Coherent Calculus Course Design: Creating Faculty Buy-In for Student Success

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Conference Proceeding

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This paper recounts the process used and results achieved as first-semester Calculus at Boise State University was transformed over a period of approximately 16 months from a collection of independent, uncoordinated, personalized sections, into a single coherent multi-section course. During the process of this transformation, section size and the instructor pool remained relatively constant; however, profound changes were made across all sections in terms of pedagogy, homework, timing of course content, grade computation and exam content.

The motivation for focusing on Calculus I arose from a five-year National Science Foundation Science Talent Expansion Program grant that was awarded in 2010 to a multi-disciplinary team that spanned engineering, mathematics and science. A major grant objective was to raise first-semester, full-time retention of students in STEM majors. The projects supported several yearlong faculty learning communities (FLCs) of about 10 instructors each. With significant involvement from mathematics faculty, the first two FLCs prepared the ground for pedagogical reform of calculus. In 2013-14, a final FLC was created with the express purpose of implementing consistent, student-learning focused strategies across several section of calculus.

The specific approach used to design a coherent calculus course was tied to a decision made by the FLC to use identical homework assignments, with common due dates and times. The FLC structure facilitated buy-in and rapid communication and feedback between instructors, who as they came to agreement on the exact homework exercises, also came to agreement on learning goals and content for each individual lesson. Although there was no explicit attempt to have all instructors adopt the same pedagogy or classroom practices, because FLC discussions frequently turned to pedagogy, all members of the FLC chose to adopt a similar pedagogical approach which included devoting class time to solving problems, working in small groups, facilitated by the lead instructor and a learning assistant. In subsequent semesters, all calculus instructors have opted in to the common, coherent approach to the course (except for those teaching online or honors sections).

Pass and withdrawal rates pre and post implementation reveal an increase in pass rate of 13.4% and a drop in withdrawal rate of 3.9% as a result of the project. Results from anonymous faculty surveys show that faculty in the project changed their teaching practices in Calculus, that they observed positive effects of this in their classrooms, that they took advantage of the FLC to learn from their colleagues and that their experiences with Calculus will have spillover impacts in their other classes. Results from student surveys show, among other things, that students were aware of the pedagogical difference in terms of their classroom experience, with some expressing discomfort in terms of working in groups to solve problems in class and not receiving a traditional lecture experience and others reporting group work as a valuable aspect.