Exam Math

I teach English, not math, but when I was preparing my own students for this week’s semester exam, I explained the grading breakdown like this: “This exam is 20% of your semester grade, with 90 multiple choice questions at one point each and then a ten-point essay at the end. So…how much of your overall semester grade depends just on that essay question?”

Most of them guessed quickly and guessed wrong. Several got the right answer, but only a couple got it right away. (The answer is 2%. Basically, 10% of 20.)

That led me to share a couple of other math-based exam observations I’ve made over the years.

I asked classes what someone should do if they had a combined semester grade of 9% going into the exam. Most of them said to study and work really hard. Many of them were shocked when I said the correct answer would be to sleep in and skip it. “In that situation, you could ace the test twice and still fail the class, so what’s the point? No amount of sweating over the test at that point could save you from months of consistently bad choices, so why bother? It would be a waste of time.”

Some of the less studious among them seemed offended at the very idea, but most of them were receptive, some even seeming to have a “eureka” moment.

Then I told them that there’s another, more positive side to that coin: “What if the exam were worth 10% of the semester grade and you had earned 103% up until that point. What should you do then?”

After a variety of guesses, I again suggested that the best course of action would be sleeping in and taking the day off. Again, many were shocked, but the most studious among them seemed greatly gratified by the observation. For those who were still stymied by the idea, I gave a similar explanation: “In that situation, you could take a goose egg on the exam and still have a 93% for the semester, which looks the same as 103% on your transcript, which is what matters, so what’s the point? No amount of sweating over that test at that point could hurt or improve the bulletproof grade you’d already worked so hard to earn, so why bother? It would be a waste of time.”

I told my classes that I’d seen a lot of students over the years work their hearts out on exams for no real gain, some because their grades were too high, and some because their grades were too low.

Finally, I hastened to make clear that neither of those situations applied to any of them! I just wanted to emphasize the importance of a strong work ethic, situational awareness, and math.


Math Game

Here’s a fun and mildly neurotic game to occupy your mind while stuck at red lights and such:

The car in front of you probably has some numbers in the license plate.  Try to use them in functions such that you can reach each number 1-10.  My rules: you don’t have to use every number in each function, and you can rearrange them, but you can only use the numbers as often as they appear, not more times.

Example: you see a plate that includes the numbers 2, 3, and 8.  Here’s what I would do:











There are lots of places where such minor diversions can handily be had: prices on items while you wait in line at the store.  Prices on signs or other license plates while pumping gas.  Hymn numbers posted at church.  Numbers on screen–or anywhere you can see–during commercials.  (“$3.75 for gas!  Outrageous!  Oh well.  3-(7-5)=1, 5-3=2…”)


Semester Exam Follies

This week is semester exam week in my school district, which marks the halfway point of the year.  As students work on their big tests, I’ve found a few nuggets of positivity or, failing that, laughter:

  • While one class worked on their exams, I finished grading the book reports they turned in last week.  The most common feature was most students’ response to a directive to write a paragraph about their favorite and least favorite things about their books, and what they would change.  Nearly everybody said that they liked the parts that were happy, and that they would change the parts that were sad.  Everybody said they’d make it so that Simon and Piggy don’t die in Lord of the Flies.  Those who read The Lovely Bones said that they’d save Susie.  And students who picked The Grapes of Wrath…well, they’d keep Route 66 and pretty much turn the rest into a college road trip, if they had their druthers.  Luckily none of them read the Bible for their book report, or humanity might have been denied the Atonement altogether!
  • In fact, one girl was quite emphatic in her assertion of editorial license: “I would most defiantly change the ending.”  *ahem*  Yes, I’m sure you would.  I see several students every year who spell definitely that way. 
  • On a positive note, though, Continue reading

The Shocking Secret Truth About The Math CULT!

You’ve seen them.  They go around trying to corner you so they can tell you all about their religion.  They seem like such decent, ordinary people, and they certainly offer easy answers.  They’re math nerds.

And they’re idiots.  They’ll tell you all about numerators and denominators, but their strange theology goes far deeper than that.  After the professional proselytizers get you to agree that the most important things in life are the “first principles and ordinances of the gospel”–addition, subtraction, division, and multiplication–they’ll invite you to their Sunday services, where people who could be your own next-door neighbors will reverently delve into their sacred textbooks and study things like “algebra” and “geometry.”

But there are things they don’t tell you about until it’s too late.  They don’t tell you about…Imaginary numbers!  Binary numeral systems!  Differential calculus!

Clearly, they’re just making all this stuff up.  It even sounds made up.  The next time some guy at work asks if you’d like to come to a math class with him on Sunday, ask him if he knows that Euclid was a mysterious philosopher whose great “scriptural” book, Elements, doesn’t even account for all known forms of geometry.  Watch his head spin!  Ha!  That’ll show him!  Obviously this Euclid was a con artist just looking to make an easy buck and get girls.

Ask them to explain their doctrine of “algorithms” and chuckle softly in your superiority as they attempt to weave a web of mumbo-jumbo about ongoing discoveries and revelations.  Look, if they can’t give you a clear cut history of algorithms, then all this “simple arithmetic” stuff is pure bunk, too.  That just makes sense. 

Don’t even get me started on the ridiculous idea of “pi.”  C’mon, a number that goes on forever?  How gullible do you think we are?  I guess some of this nonsense offers comfort to people and has helped to control the masses, but it’s so dumb.  I’m not “repenting” for playing the lottery “despite the odds” or not balancing my checkbook or anything else just because of 3.1415…whatever. 

The truth is, most devout math nerds don’t know the unsavory details of their cult’s origins.  Those poor, deluded fools are wasting their time, little suspecting that it’s all a conspiracy that’s being covered up by the “Brethren” of the faculty at their main “temple”: M.I.T.  They know it’s all a lie, but they hide the proof so that nobody can find out if math is true or not on their own.

Your well meaning math friends might now try to explain that it’s just the opposite, that math teachers show you how to prove their claims on your own, and put them to constructive use in your own life.  They’ll throw out foggy psychobabble like “axiom” and “postulate” and “theorem,” but that’s all just more lies.  Math is based on blind faith!  It’s not like any of these high priest “mathematicians” ever produced a shred of real evidence for the validity of math.  What suckers.


Note: this satire makes more sense if the reader is familiar with some of the breathtaking leaps in logic taken by glib critics of the LDS Church.  Brush up on the zaniness here


Letter about education woes printed in Las Vegas Review-Journal

The following letter was printed in today’s newspaper:

To the editor:

When Clark County School District students bomb a math test, why do we assume teachers aren’t doing their jobs (Thursday Review-Journal)? A dentist might do great work, but if a kid goes home and binges on sugar and never brushes his teeth, whose fault is it if the kid gets cavities? Parents control the health at home, as they do the work ethic and attitude.

Do people not realize that teachers cannot control the final results of their work, that student achievement is ultimately a matter of the students’ choices to attend school, pay attention, do homework, study and avoid things outside of school that would hamper their learning? Valley students have an abysmal record in those areas, and their parents let it happen.

Trying to teach the most basic math to a teenager now is like trying to teach Shakespeare to someone who just got off the boat from China: There’s such a huge lack of necessary background that the whole enterprise becomes hopeless.

Our entertainment-heavy and entitlement-minded society has finally bred a generation that is essentially incapable of the concrete thinking needed to process arithmetic computation. A 90 percent fail rate couldn’t possibly be the fault of incompetent teaching; if math instructors were consciously trying to fail the entire student body, more than 10 percent of students, if they had any kind of initiative, would still pass.

Rather than credit the Clark County School District with an effective conspiracy of poor teaching, let’s admit that this staggering failure can only be explained by a loss of prerequisite ability in our children. The parents of Clark County are reaping what they have sown.

Jamie Huston

In Praise of Math

In 2004, 19% of Nevada high school seniors didn’t graduate because they couldn’t pass the math proficiency test. That’s actually an improvement from 2003, when 25% of seniors—fully one in every four—failed. Of course, the improvement came because the state, embarrassed and impotent, lowered the passing score. 

And now we find that about 90% of teenagers in Algebra I can’t pass a basic test of those math skills: http://www.lvrj.com/news/17044911.html

It’s no coincidence that the decline of math in America has held hands with a parallel decline in logical thinking. When someone gets malnourished, you look for what’s lacking in their diet; when students lose the ability to think above an elementary level, you notice which proficiency test repeatedly causes the most problems.

An example from class this year: Last month I held a class discussion about the decline of literacy. One boy defensively declared that people who don’t read much are just as smart as people who do. “How do you know?” I asked.

He looked confused. “It’s just my opinion.”

“No it’s not. You made a statement of fact. Either you’re right or you’re wrong. In fact, your inability to explain yourself suggests that your ‘opinion’ is just wishful thinking. Let’s put it this way,” I said, thinking I was being helpful, “why do you have this opinion instead of some other view?”

He thought for a moment. “It’s just my opinion!” 

See, the decline of math is the decline of concrete thinking, which rots away our logic and reason, the foundation of all Western civilization. Without logic and reason, we’re left in a weird wasteland where subjectivity reigns supreme. They think this way because they’re imitating the culture from whose shallow trough they feed.

After the 2004 presidential election, I saw a network reporter interview rapper P. Diddy, whose “Vote or Die” campaign for MTV had sought to get more young people to vote, and to vote for a certain candidate. The reporter informed him that exit polls showed that, despite MTV’s incessant marketing, more young people had notvoted, nor had more of them voted for the party MTV favored. She asked P. Diddy what he thought of this. Without skipping a beat, he calmly explained that he thought his work had been successful because he felt that more young people had voted.

I couldn’t believe what I’d heard—was she interviewing a three-year-old? He had just blatantly contradicted her research results with a statement of his feelings. I wonder how good P. Diddy is at math.

I’m reminded of a passage from a book I read called A Thomas Jefferson Education. To paraphrase the author, the benefits of learning math include learning to:

  1. Seek and recognize patterns
  2. Explore the relationships between information
  3. See similarities and differences clearly
  4. Analyze information logically (love those word problems!)
  5. Understand that there are correct answers out there to be sought after
  6. Avoid jumping to conclusions
  7. Seek evidence for conclusions (I wish the boys in my classes could do that. Also, P. Diddy.)
  8. Figure things out for yourself without just accepting whatever you’re told
  9. Remain open to new possibilities
  10. Think like the greatest creators in history.

If more people had these skills, imagine how many of the nation’s problems would vanish overnight. Imagine how much progress this nation could make. Imagine how much deeper and more meaningful our lives would be.