Real Questions

Every year in precalc, two things happen. First, the exponential and logarithm unit gets squished (education jargon, I know). Second, we do the “student loan” blog post, which Steve came up with when we were first working on precalculus together. The former drives me crazy because I think that unit is more useful than some of the other things we spend time on. The latter I look forward to because it’s such a great learning experience for students.

The problem goes something like this:

Suppose you take out a $5000 student loan every year for four years. How long would it take you to pay back the money? Please make sure to include research on government subsidized and unsubsidized loans and private bank loans.

Yeah, it’s vague. There’s no rubric, besides the standard blog rubric. The openness of the problem drives students a little crazy, which I’ve decided isn’t a bad thing. Let me explain.

The students in this class are, most likely, college bound. I don’t teach in a particularly affluent part of the state so most of my students are going to have to take out loans to pay for college. This means that the question, how long will it take to pay back loans, is painfully relevant.

Here are my main objectives for this assignment:

  • I want students to understand the different types of loans and some of the verbiage they’ll encounter, if only at a surface level.
  • I want students to understand the connection between exponential functions loans.
  • I want students to understand how important interest rates are in total cost of a loan over time.
  • I want students to realize that in this fairly common scenario, it’s not unlikely that they’ll be paying back loans for 20ish years.

I should also note that I don’t make students run these calculations by hand. I encourage them to use loan repayment calculators. I want them to understand that there is mathematics at play here, but I don’t want them to get too hung up in computations.

For many students this is an eye opening project. I’ve had students say they plan on paying it back in five years and they want to be a teacher. I had to gently explain to them that it was unlikely they’d be able to afford that. Steve has had students in tears doing this project. It has many great opportunities for students to learn about life, and also mathematics.


I wrote the beginning of this post when students were working on the project. I’m writing this part after grading them. Here’s a couple things I’m going to connect year to make it go better.

  • Clear up the guidelines. There’s explanations in the video and a synopsis on the website. They’re both slightly different. I also plan on making them clearer.
  • Listing things for students that are wrong and that students have done in the past. Things like only running one scenario, only computing a loan for $5000, and not providing explanations for their numbers.
  • I will include a question asking them to explain what they learned or gained from doing the projects.
  • I will look up some useful repayment calculators as suggestions. I noticed that this can be a bit help or hinder ace depending on where google leads them.

Other than that, this activity will be used next year.

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