Writing Mathematics

Saturday 6 November 2004 at 8:10 pm | In Articles | 3 Comments

Isabel’s math blog is one of those rare things – a mathematics blog; let’s hope it will inspire others. Isabel is a fourth-year undergraduate mathematics student at MIT who has been marking first-year students’ homework. She makes some excellent points that are relevant at all levels including A-level.

I hope she won’t mind me quoting some of what she says at on grading homework:

  • If the problem calls for some numerical answer, or for some symbolic expression as an answer, and the student produces a wrong answer, they can’t get full credit. (Very near full credit, say nine out of ten, is possible.)
  • Not surprisingly, if you know what the answer to a problem is supposed to be, it’s easy to make errors that “cancel each other out”; if you know where the target is you’ll make some pretty strange logical leaps to get there. (I’ve been guilty of this too. Potential approaches to a problem that seemed incredibly stupid at noon the day before the homework is due seem quite reasonable at three in the morning.)
  • The question is, how does one teach students “clarity” in mathematics? One of the things I notice is that the students don’t realize the power of the English language. They write down endless strings of equations, and make no effort to connect these with words that explain what they’re doing. Fortunately for them, as the grader I know what they’re trying to do. But at the same time, sometimes I don’t know what they’re trying to do; they manage to confuse me quite thoroughly.
    There seems to be a flaw in mathematics education – that we don’t teach students how to write mathematics.

My thoughts exactly 🙂


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  1. Yes, there aren’t that many math blogs…

    One small error in your post – I’m actually a fourth-year undergraduate.

    Comment by Isabel — Saturday 6 November 2004 10:36 pm #

  2. Thanks – I will change it

    Comment by Steve — Saturday 6 November 2004 11:50 pm #

  3. Hullo, I came across your site from Isabel’s and I thought I’d shamelessly plug my own maths blog. Actually, the last few posts have been very off topic, but there is some maths in there. http://www.gooseania.blogspot.com

    With regard to marking, we had to do a course last week which tried to teach us how to mark and as an exercise we had to grade some guy’s coursework. I had a big dilemma because the guy had written something that really should have been in brackets and without them looked wrong, but in the next section he was using his answer correctly, so it was clear he had done it right, he just hadn’t written it correctly! We spent ages debating these things, but no doubt when I have hundreds to mark I’ll lose my enthusiasm…

    Comment by Craig — Sunday 7 November 2004 11:25 pm #

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