As part of the group project that was assigned in my Differential Equations course, students were required to write a project report. I just wanted to post quickly today that I am significantly impressed with the performance of these students on the assignment provided.
In preparation for the writing portion of the project, I required the students to read a short essay by Dr. Kevin P. Lee at Purdue University. I spent almost an entire class going over such important principles as:
- Follow the basic rules of grammar, including the use of expressions and equations.
- Use symbolic notation appropriately.
- Organize your paper.
- Define all variables and formulas.
- Make sure that the paper is readable aloud.
- Use appropriate figures that effectively explain the mathematics.
As I was giving this lecture, I began to realize that I missed out on this kind of instruction at an undergraduate level. In fact, most of my experience in mathematical writing came only through experience both from reading many, many papers but also from getting my work critiqued by fellow grad students and my graduate instructors. There was never a time that I was given such specific instructions such as the use of “=” in an equation as a verb. Or that the paper should be readable aloud even with all the mathematical expressions.
I think I even commented out loud during my lecture that I was jealous of them getting to see this as an undergraduate. I have assigned writing in many of my classes over the years, particularly in Math Models (a projects course at Wayland). However, I’ve never spent this much time on instruction on how to write. We also covered the use of the new equation editor available in Word® 2007. I’m convinced now that it has been worth they time.
In addition to the increased focus on writing in class, I also decided on some effective motivation for the groups. I made it clear that I didn’t believe that they could produce a quality paper on the first try, since for most of them, this will their first attempt at a mathematics paper. (Can you say reverse psychology?) I told them I would expect to completely butcher their paper and hand it back for them do over (and over and over, until they got it right).
However, as a proper incentive I also told them that in the extremely unlikely scenario that one of the groups turns in a “perfect” paper, they could receive a free pass on one of the courses exams. In other words, they would be allowed to drop the lowest exam grade for the semester.
Honestly, I didn’t expect to have to give out the award, but after a first read on each of their reports, at least one group has a reasonable chance. I did give them a checklist (provided at the end of Dr. Lee’s essay with a couple of modifications) and I’ll be checking very closely. Once I’ve finished graded, I intend on posting their papers here on my blog to see what you guys think.