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The Importance of Quality of Presentation in Mathematics

Updated: Jun 17, 2022

As a tutor I find poor handwriting skills of students an aspect of tutoring that can be frustrating. Handwriting is taught in primary school, but modern schools give less attention to it than they once did. This attitude continues into high school where good penmanship is not emphasised to students and parents.

Schools will argue there is no need for concern with poor handwriting due to the reliance in modern society on computer technology. Most written communication these days is through a computer medium, typically via keyboard. That is, we now tend to do more typing than handwriting. However, this does not diminish the importance of maintaining good handwriting skills.

In teaching students mathematics and science I find many lack basic handwriting skills. Without these skills students struggle to write text and symbols consistently and legibly on the page. Some student’s work is incredibly sloppy and will lead to lost marks in exams. In addition, students are less likely to learn a complex technical subject well if the working is not neat and organised. This is important for students to learn mathematics and science well.

There is also the need to effectively communicate scientific knowledge to others, such as a teacher or fellow student. In later life it may be a work colleague; an engineer or manager, for example. Students can be under the impression that it does not matter if their work is untidy and barely legible, so long as they can read it themselves, then they believe it to not be an issue. However, these students may even misread their own messy handwriting and as a result get wrong answers. Further to this, concise penmanship and written work that is well organised on the page helps students to remember concepts and procedures better. Going through the physical process of writing complex mathematics or science on paper enhances our retention and understanding of these subjects.

It is the inherent nature of mathematical based sciences to require very detailed and often small characters to be written down. If a student has poor handwriting skills then the written work will be difficult to follow, even for the student themselves. Technical subjects need many different symbols to represent a large array of quantities. Some of these characters and symbols are quite similar in appearance. Often a student will write the numeral '5' almost exactly the same as the letter 'S'. Or, the letter 't' similar to the operator '+'. Other examples include writing the numeral '2' indistinguishable from the letter 'Z'. Careless handwriting may also make it difficult to distinguish between upper and lower case letters. For example, a lower case 'p' sloppily written above the line could be confused for an uppercase 'P'. This is important as there are occasions when an uppercase character represents a different quantity to the lowercase one.

When it comes to handwriting, students often do not realise the importance of a quality writing instrument. A good writing tool can make a significant difference to penmanship. For example, I often see students writing with cheap ballpoint pens that leak globs of ink on the page. Their hand can smudge the ink making their handwriting appear even worse. This can be avoided by using a better quality pen. Today we are spoilt for choice when it comes to pens and pencils. Good quality ballpoint, gel-ink, felt-tip pens, etc. are widely available at reasonable prices. Even the traditional fountain pen is still favoured by many in search of quality handwriting. There are a variety of pencils to choose from too. The two main types are the click pencil and traditional graphite-clay lead inlaid in a wooden stick. Each pencil type is also sold with a range of lead grades. It is a matter of students experimenting with what suits their personal style and needs.

Along with the variety of writing instruments available there are also many nib sizes to choose from. For the mathematical sciences I would recommend a maximum of 0.5 or 0.7 mm nib size. A small nib will assist in drawing intricate characters. Students should also learn how to hold their pen or pencil the right way as it will assist in efficient and neater writing. The correct holding technique may have been taught to a student in their formative school years. However, it is easily forgotten and a poor pen holding position habit develops. It can take a concerted effort to relearn the habit of positioning the writing instrument well.

In spite of the heavy use of digital devices in today's society, it is still very important to learn and maintain legible handwriting. Students need to learn penmanship and have it emphasised to them until a good handwriting habit develops. This will pay dividends in their studies throughout the remainder of their schooling years.


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