Quiz Fail Saga — The Aftermath (Get It?)

If you’re new to the “Quiz Fail” series, have a look-sie at these two posts: Quiz Fail 1 and Quiz Fail 2.

And now for the conclusion: (So that I don’t get into pronoun tangles, I will just refer to all students as “she” or accidentally as “he”.)

Today I handed back exams. The class, as a whole, did dismally. I was a bit angry, a bit sad, a bit confused, and a bit indifferent. The week between the quiz and the exam, I received zero questions about the material. No students went to the department run calculator session. No students came to my help session. Only five students went to a department run exam session.

I addressed the typical concerns of “will I fail?”. The short answer is, with only exam one graded and three more to go, everyone can still fail. Will I fail is less dependent on me than it is on the student’s willingness to learn.

Some students took their failing grade in stride. They laughed at themselves. One student called out her grade, “I got a 43!” and then a few others followed suit, “65!”, “35!”

I didn’t give a long-winded speech about the class performance. I felt that was amply said by their grades and the last two weeks of me warning them about their own unpreparedness.

While the overall performance was poor, there were a few notable highlights.

One student who had failed the quiz, blew the exam out of the water. Another student went from “grades, grades, grades” to “how do I solve …?; what are we covering next?;” and has also become an active class participant — this is a good shift, with the eventual goal to thinking about “why” and “what if”. But mechanics first.

In a huge surprise, another student actually started reading ahead and emailed me throughout the week to ask questions about the next unit’s homework! In class today she admitted how much easier lecture was now that she had already seen the material at least once on her own in advance.

After handing back the exams, I went over it. A lot of students had their head in their hands as they saw how easy the exam was. I got the loudest, collective groan from the class on this problem that only one student got correct:

$$\mbox{Solve the inequality. If there is no solution, then say so.}$$
$$|-104 + x| \leq -6$$

Many students had given answers of \([110,\infty)\) or some equivalent variant. We had done this type of problem twice in lecture and it was on the fabled quiz! So I put the problem up on the board and I asked, “how do we solve this?” and immediately some students began to give some method. But then I prodded and asked, “what is actually wrong with this problem?” and then, boom! Ohhhh, no!!! It’s an absolute value. There’s no solution. Some students were incensed. Others laughed. And the one student who got it right, admitted he had just guessed. Well, I’m hoping that they won’t forget that mini-lesson.

All in all the post-exam review went well. There was no whining, nor any muss or fuss about the grading or the exam difficulty. In my books, this is great! It means that (well, I hope it means that) the students clearly see that the failure is entirely theirs. Owning one’s failure is a first step to owning one’s success.

We did joke a bit. One student claimed, “Well now that we’ve hit rock-bottom, we can only go up from here.” I quipped back, “Technically, you haven’t hit rock bottom since you didn’t score a zero.” I couldn’t resist. This is a math class after all.

What I really like is that the students are willing to talk. It’s the hardest thing to get students to do in a math class. And they’re not just chit chatting with each other about the latest in celebrity gossip. They are calling out answers to problems. And now, many more are doing so. Even better has been the uptick in “I’m not sure if this is right, but …” — that to me is huge! Because now it’s not just the students who know the material who are contributing to the conversation, it’s also the students who may have been shy in the past.

What’s tough about these once-a-week classes is that we cover a lot of material in one sitting. Today we did Chapter 5. All of it. It was about polynomials — adding, subtracting, multiplying, as well as factoring and graphing quadratics.

Another nice surprise was that I had about 6 students ask questions at the end of class. They wanted to get clarification on their notes and to get clarification about some things in lecture. Hooray! One student stayed an extra half hour to work out solving a three by three system of equations. My emphasis, believe it or not, was more on penmanship and organization of work than on mechanics and concepts. She kept getting lost in her own work and the problem wasn’t the math. It was the organization of the math.

Slowly but steadily, one student at a time, this class will kick math’s butt and they’ll be free of math misery!

Despite the overall poor performance, I think we’ve begun to steer in the right direction.


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