Writing for a Math Class

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The union of the mathematician with the poet,

fervor with measure, passion with correctness,

this surely is the ideal.

—William James

Why Write?

Writing for a math class strikes many students, and teachers too, as an odd idea to say the least. However, an increasing number of educators have recognized the importance of written composition, especially in lower division and survey courses, for helping students to master and express mathematical ideas. When a math class consists, as it too often does, of nothing more than a collection of techniques to be learnt by rote and regurgitated on exams, then certainly writing about those techniques is superfluous. But when a mathematics course, as it ought, becomes a journey of discovery—of mathematical ideas and the importance of those ideas in our appreciation of the world—then writing about mathematics can become a powerful component of the learning process.

An increasing number of educators have begun to incorporate a modest amount of composition into their syllabi, with surprising results. The reason for their success is not difficult to understand. Most instructors will readily admit that they “never truly understood” the basic mathematical ideas that constitute algebra, trigonometry, and calculus until they had to teach those ideas to others. What this fact illustrates is that until an idea is communicated to others it has not really made itself at home in our own minds. Communicating ideas brings them alive, pulling them off the flat page of our memory and giving them solid shape in the dynamic space of the intellect. When students communicate through written composition about the ideas they are learning, they can achieve the same result for themselves.

A second reason for writing in the mathematics classroom is to bring context and background to students’ appreciation of their subject. Mathematics is rich with its own history, a history moreover peopled by extraordinary characters and punctuated by the steady advance of powerful ideas. Sadly, most students learn the basic math curriculum—right up through college—largely in ignorance of and untouched by this history. Little wonder that to many students mathematics remains a dead subject, wholly abstract and removed from their lives and interests.

If the Fundamental Theorem of Calculus is arguably one of the profoundest creations of the human intellect and human civilization, should not students learn of the people and history surrounding its inception? But where will they learn of this, if not in their calculus class? Is there no value or interest in learning that Pascal developed combinatorics so as to win at the gambling table? Or what the response of the Pythagoreans was when the irrationality of the square root of two was demonstrated? Or how Alan Turing perhaps saved England during World War II by cracking the German Enigma code, and that he did so only a few years after describing, for the first time, the mathematical idea of a programmable computer, an event that has transformed all our lives? By providing the opportunity to explore these events and learn about these people, even the occasional small writing assignment can transform a student’s outlook on mathematics.

Admittedly, for both the student and the instructor, incorporating writing into the math curriculum presents real challenges, not the least of which is the pressure of time. These issues are examined in the next section, and guidance is provided (for students and instructors) for making the writing experience in the math classroom a successful and rewarding one.

Contributors

  • B. Sidney Smith, author

Citation Info

  • [MLA] Smith, B. Sidney. "Writing for a Math Class." Platonic Realms Minitexts. Platonic Realms, 13 Mar 2014. Web. 13 Mar 2014. <http://platonicrealms.com/>
  • [APA] Smith, B. Sidney (13 Mar 2014). Writing for a Math Class. Retrieved 13 Mar 2014 from Platonic Realms Minitexts: http://platonicrealms.com/minitexts/Writing-For-A-Math-Class/

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