Ten years ago, I attended a Writing Across the Curriculum conference to deal with the issue of requiring writing projects in my introductory level mathematics classes. I learned a lot of useful strategies for informal writing, but that particular conference never directly addressed the question, "How can I get the students to write meaningfully about mathematics when they don't know any mathematics?"
Over the years, I created some writing projects that worked and many that didn't. As I almost always have daily homework, weekly quizzes and monthly tests to grade in all my classes, I resented the additional time required to grade poorly designed writing projects. Unfortunately, the flaws in some of these projects were not apparent until the students began showing up in my office with questions. In addition, many of the projects were boring or overly contrived in an effort to present real-world problems at a suitably elementary level. I gradually stopped creating my own projects and began looking in earnest for sources of writing projects that I could easily implement in my classes. I agreed to review Writing Projects for Mathematics Courses to see if this book had any projects I would find suitable.
In Writing Projects, the authors provide thirty-five projects, ranging from Introductory Mathematics to Differential Equations, together with solutions and sample grading rubrics. Each project is presented as a letter that has been sent to the students in which the writer of the letter is asking for help. The writer presents a problem that he/she is having at work that requires mathematics unfamiliar to the writer. The students are expected to respond in a business letter format that provides a verbal explanation and any necessary graphs/charts/tables.
In addition to the projects, the authors provide useful information about implementing writing projects in all levels of mathematics classes. They discuss the amount of class time they use, the meetings outside of class to assess or assist with the students' progress, and the difficulties faced by the students in mastering the mathematics, all key components for implementing writing projects for the first time. The grading rubrics ease the burden of grading and provide insight into identifying the key components for grading any writing project.
Although the authors identify the problem and any included data as being "real" or "fabricated", many of the project letters describe humorous, even ludicrous situations in which the students use mathematics to solve the stated problem. This light-hearted approach does not, however, extend to the mathematics, much of which is challenging and requires the students to meet with the professor in addition to regular classes. Even in the cases where the mathematics was elementary, answering the posed question required additional interpretation or extensions that may be unfamiliar to the student. As a bonus, having to explain all their work to the letter writer rather than their professor requires a greater depth of understanding than just being able to "do" the mathematics.
After reading through the book, I decided to try one of the projects in my Mathematics for Elementary Teachers class. This class has a required writing component that, out of habit, has been limited to students analyzing articles and classroom activities taken from Elementary Mathematics journals. The writing I have received in the past has been mediocre at best, which did not give me much confidence in assigning this project. The students in this class also have trouble with sets and Venn diagrams, which are key components of the project I chose.
In "The Company Picnic", the letter writer requests assistance in recreating the actual data from a survey for which the aggregate totals of several options (hot dog, hamburger or both) were known, but for which the original response sheets had been destroyed. Once the appropriate Venn diagram was created, students had to report the actual data, explain the solution, and then interpret the data to create combinations of the values in the diagram that satisfied questions posed by the letter writer.
Aside from the fact that several students forgot to write a business-style letter in response, I was quite pleased with the results. Most of the students obtained the correct Venn diagram and, of that number, most were able to adequately explain their reasoning and provide suitable answers to the letter writer. Although the problem was completely fabricated, the students enjoyed the project and, judging by their submissions, learned to apply the necessary mathematics as well. I did not find the grading to be difficult, but, by using a checklist similar to one in the book, it did progress much faster than I thought it would. I am encouraged by the results I saw with just this one project. As I begin to prepare for next semester, I am planning to use several of the projects in the book.
I would recommend Writing Projects to every instructor, but especially to those who are not assigning writing projects in their classes: There are plenty of projects to use as-is, and plenty of advice for creating effective new ones. Experienced instructors will find that this book is a source of new projects, possibly requiring a new writing style. Overall, Writing Projects is a valuable resource for implementing the goals of "Writing Across the Curriculum."
Susan Palmer Slattery (firstname.lastname@example.org) teaches at the Department of Mathematics and Computer Science, Alabama State University.