This is why my little college-math-ed blog has so many readers

I see students calling me over to their desks to ask about a word problem, and half the time me reading the word problem aloud to them is enough to answer their question. I see students skimming over paragraphs of text (not that I blame them) and then asking me what they really needed to read in order to solve the problem. I seldom see any indication that students are reading their textbooks beyond skimming over the examples so that they can match them to the homework questions. I’ve lost track of the number of students I’ve tutored, or fielded during office hours, who did not avail themselves of the indices of their textbooks. The reason they couldn’t show that two events were mutually exclusive was because they didn’t know what “mutually exclusive” meant, nor did they think to look it up. —This is why my little college-math-ed blog has so many readers (Tall, Dark and Mysterious)

Because I typically teach writing and literature courses, the class in which I teach the most “content” is currently News Writing. I’ve ejected the huge $80 textbook in favor of several smaller books, each of which I can reasonably expect the students will read cover-to-cover. I carefully scoured key chapters of those readings and populated my opening lecture with references to them, so that when students encounter that key lesson just before it becomes important, sometimes they get an “aha” moment when they realize they’ve already learned (in class) the information that’s being delivered in more depth in text. But because I chose just the right books, and knew them well, I can tailor my in-class presentations to deliver what the books leave out.

I confess, making all that material fit together was very hard to do. I can imagine, if I didn’t have the luxury of picking the textbooks I wanted to use, and if I were mandated to deliver content X so that students will pass test Y, I can see how I might lean more on delivering short in-class explanations of what students “really” need to learn, while still virtuously assigning chapters that cover the material I’d like to teach, but don’t have time to emphasize in class. This might lead students to depend on skimming, and might train them to respond quickly and vivaciously to points I brought up in class, while not helping them develop the ability to respond to material that they themselves read.

So… reading how a math professor parses the “students aren’t prepared” problem has helped me see how I might respond. I’m still not sure what the solution is, but I can’t simply blame the high schools of America, since, like it or not, it’s my job to help the students pick up the pieces.

While things have settled down a bit, this time of year is very stressful for freshmen. I’ve got a high proportion of freshmen in two of my 200-level classes, and while I pause every so often to deliver a particular message to the freshmen, I’m not teaching them as freshmen courses, so we are together confronting the challenges of collegiate work.