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First Impressions:

When I arrived at Union, Dean Sorum told me two things that I have returned to regularly ever since. The first was in response to a question about what the students here are like; she said "They're very polite." I didn't know how to take this at the time, but have come to realize that it is absolutely true. Union undergraduates are some of the sweetest students I have worked with: they will hold the door open for you; they apologize if they miss class; they don't close up their books until you have dismissed them, even if you run a little over time; and they will try to do anything you ask, as long as you are meticulously clear about what that is. Like many young math students, however, they are not comfortable developing their own techniques or drawing connections on their own, and they are not experienced with abstracting the processes we learn. For example, most Math 13 students would have no trouble with the problem "Locate the critical points of the function f(x) = x3 - 3x2 - 9x + 5" but few would know how to answer the question "Under what conditions does f(x) = ax3 + bx2 + cx + d have only one critical point?'' Both problems use the same techniques, but the first follows a procedure we outlined in class, while the second asks the student to understand the meaning of the process. The solution to the latter question is not hard, but it requires a type of thinking that incoming freshmen, in particular, are not prepared to do.

I was surprised by the level of resistance on the part of the students to questions like the later one above, and this prompted Dean Sorum's second comment. This was to remind me that "They're not like you," meaning that most will not go on to graduate school, become mathematicians, and end up teaching. Of course, I understand this, and I can accept it; but an obstacle to their real education is that they don't want to be like a mathematician. It is disappointing to any teacher, and ultimately unhelpful to the students themselves, when they are more concerned with being done with the material than in understanding it, or when they are uninterested in knowing why something works the way it does but only want to know how to get "the answer."

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Created: 08 Sep 2001
Last modified: 07 Jan 2002 06:56:24
Comments to: dpvc@union.edu
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