Monday, May 5, 2014

Basic Logic Errors

I constantly wish that students were taught rudimentary logic at an early age (links: one, two, three). Just musing about that today, here are three common stumbling blocks I see in different classes due to not being able to read logical statements properly:
  1. "If" Statement. In a basic algebra class, we have the rule "If the base is negative, then even powers are positive, but odd powers are negative". Immediately after that, I'll always have some students incorrectly evaluate something like: −5² = 25 (or worse, 2³ = −8) . Note that the base of the exponent is not negative, but some students overlook the check required for the "if" qualifier.

  2. "Or" Statement. In an elementary statistics class, we have the rule "To estimate a population mean, we must have either a normal population or a large sample size." Then when I ask the class "Do we need a normal population?", the entire class will always incorrectly respond with "Yes!" the first time. Of course that's not true; they're overlooking that only one case of the "or" needs to be satisfied -- most commonly by a large sample size. It takes several sessions of quizzing them on that before they are sensitive to the question being asked.

  3. "And" Statement. In practically any class, we might have the policy, "To pass this class you need at least a 60% weighted average, and a 60% score on the final exam." This constantly causes confusion and aggravation. Testy "So, the final exam doesn't count?", or "So, only the final exam counts?" are questions that I routinely have to address. Obviously, students are unclear on the fact that each of two requirements must be satisfied for an "and" statement like that.