Context fatigue

Context fatigue is a particular kind of mental exhaustion that happens after having to make sense of multiple different contexts that maths/statistics is embedded in. I feel it regularly, but I feel it most strongly when I have spent a day helping medical students critically analyse the statistics presented in published journal articles.

The problem with maths in context is that the contexts themselves require understanding of their own in order for the maths to make sense. This is nowhere more true than in statistics, where you have to use your understanding of whether you expect the relationship to exist, what direction you expect it to be, and whether you think this is a good or bad thing. The classic one in my head is an old first year statistics assignment where they used linear regression to investigate the relationship between manatee deaths and powerboat registrations in each month in some southern coastal American city. You have to know what a manatee is, what it means to register a powerboat, and why those things might possibly be connected in order for the statistical analysis you’re asked to do to make sense, not least because at least one part of the question will ask you to interpret what it means. When helping students read published articles recently, I’ve had to find out what’s been done to the participants in the study, how things have been measures, what kind of measurements those are, why they’ve been measured that way, and all sorts of little details to decide how to interpret the numbers and graphs that are presented.

Even ordinary everyday word problems are a minefield. Across two recent assignments, some financial maths students had to cope with album sales for AC/DC, flooding of the land a factory is built on including insurance, bull and bear markets, machines in a mining operation, committees with various named positions, road testing electric cars, contraband being smuggled in shipping containers. This is a lot of context that has to be made sense of before you can get a handle on the maths, and there is nothing in the question itself to tell you what any of this context means if you don’t already know. Even if you are already familiar with the context, you actually have to suspend some of your understanding in order to do the maths problem, because it’s much simpler than the actual situation any of the questions are talking about.

All of this interpreting is exhausting stuff! It just tires you out if you have to even a moderate amount all at once. You just feel like you don’t have any more energy to deal with any more today. That feeling there is context fatigue. Yesterday the first year maths students were doing related rates and every question was a new context with little nuances created by the context that had to be dealt with. Those poor students were exhausted after just one problem, letalone three or four.

As teachers, we need to realise that as the people writing the assignment questions, or at least people who have dealt with them before, we are much more aware of the details and nuances of the context than the students are, so we don’t have to work so hard to make sense of them. Not only that but we’re usually simply more experienced in both life and language than most of our students so it’s easier for us. Imagine the context fatigue you would get reading ten research papers in an unfamiliar area in one day (I feel this in real life regularly). That’s the sort of context fatigue your students have just from your assignment questions. Cut them a little slack, and make sure there is adequate time to process the context with appropriate rest time between context-interpretation. Also it wouldn’t be the worst thing to explicitly teach them strategies for making sense of context, such as ignoring the goal, and finding out about what some of the words mean. Strategies can make the work less intimidating, especially in the face of knowing how tiring it is already!

PS: If you’re in charge of tutors in a drop-in support centre, especially one that deals with statistics, please be kind. Context fatigue is real and tends to wear us down some days!

This entry was posted in Being a good teacher, Thoughts about maths thinking and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.