Good Idea or Recipe For Hell?
December 2, 2013 11:11 AM   Subscribe

I am going into my last semester of college, and I have signed up to take Calculus III, three years after taking Calc II. This may be a great idea or a terrible one.

Pros of enrolling in this class: 1) I have the class under my belt. The main reason that I am taking this class is that I will need it should I decide to go to attend a certain graduate school that I am looking at.

2) The class is essentially "free" if I enroll in it next semester. This is a four-credit class, bumping my enrollment from 12 credits to 16. A course load of 16 credits costs the same as one of 12. If I choose to take it later (i.e. after I graduate/in grad school), it won't be "free."

3) Despite not having been in a math class in three years, math is probably still my best subject. Although I will be incredibly rusty, I should be able to re-pick up the basic concepts over time, and I have a month to prepare for beforehand.

Cons: 1) This is my last semester of undergraduate life. I'm not sure if I want to add additional work/stress to what looks to be a somewhat stressful semester already.

2) There is a decent chance that I will not need this class. I am currently looking at three different graduate programs, and only of them will require me to have this class - and that's if I even decide to go at all.

3) As I said, I am extremely rusty.

4) There is the potential that I could have a terrible professor. As of today, I still don't know who is teaching the class. However, the chances are good that I could have a great professor, as this will be an Honors section of the course.

So, all things considered: Should I take Calc III next semester?
posted by DRoll to Education (17 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Register, buckle down, and if you're not hacking it on the last day to drop, drop it.
posted by spikeleemajortomdickandharryconnickjrmints at 11:13 AM on December 2, 2013 [13 favorites]

I'd say, give it a shot, but be assessing right from the start of the semester, so that you can drop it by the drop deadline if necessary.

You can also try to get a copy of the book early, so you can try and work though a little of it, to see how it strikes you.

I don't know what your other coursework has been like, but I found Calc III to be trivially easy after taking lots and lots of physics. If you're a mathy person, and vectors make sense to you, you should find that Calc III is just a straightfoward application of Calc I & II principles to vectors.
posted by BrashTech at 11:16 AM on December 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

Can you spend a lot of time preparing in that month?

There are a lot of resources online that you can use to brush up on. Like Paul's online calculus notes. Depending on how well you teach yourself things, I bet its doable.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 11:26 AM on December 2, 2013

There is a decent chance that I will not need this class. I am currently looking at three different graduate programs, and only of them will require me to have this class - and that's if I even decide to go at all.

If the other two require some level of math, you will be grateful for having revisited the subject at all.

And even if they don't, why eliminate one option before you take a whack at it? Do what spike...mints suggests.
posted by Etrigan at 11:26 AM on December 2, 2013

At my school, Calc II was infamous for being a real pain in the butt- partly because it was the highest level of math that most non-math majors had to take, but also because it's really boring and confusing. Infinite sums and series are weird, non-intuitive, and pretty unapplicable to any undergraduate sciences so far as I know. Maybe somewhere in physics you'd do simple infinite sums.

Calc III on the other hand is really nice. If you like visualizing things and understand calc I concepts well (integrals and derivatives) you'll be a-ok. I forgot all of Calc II in between taking it and taking III and barely needed to play catch-up. I also had an excellent teacher which might color my perceptions of the course, but it can be very very good and not at all a slog.

n.b. I was a math major, so take estimates of difficulty with a grain of salt.
posted by BungaDunga at 11:42 AM on December 2, 2013

Like others, register for the class, see if you can get the book now. (From the library would be best in case you drop the course. Older copy of the book is probably fine.) Then, go to Khan Academy and start watching videos that pertain to help get you up to speed. If you decide that you need more time to review the class, then drop and take it later if and when you need it. You can also drop the class if you find that you don't need it.

Wife of 445supermag
posted by 445supermag at 11:43 AM on December 2, 2013

I agree with everyone saying to go ahead and register for the class but be prepared to drop itif it's not working out. I found calc III infinitely easier than calc II.
posted by tealcake at 11:54 AM on December 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

I took Calc III seven years after taking Calc II, having done nothing resembling calculus in the interim, and managed to get a low A. The good thing is that the class will focus on introducing new material: namely, extending what you should already know about integration and differentiation to multivariable functions. It will generally avoid any obscure corners you might have hit in Calc II. The bad thing is that forgetting the rules for differentiating and integrating functions of a single variable is very easy.

Although there will be plenty of exercises on the homework to help remind you how to do these things and you should be able to ramp up pretty quickly, it helps to remind yourself of the basic set of calculus techniques. So try to find a single-variable calculus book (or some online exercise sets with solutions, they're really plentiful) and work through some problems in:
    - differentiating and integrating polynomials
    - the product and quotient rules for differentiation
    - differentiating and integrating transcendental functions (exp, log, basic trig functions, in various combinations)
    - the values of trig functions for common inputs (you can reason this out by thinking of a unit circle, but it helps for this to be on fast dial)
    - how to apply the chain rule for differentiation and how to spot places where you can undo it for integration (u-substitution or another means)
    - how to apply integration by parts in simple cases

If you are missing the base skills for these techniques, then you have more preparation to do, I guess, but just having a basic grasp of these techniques will make it much easier to hack the class. I remember spending 10 minutes on my first Calc III midterm frantically trying to reimplement u-substitution from scratch. One issue I had with Calc III is that, despite introducing some pretty cool stuff and being pretty simple, it still focuses really heavily on arithmetic. You will be most successful if you can quickly and correctly apply the "formula rewriting" rules I listed above. It's one of those classes where the basic concepts are straightforward, but success still depends on tedious number-crunching.

Again, this is not a class where watching videos or reading the book can take you much past square one. You really need the muscle memory gained by working through several problem sets for each basic calculus technique.
posted by Nomyte at 11:59 AM on December 2, 2013

I will never fuck around with something as terrible as Calc III, but I will say that, five years out of undergrad, I wish I had more carefully planned my course load so as to maximize my qualifications for grad school and get pre-reqs out of the way. It saves a lot of agita later.
posted by Snarl Furillo at 12:05 PM on December 2, 2013

There's probably a math majors advisor at your university. Talk to him/her. My dad had this job for a couple of years and this is exactly the kind of question that he could answer for you after talking to you about your history.
posted by sciencegeek at 12:49 PM on December 2, 2013

I should add that I earned an A- in both Calc I and Calc II (during the 2010-11 school year).

My Calc I professor was terrible - I should have known that there was a problem when 10 people dropped the class within the first week. I would have earned a much lower grade had I not gone to tutoring 2-3 times a week during the semester.

My Calc II professor, on the other hand, was absolutely amazing, and he was recently named as one of Rate My Professor's Top 25 in the nation - I hope that I have him again.
posted by DRoll at 1:15 PM on December 2, 2013

One more thing (before I move into threadsitting zone): The drop date is two weeks after the first day of class - not much time, unfortunately.
posted by DRoll at 1:33 PM on December 2, 2013

If you're seriously drowning or if the professor sucks, you'll know by that two-week drop deadline.
posted by Etrigan at 1:36 PM on December 2, 2013 [2 favorites]

I say go for it. It may be super easy for you and you may get that great prof. You'll know in time to drop if you don't think you're going to want to do it.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 1:46 PM on December 2, 2013

Calc III (like the previous two) is a canned course. The professor has almost no effect on the content of the course, and there really aren't that many ways to teach tangent plane approximation or whatever. As long as you read the book first and treat the lecture as review, there's virtually no way for the professor to torpedo the course. It's all right there in the book.

Also, I'm not sure if students dropping out of a course is a good indicator of its quality. Students are notoriously finicky and irrational, and they often try to shift all blame onto the instructor. It's a depressingly familiar refrain that everyone just nods along to, because we fear and hate math as a society. In reality, students often don't have enough time to dedicate to the work, or don't have effective study skills, or have forgotten the fundamental skills necessary for the course material. If you look at RateMyProfessor or Amazon or whatever, you will find that all lower-division math textbooks are bad and all math instructors are incompetent.
posted by Nomyte at 2:03 PM on December 2, 2013

I've been teaching Calc III for a number of years now; I'm currently teaching it this semester. My feeling about the class is that it's the easiest of the entire calc sequence - there's a good bit of straightforward geometry in it, and most of the things you do are reasonably algorithmic, with good geometric intuition behind them. Most problems aren't too long and don't generally require pages of computations. (Of course, this could depend on your professor and which book you use.) There are not lots of gnarly integrals - most people who teach the class de-emphasize the more involved integration techniques from Calc II. You also (unless your syllabus is nonstandard) will not have to remember sequences & series.

So I'd say go for it, and I also highly recommend that you talk to your professor about the fact that you haven't had math in a few years. I'm always happy to help out students who tell me that they're rusty on the prerequisites and I let them know exactly what they do and don't need to know from Calc I and II for the class. Any professor worth their salt will do the same.
posted by Frobenius Twist at 2:11 PM on December 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

Another vote for take the class. The first thing I tell students on day one of Calc II is "Calc III is easier, so if this course is challenging, the next one will be much easier."
posted by wittgenstein at 8:52 AM on December 3, 2013

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