Creating the Term Paper Assignment

[Sudents] need to actually solve the problem before they can clearly express their thinking in writing.

—Michel Goemans

In this section, Michel Goemans, Peter Shor, Lorenzo Orecchia, and Susan Ruff discuss the challenges they face in developing the term paper assignment for this communication-intensive mathematics course.

Our term paper assignment asks students to write a formal solution, suitable for publication in an undergraduate mathematics journal, for one of three possible problems. It is a challenging assignment to develop. If we pose mathematical problems that are too difficult, students’ writing may not be successful because they’ll spend more time solving the problem than writing—and they need to actually solve the problem before they can clearly express their thinking in writing.

We've tried several strategies to address this challenge. For example, we once provided students with mathematical content in the form of presentation slides and asked students to write a paper based on that content. We initially thought this was a great idea. But it wasn't. The slides provided students with only part of the argument. Some students assumed that the slides provided them with complete information. They focused too closely on the content of the slides--which was only supposed to help them understand the question and to jumpstart their own problem solving. Since then, we've returned to posing challenging--but not too challenging--problems that students have to think about on their own and in collaboration with their peers.

Although it's already very difficult to develop three problems at appropriate levels of difficulty, one way to improve our term paper assignment might be to increase the number of problems we offer. Having only three problems means students collaborate closely and have similar ideas in mind when they write their papers. There’s not a lot of room for stylistic decision-making and, as a result, the writing becomes somewhat uniform.

It might also be worth considering having students write the term paper in groups, as mathematicians usually publish in teams, and it is fairly rare that a mathematician would write an entire article alone. Structuring the assignment in this way might also motivate students to review each other’s work critically, as their own grades would be shared with the group.