Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Teaching with LaTeX

I've noticed a problem teaching Math to Computer Scientists.  (Aside from the fact that many don't seem to think they need it.)  When written assignments are handed in, they are often a mess and work is not properly shown or pointed out.

To be fair, this is exactly what I did as a student.  When not writing out a proof, my written assignments had a gaggle of work followed by an answer that I circled.  I hope my poor linear algebra grader will forgive me someday!  I ignored directions to: lay things out nicely; put only one problem on a page; and remove abandoned or incorrect calculations.


My proof assignments came out a bit better (because the order is part of the correctness) but I still failed to rewrite things after realizing adjustments were needed. 

Now, on the other side of the grading process, I see many papers that would benefit greatly from some organization.  Not only would it make them easier to grade (certainly a perk!) it would help bolster their grades.  By turning in an electronic version of the assignment, it's much easier for a student to go back and correct mistakes.  If a line in a proof is wrong in a hand-written paper, fixing it nicely means rewriting the entire page.

Computer science students are going to balk at that rewriting.  These are students learning to use the latest programming development environment, each of which lowers the number of keystrokes (or mouse distance) necessary to get their code written. 

Thus I'm highly considering teaching LaTeX the next time I'm in charge of discrete math.  Naturally this would cost me in terms of needing to cover it and make sure everyone knows how to use it.  There are some other downsides: namely that students would have an easier time inappropriately sharing their work.  With any luck they would still stick to the honor code!

The benefits would not just be for this course, however!  Knowing LaTeX is a valuable skill that they could reuse in an Analysis of Algorithms course as well as their other courses and projects.  I continue to replace WYSIWYG editors in favor of LaTeX for many purposes.  Every time I move a document to LaTeX I'm glad I made the switch.

Has anyone had experience forcing students to use (and probably learn) LaTeX?  I taught it once in our programming languages course, but only at the very end and only for two days.  What are some pitfalls or benefits I haven't considered?


  1. I'm planning to require all homework to be submitted electronically in LaTeX this Fall in Discrete Math. I'll run maybe an hour-long inclass workshop early in the semester, then something a few weeks later outside of class for people who want to do more advanced things. I think distributing homework in LaTeX that can be edited by the students will help them get over the early hurdles.

  2. Distributing the homework in LaTeX seems like a great idea! Have you done this before?

    1. I have in a Graph Theory class in which LaTeX was optional and I think it was helpful. I'm considering something different now for the Fall. I think I may assign all homework to be done by hand, then assign each problem to a different student to TeX up. That way they get practice but it shouldn't get in the way of the mathematics, and I still get a nice answer key in the end.

    2. Unknown, how did you ask for them to make diagrams (unless you didn't)?

    3. I left it to them to either draw graphs by hand after printing or include figures from Sage, which I also used in class. Sage outputs images directly to PNG, I think, so they're easy to include. I've since shown some students how to use Geogebra and output to tikz

    4. Oh nice! I've always used Open/Libre-Office for my diagrams, but I'm not sure whether I could be doing it better. Good to know of other tools that students would have access to! :)

  3. When I was an undergrad, the CS students were always interested in (a) learning new languages and (b) showing that they knew more than the other students and could do new tricks in the latest language. Back then we did things in either MS Word or HTML and would brag about how nice we could make certain proofs look. I didn't do this for Calculus or too many of the non theoretical classes, but in the advanced classes it seemed to be something that students were eager to do (mainly for the reasons you mention).

    It was kinda the same in grad school except I was introduced to LaTeX. It was never a requirement to do things this way, but it was more convenient.

  4. AfterMath,

    there are certainly students motivated like that. I suggested to my students that they learn LaTeX last semester (in Discrete Math) but I didn't spend time teaching the tools and didn't get any LaTeX-ed assignments from the students.

    Perhaps once they were required to make them with LaTeX and got used to submitting assignments that way they would start having the make-it-look-nice pride! :)