort of schedule, I still do pretty well, but not as well as I do with structure. This is particularly true in subjects where I lack a natural acumen– unfortunately, I tended to do the coursework I enjoyed more (in undergrad, this was Japanese, in grad, finance) first, even to the detriment of my other courses.

    I’m not exactly proud of the fact that I need a boot in the ass to be motivated, but I’m at least honest about it. When I selected classes in undergrad, I usually tended to deliberately choose the classes that had reviews complaining that the professor was strict. I do best in that environment.

  18. I had a stats professor in grad school who made sort of a hobby of debunking highly publicized studies, as you have on many occasions. It was fascinating how a basic knowledge of statistical measures can help you cut the BS.

    I don’t know how to get this across to younger students, but sometimes it is a lot of fun to put down the puffery in some of those social(ist) studies.

    But, of course, you have been there, done that, etc.

  19. I had a professor who solved this problem by allowing students to take a mid-term and final exam. However if they were satisfied with the mid-term grade, and requested it, he would use that grade as their class final grade.

  20. By virtue of not yet having learned that it took me three reads to absorb anything, I was able to “attend” (may run for Senate in Delaware) two universities. First was very serious private. Second was second tier state university.

    In the 9 months I spent at the state university, it appeared that my classmates were no less sharp than those at the hard place. Yet they did little other than the things which enabled the school to maintain its position on the Playboy list of fun places.

    I asked a faculty member what was going on.

    “We’re urbanizing country kids.”

    I suggested that the “country kids” would get more out of their time if more was expected.

    “Ferguson, you don’t understand. Read “Student as N****r.”

    (Yes, the “N” word. Paper can be found on the web).

    “That’s what we’re here for” he said.

    I went back to the hard place and finished.

    For the life of me, Briggs, if you have to be there for these classes and they have to pass them, why not ask more of them? Besides, it sounds like they already are sufficiently urbanized.

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