151004a drop

Mary arrives for her October advising appointment.  Transcript and catalog hang limply at her side.  We look over a grid of offered courses.  She chooses a schedule for her final spring semester.  I skim my copy of her record and commend her for coming so close to graduating cum laude.  “Almost made it, didn’t you?” I smile.

“Um… almost?  No, I am totally graduating with honors.  I’m getting an ‘A’ in Spanish and Senior Seminar.”  Mary speaks with equal parts confidence and condescension.  She is wondering how a man gets to be a college professor with such a poor understanding of mathematics.  Of course a strong eighth semester will boost her average.

Mary might, in fact, earn top marks in Spanish and Senior Seminar.  But I don’t have to check her transcript to know that, somewhere in her sophomore year, she will have made a “B-” in a class called “The History of Zero,” “Bridge to Basic Numbers,” or perhaps “Lifeskills Math for Poets.”  Never mind Algebra or Calculus.  Mary has a tip calculator on her iPhone because, without one, she can’t figure 20% of a restaurant bill.

I’m not grumpy because back in my day we could glance at a field and know how much seed corn to buy (an exaggeration from a previous generation).  I’m not even grumpy because it once took two college juniors a half hour to add the running times — minutes:seconds:frames — of a dozen student films (the absolute, horrible truth from my own personal experience).  I am grumpy because poor Math skills are eroding the quality of life.  They are weakening relationships and families.  Seriously.

Good at Everything… but Math

The students I’ve taught for the last decade or so have been among the most conscientious of any I’ve taught.  They throw themselves with detail-minded gusto at everything from quizzes to major projects.  Everything matters to them.  Each assignment.  They agonize over absences, not wishing to miss a thing.  For the longest while, I wondered why I was so lucky to be surrounded by type-A perfectionists.

Some of you are reading this with envy.  Maybe you think I’ve been teaching at some exclusive school with astronomically high admissions standards.  I assure that’s not the case.  It turns out, almost the opposite may be true.

Students who’ve fallen to America’s epidemic of computational retardation can seldom visualize percentages.  Thus, the weighted assignments of a syllabus mean little to them.  A dozen pop quizzes in a semester count 10% toward the final grade.  Each one is worth less than a point (.83, to be exact).  These are not the things you stay up past midnight studying to ace.  Especially if you’ve got an essay worth 30% due in another class.

Practicing Life-Balance with Weighted Assignments

Allison came to me in her last semester.  Due to be married in June, she explained that her aunt was throwing her a shower on a date some course assignment was due.  “What should I do?” she asked.  But it wasn’t really a request for advice.  It was a veiled demand that I do something to relieve the tension of conflicting commitments.  “This is your chance to practice wise decision-making,” I told her.  “Check the syllabus.  Talk to your aunt.  Weigh the impact of these events on your life and move forward.  Good luck.”

One day, Allison will have an eight-year-old daughter.  One day, that daughter will perform in her very first violin recital.  On that day, Allison will be scheduled to make a board room presentation.  If the presentation goes well, her chances for promotion are good.  What on earth should she do?  Weighted assignments offer a fairly low-stakes opportunity to practice for that torqued collision of professionalism and parenthood.

Percentages let athletes choose which games to miss.  They let mourners go home for funerals.  They let friends plan a late spring return from Daytona.  They let adults make adult (even loving) decisions about the hours they spend with others.  Life does not come at us or our students at full-force on all fronts.  Despite Mary’s ill-computed hope, every assignment, every semester is not equally important.

Imagine each freshman is given a bucket on the first day of August Orientation.  At the end of your first semester, we’ll pour a cup of water into it.  It was empty, but now contains 100% more water.  At the end of the next semester, another cup of water.  Yes, one cup equals another, but the second cup adds only 50% more water to the bucket.  A third semester, a third cup of water.  Now each cup of water is only one-third the total amount.  One semester follows another, until the final cup is added.  Perhaps it feels as difficult to earn as the first cup, poured some four (or more) years earlier.  But it exerts hardly any impact on a senior’s G.P.A.  Why?  Because — in relative terms — it’s only a drop in the bucket.

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