Review Articles Assignment in Ordinary Differential Equations

By Rebecca Tyson
Review Articles Assignment in Ordinary Differential Equations
Several years ago, I started working with a new graduate student, who was richly decorated with all sorts of academic awards, local and national, for his academic achievements in mathematics. He was an excellent researcher, brilliant mathematician, and gifted student. I was therefore stunned to discover that his writing was nothing short of dreadful! I realised that science students, and mathematics students in particular, obtain next to no training in scientific writing - or any writing, for that matter. These bright students however, are expected to go on to jobs where they will need to write progress reports or technical reports, or to complete a graduate degree which requires the completion of a lengthy thesis. Clearly, scientific writing should be part of their training, and our current undergraduate education is sorely lacking in this area. 

So I decided to introduce short review articles (2 pages) into the curriculum of my Ordinary Differential Equations class. My goal in doing so is two fold.

First, I want the students to learn how to write scientifically. This includes basic writing skills such as having a logical flow of ideas through the article, beginning paragraphs with sentences that introduce the topic of the paragraph, and ending paragraphs with sentences that lead meaningfully to the next paragraph. For scientific writing, it is also important that the students learn to back up all of their statements with articles, to refer to journal articles rather than websites, how to reference a journal article or textbook, and to never make vague and flowery statements that sound grand but impart no useful information.

Second, I want the students to interact with current research literature, and see how widely applicable is the subject matter of the course. By the time the students have written their second research article, they have become familiar with search engines such as Web of Science, they have learned that they can decipher at least the main message in some mathematics and/or science papers, and they have seen a wide variety of applications of the course material. In particular, they are able to select applications that interest them, broadening the selection that I am able to offer in class.

The students’ reactions to this article assignment has been very interesting. Many of the students who are generally in the top half of a mathematics class groan and complain that the reason they are in science or mathematics is because they don’t know how to write. Their discomfort is further testament to the importance of the exercise. Then there is always another group of students, often belonging to the lower half of the class in terms of math marks, who are delighted that they are finally able to show off a skill that they do have in a mathematics class! There are, of course, some students who are both excellent mathematicians and excellent writers, and they too are pleased to be able to gain some recognition for their writing skills.

Ideally, I the good writers end up working together with the students who do better in the language of mathematics, and collaborate across the different types of assignments in the class - research articles and more traditional problem-solving assignments. For that to happen, I need to have several group work sessions in the class toward the beginning of the term in which both types of skills are emphasized. Through these activities, the students get to know each other and recognize the different skills they have to offer.

How to Use the Materials:
My materials are all posted on my website. Scroll down the page to the section called “Research Articles”. I have posted there the two research articles that I assign, the final marking scheme for each one, and several sample articles written by students in previous years. I also have posted instructions on how to cite references.

You will notice that the marking scheme is extremely detailed. Over 10 years of working with these assignments, I have found that science students are such poor writers, that they need a very specific marking scheme. It also makes my life easier when I’m evaluating the students’ work.
When the article assignment is first handed out, a whole class period is taken discussing how to write a research article, where to find Web of Science, what resources are available, etc. The reference list is always a source of confusion for the students, and so time needs to be invested at the start of the process explaining citations and the formatting of the reference list. I also encourage the students to learn LaTeX (it certainly makes the references and citations easier!), and generally a few students give it a try.

The article assignment in each case has three due dates. At the first due date, the students bring their articles at least half-finished, and share them in class. I hand out copies of the marking scheme (which the students have had available to them throughout), and ask the students to mark each other’s papers. This is another place where the very detailed marking scheme is helpful. The students aren’t very good at marking each other’s work, but the exercise is extremely useful to them.

The students then hand in a complete and revised draft at the second due date, and I mark the first two paragraphs of the assignment and the reference list. I am a very demanding editor, and so the students find their papers covered with red when I’m finished with them. I find that the students generally have not experienced demanding editing, and so this experience is good for them too. I keep it a positive experience, by telling them that they can revise their papers and the final mark will replace the mark obtained at the second draft stage. Upon the third due date the final version of the article is due, and two marks are given to the students for simply doing all of the corrections that were requested at the second draft stage. I find that the students are willing to work for those two marks, and are fairly diligent about following my editorial comments.

This material could be used in any Dynamical Systems course at the undergraduate level. The topics of the articles can be altered to suit whatever course is being taught. It is best however, to choose topics that are covered in earlier parts of the course, so that the students are as familiar as possible with the mathematics they are trying to understand in the journal articles they read during their research. Then, as the instructor, sit back and enjoy the students’ creativity!
Author Institutional Affiliation
Rebecca Tyson
Tutorial LevelBasic Tutorial
Contest EntryYes

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