Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Winding down: an update to what worked and what didn't and dealing with test results

Today I met my seniors for the first time since their disastrous test. I mean Disastrous. I think only 20% passed, and believe me the passing boundaries are low on this thing: way under 50%.  I asked them to consider what they could do differently, and also how I can improve teaching strategies. As I suspected, the students said that they wanted more "traditional" teaching with me explaining new material and them practicing a few problems. Less investigations, less open-endedness, more of me just showing and them repeating. So I did that, on Geometric Sequences, and they loved it. "I understand something for the first time this semester!" was one memorable exclamation from a usually sullen student.

I hate this. On one hand, fulfilling their request will save me 90% of the time I usually put on planning their lessons. I'll have more time for my honors students, many of whom enjoy the challenges they get in class.
On the other hand, this feels like existential suffocation. What's the point of me spoon-feeding the seniors stuff about trig functions, logic and all the other interesting topics we before us, if all they are doing is trying their best to put in least amount of effort to pass the exams? Teaching loses its meaning and joy.


  1. It may be more to do with the way you've expressed this than with reality, but there's a mismatch between what you're reporting happened and the motives you're assuming your students have. Following your investigative lessons, the students (at least one, and you make it sound as though this is representative) didn't feel as though they understood anything; and indeed, they demonstrated that they didn't understand anything by failing the test. While part of the hurdle of getting to grips with open-ended, investigative lessons is coping with not understanding at the beginning, if the students still don't understand by the end, the investigation didn't go well, did it? In the ideal investigation (as I understand it) students may start off at sea and uncomfortable, but as they own the problems and choose solution methods, they should arrive at a state of understanding very well - the idea is, better than they would have if you'd used direct instruction.

    In other words, maybe the way forward is to work out how to run better investigative lessons, not to give up on them (although you may have lost this group for that purpose). Your students don't sound as though they're being asked to be spoon fed, they sound as though they want to understand - which is good!

  2. Perdita, OK so maybe you're on to something that I haven't been willing to realize in the heat of all the strong emotions. Maybe the investigations were unfitting for this class. I've never really had trouble with the investigations before though.

    Maybe I can try something different: I just don't know how. Yesterday I introduced series by giving students 2min to add from 1-100, and immediately the atmosphere became negatively charged. They found the formula (when I repeatedly encouraged them to think outside the box), and I think in the end they did feel ownership over the formula. Maybe more of these mini-inquiries will be acceptable to them for now.
    And yes, they do want to understand. They just want to understand by doing the least possible amount of thinking. They are also frustrated by us moving "too fast" and "getting too many questions on exams". Well, this is IB and I don't set the syllabus or the exams. We had a heart-to-heart about it all and I hope things will improve from now on.

  3. Is this group particularly weak, coming in? It sounds a bit as though they may be afraid, and with good reason, that they won't be able to do it. I don't have much experience with seriously mathematically weak students, but I do meet students (as 17yos, entering university) who are convinced that they're doomed to failure with anything that looks like maths. It's a problem. I think the key might be easier, but not completely formulaic, problems. E.g., maybe if you'd led them by the hand to adding integers 1...n, and then asked them about adding only the even integers, or only the odd ones? You'd like to get them to the point where they welcome a problem they have no idea how to do initially, but somehow you need to stop them being petrified (almost literally) at the beginning...

    Maybe lots of small problems would be less threatening to them? Do you have time to get them to do, or just offer them the chance to do, questions from the UK Mathematics Trust challenges
    http://www.mathcomp.leeds.ac.uk/individual-competitions/ for example (you probably want the Junior challenge for this group)? Might be useless, I don't know - only guessing.

  4. This IS a particularly weak group. They had some trouble with the teacher last year, and are about 6 weeks behind the schedule we should keep up with in order to finish the syllabus on time.
    I will use smaller problems - but I simply don't have time to do anything extra, outside their immediate syllabus. They are also swamped with last year assessment stuff in other classes (my psych class for example) and so giving any extra assignments out of class is pretty much out of the question. I'll be SO happy when (and if) they graduate.