Today, I gave a midterm to my undergraduate class; I proctored it via a videoconferencing tool. Near the end, a student was red in the face and looked visibly upset. He conveyed that he was frustrated because he’d studied so hard and this was even harder than the previous exams.
I’ve had this kid in office hours; he’s one of the most diligent attendees. His questions reflect some surprising and pretty serious gaps in preparation. I am not sure how to help him except plug a hole once it becomes visible. But his facility with algebra, trigonometry, and calculus is just not high enough for him to be able to do well in this course, plus I don’t think he’s getting the concepts that well either; my guess is that spending too much energy being bogged down in the weeds of highschool math that he doesn’t have enough CPU cycles left to process the higher-level stuff. In this major, and this course in particular, you cannot be getting tripped up on the cosine of an angle plus pi/2, or struggle with performing a vector product. These need to be done lightning fast, so you can actually get to the good stuff.
I do explain what I can. When I identify a bigger gap in understanding, I try to go back and do my best to plug it. But, with many students, it’s like trying to keep water inside a colander: the holes are too numerous and, try as a I may, I cannot close them all.
Mostly I’m sad for students who struggle so much. There have been bimodal distributions of grades in undergrad classes pretty much since I started working here. Older faculty say it wasn’t always like that, that distributions used to resemble the normal one much more. These days we do have two modes, on either side of the mean, and there’s nothing but tumbleweeds where the mean is.
Another issue I try to help with when I can, but often cannot, is “I worked so hard.” There are infinite ways of spending a lot of time on little learning gain. If a kid comes to office hours, and he or she is struggling, we talk about learning strategies and test-taking strategies. Maybe it helps. What doesn’t help is that the students in our major tend to be extremely busy, so I wonder if they have the time to really let the material sink in. Then again, I also felt that time moved very slowly when I was that young. Maybe times have changed, or I’m misremembering, or both.
How’s your weekend going, blogosphere? This weekend, I’m looking forward to catching some well-deserved zzzzz, and then I will grade.