Sunday, January 9, 2011

The Purdue Math Department...Sucks.

I'm a graduate of Purdue University in West Lafayette, IN. Summer class of 2010 with a degree in Computer and Information Technology, with a specialization in Network Engineering. In short, my degree qualifies me to defend networks, personal, small, big, corporate, government, national, international. It's a degree in the internet and it's security.

My coursework outlines my knowledge of Windows, Unix, Linux, Mac OS, and other operating system. C#, ASP.NET, and Java encompass some of the languages I know (these three were required for my degree). HTML, CSS, Flash, Silverlight speaks to my web developer side. Programming routers, configuring switches, deploying servers, testing email receipt, faking email on behalf of other people, are things within my ability. Knowledge of Microsoft Office should be assumed, and troubleshooting is my indispensable tool of the trade. Windows Mobile certifications, CCNA's, MSCA's...the tests can and do go on to further add certifications too my Black and Gold degree.

However - there is a single thing for which I can't grasp. That seemingly couldn't be explained to me and could have prevented my very graduation and seal of approval in my various fields of Information Technology. The culprit is calculus, but the bad guy was really the Math Department.

Calculus 1 and 2 were two classes that since my freshman year of college I saw the two largest impetus' of my degree. In fact, I failed Calculus 1 (Calc 221) three times. I failed Calculus 1 (Calc 223) once. I then failed Calculus 2 (224) once. How did I pass them? I didn't take them at West Lafayette I can tell you that much. If you could hunt down any of my classmates, they'll tell you I was an idiot when it came to math. I was, even I know this. I was horrendous. In fact, it was in my senior year that I actually managed to pass these entry level, freshman courses, just not in Lafayette.

The math department of lafayette subscribes to their own method of grading, only which I can assume is done because they are mathmatics majors and thats just what they do. What else do you do with that degree? I don't know, I won't criticize, but this certainly seems like a good start. I digress. Anyway. Here's the short unpleasant version with an explanation following it. What if I said you do well on homework, quizzes, and exams. So well, that you are scoring a 90% minimum on everything. You can see this, but your grade can't be confirmed or denied until the end of the semester (aka the report card) when the grades come in you discover you got a B. How can this be you ask? You did the work, and got the results of at least an A, yet receive a B. Here comes the explanation directly from the syllabus no less.

There is a total of 550 points in the course. Homework and quizzes combined count 100 points. Each of the three mid-term exams counts 100 points, and the nal exam counts 150 points. Since the only assessments common to all students and graded identically for all students are the two, course-wide exams (Exam 2 and the Final Exam), a normalization process based on them is used to determine the number of each letter grade given in a section. The Department decides on an A{range, B{range, C{range, etc., for the combined two exams. Each instructor then gives the same number of A's, B's, C's, etc., that his section earned on the combined exams. The assignment of the letter grades is based on students' total points (a number between 0 and 550). For example, if in a particular section there are 8 A's, 10 B's, etc., on the two combined exams, the 8 students with the highest total points receive an A, the next 10 a B, and so on.

Does this make sense to you? If it does, explain it to me. If it doesn't, then keep thinking about it until your head explodes. Believe it or not, this system actually is to the student's advantage. Well, the slightly less intelligent students. It ensures the bottom of the barrel students still perform somewhat average. It makes things far more challenging for students who want to do well. Interestingly enough, there is one way to cheat this system but it would never work given the coordination involved. If you could convince every students to fail, or only do so good as a point perhaps. Then everyone gets an A. Because there isn't enough of a "scale" to distribute grades to point values. Hell if everyone fails, and everyone gets a 0 out of 550. Then the highest grade is 0, meaning 0's get A's. It wouldn't work because there is no way you could convince the number of students enrolled in your particular class, let alone entire course to do it.

With this being said, it is possible to do A quality work and yet only receive a B. However in my case, the system never benefited me. I did so consistently poor, this "curve" was of no benefit to me. I couldn't even pull a D in these classes, more importantly, a D was all I needed as far as my degree was concerned to move onto the the next level course and ultimately graduate. But that didn't happen, always got the F in these courses. Anyway, the department in my view designed me to fail. I couldn't perform in this kind of competitive grading environment. Something about getting a grade, only to find out the grade really isn't mine seems odd. Why shouldn't it be odd? Every other class I take a quiz, and now I know exactly what my quiz grades are.

One summer I decided to go to a satellite campus, Purdue Calumet. This campus is located in Hammond, Indiana and has a FAR more community college atmosphere to it. It also, has a far larger mix of people. This is the college where it's not entirely my 20 something peers, it's fully grown adults. It's people with full time jobs coming back to college for a degree, taking night classes, etc. I sat down in my class that hot summer day for calculus one and prepared for how this school was going to teach me the same class I had already failed. But class hasn't started, it's syllabus time first and then class time.

50% and below is an F.

51% - 59.9% is a D

60% - 69.99 is a C

70% - 85% is a B

And you can guess A range. This was ridiculous, this was unheard of. The grade range was known ahead of time and the standards are ridiculously lower at this campus. It's going to transfer as the same credit and I'm going to pass it. I did pass it, with flying colors. I did Calculus 2 the same way. I cheated the system by going to the campus with lower standards and doing it. I tried Calculus 2 at Lafayette, even more impossible than one.

Here's where Lafayette, fails absolutely, hands down miserably at teaching this subject and why I and others have and will continue to fail at it:

1. TA's teach classes, what's worse is they barely speak English.
Look, I'm all for equal opportunity employment. But when I have to ask someone to repeat everything at least 2 times all the time. It gets frustrating.

2. 50 minute classes
The typical class follows suit as such - 10 minutes for homework questions, every TA will say how they cant answer all of them because they need time to lecture that day. The day's lecture will take anywhere from 20 minutes to the rest of the class. What's worse is when quizzes are introduced. You will truly enjoy watching how these people budget their time to better suit themselves than the student.

3. TA's are students with schedules, not Professors with jobs.
The problem with TA's is they are students just like those in the class, they have homework themselves. They have classes to get to themselves. They have their own pursuits and then have to grade your work, quizzes, and tests. Let me say this, good luck finding "Office Hours" for one of these folks. They don't exist, if they do it is but for minutes. Even if you do find office hourS (notice the plural use of hour) you better hope you have some free time. Maybe you'll have to skip a class. Be late to another. Start work later. Don't get me wrong, you go to college for college and to learn and no one is more unsympathetic than the college itself.

4. Online homework
This honestly seemed like a good idea when it was introduced to me the third time around in calculus. Let's do away with submitting homework with paper, and instead require students to spend money on an online subscription service to grade you. Here's the problem, computers don't give partial credit. They simply don't understand your math, merely the final answer. The advantage of a human grading my work is following the steps I made, seeing where I went wrong and correcting me. More importantly, giving some degree of credit for getting somewhere with the problem. Because when you are struggling, you'll take all the credit you can get. A plus instead of a minus, but still the right absolute answer? Plus you can't ask questions, the program has a help program but only explains it one way with no further help. What if I need further help? Oh right, I need to find my TA's office hours...but I already went over that part.

5. The Math Help Room
There is a math help room, which has go to be the largest joke I have ever witnessed. I went regularly to discover 4 various employees (students) standing around waiting to be hailed over to problems. Chatting and talking amongst themselves and then discouraged when a hand is raised to go help. When asked for a question, you are immediately presented with an answer - not help, an answer as to what to do next. The help then walks away and you are assumed to go about your work until you need them again. It's a worthless investment as the room only supports about 16 - 20 students. It's like the math departments solution for dealing with problems without having to deal with them. Such as "Oh have you tried the math help room?"

6. Tutoring
There is a recommended tutor list on the departments website, but tutors aren't linked to the department in anyway other than "we trust this person to do a decent job." But you have to pay them, because the department doesn't. Which means you are again, working with someone's schedule (a student's more times than not.) You are paying them directly, with no guarantee of service or a "I'll give you some money back" or anything of the sorts. Students, living on student wages. Then there are rogue tutors on campus, they aren't on the department website but have done this "forever" and have an extensive client list and promise a certain letter grade. I did this, because I was desperate. I wasn't expecting the promised B minimum, a D would have done just fine but you know what. Whatever, maybe I'll get a C. We'll see what happens.

Needless to say the old french guy by the name of Jacque on the West Lafayete campus, with a very large black mustache who always wears a baseball cap should not be trusted. $25 an hour and promising a B minimum and will refund up to 30% of your money otherwise. Seems to me I was tutored, then told "You can't do this, and should drop." Really meant "I'll continue to tutor you, but won't give you any money back because you aren't smart enough to do this." Oh well, what's $1250 as a student.

7. Emailing the head of the department for help
Also doesn't result in as much as you think it would. Actually, it results in greater insanity. I told her I wasn't getting any help from any of the sources I was told I could. Nothing was working. In response I was told "You should go sit in on other TA's lectures and see if hearing it from different sources helps." A perfectly plausible thing for me as an 18 credit hour student with a job to do.

Needless to say, I decided to say screw it and take the class during the summer at Purdue Calumet. It worked out well both times. It was taught by professors. I got as much or as little time as I needed from professors. I had professors who were willing to meet on weekends to help me. Coincidently, I also saw what a change in location does in terms of expectations. Standards are drastically reduced. Also - you can use full scientific calculator during exams. That's right, that would imply you CAN'T in Lafayette. That is not a typo, that is the truth. Only simple calculators that DON'T display the equation you are working on are allowed during exams in Lafayette. Go ahead and sit on that one for awhile.

So sure I've graduated, I got my degree, and it's the seal of approval on my IT knowledge. But I will never forget the Purdue Lafayette Math Department and what I had to go through merely to receive that seal. Two freshman level courses that took essentially my career to complete. I hate math.

Hail the Knoy Hall of Technology.