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MATH 51 now requires diagnostic test


Stanford’s department of mathematics launched an online placement diagnostic that is now required for students who plan on taking introductory math courses, such as MATH 19 or MATH 51. The diagnostic is purely advisory and is part of several departmental changes meant to help address the gap between Advanced Placement (AP) Calculus AB and AP Calculus BC.

“We call it placement diagnostic [and] not placement exam because we don’t regard it as an exam,” said Brian Conrad, professor of mathematics and director of undergraduate studies. “The real purpose is to give students a real time evaluation based upon what they can do and what they know.”

The diagnostic contains 58 multiple-choice questions ranging from precalculus topics to single-variable calculus. There is no time limit for the diagnostic, but it is intended to be taken in one sitting.

Stanford math professors developed the diagnostic to address the disparities between AP Calculus AB and AP Calculus BC. Prior to this year, the math department did not distinguish between getting a five on the AP Calculus AB exam and a five on the AP Calculus BC exam. However, since the topics covered in the two courses differed, some students enrolled in MATH 51 lacked foundational knowledge of certain topics.

To fix this gap, the math department reorganized the MATH 20 series so that MATH 21 covers the topics covered in AP Calculus BC but not in AP Calculus AB. These topics include sequences, power series and improper integrals.

Similarly, AP credit transfer policies changed due to the gap. In the past, students who got a five on either the AP Calculus AB or BC exam received 10 units. Now, a five on the AP Calculus AB exam translates into eight units, whereas a five on the AP Calculus BC exam remains at 10 units.

The diagnostic went live on Canvas on Aug. 8. An email was sent out to incoming freshmen that month, informing them about the diagnostic.

However, some upperclassmen, such as Tristan Vanech ’18, were unaware of the diagnostic because there had never been one before. Vanech learned about the diagnostic after being unable to enroll in MATH 51 on Axess.

“I felt that it was a little bit confusing to figure out that I had to take the diagnostic,” Vanech said. “Since I’m a junior, I didn’t have [an] orientation about math classes [like the one] the freshmen get, so I didn’t know that I had to do anything to enroll in MATH 51.”

John Coyle ’20, who took both AP Calculus AB and BC in high school, thought the diagnostic tested conceptual thinking rather than pure computational skills.

“I thought that I didn’t have the greatest grasp on Taylor series, but I was able to easily answer the question on Taylor series,” Coyle said. “It was simplified, as if they were asking more for conceptual purposes rather than how good you are at doing something.”

The diagnostic recommended that he take MATH 51, which Coyle believes is a good fit for him.

“I think [MATH 51] is just the right challenge,” Coyle said. “It’s not so hard that it’s awful.”


Contact Anne-Marie Hwang at amhwang ‘at’

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