Developing written communication skills in maths students
Tony teaches and assesses his maths students on their written communication. He provides them with specific examples and exercises that teach particular skills to do with good writing − for example, eliminating redundancies, using the active voice rather than the passive voice, weeding out ambiguity and conditional phrases, and using correct punctuation for clarity. Exercises include punctuating a paragraph correctly, trimming down verbose paragraphs, and crafting executive summaries. These exercises − which are given as an assignment or in an examination − are supplemented by a report assignment in which students are marked for 100% compliance with the principles of good writing.
Learning goals and objectives
Tony finds that maths students − and indeed many professionals − do not write well, and that this leads to ambiguity and verbosity. His aim is to bring the students up to a standard whereby they can produce concise and unambiguous writing.
Undergraduates on two courses − MAT 3103 and MAT 3104. There are roughly 20−30 students taking each of these courses. Honours and Masters students are also guided through the same principles to empower them to produce a project that is partially assessed for communication.
Tony has thought carefully about communicating with students and has looked into scientific research on the matter. He is impressed by the work of Hattie (see links) who carried out a very large−scale meta−analysis of studies that show what has a positive impact on learning. He finds that many of the trendier ideas had no effect on learning. The most important things, Hattie says, are: reinforcement, qualitative and quantitative feedback, and direct instruction.
In the development of study guides, says Tony, it is important to consider students' comprehension − and there are some surprising ways of improving this. For example, Whieldon's study shows that the printing font used has considerable influence on student comprehension, and that any sans serif font (eg Arial) should be avoided to maximise comprehension.
Text blocks should not be too wide − a maximum of about 60 characters, and 40 is even better. Tony applies all these principles to his own course materials in order to aid comprehension.
Tony sees detailed feedback as being the most important part of teaching these skills, as Hattie seems to imply that learning is best if it's an interactive experience. Tony offers feedback on drafts if they are submitted early, and if possible, he encourages external students to submit electronically (eg in a pdf) so he can annotate their work and send it back to them in good time, with clear and detailed comments.
The idea and implementation of teaching writing skills within the maths courses was Tony's, and the design of the study pack was a team effort by all the maths team, in particular Pat Cretchley, who has a special interest in assessment.
Tony is open to students challenging their marks if they are not happy. Because of the nature of the topic and the fact that Tony gives detailed feedback, there is, however, little ambiguity.
Getting feedback from students has been a challenge, but Tony says that he has noticed a major improvement in the writing skills of about half the students. He says it's vital to teach maths students these skills as a matter of professional standards.
Problems and advice for others
Developing this course has been an ongoing process. To begin with, Tony relied heavily on one particular textbook, but over time, he has developed a bank of examples to use.