Friday, February 06, 2009

Strang strangeness

So...we're about four weeks into this semester, and the Calc I students are showing signs of stress.

What gives?

As far as I can tell from class, things are going swimmingly. They're enjoying the class, they're actively participating, they're doing very well on the quizzes, and though there were a few folks who didn't turn in last week's homework set (the first set featuring problems from the textbook), those who submitted solutions managed to puzzle through those problems as well.

So what's the big deal?

It's the textbook.

In the fall semester our department decided to go with Gilbert Strang's Calculus as the backbone for our Calc I and Calc II courses, making the switch from the eminently mediocre Stewart (now in its gazillionth edition, an ever so slight modification of the gazillion-minus-first). Our reason? Like many of our colleagues in other departments and at other schools, we were concerned with the rising cost of textbooks, and we wanted to do something meaningful about it: Strang's textbook is available on-line at no cost to the student.

Last semester several sections of Calc I were run using Strang's book as their basis, with mixed success. Four faculty used the text, and while one was very happy with it, the remaining three expressed significant reservations. A couple of these supplemented the textbook heavily with problem set, examples, and other materials on Educo (my feelings on which I've blogged extensively elsewhere), while all three faculty members with reservations admitted that they'd had more success with the book when they "distanced" themselves from it, almost treating the class though it were text-free.

After a good deal of debate (several hours of several faculty members' time) we decided to give it another go. I figured it wouldn't be such a big deal because I tend to teach in a rather text-free fashion generally. As it is, I usually end up writing the equivalent of a supplementary (or at least "companion") text to the course's regular reader anyway. So I thought, what the hell, I'll give it a shot.

Now, as I said above, we're four weeks in, and...well...the students aren't lovin' it.

"I totally understand everything that's going on in class, and the quizzes make sense, and I enjoy all of the activities we're doing...but when I open up the textbook to do the homework, I can't figure out what's going on."

"The wording of the problems is really...weird. Like, it'll ask you to do the same things we've done in class, but in the middle of all of these words. Why can't they just say what they want you to do?"

"When I look at the chapter to see if it reinforces what we've been doing in class, I can't read it. It's just impossible to read!"

"I can't get started on any of the homework problems, and then when I ask one of the Math Lab people for help, they'll show me that it's really just something we did in class, I'll be, like, 'why didn't they just ask that in the first place?' "

I'm getting these sorts of comments from some students I know to be among the smartest, hardest working, most dedicated in the class. If they're having a rough time of it, I can't imagine how the folks who find math a struggle are feeling.

How are you doing?

Students, I'd like to know how you all feel about this text. Write to me about this. I'm asking you all to offer a comment to this post and let me know how it's gone down for you. Vent away. Or gush, if you'd like. Comment anonymously if you'd like to, I'm really just trying to get an overall sense of the class's view. If we can figure out where we can stand, we can troubleshoot the problem and we'll find a solution. I've got some ideas in mind, but I want to know the depth of the situation first.

And to my colleagues elsewhere: have you used this text before? Would you like to share your experience with us? Maybe you've had a different experience than we've had. I think it may just be that what works well for Strang's MIT students just doesn't work well for the folks at UNC Asheville.

That's all for now, folks. Lemme have it!

6 comments:

Nathan Lackey said...

The text appears to me to be a little "old school" in its layout and methods, but then I guess calculus hasn't changed much since 1991 (or since its invention?). I can relate to the complaints that homework questions are worded in such a way that makes them more difficult and these types of questions are lacking example counterparts in the explanatory portions of the text. I suppose that this could be good for getting us to use the techniques we learned in different ways than they were presented to us, but it can also be frustrating if you don't know what is being asked of you. All the problems aren't this way, but I find the ones that are to be especially difficult.

Randy Cockerell said...

I have tried reading the text and while it is informative it is only that. What I mean is that it's the information and nothing much to it other than that. It's a very thick text and hard to get through and I find that i rely primarily on guidance from lecture and from the math lab. I also appreciate that it is free online, and is one less book that I have to buy. The class so far has not been relying on material outside of lecture or rather the online text which has been a plus. Over all I do find the online text hard to understand but so long as the course remains lecture based as far as testing, I don't see a problem. I'm really enjoying the class and the fact that I finally am understanding Calculus. Hope this helps.

Brittany Searcy said...

I agree that the text is confusing, but I can find ways to get around it. I think part of the problem was using Educo last semester and being able to see an example and easily complete the homework. Then this semester, even with me not being a procrasinator and beginning early, I find myself struggling thursday night. Often times I go with what I intepret the book to be looking for. I have even been known to leave a few blank because the way the book presents the questions is difficult. Dont get me wrong some problems are straight forward and easily completed, and others after some breaking down of the text I can take a educated guess of what it is asking, but some of those problems are just like what in the world are they asking. I know it will be simple once I know what they want. Hope this help you out!

Jennie said...

I'm finding the same problems that other have already mentioned. I feel as though I understand the material in class, and when I sit down to do the work I have a hard time because it is difficult to understand the questions. Even when I have gone to the MathLab, they seem to not know what some of the questions are asking. I do in general think that it is helpful to have homework worded differently than the professor does in order to challenge your understanding not just a superficial base knowledge...so I don't know if this really helps as I don't have a great solution. I'll let you know if I think of anything more useful.

Alex Goode said...

I was just really accustom to the user-friendly Educo that we used last semester. The text we're using this semester is the antithesis of that. . . And ditto to everything people have already mentioned.

Emma Guild said...

The Strang exercises are pretty painfully worded. Often I'll have to read through them three or four times before I understand what they're asking. For example, exercise 15 from Section 2.1 reads:

"Find numbers A and B so that the straight line y = x fits smoothly with the curve Y = A + Bx + x^2 at x = 1. Smoothly means that y = Y and dy/dx = dY/dx at x = 1."

I think that to solve this, I need to find the function whose derivative is 1 when x equals 1, but I'm still not entirely sure if I untangled all that wordy mess correctly. The fact that the text is free is great, and there are plenty of exercises that are perfectly clear upon first reading. It's just that many of the exercises are worded as cumbersomely as the example above.