- Membership
- Publications
- Meetings
- Competitions
- Community
- Programs
- Students
- High School Teachers
- Faculty and Departments
- Underrepresented Groups
- MAA Awards
- MAA Grants

- News
- About MAA

## by Laura Taalman, James Madison University |

Students have trouble reading mathematics, and worse, they often refuse to. When working from a textbook, many students will attempt the exercises before reading the section, and then only refer to the reading to look up examples that mimic the homework problems they are working on. "Problem Zero" is a simple way to encourage students to read the material and organize it into information that makes sense to them. A tiny idea, but one that works, and is easy to grade!

"Problem Zero" is the following question: *Read the section and
make
your own summary of the material.*

In my calculus classes I now include "Problem Zero" in each of my homework assignments. I collect Problem Zero (or not) according to the roll of a die, and my general rules are:

Grading Problem Zero is easy and fast; most of the time I just check
to make sure that they didn't blindly copy down the boxed definitions
and
theorems, and that they didn't try to substitute their class notes for
Problem Zero (this happens more often than you would think!). If
they pass those requirements, and have written down a sufficient amount
of information, I usually give them full credit.

At the beginning of the semester, students really don't like Problem Zero very much. In fact, they disliked it so much at the beginning of the first semester I did this that I almost dropped it midway through the semester. But then students started coming around; by the end of the semester, more than half of the students in the class said they liked Problem Zero, and that it helped them a lot. Some students never grew to like Problem Zero, mostly because it was more work for them, but even these students seemed to appreciate the "easy points" they got for doing it. In my classes, each Problem Zero is worth five points; for comparison purposes, homework assignments are worth ten points. Each class day there is a 1/6 chance that Problem Zero will be collected (according to the roll of a die).

I have photocopies of some of my students' Problem Zero assignments, and they are really interesting to look at. Maybe the most interesting thing is how different they are from each other. I smile every time I grade Problem Zero, because I can see my students taking "ownership" of the material. Some of my students even decided on their own to do their Problem Zeros a day in advance, so that they would read the section *before* the lecture and then have an easier time following the class discussion.

Here are some quotes from my students about Problem Zero:

Samples of Problem Zero that I made to give to my students:

Samples of Problem Zero made by actual students:

Laura Taalman (taal@math.jmu.edu) is an Assistant Professor at James Madison University. Her undergraduate degree is from the University of Chicago, and her graduate work was done at Duke University. She recently wrote a textbook that combines calculus, precalculus, and algebra -- and this textbook has "Problem Zero" at the beginning of every homework assignment! Her research interests include singular algebraic topology and knot theory. When not teaching or doing research, Laura reads way too many science fiction novels and spends time with her husband and her new son Calvin.

Mailing address: James Madison University, Department of Mathematics and Statistics, 127 Burruss Hall, MSC 7803, Harrisonburg, VA 22807.

The Innovative Teaching Exchange is edited by Bonnie Gold.