19 August, 2005

First week of work about to end

It's been a busy week here. Meetings, meeting, meetings... I didn't have time to prepare any syllabi until yesterday afternoon, nor to prepare any lectures until today. (Classes start Tuesday.) There's a lot to criticize about the "new faculty orientation", but I won't do that here; besides, my division chair solicited our input.

It's a lot of fun to sit back and watch the professors vent about problems at the college. Everyone's good at identifying problems, but no one really knows how to fix them. Issues like retention, poor preparation, and motivation were the big issues at my undergraduate college, and this one, also small and private, is no different.

For my part, I'm teaching four classes, the usual load at a teaching school:

  • Intermediate Algebra (a course for students unprepared for high school),
  • Statistics (two sections, this being our department's most important "service" course for the college),
  • Linear Algebra (a "majors" course).

I'm worried about statistics, since I've never taught it before. I spent today preparing a lecture, and I don't think it's very good. However, I have no way of knowing how to make it better! I would like to my teaching style to be problem-oriented, rather than answer-oriented. What do I mean? I mean that I would like the class to consist of a few easily-identifiable problems about which students would care. (Or, even if they don't care, they could see why someone else would.) We (as a class) would spend the semester trying to solve those problems. This would be more engaging than the lecture approach, which begins with the method of solution, and the professor gives as many examples as time allows, perhaps asks the students some intelligent questions, etc.

The trouble with this ideal is identifying the few problems. I'm not that experienced a researcher, and in my opinion, textbooks neither do a good job of identifying these few important problems. Or, if they do, they don't organize their texts around them.

In any case, I can identify the problems in intermediate algebra and linear algebra much more easily than the problems in statistics, because I use them a lot. But statistics? what mathematician needs statistics? ;-) I hate statistics, and have since I first took it fifteen years ago.

To begin with, statistics was the first course in college where I had to use a calculator. There were simply too many numbers being thrown at us, and while I was excellent with hand arithmetic, I wasn't good enough to keep up with all that.

Actually, statistics was the only course in college where I had to use a calculator. That may speak ill of my undergraduate university, but that's one of the reasons I hate it.

Another reason I hate statistics, is that it's usually a very fact-based course. As far as I can tell, there's no attempt to make students reason mathematically in an introductory statistics course. So far, it's like this: here are the definitions; here are the formulas; now use them to calculate some statistics, and to say why our examples are good (or bad) uses of statistics. Yuck.

This wouldn't be so bad if statisticians actually had their facts straight. While reviewing textbooks for the course, however, I looked at three texts, each of which had its own definition of standard deviation, each of which was somewhat incompatible with the other text's definition. This does not go far towards improving my opinion of the field.

That's not math; it's statistics. Don't ask me about it, because I don't understand it, and based on my limited experience with statistics, I'm not sure the statisticians do either.

Hopefully, the rest of the semester will prove me wrong. Right now though I'd rather teach three sections of intermediate algebra than have these two sections of statistics.

6 comments:

Alessandra said...

Hi,
Have you searched online for teacher resources for the stat course? There is so much teacher stuff being put online to be shared nowadays, maybe you might find something, interesting lecture stuff, problems, examples, etc.

Also, maybe you can propose an extra class (non-obligatory) for the more motivated students (if you get any) to explore some of the problems, theories, whatever, that you find really interesting, but aren't part of the core curriculum for this course?

just throwing out some ideas, after reading you're not too thrilled :-)

Alessandra said...

This wouldn't be so bad if statisticians actually had their facts straight. While reviewing textbooks for the course, however, I looked at three texts, each of which had its own definition of standard deviation, each of which was somewhat incompatible with the other text's definition. This does not go far towards improving my opinion of the field.
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lol...

qkl said...

I don't like stats myself... :}

Stats are useful for demographic studies and for physics...

http://sky.net.co/physics/termo.html

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Category:Statistics

To keep the interest of your students I sugest using demographic studies of the college your work at. Talking about how much students own a car and come to college or how much eat at the cafeteria and so on should interest them since it's about them... of course after you can use that data to start a business providing services to the students and make some cash... one stone two birds. :}

jack perry said...

Hi,

Thanks for the comments.

Have you searched online for teacher resources for the stat course?

There are plenty of teacher resources, and if I knew exactly where to look, I would know how to attack the problem. The real problem is that I studied statistics once 15 years ago, haven't looked at it since then, and tried as much as I could to forget what I learned. It's more a matter of attitude, and as I say, the textbooks don't help.

Also, maybe you can propose an extra class ... to explore some of the problems, theories, whatever, that you find really interesting, but aren't part of the core curriculum for this course?

There is nothing in statistics that I find even remotely interesting. That's the problem! :-(

Stats are useful for demographic studies and for physics...

I know this on an intellectual level; I just can't force myself to care. You see that I'm in the same position that most of my students will be in :-)

To keep the interest of your students I sugest using demographic studies of the college your work at.

That's actually a really good idea, and I think it's the sort of thing I can do to assign as projects. I had looked up a bunch of statistics at the the Census about this area (Nash County, Edgecombe County, Rocky Mount), but I wasn't sure what to do with them.

I just have to change my attitude about it, and maybe sit in another professor's course.

Alessandra said...

There are plenty of teacher resources, and if I knew exactly where to look, I would know how to attack the problem.
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ah cmon... as if you couldnt type a couple of keywords in Google and go on from there...


It's more a matter of attitude, and as I say, the textbooks don't help.
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Hey, you are starting your career, you need a little more flexibility, get yourself some teaching goals you want to achieve for the course. You can concentrate on how well you teach, not so much on what you are teaching. (that's always a challenge I find interesting - Challenge yourself as a teacher)

Also, although I don't think there is anything wrong with not being interested in any subject (there are many I am not interested in as well), your students deserve a good (motivated) teacher. It's not fair to them to have such an attitude.

Think about it, in another 10 years, you will be a big name academic, and you will pick all your classes, if you teach at all... because you will be too important to do anything you don't like ;-)

10 years go by fast :-). And it will be much more painless for you if you find ways to make it more interesting...

jack perry said...

I'll keep Google in mind. It's only a browse away. What I worry about there is that I'll spend so much time sifting the chaff from the wheat that I'll never arrive at a coherent whole.

It's not fair to them to have such an attitude.

Exactly. :-)