AAC&U News, January/February 2019

Global Learning Inspires College-Level Mathematics

By Hilary Landorf, Florida International University; Kelly MacArthur, University of Utah; Sabine Klahr, University of Utah

To thrive in the twenty-first century, all students must have multiple opportunities to experience global learning, defined as the process of diverse people collaboratively addressing complex problems that transcend borders of difference.1 Global learning enables students to understand and make connections between local and global concerns and analyze pressing issues from multiple perspectives. Proponents of global learning contend that it can be infused in all areas of the curriculum.2 However there is often a mistaken perception that global learning is not appropriate for STEM courses, as they are technical and factually based. For faculty in these areas, using the elements of global learning may seem daunting, particularly in mathematics. Here we describe two calculus courses where the elements of global learning—diversity, collaboration, and complex problem solving—are front and center.  

Kelly MacArthur, assistant department chair of mathematics at the University of Utah, has always aspired to a humanistic approach to teaching and learning. To provide students a safe space and a cohesive community of learners, she writes the following class mission statement on the board every day in every one of her math classes: “This is a kind, inclusive, brave, failure-tolerant classroom.” In challenging her students to enact this statement in every class, MacArthur honors the multiple types of diversity that students bring to the classroom. As Landorf, Doscher, and Hardrick explain, global learning depends on viewing students’ cultural and cognitive diversity as indispensable to achieving every institution’s ultimate mission of transmitting and producing new knowledge.3

In spring 2018, MacArthur added a group component to both the midterms and final exam of her Calculus 2 courses. In making this change, she infused her course with another key element of global learning: collaboration. As MacArthur describes it, students took the collaborative portion of the exam first, during one class period, and they took the solo portion the following class period. She had multiple goals in making this change—increasing comprehension, decreasing math testing anxiety, and creating a collaborative class environment in which a diverse group of students could learn from each other, build relationships, and thrive mathematically.

MacArthur assigned the groups of three to four students two weeks ahead of the exams, paying attention to the makeup of the groups for gender, grade, and cultural diversity. For the group exams, students had fifteen minutes to complete their group exam silently and the remaining forty minutes to work within their group. The group portion of exams made up about 30–35 percent of the exam grade and the solo exam made up the other 65–70 percent. MacArthur put some of the hardest exam questions on the group exam so that students would have the opportunity to collaboratively solve those problems. Collaboration also lent more depth to students’ mathematical thinking and articulation, as research has shown that students learn and retain more content knowledge when they articulate their thinking with others.4

MacArthur structured the final exam slightly differently while retaining the collaborative component. The two-hour final exam period was divided into the first forty-five minutes of solo test time, followed by thirty minutes of group discussion time and then another forty-five minutes of solo time to complete the exam. This gave students time in the middle of the final exam to discuss their ideas and help each other get unstuck on problems that they could finish later, which mimics how mathematicians actually work.

When MacArthur examined exam scores for spring 2018 (after she had implemented the new exam structure), she found that students’ three midterm scores, final exam scores, and overall course grades were all statistically higher than the scores of students from the previous semester (before the new structure). Even more telling, the standard deviations went down substantially with the new assessment structure. Moreover, in surveys and focus groups she conducted, MacArthur found two recurring themes regarding students’ perceptions of the class structure and their experience of the class. Students reported that they experienced less anxiety during exams and that they felt a greater sense of community in the classroom. Overall, this assessment change produced higher exam scores and improved student engagement.

MacArthur was excited about these results, and after participating in a two-and-a-half day Global and Intercultural Learning Retreat at the University of Utah’s Taft-Nicholson Center for Environmental Humanities Education last fall, she was inspired to infuse another global learning element in her Calculus 3 course. At the retreat, sponsored by the university’s Office of Global Engagement (OGE), she participated in several hands-on global learning activities, reflected on the definition of global learning, and had the opportunity to discuss new strategies of infusing global learning in her courses with other faculty. By immersing herself in global learning theory and practice, MacArthur realized that by “humanizing” her calculus courses, she had already infused them with two of the three essential elements of global learning. With the help of the facilitators, global learning educators Hilary Landorf and Stephanie Doscher, she was encouraged to develop globally relevant problems for her students to solve together, thereby satisfying all three elements of global learning.

Thus, in spring 2019, she replaced one of her midterm exams with a choice of group projects involving culturally relevant global scenarios, such as using optimization to determine how to transport food as quickly and inexpensively as possible to victims of a hurricane, or analyzing water quality in rivers around the world that have experienced heavy rainfall.

The approach to teaching math presented here also provides a good example of engaging faculty in global learning. The annual four-day Global and Intercultural Learning Retreat organized by Sabine Klahr, executive director of OGE, included faculty from twelve different disciplines and even from other colleges. It is part of a larger initiative of the OGE to encourage diversity and collaboration in learning, particularly with international students.

The types of collaborative activities workshops used at the retreat, such as engaging in a consequences map and a charrette exercise, can be powerful introductions and reinforcements for faculty to see the ways in which global learning can be infused in the curriculum, and in this case, they showed faculty that STEM courses can present fertile and compelling subject matter and problem-solving opportunities.


1. Hilary Landorf and Stephanie Paul Doscher, “Defining Global Learning at Florida International University,” Diversity and Democracy 18, no. 3 (Summer 2015), 24–25.

2. Dawn Michele Whitehead, “Introduction,” in Essential Global Learning, ed. Dawn Michele Whitehead (Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities, 2016), 1–2; Hilary Landorf, Stephanie Doscher, and Jaffus Hardrick, Making Global Learning Universal: Promoting Inclusion and Success for All Students (Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing and NAFSA, 2018); Betty Leask and Hans de Wit, “Reimagining the HE Curriculum for the 21st Century,” University World News, November 25, 2016, https://www.universityworldnews.com/post.php?story=20161122185905336.

3. Landorf, Doscher, and Hardrick, Making Global Learning Universal.

4. Jeremy Roschelle, “Learning by Collaborating: Convergent Conceptual Change,” Journal of the Learning Sciences 2, no. 3 (January 1992), 235–76; Randi A. Engle and Faith R. Conant, “Guiding Principles for Fostering Productive Disciplinary Engagement: Explaining an Emergent Argument in a Community of Learners Classroom,” Cognition and Instruction 20, no. 4 (2002), 399–483, https://doi.org/10.1207/S1532690XCI2004_1.

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AAC&U News is written and edited by Ben Dedman. If you have questions or comments about the newsletter's contents, please e-mail dedman@aacu.org.


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