Thursday, May 16, 2013

Phrases that Annoy Me

There are a couple phrases that students use that really annoy me in lessons.

"So, is it just...?"


"So, do you always...?"

The main reasons they annoy me is because I can tell students are just looking for an algorithm rather than learning the background reasoning.  They want a formula they can plug into.  They don't want to think about it.

I mean, I get it if they're looking for a generalization and if they truly understand what is happening and are putting the pieces together to make a formula, then I'm all for it. 

The worst thing about the phrases, though, is that they shut out learning.  I will try to turn the questions back around and ask them, "You tell me.  Is it always...?"  Then they get frustrated that I didn't answer their "simple question" and solidify their, "Well, I guess I'm just going to fail this quiz" mentality.  If I answer, even if I follow it up with, "Yes, but here's WHY it works (or doesn't)," they shut off their brains after I say, "Yes." 


  1. I'm wondering if you can add questions into your lessons (I'm not sure how you structure your lessons, so don't really know how this would look) -- but could you explicitly ask them to describe a pattern, come up with a shortcut, and explain how they know it works? Just, I'm not sure that what you're describing can be avoided - human brains are pattern-seeking and generalizing machines, you know? But maybe you can take advantage.

  2. Yeah, I mean, I do all that, too. I'm annoyed right now because we spent a week discussing slopes and lines in geometry (after they should've learned it in algebra) and 5 minutes before the quiz we're going over a couple of quick questions. We went over how to find the y-intercept from a line in standard form and a kid raises his hand to ask, "So, do you always plug in 0 for x?"

    Simplistically, yes, you do. But from the way he asked it, it's clear that he has no idea why, he just wants to get that question right on the quiz coming up in a few minutes. He wasn't looking for a pattern, just a quick fix.

    If he HAD been trying to find a pattern himself, I'd LOVE that kind of question. If he could back up his question with why he thinks you might "always" do something, I'd be all over it and excited that he noticed that's how you can do it.

    I guess it's just context.

  3. I think what is most irksome is the "just" part. We discuss all this beautiful theory and they try to boil it down to "just" this.

    In an art theory class, would you raise your hand and ask if the Mona Lisa is "just a drawing of a woman?" Is a Porsche "just a car?" Were the Beatles "just a boy band?" It's condescending to imply so. I get that not everybody appreciates everything on the same level. I just want them to see that there actually *is* a deeper level here and there's more to it than "just plugging in zero."

  4. I totally agree. What they don't understand is that if they would try to make sense of the "why", it would be so much easier because then you wouldn't be reducing everything down to formulas to memorize. I've been doing sequences and series, and while I have them develop the formulas, they don't appreciate the development, they just wonder why I didn't just give them the formula to start with and then they keep trying to recall formulas but can't because they didn't bother to understand them....

  5. Mine do that, too. A lot of them forget all the initial work once they get the formulas, though. I really don't mind them using formulas, because they're simpler and easier, but if they forget what it looks like or need to do something more complex, they really need to know the background.

  6. Would a change to your assessments make sense? More explaining and writing? More project or performance assessment? I hear your frustration, and I remember feeling similar frustrations. There are certainly no easy answers.