Guest post: What is the goal of a college calculus course?
This is a guest post by Nathan, who recently finished graduate school in math, and will begin a post-doc in the fall. He loves teaching young kids, but is still figuring out how to motivate undergraduates.
Like most mathematicians in academia, I’m teaching calculus in the fall. I taught in grad school, but the syllabus and assignments were already set. This time I’ll be in charge, so I need to make some design decisions, like the following:
- Are calculators/computers/notes allowed on the exams?
- Which purely technical skills must students master (by a technical skill I mean something like expanding rational functions into partial fractions: a task which is deterministic but possibly intricate)?
- Will students need to write explanations and/or proofs?
I have some angst about decisions like these, because it seems like each one can go in very different directions depending on what I hope the students are supposed to get from the course. If I’m listing the pros and cons of permitting calculators, I need some yardstick to measure these pros and cons.
My question is: what is the goal of a college calculus course?
I’d love to have an answer that is specific enough that I can use it to make concrete decisions like the ones above. Part of my angst is that I’ve asked many people this question, including people I respect enormously for their teaching, but often end up with a muddled answer. And there are a couple stock answers that come to mind, but each one doesn’t satisfy me for one reason or another. Here’s what I have so far.
To teach specific tasks that are necessary for other subjects.
These tasks would include computing integrals and derivatives, converting functions to power series or Fourier series, and so forth.
Intuitive understanding of functions and their behavior.
This is vague, so here’s an example: a couple years ago, a friend in medical school showed me a page from his textbook. The page concerned whether a certain drug would affect heart function in one way or in the opposite way (it caused two opposite effects), and it showed a curve relating two involved parameters. It turned out that the essential feature was that this curve was concave down. The book did not use the phrase “concave down,” though, and had a rather wordy explanation of the behavior. In this situation, a student who has a good grasp of what concavity is and what its implications are is better equipped to understand the effect described in the book. So if a student has really learned how to think about concavity of functions and its implications, then she can more quickly grasp the essential parts of this medical situation.
To practice communicating with precision.
I’m taking “communication” in a very wide sense here: carefully showing the steps in an integral calculation would count.
I have issues with each of these as written. I don’t buy number 1, because the bread and butter of calculus class, like computing integrals, isn’t something most doctors or scientists will ever do again. Number 2 is a noble goal, but it’s overly idealistic; if this is the goal, then our success rate is less than 10%. Number 3 also seems like a great goal, relevant for most of the students, but I think we’d have to write very different sorts of assignments than we currently do if we really want to aim for it.
I would love to have a clear and realistic answer to this question. What do you think?