At first glance, writing and mathematics might seem to be two vastly different disciplines. But, as I recently found out, writing as a pedagogical tool and as an aid to critical thinking is thriving in the Mathematics Department here at the University of Louisville.
Patricia Cerrito, Associate Professor of Mathematics, has been using writing in her classes for over five years. “It [writing] is now more entrenched in my course than it was originally, and I have developed materials for teaching the technical writing style which I did not have originally.” One of Dr. Cerrito’s main reasons for requiring three formal papers in her Math 560 course (Introduction to Statistical Data Analysis) is that “since the computations are performed by the software, just how do I find out if my students understand what they are studying? The most effective way is to have them write their interpretations and their study designs.”
Inessa Levi, Associate Professor of Mathematics, teaches a variety of courses that all incorporate writing as a major component: Math 205 (Calculus I), Math 325 (Linear Algebra), Math 107 (Finite Mathematics), and Math 111 and 102 (College and Intermediate Algebra). “In 205, 107, 111, and 102,” Dr. Levi notes, “I ask the students to summarize the material they have learned each class period.” In her Calculus I course, Dr. Levi has designed “binders” for her students that act as journals for tracking their homework assignments, written formulas and theorems, and quizzes. In both Calculus I and Linear Algebra, Dr. Levi uses Maple, a “computer algebra system that is designed to perform complex mathematical symbolic and numerical manipulations.” Maple also has word processing capabilities, and the assignments done on Maple “have to have explanations of what was done and how.”
Both Dr. Cerrito and Dr. Levi agree about the effectiveness of using writing in math courses. “Students certainly find it helpful,” notes Dr. Cerrito. “I have encouraged them to include some writing samples when they submit job applications. This has helped some of them to get jobs because they can demonstrate good written communication skills. It is also obvious from the improvement in the quality of the papers as the semester progresses that students are learning a great deal.” Dr. Levi pointed out that, through writing, her students learn critical thinking skills and how to organize their thoughts: “If you can’t organize your thoughts, you cannot learn new material.”
How do students coming into a Math class react to doing a bit of writing? In her paper “Using Writing and Technology in Teaching Finite Mathematics,” Dr. Levi notes that “After the initial surprised reaction ('This is a Math class, why do we have to write essays?'), the students usually find writing to be a helpful instrument in learning mathematics.” In the words of one of Dr. Levi’s students: “I personally believe that the practice of summarizing each chapter [by means of writing] in mathematics makes the concepts more understandable, and I feel you are more apt to retain the mathematical information for a longer period of time, if not forever.”
Here, here. Our hats are off to Dr. Inessa Levi and Dr. Patricia Cerrito, as well as to the other members of U of L’s fine Mathematics Department, especially Dr. George Barnes and Dr. Richard Davitt, all of whom use writing in their classes to challenge and stimulate their students.
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