Calculus Placement for First Year Students

Welcome to Colby and to the Department of Mathematics! We’re glad you’ll be joining us!  Before proceeding, please carefully read our information on our Calculus program and what kinds of Calculus certain majors require.

Also remember:

  • If you are planning to take a Calculus course at any point during your time at Colby, we recommend that you take it during your first semester here. Mathematics is cumulative and Calculus relies on what you learned in high school, so it’s best to start before you forget anything.
  • Our course numbering recently changed. If you encounter any confusion when talking with others or reading the College catalogue, visit this page for the details on how the numbering changed.

How Placement Works:

  1. You read the our information on our Calculus program and what kinds of Calculus certain majors require. (Hopefully, you’ve already done that!)
  2. You read through this page completely and decide what Calculus course you think is most appropriate for yourself. If you are not sure, it is better to err on the side of choosing the more challenging course.
  3. Follow the link at the bottom of this page to fill out our detailed Calculus Questionnaire. That questionnaire will ask you what course you think is most appropriate for yourself. You need to fill out the questionnaire by June 16, 2022.
  4. After filling out the questionnaire, you will be contacted by the Calculus Coordinator who will tell you which course you have been placed into. The placement takes into account what course you think is most appropriate, as well as the other information you provide. You should expect to hear about your placement by June 20, 2022.
  5. You register for the Calculus course you were placed into.

What happens after I register?

Colby course registration does not operate on a “first-registered, first-served” basis. Instead, after registration courses are “pruned” and “balanced”. If a course has more students than the course cap, then students are removed from the course according to a unique set of rules for each course. (This is “pruning”.) If a course has multiple sections and some sections have more students than others, students are moved from one section to another section to make the enrollments as equal as possible. (This is “balancing”.) Pruning and balancing helps ensure a quality education for all students by allowing faculty to provide attention to each of their students. This would not be possible if enrollments are too high.

What makes Colby Calculus different from my previous math classes?

One of the biggest differences that you’ll likely encounter is that all of our calculus courses focus more on ideas than on calculations. This might be different from your experience of high school math classes. That’s a good thing! Computers can do the calculations for us, but we have to understand what we are asking them to calculate, why we might want to, and be able to judge whether or not the answers we get are correct and useful. You should not expect to just sit down and blow through a problem set in a few minutes. Both class time and homework are designed to make you think hard!

A second big difference is that homework assignments will take you much longer than you are used to. This is by design! College classes move faster than high school classes. (The good news is that your whole daily schedule is completely different too!) The typical rule of thumb for College classes is that you should spend 2-3 hours on course material outside of class for each hour in class. Our classes meet (approx.) 4 hours per week, so that means you should be spending 8 – 12 hours outside of class on course material. Most of that time will be spent on homework. Be sure to talk with your professor about how to use that time effectively.

What if I don’t like my placement?

If you are happy with the course, but not with which section you are in, there is not much we can do. Even if it appears that some spots in your favorite section are available, they probably are not. We reserve spots in courses so that students who have been placed incorrectly can be moved into the correct course. If you have a course conflict with a course you must take, please speak with the Calculus Coordinator. If you have a conflict with athletic commitments, please speak with your coach to work out alternative arrangements.

If you think you have been placed into the wrong course, please be sure to try it for a few days. Feeling like your classmates know a lot more than you do is not reason enough to believe you are in the wrong course. Part of the point of coming to a school like Colby is that you get to study with bright, intense, academically gifted fellow students. Depending on your background, this may be a new experience for you. If you are feeling intimidated by your classmates, there are two things to keep in mind: First of all, they may not know as much as they think they do. You should think critically about what they say. Secondly, if they do know as much as they think they do, they are an excellent resource to draw on – learn as much as you can from them, but remember that you also have a lot to offer. Talk with your professor to figure out ways you can be making valuable contributions to the course.

If you are trying MA 135: Honor Calculus I and wish to switch into MA 160, we can almost certainly make that happen, even after the end of the add period. If you are in MA 130 or 160, please speak with both your instructor and the Calculus Coordinator. However, keep in mind that most first-semester students have difficulty telling the difference between “College is harder than high school” and “I’m in the wrong course.” If both your instructor and the Calculus Coordinator agree that you were placed incorrectly, then we can likely move you to an appropriate course. This movement should be done prior to the end of the “add period”. If you are in MA 119 or MA 125, your only option is to drop the course. In any event, do not just drop a course. If you are being moved to a different Calculus course, the Calculus Coordinator will give you instructions on what to do. If you are dropping Calculus altogether, you should work with your first-year advisor to be sure you have a workable plan. Once you drop a course, we will almost certainly give your spot to someone else and you will not be allowed back in.

How can I succeed in Calculus?

There is not enough space here to give full justice to this question, so we’ll just highlight the key points. You should attend class every day and participate. You should attend office hours and TA hours frequently. You should work with classmates on homework assignments. You should spend 8 – 12 hours per week outside of class studying and working on homework. You should ask your professor for advice on spending that time well. It is normal for students of all math backgrounds and abilities to spend a lot of time working on Calculus and to go to office hours and TA hours. Do not be afraid to make mistakes or say wrong things in front of others. Just as you wouldn’t shame someone else, they won’t shame you. (Or if they do, they should be ashamed!) If you do not attend office hours regularly, you are not making full use of the opportunities at Colby. Generally speaking, if you take ownership of your education, work hard by yourself and with others, ask questions, and use your time efficiently, you are highly likely to succeed. We encourage you to be more focused on learning as much as you can, rather than grades. If you focus on learning and work to communicate clearly, the grades will likely come. Obsessing about grades is likely to harm your ability to focus on learning. That said, if you ever have a question about your grades or how you are doing in the course, don’t hesitate to speak with your instructor.

What about a tutor? Our experience has been that tutors are as likely to harm a student’s learning as they are to help. You are much better off working with classmates, making contributions as equitably as possible. You are also much better off attending office hours and TA hours to get help from those who know the class well. It is normal to struggle in Calculus. Those that don’t find math difficult, haven’t done it long enough! It is very important, however, that your struggle is productive and that you are using your time efficiently. Productive struggle means reading the textbook, reviewing notes, trying a similar problem, trying various approaches, and sharing ideas with others. If you find yourself just staring at a math problem without having any idea how to do it, you should stop and ask yourself how you can make your struggle productive. That said, a tutor is appropriate for some students: those that are putting in full effort and still at risk of earning a D or F in the course. If you unfortunately find yourself in this position, please do reach out to your professor to inquire about the possibility of getting a tutor and for additional advice on how to succeed in Calculus.

OK – just tell me what course to take!

In the Placement Questionnaire linked to below, we will ask you what course you think you should be placed into. We have two charts to help you decide which course is appropriate for you. The first chart is for those who have not taken Calculus; the second is for those who have. Please read the appropriate chart carefully. If you are one of the rare incoming Colby students who has taken math courses that are more advanced than single-variable Calculus (such as multivariable Calculus or linear algebra), you should either plan to take MA 135 or start taking math classes at the 2xx-level. In any case, everyone who plans to take Calculus at Colby, needs to fill out the Placement Questionnaire. You can find the link after the charts.

No previous Calc Placement

Use this chart if you did not take Calculus before coming to Colby.


Previous Calc Chart

Use this chart if you have taken Calculus before coming to Colby

Finally – here’s the link to the Questionnaire!

The Calculus Placement Questionnaire. (you need to log into your Colby account to access the questionnaire). After filling this out, you’ll receive an email from us by June 20, 2022 with your Calculus placement. In the mean time, if there’s some aspect of your math history or needs that weren’t addressed by the form, please fill free to reach out to us by email. Please also only fill out the form one time. The deadline for filling out this form is Thursday June 16, 2022, but the earlier you fill it out the better. If you have questions about placement that these pages don’t answer, please email Calculus Coordinator Prof. Michael Ben-Zvi [email protected]
Thanks! And see you in the Fall!