Numeric information in graphic forms skills pre-assessment

Underneath the focus on physical systems, SC 130 Physical Science is built on a foundation of connecting physical systems to their mathematical models and communicating the results in writing. Laboratory exercises lead to the writing of a full laboratory report that is marked for content, syntax, grammar, vocabulary, organization, and cohesion.

The majority of the laboratories investigate systems that involve a linear mathematical relationship. Reports include xy scatter graphs, best fit linear trend lines, slope, and y-intercept analysis. The course outline includes the learning outcome, "Students will generate mathematical models for physical science systems." This serves a general education program learning outcome, "Students will be able to present and interpret numeric information in graphic forms," which in turn serves an institutional learning outcome for quantitative reasoning: "Students will be able to reason and solve quantitative problems from a wide array of authentic contexts and everyday life situations; comprehend and can create sophisticated arguments supported by quantitative evidence and can clearly communicate those arguments in a variety of formats."

Thirteen of the eighteen students enrolled in physical science summer 2018 on the Kosrae campus were present the first day. These 13 students completed a pre-assessment consisting of eleven questions which focused on interpreting and generating numeric information in graphic forms. The pre-assessment graph interpretation and data interpretation both use direct linear relationships with a y-intercept of zero - arguably the easiest form of relationship to work with in algebra.

Only seven students chose to answer a question as to their highest math class completed. Of the seven students, five students completed MS 100 College Algebra, one completed MS 150 Statistics (albeit 16 years ago), and one student completed only a developmental math course. Although six other students chose not to answer the question, the course is being delivered on Kosrae to assist students with the task of graduating. The focus of the class is on students blocked from graduation only by a science with laboratory class.

The students would seem to possess the mathematical skills to answer the questions posed. The results, however, were so unusually weak that I ran a look at the averages over the past four terms.

The results for this summer are significantly weaker than has been seen over the past four terms. The most common answer was to leave a question blank: not a single student had any clue as to how to answer the question. And question one was calculating a slope given a line on a graph, a line that had a y-intercept of zero thus any rise over run calculation would have yielded the correct answer.

The only skill the students possessed was the ability to plot points on a line. Note that given an equation in slope-intercept form, only two of thirteen could report the slope and intercept. For students who have already had a number of years of algebra these results are incredibly weak.

These results mean that the course will have to proceed more slowly and deliberately from a mathematical perspective. There can be no real expectation of prior knowledge. As usual, I personally see these term after term weak results as an indictment of mathematics as currently taught. Students who "survive" a mathematics class often dislike mathematics. Prior survey work has suggested students both fear and hate mathematics. Neither fear nor hate assist longer term retention of material. The course undoubtedly faces mental blocks and obstacles within the minds of the students, adding to the challenge of delivering the material.


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