Sometimes details matter.

Having visited so many colleges and sitting on even more classes, a pattern has become apparent to me. It’s nothing dramatic, in a way it is obvious, but still it is worth noting. And it is something that we could perhaps copy in one way or another at home. I will indeed argue with some force for it.

I have described the way we organize our courses at my school (and it is quite common in Sweden) in a cycle of 7 weeks of teaching – 1 week of exams. There are four such cycles in an academic year (called “periods”) two each semester. It was like that when I studied myself at Chalmers University of Technology, and I think it is the common pattern at many universities in Sweden. It is a cultural thing. At Chalmers there were three courses taken at the same time, at my place there are two courses in parallel.

One effect of this is that the pace is very high. Our Calculus course is supposed to cover: functions, limits, derivatives, integrals, differential equations, Taylor approximations, min & max problems and curve sketching – all in 7 weeks.

This is madness.

I may upset some of my colleagues here but I will offer one explanation why it became like this. No-one was thinking. And perhaps therefore no-one is to blame? I think some-one just copied from memory what used to be done at engineering schools such as Chalmers. I had this discussion with my friend and colleague Mats a while ago, and I went back and pulled out my old mathematics books from Chalmers in the 70’s. What did I find?

The calculus course stretched out over 3 periods. That is, three times as much time that we are using! Well, obviously that was impossible to copy due to the restrictions from going to an education of 4.5 years down to 3 years. So three courses were compressed into one course. Before pulling out the books I did remember that we had a lot of mathematics. But what I did not remember was that it took almost a year to do calculus. We did have time to go more deeply into some things.

So a practical part of a solution to the problems we have is to stretch out the Linear Algebra course we start with to run through the full Fall Semester. Then stretch out the Calculus course to run through the full Spring Semester. It can be paid for by halving the number of hours in the class room each week. The teaching load will not increase. The students will get more time to assimilate the material.

Here’s a challenge to my colleagues: Come up with one good argument against this reform!

I said I had two conclusions.

I’ve noticed that all colleges have a very simple way of scheduling classes. Either you run on a MWF-schedule meaning that classes meet Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Or you run on a TT-schedule meaning that classes meet Tuesday and Thursday.

You see? MWF and TT are non-intersecting complementary sets of weekdays. This works for simple scheduling. Compare this to what we do. Structure or Spaghetti.

Sometimes we do classes that last for three or four hours (with breaks). Here the duration for classes vary between 50 minutes to 1 hour 10 minutes and that´s it. This makes for effective use of time and I’ve only seen one or two students sleeping.

So beware, dear colleagues. I’m on the warpath!