How can I teach calculus effectively to non-math students (chemical engineering students, for example)? Sorted by priority, the problems I'm experiencing are:

  • Students cannot keep their voice down. This hinders class productivity. Something that can be explained in 60 minutes takes 90 minutes. Frequently telling them to quiet down is not working. Threatening to lower their grades is also not working.

  • Low grades. What has been done: giving homework each week such that next week the students can write solutions in front and get points.

  • The main Lecturer gives Math-major level (sometimes also olympiad level) problems in the exam, while they are not from math background. (I only assist in explaining and practicing on problems and solutions)

  • Poor high-school math education.

These problems has been troubling for two straight semesters. Their grades are low compared to past years calculus students. If it is important to know, the class is a first-year calculus course (techniques of integration, etc). This is the first time I've taught at the University level, and it's my second semester.

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    $\begingroup$ Yes, I know the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence, but some of us would be overjoyed to have some engineering and science students instead of mostly business majors and IT $(\neq$ computer science) majors $\ldots$ $\endgroup$ Feb 12, 2018 at 20:04
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    $\begingroup$ Related question: What are non-math majors supposed to get out of an undergraduate calculus class? $\endgroup$
    – Jasper
    Feb 18, 2018 at 18:01
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    $\begingroup$ I would ask the talkers to leave. Say something along the lines of, if you guys want to do homework together then go to the library or whatever. This is not the right place for you to work. I also saw this lack of respect in similar contexts about 20 years ago at a pretty good school. The fact that you don't control the tests is a lot of it. Free them to leave, keep the kids that want to work with you to improve. I think that is the first step to productive teaching, edit the audience if possible. With the noisy kids, it helps no-one and is unfair to the good students. Try to boot them. $\endgroup$ Feb 19, 2018 at 0:42
  • $\begingroup$ With student noise, what has always worked perfectly for me is to fix my gaze on the people making the noise and pause everything until they make eye contact with me. Others in the room will always exercise peer pressure. A variation on this technique would be looking at Fred, who is talking inappropriately, and asking, "Question, Fred?" (Often Fred is confused, and he would like to ask a question -- he's just asking his neighbors.) It also helps if you treat class time as valuable and carefully hone your own practices to make efficient use of it. This attitude spreads to one's students. $\endgroup$
    – user507
    Feb 19, 2018 at 21:00
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    $\begingroup$ @Arief: For example, suppose you spend 10 minutes calling roll at the beginning of class, which is totally unnecessary. (If you need a record of attendance, there are better ways of doing it that don't waste 10 minutes.) This sends the message to students that school is a meaningless ritual, and they have to sit through it. Of course they are going to be talking during the 10 minutes, and that sets the stage for having them always talking. Similar idea if you do a lot of straight lecturing and spoon-feeding of material that they were already assigned to read. The message is that school is BS. $\endgroup$
    – user507
    Feb 21, 2018 at 19:37

1 Answer 1


Precomment 1: You mention under point 3, testing, that you are the assistant, not the course leader. So, to be practical, many "fixes" in the class will not be things you (as an individual, versus the archetypal you) can implement. We can discuss them in general (for other instructors). And you can think how to do better when you are in charge. But don't kill yourself over not being able to fix everything. That's just life and the World. Work on what is in your control--plenty to do there.

Precomment 2: Teaching engineering students is so much more prevalent than teaching math students that you should mentally think of it as the base case. Not "how to do it different from teaching math students". But how to do it. Then worry about how to change it for a math majors class! And if the class is mixed (likely), the math majors will be a tiny minority, and you should ignore special things for them. Don't worry, they will have analysis as a majors course, later. And they have other classes like chem or English to keep them occupied also. Not the end of the world if they have a standard calc course.)

First bullet, noise:

Don't make threats, you don't carry out. If you say you will lower grades, then just do it. Really, even a very tiny point deduction (1 point from semester of 500+ points) will change student behavior. Have seen it with lab google rules in chem lab. Don't even have to raise voice or debate. Just let them know the sword fell.

Another idea is just to eject a noisy student from class. Only one, very occasionally, will be dramatic.

Other than that, I recommend to discuss behavior at beginning of class (too late now for first lesson. But make it a point of a few minutes at start of a class, now.) The key thing to emphasize is that it is not fair to classmates and that it is wasting everyone's time. Don't open to debate or ask for suggestions. Just tell them, it's a problem and to stop it. You don't have to be angry or make threats. Just be direct and in control.

Also, I think having a loud voice is helpful. In the Navy it is called "command voice". It doesn't involve screaming, is not unpleasant in that matter--it is just using projection like an actor or a singer. (It's easy...just try it.) In addition, be animated, move around, command presence and keep it interesting!

Second bullet, low grades:

I don't completely understand your point, but I think you are saying the students are performing poorly on tests and you are using homework to help increase the scores. (I bet TA gets stuck grading those, haha.) In general, you need to try to make the tests more reasonable (point 3) and ALSO to improve the level of ability so the students do better on the exams.

Different points of view on grading homework (pro/con) but if you are going to do it, I would not do it for the purpose of raising grades in the way you are here. Instead do it to drive practice and drill (for the purpose of improving test performance). (Probably a low point value, more frequent turnins--every class for instance, and rapid returns.) Really, I think it becomes too much of a logistical hassle, especially in college.

I also find college classes have too few tests (major stakes tests only, which encourages goofing off and cramming). If you can do more tests during the semester, better. Yes, this loses some lecture time, but it is highly valuable practice--not like the lectures are perfect anyways.

Third bullet, exams too hard and mathy:

Cut that out. Use a reasonable text like Thomas Finney and then make the test questions close to the book. These engineers need to get experience taking derivatives and doing integrals and lots of algebra as well. That helps them with their homework in fluids class and with following derivations in engineering majors classes and textbooks. Spending time on baby real analysis is a waste if they don't have the basics yet. Same thing with super hard trick problems if they don't have the basics yet.

One little practical trick is to literally make the exam questions from the unassigned homework problems. (It encourages extra drill by the students.)

Richard Feynman:

So, this guy comes into my office and asks me to try to make everything straight that I taught him, and this is the best I can do. The problem is to try to explain the stuff that was being taught. So I start, now, with the review.

I would tell this guy, “The first thing you must learn is the mathematics. And that involves, first, calculus. And in calculus, differentiation.”

Now, mathematics is a beautiful subject, and has its ins and outs, too, but we’re trying to figure out what the minimum amount we have to learn for physics purposes are. So the attitude that’s taken here is a “disrespectful” one towards the mathematics, for sheer efficiency only; I’m not trying to undo mathematics.

What we have to do is to learn to differentiate like we know how much is 3 and 5, or how much is 5 times 7, because that kind of work is involved so often that it’s good not to be confounded by it. When you write something down, you should be able to immediately differentiate it without even thinking about it, and without making any mistakes. You’ll find you need to do this operation all the time—not only in physics, but in all the sciences. Therefore differentiation is like the arithmetic you had to learn before you could learn algebra.

Incidentally, the same goes for algebra: there’s a lot of algebra. We are assuming that you can do algebra in your sleep, upside down, without making a mistake. We know it isn’t true, so you should also practice algebra: write yourself a lot of expressions, practice them, and don’t make any errors. Errors in algebra, differentiation, and integration are only nonsense; they’re things that just annoy the physics, and annoy your mind while you’re trying to analyze something. You should be able to do calculations as quickly as possible, and with a minimum of errors. That requires nothing but rote practice—that’s the only way to do it. It’s like making yourself a multiplication table, like you did in elementary school: they’d put a bunch of numbers on the board, and you’d go: “This times that, this times that,” and so on—Bing! Bing! Bing!

[IOW, have some sympathy to building the muscles needed for getting them through chemE majors courses. Rates of reactions, bleed and feed mixing, fractional distillation, etc. You don't need to do examples using their course concepts...that makes it harder, since THEY don't know them yet and it is all word problems. But some sympathy and awareness of what is coming at them--and how calc class helps them--will help inform your teaching. You may even find some motivation leaking through to your students...]

Fourth bullet, poor HS prep:

You can't fix HS prep. You also can't fix native intelligence. You play with the cards given. But I actually think things are not as bad as you think. In general HS students are getting more math prep than several decades ago. College algebra and trig are common in HS as is some calculus exposure itself. Yes, there are some things that may have changed for the worse (TI time, atrophy of analytic geometry). But in general kids are getting more HS math exposure. Also, we send a lot of kids to college now. But if they are chemEs, they have the brains to get through a calc class if they buckle down and if it is taught in a practical (i.e. pedagically kind) manner.

One practical suggestion is SHOW THE ALGEBRA. I had this tiny crit of a comment for Mike Pierce where he did a great job showing with a u substitution, the endpoints change (in writing), but he glided over the change of the differential. I.e. du=2xdx if u=x². Really these kids can get a lot of practical exposure and practice in algebraic manipulation in calc class. I was a kid who had poor algebra background, but all the drill of calculus class ended up building up my algebra chops also. Didn't really need a remediation, just doing the homework problems (a gazillion of them) ended up building my algebra muscles as I did calculus. So show the algebra. When you are Carl Bender teaching advanced methods for seniors and grad students, you can glide over some things (but I actually still find him relatively kind). But if you are teaching calc 101? Show the manipulation!

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    $\begingroup$ +1 But I'm skeptical of Fourth bullet counterpoint; I do not think students are more prepared in math. One data point: average SAT math in 1972 was 509, in 2016 508 (blog.prepscholar.com/average-sat-scores-over-time). Granted dip in college-going demographics (in U.S.), it's widely observed that schools across the spectrum are having to lower entry standards to maintain enrollments. $\endgroup$ Feb 13, 2018 at 4:26
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    $\begingroup$ And just because someone is exposed to a class, and even passed in high school, does not necessarily mean they have legitimate skills. In fact, in the OP's case, my worried intuition is that the lead instructor is on the "everyone fails every test question, then I scale at the end so most everyone passes" plan, which is both widespread and helps no one. $\endgroup$ Feb 13, 2018 at 4:27
  • $\begingroup$ On the scaling. Yeah, I am worried the tests are b***-busters and the kids aren't doing well at them, perhaps not even capable of executing more simple but still needed calc problems. And then he saves some drama like flunking half the class by assigning these homeworks (which are take home and don't really test skills and prey to cheating). But if the kids had some standard test (AP or the like) they might not do well. $\endgroup$
    – guest
    Feb 13, 2018 at 4:56
  • $\begingroup$ Dan: on the prep: You probably know more than I do. I do know that my math prep in the 1980s was far better than my father's in the 1940s. (Just the amount of courses in the school. For one thing look at AP growth.) Not so sure of recent trends but suspect even more now. $\endgroup$
    – guest
    Feb 13, 2018 at 4:58
  • $\begingroup$ I think SAT test is a quasi intelligence test. It is testing mostly easier material (algebra and geometry) and just has lots of tricky double negative problems and inequalities and the like. I don't think it really measures achievement but aptitude. $\endgroup$
    – guest
    Feb 13, 2018 at 5:00

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