For the purposes of this question, assume that you have a student who is aiming for a B in an introductory calculus or college algebra course but plans to take many more math classes after this. Most students in my courses match this description.

At midterm, this student will look at all his or her grades to determine which classes need more attention. If the student has a high B in the calculus or college algebra course at midterm, they are very likely to refocus their efforts on chemistry.

The end result of this is that they end up with a very low B or high C, then do very poorly in the subsequent class (C or D) due to this refocus.

How can a math educator combat this phenomenon to help their students do well and continue to do well in later courses?

  • $\begingroup$ I think you just made a good argument for a harder first test;) $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 8, 2014 at 3:35

1 Answer 1


I think the idea would be to pry into that motivation that these student have for taking "many more math classes" and work some of that into your lectures. Are the students going to become majors? If so, present some more advance proofs and allow students to complete them for "extra credit".

If the students are going to apply the math (and are mostly non-majors), bring some concrete examples into your class. Show them, for example, how they can use your calculus course in calculating rates of reaction in chemistry class. See this Chem.SE question for some additional ideas. They will be motivated to do more work in your class and in chemistry, and there will be less competition for their attention.

I realize you're just using chemistry for an example here, so for the non-majors, get some idea of what kind of applications they are looking for. Do a quick SurveyMonkey (or equivalent) to get some idea of their plans and goals. Give them quiz credit for taking it (or donuts or something). This will keep their eyes on their future, but will also help them stay grounded in what may seem like a forest of abstract material at times.

  • $\begingroup$ @ChrisCunningham I found the question I was originally looking for, I apologize that the PChem one wasn't of the best quality. This is another one, but it was my answer, so I don't want to "advertise" it. $\endgroup$
    – jonsca
    Commented Jul 7, 2014 at 19:08

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