Saturday, March 09, 2013

The Ritualists

A new strain of tardiness

The old pattern was very familiar, especially since I tend to give my students lots of short quizzes, often at the beginning of a class period: A student arrives late, sees a quiz in progress, and leaps into action, yanking a pencil out of the old book bag, snatching a quiz off the table in the front of the room, and scribbling quickly in a desperate attempt to catch up. That's the old pattern and it's not a surprising one.

Lately, however, I've seen several instances of a new pattern that is, frankly, utterly bewildering. In over thirty years of teaching, I had never seen this behavior until the last few semesters. A few of my tardy students have an unprecedented sang froid. They arrive late, see a quiz under way, and then progress casually to their desks. They never rush up to the front of the room to pick up a quiz. Their leisurely saunter gives me plenty of time to stroll over and hand them one. (Service with a smile!)

This new breed of tardy student is calm and generally unruffled, except sometimes a small moue telegraphs the unspoken thought, “Oh, here we go again!” The serene latecomer positions the water bottle or energy drink or Starbuck cup on a corner of the desk,  carefully tucks away the cell phone or iPod, peels off the coat and rolls it up to tuck in the book cage under the desk, rummages about in the book bag for a pencil or pen (sometimes deliberating over his or her choice of several writing implements—mustn't pick the wrong one!), digs out a calculator and places it precisely in the corner opposite the beverage (whether or not the quiz requires number-crunching), and then finally (as if in surprise) takes note of the quiz sitting atop the desk and begins to ponder it.

This settling-in ritual, in its various versions, eats up at least two minutes, sometimes three. Sometimes there is a lengthy interlude with the smartphone, scrolling through messages and tweets received in the interval between breaking eye contact with the screen upon arriving at the classroom door and arriving at the desk, occasionally extended by the imperative of replying to urgent missives. I imagine most of them are in the vein of

L8 agin
prof :(

Strangely enough, the explanation does not appear to be the simple one: Such casually late students are the class's losers, doomed to fail, and have fatalistically accepted their fate. Nope. That describes very few of them. My unruffled tardies are mostly C students mired in mediocrity. Perhaps they've figured out that they're doing enough to survive and it would be too much trouble to put in the work necessary to rise to the B level. I really don't know.

One thing, however, has not changed. After arriving ten minutes late and getting only five minutes to work on a fifteen-minute quiz, many chronically tardy students are quick (for a change) to complain: “I didn't have enough time!”

“Yes, you did,” I explain. “You just chose to use most of it for something else.”

Friday, March 01, 2013

Brain pain

Lesson unlearned

My students were not happy with me and they weren't keeping it a secret. After a unit on scientific notation, I gave them a quiz containing a question they deemed terribly unfair:
The mass of a proton is 1.7 × 10–27 kilograms. What is the total mass of 7.2 × 1033 protons? (Write your answer in scientific notation and include the units.)
I was told, with exquisite care and patronizing precision, that it was wrong of me not to tell them which arithmetic operation was expected. Addition? Multiplication? Subtraction? Division? How dared I give them numbers without specific instructions!

With professional patience, I waited out their lengthy complaints. Then, without saying a word, I turned back to the chalkboard and wrote out a brand-new problem:
The mass of a nickel is 5 grams. What is the total mass of 6 nickels?
With frowns still on their faces, they blurted out, “Thirty grams!”

Another long silence as I waited for their reactions. The faces went neutral. One brave soul ventured a comment: “Were we supposed to know that?”

“Sure,” I replied. “All of you know that you multiply to solve problems like this. You just yelled out the answer to the nickel problem because it was so easy. What I'm trying to get across is that numbers written in scientific notation are still just numbers. You work with them just like you work with other numbers. You're letting your minds shut down because they look different, but you actually already know what to do.”

A smug expression is bad pedagogy, so I maintained a mild and neutral mien. I was quietly satisfied that I had gotten an important point across. My self-congratulation was just a little premature. (You'd think I would know better by now.)

A student in the back row grunted in dissatisfaction and posed a question in an irritated tone: “So on the next exam are you going to tell us what to do with the numbers?”

My spirits fell a notch.

“What do you think?” I asked.

I hope indeed that they do.