November 14, 2011 in Featured
What is LaTeX?
LaTeX is a document markup language that automatically handles formatting, allowing the author to focus on the content of a document rather than the appearance. In order to create LaTeX documents, students need two pieces of software: a LaTeX distribution and a text editor. Open-source software is available for both. The LaTeX distribution takes the code and turns it into a document. The text editor is used to write the actual code. Additionally, in order to use LaTeX, students must learn the proper syntax. Anyone with any HTML or programming experience should find this a very easy task. For those without such experience, there are LaTeX editors available that have WYSIWYG menus so that little syntax knowledge is needed. The final document can be exported as a PDF, making it very easy to publish on the web or send over email.
Why Use LaTeX?
In an effort to increase critical thinking skills and improve mathematical communication, I assign weekly CTQ’s (Critical Thinking Questions) for my math students to complete. Students must type their responses and turn them in using an online dropbox. By typing their responses, not only is the information more readable, but the author has the ability to organize and edit his thoughts in much the same way he would an argumentative essay. This is particularly useful when making revisions, and I always encourage my students to revise and resubmit their work if they are not happy with their original grade. Typing math, however, does introduce some challenges including the need for typing special mathematical symbols and the need for formatting the mathematical expressions so that the reader can easily follow the author’s thought process. Using LaTeX addresses both of these issues beautifully.
Some of my students prefer to use Microsoft Word with its built-in equation editor because that is what they are already familiar with. It does take some time to learn to use LaTeX (I have recorded two hours worth of video tutorials – which my students work through over the course of two weeks), but once theylearn to use it, it is actually much more efficient than Word. For one, using Word’s equation editor requires clicking buttons with the mouse, which is time consuming and tiresome. Each expression is created separately, which makes editing cumbersome. My wrist and fingers actually get sore when typing long documents using Word’s equation editor. And then there is the inevitable problem of compatibility issues with the newest version of Word. PDF’s are so much more accessible.
All of my 7th and 8th grade students have learned how to produce LaTeX documents. As a result, they are able to communicate their mathematical ideas in writing more effectively. Not only can they can use LaTeX to email or publish documents online, but also to post math related comments on blogs and discussion boards.