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Machine "Teachers"


Active member
This issue is a regular thorn in the side of students, at the campus where I work as a tutor.

Many introductory courses use software for doing homework, and the software doesn't say anything about number form or syntax requirements. More often than not, instructors do not provide this information, either. The software often rejects correct answers; sometimes, I cannot figure out what it wants.

Fortunately, technology in math classes seems to be getting better. I advise students to take a cell-phone image, and then raise the matter in class or during office hours.
When I teach a course using such software, it provides a way to contact your instructor when you have questions. I tell the students that if they question its judgment of their answer, they can use that mechanism to show me the question and their answer; I can then either tell them that they are in fact wrong, or override their score if I consider it valid. This puts a human behind the computer.


New member
I like the focus on education at this site.

I haven't taught in a long time, but I know that students in a course I once TA'd had to use online tools called "Mastering Astronomy" that were quite similar and had similar pitfalls. Also, however, it was a course in which "no math" was promised, and the slightest hint of quantitative reasoning in the assigned problems was enough to make the (humanities majors taking a breadth course) freak out.

EDIT: I think online tools have their place, but careful thought has to be given to how they're implemented, and how central a role they play in learning.


Super Moderator
I like the focus on education at this site.
Glad you agree with our mission!

I've already made my position known, on these boards. The world is increasingly becoming a more technological, competitive, and challenging place. We need more educated people, particularly in the computer sciences (including robotics), natural sciences, and engineering. Of course, each of these must include a thorough grounding in mathematics.

In addition to STEM courses, social sciences, history, civics, and matters of commerce are also important. Young adults pursuing a degree in one of the STEM fields, will be exposed at university to social issues, history, civics, our government, and economics. A well-rounded education is best, but STEM is foremost in my mind.

From the site engineeringforkids.com, we find the following (emphasis mine):

According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, STEM occupations are growing at 17%, while other occupations are growing at 9.8%. STEM degree holders have a higher income, even in non-STEM careers. Science, technology, engineering and mathematics workers play a key role in the sustained growth and stability of the U.S. economy, and [they] are a critical component to helping the U.S. win the future. STEM education creates critical thinkers, increases science literacy, and enables the next generation of innovators. Innovation leads to new products and processes that sustain our economy. This innovation and science literacy depends on a solid knowledge base in the STEM areas. It is clear that most jobs of the future will require a basic understanding of math and science.

Last year, the U.S. Department of Labor declared that, by the year 2023, nearly 60% of all jobs in the United States will require some level of college (eg: certifications, associate degrees, bachelors degrees, post-graduate degrees). For those with only a high school diploma, it will be hard to get their foot in the door just to try get their resume accepted. Good luck.

Projections are being revised; this PDF page from the Georgetown Public Policy Institute contains a lot of statistical information.

Here is my point: Everybody ought to be doing as much as they reasonably can to encourage, lift up, and support children to study math and science. Anything that adds to their frustration or confusion is a threat because, as more children or young adults are turned off to mathematics (there are many different examples of how this can happen), it simply does not bode well for our society (i.e., finding good solutions to the very important issues we all face).

When a student is forced to interact with a machine teacher that has not been properly programmed, it increases their frustration. When students do not receive feedback on their homework, they may continue to be frustrated going forward because they're working with a misconception that has not been caught. When machine teachers are programmed to present fill-in-the-blank forms, where most of the notation already appears on the screen and only a few numbers are needed to complete the expressions, then student performance lags. (How does one memorize the Quadratic Formula, if they never have to write it out?) Software content written by administrators without a mathematics degree is a recipe for disaster. Finally, a failure by schools to provide technology instruction (how to use a computer) or to specify syntax (how to enter an answer) prior to subjecting math students to machine teachers is just as bad as placing someone without intermediate algebra skills into an introductory calculus course.

Technology needs to augment and support instruction, not interfere with it. We must STEM the tide of all these students turning away from math and the sciences!