Editorial Board: Is MATH 51 everything you want from a Stanford education?

June 10, 2018, 7:30 p.m.

Stanford bills itself as giving its students one of the best educations in the world.

While that may be true, it’s hard to feel that way when you’re, say, a freshman slogging through Math 51. Or Chem 31. Or any of the big, rite-of-passage prerequisite classes we’ve all heard our friends complain about.

Many Stanford lecture courses are well-taught, but too many fail to provide the quality of teaching and support we’d hope for from institution so blessed with resources and talent. The issue is broad, spanning from required STEM classes to large humanities ones. With fantastic research on best practices for educators coming out of our very own Graduate School of Education, why can’t we improve the courses that leave so many students discouraged and dismayed?

Students regularly gripe, for example, about how poorly-taught the Math 50 series is (upperclassmen often advise taking it in the winter, when they say there’s a more forgiving curve — something the Math department disputes). A cursory glance over the course reviews on Carta show a mix of opinions, many of the “suck it up” variety: “It’s not as bad as you’ve heard,” some say. “You’ll survive.” Others call the course tough but interesting. On the whole, though, patterns emerge: Students report a dearth of help, too much material jammed into too little time, and a disconnect between what they’re taught and what they’re expected to do. They say that they felt like they were learning much of the material on their own. “This course is blatantly terrible, it’s a mystery why the math department does not fix it,” one particularly disgruntled student writes. (The department notes in a response to this editorial that, while Math 51 has hundreds of students per quarter, lectures are limited to 50 students and avoid pitfalls like Powerpoint while incorporating “active learning” components).

SYMSYS 1 has the opposite problem: Conceived as a broad-based gateway to the interdisciplinary Symbolic Systems major, feedback suggest the course’s ambitious scope and inconsistent instruction have compromised breadth for depth, leaving many students dissatisfied. “Grin and bear it, as it is a necessary evil,” wrote one student reviewer of the autumn 2017 offering. Other Carta reviews regularly complain about disorganized lectures and excessive busywork.

Several big courses draw similarly frustrated reviews.

Not all large lecture courses at Stanford operate this way. The introductory computer science series, comprised of 106A, 106B and 106X, is widely regarded as being well-taught. From approachable professors to assignment help and tutoring at LaIR, there is enough built-in infrastructure to support the hundreds of students who go through that program each quarter. Professors who are devoted to teaching and teaching well are more successful than those going through the motions.

Courses like Math 51 are hard. No shifts in teaching style or course structure will change that, and they shouldn’t seek to — after all, we came here to be challenged. We also recognize that each student’s experience with a class is different; one person’s academic hell is another person’s intellectually vital happy place. But when students consistently complain of courses that don’t set them up for success, the issue needs further examination.

There are many reasons why large lecture courses let students down, none of them unique to Stanford. We’re a research institution where professors are focused not just on their students but also their personal work — the cutting-edge research and scholarly activities that help distinguish our university. While we understand that many professors do not come to Stanford specifically to teach undergraduates, we feel that overall they could be more invested in undergraduate education. Too often professors sacrifice clarity for speed, racing through 100-slide PowerPoint presentations in a 50-minute lecture class, or even spend class time reading notes out loud rather than truly teaching. The skills that make a professor a world-class researcher do not necessarily equip them to most effectively teach that research, or even the fundamentals they learned back in college.

P-set focused classes also face a natural challenge in getting students to engage meaningfully with lecture material. Students learn which office hours to go to in order to zip through their work — which TAs will all but hand answers out — and focus on completion rather than wrestling with tough concepts. As students, we’re responsible for grade-centric attitudes toward our coursework, but there are also ways to teach that discourage this short-sighted tactic. Professor Jo Boaler of the GSE, who specializes in math education, emphasizes a “growth mindset” (a concept coined by Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck) in which the thought process is just as important as getting to the right answer. Teachers’ enthusiasm, presence and thoughtful course structuring signal to students from day one how they should approach a course.

If Stanford wants to deliver on its image as the best higher education has to offer, departments should take all those reviews on Carta seriously, as more than the venting of struggling students. Many departments have revamped or are in the process of revamping their core offerings — just a month ago, The Daily covered the newest iteration of ECON 1.

Departments can also do more to encourage continuity in the teaching team. SYMSYS 1 has struggled to hold on to the same lead instructor for more than two offerings in a row, and it shows in the scramble to set up course content and logistics from scratch each time the class transitions from one professor to another. Nor is the problem unique to SYMSYS 1, which after all has the disadvantage of being hosted by an interdisciplinary program rather than a home department: Large required courses like CS 161 also fluctuate in organization and style as its instructors switch in and out.

In contrast, well-received introductory classes like PHIL 1 and PSYCH 1 have maintained a consistent group of faculty instructors for at least the last five years, and for good reason — teaching complex material in a clear, coherent manner is tough, just as learning it as a first-time student can be. Handling a large class of students with different levels of existing knowledge is a tricky task, and one that gets easier with practice. Departments can help professors to improve as educators by facilitating the transfer of information and best practices across different teaching teams, or better yet, incentivize professors to take on a major introductory course for several years in a row.

The Association of American Universities (AAU) states that universities receive tax breaks because they “[foster] the civic and productive capacity of citizens.” Stanford’s educational mission is just as important as its research mission, and the University’s course offerings — particularly the ones that throngs of students encounter in their first years here — should reflect this across the board.


This piece has been updated to reflect elements of the Math department’s response to the Editorial Board.

Editorials represent the views of The Stanford Daily, an independent newspaper serving Stanford and the surrounding community. The Daily's Editorial Board consists of President and Editor-in-Chief Hannah Knowles '19, Executive Editor Fangzhou Liu '19, Managing Editor of Opinions Regan Pecjak '18, Senior Staff Writer Samantha Wong '18 and Opinions columnist and Managing Editor of Graphics Josh Wagner '20. To contact the Editorial Board, submit an op-ed (limited to 700 words) at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor (limited to 500 words) at [email protected].

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