ERIC Identifier: ED321970
Publication Date: 1988-00-00
Author: Kasten, Margaret - And Others
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse for Science Mathematics and Environmental
Education Columbus OH.
The Role of Calculus in College Mathematics. ERIC/SMEAC
Mathematics Education Digest No. 1.
Calculus has become the center of a heated debate within the mathematics
community. There are those who question the very centrality of calculus
in the mathematics curriculum. This perspective is clearly illustrated
by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics viewpoint that "The
curriculum standards for grades 9-12 are built on the premise that calculus
should no longer be viewed as the capstone experience of high school mathematics"
(NCTM Draft, 1987, p. 128). Likewise, Ronald G. Douglas points out that
"Although calculus has formed the core of the undergraduate mathematics
curriculum for most of this century there has been much debate recently
concerning this role." (Douglas, 1987, p. 3).
Evidence indicates many of the current calculus courses are not serving
students well. In addition, computers and advanced calculators can now
do many of the manipulations that students learn in calculus.
WHAT IS THE STATUS OF CALCULUS IN HIGH SCHOOL MATHEMATICS?
Approximately 300,000 students each year enroll in high school calculus
classes. Advanced Placement (AP) Calculus Exams are currently taken by
about 60,000 of these students each year . The number taking AP Calculus
Exams has been increasing steadily since 1960.
Calculus has been the capstone course for high school mathematics. Recent
work by the National Council for Teachers of Mathematics provides some
suggestions for content to be included in secondary school mathematics
related to calculus.
The draft of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics' Curriculum
and Evaluation Standards for School Mathematics (1987) states that, in
grades 9-12, the mathematics curriculum should include the informal exploration
of calculus concepts from both a graphical and numerical perspective so
that all students can determine maximum and minimum points of a graph,
interpret the results in problem situations and investigate the concepts
of limit and area under a curve by examining infinite sequences and series.
In addition, students intending to go to college should understand the
conceptual foundations of limit, area under a curve, rate of change, slope
of a tangent line and be able to analyze the graphs of polynomial, rational,
radical, and transcendental functions (p. 128). Whether teachers in secondary
schools will accept and therefore attempt to implement these suggestions
remains to be seen.
In many ways the collegiate mathematics establishment has resisted the
teaching of calculus by secondary teachers, relenting only when the Advanced
Placement syllabus is used and students take the advanced placement examination.
Whether or not this is a sound position, it is the case that many schools
that teach calculus do not use the AP Syllabus, and many schools do not
require students to take the examination.
The Second International Study suggests that many students who are enrolled
in U.S. pre-calculus courses are actually exposed to many calculus concepts.
It is, however, still the case that most U.S. students, even college preparatory
students, do not take a calculus course in high school and those that do
often pretend that they didn't and enroll in introductory calculus in college.
What should the high school curriculum be? It will probably not be a full
year calculus course for most students.
WHAT ARE ENROLLMENT AND SUCCESS PATTERNS IN COLLEGE CALCULUS?
Participation and success in calculus are important issues. Calculus
is among the top five collegiate courses in annual enrollment. Data indicate
that in the academic year 1986-87 there were more than 300,000 enrollments
in mainstream calculus 1 and just under 260,000 enrollments in non-mainstream
calculus 1 (i.e., business calculus) in four-year colleges. Over 100,000
students were enrolled in calculus in two-year postsecondary institutions.
In a technological society such large numbers are not surprising. Calculus
is frequently considered to be a necessary prerequisite for many professions
such as engineering, the natural sciences, and mathematically-related positions
in business and higher education. Initial enrollment, however, does not
guarantee success. Only 140,000 of the initial 300,000 students in the
mainstream calculus sequence are likely to successfully complete their
Two traditionally underrepresented groups in mathematics fare somewhat
differently from one another. Hughes (1987) indicated that "There is considerable
evidence, both anecdotal and statistical that women are doing well in calculus"
(p. 126). The situation for minority students seems much different. Malcolm
and Treisman (1987) indicate that "Hundreds of capable minority students
(are) felled by the calculus hurdle" (p. 130). Newman and Poiani (1987)
suggest that there is no difference in mathematical performance between
minority and majority students if those students have comparable mathematical
Calculus is a critical filter in the science and engineering pipeline
blocking access to careers for a large number of students. The calculus
sequence must be modified so that more students will succeed.
WHAT CALCULUS DO VARIOUS COLLEGE MAJORS WANT?
Calculus includes among its traditional client groups engineering, physics,
business, biological science and social science majors. Some people feel
that the college calculus course which "tries to be all things to all people"
is doomed. Recent conferences (Toward a Lean and Lively Calculus, 1986,
and Calculus for a New Century, 1987) give some indication that client
disciplines are not happy with the calculus that students know. Most of
the areas want students to have a conceptual understanding of the basic
ideas in calculus rather than great computational and manipulative facility.
Client populations seem very interested, in working with mathematics departments
to revamp and refine calculus courses in order to better meet the needs
of their majors. Emphasis on specific topics, more relevant applications
related to their fields, more use of technology, and more effective instruction
are among the requests most frequently cited.
HOW IS CALCULUS TAUGHT IN COLLEGES AND UNIVERSITIES?
While there is some agreement regarding the breadth and conceptual orientation
of a desirable calculus course, there is evidence to suggest that the calculus
that is actually taught is "the moral equivalent of long division." An
examination of final examination questions in collegiate calculus courses
(Steen, 1987) revealed that 90 percent of the items focused on calculation
and only 10 percent on higher order challenges. Steen suggests that the
curriculum of collegiate calculus has changed dramatically in the last
two or three decades and that the change has not been a good one. He feels
that the movement has been away from conceptual understanding about the
nature of calculus and toward more "plug and crank" exercises, with undue
emphasis on computation and manipulative skills. Whether or not one accepts
this view, it is certainly the case that far too much time is spent in
most calculus courses doing things that are best done by machines.
A study by Anderson and Loftsgaarden (1987) indicated several interesting
features about college-level calculus instruction. Only 15 percent of the
courses used computers. This is alarming because nearly all users of mathematics
make extensive use of technology.
There is a feeling that in addition to the lack of integration of technology
into calculus, much of the instruction is not effective. A variety of reasons
are given for problems related to instruction. Some feel that the academic
system which rewards research and not excellent teaching is partially to
blame. Some believe a major part of the problem is due to heavy student
loads for instructors and/or the use, in many cases, of unqualified instructors.
Others believe the preparation of many students taking the courses is inadequate.
Colleges and universities must find ways to provide instruction that is
creative and thoughtful and that helps more students succeed in their studies.
CURRICULUM DEVELOPMENT SUPPORT FROM THE NATIONAL SCIENCE FOUNDATION
The National Science Foundation (NSF) established a program to focus
on the improvement of calculus at the collegiate level. The initial awards
included five multi-year awards and nineteen planning grants.
Projects awarded are supporting a variety of strategies generally considered
innovative and worthwhile. The intent of NSF is to provide leadership to
major efforts and provide some support for exploratory type activities.
There seems to be at least some consensus (though by no means unanimity)
in the profession that calculus will remain the principal point of entry
to most mathematically based scientific careers. Content and instruction
in calculus classes need dramatic improvement. Curriculum and instruction
must take advantage of technology in ways that will improve student understanding
of basic concepts and strengthen student ability to apply these concepts.
Many college client groups are not happy with the calculus preparation
their students receive in mathematics departments. These groups want to
work with mathematics departments to improve the calculus courses for their
The level of minority participation and success in college-level calculus
is critically low. In order to guarantee full societal participation by
minorities, their recruitment and retention in calculus programs must become
a priority for the mathematics community. Recruitment of students will
require strengthening the precollege mathematics of these students. Helping
students complete college level calculus sequences will require both improving
the precollege mathematics program and the calculus courses.
Albers, Donald J.; Richard D. Anderson and Don O. Loftsgaarden, ed.
Undergraduate Programs in the Mathematics and Computer Sciences: The 1985-1986
Survey, Mathematical Association of America No. 7, 1986.
Calculus for a New Century; A Pump, Not a Filter. Mathematical Association
of America, The Association, Stony Brook, NY. 1988. ED 300 252.
Cipra, Barry A. "Calculus: Crisis Looms in Mathematics' Future," Science,
V239 n4847, March 25, 1988.
"Curriculum and Evaluation Standards for School Mathematics." (Draft)
National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, The Association, Reston, VA.
Douglas, Ronald G., ed . The Importance of Calculus in Core Mathematics
Toward a Lean and Lively Calculus, Mathematical Association of America,
Hughes, Shirley M. "Calculus Reform and Women Undergraduates," Calculus
for a New Century, Mathematical Association of America, 1987. ED 300 252.
Kline, Morris. Calculus on an Intuitive and Physical Approach, Mathematical
Association of America, 1987.
Malcolm, Shirley M. and Uri Treisman. Calculus Success for All Students.
Mathematical Association of America, 1987.
Newman, Rogers J. and Eileen L. Poiani. "Encouraging Success by Minority
Students," Calculus for a New Century, Mathematical Association of America,
1987. ED 300 252.
Ralston, Anthony. "Calculus and Computer Science," Calculus for a New
Century, Mathematical Association of America, 1987. ED 300 252.
The Underachieving Curriculum: Assessing U.S. School Mathematics from
an International Perspective. International Association for the Evaluation
of Education Achievement, Stipes Publishing Company, Champaign, IL, 1987.