My (rapidly becoming) annual rant about first year undergrads

Right, so I’m a postgrad student, and as a contributing member of society (as opposed to a slacker), I teach first year undergrads in the Physics department. What do I teach them? Maths.

Now to get in to do a physics degree you have to have A-Levels in maths and physics, at B or above. This means that they are all reasonably intelligent, and they all have more than a modicum of mathematical ability. They sat these exams in June, and now they come to us having promptly forgotten everything, and I mean everything that they have ever learnt about maths ever.

I get the most inane questions from them, things that they ought to know, and it appears that they’ve never even heard of them.

But you know what, I don’t blame the students, I blame the fucking exam boards. Culling the syllabi here and there, filling it with useless junk, making sure that everything is handed to students on a plate, so that they never ever have to think about what they are doing. In my last class I was accused of mathematical trickery and some sort of mathematical sleight of hand, because the students haven’t been taught basic concepts at A-level. Some of them can’t even do simple mental arithmetic :confused:

There is an outcry every year that standards are slipping, and you know what, I fully agree now. A-level students now, find the exam papers I did six years ago ridiculously hard, because they haven’t been taught it! Damn you incompetant exam boards. Damn you all!

There. That feels better now.

Do you have any examples?

Examples. Let’s see,

This was whilst integrating 1/(1+x[sup]2[/sup]) with respect to x, where you use the substitution x=tanu, and due to the properties of trig. functions, you simply end up integrating du. The fact that they didn’t even know that the substitution should take the form of a trig function floored me as well.

And on unit vectors in non-cardinal directions in a Cartesian base

I really am amazed by the lack of knowledge these people have.

Well I’d imagine youre getting the people who arent really cut out for physics. There’s gotta be some bright stars in your class that might not seek you out for help as much.

Those are freaking hilarious questions though :slight_smile:

Yeah, the questions are hillarious - but you try keeping a straight face whilst trying to answer them! For the second one, I ended up going right back to Pythagoras!

I’m sure there are some bright sparks, I guess I’ll find out when they hand in their first set of assigned problems.

For a while I was thinking of pitting Edexcel (the UK exam board) for fucking around with our curriculum and exam schedules a few years back. Our year was used as guinea-pigs by those morons and because of this every screwed up on their AS and A-levels.


Best of luck to you. :smiley:

…er, correction for the second-last sentence: everyone

:slight_smile: EdExcel are the worse. Feel free to hijack this thread and tell me just how bad they are. I did my A-Levels back in the “golden era” :rolleyes: of NEAB et alia.

Thanks, but I’d rather not hijack your thread. I’ll soon find that the letters ‘c’, ‘f’, ‘k’ and ‘u’ on my keyboard will be worn out beyond repair. :smiley:

I haven’t heard much about NEAB, though. I checked out the website but I got redirected instead to AQA. Hah, golden era… ::shakes head::

Is this going to be on the test? Open book? Can we use a calculator?

Hey! You didn’t tell us this was going to be on the test! I’d have studied it if I knew it was going to be on the test!

(Bitter flashbacks to my own TA experience, where the thought of actually <i>reading the book</i> was apparently anathema. “Ask the TA,” the thinking seemed to go, “that’s why they’re paid the big bucks!”)

I want more points on this question. My friend in the other section got three out of five.

Ooh. Yeah. The other one, “Why, when we’ve got the same answers, have you given my friend (who I sat next to and worked with on assessed questions, which are supposed to be my own work entirely) more marks than me?”

Er, maybe because he showed all his working and you didn’t, and you have the identical wrong answers, so I think you’ve cheated, you ignorant little oik.

I am currently a sophomore engineering student at a top univerisity in the US. I can honestly say that most people I know would need to look up the more obscure trig derivatives and anti-derivatives in a book. As for vectors, I was never taught anything about vectors in high school. I never really liked going to TA’s for help, and that feeling is reinforced if most TA’s feel the way you seem to about questions.

Hey, I’m more than happy to help, in fact, I’m positively delighted to help further people’s knowledge of mathematics. However, when you are coming to a top UK university to study physics and know essentially, bugger all, then I will be exasperated. But not at you. At the frigging exam boards who have in the space of 6 years reduced an A-level in mathematics to being nothing more than number crunching.

Ahh, ok :slight_smile:

May I throw in my own totally different rant about first year undergrads, concerning a totally different subject?

Dammit, how hard is it to read the syllabus and assignments for the course? It should not come as a revelation that I’ll be holding conferences in my office instead of class next Wednesday, or that all the writing assignments will relate to some aspect of university life, if these things have been spelled out on the syllabus since Day One. And if you can’t find your assignment sheet and can’t remember what the assignment was, for goodness’ sake ask me or one of your classmates before you’ve written an entire essay on a topic that was not the one assigned. I’m not going to bite your head off if you ask questions, honestly, but I might consider it after I’ve had to waste time reading an essay only tangentially related to what I’ve asked you to do.

:: bangs head against wall ::

At a recent course team meeting some overpaid idiot who spends more time thinking about how the rest of us should teach than actually doing any teaching waived a set of “generic marking criteria” at me. One of said criteria was, to paraphrase, suggesting that it was not acceptable to give a student zero in the situation you describe above. Writing on a completely different subject still demonstrated some ability to disseminate information, so we should give them marks according to the quality of their inappropriate answer.

I’m with you Angua - I don’t see a whole lot of difference between students claiming to have ‘A’ level maths and those with a GCSE. Not that I ask them to do anything tricky.

Ah, the memories.
Last day of one of my classes, the prof walking around to check everyone’s final projects… Two of the students nearest me ask, “What were we supposed to do for the final?”

My undergrads have yet to ask me ANYTHING. No wonder I get 2 or 3 of them bitching about their grades every time I return homework.

I show up at office hours for 2 hours every week, my email is on the syllabus, and, if they felt like stalking me, my phone number is listed. And STILL not a SINGLE person has asked me a question about an assignment until after it was due.

Makes my job a hell of a lot easier, that’s for sure :slight_smile:

Basing this on a survey of my 33 charming darlings: it is very difficult. I TA for a course of about 400 students, and they have to go to the course webpage for the syllabus. Assignments are posted on the webpage, announced in lecture, written on the board and announced in lab. Apparently sending me an email and waiting for a reply is the easier way to know these things. In the students defense, the syllabus is 6 pages of babble with the basic information sprinkled throughout, but I don’t understand not finding it / reading it. As for assigments, they’re just idjits.

Now back to the OP:
I TA physics, as well. I spent a year with Physics for Everybody Else which was the algebra based course for, well, everybody else. There are something like 24 majors required to take the course. Math abilities ranged from non-existant to passable with no real clue as to what they were doing. By the end of the year, most students could manipulate basic equations. I’m talking about

type equations. There were some that still struggled. Less than half could identify when to use and properly execute the quadratic formula. About a quarter of them seemed to understand the concept of slope. Oh - and over half (60%) took calculus at the college level and got a C or above.

I’m (oddly enough based on my general personality) blessed with oodles of patience when trying to help students, but I have absolutely no idea how to teach math. After a few semesters of TAing, I’ve accumulated some explanations that seem to work for individual students.

I get the urge to rant at someone from time to time, but I’ve yet to work out to whom it should be directed. So instead of adding more rant, I’ll close with my all time favorite quote from a student’s lab report. They were discussing the relationship between frictional force and normal force.