Friday, January 1, 2016

MAA Calculus Study: Building Networks

I am beginning this month’s column with the announcement of a conference and workshop that should interest readers of this blog. A discussion of the background and context for the conference will follow the announcement.

Announcing an NSF-sponsored MAA Conference on
Precalculus to Calculus: Insights & Innovations 
June 16–19, 2016  
University of Saint Thomas, Saint Paul, Minnesota 

To be followed immediately by a workshop on
 Curriculum, Instruction, and Placement in Algebra and Precalculus 
June 19–20, 2016
Same location

The conference will provide opportunities to learn from the MAA’s studies of precalculus and calculus, to hear what is happening at peer institutions, and to build networks of shared experience and practice. The two and a half days will be built around four themes:

Focus on Curriculum. Content of and alternative approaches to precalculus, articulation issues, preparation for downstream courses

Focus on Students. Placement, early warning systems and support services, formative and summative assessment, supporting students from underrepresented groups

Focus on Pedagogy. Active learning strategies, making the most of large lectures, use of Learning Assistants, assessing effectiveness of innovations

Focus on Instructors. Building communities of practice, training of graduate teaching assistants, working with adjuncts, getting faculty buy-in for innovative practices

The workshop will be an opportunity to learn from the work of Marilyn Carlson, Bernie Madison, and Michael Tallman on Using Research to Shape Instruction and Placement in Algebra and Precalculus (NSF #1122965).

There is no registration fee. Housing and meals are included at no cost to participants. Participants are responsible for their own transportation. Housing will be in the air- conditioned apartments in Flynn Hall. Each apartment consists of four single bedrooms, two bathrooms, and a kitchen and living room. The University of Saint Thomas sits on a bluff above the Mississippi River, six miles from the Minneapolis/St. Paul airport and midway between the downtowns of Minneapolis and Saint Paul.

The number of participants accepted to the conference and workshop will be limited. A link to the application to attend the conference and workshop is at

Review of applications will begin March 15. Those accepted will be notified by April 1.

This conference combines the efforts of the two studies on which I have been PI: Characteristics of Successful Programs in College Calculus (CSPCC, NSF #0910240) and Progress through Calculus (PtC, NSF #1430540). Part of its role is to disseminate results from CSPCC, many of which can also be found in the Notes volume Insights and Recommendations. But the more important task is to foster the building of networks of peer colleges and universities who are seeking to improve the effectiveness of their precalculus through calculus sequences. The four themes reflect the four areas of concern and ongoing work that have emerged from our surveys and from the meeting held in Washington, DC over the October 31 to November 1 weekend.

The DC workshop brought together representatives from 27 universities that either are now engaged in initiatives to improve this sequence or are seriously concerned about lack of student success in these courses and are looking to improve what they do. There were many common interests and concerns that emerged. I want to acknowledge the role of Naneh Apkarian, assisted by the other graduate students, who monitored the discussions and summarized the issues. These included:

  • Aligning precalculus/calculus courses to create more coherent programs based on student and client discipline needs (with an emphasis on the transition from precalculus to calculus)
    • What is “precalculus?” (content, purpose, function)
    • Aligning precalculus so that it is truly a preparation for calculus
    • Dealing with the multiple purposes for a variety of students (e.g., preparation, gen. ed., STEM, business)
  • Encouraging/Supporting/Implementing Active Learning
    • Especially when the institution insists on large classes 
  • Information about flexible and/or non-standard models for the precalculus/calculus 
  • GTA Training Programs 
    • Specifically with regards to issues surrounding active learning
  • Student skill retention within and across courses 
  • Making calculus accessible for students from varying backgrounds
    • Can it be done in one classroom, or are “flavors” needed? 
  • Placing students into appropriate courses and then supporting them
    • Establishing what various high school calculus courses really are
    • Early warning systems
    • Various pathways through calculus
  • Professional development/Increasing faculty buy-in
    • With respect to active learning
    • Identifying ways of supporting faculty interested in using active learning strategies
    • With respect to utilizing technology to support student learning
  • Strategies for increasing administrative support/handling administrative pressures 
  • Collecting and managing data 
The Saint Paul conference in June will be an opportunity to learn what is known about these issues, with examples of successful or promising interventions. In response to the request for networking opportunities to share information about materials, case studies, guidelines, and the experiences of peer institutions, we have established a website, the PtC Discussion Group, on a new platform, Trellis, managed by AAAS. To join this discussion, go to, register, then search for the PtC Discussion Group and request to join.