I sympathize

Since I’m grading genetics exams this evening, a class that involves a tiny amount of math, I can understand where this response to a math problem comes from.

I’d be tempted to give partial credit for a creative answer, but since I’m one of those evil professors, I wouldn’t succumb.


  1. BlueIndependent says

    That’s how I felt in Analytic Geometry, and my mathematics studies never came close to anything of the sort being asked of the student in that test. Needless to say, I am not a mathmetician by trade…but I like the attempt given by this student. =)

  2. says

    I doubt that it was a page from a real exam, but I have seen some pretty incredible stuff. Almost anything is possible, especially when math anxiety strikes. My elementary algebra students can’t even find the slope of a straight line. Only 5 students passed the last exam (out of 23 who took it). I must be a bad teacher.

    More here for those who relish a tale of woe.

  3. Mena says

    One of the benefits of being a she-math-geek in a biology class is that I had my (usually male for some reason) lab partners do the gross stuff and I did the math. I have noticed how bad with math some people in the life sciences, including instructors, are. It was pretty bad during a class when no one else knew what the antilog of 2 is (c’mon, it was base 10!) and the teacher is throwing around all sorts of overly complex equations which can be reduced to a function involving a natural log. Math has always been kind of second nature to me, where I run into problems is with the organic chemistry. Krebbs, 3′ vs 5′, etc. are my downfall!

  4. says

    I’ve noticed that too, Mena. I once had an introductory course in biology for majors in that discipline where the professor was writing up the Michaelis-Menten equation, and freely admitted that he didn’t know how it was derived. Meanwhile, I was watching him put it up, and I saw at once it was derived simply from the law of mass action, and did the derivation for him.

    I think I’m somewhat different from the usual run of biology majors, because I’ve always known that I was an excellent mathematician, but I’ve also known that pure mathematics itself wasn’t interesting to me. I toyed with the idea of going into physics for a while, and now I’m splitting the difference with an interest in biophysics.

  5. David Livesay says

    Speaking of genetics exams, here is one of my favorite questions. The math isn’t difficult, but you have to think.

    Mary has brown eyes, and her husband has blue eyes. Her sister has blue eyes, but both of her parents have brown eyes. Mary and her husband are expecting their first child soon. Based on the information given (and assuming no adoption, remarriage or infidelity), what is the probability that Mary’s child will have blue eyes?

    This works well in a multiple choice format, but I preferred to let them show their reasoning if possible, although I rarely found anyone getting the right answer for the wrong reason.

  6. David Livesay says


    I think part of your gift is that you don’t compartmentalize your knowledge the way a lot of students do. Once I was teaching a biology lab course, and we were doing a study where we had to graph growth as a function of time. One of the students asked which variable should go on which axis of the graph. Before I answered, I asked if anyone else knew the answer to the question. Surprisingly, no one felt confident in their answer. Then I asked if anyone knew the general definition of a function, i.e. y=f(x), from math class. Most of them got it right away, but I had to ask some of them what it means when we say something is a function of something.

    I got the feeling that, while most of them understood that growth is a function of time, and they knew what a function was in mathematical terms, they never realized that they were talking about the same animal when they used that word in the two contexts.

  7. Flounder says

    I used to TA a course on geology and natural resources for non-geology grads in which most of the class was elementary education majors. They were so terrible with math that most could not do simple fractions by hand without a calculator. The problem will only get worse, as these people will be teaching our kids things things like fractions they themselves are not functional with. I remember an exercise I had them doing involved English/Metric conversions, and of course they all used calculators and I was surprised how many made input errors, and got results like 30,000 km equal 10 miles. I always told students that even if they are sticking data into a “black box” they have to put on their bullshit detectors and consider if 30,000 km seems like a valid answer for 10 miles. they got better but I am going to teach my own children math.

  8. SEF says

    Sometimes the exam questions are wrong though (in various ways). That seems to be getting more common in the UK, with standards (of ability and care) higher up the chain dropping too.