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Study Skills

Dignity link to here link to index

What is Success?

All of the study skill at can help you be successful.

But what is success in Math 20 or Math 25?

Success in not about passing the class this term. Some students need more than one term because they are really busy with family and work, or arrived with very weak foundational math or study skills. I have seen that students that take two terms usually invest comparable time overall to their classmates who pass in one term, but spread out the time over twenty weeks instead of ten. They are only less efficient in terms of financially paying for more credits.

Sucess is really about two things.

First, success is learning to stand on your own two feet in a math class. Successful students motivate themselves to do necessary work, manage their time sufficiently, have experienced the benefits of group work, know where and how to ask for help outside of class, accept responsibility and accountability for their choices, and leave the class with solid study habits.

Second, success is seeing yourself as belonging. Successful students are no longer afraid of the math topics, have accumulated enough learning to view themselves as effective students and learners, have experienced enough small victories to understand how learning is fun (even if a topic is not itself intrinsically fun), and no longer doubt whether they belong at LCC and in a math class.


A single word—a key philosophical term—has for centuries encompassed both of those criteria. That word is dignity.

A person with dignity stands on his or her own two feet. No tyrant or issue is conquering them completely to make them bend their knee. Adults can "stand with dignity" in a way children cannot, because adults are responsible and accountable in a way children are not.

Yet people with dignity are standing as part of something bigger than themselves. Dignity requires solidarity. Dignity requires a virtuous community. And although our culture's stories might emphasize when dignified people have stood together in defiance or protest, dignity does apply equally well when untroubled people stand in celebration of the values and virtues that unite them.

(However, when Robin Hood swings in on a rope, and stands with a jaunty knee, hands on hips, and devilish smirk, we all agree that pose is too egocentric to be called dignified despite his community or its virtues. Dignity is about belonging, not standing out.)

Is there some obvious philosophical link between these two aspects of dignity? Does responsible and capable accountability somehow have an inherent connection with belonging to a virtuous community? So far a link eludes me. But dignity means both, and always has.

To show dignity someone must show courage. This is easy in Math 20 and Math 25. Our class has no trigger warnings. Can you imagine if the instructor said, the first day of class, "I am about to talk about fractions. Anyone who has had bad experiences with fractions, or suffered emotional harm because of fractions, might want to leave the classroom." Everyone would leave, including the instructor! Math victories happen as we recognize just which inner demons haunt our math ability, acknowledge how they do that, and then kick the snot out of them.

At the end of each term, ask yourself how your LCC experiences affected your dignity? Was it helped by your learning experiences, by how instructors and staff behaved, by how you treated yourself, by college systems and procedures, and by your participation in college community?

Scaffolding link to here link to index

The Problem with Equal Support

A famous illustration was comissioned by The Interaction Institute for Social Change to illustrate a problem with providing people with equal support.

equality versus equity

Unfortunately, this illustration has two big problems.

The first problem is with the three people. Those are three very different people. They need very different types of support to achieve a fair outcome.

The intended message is totally different! People who are actually more similar than they probably realize arrive with different types and amount of external support. The moral action is to help those arriving with less support catch up.

To fix the first problem, the illustration should have three similar people standing on three very different boxes.

Remember the first part of dignity. Successful students see improvement in what they stand on, so they can stand on their own two feet.

The second problem is that some invisible power rearranges the boxes. Who is the organization or social structure that fixes things? The illustration does not say. The boxes are impersonally generic. But it is clearly not the three people, who ignore each other and colorfully match the crowd and game but not the bland boxes.

To fix the second problem, the illustration should show that the three people worked together to improve all three boxes.

Remember the second part of dignity. Successful students have belonging. They have success not because they once were given the right boxes, but because they know where, how, and with whom to build or get boxes whenever the need arises.

Vygotsky's Word

A famous psychologist named Vygotsky used the word scaffolding to describe the support people need to achieve their next milestone or plateau. It is an old term very rooted in educational theory.

As an educator, I appreciate what that illustration is trying to say. But I have enough experience teaching to notice its problems, and to understand why scaffolding is a better word than equity to summarize its intended message.

Privilege link to here link to index

I know what privilege sounds like.

Privilege can look like many things. But in my experience it almost always sounds like a certain phrase thought or said aloud: "But they always have a choice!"

Many very privileged people think everyone always has a choice. Can't you just choose to shrug off the negative messages? Can't you just choose to spend time with a healthy group of friends? Can't you just study more? Can't you just choose to avoid alcohol?

Many very privileged people understand that some people do not always have a choice. (The negative messages will eventually penetrate. There is no functional crowd to hang out with. Worrying about how to afford food tomorrow totally destroys the ability to do homework. Drinking is what men in that place must do.) Yet they fail to see the deeper truth.

The deeper truth is twofold. No one always has a choice. Moreover, for people who are privileged, the lack of choice is often a lack of the option to fail.

Someone was there (of course!) to encourage you so the negative messages did not sink in. Someone was there (of course!) to steer you away from the unhealthy friends to the more functional crowd. Someone was there (of course!) to make you do your homework whether you wanted to or not. Someone was there (of course!) to keep your drinking from getting out of hand, or if it was already out of hand to make you deal with the addiction properly.

Privilege is a great thing! It is nice when someone "has got your back".

Privilege is not wimpy or cheating. A soldier who goes into battle alone is especially foolish, not brave.

Students should have privilege. This is why privilege is given out freely at LCC like candy on Halloween. Your instructors, tutors, academic advisors, counselors, TRiO staff, and many other people all want to be those caring allies who will advise you and nag you, so you cannot choose to fail.

Charm link to here link to index

You are Charming When Presenting to the Class

A fascinating thing happens every time I ask my students to do a class presentation.

Have you ever noticed that everyone in the audence finds the classmate doing the presenting especially charming while they are up front presenting?

It is true! Few students look forward to giving a math class presentation. But almost everyone likes being in the audience. And each student really does seem especially charming while it is their turn to present.

Why does this happen?

Four Parts of Charm

In a very different essay I tell my sons the secret to being charming. I summarize that lesson here to help students who get stage fright. Maybe you do not believe me that the student giving a class presentation is especially charming, even if you vaguely remember that was how you felt as an audience member in other classes. Watch as I prove it!

What do we mean when we say someone is charming? That word brings together four qualities.

These are always true during math class presentations. They explain why all presentations go well.

The student giving a presentation is genuine. The audience knows why he or she is up there and what to expect.

The student giving a presentation is nearly wantless. The audience knows they are expected to pay attention and nothing more; there is no pop quiz at the end. I suppose a student could use a math presentation as a platform to sell classmates a pyramid scheme, but I have never seen that happen.

The student giving a presentation is playful. This is helped by the project suggestions. Did you notice how they usually involve comparisons? Sharing personal plans for one vacation, wedding, or month's groceries might indeed be boring. But comparing personal plans to an average or extravagant plan is playful.

The student giving a presentation is wholesome. Everyone shares practical, real-life, household math. It might be awesome for a project to involve estimating the cost of Mr. Grey's fancy Red Room of Pain and compare that to an affordable Ikea and Dollar Store version. But trust me, that will never happen.

You Can be Charming When Not Presenting to the Class

By the way, if you are quiet or shy and worried by all the group work in this math class, please realize that in class you can always be genuine, wantless, playful, and wholesome. The only quality that can be tricky is playful, and our in-class activities are designed to help with that through hands-on toys and interesting questions.