Saturday, March 24, 2007

My thoughts on College Readiness

I can see that my concerns are not unique. In the span of a few days, Chad Orzel (in Uncertain Principles) took up "College Readiness and AP Classes" and "Reading Science in College". I posted a few comments on the first topic in his blog, and in the IHE viewpoint on College Readiness that motivated it, but there is much more to be said about it. I will take that up at the end of this entry. The second one ended up being mostly about reading physics papers, not what subset of skills is needed to do so, but it pointed to a very detailed article on "How to Read in College" by Timothy Burke (History Dept, Swarthmore) that I will recommend to anyone.

Reading: (and "close reading"?)

Burke's article is superb. Although written from the perspective of an historian at a highly selective PLAC, I agree with Orzel that it also applies to how one reads physics papers. I don't think it applies to a graduate student starting into a new area (that person has to read a single paper and many of its references, and references in those references, with attention to every detail needed to catch up with the people who started that field), but it does summarize the key parts of a skill we all learned the hard way. However, my impression (see, I did not read it closely) is that it ignores whether a student actually knows how to read "with intense precision and in gory detail". I think this is unlikely in general, although I suppose it is possible that most of his students come to Swarthmore with that skill, or enough of it that they can function in his history classes. It is more likely that they skim paragraphs as well as entire chapters, because they were trained to skim paragraphs so they (and their school) would do well on the verbal part of "high stakes" achievement tests.

The problem in physics is that 90% of what students actually do (and most of what they need to do) is read and analyze physics problems. Skimming is fatal there, because every word counts. Students seem to recognize that every number matters, and they quickly learn to associate each number with a symbol and the appropriate terms in an equation. They are not nearly as good at classifying problem types based on the information given. They are terrible at turning a work picture into a real picture, so we usually provide a drawing on tests if the situation is at all complicated or novel. They are particularly weak when a quantity is given in words, say when a sign is "given" by saying, for example, that the voltage lags the current by 28 degrees. [They get the 28 deg angle, but not the sign. After all, "lead" and "lag" both start with L.]

This is where the ideas on teaching close reading, borrowed from literary analysis classes, can give us some ideas on what to do.


Orzel mentions that, like me, he assigns a textbook but not much reading. As he states, they can "sort of follow along" but our lectures never actually follow the book. [I do, however, make it a point to minimize differences in notation, because they do use the book as an example or equation reference when stuck on a problem.] Although I would never confuse an intro level textbook with the actual academic publications of a physicist, I think he gives too little attention to the awful state of physics textbooks. They get bigger every year (compare 1967 Halliday and Resnick to 2008 H+R and Walker) and do not get easier to read. A student, who is trying to learn which concepts are important ends up being overwhelmed with all sorts of side trips down Relevance Lane.

It does not do much good to assign a book that cannot be read. The physical science book produced by Hewitt is a step in the right direction. My first instinct was that its language was much too simple, but he puts all of the attention on the technical words and their unique definitions in physics. Lind wrote a compact version of one of Serway's books that was "just the facts". Not a bad idea. Students, for generations, have been using Schaum's Outlines in place of the textbook. Are they trying to tell us something? The ideal solution might be a textbook where volume 1 has everything you need in terms of definitions and equations and a few detailed examples worked like you do them on the board, and volume 2 has all the real world examples and and pretty pictures. Volume 1 you keep, and Volume 2 gets sold to the next kid.

College Readiness in Algebra:

Algebra. And Trig. I think this is going to have to be a separate article. I am in 100% agreement with what Orzel said in "College Readiness and AP Classes", although I don't attribute it all to AP classes. A similar problem persists among students who take (or retake) algebra and pre-calc in college. I think the core problem is that the K-12 system never conveys the concept of prerequisites so they view each class as an end in itself. Standardized tests don't help, and I suspect that what Dave Spence argues for (yet another one-size-fits-all standard) would make it worse. When they get to college, students will be held accountable for still knowing what they allegedly learned, but they have no clue what this means because lower level math classes spend substantial time on review from the previous year.

That said, lack of drill and 100% mastery of basic algebra skills -- the essence of Orzel's argument against the rush to get on to the AP courses -- has merit. I have seen one student from an IB program who left GaTech to get restarted at my CC, and my diagnosis is that he had a superficial knowledge of both calculus and algebra coming out of HS. I could never understand how one of my nieces could struggle in physics at college after "taking" an AP class in HS, but I'll wager that it was due to a lack of fluency in algebra.

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