Sunday, November 1, 2015

MAA Calculus Study: A New Initiative

With the publication of Insights and Recommendations from the MAA National Study of College Calculus, we are wrapping up the original MAA calculus study, Characteristics of Successful Programs in College Calculus (CSPCC, NSF #0910240). This past January, MAA began a new large-scale program, Progress through Calculus (PtC, NSF #1430540), that is designed to build on the lessons of CSPCC. I am continuing as PI of the new project. Co-PIs Chris Rasmussen at San Diego State, Sean Larsen at Portland State, Jess Ellis at Colorado State, and senior researcher Estrella Johnson at Virginia Tech are leading local teams of post-docs, graduate students, and undergraduates who will be working on this effort.

CSPCC sought to identify what made certain calculus programs more successful than others but was limited in its measures of success to what could be learned about changes in student attitudes between the start and end of Calculus I and to what could be observed from a single three-day visit to a select group of 20 colleges and universities. PtC is extending its purview to the entire sequence of precalculus through single variable calculus, and it will take broader measures of success, including performance on a standardized assessment instrument, persistence into subsequent mathematics courses, and performance in subsequent courses. It also is shifting emphasis from description of the attributes of successful programs to analysis of the process of change: What obstacles do departments encounter as they attempt to improve the success of their students? What accounts for the difference between departments that are successful in institutionalizing improvements and those that are not?

We began this past spring with a survey of all mathematics departments offering a graduate degree in Mathematics, either MA/MS or PhD. This is a manageable number of institutions: 178 PhD and 152 Masters universities. These are the places that most often struggle with large classes and with the trade-off between teaching and research. We had an excellent participation rate: 75% of PhD and 59% of Masters universities filled out the survey.

Data from this survey will appear in future papers and articles, but for this column I want to focus on the most important information we learned: what these departments see as critical to offering successful classes and how that compares to how well they consider themselves to be doing on these measures.

CSPCC identified eight practices of successful programs. These are listed here in the order implied by the number of doctoral departments in the PtC survey that identified each as “very important to a successful precalculus/calculus sequence.”

  1. Student placement into the appropriate initial course 
  2. GTA teaching preparation and development 
  3. Student support programs (e.g. tutoring center) 
  4. Uniform course components (e.g. textbook, schedule, homework) 
  5. Courses that challenge students 
  6. Active learning strategies 
  7. Monitoring of the precalculus/calculus sequence through the collection of local data 
  8. Regular instructor meetings about course delivery.

The graphs in Figures 1 and 2 show the percentage of respondents who identified each as “very important” (as opposed to “somewhat important” or “not important”), as well as the percentage of respondents who considered themselves to be “very successful” with each (opposed to “somewhat successful” or “not successful”).

Figure 1. PhD universities. What they consider to be important versus how successful they consider themselves to be.

Figure 2. Masters universities. What they consider to be important versus how successful they consider themselves to be.

What is most interesting for our purposes is where departments see a substantial gap between what they consider to be very important and where they see themselves as very successful. These are the areas where departments are going to be most receptive to change. If we look for large absolute or relative gaps, five of the eight practices show up as areas of concern (Table 1). The biggest absolute gap is for placement; approximately half of all universities consider placement to be very important but do not rate themselves as very successful. The largest relative gap is for active learning, where only 27% of doctoral universities and 36% of masters universities that consider this to be very important also consider themselves to be very successful at it.

Table 1. Departments that consider themselves to be very successful as percentage of those that consider the practice to be very important.
The next stage of this project will be the building of networks of universities with common concerns and the identification of twelve universities for intense study over a three-year period. This stage has begun with a small workshop for representatives of 27 universities, a workshop that will begin building these networks and is ending as this column goes live on November 1. It will be continuing with a larger conference in Saint Paul, MN, June 16–19, 2016. Watch this space for more information about that conference.