[OS X TeX] Latex for beginning math students

Claus Gerhardt claus.gerhardt at urz.uni-heidelberg.de
Tue Aug 24 20:48:26 EDT 2004

In view of your description of the students and their difficulties, I  
don't believe that the use of a computer - apart from email - will be  
of any help. On the contrary, it will most likely be counterproductive,  
as it is nowadays the case in our elementary schools and high schools,  
where the ability of pushing  buttons  with a mouse click is considered  
to be an intellectual achievement, while learning the basic culture  
techniques and knowledge, logical thinking, analyzing and solving  
problems are getting less attention.

When students lack the basic skills, blackboard and chalk for teaching  
and paper and pencil for exercises are the appropriate tools. Of course  
one should ask why these students are entering a college in the first  
place, or, why is there a possible misconception of the role of a  


On 25.08.2004, at 01:11, Alain Schremmer wrote:

> 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 LaTeX.)
> 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.
> Regards
> --schremmer
> 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.
>> -Eddy
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Claus Gerhardt
Institut für Angewandte Mathematik
Ruprecht-Karls-Universität Heidelberg
Im Neuenheimer Feld 294
69120 Heidelberg


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