Math in the Writing Center? How Two "Incompatable" Disciplines Can Work Together

Currently, the writing center I work at is investigating ways that we can be of better service to each discipline. We are in the process of interviewing faculty from each school within our university - Liberal Arts and Sciences, Bible, Music, Education, Social Work, and Business - about the role of writing in their fields. The idea is to get a better understanding of what each field requires so that we consultants can better help the students involved. One area that most would assume does not use writing is math.

While it's true that most math classes will not require many papers, William L. Morris talks about how his writing center was able to help math students in his article "Math in the Writing Center." Morris had little background in math, but he was able to help a number of freshmen in a difficult math course improve through simple conversation. When the students came into his center, Morris would have them explain the problems they were working on to him in English. This was the key to improving their understanding: having them verbalize the problem helped the students understand the principles behind the equations. In addition, Morris had the opportunity to visit their classroom and work with the students as a group. He showed them how they can work with each other in a classroom setting so that everyone can learn more. Morris states that "The proprietary languages of math, science, art, English, foreign language, and history are useful to people who know the subjects but a mystery to those trying to learn the discipline" (Morris, 1). Basically, he says that jargon is useful to those already familiar with a subject, but but can inhibit the learning of novices. Having students explain their math problems in English in a sense counter-acted the effect jargon had on the students' learning.

Simple conversation is an underestimated tool in the learning process. In Morris' case, it solved many issues that students were having with their math. Ironically, the best teacher was not a math expert but a writer. His ignorance about the subject turned out to be to his advantage because it enabled him to "see how students were attempting to solve [the problem]" (Morris, 1). Morris' article demonstrates a valid way Peer Writing Consultants can help math students: conversation that utilizes many of the same questions and principles as a tutoring session. The method is so effective because everything must be communicated through language; Language is our "only reliable problem solver" (Morris, 1).

The Writing Center becomes a place where these conversations can happen. Most English people are not math people, but every English person can hold a conversation. We know how to be inquisitive, how to ask questions, and, most importantly, how to listen. We can utilize the same techniques to help a math student that we use to help other students write research papers: "where they stumbled,
I asked why; where they skipped steps, I asked them to slow down and explain" (Morris, 1). Truthfully, I was shocked to discover a method so simple for helping math students. Morris claims - indeed, his own experience demonstrates - that there is no need to understand complicated mathematical principles. All we have to be able to do is talk and listen.  
Morris, William L. “Math in the Writing Center.” Clearing House 80.2 (2006) : 70-73.
            EBSCOhost. Web. 11 Apr. 2013.


  1. This is interesting, Mandi. I think your topic comes back to the idea of writing to learn, only this time it's speaking instead of writing. Ultimately, learning thinking, speaking, and writing are all very closely related. In "Thinking Is Literacy, Literacy Thinking," Roberts and Billings quote an old idea, attributed to the Abbe de Condillac: "We think only through the medium of words...The art of reasoning is nothing more than a language well arranged" (2). Sometimes unuttered thoughts can be indefinate, but forcing a verbal expression, either through speaking or writing, can solidify understanding (or help identify missing information), making thinking clearer. Clearer thinking leads to clearer expression, and so the entire process of interrelated thinking, speaking, and writing can foster a continuous growth of learning.

    Roberts, Terry, and Laura Billings. "Thinking Is Literacy, Literacy Thinking." Educational Leadership 65.5 (2008): 32-36. Academic Search Premier. Web. 13 Apr. 2013.

  2. I think that this is a really good idea. Many people underestimate how crucial explaining and regenerating an idea is to the learning process. Even people who do understand this process do not consider the writing lab as a place to go to process through this. Many people think that the writing lab is only for writing papers not for processing through ideas. The Cairn University teaching model reflects the idea that people learn best when relating new information to what they already know, and when a person explains a new idea they are, in their mind, explaining that information in light of what they already know; they are explaining it in a way that makes sense to them. Dr Marti MacCullough wrote a good article about the way humans learn titled An Interactive “Constructive” Approach to Learning:
    Salvaging the Potentials and Harnessing the Best in a Learning Theory.

  3. Mandi,

    I really appreciated the ideas that you researched and presented in this post. I never really thought about math in the writing center before. According to Burns, "Writing during math supports students' learning as they clarify their ideas and highlight what they understand." It makes complete sense that talking and listening, the same techniques that we implement to help student-writers process and think about their papers, would work for helping them to relate what they know about math to understanding complicated principles.I do wonder if students who need help processing through difficult math concepts would feel comfortable coming to the writing lab or if they would even know that writing tutors are willing to help math students by talking with them and listening to them. If our writing center were to embrace math, how would we get the message out to the student body?

    Burns, Marilyn. "Writing in Math Class? Absolutely." Instructor 104.7 (April 1995): 40-47. ERIC. Web. 15 April 2013.


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