Too Many Kids Go To College: A Third Conversation With Myself

Links to the first and second conversation with myself about teaching. I am away from the computer until Monday, 25 October.

William Wasn’t this your week for midterms? How’d they go?

Matt Better than I had hoped. You know I was pushing the kids, trying to make them work harder. Most scores improved.

William I can see your smile. But you said, “most.”

Matt I have the problems all professors do. I’ve given two tests and in all classes some students have not taken either test. I don’t recognize their names, either, and they’re not coming to class.

William No class is perfect.

Matt The school’s withdraw deadline is coming, and after the exam, I had a line out the door of students who had done poorly wanting me to sign a permission slip, so that they could receive a “W” for the class and not a letter grade.

William You probably frightened half of them half to death.

Matt It’s true that before the midterm, I had a difficult time convincing students to come to office hours. Oddly, now that most are doing better, my office is rarely empty.

William If you didn’t wear those suits, you’d seem easier to get along with.

Matt I’d also look less professional. Forget that, and let me tell you why kids want to withdraw.

William Any mention your ties?

Matt Skip it. Several told me that they had to drop to maintain a grade point average above 3.2 or thereabouts. I asked why and they said that the school gives them an “award” of about $2,500 for having good grades.

William A financial incentive for studying can’t be bad.

Matt Can’t it? I asked these kids if they wouldn’t have to retake the class because it was a requirement for their “Business” majors. They agreed that they would. I then asked, “How much does it cost to take a course?” It’s about $1,100 to $1,200.

William That’s not so harsh; other schools charge double or triple.

Matt Not the point. I asked the leading question, “Well, if you’ve paid for this class already, and you’ll have to pay for it again, how much is that?”

William They’d still come out ahead re-taking.

Matt Just barely; and only if time costs nothing and they passed with a high grade the next time.

William It’s still better to receive a “W” than an “F”.

Matt That’s only assuming they would fail, which some of them wouldn’t if they applied themselves. One student was very upset with me when I asked why she was dropping. She said, “I’m going to retake the course with another teacher and get an A.” I asked, “Is that so? How do you know?” She said, “I’ve always been good at math, and this is the first time I ever did badly.”

William You are a taskmaster.

Matt I said to her, “Well, you’ve always been told you’re good at math. But how do you know?” She couldn’t fathom an answer, and told me she just wanted to drop.

William Statistics isn’t math, anyway. Not any more than physics or chemistry is, and probably less.

Matt Don’t I know it, but that’s a subject for another day. And don’t let’s forget that almost all students did better on the second exam. I reminded the student of that, too. But she still wanted to drop, so I let her. And then I had a calculus student come in, somewhat bashful.

William I thought you liked the calculus class.

Matt I do. But no matter what the class, before I let anybody withdraw, I look over their old exams so that I can see how they handled the material. If they had no clue, I never argue about signing. But if they have made simple mistakes, or were just lazy, I try and talk them out of it; I also tell them they have to work harder.

William If you weren’t so demanding, you wouldn’t have so many kids wanting to withdraw in the first place.

Matt What a rotten argument. This kid couldn’t, for instance, remember how to integrate simple polynomials. His algebra skills were no better. Errors like x2 + x5 = x7.

William A common mistake.

Matt For high school freshmen, sure. I asked how he did in his earlier calculus courses. He said that he had taken the last with a math education professor who insisted that the class buy a fancy calculator that could actually do integrals. Type them in and out would pop the answer. He said that because I didn’t allow calculators, he was having a difficult time.

William What’s wrong with calculators?

Matt Nothing, for somebody who knows what he’s doing and is just trying to save time. But they ought to be forbidden to students. Using that calculator, I told him, was no different than coming to me with a sheet of integrals and having me do them for him. A machine is a machine. He hadn’t learned anything except how to punch buttons.

William For once, I think you might have a point.

Matt I told the student that I was sorry for him, but that it might be a good idea to retake not just my class, but a lower-level course, too, one in which calculators couldn’t be used. He is an engineering major and he would need the math skills, or he would never make it.

William But you are happier, right?

Matt Let’s hope it stays this way.


  1. Bernie

    He is an engineering student? Not for long, I suspect.

  2. Pat Moffitt

    What about that rare student that need only read the book(s), or learned the subject from job experience– must they come to class if they can demonstrate proficiency? If they demonstrate proficiency why must they be commanded to pay for a course they do not need. We have APs but why must it be so limited– why not allow anyone to take a proficiency test. (FYI I include a basic stats course in my list of core rqts for any degree BA and BS)

  3. bob

    Somehow, this reminds me of my first thermodynamics exam. The old fuddy-duddy professor graded me down for using little “f” to designate degrees Fahrenheit, and little “c” for degrees Centigrade. Just because it was my fault did not improve my opinion of the jerk he truly was.

    I know you are not the jerk my thermo prof was just by the respectful way in which you address those who write comments on you blog. I have no constructive opinion on how things could be changed.

    My lesson was to swallow my pride, and pay attention to the rules of the game. Maybe your situation demands that you learn the rules of their game and go with the flow. But, I don’t believe you will desert the very principles that have brought you to this point.

    Good luck and keep sharing your inspirations and frustrations.

    I wonder what all that fuss about entropy and enthalpy was all about? Do you use big E or little e?

  4. Pat Moffitt

    A view from the other side of the desk–You leave your job of ten years at the end of a long day, drive to the university for a class that took a big chunk of your paycheck– sit down and find that the class is led not by an experienced professor but a 24 year old grad student. Becomes obvious by the 3rd class that most of the other older professional working “students” seen in evening courses have a much better command of the material than the TA. Most of these older students decide to return only for the midterm and final– finding they have wasted their money– and not willing to also waste their time.

    Either I know the material or I don’t– what I do with my time is my business.

  5. Ari

    The pity of making the mistake “x^2+x^5=x^7” is that all it takes is a little bit of thinking through the numbers to realize that the two sides of the equation don’t match. I don’t claim to be good with the rules, but I can see when I’m going down the wrong road because I’ll noticed that my math doesn’t work.

  6. JH

    Our student paper once published the names of professors with top 10 rankings in their D/Failing/Withdraw rates. Some math faculties seemed particularly brutal! *_^

  7. Ray

    Years ago I needed one of those calculators that solves integrals. I worked in the antenna section of Harris Corp and we were trying to figure a way to calculate the radiation pattern of microwave feed horns. We wanted to determine how well the horn worked without building and testing it. We had lots of horns in the scrap pile that didn’t work well. One of our PhDs developed a horrible integral equation to calculate the pattern, but we couldn’t solve it. We were making jokes about the PhD solving our problem with an unsolvable equation. The only thing we could do was evaluate it numerically. The results corresponded fairly well with actual measurements. The computer program ran for over an hour on our minicomputer and we were only allowed to run the program after normal working hours. If we could solve the integral we would have saved lots of time.

  8. Raymond

    You promised to post your exam and answers. I was looking forward to taking the test at home. Any updates?

  9. “It’s true that before the midterm, I had a difficult time convincing students to come to office hours.”

    Ditto! About a year ago I asked my department chair if it was OK to hold office hours in the computer lab that my stats students use, so the students wouldn’t disturb my cube-mates. Office hours attendance has shot up like a rocket; many of my students come to every session of office hours and buff their homeworks to perfection. YMMV, but office hours out of the office seems to work wonders.

    I do love to get students like Pat Moffitt, who soak up everything you can throw at them–I’ve got an Army sergeant this semester who’s tearing up my stats course–but they’re few and far between. It does make for a bit of an ass-kicking for the other students, though. They look kinda like spent marathon runners by the end of the semester. It does sound like Pat is getting short-changed in his courses. I guarantee my students they’ll learn something new and useful in my courses, even if they’ve got experience — statistics is a big subject.

    For guys like Ray, I tell my students that calculus is like carpentry; sometimes you need a hammer, other times a nail gun. But what’s the use of giving them Mathematica (which I do), when they can’t even set up the integral?

  10. Dan

    I have a good idea what your response would be if a student in your statistics class tried to solve a math problem by wishing that the professor had assigned an easier problem then dismissing the problem if the numbers and symbols didn’t spontaneously sort themselves out. This is not a good way to solve problems.

    So, I hope that you ultimately don’t use this strategy for problems in education. The problem, as I see it, is that you have a classroom full of people with a wide variety of different educational experiences, mathematical abilities, motivations, and interests. You would like as many of those people to benefit from your class as possible.

    You may prefer if only highly motivated students entered your classroom, just as your students would prefer if you let them use calculators and only assigned easy problems. But, if you dismiss the real problem because you wish that you were solving an easier one (students who teach themselves), you are surrendering in the same way as the students in your class who are lost without a calculator. In the assigned teaching problem, not all of the students are as prepared as you wish they were. This problem is very interesting and challenging and there is a lot to be learned from solving it.

  11. Pat Moffitt

    This line of postings still seems to focus on the students failure to heed the professor. The students (hopefully) are paying the bill – the only possible loss is to the student. What the consumer does with its capital is the consumer’s choice. Consider a consumer that is told that they need a masters for a job position- made to pay for a subject that they already know and taught by the unqualified. Trust me- you get a lot more upset than a client not showing up for a prepaid meeting. In the consulting field I always hoped my clients would heed my advice– however they were the Client- they bought my service- whether they heeded it was their choice and more importantly -their right.

    Professors and Universities often forget students are the Client. Until profs teach for free I’ll take the attacks on the client as just another academic activity I don’t understand.

  12. Ken


    How does your logic & observations that some college students ought not be college students really argue THAT case?

    The same data can just as easily be interpreted to argue that many youth need MORE help & attention. That might be in the form of a semester/quarter of introductory courses to convey expectations & standards.

    In other words, the criteria for a “good” college student–at least one just starting out & still learning to be a “good student”–is heavily dependent on implicit assumptions of what depth & breadth of instructor effort, etc. are appropriate in ALL cases.

    Ultimately, some students must be failed relative to an objective standard. And that standard will invariably vary with the type of school involved.

    This ongoing blog saga of poor student quality is missing that key element–the higher failure rate in the later/latest batch(es) of students. Which suggests that they are not being failed as is suitable. Which in turn suggests that the institution is lowering standards for some reason…and human nature being what it is, people WILL “rise” to changed standards, regardless of which direction the increase is.

    So, is the problem the students….or….is that a symptom of a larger institutional policy implementation issue?

    Its really much like correlation & causality being confused as linked rather than coincidental. Seems to me that the focus on problems is misplaced here.

  13. Doug M

    Math for business majors should ban the calculator but allow Excel. That is the single math tool that these people will be need to know when they get to the the business world.

  14. Adam H

    “Matt: I have the problems all professors do. I’ve given two tests and in all classes some students have not taken either test.”

    I am haunted by a recurring dream in which I am unknowingly one of those students…

    As for the capitalistism in universities, I am of the opinion that since everyone suffers as a result of a poorly educated generation, everyone at least has the right to complain that the average student shrugs off his/her responsibility to learn.

  15. Earle Williams

    Adam H,

    There is an xkcd comic that taps this common nightmare. I’m at work and can’t confirm it, but Google says that it should be at this link:

  16. Doug M


    My brother lived a variation of this dream in his academic life. In the spring term of his senior year, he enrolls in a class on animal navigation. He doesn’t show to the first month of class. The class is canceled due to lack of interest. He finally shows up, to find the hall empty. One of his friends tells him that the navigation class is at a different time and location. He shows up at the new location. This class is celestial navigation. It takes another week or two before he realizes how lost he is. He isn’t enrolled, he needs the credits to graduate, and convinces the professor to add him to the class more than halfway through the term.

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