A student sitting behind their computer with math equations swirling around them.
Design by Kim Ly.

Before attending the University of Michigan, current students gave me valuable advice: “Try to meet new people, join clubs on campus and never take math at Michigan.” ‘Michigan Math’ is notoriously difficult, and students collectively dread taking the classes. As someone who took math during my first semester at the University, I too can attest to its difficulty. Math is a challenging subject — that’s no secret — but the structure of U-M math courses is like no other class on campus. However, the Math Department knows students struggle, and they see the Atlas statistics just like we do. Introductory math classes at the University need a structural overhaul. So why have no changes been made? 

The MATH 115 — the University’s introductory calculus course — syllabus highlights the expectations of students in the class. Daily homework assignments include at-home problem sets and prepwork, which is essentially learning the content before class. Students are also responsible for a few quizzes and team homework assignments with a group on their own time. On top of this, there are three midterm exams in the evenings and three gateway masteries that must be taken in a proctored lab outside of class. This may sound overwhelming — that’s because the structure of MATH 115 does not foster success. 

LSA senior and Youtube content creator Maddy Kim has an entire video dedicated to MATH 115 at the University. She details the difficulty of the class and all of its components. She also mentions that she previously took AP Calculus in high school and did very well, yet this class was especially difficult for her. Her advice to other students is, “If Michigan MATH 115 is your first time taking calculus, drop it … because you will not survive this.” It is a common sentiment among U-M students that if you can take math courses at community colleges, you should. There are few courses on campus so difficult that students recommend you go in knowing everything they are supposed to teach you.

The mission statement of the Math Department states that they strive to “provide a wide range of opportunities for first- and second-year students to acquire the mathematical skills they will need in their chosen field of study.” However, 22% of students receive a grade of a C+ or lower in MATH 115, 8% elect pass/fail and 5% withdraw from the class late. It seems that students could be receiving the content better. I am not saying we should teach different content or make the course overwhelmingly simple, but with the current structure not showing student success in math, why should we continue this way?

A significant problem with the structure of the class is that the University uses the flipped classroom method. Evidence points towards the flipped classroom method being ineffective; an important study from the Hechinger Report, a nonprofit newsroom that covers inequality and innovation in education, found that any improvement in test scores from the flipped classroom is minuscule and does not offset the extra effort that must be put in by students, and the in-person instruction time that is taken away. 

When students look to register for courses, they often use Atlas to see how much work the class is and other information about the class. MATH 105 and 115 have workload percentages of 53% and 48%, respectively. This workload is significantly higher than most classes, especially introductory classes, at the University. The flipped learning style creates extra work for students at home, not to mention they also have to take mastery assessments on their own time. 

In an interview with The Daily, Kinesiology freshman Lauren Price said, “Most of the time, it felt like an independent study,” Price said. “I had to teach myself the material, and we spent three class periods every week just doing group work. I’m paying to be taught, not to try to figure everything out on my own.” Obviously, in-person instruction is valuable to students’ learning and success. 

Not only is this class demanding, but most of these math classes are taught by Graduate Students Instructors who typically do not have a degree in teaching and often have yet to teach MATH 115. This course is primarily learned outside the classroom, so this may seem manageable. However, in an interview with The Daily, LSA freshman Angel Baek, who took MATH 115 said, “A lot of times I would ask my GSI questions about the homework or in-class group work, and he would have no idea how to get to the right answer.” 

This leaves students feeling stranded, and with each of these GSIs writing separate quizzes for the 20 or so students they teach, the course lacks uniformity. The one thing the University has gotten right is the small class sizes. But, with a challenging class, students would appreciate professors with enough knowledge of the course that they can be helpful.

The University and the Math Department are no strangers to the fact that their math classes are hard. The LSA mathematics website says MATH 110 is a class “designed for students who appear to be prepared to handle calculus but are not able to successfully complete MATH 115.” In other words, students failing MATH 115 may be allowed to drop into MATH 110 as a safety net. MATH 110 is a half-semester course jam-packed with material, but it’s only worth two credits. If enough students drop MATH 115 that the University had to create MATH 110, the course isn’t being taught most effectively. Of the students who withdrew from 115 to take 110, nearly 10% dropped 110 late in the term, likely because they weren’t passing that class either. The department is deterring students from learning critical math concepts due to the inefficient structure of the course. 

The current structure isn’t working. Students aren’t leaving this class with a meaningful grasp of the concepts, and many cannot make it through these courses. With math being the foundation of a multitude of careers, it’s no doubt that these classes are essential. It’s time for the math department to make the necessary changes to set students up for success.

Mackenzie Kilano is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at mkilano@umich.edu.