opinion

OPINION: I’m a former finite math tutor. The class is failing students.



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Finite, Applied Calculus, and Business Law textbooks are stacked in a giant pile in the upstairs textbook section of TIS College Bookstore. IDS file photo and Courtney Deckard

There is not likely a class that invokes more disdain than MATH-M118: Finite Mathematics. This reputation is largely deserved.

I should know. I am an honors mathematics student at IU and worked as a finite peer tutor in fall 2018. 

Finite mathematics serves as the go-to course to fulfill IU’s general education math requirement, especially for math-averse students who have never taken calculus and don’t plan to start in college. The course is also required for students in some programs, such as those in the Kelley School of Business.

Yet as a gen-ed staple, finite mathematics is hurting students.

Consider finite mathematics’ DFW rate, which refers to the rate at which students receive a D, F or withdraw from a course. This metric is used in university records to measure class performance. In fall 2019, IUB grade distribution data showed a DFW rate of around 36%, which is more than double the university average of around 16%.

These statistics are indicative of the underlying problem: Finite mathematics is not a well-designed option for non-math majors to complete their math gen-ed requirement.

The curriculum is split between probability and linear algebra, according to the course description. The two parts of the course are tied together at the end with a unit on Markov chains, a common mathematical model in social science, business and science.

Finite purports to be useful because it combines two fields that may be encountered across a variety of disciplines.

Professor Ayelet Lindenstrauss, the math department’s director of undergraduate studies, said the course is designed to provide basic math skills that students will need later in life. She said students need to be prepared for whatever comes up in real life.

Though well-intended, this approach fails to understand how students learn.

Effective courses typically focus on one subject and build in complexity toward a final learning objective. Finite mathematics, however, is more like two different courses — probability and linear algebra — melded into one. The brief unifying link in Markov Chains is more appropriate as the capstone of 300 level linear algebra courses that math majors like me take.

I’ve seen firsthand how the transition from probability to linear algebra hinders students. They spend weeks understanding and becoming comfortable with a specific branch of mathematics. Then they are suddenly thrust back to square one in terms of content and understanding, and this demoralizing change of pace eliminates any momentum that math-averse students may have built.

Moreover, finite’s primary practice mechanism is through WebWorks — the online math problem platform that generates problems for students. WebWorks features problems with numbers that often require a calculator to successfully finish the assigned work. Finite does not allow calculators on departmental exams.

The use of a platform for homework that encourages, if not outright requires, calculators is a poor design choice for a class that does not allow technology on exams. For a class attempting to sell itself as relevant to a wide range of practical disciplines, it doesn't make sense to divorce the material from the technology students will be using to apply it.

Another problem is the private tutoring industry that has sprung up around the course. Private options create an imbalance between students with means and those without.

Campus Tutoring Service, for example, features the “B or Better program,” in which students receive targeted tutoring that the company promises will achieve a high grade for the low price of $796. The company also offers individual sessions starting at $51.90 for non-members. Tutors include current students and even a retired IU mathematics education professor. 

IU does offer free resources, including group and walk-in tutoring, but the prevalence of private tutoring programs indicates a gap in math help on campus between available resources available and student needs. Given how central the course is to graduating for many students, this financial advantage could have consequences for thousands of students.

Lindenstrauss said students can also take finite over two semesters. But this is only a partial solution because it requires students to pay for more credit hours and potentially twice as much tutoring.

When it comes to finite, it’s clear that the course simply isn’t cutting it for IU students. IU’s primary math gen-ed needs to be reworked as a better fit for students across all majors.

Christian Sayers (he/him) is a senior studying mathematics and economics. He hopes to someday own a large rabbit.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this column incorrectly referred to a private tutoring company. Its name is Campus Tutoring Service. The IDS regrets this error.

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