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Thursday, November 24, 2005

A college perspective

Check out two fascinating posts — one yesterday, one today — from the pseudonymous Rudbeckia Hirta. Both of them lament the state of mathematical knowledge of college freshmen and ask what we high-school teachers are teaching them. Of course her comments don’t apply to Weston alums, since almost all of her students come from one part of one southern state (Tennessee?), but they’re still instructive.

Yesterday’s post was quite specific. It’s short enough for me to quote it in its entirety:
One student responds to a question in three parts:

Question: The probability of winning Pick 3 Lotto is 1 in 1000. What is the probability of not winning?

Student: There is a 50/50 chance.

Question: If you play Pick 3 Lotto every day for a year, what is your chance of not winning?

Student: You have a 1 in 365 chance of winning.

Question: It costs $1 to play Pick 3 Lotto, and you if you win, you get $500. Do you think it’s wise to play this game?

Student: Yes, you only spend $1 and there is a 50/50 chance you will win $500.
Hirta’s follow-up is too long to quote in full, but it opens with this sentence:
I will charitably assume that the high schools in my region are unaware that they produce graduates who, after three or four years of getting A’s in college-prep math, struggle and fail in the lowest-level math classes at my university
She then toys with the idea of asking the students for the names of their high schools and the names of their former algebra teachers, but she rejects it on the grounds that she doesn’t have tenure. Too bad: it would certainly be useful information for the high-school teachers. I would certainly find it helpful to know how my former students are doing in college. I would be very surprised if any former A students were failing in lowest-level college math courses; Weston may have grade inflation, but I think that almost none of our students are in danger of such a fate. In any case, the feedback would be helpful — not only in Weston, but everywhere.

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