Thursday, July 09, 2015
(Situational) Tolerance for Ambiguity
Wise and worldly readers, have you found relatively effective ways to help students gain confidence that they can wander, without falling off a cliff?
One of the first things it brings to my mind is math. Many students I've encountered at all levels, including some very smart ones, seem to be deathly afraid of numbers to the extent that when they see a fraction they shut down. I try to emphasize how equations and numbers are a necessary way of describing the world (Did water enter or leave the cell? What percent of the time we flip a coin do we need to get heads before we should suspect it's an unfair coin? How come -log[H+] is a great way to describe the acidity of a solution, but gives us very very wrong answers when the concentration of protons is very very very small?), but it presents a major roadblock when bright kids can't calculate a percent because they are too afraid to try.
I don't have the solution, but I'd love to see someone come up with a strategy to make more Americans math-confident; that might go a long way in making us better problem solvers.
The problem with fractions starts with when (and thus by whom and how) they are first taught: Elementary school. If you find a student who says they don't like math (and I'll wager a lot choose bio among the STEM fields for that reason), ask "When did you like math?". Odds are they liked it until some unfortunate experience with fractions in K-5 (with a teacher who did not like math) or the intro to algebra in 6-8 (with a last-hire due to a shortage of qualified math teachers). Some were given math problems as punishment, or ridiculed when they got a wrong answer for a percentage, so you might be seeing a conditioned response.
Molly @6:11 -
And why I am so grateful to see dual-enrolled students, although I will add the adjustment that college classes go faster because they require learning outside of class that is not just busywork. My dad explained the difference to me, based on his experience, which gave me a leg up. Which was good, because the year of calculus I took while in HS was too easy (for me!) to provide that lesson.
BTW, I don't think dual-enrolled students count as a dropout. They just don't count at all until they enroll after graduating HS. (No minus, but also no plus except on the college's own internal records.) She will be considered FTIC when she starts college in the fall, just as I was.
*This is only demonstrated for female teachers, we don't know what happens with male 3rd grade teachers basically because there aren't enough of them.
And I was amused by your statement that
and I'll wager a lot choose bio among the STEM fields for that reason
Absolutely. When I ask why they chose bio, many speak of their hatred of math, chemistry, and physics which is laughable considering bio students encounter just as much chem as a chem minor; naturally, they suspect I must be out to torture them because I dare to make them use equations! Just this week a student who struggles tremendously with anything quantitative (and has failed all the exams on qualitative subjects too) told me that bio labs are too much thinking, so he will be switching his major to engineering upon transferring to a 4 year school...good luck.
Finances are more or less the primary determinant of my willingness to tolerate risk.
One chem prof complains that you can't even use modifying a recipe as an example of percentages because they also don't cook at home!
IMHO, schools exist to make the parent's knowledge irrelevant, but I am well aware of the advantage everyone in my family had because my parents read a lot and used math a lot (cooking as well as carpentry). That said, many of our dual-enrolled kids are homeschooled and come to college because their parents can't teach math beyond Algebra I.
And bio students also need some physics, if they want to take the MCAT, and calculus. Calculus was the downfall of my first college roommate, who needed a year just to qualify to fail calculus because he hadn't taken any math since 10th grade. Horrible HS advising.
The description of students in a writing class grabbing a cliche has a near-perfect analog in a physics class grabbing an equation. They really don't like ambiguous problems (such as ones where there is more data than they need, so they can't just find an equation that uses exactly what was given), let alone problems where there is too little given -- what are called "open questions" in physics teaching.
The latter address the top level in Bloom's taxonomy.
I remember many many peers in the class having tremendous difficulty just trying to wrap their heads around the ambiguity of doing calculations when you didn't know what the numbers were.
I hope that when your student said he wanted to be an engineer he meant driving trains :)