Saturday, March 12, 2011

Every Hour a Golden Hour in EWU's Math Classrooms

“Knowing I get kind of intimidated by math,” says Eastern Washington University senior Dori Simpson, “I signed up with a gal that I had met in lab—a graduate student that I knew I did well with her style of teaching.” But within the week before the start of classes, all the instructors shifted, and she lost her pick for math 115.
Simpson is a nontraditional student with red hair cascading well below her shoulders and large, round eyes. She was still optimistic that she could succeed until she asked a question in class. “‘Well, it’s obvious, isn’t it?’ (the instructor said.) And all I could say was, ‘Well no, not to me it’s not obvious and thanks for making me feel stupid—by saying that, that way,’” says the French and Spanish major through pursed lips.
Simpson swallowed her pride until the first three assignments were turned in together and handed back. Out of a total of 50 questions, she missed three, but the instructor gave her a C. The professor combined the three assignments, valued them at ten points and subtracted the number missed. “Seven out of 10…became a C,” Simpson says. So normally, when you have 50 questions, you would get two points off per question because of how the math works. So I was expecting a low A.”
She is not alone. A student who asked to remain anonymous had difficulty with a math professor early this quarter. “We would ask her what she meant by something, and she would go over it a little bit and then she’d be like, ‘Okay, if you have any other questions, you need to try this problem on your own and come and see me in my office hour, and we’ll talk about it. I personally am not capable of doing it with my schedule.”
On the first two tests, the junior couldn’t figure out what the instructor was asking for, and so put too much information on the test and was unable to finish the first two tests this quarter. She says that if she didn’t use the right method to solve the problem—even if she got the correct answer—or if she placed the answer on the wrong part of the page, she wouldn’t get full credit for it. Her first two test scores were 74 and 66 percents.
Mathematics department chair Dr. Barbara Alvin speaks slowly when discussing success rates. She says students who score 90 percent on a test might not know as much as students in another section. “You can ask more insightful questions to get at student’s lack of understanding and hence you have to give them a lower grade.” She doesn’t understand students’ happiness with class averages above 3.5. “If you’re getting a 3.9 in that class, you don’t look a lot different than the rest of the students. Where if you were in a class where everyone had to learn something to get a grade, you might have some students below the 3.0. Then, when you’re applying to graduate school, you look different from your fellow students.”
“I want (students) to be challenged because they’re going to learn more…If everybody can get a 3.5 or above, then are you asking enough?…I doubt that many of the students that are failing are spending a minimum of ten hours (a week) outside class, studying.”
But Dr. Alvin knows of students’ overall academic challenges. “EWU admits students with lower SAT scores and lower high school GPAs than are admitted at other institutions. A higher percentage of our students are eligible for financial aid, and oftentimes that’s an indicator of future success in college.” Dr. Alvin explains that it’s probably related to the lack of emphasis on education at home, the lack of access to the same schooling prior to going to college and the lack of interest in their studies.
She says that legislature often looks at retention rates and graduation rates, but EWU administrators want them to remember the higher percentage of students on federal financial aid. “(Financial aid students) may be more likely to have to work in addition to studying for their courses…I’m sure there are some courses I would have gotten a higher grade on if I hadn’t had to work because I would have had more time to study.”
“People want to blame a problem on someone else. It’s easier to say it’s in someone else’s control than in my own control…I think it’s true for myself. I think it’s human nature,” says Dr. Alvin, “I’m not saying that we shouldn’t admit to mistakes or ways in which we can do things better, but we shouldn’t take away from students’ responsibility either.”
If students are unable to get additional help outside of class, then every hour with the instructor is critical. “There’s a connection between (department) budget and class size…You can have a lot more interaction with your students if you have a class of 20 than if you have a class of 40.” Dr. Alvin says this gives instructors more time to assists individual students. “In my perception…it’s easier for (students) to sit there and text and talk to their neighbor…and as soon as the students don’t feel accountable, the interactions in class aren’t as good as they would be in a situation where they do feel accountable.”
And maybe students pick up on classroom-size problems. At, 825 votes toward 62 EWU math instructors rated them with an average of 64.7 percent from October 2002 to the present. Hardly a scientific sampling in comparison to the estimated 2,000 math students per quarter; these numbers represent students who have found the rating website and given a positive or negative vote.
When asked for passing statistics, Dr. Alvin said that she and I would need to do an institutional review board request before any information could be released. “We don’t respect students who are writing in because they’re disgruntled. If they’re unhappy, they should come in and talk to us about why they’re unhappy…And students come to me…There are times that students have legitimate concerns. And sometimes there are just misunderstandings.”
Simpson did go in. “I…tried to get permission to switch professors because I knew it wasn’t going to work. I was told you can’t change professors. So I was frustrated because they switched all the classes the week before without any kind of notice…then regardless of the fact they did that, they tell me that I have no option.”
Simpson needed a GPA above 3.7 to keep her transfer scholarship. After speaking with three people in the department office, she dropped the class to join a language class 10 days into the quarter. The biggest problem with the math department, says Simpson, is that there is no advocate for the student. “Policies and people don’t always work in a clear and cut dry way.”
After the two uncompleted tests, the junior who didn’t have time to see her instructor during her office hour talked to her instructor after class. The professor said the junior was her best student, she needed to study more and many of her other students who took the test had walked out a half hour early. The student asked her classmates and students from the other same-level class the instructor taught and found this might not be true. No one she spoke with had finished the test early.
She spoke to Dr. Alvin about test lengths. Dr. Alvin told her that she would speak to the instructor, but that she didn’t know her tactics. The teacher might want the students to know the material well enough to zip through the test.
Now things are different. “She’s changed…to answering the questions of the students as we continue pressuring her to satisfy our question,” says the anonymous student. They had their first review the day before their third test. The instructor told them what work to show. The student thought she aced the test but achieved a passing 85 percent.
Simpson retook math 115 and earned a 3.9 in the class. Her new professor graded differently. He went over homework in class the next day without grading it. The first part of class was devoted to homework questions or concept problems. “He would take a liberal amount of time… so you could see if you were learning a concept. And you weren’t all of sudden going to have your grade suffer because the night before—when a concept was just introduced—you couldn’t figure out how to apply it to three or four different problems.”

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