Saturday, May 16, 2015

David Bressoud Discusses Calculus At Crisis

David Bressoud is weighing in on the Calculus crisis, which I think many may not see as a crisis.  This series will be interesting, and I'm looking forward to Bressoud has to say.  This month Bressoud started a several part series on his blog Calculus At Crisis: The Pressures, with the first post focusing on the larger, societal forces affecting enrollments at the "macro" level.  Bressoud has written often about Calculus, and it's worthwhile reading for math educators.

The quick version of Bressoud's latest post is that more students (often inadequately prepared) are taking calculus, while math departments are seeing resources and support dwindle. Simultaneously, a call has been made to increase the number of STEM graduates, yet resources, human capital, pedagogy, professional development infrastructure, and general education infrastructure upgrades have not been made.

Calculus has long been a hotly debated issue in undergraduate education.  Much has been said, and can still be said.  My hope is that discourse will pivot towards using data and science.  One major positive aspect of the MAA Calculus Study is that we can now discuss issues with better data and deeper insights.  MAA plans to produce an MAA Notes guide to share what successful programs do, and how other institutions can make changes that make material impact on student success in Calculus.  Hence, there exists the opportunity to make data-driven or data-influenced decisions and upgrades, as opposed to merely relying on intuition and anecdotes (AKA anecdata or conventional wisdom).

I am reminded of a mental experiment regarding Calculus that expresses the issues on a human level.  How many of our students say, "That was the best idea ever!" after finishing a Calculus course?  The vast majority of us would say zero.  This is an utter shame.  Let's think about this.   Calculus is one of the greatest human inventions of all time.  In the absence of Calculus entire fields in science and technology cease to exist, and modern life as we know it would also not exist.  Yet, few students walk away from Calculus with a deep appreciation and rich understanding of it.  It's as if Calculus has become a standardized test.

It doesn't have to be this way, and there's reason to be optimistic.  The MAA Calculus study provides a framework for how to think about the issues and how to make improvements to our classes or programs from a "system" perspective.  Teaching is a system (and a cultural activity), and we have knowledge and insights, based on the hard work of many creative individuals, pointing the way towards solutions and specific areas where efforts will be productive.

Link:  MAA Calculus Study