Feelings as math answers?



College sure has changed since I started, decades ago, and a recent satirical article cut just a little close to home, becoming almost “truth” instead of satire. I recall one of my early experiments in giving a multiple choice test. A sample question:

If P(A) = 0.2 and P(B) = 0.6, and P(A and B) = 0.1 what is P(A or B)?

  1.   4
  2.   0
  3.   7
  4. d) My head hurts

The university, a restricted admissions university, had changed the rules so that it was both restricted admission, and open admission—anyone who was willing to pay the tuition could take the course, but, due to a quirk in the regulations, it could still classify itself as not an open admissions university.

The results were predictable: a flood of students whose only qualification was the ability to check a box qualifying for student loans poured onto campus. Literally from one semester to the next, I could no longer cover the same material in the same courses…but nobody had given me the memo about the change, so I was blindsided. Yes, I got the admin notice that they needed to “temporarily” expand class size from 20 to 35, but I was still pretty naïve and didn’t connect the dots.

The first test, instead of having a class average of around 75%, was around 30%, a huge drop, mostly due to about a dozen students who scored fairly close to 0%. Such a variation was pretty big, as this was a 2000 level course, I shouldn’t have “zero” students here, as every student, theoretically, had already taken at least a year of college courses and knew about studying.

The class was large (stop laughing, honest there was a time when a class with 35 students in it was considered large), so I decided to try a multiple choice test. Feeling kind, I gave the students a small break with one of the possible answers, above.

The grades, once again, were disastrous. Oh, the average was around 30%, but this means nothing on a multiple choice test—a student picking randomly would score 25% based on pure luck (although I had a few students score worse than 25% all the same). One girl actually selected “d) My head hurts”, and I marked it wrong—I would have given her a break if she’d written the correct answer somewhere.

I pass back the tests, and go over the questions. The girl interrupts me angrily, to ask why I marked her answer wrong. “Because the answer to the question needs to be a probability,” I answered.

“But my head did hurt!” she hostilely replied. I responded calmly, doing what I thought was a good job in not laughing (although no students were laughing), explaining that if the question was how her head felt, she’d have a point. We went back and forth a bit, before finally she stormed out of class to complain to the dean.

I got a warning from the dean not to be so disrespectful to the students. The dean didn’t even bother to get my side before warning me in writing. We really, really, need to get rid of administrators with no respect for education or educators. That was quite a few years ago.

 Educationist: “What we’re doing now is giving partial credit for ‘nearly correct’ answers on multiple choice tests. So, students get full credit for correct answers, then 66% credit for the next best answer, than 33% for the next best, and nothing for the worst, for example.”

Me: “But in a multiple choice test, a student can get the problem right just for guessing…isn’t that already a form of partial credit?”

Educationist: “Yes, but this method is far more fair. It’s also been shown to greatly increase passing and retention rates, especially if we go to a more generous grading scale.”

A more diligent math faculty: “The new scale puts failing at below 50%, how did you get that number?”

Educationist: “Because we honestly feel that a student who is getting more than half right on the test is clearly trying, and should get credit for that.”

Diligent: “Do you even know how expected value works? A chimpanzee taking this test with your credit system is going to score 50%!”

Educationist: “You should not refer to our students as chimpanzees. I don’t feel you’re giving this system a fair chance.”

–I’m serious, the Educationist proposed a system where, guessing randomly, a student would score 50%, so even someone completely ignorant of the course would be mathematically unlikely to fail, and, incredibly, proposed it as an “improvement.”

Things sure have changed. Now, the material in my courses is materially influenced by administrators that have no knowledge of the course material, and I have courses where the grading system is completely out of my control (and, yes, it is set up so that it is very, very, hard for even a pure random guesser to fail).

Admin tells me my material, tells me my grading. How long until they tell me what the correct answers are? How long until correct answers, even in mathematics, are determined strictly by administrative fiat?

Feelings Now Acceptable As Answers To Math Problems

The article is, I presume, satire but…having seen so much degradation of higher education, I can’t remove it from the realm of possibility for an administrator to stumble upon the article, read the lines:

An update issued Monday to the 2016–2017 Common Core educational standards now allows students to answer mathematics problems by responding with whatever their feelings are telling them at the time, sources confirmed.

And think to himself (or more likely, herself): “Hmm, emotions aren’t wrong, so answering questions this way will improve retention!” This sounds like pure lunacy and outright fraud, but I’ve already seen similar thinking from higher ed administration more times than I can count.

Me: “There’s no way this person is a degree seeking student. Nobody is commuting 500 miles one way to get a degree from here. It’s wrong to give funnel loan money through this school when it’s clear fraud.”

Admin, angrily: “As long as they believe they’re seeking a degree when they check the box, we are in no position to argue.”

The kind of demented thinking above has a reflection in the linked article:

“As long as students are being sincere, genuine, authentic, and true to themselves at the time they are answering the question, that’s all we can ask as educators.”

“Who are we to tell anyone that their own mathematical truth is wrong?” the rep added.

So much of what I see in higher education today, from unhinged syllabi, ridiculously low graduation rates from a bogus school, laughably poor scholarship, to intergenerational open racketeering frauds, would classify as satire or fiction if I wrote of it twenty years ago. It simply isn’t hard for me to believe that, someday, on college campus, “2 + 2 = I’m triggered” will be considered a valid calculation.