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Leveling the Playing Field: Preparing Students for Calculus

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2012 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


San Antonio, Texas

Publication Date

June 10, 2012

Start Date

June 10, 2012

End Date

June 13, 2012



Conference Session

First-year Programs Poster Session

Tagged Division

First-Year Programs

Page Count


Page Numbers

25.897.1 - 25.897.10



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Paper Authors


Deborah Worley University of North Dakota

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Deborah Worley is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Educational Leadership at the University of North Dakota.

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Jeremiah J. Neubert University of North Dakota

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Jeremiah Neubert is Assistant Professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at the University of North Dakota. He conducted research and taught at Cambridge University. Prior to that, Neubert attended the University of Wisconsin and obtained a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering, as well as master's of science degrees in computer science and mechanical engineering. During his time at the University of Wisconsin, he served as a National Science GK-12 Fellow where he worked with a team of high school teachers and colleagues at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, to develop modules for secondary school educators.

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Naima Kaabouch University of North Dakota

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Mohammad Khavanin University of North Dakota

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BackgroundStudents entering any university system have a diverse set of mathematical backgrounds,creating anything but a level playing field at the outset of postsecondary study. Mathematicallyunderprepared students face the greatest difficulty, particularly those who choose to studyengineering. There is a significant need to ensure that students are properly prepared for calculusbefore they arrive on campus because the largest obstacle to student success is deficiencies intheir mathematics backgrounds. Engineering students feel pressured to enter calculus in theirfirst semester, even if unprepared; failure to do so often results in an additional year of schooldue to the reliance of engineering coursework on calculus. For example, first-year engineeringstudents from a high school unable to provide advanced mathematics are faced with thedepressing reality of an additional year of instruction and all the costs associated with it. Itshould not be surprising that such students become disenfranchised with engineering and opt fora major that can be completed in four years given their background.To provide all students an equal opportunity to succeed, regardless of past opportunities, onelarge, comprehensive and residential research institution in the Midwest leverages their positionas a national leader in distance education to facilitate an introduction to engineering mathematicscourse. This online calculus preparatory course was offered to students entering engineering asan academic major prior to their arrival on campus. The course gave students the opportunity toaddress deficiencies in their mathematics backgrounds and – in a sense – to level the academicplaying field prior to their enrollment in engineering courses.OutcomesWe have found that the largest obstacle to student success in calculus is a lack of proficiency inalgebra. This leads to students to spending too much time with algebraic manipulations, ratherthan studying calculus concepts and how to apply them. Most of the routine calculations that canbe called “calculus” are not troublesome; however, it is the algebra involved in working withthese calculations that are problematic. In the online calculus preparatory course, the firstiteration of which was offered in summer 2011, our main goal was to review the standard topicsof pre-calculus, emphasizing algebra skills, in order to better prepare students for the study ofengineering and engineering-related calculus. Specific outcomes of student enrollment andparticipation in the online calculus preparatory course were: 1. to increase student levels of proficiency in pre-calculus concepts and; 2. encourage students to persist in the study of engineeringIn addition, we sought to determine the most effective vehicles for delivering calculuspreparatory course instruction in an online format. In this study, all lectures were delivered in anasynchronous environment via recorded lectures. The instructor used additional methods forexamining students’ mastery of material, including practice problems and homeworkassignments.Methods of AssessmentThe evaluation plan centers on implementing assessment models in three impact areas:student learning, engineering retention rates, and instructional tools. The first impact area,student learning, is determined by structured record review of course records. More specifically,we collected student scores on the homework assignments that they completed during the courseso as to track their academic progress and command of the course material. The second impactarea, engineering retention rates, will be determined at the end of the fall 2011 semester, againthrough structured review of students’ academic records, specifically the courses in which theyenroll. This information allows us to determine the students’ level of commitment to engineeringas a viable field of study. The third impact area, instructional tools, was assessed followingcompletion of the calculus preparatory course in summer 2011. Students were asked for feedbackon their experiences in the course related to the video lectures, practice problems, and homeworkassignments. We also gathered participants’ opinions on how the course prepared them foruniversity study, particularly as it related to studying calculus.Although data analysis is ongoing, preliminary results indicate that students did not respondpositively to the video lectures because they felt disconnected to the course material and prefer tolearn alongside their peers (i.e., in a group setting). In addition, they did not have the option ofasking a question about a topic or concept in real-time. They did, however, take advantage of thecapability to watch the recorded lectures, or portions of the recorded lectures, more than once,which helped them gain confidence and command of the material. Subsequent analysis willexplore the impact of students’ reactions to the video lectures, in combination with theirperformance on homework assignments and completion rates of practice problems.

Worley, D., & Neubert, J. J., & Kaabouch, N., & Khavanin, M. (2012, June), Leveling the Playing Field: Preparing Students for Calculus Paper presented at 2012 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, San Antonio, Texas. 10.18260/1-2--21654

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