Incorporating writing assignments into a mathematics course helps students develop as both writers and mathematicians. Drake and Amspaugh (1994) observe that teachers who add writing to their class often find it easier to recognize and diagnose the nature of students’ conceptual problems. In addition, the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) states that, “the very act of communicating clarifies thinking and forces students to engage in doing mathematics" (p. 214).
It is also clear that writing-to-learn activities—writing strategies that give students space to think through their problem-solving processes—have a place in mathematics courses. Professor of Education at UNC-Charlotte David Pugalee (1997) argues that “writing can help students interpret unfamiliar texts, construct arguments, struggle to understand complex systems, and develop new approaches to problems” (p. 308). Quinn and Wilson (1997) acknowledge that incorporating writing-to-learn into the mathematics classroom has benefits for teachers as well. They find that “teachers gain important information from students’ writing that can inform their instruction” (p. 14), such as the benefits of specific assignments and changes to instructor pedagogy.
David A. Reid, Professor of Mathematics Education at Acadia University, continues this thought: “Writing plays an integral part in problem-solving. The view of writing as a process emphasizes brainstorming, clarifying, and revising; this view can readily be applied to solving a mathematical problem. Not only does writing help organize information and procedures, it helps us to learn more about our own thinking processes."
Dr. Patricia Cerrito, Applied Statistician and Professor of Mathematics at U of L, uses writing regularly to help her students obtain a more in-depth understanding of mathematics concepts. In a recent interview, Dr. Cerrito stressed the im-portance of oral and written communication for students hoping to get jobs in the profession: “Becuase many students have limited experience in workplace environ-ments, the number one issue separating potential employees is communication skills. Technical skills are important, but if students can’t communicate, then they won’t get the jobs they desire.”
In the 500-level statistics courses she teaches, Dr. Cerrito emphasizes the develop-ment of oral and written communication skills. She has designed a curriculum whereby her students produce a sample of workplace writing—a written statistical report—that can then be used to satisfy the demand by potential employers for applicable communication skills. As Cerrito stated, the report writing project allows students the op-portunity to show that they understand the concepts behind the statistical methods: “It's just a better way to get the course content across to the students. They can show that they understand the meaning behind the stats they are doing.” In short, they use writing to learn statistics.
Beyond simply communicating what they know to knowledgable peers, the report writing project forces students to explain their methods to a wider audience: “I emphasize to my students that it will be important in the workplace that they be able to communicate highly technical information to an audience that is not as familiar with the information.”
The emphasis on writing as a mode of learning is key to understanding the important role that communication skills play in the workplace environment. As Cerrito noted, “most of the students will end up in consulting jobs; I try to simulate the real environment as much as possible by having them write as consultants would.” Cerrito expects her students to develop an appreciation for the importance of writing: “Mathematics students are not usually asked to do a lot of writing." However, once they realize that employers will be looking for communication skills, students see the benefit of the project.
Although the statistical report is a large project, Dr. Cerrito has structured the assignment in such a way as to allow for feedback and revision. Over the course of the semester, students must determine which statistical tech-niques best suit their research objective and their data. Cerrito stated that “the process chal-lenges them to think critically about which techniques they are going to use.”
Additionally, the statistical report writing process is not a one-shot effort for the students. In fact, Cerrito has built revision into the curriculum: “The students have a chance to get feed-back from me on each section before incorporating it into the final draft.” The dialogic nature of this set of sequenced writing tasks exemplifies the importance of writing as a mode of learning to Cerrito. As she stated, “the writing shows me the students’ decision-making process.”
Dr. Richard Davitt, Professor of Mathematics at U of L, also employs many writing-to-learn activities in his classroom. He develops several assignments that have students analyze “how they are thinking mathematically and what structures they are employing in attempting to communicate their results.” Davitt is most interested in students knowing what they are doing and why they are doing it.
One such assignment is freewriting, which Davitt uses to introduce new, broad topics. Freewriting is the process of having students write on a topic for a specific amount of time, then using that initial writing to help discover interesting topics to explore further. Groupwork is another writing-related aspect that Davitt utilizes, as students often work in groups on projects and individually critique their fellow members' contributions. In his honors seminars, Davitt will have students “write reviews of their experiences with guest presentations and ‘events’ the whole class has shared in.” Since several of Davitt’s courses focus on the historical trends in the field, writing becomes especially helpful in highlighting the need for students to synthesize for themselves historical “threads” that Davitt wishes to make them aware of.
For the larger assignments in his class, Davitt provides scaffolding assignments, or mini-assignments that model for students what parts of the major assignment should look like. Before the guest presentations mentioned above, Davitt offers to students forms that guide them through the note-taking process and information on presentation skills. Students also spend a day in the course developing possible topics and questions to pose to the guest speakers. After hearing the guest speakers, students are asked to write. For the book reports, Davitt spends time in class discussing how the book review should be developed and organized, focusing on writing a summary of the book, offering a reaction to the text, and comparing the student’s reaction to that of a professional reviewer toward the same book.
Davitt emphasizes the importance of writing in mathematics classes: "In my opinion, in ALL mathematics courses, writing is of paramount importance so that students can learn how to communicate complete, intelligible accounts of the mathematics they are using, problems they are solving, and results they are proving." In every course he teaches, WR or not, Davitt uses a lot of structured “open response” writing for credit.
Written communication skills obtained by students while learning mathematics are an invaluable set of real-world credentials. Essentially, when workplace demands and classroom practices meet, students are allowed the opportunity to write their way into their disciplines and gain valuable insight into the importance of writing.
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