Saturday, September 11, 2010


I'm about 10 hours into an estimated 15 total hours of grading this weekend, and I'd like to pause to make the following observation (I know I've made it in this blog before, but I can't seem to find it in an earlier post), which I rediscover every time I teach Calc I in a Fall semester:

Almost without exception, an older student (a junior or senior, or a nontraditional student), even one who is not a math major or even particularly mathematically inclined, will outperform even the brightest and most math-literate first-year student.


It's simple: lengthier life experience, superior time management, and stronger study skills.

By the time they've finished a year or two of college, or after they've had several years of real-world experience, students have (by necessity) developed means of managing their time. Some (most?) of my nontraditional students are holding down 20-to-40-hour-a-week jobs, taking care of families, sometimes large and extended ones, and somehow keeping up with one or more difficult college courses. (To my freshmen: if you think you're busy, think again. As busy as you feel you are, I'll tell you this: you're not. You'll find that out in a year or two, trust me.) To do all of this they've got to have some way of budgeting their time, and they've got to be serious about their studies.

They do, and they are.

This semester's no exception: I've got several nontraditional students in my morning section of Calc I, and they're performing wonderfully. Not only are they doing well on all of the assignments, but they're clearly grasping the concepts and challenging themselves to really learn them rather than simply memorize a couple of formulas and move on. I'm immensely proud of them all.

I'd like to give a little speech to my first-year students (I know a few of you are reading this blog, and I hope you'll take heed...and I hope you'll tell your first-year friends what I've said).


...On average, the "big kids" are doing much better than you are. This isn't surprising, because it's nothing new: they always do. It isn't because they're smarter than you are. (They're smart, but you're just as smart.) It isn't because they've seen this stuff before. (Generally speaking, you all have more, and more recent, experience with calculus than they do.)

It's because they know that it takes a little work to do well, and that it takes a little dedication. That it takes a desire to actually learn rather than to simply fill a seat and get a grade. That it means taking an active rather than a passive role in their own educations. That it means managing your time, starting early, and earnestly seeking help when it's needed (by and large they do; by and large you don't). That it means working for a few hours sometimes when you'd rather be playing instead.

They believe me when I say I want to see complete sentences, when I say I want to see your work, and when I say that radicals are better than decimals. And they give me those sentences, that work, and those radicals, not because I asked for them but because they realize why I asked for them in the first place. They produce homework and papers worth reading, worth keeping, worth studying from, worth not throwing away or losing under your bed.

I'm not saying all of this to make you feel bad, but to point out that no matter how well you're doing you can do better, and I hope that you do.

You can get started sooner on the homework, and you can take care to produce nicer drafts. You can take the lead in groups activities, and you can dare to ask and answer questions in class. (Do you notice who's doing most of this right now?) You can take the time to write in complete sentences, to double-check your graphs, and to use your notation clearly and consistently.

You can do better. You can do it. Give it a shot. I'll always be here to help you, and I'll be cheering you on every step of the way. I've got your back. Let's do it.

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