Special Notice: The MAA Notes volume summarizing the results of Characteristics of Successful programs in College Calculus (NSF #0910240), Insights and Recommendations from the MAA National Study of College Calculus, is now available for free download as a PDF file at www.maa.org/cspcc.
This is the last of my columns on Calculus at Crisis. In the first three, from May, June,
and July, I explained why we can no longer afford to continue doing what we have
always done. Last month I described some of the lessons that have been learned in recent
years about best practices with regard to placement, student support, curriculum, and
pedagogy. Unfortunately, as those who seek to improve the teaching and learning of
introductory mathematics and science have come to realize, knowing what works is not
There are many barriers to change, both individual and institutional. Lack of awareness
of what can be done is seldom one of them. In recent years, leaders in physics and
chemistry education research, especially Melissa Dancy, Noah Finkelstein, and Charles
Henderson have studied these barriers and begun to translate insights from the study of
how institutional change comes about in order to assist those who seek to improve post-
secondary science, mathematics, and engineering education.
One of the best short summaries describing specific steps toward achieving long-term
change is Achieving Systemic Change, a report issued jointly by the American
Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the American Association of
Colleges and Universities (AAC&U), the Association of American Universities (AAU),
and the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities (APLU) that I discussed this
past December. Its emphasis on creating supportive networks within and across
institutions is reflected in our own findings in the MAA’s calculus study.
There has always been lively interest from individual faculty members in improving
mathematics education. Heroic efforts have often succeeded in moving the dial, but
without strong departmental support they are not sustainable. As I have explained over
the past months, deans, provosts, and even presidents now realize that something must be
done. I have yet to meet a dean of science who is not willing—usually even eager—to
fund a proposal from the mathematics department for improving student outcomes
provided it is concrete, workable, and cost-effective. (Just hiring more mathematicians
does not cut it.) The key link between eager faculty and concerned administrators is the
department chair, together with the senior, most highly respected faculty. Without their
support and cooperation, no lasting improvements are possible.
The department chair is essential. This is the person who can take an enthusiastic
proposal and massage it into a workable plan whose benefits are understandable to the
upper administration. This is the person who can take a request from the dean, understand
the resources that will be required, and find the right people to work on it. Unfortunately,
appointment as chair does not automatically confer such wisdom. Part of what is needed
is an understanding of what is being done at comparable institutions, how it is being
implemented, what is working or failing and why. This is where the mathematical
societies have an important role to play. AMS does this through its Information for Department Leaders, the work of the Committee on Education, and its blog On the Teaching and Learning of Mathematics. The MAA’s CUPM, CTUM, and CRAFTY
committees provide this information through publications, panels, and contributed paper
sessions. SIAM, ASA, and AMATYC also embrace this mission. Common Vision began
this year as an effort to coordinate these activities across the five societies.
But a supportive department chair is not enough. The lasting power center in any
department consists of senior faculty who are highly respected for their research
visibility. The most successful calculus programs we have seen in the MAA study
Characteristics of Successful Programs of College Calculus involved some of these
senior faculty in an advisory capacity: monitoring the annual data on student
performance, observing occasional classes, mentoring graduate students not just for
research but also for the development of teaching expertise, and providing
encouragement and a sounding board to those—usually younger faculty—engaged in
trying new methods in the classroom. It will be the chair’s responsibility to identify the
right people for this advisory group, but once it is in existence it can help ensure that
future chairs are sympathetic to these efforts.
Finally, any mathematics department seeking to improve undergraduate education must
remember that it is not alone within its institution. Similar efforts are underway in each of
the sciences as well as engineering. Deans and provosts can help by formally recognizing
those who serve in these senior roles across all STEM departments and encouraging links
between these groups of faculty. They can draw on support and advice from consortia of
colleges and universities such as AAU, APLU, and AAC&U, as well as multidisciplinary
societies and consortia such as AAAS and the Partnership for Undergraduate Life Science Education (PULSE), all of whom are working to promote networks of
educational innovation that cross STEM disciplines. Joining with other departments
within the institution can dispel the perception of mathematics as insular and
unconcerned with the needs of others as it strengthens individual departmental efforts.
All STEM departments are facing similar difficulties. This crisis presents us with an
exceptional opportunity to work across traditional boundaries.