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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

Too much calculus too soon

Stop teaching calculus to high school students unless they’ve mastered foundational concepts and are ready to pass a college-level class, writes Jeffrey Forrester. As a Dickinson College math professor, he sees students who passed calculus in high school, then fail the college’s pre-calculus placement exam.

He cites research by Macalester’s David Bressoud, who found that introducing calculus to students with a shaky grasp of the fundamentals can be detrimental. Only those who passed an AP exam benefitted.

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In 2015, 421,000 of the estimated 750,000 AP calculus students took an AP exam, writes Forrester. “Of those taking the Calculus AB exam (the most popular AP calculus exam), 42 percent received a 1 or 2 out of 5, indicating poor understanding of the material.”

In addition to wasting their time, students who’ve taken calculus without adequate preparation may give up on studying math in college, writes Forrester. If they’d waited, they might have been successful.

He also questions the “hallowed place” of calculus. “While it remains indispensable to the fields of engineering and the physical sciences and is an incredible achievement of human thought, the vast majority of college majors do not use it at all,” Forrester writes. “Many of the students currently in calculus would be better served with a course in statistics, modeling, or computer science.”

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Dec 08, 2022

I'm reviewing some of these old posts today, and all I can say is just, "Wow!?!" If students who can't pass a pre-calculus test are taking and passing HS calculus courses, then they really shouldn't have been placed into those calculus courses to begin with. How was this sad state of affairs ever allowed to happen?

As for the question of that "hallowed place" of calculus in the curriculum, entry into the course used to mean students had already mastered modeling, and most of them would likely have also taken some computer science as an outside elective too. So first the standards of entry to the course were diminished, basically to cheat the intended purpose of its distinction, and then…

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