Calculus gets coordinated at Iowa State

CATEGORIES: News, Students

Iowa State University’s mathematics department is offering its students increased freedom and flexibility with coordinated calculus, a fresh and innovative approach to teaching undergraduate calculus classes.

“Iowa State is transforming how our students learn and study college calculus,” said Hal Schenck, professor and chair of the mathematics department. “Universities are struggling to find ways to improve student success in the calculus sequence, and Iowa State provides a model for how it can be done.”

Revamped and redesigned with student success in mind, coordinated calculus provides flexible ways for students to learn, study and collaborate with their peers and professors, as they navigate the challenges of Iowa State’s STEM-calculus sequence.

The Rigors of Calculus

Math 165, Math 166 and Math 265 comprise Iowa State’s STEM-calculus sequence. Every ISU student who plans to major in engineering or the math-intensive sciences must pass these classes before they’re allowed to register for advanced engineering or science courses.

“I knew calculus was going to be extremely tough, and I also knew that I had to do well,” said Haadi Majeed, (‘22 computer engineering) who took Math 165 last semester. “Succeeding in these calculus classes is the price of admission if you want to study engineering at ISU.”

Every semester, thousands of Iowa State students register for one of these three classes, making calculus the highest-enrollment class at Iowa State University.

“Calculus pushes many students out of their comfort zone,” said Steve Butler, associate professor and the Barbara J. Janson professor in the department of mathematics at Iowa State University. “Coordinated calculus has helped many students succeed in calculus. The program fosters a positive academic environment and helps students to navigate these challenging subjects.”

Formula for Success

The centerpiece of coordinated calculus is customized curricula and lecture material that is synchronized across all sections of each calculus class. Although there are multiple instructors who teach with their own presentation style, they all follow a common syllabus and assign students the same quizzes, tests and homework throughout the semester.

“If I oversleep and miss a morning calculus lecture, it’s no longer the end of the world, and I don’t have to get notes from friends,” said Majeed, who took Math 165 last semester. “I can join an afternoon section because every lecture that day, covers the same content. It’s unbelievably convenient.”

This extensive unification is no small feat. In the fall of 2018, there were 109 coordinated calculus sections across these three calculus courses.

“Now, students are able to decide which lecture best fits their schedule, as well as which professor’s style and teaching methods they prefer,” said Schenck.

Chain Reaction

It turns out that unifying thousands of calculus students on the same wavelength—within the classroom—also fuels student-driven collaboration that extends far beyond the confines of the lecture hall.

Study groups, creative-cram sessions, movie nights and calculus problem-solving salons have spun up across campus, as students brainstorm new and interesting ways to conquer college calculus.

“The computer and software engineering majors on my dorm floor are able to form calculus study groups because we are assigned the same homework problems and are learning the same material,” said Majeed. “We created a calculus community. Now, when we’re panicking the night before a midterm, we’re together studying, practicing problems and reviewing class notes.”

Butler has also recorded his lectures and uploaded them to YouTube, where they are available to the public. His YouTube channel includes hundreds of lecture videos and calculus-problem-solving tutorials. These recordings have more than one million minutes of accumulated viewing time, from viewers around the world. These videos, and additional course information, are available at, and

“The night before the final, we checked out a projector from the dorm office and organized a ‘movie night with Steve Butler’,” said Majeed. “We watched Steve on the big screen and fast forwarded to the exact problems and content that we needed to review.”

Infinite Time

The coordinated calculus program also features “Calculus Help Hours”, a rebranded and supercharged version of traditional office hours, in which instructors are available to help students.

“We found that many students were not taking advantage of office hours,” said Butler. “Some students don’t understand what is meant by ‘office hours’, and it can also be intimidating to ask for help, so we made some changes.”

“Calculus Help Hours” are lively, interactive help sessions that are offered 40 hours a week. Students simply peruse the schedule, find a time that works for them and walk in. A rotation of instructors is available to students who find themselves stuck on a grueling calculus problem or needing some extra review.

Amy Phan, (‘22 software engineering) took Math 165 last semester and credits “Calculus Help Hours” with her accomplishments in the class. “I was struggling and I needed help getting to where I wanted to be,” said Phan.

“I was able to find help anytime I needed it,” said Phan. “There were often ten students crammed into Steve Butler’s office, gathered around white boards, working through calculus problems and helping each other.”

“By the middle of the year, Amy was helping other students,” said Butler. “This is what coordinated calculus is about—providing the structure and the tools that help students learn, solve problems and become critical thinkers.”

Phan earned an A in the class and has continued her calculus journey, while being currently enrolled in Math 166 this semester.

Deviating From The Norm

Before coordinated calculus debuted at Iowa State, algebra and trig skills were honed, integrals were solved, and derivative properties were scrutinized—as students advanced through the calculus sequence and went on to become engineers, chemists and biologists.

However, Schenck envisioned something bigger, bolder and better for today’s Iowa State students.

“Iowa State calculus classes operated as most college calculus classes across the country operate now, within a traditional model that includes little to no synchronization between the instructors leading the sections,” said Schenck. “Also, our calculus exams and quizzes were different across the sections, and each instructor had different metrics for determining grades.”

“I knew that we could do better for our students,” he said.

Coordinated calculus was launched fall semester of 2017 with a small cohort of Math 265 classes that were taught by Butler, Schenck and other instructors. Next semester the program was expanded to all sections of Math 265. Following an outpouring of positive student feedback, Schenck charged Butler with the challenging task of developing the unified curricula and implementing the program within a year—across Math 165, Math 166 and Math 265.

Butler worked many long days on Coordinated Calculus to meet the one-year deadline. “The scope of this project was considerable, but well worth the time and effort.”

The Velocity of Progress

Student feedback on coordinated calculus has been overwhelmingly positive, although students were slow to warm to the increased rigor of the lectures, homework and exams. In October 2018, the math department surveyed all core-calculus students to gauge their attitudes about the new program and glean information about student attendance; 680 students responded to the survey.

“We’ve seen a spike in lecture attendance and class participation,” said Schenck, “An impressive 92 percent of survey respondents reported regularly attending their calculus lectures.”

Students have also capitalized on the flexibility of coordinated calculus. One in six students indicated that they regularly attend lectures from multiple instructors; or often attend a lecture for which they did not initially register.

“The program’s flexibility has increased student engagement and involvement,” said Schenck. “These large lecture calculus classes are the face of science and engineering for the university. They impact countless students.”

Butler acknowledges that many students view calculus as a “weed out class”, while others see it as an academic obstacle thrown onto the road of their academic journey. “Ultimately, I want to see the engineering college flooded with students who were able to pass these classes and continue to pursue their dreams,” said Butler.

“The ideas of calculus are simple,” Butler continued. “It’s the problems that are complicated; and that is why coordinated calculus was developed, because we want to provide students with the tools to succeed, master this material, and go on to accomplish great things.”