Mathematical writing in an upper-level elective and other contexts
Laura K. Gross
Bridgewater State University
Bridgewater, MA

INTRODUCTION. I taught mathematical writing in the context of Applied Mathematics (MATH 416) in spring 2013, 2014, and 2015. The class fulfilled a core-curriculum requirement for writing in the mathematics major. The most recent syllabus (.pdf or Word file) identifies goals for the course and for the writing-intensive courses in the majors at Bridgewater State University. It also shows that assignments alternated between

  • traditional problem sets and
  • formal write-ups of problems from the previous problem set.

    See Mathematical Communication for resources for a wide range of communication goals and activities.

    OVERVIEW. Scaffolding included modifying LaTeX templates at overleaf.com, typing up a few pages of class notes, considering conventions of mathematical discourse, discussing in-text citation, and giving and receiving peer feedback. The final writing assignment required applying writing techniques to the content of other courses and considering a different audience. I am discussing the content of this web page at MathFest 2016 in Columbus, as an introduction to these course materials and resources.

    STUDENT TEAMS. Peer feedback constituted an important part of the course. At the beginning of the semester, I assigned groups as recommended by the Team-Based Learning Collaborative (TBLC). (I have applied a lot of the ideas from the TBLC, especially in teaching Applied Calculus for Business MATH 144, so let me know if you want to compare notes!) For the transparent formation of fair teams, I asked students to line up when I called out a skill they thought they had. Then when everybody had lined up, I had students count off by fives. Afterward we had five groups of four with skills somewhat dispersed among groups. For example, I asked students to line up if they took differential equations recently and had a strong performance, if they knew LaTeX, if they liked writing, if they took linear algebra, etc.

    LEARNING LaTeX. Students created an account at Overleaf, which provides an integrated development environment for the creation of LaTeX documents, or they used their Google or Twitter credentials to log on. Some students used other LaTeX platforms, but most chose to use Overleaf, as I presented it in class.

    LaTeX TEMPLATE. Students downloaded a LaTeX template zip file from the course website for upload to overleaf.com. In particular, they logged onto Overleaf and clicked on the funny little upload icon next to ''New Project'' that means ''Upload Zip.'' I based the template on a file that Overleaf provides at the website. Students uploaded and edited the associated source code in the .tex file and created .pdf files of their work.

    PRELIMINARY LaTeX ASSIGNMENT. I provided a set of handwritten class notes and assigned each student a distinct set of notes to type. Students spent some time in class typing the notes. Sitting with their teams, they could discuss their particular notes with their group members and compare and contrast their work. They did troubleshooting for one another and shared their learning. The course-notes assignment gave students a taste of the course material to come, in addition to providing them with LaTeX training.

    MORE LaTeX HELP. Students consulted an overview of LaTeX commands posted on the course website. My document contains a link to SHARELaTeX; the left column has many useful links, especially under "Mathematics." Students also had a lot of success with internet queries like "How do you make a gradient symbol in LaTeX?"

    PEER FEEDBACK. Our class met twice a week. Typically homework came due on Thursdays, so on Tuesday we did peer-feedback sessions in class. Students circulated their work within their group, accompanied by a peer-feedback sheet. They revised their writing in response to peer feedback before Thursday. On Thursday they submitted

  • their revised writing assignment,
  • their draft from Tuesday,
  • their peer-feedback sheet.

    This strategy allowed me to see that students gave meaningful feedback and revised their work appropriately accordingly.

    RUBRICS. I used a writing-assignment rubric (.pdf, Word file) to assign grades. I created the rubric by adapting material from a retreat sponsored by Writing Across the Curriculum at Bridgewater State University and material from Annalisa Crannell's website on writing in mathematics. The rubric made the grading go quickly. I checked off the appropriate score for each row, multiplied each score by the weight of the corresponding row, and added to get a grade out of 100.

    USE OF SOURCES. The appropriate use of sources develops students' information literacy, which they will need in graduate study and the workplace. In particular, writers must take responsibility for all the information they provide: They must learn from credible sources and provide attribution to those sources. After a few weeks of my course, I modified the directions on the writing assignment to require the use of sources and incorporated the use of sources in the the rubric (.pdf, Word file). Maxwell Library gives the Bridgewater State University community common guidelines for credible sources. Ask your librarian if your institution has a site like this. Does your library have a specific librarian who serves as a liaison to your department?

    FINAL WRITING ASSIGNMENT. The final writing assignment (.pdf, Word file) required applying writing techniques to the content of other mathematics courses and considering a different audience.

    CITATION STYLES. Mathematics does not embrace one citation style, unlike English (MLA), psychology (APA), education (APA), history (Chicago), etc. However, for mathematics authors, electronic templates from journals make citation easy and automatic. Our use of citation conforms to broad conceptual research conventions and the ethics of attribution of the ideas of others. The technology automates the associated mechanics like punctuation. Our mathematics-student authors can also benefit from templates that illustrate citation. Departments that teach mathematics writing only in LaTeX can distribute .zip file that includes a routine .bib-file template. Make sure students understand the need for in-text citation when they draw on the ideas of others in any way, not only when they give a direct quotation.

    APA, AMS, ASA. The field of mathematics education has APA as its official citation style. The APA style accommodates the use of equations in writing more easily than other widely used citation styles like MLA. In my experience quite a few students have had prior exposure to APA style in writing or research courses prior to writing in math courses. Also, adherence to a style like APA can facilitate communication with librarians, who feel very comfortable giving valuable research guidance within the context of a standard or well documented citation style. Examples of citations in the styles of the American Mathematical Society or American Statistical Association may also help.

    MICROSOFT WORD. Word has a citation manager that can be set to styles such as APA from a pull-down menu. When the user enters sources of various types (books, web sites, etc.) to the citation manager, Word prompts for fields (author, year, date accessed, etc.), accordingly. The user can repeatedly cite the specified source within a document with clicks of a button. The citation manager also allows for easy creation and update of the works-cited section (although associated mechanics like spacing will not pass muster with strict APA editors or librarians). Contact me for a Word file with an approximate illustration.

    LaTeX PACKAGE apacite. In addition, LaTeX can also produce APA-like documents by using the package apacite. This .zip file allows LaTeXing of an undergraduate thesis in an APA-like style, which can be shared with students and librarians.


    profgross at gmail dot com
    last updated July 25, 2016