Stepping into Leet Oliver Memorial Hall for their first Math 120 class, Yalies have no reason to expect to suffer. After all, Math 120 is advertised as the natural next step after Advanced Placement Calculus BC; its prerequisite specification reads, “After Math 115, or with permission of instructor.” But every year, scores of students — one or two midterms in, even two problem sets in — drop the class in a panic. Dozens who make it to the final wish that they hadn’t. Across the board, there is no surprise that many Math 120 students regret taking it more than any other class in college.
We are two of those Yalies: one who dropped and one who wishes that she had. Like many first years who take classes with curricula that don’t accommodate their students’ diverse backgrounds, we blamed ourselves entirely; we grew accustomed to that special form of loneliness. But now, as seniors who have spent a combined 14 semesters sampling widely from classes in English, French, political science, chemistry, biology, physics and beyond, we join hands with our classmates to assert that Math 120 is an academic anomaly. This class, along with a handful of other “introductory” courses at Yale, merits the exploration we present below.
In 2015, we were fresh out of AP Calculus at Canadian and American public high schools, where we had excelled and developed a healthy love for math. But after enrolling in Math 120, we quickly discovered its loose interpretation of “introductory” — an hour into the first day, our instructors had zipped through vectors, dot products and cross products, assuming prior knowledge of these topics that were, in fact, totally new to us (and to many of our classmates). Blindsided, but firmly assured by our placement results, we determinedly spent the first couple of weeks catching up.
This conflicted optimism led to sour results. In the end, those piles of assigned James Stewart problems were not at all representative of the contents of the first midterm. Afterward, even tripling our practice problems and completing practice exams rewarded us with zero improvement on the second midterm. Both times, we went into exams feeling like we must have missed a lecture or a hidden homework assignment.
It’s not like we did all of this studying in a vacuum. We studied with classmates. We attended review sessions and office hours. We could explain homework problems with clarity. But even after all of that labor, the exams remained a tragic tale of mediocrity. For the one of us who foolishly stayed through December, the final exam was yet another crushing disappointment. It wasn’t the failed effort but rather the lack of correlation between effort and success, that frustrated us most.
Over the years, the two of us have met dozens of other classmates who had the same dismal experience, which raises the question: How can (and why should) an introductory math class soar over the heads of so many of its students? While it makes sense for upper-level classes to target students already experienced in the topic, it doesn’t make sense to embed that same mindset in a lower-level course. Math 120 should be a gateway class, not a gatekeeping mechanism. If Yale intends to boast about its diversity, then shouldn’t it accommodate the diverse academic backgrounds that come with it?
Reflecting on this, we ask for change. Here we offer some suggestions for the benefit of all future Math 120 students:
Increase the breadth and depth of the placement test. Do not let students assume that Math 120 will be a natural and simple transition from AP Calculus. Furthermore, to address the course’s notoriously fast pace, consider offering an alternative two-term introduction to multivariable calculus, similar to Yale splitting Math 112 into Math 110 and Math 111. And, most essentially: transparency and diversity of course reviews. Even if the Math 120 curriculum sees no change in the next few years, at least include a wide range of honest reviews — from midterm surveys and beyond — in the Math 120 syllabus. In their current state, Online Course Selection reviews are deceptive because they exclude students who don’t take the class to completion. How can first years make educated decisions about courses without the perspectives of those who finished 60, 75, even 90 percent of the class? Representative reviews are essential; after all, few first years have trusted juniors or seniors to provide real community knowledge about each class. We assert that it would be worthwhile for Online Course Selection to make available both midterm and final reviews for all courses, so future students can confirm — based on real testimony — whether there was any change or response to grievances in the second half of the course (and why, when and how many students dropped).
While the two of us have long since abandoned Green’s theorem for greener pastures, we truly believe that there is potential for Math 120 — and all other courses like it — to change. There are ways to dispel desperation, confusion and helpless disappointment to make room for inspiration and growth. Many students enroll in Math 120 not because they need it for their major but because they genuinely liked math in high school and want to explore further. Why should they be doomed to years of regret and a lost love for mathematics?
Catherine Yang is a senior in Trumbull College & Vicky Liu is a senior in Pierson College. Catherine Yang’s columns run on the first Thursday of every month. Contact them at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com, respectively .