Calculus veteran celebrates tenth exam in tails

Calculus: a stumbling block for many, a lead weight for some, among them fourth-year bachelor's student Daan Vijselaar, who yesterday dressed for the occasion to celebrate a Calculus milestone: he sat the exam for the tenth time.

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His voice is hoarse on this morning after the night before. It was clearly an excellent afterparty Monday evening in Hubble Community Café, where Vijselaar is a board member. In good company - which included other Calculus customers - three kegs were drained.

It was in October 2015 in Amsterdam that Vijselaar made his debut on the Calculus stage. Or actually Mathematics 1, as the course is called at the University of Amsterdam, where he was then studying Physics and Astronomy. “In principle it's the same as Calculus here in Eindhoven.” Whereas at TU/e a 5.0 is enough to complete the course, in Amsterdam you have to get another half point. Vijselaar couldn't quite manage it; after two years he swapped the UvA for TU/e. “That course was one of the reasons, yes.”

His first Calculus attempt as a TU/e student of Data Science got him a 4.6 grade. “I thought, ‘I'll manage it next time’ - but apparently not.” Where it keeps going wrong? Okay, some of it is due to effort, Vijselaar admits. “On a couple of occasions I've sat the exam when I've done absolutely nothing; not attended any lectures, nothing. Ach, so then you get a 2.”

Don't jump to the conclusion that Vijselaar is a lazy bones: “I do a lot of things alongside my study. For example, with a group of students I set up the Pattern study association and I'm now busy doing my board year at Hubble. So with all this going on my academic work sometimes gets moved to the back burner”.

After so many failed exam attempts, will he be called to account by the university? “Well, there is a rule that if you have enrolled on a course three times and still haven't passed it, you should send a mail to your academic advisor. Which I did at the start of this academic year. After that I was simply enrolled again; I didn't have to explain myself or anything.”

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Vijselaar, it should be said, is not the only Calculus veteran on campus. “I know at least four other fourth-year Data Science students who were in there again yesterday. With my two other attempts at the UvA I'm now on ten, but they are already on eight.” A certain Willem, who Vijselaar says he doesn't know, is also building a rich Calculus resumé of his own. Plenty of reason for Willem's friends to create a website for him, as Vijselaar's friends, supportive as they are, did for him last fall.

But Vijselaar feels no need to track down others in the same boat as himself. On the contrary, “After this attempt I hope I can leave the Calculus veterans club”. Because yesterday it went pretty well yesterday, he says, looking sincere. “Together with someone else who had the take the exam for the umpteenth time, I've been getting some extra tutoring. That really helped.”

So his tenth attempt on Monday was a serious one - although his festive dress might have given some a different impression. “Everyone said, ‘it's going to be your tenth time, you should wear tails’. ‘Okay,’ I thought, ‘I'll do it.’.”

By February 10th at the latest, those who have resat Calculus will be informed of their exam result. Vijselaar feels hopeful - a feeling he knows is shared by a narrow majority of voters who responded to Cursor's Instagram poll. The poll on Vijselaar's own website, incidentally, was less optimistic: the majority advised the failing student to bribe Emiel van Berkum, the course coordinator. Vijselaar doesn't know Van Berkum well, “really you have more contact with the lecture who teaches you and the course tutors”. But if he's successful this time round and celebrates that with - of course - another party in Hubble, then Van Berkum is more than welcome to come along and raise a glass.

As it happens, Van Berkum would be happy to accept an invitation were it not for the fact that in February he won't be at TU/e. “I'll be sorry to miss it.” The course coordinator says he can laugh about the cheerful commotion surrounding Vijselaar's Calculus lustrum. “It's not something I'm inclined to lose sleep over, I'm not someone who thinks like that.”

'Not everyone's favorite hobby'

While Van Berkum says he doesn't have the statistics to hand, he can say that Vijselaar is certainly not the only student with a long Calculus track record. “There's often a couple of not very serious attempts in there somewhere. And math isn't everyone's favorite hobby, is it?” But he is chiefly struck by the fact that some students just don't study well. “During the quartile you really have to do some serious studying, take the course another time and pay attention, try and understand the underlying methods. Then every time you take the exam it won't be something new and surprising - because actually the same sort of questions are asked time and again, it's just that the function changes or the numbers.”

This last point is something that the experienced Vijselaar, asked for his ultimate tip for others who are finding Calculus a stumbling block, can wholeheartedly endorse:  “A lot of questions are the same year after year and are actually very easy. The last question is always a differential equation; really it is a matter of following a step-by-step plan and filling in the data, and then you'll get to the answer. You just have to realize what you're dealing with. And practice, a lot of practice.” Vijselaar sounds like he means it.

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