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**Analysis by Meena Boppana, Kate Donahue, Domniki Georgopoulou, and Caitlin Stanton
**

Survey design contributions by Rahul Dalal, Ellen Robo, and Isabel Vogt

November 20, 2014

1

Introduction

In May 2013, a small group of students in the undergraduate math community wrote and conducted a poll

of Harvard undergraduate life in the math department. The questions were designed to help provide answers

to questions the students believed were of importance to the Harvard math community. The survey was sent

out through the math department and HUMA (Harvard Undergraduate Math Association) mailing lists.

130 students completed the survey, while 155 partially filled it out. At the time, math concentrators (both

primary and secondary) were 150. Out of the respondents, 50 were concentrating in math, 11 in applied

math, 21 in physics, 13 in computer science, 3 in statistics, and 3 in engineering, while 8 were pursuing

concentrations in other natural sciences, 2 in humanities or social sciences, 10 in math and a natural science

(math first), 15 in math and a natural science (math second), 1 in math and humanities or social sciences,

with 4 undecided. 24 were seniors, 34 juniors, 47 sophomores and 36 freshmen. 82 were male and 40 female.

While an option was offered for an ”Other” response on the gender question, no one chose it. Over the

following months, the group of students analyzed the results of the survey. This analysis is presented below.

Central topics of study are high school math preparation, freshman year math class taken, self-perceived

rank within the department and the math advising system. These are investigated and presented below,

frequently in combinations of one or more topics. We hope this poll will be of interest and use to the Harvard

math community.

1

2

Breakdown by Gender

**We are interested on the effects of gender on students’ level of involvement in the math department,
**

future plans, and perceived rank.

**Women entering Harvard participated in math competitions in high school at roughly the same rate as
**

men: 80 percent of males participating in math competitions at at least the local level and 76 percent as

women. Yet only 7 percent of females participate in math competitions at the college level, presumably the

Putnam exam, while 28 percent of males do.

**Despite the seemingly equal levels of preparation, female math concentrators tend to take less intense
**

freshman year math classes. Of math concentrators, 50 percent of women took math 25 or 55 freshman year,

while 72 percent of males did.

On average, female math concentrators feel less involved in the math department than males. 45 percent

of female math concentrators feel very uninvolved in the math department, whereas only 12 percent of males

do. When you include “somewhat uninvolved” the numbers are 54 percent of females feel somewhat or very

uninvolved, 33 percent of males feel somewhat or very uninvolved. 82 percent of female math concentrators

would like to be somewhat or very involved in the math department, and 73 percent of male math concentrators would like to be. Male math concentrators feel that they can ask, on average, 1.6 professors for a

letter of recommendation, whereas females feel that they can ask 1.0 professors on average.

2

Females also very much notice the gender gap. 54 percent of female math concentrators report feeling

somewhat or very uncomfortable in the math department as a result of the gender gap. (Only 3 percent of

males do.)

When it comes to future plans, we see that fewer females plan to continue on to math grad school and

academia. Of math concentrators (including joint concentrators), 49 percent of men plan on writing theses in

math while only 26 percent of women do. Moreover, 27 percent of female math concentrators currently plan

to attend graduate school in pure math, whereas 65 percent of male male concentrators plan to. Long-term

only 18 percent of female math concentrators plan to stay in pure math academia, whereas 47 of male math

concentrators do.

3

Preparation in high school and freshman year

**Students at Harvard arrive with widely different levels of high school math preparation. These differences
**

might be expected to impact a student’s choice of freshman math class, perception of math ability and even

choice of concentration. This section investigates these connections and attempts to discover patterns behind

the choices students make.

3

Firstly, it helps to get a sense of how students’ high school classes are correlated with their self-perceived

ranking within the school. The two questions are compared in the graph above: “What math

courses did you take or self-study in high school?” and “How good do you think you are at

math compared to your peers?” The resulting trends might be expected: those who had taken AP

Calculus AB tended to think they were “average” in math ability. The plurality of those who had taken

Calculus BC ranked their ability as “upper third” or “average”, while those who had taken multivariable

calculus displayed a more pronounced tendency to rate themselves as in the “upper third”. Finally, those

who had taken some other advanced math course overwhelmingly considered themselves in the “upper third”

or “top 10%”. Interestingly, 20% of them still ranked themselves of “average” math ability. Note that respondents could select multiple categories, so those who had taken AP Calculus AB and AP Calculus BC,

for example, were counted in both categories. Given these results, it is likely that the differences in

perceived ability varies strongly with high school preparation. However, it’s worth noting that

those who took a less rigorous math class in high school are not necessarily weaker math students, even if

they consider themselves to be. The next section investigates how high school math class and freshman year

math classes are related.

**The next question investigates the high school background of students in four of the introductory math
**

classes. These math classes were selected because they are the ones that potential concentrators most fre4

quently take. This shows a few interesting results. First, in every class over 80% of the students

had taken Calculus BC. However, the percentage of students having taken AP Calculus BC

actually decreased as you transition from Math 23 to 25 to 55. One potential reason could be

students taking more unconventional math paths in high school. One distinguishing characteristic between

freshman math classes was the percent of students having taken multivariable calculus. The percent rose

steadily across the math classes.

There appear to be slight but clear differences in the background of students who take each freshman year

math class. However, how does the choice of class influence each student’s future math career?

**The answer is, it depends. Very few students who took Math 21 ended up concentrating in
**

math. By contrast, roughly equal percentages of students who took Math 23 and Math 25

concentrated in math. Students who took Math 55 overwhelmingly concentrated in math. One potential

explanation could be Math 21’s lack of proofs, which makes entering the next sequence of math classes

difficult. As opposed to students who took Math 23 and above, who can immediately take Math 122, Math

113 or other advanced math courses, those who took Math 21 must take Math 101 first to obtain exposure

to proofs. This could discourage undecided students from concentrating in math.

5

**The choice of freshman math class also is correlated with how many math classes each
**

student will take over their freshman year. Again, Math 23 and 25 show similar patterns: a large

majority will take 1 class per semester, on average. However, a large percentage of students who took Math

21 will take 0 math classes per semester. On the other end of the spectrum, most students who took Math

55 will take 2 math classes a semester, on average.

**Finally, objective differences in classes taken can influence subjective views of math ability.
**

Whether students had taken Calculus AB or BC (percentages separated by slashes), they had similar opinions

of their ability relative to other students in the department: 9/6 percent placed themselves in the top 10

percent, 20/31 percent put themselves in the upper third, 36/29 percent considered themselves average,

29/28 percent put themselves in the bottom third, and 5/7 percent put themselves in the bottom 10 percent.

These percentages shifted slightly upwards for students with experience in Linear Algebra, Multivariable

Calculus or Differential Equations, with a plurality of students placing themselves in the upper third, and

with students with other math experience, of whom 55 percent considered themselves in the upper third and

15 percent considered in the top 10 percent. In addition, respondents showed that they experienced

different levels of respect from their peers. For students with every level of background except ”other

math classes”, about 25 percent felt very respected, while roughly 45 percent felt somewhat respected. Less

than 10 percent of respondents felt somewhat not respected or very not respected. However, for students

with ”other math experience”, 40 percent felt very respected, 35 percent felt somewhat respected, 20 percent

felt neither respected nor not respected, and only 5 percent felt somewhat not respected.

4

Self-perceived rank

We were most interested in the effects of self-perceived rank in the department on other experiences with the

department. In particular we looked at overall happiness, involvement in the math department, and average

number of math courses taken per semester.

Those who ranked their mathematical ability higher also felt that they were more involved in the math

department. While those who considered themselves to be “very good” (in the top 10%) gave themselves

on average a rating of 3.13 for involvement in the department (where 3 denotes “neither involved nor

uninvolved,” 4 “somewhat uninvolved,” and 5 “very uninvolved”), those who ranked themselves lowest (in

6

the bottom 10%) ranked their involvement at 4.86 on average.

Not surprisingly, those with higher perceived rank tended to take more math classes per semester. The

results for this crosstab are shown below.

5

Advising

**Students tend to feel that advisers are not sufficiently involved with undergraduate concerns.
**

Even though 25 percent of students are undecided about this issue, only 4 percent feel that advisers are very

involved with undergraduates.

7

**It is also important to note in this section that undergraduates do not generally pursue meetings with
**

their professors.

We saw, however, that independent of how often students seek out meetings with their professors, they

still thought that the department advisers are not particularly involved. This indicates that the perceived

quality of advising is independent of how involved the students personally are with faculty.

8

**When the students were asked if, in retrospect, they would like to change their current concentration,
**

the majority replied that they would not. 12 percent said they would consider such an option, but only 2

percent mentioned the quality of advising as their primary reason.

6

Conclusions

In conclusion, we hope that this survey has helped math concentrators be aware of what some of the concerns

of the community are. We noticed a dropoff of women continuing to pursue math, in particular between

high school and freshman year math class, and between being a math concentrator and pursuing graduate

school. This may be related to our finding that women are on average less comfortable and less involved

in the department. How involved one is in the math department is influenced by one’s self perceived rank.

Moreover one’s self-perceived rank is influenced strongly by one’s high school preparation upon entering

college. Students feel that their advising experience could be better; this impression is shared by the student

body, independent of how proactive students individually are about pursuing relationships with faculty

members.

We want to end with our opinions about what students can do to enhance their experience in the math

department:

• Get involved in HUMA (Harvard Undergraduate Math Association) if you’d like to get more involved

in math at Harvard (math@hcs.harvard.edu)

• Be proactive and reach out to professors.

• Keep in mind that the freshman class that you take, as well as your high school background, is not a

direct reflection of your potential to be a math concentrator.

• Join the discussion of how to make the math community even better. If you have any specific issues

that you feel passionate about, start a dialogue.

If you have any comments regarding this survey, please reach out to Meena Boppana (boppana@college.harvard.edu),

Kate Donahue (kdonahue@college.harvard.edu), or Domniki Georgopoulou (dgeorgopoulou@college.harvard.edu).

7

Acknowledgements

We would like to thank the Harvard math department for instrumental support of this survey. We are very

grateful to Prof. Benedict Gross for his guidance, and to Cindy Jimenez for helping publicize our survey to

the undergraduate math community.

9

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