16 November, 2005

Rethinking Intermediate Algebra

Along the lines of my previous post, a letter to the editor in the most recent issue of Notices of the AMS contains a letter from Manley Perkel, a European who argues that giving and grading homework is a waste of time. In his country, he points out, the very idea of a college professor's giving and grading homework was literally laughable:

This is not to say we were not given problems to do in our university courses. On the contrary, we were given many typed out pages of these. But we were never required to turn them in. ...Problems were for us to do if and when we wanted and however we wanted. It was assumed that university students were adults, interested in the subject they studied, and would eventually (i.e., before the final exam) do their problems. The reward was not in some artificial point grading system but in learning and succeeding in courses in which students professed to be interested.

I believe, wrongly perhaps, that this part about "interest" might be a bad assumption, even in Europe these days. I am not sufficiently acquainted with the European system to comment on whether an Astronomy student would be required to take a sequence on the History of Western Civilization (although Western Civ is disappearing from certain universities that style themselves as being more fashionable and cutting-edge).

In the United States, most schools give at least some lip service to the idea of a "liberal arts" education, and require courses that have nothing to do with a student's major. Many students take a large number of courses that they wouldn't be at all interested in, simply because we think such courses contribute to being a good citizen, or (if you're in a really old-fashioned school) being a more developed human being. In my case, for example, I had to take pyschology courses, one of which was Human Growth and Development. I also had to take some English courses, one of which was Principles of Human Language. I found both courses immensely interesting, although I can't say the same for the other psychology and English courses that I had to take. Best of all was the requirement to take Economics, which interested me so much that I flirted with minoring in it.

Returning to the topic of homework, I've been reconsidering how I teach Intermediate Algebra. I had been thinking of approaching it from this perspective next semester:
  • hand the students a manifesto of problems;
  • tell them that if they can solve these problems, they will pass the course;
  • each day, teach the students how to solve the problems on one page of the manifesto;
  • hold a homework review session as I do now, along the lines of what Dr. Perkel suggested;
  • write the final exam using problems from the manifesto (changing the number this time, though!)
I'm sure the students would like the fact that they wouldn't have to buy a book, but I'm not sure if I want to be around when they blame me for their grades. The danger of this is that if their scores do not improve from what they are now, or even worsen, it could have repercussions on my career.

I suppose now is the time to experiment. The tenure application is still distant.

1 comment:

qkl said...

I think you have a great idea about telling them if they can do the homework they will pass the course. The only problem I see is that some students could see that they will pass the couse and not work till it's too late.

Better that you experiment early and your career and once it is secured you will be able to experiment again.