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I don't necessarily consider it a hardship to teach calculus or the like to students whose preparation in prerequisites is weak, but but I am offended by the practice of making it a personal policy to treat learning the material ONLY as a price paid to get a grade to put on one's resume, rather than as the thing they're there for.

  • I'm wondering how to identify instances of such behavior quickly when they occur.
  • How can one identify institutions that tolerate or encourage my position as outlined in my first paragraph above, and those that are hostile toward it? I think the latter---where that hostility may exist---often include respectable institutions in which lots of students want to get degrees in law or business or the like.
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    You are going to spend the rest of your life being offended, then. Let it go. – JeffE May 26 '13 at 0:38
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    Why would it be useful to "identify instances of such behavior quickly when they occur?" I suppose you could begin the first class meeting by asking for a show of hands: how many people wouldn't be here today if calculus wasn't a requirement for their major? I'd guess that 80% of your students would raise their hands. Then what? – Ben Crowell May 1 '14 at 0:04
  • @BenCrowell : So what? You seem to miss the point. – Michael Hardy Mar 17 '15 at 5:36
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    @MichaelHardy I identified a problem with you; I fail to see why abolishing all universities is a reasonable solution. – JeffE Apr 15 '15 at 13:44
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    Your original question is about the attitudes of students. Your followup question is about poor placement and course-design policies of mathematics departments. These issues are obviously related, but they are not the same; your followup is better posed as a separate question. To clarify my earlier point: Even the best-designed classes with the best prepared students at the most prestigious universities contain students that are in class only for the grade. Being offended by this fact merely burns energy better spent actually teaching. – JeffE Jul 23 '15 at 23:12
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I understand that you are offended by students who do not take your subject as seriously as you do but that is just the way some students are.

There are students who are really interested and there are those who are not. In the case of calculus, if a student is required to take it for their non-math major then you will certainly have students who just want the grade. One way around this is to only teach elective classes but that will not work for everyone (I'm not sure it would work for any teacher).

Still, your questions are clear. How do you find the students who don't really care? I find that they usually bubble to the surface quite quickly. I tend to be quite interactive with my students, asking lots of questions. I also give them additional 'required' reading. Even the required reading doesn't get read by the students who just want to pass and be done with it. So, those students who actually read the material and can answer it meaningfully in class are the students you are looking for.

Now, as for identifying institutions I will say that I have read a lot and talked to a lot of teachers and one thing EVERY serious teacher wants is to teach a class of highly motivated students who care deeply for their studies. This is simply unrealistic and I have never heard of a teacher who actually achieves that.

I think the better question to ask is: How can I motivate a deep love of my subject in my students? By stimulating their desires, you will naturally end up with what you want. However, this is not easy and it takes a lot of time and effort. However, you seem like a serious teacher, so perhaps you can make the investment. Certainly the results, if you succeed, would likely be very rewarding for you.

My perspective is that a great teacher has no bad students. By this, I mean that a great teacher is able to motivate their students to want to learn the material. By this measure I am not a great teacher, but I keep trying.

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    My perspective is that a great teacher has no bad students — This is a little extreme, unless you believe that there are no great teachers. – JeffE May 26 '13 at 5:09
  • @JeffE Yes, I agree that it is a bit extreme. However, extremity aside, my point is that it is the teacher's responsibility to do what he/she can to motivate the student(s). To the extent we are unsuccessful in our motivational efforts, I think we have failed (at least partially) to fulfill our maximum potential as educators. – earthling May 26 '13 at 6:51
  • "This is simply unrealistic and I have never heard of a teacher who actually achieves that." Not even in grad school courses? – Faheem Mitha May 26 '13 at 10:46
  • @FaheemMitha So, are you saying we should stop trying? Should we say we are good enough and stop trying to motivate those students who seem unmotivated? – earthling May 26 '13 at 14:26
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    @MichaelHardy: honestly that would come across as pompous, or threatening, or obsessive, or all of the above... seriously not likely to motivate. This is a great answer. Why not simply accept them as they are, and strive to nurture their curiosity, such as is - without burning out if they don't meet your high standards? What with student loans and grad un(der)employment these days, making sure they get the grade is a very unpleasant reality (much more so than in your time), and you have to accept that for your part, and work with that reality. What is a win scenario, under these conditions? – smci Jun 23 '15 at 20:05
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I don't think there's an easy eay to identify this behavior without students directly approaching you and making it clear through questions like the ever-popular: "Will this be on the exam?" and grade-grubbing for every possible point. Without obvious signals, it's not really clear who's in it for a grade and who's there to learn—and it would be imprudent to try to prognosticate. The results may surprise you!

As far as an institutional perspective, I again don't know if there's a way to really lay things at the feet of the institution for "encouraging" such behavior. It can vary a lot from department to department, and even faculty member to faculty member. However, one issue can be to see how seriously the department you're interested in takes teaching duties. Is it something people are doing their best to get out of, or are they trying to do the best job they can with it? Does the department encourage "out-of-the-box" thinking in how to teach classes, or is it just something to get over and done with each semester?

But a lot of it also relies on your attitude. If you make it clear to the students that you're serious about them learning, rather than just regurgitating for the purpose of an exam, the students who stick with you will probably be more motivated than if they don't think you are invested in their learning.

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