When you’re faced with an unexpected teaching challenge, OpenCourseWare’s Instructor Insights can help.

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Photo courtesy of ladylong on Flickr. License: CC BY-NC

By Peter Chipman, OCW Digital Publication Specialist and OCW Educator Assistant

Imagine: You’re an experienced math instructor at a respected university, and you’ve just heard some alarming news. The university’s president has announced a new initiative to improve students’ communication skills by incorporating writing assignments into the curricula of introductory-level courses in all departments. One of your standby courses, Intro to Non-Euclidean Multidimensional Geometry, falls under the new policy.

What are you to do? For the past fourteen years you’ve taught the course in a tried-and-true format that works for you, with straightforward lectures, weekly problem sets, and regular quizzes and exams. How are you supposed to go about incorporating writing assignments?

Acting on the advice of a colleague at another institution, you pay a visit to MIT’s OpenCourseWare website. At the OCW Educator portal, you search for Instructor Insights on the topic of “Teaching Communication”⁠—specifically, on the subtopic of “Writing.” To your surprise (and delight), the search results turn up three OCW math courses featuring Instructor Insights on that very topic:

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Structuring the Course

The Instructor Insights page for 18.310 Principles of Discrete Applied Mathematics includes links to three subpages on which Michel Goemans, Peter Shor, Lorenzo Orecchia, and Susan Ruff discuss aspects of how they designed the course to teach students the fundamental principles of writing papers in mathematics. They explain how the course’s recitation sections help students develop a critical appreciation of writing in mathematics by examining the mathematical content of a writing sample and discussing how the content is communicated. They also reveal how they’ve structured the final term paper assignment in the past and how they might change it in the future. Finally, they discuss how they use norming meetings and other techniques to ensure consistency in assessing students’ writing.

Giving Feedback and Encouraging Revision

In the “Writing” section of the OCW site for 18.821 Project Laboratory in Mathematics, Professor Haynes Miller and Lecturer in Writing, Rhetoric & Professional Communication Susan Ruff describe the criteria for good mathematical writing and the components of the writing workshop, and they explain how students use feedback on earlier drafts of their writing to improve later drafts. This section also features links to two actual student papers from the course, including the first drafts, Miller’s and Ruff’s comments on those drafts, a video of a “debriefing meeting” for the first draft of one of the papers, and the final versions of both papers.

Teaching the Elements of Mathematical Style

Dr. Andrew Snowden, the instructor for 18.904 Seminar in Topology, shares his insights into ways of teaching students to give mathematical presentations and write mathematical papers. As added resources, he includes links to two .pdf documents that he provided to his students: a guide to writing papers using the LaTeX document preparation system and a general style guide to common student mistakes in writing math papers and how to avoid them.

Moving On to Future Challenges

The resources above represent OCW’s offerings on a very specific topic, the teaching of writing in math courses. We hope you’ll return to the Educator portal many times in the future when you’re facing a new pedagogical challenge or even when you just feel the need to shake things up and enrich your teaching with new techniques!