‘Calculus Fight Club’ has become a knockout win for Clemson math students
CLEMSON, South Carolina — What happens when you combine a graduate student who won’t accept failure as an option with hundreds of undergraduate math students eager to succeed but struggling with difficult material?
A lot of D’s and F’s are turned into A’s, B’s and C’s.
An innovative series of pre-exam study sessions provocatively titled “Calculus Fight Club” – which began with 50 students in one Clemson University classroom in September 2015 and has since grown to as many as 600 spread over multiple rooms and buildings – has turned failure into success on a scale that has surprised even the club’s creator.
Calculus Fight Club is the brainchild of Ryan Grove, graduate teacher of record in the department of mathematical sciences in the College of Science. Grove came to Clemson University four years ago as a doctoral student, and when he was assigned to teach calculus in the fall of 2015, he was dismayed to discover that the DFW (D-Fail-Withdraw) rate for some classes had grown unreasonably high.
“I came across a DFW rate that was just insane. I looked at data for Math 1080 in one fall semester and I thought, ‘Well, that’s kind of ridiculous,’” said Grove, a native of Portage, Pennsylvania, who was on a research assistantship at Clemson for about 18 months before he began to teach at the university. “I asked myself, ‘How can I improve this?’ At the time, I didn’t have a grander goal in mind; I just wanted my class to perform better. So I kept trying to figure out what was lacking, why some of the students were doing poorly, and how I could help them do better.”
Grove’s analytical mind went to work solving these problems, but his first effort did not fare particularly well. Grove assigned his students to take three older tests available online on the course website that contained similar problems to what would appear on an upcoming exam. But even though the students did what Grove asked, many of them still performed poorly on the semester’s first exam.
“Afterward, I said to them, ‘What happened, guys?’ And they said, ‘Well, we didn’t really put that much effort into it. To us, it was just another assignment,’ ” Grove said. “And I thought, ‘OK, this isn’t going to work.’ And then I thought, ‘What if I get my students together and we meet after class to study together?’ I even decided to give the gathering a catchy name to make it more intriguing. As it turned out, I had just finished watching the movie ‘Fight Club’ with my girlfriend, and it dawned on me that everyone likes ‘Fight Club.’ So I named it Calculus Fight Club. And that’s when things started to turn around.”
The Monday night before the second exam, Grove met with 50 of his students in a classroom on campus. From 9 p.m. to midnight, they went over old test problems and also modified problems that were similar to what they would face on the real exam two days later. Grove alternated between lecturing to the students and having them support each other by working in close-knit groups.
“Without even realizing it, they were tricking themselves into having fun with calculus rather than dreading or fearing it,” Grove said. “And when we got the results back from the second exam, their grades were way better. So we decided to do it again before the third exam, and students started coming over to me and asking if they could bring friends. And I said, ‘Sure, why not?’”
The original 50 grew to 100, and by the end of the semester had swelled to 200. Now in its fourth semester, Calculus Fight Club study sessions attract an average of 400-500 students studying for Math 1020, 1060, 1080 and 2070.
It quickly became too much for Grove to handle on his own, so he enlisted student instructors and students in his own class — most of whom were then involved in the Supplemental Instruction program that now is called Peer-Assisted Learning (PAL) — to take charge of individual rooms. This freed Grove to wander from place to place, checking on everyone’s progress and assisting with especially difficult problems.
“It grew so large that I couldn’t be everywhere at once,” Grove said. “But it was a great problem to have. And in the end, not only did the students benefit with much-improved grades, but the student teachers also got a lot out of it. To be honest, I couldn’t be prouder of all of them. Calculus Fight Club might have started small, but it’s become an integral part of the teaching process in the math department and has paid many dividends.”
Grove’s two-year stint as head of Calculus Fight Club will end in August when he will receive his Ph.D. in mathematical sciences. But the good news is, the club will not end. The club’s current head teaching coordinator, sophomore A.J. Miller, will take over Grove’s position and ensure that Calculus Fight Club continues to grind out a lot more A’s, B’s and C’s — hopefully, heavy on the A side.
“I’ve been floating this semester, doing some of the things that Ryan’s been doing and learning all that I need to learn from him,” said Miller, a native of Fort Mill who is a physics and computer science major. “My goal is to make sure that we continue to be responsible about it and also continue to recruit talented student coordinators. I want to make sure that we remain a student-run club. Ryan’s biggest emphasis has always been that Calculus Fight Club is run ‘by students for students’ rather than be taken over by faculty. Because, well, we do things kind of unconventionally — especially when you consider that our review sessions don’t end until midnight.”
Math 1060 coordinator Polly Payne will be at Miller’s side, scheduling rooms, helping him recruit leaders and choosing which problems to teach and practice.
“Many of the students have told me that they like how we alternate between lectures, where we explain the thought process behind some of the steps, and group sessions, where we give them a chance to work on their own,” said Payne, a native of Cary, North Carolina, who is a junior math major concentrating in actuarial science. “The classes are definitely a lot louder when students are doing it on their own. Some finish early and then talk to their friends. Others continue to ask each other for help. But, in general, they are very respectful of each other and of us.”
One student who sings the praises of Calculus Fight Club is Michael Serra, a freshman this spring in Math 1080.
“Calculus Fight Club has gotten me through Calc II, which is a very difficult class that many students underestimate,” said Serra, a native of Rock Hill who is planning to major in computer engineering. “After attending my first Monday night session, I got a 95 on the Wednesday exam. That was a real eye-opener for me and made me very happy. It’s great learning from fellow students who are sort of in the same place as I am. It doesn’t even feel like teaching. It’s more like refining and focusing. By the time I take the exam, it almost feels like just another homework assignment.”
Chris Cox, who chairs the mathematical sciences department, said Ryan is a role model for outstanding leadership who shows sincere concern for the welfare of the students he teaches. Cox pointed out that the DFW rate for Math 1080 in spring 2016 was about half the rate of the previous spring, and he believes that Ryan’s efforts contributed to that improvement.
The final spring 2017 session of Calculus Fight Club will be tonight (April 27) followed by the final exam on May 1. Calculus Fight Club will return for more sessions in the fall 2017. By then, Grove will be gone. But his legacy will be stronger than ever.