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Characteristics of Successful Programs in College Calculus - Project Description

From 2009 to 2014, the MAA conducted a study of Calculus I instruction in U.S. colleges and universities, sponsored by NSF (DRL REESE #0910240). The goals of this study were:

  1. To improve our understanding of the demographics of students who enroll in calculus,
  2. To measure the impact of the various characteristics of calculus classes that are believed to influence student success,
  3. To conduct explanatory case study analysis of exemplary programs in order to identify why and how these programs succeed,
  4. To develop a theoretical framework that articulates the factors under which students are likely to succeed in calculus, and
  5. To use the results of these studies and the influence of the MAA to leverage improvements in calculus instruction across the United States.

The PI and co-PI’s are David Bressoud (Macalester College), Marilyn Carlson (Arizona State University) replaced by Vilma Mesa (University of Michigan), Michael Pearson (MAA) replaced by Linda Braddy (MAA), and Chris Rasmussen (San Diego State University).

Description of the Study

Phase I of the project involved surveys of Calculus I classes in two- and four-year undergraduate programs across the United States during the Fall term of 2010. We had the participation of 212 colleges and universities, over 700 instructors, and over 14,000 students. The surveys are listed below with links to the questions that were asked:

In April 2010, chairs of departments selected by stratified random sample provided (or designated another departmental member to provide) the names and contact information for Fall term instructors of mainstream Calculus I. These instructors were contacted at the start of the Fall term to complete the instructor survey. They also were asked to require their students to complete an online pre-survey during the second or third week of class. Instructors and students were also asked to complete a post-survey at the end of the term. All information from the students was collected anonymously.

Phase II of the project involved case study visits to 16 colleges and universities that were identified as having successful programs in Calculus plus four pilot sites. During fall term 2012, four teams, each consisting of a researcher in undergraduate mathematics education, a mathematician, and a graduate student or post-doctoral researcher visited four institutions identified as having particularly effective programs in Calculus I. One university was visited in spring 2012. The team leaders are • Vilma Mesa (University of Michigan), two-year colleges • Sean Larsen (Portland State University), four-year colleges • Eric Hsu (San Francisco State University), master’s degree granting institutions • Chris Rasmussen, PhD granting institutions


For more information, please contact Olga Dixon, MAA Project Administrator, 202-319-8498,, Linda Braddy, Deputy Executive Director for Programs and Services, 202-387-5200,, or David Bressoud, Project Director, 651-696-6559,