A Rant from Class

Giving an algebra final exam today – it’s almost like the first day of class – here’s the problem on the test that is causing the most angst:

The proceeds from your college talent show totaled $2475. All the tickets were sold so you know that 600 people bought tickets. The cost per ticket for students was $3.25 and for non-students was $4.75. You need to figure out how many students attended the show. Use n to represent the number of students who attended. Write expressions in terms of n to represent the number of non-students who attended, the proceeds from student tickets sold and the proceeds from non-student tickets sold.

Knowing full well from my experience that this is really difficult for my students, I gave them what I thought was a nice clue as to how to organize the information:

1-Number of students who attended n

2-Number of non-students who attended _______

3-Proceeds from student tickets ($) _________

4-Proceeds from non-student tickets ($) _________

It was as though we had not spent a single hour on problems like this, although I know they did work many of them in class, for homework, and (presumably) studying for this exam.

No one knew how to write the expressions for 2-4. Crazy.

It occurs to me that I have no idea how to make them learn this – I try again and again and they still can’t seem to get the idea that the letter n stands for a number that we don’t know, and that all of the other numbers depend on n.

If I ask them to tell me how many non-students attended the show if 100 students attended, they can do it.

If I again ask that same question but change the number to 101, they can still do it.

They can do it no matter what number I give them for n. But once I ask them to generalize, it’s like their brain melts and they have no idea what to do – even though they just did it with actual numbers 4 or 5 times!

So, they cannot generalize – and this is the final exam! We spent the entire course generalizing – and they still can’t do it –

Makes me wonder if they will ever be able to do it –

They’ve taken algebra courses before – mostly in high school – probably since 7th grade. For 7 years they have had this topic – generalize – and still can’t do it.

If I decided to become a downhill skier, and after 7 years still couldn’t figure out how to put my skis on, I think I would give up.

that analogy isn’t really right – it’s more like, I knew how to put my skis on at Vail, but when we went to Keystone, why that’s a different place so I don’t know how to put skis on there – someone has to help me!

Maybe they need to give up.

Because if they keep showing up, we will keep trying to shove it into their skulls and they will continue to not get it –

I’m sure they’ve had better teachers than me in some past experience with basic algebra – and still they are here, trying again to learn the same things that have not been able to learn since 7th grade –

What is wrong with us?


2 Responses to “A Rant from Class”

  1. kaliella Says:

    Psychology textbooks would probably say this is because their brains haven’t yet reached the point of being able to abstract concepts… but one wonders, if they haven’t yet reached that point by the time you have them (age 20+?), will they ever? If it’s something that eventually comes on its own you would think they would get to that point by then. If not, then clearly we are doing something wrong at the lower levels that does not provide the necessary building blocks for some students. Since my 8th grade students are scared to death of fractions, I would lean towards the latter.

  2. Stephanie Says:


    We tackled this problem (or tried to) as part of my grad studies in math ed. The best we reasoned was that standardized tests are to blame — students are being taught to take tests, not to think. As a university professor, myself and my colleagues saw a steady spiral downward in reasoning skills once standardized tests became the norm.

    I came across your blog via David Wees, and as a fellow mathematics educator I thought you might be able to help in spreading the word about an educational TV show for preteens about math that we’re putting together. “The Number Hunter” is a cross between Bill Nye The Science Guy and The Crocodile Hunter — bringing math to children in an innovative, adventurous way. I’d really appreciate your help in getting the word out about the project.

    I studied math education at Jacksonville University and the University of Florida. It became clear to me during my studies why we’re failing at teaching kids math. We’re teaching it all wrong! Bill Nye taught kids that science is FUN. He showed them the EXPLOSIONS first and then the kids went to school to learn WHY things exploded. Kids learn about dinosaurs and amoeba and weird ocean life to make them go “wow”. But what about math? You probably remember the dreaded worksheets. Ugh.

    I’m sure you know math is much more exciting than people think. Fractal Geometry was used to create “Star Wars” backdrops, binary code was invented in Africa, The Great Pyramids and The Mona Lisa, wouldn’t exist without geometry.
    Our concept is to create an exciting, web-based TV show that’s both fun and educational.

    If you could consider posting about the project on your blog, I’d very much appreciate it. Also, if you’d be interested in link exchanging (either on The Number Hunter site, which is in development, or on StatisticsHowTo.com which is a well-established site with 300,000 page views a month) please shoot me an email. We’re also always looking for input and ideas from other math educators!

    Thanks in advance for your help,


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