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The Infamous UM Math Department

Updated: Nov 18, 2021

By: Jing He

“Welcome to Hell,” a Redditor writes in a detailed post entitled, “How The Math Department Here Works: A Guide.” A freshman Ross student who is currently in Math 115 laughed at the title of the Reddit post, nodding her head in agreement. This student, who will be known as A, is not surprised that mixed opinions about the mathematics curriculum are widespread across the community.

“The math curriculum at Michigan, at least in my experience with Math 115, is definitely fast-paced,” A explains. “There is not much time for GSIs or lecturers to spend time with students to work through problems.” While A has taken calculus at her high school, she was required to take the class again at the University in order to satisfy the first-year Ross requirement. Given the reputation of the math classes at Michigan, she was nervous coming in.

On one hand, A acknowledges that the course itself, while rigorous, is designed to help students prepare for other higher-level math courses and build a foundational understanding of calculus. “I think that the online format allows students to access a lot of different resources and questions, either through the mastery assessments or homework assignments.” Similarly, the Reddit contributor writes that while “[Math] 115/116 are extremely work heavy and hard classes…[they do] make you better at calculus.” In fact, the Redditor explains that the math department can be ”extremely extremely effective, vibrant, and fun especially for students who are a pure/honors math major.” This is not a surprise; Michigan’s mathematics program is ranked 12th in the nation by US News––just one ranking behind Yale University. Upper-level math classes like 295 and 296, the post explains, also have a grade floor of an A- in 295 and a B- in 296 respectively––a contrast to the 9% of students that get an A in MATH 115 (Atlas).

The issue, it seems, lies with the workload. A reveals that she spends the majority of her time doing calculus homework compared to her other classes and clubs. This phenomenon appears to be widespread across other students in her class, who are taking the course to fulfill a non-major requirement. “One of the things we work on is team homework, and I am not sure how well-structured that is for someone’s grade or someone’s learning standards because people all learn differently,” A tells Consider. “Because it is an introductory class, there are students who are more proactive than others and students who slack off and push work toward their team members. This, in turn, causes a power imbalance between who is doing what work, how much of it, and why.” A does not see the team homework as particularly conducive to students’ learning curve as those who are more focused on their grades will put in more effort into the problem sets than those who might care less; “divide and conquer” is also another popular strategy when it comes to completing team homework, raising the question of whether students are learning or simply completing problems that they already know how to do. Similarly, the Redditor writes, “[t]here is so much work in these classes that it is very easy to drown. Even if you are learning a lot, you constantly feel behind and stressed over your grades. GSIs are unable to provide help for the biggest problem: workload. It is so hard to teach someone who is caught behind because of a difficult workload.”

Nonetheless, the math department is currently undergoing course restructuring—largely focusing on intro courses. Kristen Moore, the Associate Chair for Education in the Department of Mathematics, wrote to the Michigan Daily that “[the department is] currently working with the University’s Center for Research on Learning and Teaching and the College of Literature, Science & the Arts to improve the assessment in our introductory courses and the support that we provide our instructors. At the end of the day, our goal is for students to learn mathematics at a deep and fundamental level.” While Dr. Moore was not specific about a timeline for this restructuring, hopefully, this innovation will lead to constructive student-centered changes in the future.

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