How my calculus class looks this fall (part 1 of 3)

[update: I moved some Dropbox files around and the original links were broken.  I updated these on 8.11.14.]

Well, it looks full.  31 students, 1 over the cap of 30, filling essentially all the seats in our regular classroom, and all but one of them in our computer lab.  Bless the good folks who designed our building with small classrooms and computer labs that only seat 32.  We are running at capacity here at GV … which of course is a nice problem to have.

And from my view of the room, things look great.  I’ve got 31 pleasant students who seem eager to learn and ready to contribute.  Which is a good thing, since I’ve got plenty for them to learn and contribute to.  Here’s a bit about how my course is set up.

First, my goals:  well, you can read them in my syllabus, and as I regularly say out loud to my students, “I want you to be successful.”  I imagine that an average student equates “successful” with “an A in calculus.”  I’m always careful to say that what I mean by “successful” is that you “develop deep personal understanding of calculus that you can demonstrate.”  In my book, good grades are a consequence of success, not the definition thereof.  I want what we study to make sense to my students … if that happens, lots of other good things will follow.

And while I certainly want my students to develop competence in calculus I that will serve them well in other courses that use these ideas, particularly calculus II, I definitely want much more:  for my students to become more liberally educated, to become much better independent learners and problem-solvers, to considerably strengthen their communication skills, and to have a reasonably big-picture understanding of what calculus is about.

Now, to achieve those goals, some hard work is in order.  By me and my students alike.  Here’s an overview of the activities and assessments my students will encounter.  Like the title of the book, Active Calculus, every part of the course expects students to be active learners.  Active when we meet in class, active when working on their own outside of class, and doing some active collaboration with peers in each setting.

For most days that we meet, students complete a “Daily Preparatory Assignment”, which includes an overview of what to expect in the upcoming meeting, some basic and advanced learning outcomes, resources to learn from independently (reading the text and watching some videos), and finally some questions to answer.  Here’s a recent example.  While I had almost always used reading assignments as a requirement for doing some active learning prior to class, my move to “daily prep” is modeled on my colleague Robert Talbert’s use of “guided practice assignments.”  Daily prep assignments count 6% of my students’ semester grade.  In many ways, these are daily accountability assignments, work that students should do regardless, and work that enables them to come to class well prepared and ready to engage actively in our work.

We are also using WeBWorK for some of the more routine exercises in the course.  At GV, we now have a dedicated WeBWorK server that can handle all 5000 of the students we have in our courses in fall semester.  I choose to typically assign two WeBWorK sets per week, each with about 10 problems, and to have the students keep a parallel “homework journal” in order that they have a written record of their work.  If you’re interested, you can read my WeBWorK document.  WeBWorK and the journal count 12% of the overall grade.

Students will also undertake a “problem of the week” project that asks them to choose 10 challenging exercises from the text, a subset of a list that I identify.  They have some flexibility on submitting drafts and collaborating with peers.  To avoid information overload, I think I’ll save the description of that for a later post.  This major project counts 18% of the semester grade, and some additional work on labs and in-class activities will account for 8%.  That leaves 36% for four one-hour exams, and 20% for the comprehensive final at the end of the term.

So that should give you some sense of what I’m asking my students to do this semester.  Again, the big goal:  to develop deep personal understanding of calculus, and be able to demonstrate this to others.

In closing, some demographics:  of my 31 students,

– they are majoring in at least 7 different fields, including cell & molecular biology, chemistry, computer science, engineering, geology, international relations, and mathematics.  About half the class consists of engineering or CS majors (8 of each);

– just 6 are first-year students, while the vast majority are sophomores, with a smattering of juniors and seniors;

– all but one of them owns a laptop.

That last fact is making me start to rethink the notion of a weekly “computer lab” — which we have, but for which the separate room and day/time is always something of an planning challenge.  More on that later, too.

It’s been a great first week.  Looking forward to 13 more.  Up next: related posts on what a typical week looks like, and reflections on a single particular class meeting.



  1. I am trying out the “guided practice” idea for the first time this term. It seems to be working. I like the focus on explicit learning goals for a particular study session. It makes it easier to hold everyone accountable for the pacing of class.

  2. […] post, I thought to make my teaching more public, and then subsequently shared some reflections on how my calculus I course looks overall.  In this post I’ll give an overview of how a typical week is structured, and in the near […]

  3. Katie Johnson · · Reply

    Hi Matt! I’m excited to be using Active Calculus this semester for my Calculus II course. I noticed that some of your dropbox links above aren’t working, and hope you won’t mind updating them. Thanks! 🙂

    1. Katie, I just updated those links. Thanks for asking. Do let me know if you have any additional requests, or want original (non-pdf) versions of files.

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