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Credit: Olivia West

Penn calculus courses are teaching students through a flipped classroom method this semester as a continuation of the Math Department's COVID-19 policy.

Students must watch lectures on their own time and work through practice problems in class — a practice that began in fall 2020, when classes were taught entirely online, Associate Director of Undergraduate Mathematics Nakia Rimmer wrote in an email to The Daily Pennsylvanian. The Math Department decided to continue the instruction method for MATH 103: "Introduction to Calculus," MATH 104: "Calculus I," MATH 114: "Calculus II," and MATH 240: "Calculus III" because they thought its implementation went well, Rimmer wrote. 

Students in the classes have expressed dissatisfaction with the switch to a flipped classroom. Wharton first year and MATH 104 student Eileen Wang said there has been an “overwhelming amount” of negative response to the learning model.

“I know that I learn the best when I have a lecture where the teacher is specifically teaching me the concepts and showing me how to do problems, whereas now, during the flipped classroom, I have to kind of teach myself outside of class,” Wang said.

Wang added that when she does attend class, the lecture and recitation section of the course are not very helpful.

Senior lecturer of Mathematics Andrew Cooper said he has seen an improvement in students’ comprehension of the material since the change. Cooper said the students understand the point of the course more deeply than when it was lecture-based because students can pick up the basic facts on their own and dedicate class time to applying those principles. 

“When you're in person, we do the connecting to the problems,” Cooper said. “[The professors and teaching assistants] know how to solve the problems. We know how each problem sort of connects to the bigger picture, so it's much more useful to have that kind of time together.”

Alongside the revised instruction model, calculus classes also underwent changes in the methods used to assess students. Classes now include a quiz taken by all students each Friday, with every fourth quiz being a makeup exam. Cooper said that the decision to opt for weekly testing, as opposed to larger midterm exams, was made independently of the move to flipped classrooms. 

College first year Michael Marcus, a student in MATH 114, said that one of the advantages of the model is that it allows students to familiarize themselves with the material before the lecture so they can see what they do and don’t understand. He said, however, that his overall feelings, as well as those of others in his class, are negative. 

Marcus said that having the majority of learning take place online has made the course difficult. 

“I think that it's much easier to learn from a professor in person,” Marcus said. “We saw that through virtual learning that learning was obviously so much worse when it was online and you weren't face to face with a professor."

College sophomore Julianna Cimillo is a TA for MATH 104, which includes leading recitation sections and holding office hours. Cimillo said she has seen her students struggle to complete practice problems in recitation without a solid understanding of the concepts. 

“[My students] do voice the fact that it is confusing, and they don't really understand how they're expected to kind of start answering these worksheet questions without someone basically explaining how to do it,” Cimillo said. “I know that it is frustrating for a lot of students.”

Cimillo learned in a traditional lecture style for her previous calculus classes, MATH 116: "Honors Calculus" and MATH 260: Honors Calculus, Part II, which she believes is more effective for teaching math. 

“I personally like learning directly from the teacher [and] being able to ask questions while they're teaching, instead of having to watch a video and then formulate questions,” Cimillo said.

Cooper said he believes that much of the negativity surrounding the course stems from unfamiliarity, and encouraged students to keep an open mind. He stated that last semester, students reflected at the end of the term and were surprised with the success of the model and the extent of their knowledge. 

“I think we've made some really important strides in that direction and as far as I'm concerned, it's only going to get better,” he said.