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Characteristics of Successful Programs in College Calculus

The MAA is conducting a study of Calculus I instruction in American colleges and universities sponsored by NSF (DRL REESE #0910240). The goals of this study are:

  • To improve our understanding of the demographics of students who enroll in calculus, and
  • To measure the impact of the various characteristics of calculus classes that are believed to influence student success.

The PI and co-PI’s are David Bressoud (Macalester College), Marilyn Carlson (Arizona State University), Vilma Mesa (University of Michigan), Michael Pearson (MAA), and Chris Rasmussen (San Diego State University). Institutional Review Boards of Arizona State University and San Diego State University have provided IRB approvals.

Journal articles that have come out of the study:

Bressoud, D., M. Carlson, V. Mesa, C. Rasmussen. 2013. The Calculus Student: Insights from the MAA National Study. International Journal of Mathematical Education in Science and Technology44:5, 685–698.

Ellis, J., Kelton, M., & Rasmussen, C. (2014). Student perceptions of pedagogy and associated persistence in calculus. ZDM – The International Journal on Mathematics Education. DOI: 10.1007/s11858-014-0577

Sonnert, G., Salder, P., Sadler, S., Bressoud, D. (2014). The Impact of Instructor Pedagogy on College Calculus Students’ Attitude Toward Mathematics. Submitted to International Journal of Mathematics Education for Science and Technology.

White, N., & Mesa, V. (2014). Describing cognitive orientation of Calculus I tasks across different types of courseworkZDM – The International Journal on Mathematics Education. DOI 10.1007/s11858-014-0588-9

Additional information about and gathered from the study can be found at:

Also, see pdf files of talks on Characteristics of Successful Programs in College Calculus : Preliminary Findings at

Description of 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 17 colleges and universities that were identified as having successful programs in Calculus. 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

Technical Reports

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,