The Mathematics of Games and Gambling: A Course Update

Friday, September 28, 2012

I haven't done well keeping the blog updated on a daily basis (or even a semi-daily basis) but that doesn't mean that I haven't been keeping track of what has (and hasn't) worked in my classroom.  I've talked about my Mathematics of Games and Gambling course that I'm developing/teaching during the Fall 2012 semester a few times already (most notably here and here).  Since I haven't mentioned much about the course since then, it's probably time to reflect on how things have gone through (almost) five weeks.

So far in class (through five weeks - aka fifteen 65 minute classes), we have:

  • Learned the game of Chuck-a-Luck
  • Learned the game of Roulette (both American and European)
  • Learned the game of Craps (both street and casino)
  • Learned the game of Five Card Stud Poker
  • Learned about expected values
  • Learned about probabilities
  • Learned about choice trees
  • Learned about combinations and permutations
  • plus a variety of other (smaller) topics such as a few brain teasers and card puzzles, plus assorted vocabulary as it arises in various gaming contexts.

We've also had a day where the class played craps, another where they played roulette, and today they happen to have a Five Card Stud Poker tournament.  The class has had five take home assignments so far (all but one spanning multiple classes).  Finally, the class took their first test on Monday of this week.

With all that's been done so far - and, quite honestly, that is a LOT of material for a distribution math class, it's time to reflect on the good, the bad, and the things that I might (or might not) change next time I teach the course.
*Note:  All observations are mine and mine alone.  I have not polled my students yet nor issued any sort of survey thus far in the semester.
Image source: http://singlemindedwomen.com/women-relationships/duchess-digest-the-good-the-bad-and-the-solution/

The Good:
Students love games and they seem to be working to understand the mathematics as a way to get better at the games.  I split the class into two separate tables when playing Craps - one table had every student (except one) turn their $300 into $1000+, while at the other table almost all the students went bankrupt.  It was a great, though unplanned, lesson in the draw of the casino!

The first round of testing had 6 of the 18 students earn an A on the exam.  For a distribution math course, that's awesome.  Even more impressive is the fact that the test was five pages long - and certainly not easy - and yet one-third of the class earned an A.

The best part of the class though isn't the grades or even the "fun" stuff.  Instead, the best part so far has been the students reaction to various problems, homework assignments, and in class activities.  The overall attention and engagement levels are through the roof as compared to a typical distribution class.  I can't say the class is at 100% in terms of engagement, but on any given day I would wager that at least 16 of the 18 students are fully engaged.  Again, a remarkable number considering the fact that most of the students in the class are self-professed math-phobes.

The Bad:
I mentioned the results of the first exam in "The Good" section, but I would be remiss if I didn't mention it in "The Bad" section as well.  Out of the 18 students, 4 of them ended up with Fs, including one student who left a pair of 21 point problems (out of 100 total exam points) blank.  As I said above, the engagement is there for most, but not all, students.

I think it's a bad thing that I have been unable to fit in time to play most of the games with the students and let them figure out their own strategies before we go over the mathematical analysis of each game.  I was able to do that for Roulette but not for Craps.

Things to think about changing:
I don't think I have the exact right balance of rigor and exploration.  I have a tendency to automatically analyze games logically as soon as I am introduced to them (my wife hates that, especially if we are playing against each other)!  However, just because that's a natural thought process for me, it most definitely is not for the majority of the students in the class.  I need to be better at guiding them through the analytical process.  In the beginning of the semester, I used a few brainteasers/puzzles as warm-ups which worked quite well.  Unfortunately, I haven't done much of that lately (mostly because the amount of material in the daily lessons hasn't allowed extra time).

I think the first exam should have been in week 4 rather than week 5.  I probably should have spent a full day on permutations and then a second day on combinations.  I ended up doing both on the same day and while it worked for 80% of the students, that's not close enough to 100% for my tastes.

Finally, I need to come up with a way to assess learning besides exams.  Many of the students in the class that didn't score great on the exam actually seem to know the material but they "froze" during the exam.  I think old math paranoia habits die hard...

I guess there's not really much purpose to this blog entry other than as a self-diary of sorts.  Of course, if you have any ideas for the course, by all means share them!

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