[OS X TeX] Latex for beginning math students

Alain Schremmer Schremmer.Alain at verizon.net
Tue Aug 24 19:11:34 EDT 2004

This is meant to be a response to Breitenbucher, Brophy and Trivedi:

I believe that there is a misunderstanding as to who my students are. I 
certainly don't mean for them to learn LaTeX but only to give them a 
means of communicating their problems, such as they are, to their 
teacher. It is a fact that they won't do it in class and not even face 
to face in an office.

Interestingly, though, many will agree to put it in writing but there 
are two problems with this. One is that they think that they any sloppy 
presentation will do, "You know what I mean". Even more interesting, at 
least to me, is that, when I respond "No" they usually try again and 
better. The second problem is that when I respond I find myself writing 
stuff that I have written a million times. So, I tend to make it shorter 
which is not good for the student currently at hand.

Even more to the point, these are students entering a Community College 
but enrolled in what is tactfully called "remedial mathematics."

While they all have access to computers to go on the web and do email, 
the level of what one can ask them on day one is 0. Devoting a class to 
use any software will achieve nothing. As for giving them a copy of a 
manual, it is hopeless as they are usually also enrolled in so-called 
"remedial English". The tool has to be "obvious" the way the Mac used to 
be obvious. (Does anyone remember MacWrite as compared to WordStar and 
the snickers that greeted the Mac, this "nice toy"?)

The usual fare these students are given in "remedial math" is "show and 
tell and drill". There is no attempt at helping them figure out why 
things are the way they are. It is: "Now, don't bother to think, just do 
as I say. See? It's easy!"

Out of 1,000 such students, at most one will pass Differential Calculus.

While it is convenient for us to think that that is just the way things 
are, TIMSS (and logic) would seem to indicate that this is not 
necessarily true. I am interested in showing that many of these 
students, given a certain mathematical environment in which things can 
be tried, discussed and retried, etc can actually learn to behave 
mathematically, at least to a certain extent. This is why, for many 
years now and with varying measures of success, I have been involved in 
the design of such mathematical environments. (And why I am now learning 

The problem is that only so much can be done in class. What I am looking 
for is a tool with which I can correspond with the students. For 
instance, say a student adds two three digits numbers and makes a 
mistake. Or, to take another example, say a student investigating the 
behavior of a rational function near +3 "forgets" that the division has 
to be done in ascending powers of h.

It would be nice for me to see what they have done, mistake and all, 
and, since many of these mistakes have a very small number of sources, 
to have macros for me to give them an expanded hint as to what may have 
happened and/or to "remind" them of the consequences of what they have 
chosen to do.

But the mathematical language itself is very far from being complicated.

The idea would be for them to download one package with the appropriate 
class already in there.
Then, New would open a new file with the preamble already there and with 
begin document and end document already there and no way for them to 
write anywhere other than inbetween.

Then, the student wanting to do the addition would hit the macro 
addition that would give him the appropriate tabular to enter the digits

(Of course, a graphic interface would be nice but probably unattainable 
at this point.)

Hence my request about if any such thing would be at all "feasible" and, 
if so, of the kind of knowledge that would be necessary.


P. S.
I am intrigued by Trivedi's comment that "specialized macros will need a 
lot of maintenance". Could you elaborate?

Brophy's point that one "would have to decide exactly what mathematical 
structures and symbols needed to be included" is exactly to the point. 
Fortunately, it isn't much.

Even though Breitenbucher's students are a world away from mine, I will 
look up your site. I will also avail myself of the permission you gave 
me to write you.


>Alain Schremmer>
>>Would it be possible to design some sort of micro LaTeX package that 
>>could be put in the hand of beginning math students for them to 
>>communicate with their teacher?
>>Of course, the students I am thinking of already have trouble with 
>>Word's math editor.
>>In other words, it would have to be completely macro driven from a much 
>>simplified "LaTeX panel" in TeXshop.
>>What I am asking is what kind of work would be involved and what 
>>background would be necessary.
>Let me try to steer away from that path. Here's why:
>1) Students dont learn "LaTeX". If they ever need to use it again, they will have to relearn LaTeX.
>2) Your specialized macros will need a lot of maintenance. I often find that first attempts at solving user issues are never the last ones.
>My suggestion:
>1) Use one class to show them how to do basic stuff that you expect them to do. Show them how to use the latex environment (in your case gwTeX + TeXShop).
>2) Give them a copy of The Not So Short Introduction to LaTeX. Or atleast give them the link to it. 
>Make sure they have the tables which tells them how to typeset \alpha, \sum, etc.
>3) Mentionthe verbatim environment. If there are some hard things they cannot figure out, they can use it (only inthe beginning) to have a crude output. They can change that when they learn more.
>I beieve this is a better solution in the short term and in the long term. It will create more independent LaTeX users.
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