Monday, March 5, 2012

The Little Things Matter When Learning Math

I recently started tutoring someone for grade 11 college prep1 math.  Our first topic was trigonometric equations for solving triangles.  When my student got stuck on solving a right triangle after finishing several problems involving more complex triangles, I was surprised.

Turns out the problem was one of notation.  In most of the problems the student encountered, angles were labelled as A, B, C and the sides opposite those angles as a, b, c.  The formulas written down for right triangles, on the other hand, used theta (θ) as the angle and opposite (O), adjacent (A), and hypotenuse (H) for the sides.

So after getting used to one way of looking at angles, the student was stumped when faced with θ; they just weren't sure what they were solving for.  Once I explained that θ was another way of labelling angles, the rest was easy.

It really goes to show that the little things matter a lot when learning math.  If you don't have the language down pat, a little change like this can throw you off.  Although it would have been easy to make a formula sheet with consistent labelling of angles, it is something easily missed by a person with a long history with the language of math.

I imagine the same is true of computer science.  How often do we use multiple synonyms when teaching beginners how to program? How often are our students thrown off by terms that appear to be completely unrelated to them? Definitely something to watch out for.


1 This is a term used in the Ontario curriculum. College prep courses are intended for students who intend to take a college diploma program rather than pursue a university degree.


Danny Yoo said...

With regards to introductory computer science and the effect of consistent terminology, Guillaume Marceau's paper may be relevant:

Gail Carmichael said...

Thanks Danny, I'll check that out for sure!

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