This work is available here free, so that those who cannot afford it can still have access to it, and so that no one has to pay before they read something that might not be what they really are seeking.  But if you find it meaningful and helpful and would like to contribute whatever easily affordable amount you feel it is worth, please do do.  I will appreciate it. The button to the right will take you to PayPal where you can make any size donation (of 25 cents or more) you wish, using either your PayPal account or a credit card without a PayPal account.

Pet Peeve: Students Who Say “I Don’t Know What You Are Looking For”
Rick Garlikov

When students say “I don’t know what you are looking for” that implies they think there is no real answer to the question, and the enterprise is just a game to try to figure out what the teacher wants to hear, whether it is reasonable or accurate or not. 

Consider the following question, which is from a logic course in which the textbook explained there are three different mathematical meanings which are all commonly called “the average” – mean, median, and mode [which I will explain shortly, and I apologize for using a semi-math problem to introduce this but there is a reason for it that I will explain in a minute before also giving a non-math example]:

In a certain course the mean, median, and mode IQ of the students is 120.  [Hence, no matter which form of average is mathematically calculated for this particular group of students, it will come out to be 120.]  If students with an IQ of 120 or more will easily pass this course, then does it follow that none of the students in this course should have any difficulty passing it? [We are presuming they aren’t ill and don’t have some other external issues, etc. and that IQ is all that is relevant to their success in the course.]

[For those who do not know what the terms mean, median, and mode mean, here is a quick simplistic explanation which will serve for purposes of the point I want to make about student answers to this question:

The mean is what we most commonly refer to as average: the sum of the values divided by the number of people/objects in the sample.  So if there are 10 things whose weights together total 1000 pounds, the mean average is 100 pounds for each of them, even if none of them actually weighs 100 pounds – e.g., suppose there are 5 at 90 pounds, and 5 at 110 pounds.  

The median is the value of any of the objects for which there are an equal number of objects which have a higher value as the number of objects in the group which have a lower value.  So if we have five objects, costing individually $2, $5, $10, $98, and $200, then the median price is $10 because there are two objects that cost less and two objects that cost more.

The mode is that value, if any, which appears the most frequently in the group.  The two samples above do not have modes, since no number appears more frequently than any of the others.  But if you add one more $10 object in the second example, then two objects would cost $10, so $10 would not only be the median but it would also be the mode because there would be more objects with that price than with any other single price.]

My students often give the correct conclusion that there may be some students in the question who have a much lower IQ who will have trouble in the math course, but that the averages still work out to be 120 overall, because there are some with higher IQs that offset the lower ones. But the conclusion is only part of the problem. Students need to justify their conclusions by giving the evidence for them, and the evidence needs to be true and relevant.  They try to prove this by giving three different examples – one for each kind of average; e.g. for mean (three students: 80, 120, 160), for median (85, 88, 120, 125, 128), and a third example using mode (80, 81, 82, 83, 120, 120).  In all three examples, the students with IQs in the 80’s could have serious problems completing the course successfully.

However, as I point out to them, the problem says that in the particular classroom at issue, all three forms of average are 120, so the above explanation does not meet the conditions of the problem, and does not show the answer is true.  They have used averages for different groups of students, not for a classroom of all the same students.  How do you know that when all three forms of average are the same for the same group, that there can be someone with a significantly lower IQ?  How do you know that having all three averages the same for a single group doesn’t force the numbers to have different properties from when the three different kinds of averages might be the same for different groups?

One student who gave the separate answers wrote back: “I answered the question the way it was asked, and I didn’t know you were looking for us to use the same set of numbers for all three forms of average.”

No, she didn’t answer the question the way it was asked, because the way it was asked required using one set of numbers that represent all the IQs in a given class in which all three forms of average come out the same.  If you can create such a set of numbers that do that, and at least one of the IQs is much lower than 120, then you have shown there could be someone in the course who would struggle to pass or do well.  Otherwise, just giving the answer above with different sets of numbers doesn’t rule out the possibility that all three averages’ being the same somehow prevents there from being the range of numbers that would put someone too low to easily pass.

So this wasn’t about what I was looking for, but was about giving the right answer with sufficient actual justification for it.

Now, for those of you not mathematically inclined, I apologize for using a math example, but I wanted to show how this works about something clearly objective and yet difficult enough that the right answer was not necessarily immediately obvious.   I could make the point the following way just as well, but the problem is when I use a really obvious example, it will seem no one would give a wrong answer or say “I don’t know what you are looking for.” 

So to do this same kind of thing without math, consider this question, which is not immediately obvious, but still fairly clear once you know the right answer:

We know that your mother’s mother is not your mother (she is your grandmother). We also know that your cousin’s cousin is not always your cousin, because she could be your cousin through her father, but a cousin to her from her mother’s side of her family might not be related to you at all.  But, here is the question:  Is your sister’s sister also your sister, or not?”

Now suppose someone answers, “Yes, your sister’s sister has to be your sister, because you are all siblings and you are all girls in order to be sisters – so any girl sibling you have will be your sister.”

And suppose I say: “What if you are a girl?”  “What if there are only two children in your family?”

If the person says “I don’t know what you are looking for” then they are not seeing the objective problem with their answer.  This is not just about what I am looking for; it is about helping them see the truth, without just telling it to them – that if your sister’s sister is you, then your sister’s sister is not your sister because you are not your own sister. 

Now, if the student were to say, “I don’t see what you are trying to get me to see” that would be correct and okay.  But saying “I don’t see what you want” gives the impression there is nothing actually to see or know other than trying to figure out what I have in mind, which might be almost anything, real or not; as if the student thought I was asking them to guess my favorite flavor at Baskin-Robbins when they are going to treat me to an ice cream cone, and I had said “It is not strawberry.”  Then it would be reasonable for them to say “I can’t tell from that what you want.”

The problem is compounded in a subject that students consider to be subjective, such as ethics.  So they might say something like “You should always do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”  And if I say “So then if I want you to kiss me, it is right for me to kiss you” they will say “No, that is not what I mean.”

“Then what do you mean? Or why do you think the Golden Rule is right if it doesn’t work in that kind of case?”

“I don’t mean you should be selfish and just kiss whoever you want to.”

“Okay, then let me take a case where someone is not selfish but they use the Golden Rule.  One of my students one time was dating a girl who loved any kinds of objects that had to do with frogs.  She collected all the frog facsimiles she could.  She had frog shaped erasers on the end of her pencil, frog-shaped lamps, a frog-shaped corkscrew, frog paperweights, frog fridge magnets, stationery with frogs and tadpoles on it, frog ornaments all over, etc.  For his birthday, she gave him frog bookends.  He told the class ‘That would make a great gift for her birthday, but what do I want with frog bookends?!  I don’t want them.’” 

Or suppose I ask “You have a friend in the hospital who is dying.  Should you go visit him?”

Student answer: “I don’t know what you are looking for.  Your former student could take the bookends back and exchange them for something he wants or he can just be nice to his girlfriend and tell her he loves them, and just use them.  It’s no big deal.  And of course I should visit my friend.  I would want him to visit me.  That is the decent thing to do.”

“But what if your friend doesn’t want any visitors and doesn’t want people to see him like that.  And suppose he just wants to come to terms with his own mortality in a reflective way and just wants the peace and quiet and solitude to do that?  Do you still think the Golden Rule is how to tell what is right to do? Or what if you want someone to share their drugs with you, does that make it right to give people drugs?”

“I don’t see what you are looking for or trying to get me to say.  No, there is nothing wrong with using the Golden Rule to figure out what is right.  Do you treat people in ways you wouldn’t want to be treated?  Doesn’t that make you an insensitive jerk?  And I don’t want to do drugs, so why would I want someone to share them with me?  And if I did do drugs, sure, I would want someone to share them with me, and I would share mine with them if I could.  But I am not into drugs and none of my friends are either, so what are you looking for me to say?”

The point of course that is being made is that it would be clearly wrong always to assume that what someone else wants is the same thing you want, or that even if you both want the same thing, it is right to do it.  You need to take into account, at least in part, what the other person wants, not what you want.  But even then you need to consider also whether what they want is actually good for them, and that has nothing to do with what you or they want.   That point should be clear, and it should show that the Golden Rule is not the right way to determine what is right.  This is not just about what I am looking for but about something objective they should be able to see about blithely using the Golden Rule as if that were all they needed to do in order to do the right thing.

Now, of course, if you take the Golden Rule to mean something very general such as “treat people right because you would want them to treat you right” then it has merit as a motivating principle to do the right thing when you know what the right thing is, but that does not tell you what the right thing is in the first place.  It just says, once you know what is right, that is what you should do.

Or asking about a totally different topic, suppose, as happened again just last night in an NFL football game, where their video replay rules gave the wrong result, defeating the purpose of having a video replay rule: a player for one team appeared to fumble the ball, which was scooped up by an opposing player and run back for a touchdown.  Instant replay clearly showed the initial player was down before the ball was stripped from him, so the touchdown should have been called back, and the offense would continue to have the ball at the point on the field where the tackle was made.  But the offensive team’s coach had already used his allotted timeouts and/or challenge, so under the rules, he could not make the challenge.  Also under the rules, it does not matter what we all know to be true, because at that time in the game, the coach has to challenge the call on the field in order to have instant replay be officially used.  Doesn’t that show there is something wrong with the way the NFL uses “instant replay review”, since everyone watching the game except the refs knew the wrong call was made?

“I don’t know what you have in mind or what you want me to say?”

“Aggghhhh!!  It is not about what I want you to say.  It is about what you ought to see is problematic with the NFL’s video replay rules – objectively problematic with it.  You can reasonably say ‘I don’t get the point you are trying to make’ or ‘I don’t understand what you are trying to get me to see,” but don’t make it sound as though this is a course where the grade just reflects humoring me because I am the teacher or guessing what is on my mind, as opposed to your figuring out what is reasonable or actually true.

This work is available here free, so that those who cannot afford it can still have access to it, and so that no one has to pay before they read something that might not be what they really are seeking.  But if you find it meaningful and helpful and would like to contribute whatever easily affordable amount you feel it is worth, please do do.  I will appreciate it. The button to the right will take you to PayPal where you can make any size donation (of 25 cents or more) you wish, using either your PayPal account or a credit card without a PayPal account.