Sean Raleigh

Adjunct Professor of Mathematics, Miramar College

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FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions)

    Students often have the same questions from one semester to the next, so here is a collection of answers to such questions. Some of these questions are more common than others and some of the answers are more important than others, so I've tried to list them roughly in decreasing order of frequency and importance.

What is your policy on [something in the syllabus]?

    Check the syllabus. That's what it's there for. If you e-mail me such a question, I'll probably respond similarly. Please believe me, it's not that I'm trying to be rude; I just get a lot of e-mail and it's easier if I don't have to repeat information that's already in the syllabus.

Will [whatever concept we're discussing] be on the test?

    Yes. You should assume that anything we discuss in class can appear on the test. Now in practice, there isn't enough space on the test to ask you every type of question you saw on the homework. But if I told you what types of questions would and would not be covered, you would, of course, only study the stuff that was covered.
    If you come to class every day and pay close attention, I might drop a hint or two about concepts that I consider of maximal importance, and consequently those that are virtually guaranteed to appear on the test.

Can you tell me what my grade is so far?

    Not really. Because the course grades are curved, it is difficult to translate your raw score into a letter grade in the middle of the course. Also, I do not curve individual test grades; rather, the curve is applied at the end of the course to the overall score. Since the final can be worth a huge chunk of your grade, it can alter your final letter grade dramatically.
    The best advice I can give here is to keep track of the test statistics along the way. After every exam, I will give you a variety of statistics and you can estimate your grade just as easily as I can from these numbers.

I don't think I'm doing too well. Should I drop this course?

    Unfortunately, I can't make this decision for you. You know how you have performed in the class up to this point relative to the rest of the class, so you should have some idea where you stand. You also understand your life circumstances much better than I can. Here are some of the questions you should ask yourself:

  • Are you struggling because you do not understand the concepts?
  • Have you sought outside help from tutors or study groups?
  • Are you falling behind due to factors outside of class? If so, will such factors change significantly before the end of the semester to allow you to catch up?
  • Will you have more time available to study for the final than you had to do your homework and study for midterms?
  • Do you think it's realistic to assume you will ace the final if you have failed all the tests so far?

    No matter what you decide to do, make sure you are aware of all the deadlines so you don't get stuck with a failing grade when you could have withdrawn.

How many questions will there be on the test?

    Usually, the number of questions on a test is irrelevant. Some types of questions just take longer than other questions. I design each test so that the average student will be able to complete it with time to spare.

Why are your tests so tricky?

    They're not. The word "tricky" implies that my intention is to make the test more difficult than necessary, or to ask obscure questions that require leaps of intuition not developed in class. This is absolutely not the case!
    It is true that my tests are difficult. This reflects the fact that the material we're learning in class is difficult. There's a difference between test questions that are difficult and test questions that are more difficult than the homework questions. I design my test questions using the homework questions as a guide. No, the test questions won't be exactly like your homework questions. I'm not even saying that they'll be the same as homework questions with a few numbers changed. (If I give quizzes in your class, then these are an exception to what I just said.) But they will require the same techniques that you've practiced in the homework. I reserve the right to ask one or two "hard" questions, by which I mean questions that require you to synthesize the concepts you've learned and apply them to a new class of problem. Then again, I always put one or two softballs on the test too, so it works out to be pretty fair.
    Some students seem to be surprised by what the test covers. They claim that they spent all their time studying X and then Y appeared on the test, and somehow this is "tricky" on my part. If both X and Y were covered in the homework, then they are both fair game. It might even be that X is more important than Y, but perhaps I want to save X to test on the final exam. Either way, please don't confuse your lack of preparation with any malice on my part.

Why didn't I get more points on this question?

    See the statement on partial credit.

Do you offer any extra credit?

    No. Extra credit is one of those tricky subjects. The problem is that to be fair it has to be offered equally to all students. The students who tend to succeed in extra credit projects and questions are those who are already experiencing a degree of success in the course, i.e., the people who don't need extra credit. Because I grade on a curve, this only hurts those who really need the extra credit.  So I decided long ago not to offer extra credit. Instead, I have in some classes a policy of being able to drop one test and replace it with the final exam score. This tends to reward students who put the extra effort into studying for the final exam.

Do you post practice exams?

    No. Practice exams present a lose/lose situation. Let's face it, if you have a practice exam in front of you, you are likely to complete it to the exclusion of other methods of study. If the practice exam is designed to be a timed exam, the problem is compounded since there just aren't going to be enough questions on the exam to drill all the concepts needed for the real exam. A more serious problem is one of expectations. If you study from a practice exam, you might unreasonably expect that the problems on the actual exam are going to be, more or less, what you practiced. When they are not, it is tempting to blame the professor for being deceptive or tricky. It is much better to follow the guidelines on the page Studying Effectively For Tests. You will be more prepared than with a practice exam.

Sometimes you use different methods from those in the book or the solution manual. Why?

    There is often more than one way to do a math problem and different people prefer different methods. I try to use my teaching experience to find the most effective way of presenting the material. Every once and a while, this will be different from the book's presentation. Keep in mind as well that the goal of the solutions manual is to present solutions as concisely as possible, which is not always desirable. While I agree that this can cause some confusion, especially for students who use the book more than their lecture notes for studying, I feel that it is worthwhile to show methods that have proven successful with students in the past. One might ask why I don't show multiple methods for solving a problem. Well, sometimes I do. When I do not, there is usually a good reason, and I always explain my reasoning in class. Of course, you are welcome to use any method you want as long as it is mathematically sound, whether it comes from the book or from the lecture or from any other source.

What is this math good for? Why do I have to take this class?

    It is natural to question why you have to take the math classes you have to take. Most of you will not be math majors, so you may wonder how often you will have to use the math you learn. There are two answers to this question. On a societal level, it is of paramount importance that university graduates have as much math exposure as possible. Major advances in all fields (and not just the sciences!) have come from the keen application of mathematical principles to a variety of problems. Statistically speaking, the more math we learn, the more likely it is that such learning will advance our understanding. On an individual level, I suppose it depends. If I'm being completely truthful, many of you will not need to use a lot of math in your day-to-day lives. Even engineers tend to rely on computers to do complex and precise calculations. (But who designs the computers and computer programs that do the calculations?)
    The real reason that math classes are required for most majors is that the study of mathematics sharpens our reasoning. We become better engineers, scientists, doctors, lawyers, writers, and thinkers when we learn to apply rigor to our thought processes. We become better citizens when we can discern when statistics are misleading and when argumentation lacks a logical foundation. While it is not true that all of life can be reduced to a set of mathematical formulŠ, math can always help us interpret the world around us.
    I hope that you will consider this course more than just a requirement or a grade. I'll do my best to make the material engaging. The applications presented in the book tend to be a bit contrived and oversimplified, but they do help connect math to the "real world".

What do you think of RateMyProfessors.com?

    This site is not without its problems. It gives the same weight to idiots who have an axe to grind as it does to articulate, thoughtful students. It unfairly punishes tough professors and unfairly rewards easy ones. Nevertheless, as professors we can't afford to ignore the importance of this site to students. I encourage my students to rate me on the site and to be constructive in their comments, whether they be positive or negative. If students rate all their professors intelligently, this will make the statistics more accurate and will mitigate the effects of the minority of students who are either lazy and find it easier to blame their professor for their own lack of motivation, or are lazy and just looking for an easy A.