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Toward Better Applied Math Placement for Engineering Students

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2019 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Tampa, Florida

Publication Date

June 15, 2019

Start Date

June 15, 2019

End Date

June 19, 2019

Conference Session

Mathematics Division Technical Session 3

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Paper Authors


Stacie Pisano University of Virginia

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After receiving a Master of Science in Electrical Engineering from Stanford University, Stacie Pisano worked as an Electrical Engineer and Technical Manager at AT&T and Lucent Technologies Bell Laboratories for 16 years, designing and developing telecommunications equipment for the business market. After moving to Charlottesville, VA, she had the opportunity to teach Multivariable Calculus for UVA SEAS, and she was hooked. She has been teaching Applied Math from that point on and enjoying every minute.

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Bernard Fulgham University of Virginia

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Bernard Fulgham received his PhD in Mathematics in 2002, writing his thesis in the field of non-associative algebras with advisor Kevin McCrimmon. He began teaching Applied Mathematics at the University of Virginia in August 2004 and was hired as an assistant professor in 2006.

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When students are empowered to make their own choices, how can they be persuaded to make a better choice?

At our institution, the engineering curriculum assumes that incoming students have already successfully completed Single Variable Calculus I in high school. For this reason, students are generally expected to take Single Variable Calculus II (or beyond) in their first semester. In reality, although most of our students have taken Calculus I in high school, there are many students who have not mastered Calculus I sufficiently to take Calculus II as their first college course. Until our efforts to create one, our institution was not offering a placement test to identify students who were insufficiently prepared for Calculus II. Also, most placement tests that are currently available are focused on assessing Calculus readiness in general rather than readiness for Calculus II specifically.

The plan was to create and deliver a placement test system that would achieve the following goals and requirements: 1) Is free to students with no added direct costs to the institution. 2) Is fool-proof enough that students may successfully take a scheduled and timed test from home before the first semester. 3) Collects calculus background information like high school courses, grades, and AP test scores. 4) Assesses students’ current abilities in pre-Calculus, Single Variable Calculus I, and Single Variable Calculus II. 5) Includes an algorithm to provide personalized placement recommendations to students based on both their reported calculus background and on the results of the assessment. 6) Includes a process to identify students who have improperly self-placed. 7) Provides students with access to advisors regarding placement recommendations. 8) Tracks and links placement test results and recommendations to final exam results from the first semester to assess the quality of the recommendations. 9) Includes improvements to test questions and to the placement algorithm to improve matching in future years.

The placement test system was delivered in Summer 2018. Qualtrics was used to register students and to collect calculus background information, and WeBWorK was used for the actual placement test. An immediate result was a larger cohort of students enrolled in Single Variable Calculus I at the beginning of the semester thereby avoiding the large mid-semester shift from Single Variable Calculus II to Single Variable Calculus I that had previously been typical

This paper includes information and data about 1) Compliance rate. 2) Overall placement test averages for the various test sections and topics. 3) Final exam score comparisons for students who self-placed below recommendation, at recommendation, or above recommendation. 4) What was learned and what improvements are planned.

We have interesting information to share about this alternative placement system and how our placement recommendations compare to where students placed themselves both before and after the recommendations.

Pisano, S., & Fulgham, B. (2019, June), Toward Better Applied Math Placement for Engineering Students Paper presented at 2019 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition , Tampa, Florida. 10.18260/1-2--33450

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