Audience awareness

To communicate successfully, it’s necessary to consider the audience’s knowledge and interests and the communicator’s relationship to the audience. These determine how much motivation to give, how much detail to include, how much content to try to convey, and even what to choose as the main point of the communication (this list is by no means exhaustive!). Without a conscious awareness of these effects, students may inappropriately try to apply strategies successful in one situation (e.g., math problem sets) to all situations.  So students can benefit from some guidance about how to communicate mathematics to a variety of audiences. Communicating to a non-technical audience can be particularly challenging.

Teaching students to target math writing to the audience

Math writers talk about writing math for the public:

Assignments To help students to understand the importance of tailoring communication to the audience and context, students can analyze math writing from a variety of contexts and genres and can be asked to explain the same mathematical concept to different audiences.

Examples:

  • A recitation and writing assignment about audience awareness from M.I.T.’s communication-intensive offering of Real Analysis
  • In M.I.T.’s Principles of Discrete Applied Mathematics, Recitation 7 focuses on rhetorical analysis of communication situations and writing to a non-technical audience. The pre-recitation assignment asks students to read some news articles about mathematics and analyze the genre and context for news articles. During recitation, these are contrasted with the genre and rhetorical context for math journal articles. For the assignment, students write a news article about the solution of Kepler’s Conjecture by Tom Hales. Concurrently, they work on a longer assignment in the journal article genre.

Courses

At East Tennessee State University, Ivars Peterson taught a course about Communicating Mathematics [to the public]. The course website includes assignments as well as lists of websites and books about mathematical topics for the public.

Examples of math communication for a general audience

A wealth of math communication is available for a general audience. A few examples are below:

 General resources about audience awareness (not specific to math)

  • Correcting misconceptions and convincing others to change firmly held incorrect beliefs can be notoriously difficult. In the May 16, 2014 New Yorker article “I Don’t Want to Be Right,” Maria Konnikova summarizes some recent research into how false beliefs are affected by conception of self and how self-affirmation enables more accurate understanding. These results suggest that convincing a reluctant audience may require affirming the audience rather than simply presenting facts.
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What is Math Comm

MAA Mathematical Communication (mathcomm.org) is a developing collection of resources for engaging students in writing and speaking about mathematics. The site originated in the MIT Department of Mathematics and was expanded through support from an NSF grant.