Saturday, January 17, 2015

Because yelling "You are NOT stupid, but you're NOT really trying!" while they cry has yet to work.

Of the 150+ students registered for my spring courses, 100 are pre-nursing students (which is funny, because most of them have decades of experience working as nurses).  Most of them are math-phobic middle aged women who panic at the sight, sound or smell of anything mathematical.  Like when they see the room number.  Or smell chalk.  Or have to write the date on their lab reports.

These same women are always on time, or early.  They make study groups and do all of the things you hope struggling students will do.  They take METICULOUS notes.  They can answer any question I ask during class.

And then they take a test.  They can do literally identical problems in class that they can not do on an exam.  During problem solving sessions, they are adamant that they can "only do this when [you] help me.  As soon as I go home I am lost."  As God is my witness, I do not do a thing while they do problem sets in class.  I am literally in the room with them and that is it.  Put it on a test and they go from solid B/B+ students, to beyond F.  Like they do work in class that's worth uninflated high 80's, on a test, I can scratch together enough excuses for partial credit to give them a 40, and if someone audited my grading, I would get fired for grade inflation.

My husband is in Ed. Psych. and he's got these journal articles all over our office about "Stereotype threat".  That's exactly their problem.  I have tried once in a while to give a pep-talk the class before an exam, and include the concept of stereotype threat.  It usually pulls one or two of these students into reality and they proceed along a more enjoyable trajectory.  It rarely makes much of an effect on the group as a whole.  So I had this idea...

I want to attach an article on stereotype threat to the syllabus.  Have it as a reading assignment right from day one.  But the articles I have here in the office are real deal research based peer-reviewed psychology articles.  Giving this out would also throw the ones with reading disabilities into a twirl and then I'd have two kinds of canaries to calm instead of one.  And my plea to the social scientists of the community is:

Does anyone have a pop-science version of an article on stereotype threat that I could give as suggested reading to my health-science class?


  1. I don't know of one, but I think giving it to them, if you can find one, is a great idea.

  2. When they do their problem sets, do they have their notes open? And, are the exams open note/open book or closed note, closed book?

    1. I'm embarrassed to admit how much of a "cheat sheet" I allow for exams, but, gulp, [you're about to get the scent of charred wombat] I give them a xeroxed periodic table on which I've printed a handful of equations and/or constants or rules, and tell them they can make whatever other notes they want on it and use it for the exam.

      I still think you're on to something, though. In reality, they cram more on the equation sheet than they ever bother to use during class. But the idea that they have unlimited access during class (even though they don't use it) could be the difference.

    2. I allow my students (in a quantitative science class for non-majors) to write cheat sheets, too. I collect them to check that the students wrote their own (one of my requirements intended to make them think about the material while preparing the sheet). And the interesting thing is how reliably what kinds of things they write predicts their success.

      Students who try to assemble a cookbook of problem types invariably do poorly: there are too many different ways to write problems.

      I've been trying to use this to help me adjust my teaching style: try to teach them the to approach the subject the way successful students do. Of course, I don't really have data on this, so I have only a vague impression of moderate success.

    3. Background: I teach mathematics; mostly calculus. I always warn my students (multiple times) that they should be able to do homework assignments with their notes and book closed; that is the only way they can be sure that they've internalized the material.

      I don't have data here either but some students have told me that this hint has helped them a great deal.

      I do teach some classes where I allow for "open reference", but even then, if they have to keep flipping to notes to do the problems, they really don't know the material.

    4. I also allowed them cheat-sheets (index cards) but I found that although the best students used it wisely, most were incapable of correctly identifying important equations; they would waste space with irrelevancies

      In my classes, I've had better luck giving them an equation sheet early, and telling them to use it for ALL their problem sets. This gives them training and experience, solving problems on homework under exactly the same conditions as in an exam.

      It doesn't work either, but it's much less trouble to manage and keeps expectations simple.

  3. can you tell them it's an exercise, and then actually use it as an exam?

  4. We encounter this with writing anxiety in students. In my presence, they seem able to write; they go away and nothing, nada, zip. They think I'm magical b/c they can only write when I tell them to. I'm OK with that. No, just kidding... I have no helpful articles, but I do wonder if the anxiety of the test also leads them to suddenly think they're unable to perform so if you name the tests "review exercises" if that would help. In one of my classes, we simply stopped calling our writing "essays" and instead called them "drafts" and suddenly, the anxious ones seemed better equipped to write. One person went so far as to call her essays "fudge sundaes" and she was fine.

  5. I like "They're Not Dumb, They're Different," by Sheila Tobias. It is a whole book, but only 94 pages. Perhaps you might use excerpts?

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  7. This is not really my area, but it seems like your exams might actually be "ecologically valid"--in the sense that the students who fail the exams might also not be able to do the math in critical situations in the real world. So you do want to weed them out by failing them.

    That said, though, here's a NYTimes article that might help.

    Ultimately, isn't the question whether or not you can get a placebo to keep working indefinitely?

    Each student is different. Some students are able to turn that corner and "see the light" in a few minutes. Others fail to get that confidence even after decades (or a lifetime).

    Placebo and hypnosis are such wonderful devils. And identity is such a goddamn motherfucker.

    If I were sober, I might try to write something useful, too, about the Moore Method, but I don't know which math you're teaching.

    Good luck.


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