William Wasn’t this your week for midterms? How’d they go?
Matt Better than I had hoped. You know I was pushing the kids, trying to make them work harder. Most scores improved.
William I can see your smile. But you said, “most.”
Matt I have the problems all professors do. I’ve given two tests and in all classes some students have not taken either test. I don’t recognize their names, either, and they’re not coming to class.
William No class is perfect.
Matt The school’s withdraw deadline is coming, and after the exam, I had a line out the door of students who had done poorly wanting me to sign a permission slip, so that they could receive a “W” for the class and not a letter grade.
William You probably frightened half of them half to death.
Matt It’s true that before the midterm, I had a difficult time convincing students to come to office hours. Oddly, now that most are doing better, my office is rarely empty.
William If you didn’t wear those suits, you’d seem easier to get along with.
Matt I’d also look less professional. Forget that, and let me tell you why kids want to withdraw.
William Any mention your ties?
Matt Skip it. Several told me that they had to drop to maintain a grade point average above 3.2 or thereabouts. I asked why and they said that the school gives them an “award” of about $2,500 for having good grades.
William A financial incentive for studying can’t be bad.
Matt Can’t it? I asked these kids if they wouldn’t have to retake the class because it was a requirement for their “Business” majors. They agreed that they would. I then asked, “How much does it cost to take a course?” It’s about $1,100 to $1,200.
William That’s not so harsh; other schools charge double or triple.
Matt Not the point. I asked the leading question, “Well, if you’ve paid for this class already, and you’ll have to pay for it again, how much is that?”
William They’d still come out ahead re-taking.
Matt Just barely; and only if time costs nothing and they passed with a high grade the next time.
William It’s still better to receive a “W” than an “F”.
Matt That’s only assuming they would fail, which some of them wouldn’t if they applied themselves. One student was very upset with me when I asked why she was dropping. She said, “I’m going to retake the course with another teacher and get an A.” I asked, “Is that so? How do you know?” She said, “I’ve always been good at math, and this is the first time I ever did badly.”
William You are a taskmaster.
Matt I said to her, “Well, you’ve always been told you’re good at math. But how do you know?” She couldn’t fathom an answer, and told me she just wanted to drop.
William Statistics isn’t math, anyway. Not any more than physics or chemistry is, and probably less.
Matt Don’t I know it, but that’s a subject for another day. And don’t let’s forget that almost all students did better on the second exam. I reminded the student of that, too. But she still wanted to drop, so I let her. And then I had a calculus student come in, somewhat bashful.
William I thought you liked the calculus class.
Matt I do. But no matter what the class, before I let anybody withdraw, I look over their old exams so that I can see how they handled the material. If they had no clue, I never argue about signing. But if they have made simple mistakes, or were just lazy, I try and talk them out of it; I also tell them they have to work harder.
William If you weren’t so demanding, you wouldn’t have so many kids wanting to withdraw in the first place.
Matt What a rotten argument. This kid couldn’t, for instance, remember how to integrate simple polynomials. His algebra skills were no better. Errors like x2 + x5 = x7.
William A common mistake.
Matt For high school freshmen, sure. I asked how he did in his earlier calculus courses. He said that he had taken the last with a math education professor who insisted that the class buy a fancy calculator that could actually do integrals. Type them in and out would pop the answer. He said that because I didn’t allow calculators, he was having a difficult time.
William What’s wrong with calculators?
Matt Nothing, for somebody who knows what he’s doing and is just trying to save time. But they ought to be forbidden to students. Using that calculator, I told him, was no different than coming to me with a sheet of integrals and having me do them for him. A machine is a machine. He hadn’t learned anything except how to punch buttons.
William For once, I think you might have a point.
Matt I told the student that I was sorry for him, but that it might be a good idea to retake not just my class, but a lower-level course, too, one in which calculators couldn’t be used. He is an engineering major and he would need the math skills, or he would never make it.
William But you are happier, right?
Matt Let’s hope it stays this way.