Dumbing Down

Back when I was an undergrad, the maths classes I attended could be broadly classified into two types – general and small classes. The latter are mainly algebra and topology classes which attract an enrolment of less than 15. The former are large classes, usually essential modules or courses that are thought to be easy. I never had much problem with those large classes. The reason being I was among the top end of the cohort and the lecturer needed to “dumb down” in order to cater to everybody. Even Lebesgue integration was never too intimidating. On the other hand, I had a lot of trouble with the group theory and topology and I often wondered during those days why I signed up.

In those big classes, there was one particular lecturer who was very well liked in general and always won awards. I didn’t like him because I felt he was “playing” to the audience, dumbing down too much, oversimplifying and very hand-holding.

Fast forward to the present. As a lecturer, I have this dilemma. The class is huge and the ability of the students diverse. As much as I want to teach rigourously, I find myself guilty of “dumbing down”, to the extent that one particular student commented that I should be replaced. Retribution, I guess. I’m still not sure how to find the right balance, considering that only 10% of the cohort may eventually end up graduating as math majors. How do you teach rigour without at the same time putting off the rest of the 90%, or worse still, extending the bad impression that they may have about mathematics.

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4 Responses to Dumbing Down

  1. Alex says:

    I’m in the same position the student you mentioned. Specifically, I’m taking advanced linear algebra, a class that at my school comprises mostly computer science, physics, and I’m-not-going-to-grad-school-so-I-don’t-care math majors. As a result, the professor spends entirely too much time on the easy stuff, while skipping the interesting stuff that I think is the whole point of taking the class (e.g. we’re doing an ‘engineering’ approach to determinants, and skipped dual spaces and functionals).

    As one of those students who wouldn’t appreciate you dumbing down a class, I’d say don’t do it! Even if 90% of the class isn’t going to graduate as a math major, they need to deal with the fact that they’re taking a math class at a specified level. On the other hand, my advisor was almost denied tenure on the basis of student reviews: they were atrocious, because he tried to cover the material rigorously.

    Maybe a good middle ground is to cover the material in a way that the 90% would find comfortable, and interject comments and extra-credit assignments in parallel that the interested 10% can pursue to learn at least some of the material not covered in class.

  2. tpc says:

    I guess the same thing happens everywhere. It doesn’t help that more students are getting tertiary education – quality and quantity being inversely proportional – and they are more vocal. The silly administrators are also not helping by being overly focused on student reviews.

    I’m teaching the same course next year, and would definitely try and engage the 10%.

  3. Eric says:

    My opinion on this particular subject is, if we want to contribute in the advancement of scientific researches, we have to make a selection of the futur scientists, and by that, we want the brightest to succeed and the others, well maybe they should find another field of interest. This might sound a bit harsh but we don’t want pretty good brain surgeons right, we want the best brain surgeons. Same for mathematiciens, now i’m only a second year student majoring in math, and i would feel insulted if my profesors would dumb down their teachings, i want to learn the roots of every theorems that are presented to me, not only remeber certain steps to get an answer which i’m not realy quite sure what i’m calculating, what’s the point of that right? (sorry for my english, i’m french)

  4. benny says:

    my math prof (i am an economis major) always mixed hard and easy stuff. he was quite fun to listen too and you could understand alot even if it was not so easy stuff. but sometimes he should said “well some of you want to maybe do their PHD after they graduated, for them is the next passage of 15 minutes” in which he prooved whatever theorem was on at the moment.

    he also made good weekly exercise papers in which he had a 50/50 mix between proov-intense and calc-intense assignments…

    mixing is just the way to go i would say

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