The Calculus I Instructor

David M. Bressoud, June 2011

Last month [1] I reported on student data from the MAA’s survey [2] of mainstream Calculus I classes. We also surveyed the instructors, both at the start and at the end of the Fall term in 2010, gathering basic demographic information as well as information about how the class was taught and attitudes toward student learning. We are hoping to learn whether there are any correlations between instructional practice or instructor attitudes and student performance, both in terms of learning the material and in terms of intention to persist in a field that requires at least a full year of college calculus.

Right now, this is just a report of some of the cumulative data, collected from 700 instructors at 212 colleges and universities, both 2- and 4-year programs. All instructors in this survey, including the graduate students, were the instructor of record for their class. The results reported here are drawn from a survey completed by the course coordinator before the term began, an instructor survey completed at the start of the term, and an instructor survey completed at the end of the term.

I did not find any of the results particularly surprising. Graphing calculators are still very common, regularly used and required by 61% of the instructors. Only 37% use computer demonstrations in class, and only 21% expect their students to use computer software such as Mathematica or Matlab in conjunction with the class. Online homework systems such as WeBWorK are now being used by 45% of instructors (often complemented by other ways of collecting homework).

Most instructors use classroom quizzes at least occasionally, and most instructors give three or four exams before the final exam. The emphasis in exams is on computational technique, but almost all instructors have some points devoted to graphical interpretation of central ideas, and most include some complex or unfamiliar problems as well as proofs or justifications.

Most instructors see themselves as fairly traditional. They view lecture as the best way to teach students and believe that procedural fluency precedes conceptual understanding.

Perhaps the most intriguing insight from this study was how accurately instructors at the start of the term were able to predict the percentage of D’s, F’s, and W’s in their classes. Most of the instructors have taught Calculus I many times. Their collective accuracy may simply reflect the consistency of their experience combined with the fact that the average of the estimates made by a group tends to be much closer to the true number than one would expect from any individual. But it does raise the question whether the final grade distribution was in some sense shaped by instructor expectations of what it would be.

Demographics of Instructors

Characteristics of the course

Use of Technology

Other Instructor Practices

Instructor Attitudes

[1] David Bressoud, The Calculus I Student, Launchings, May, 2011,

[2] Characteristics of Successful Programs in College Calculus, NSF DRL REESE grant no. 0910240.

Access pdf files of the CUPM Curriculum Guide 2004 and the Curriculum Foundations Project: Voices of the Partner Disciplines.

Find links to course-specific software resources in the CUPM Illustrative Resources.

Find other Launchings columns.

David Bressoud is DeWitt Wallace Professor of Mathematics at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota, and Past-President of the MAA. You can reach him at This column does not reflect an official position of the MAA.