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I teach a college class on the basic use of Mathematica. I wonder what folks would think if I steered them towards this site? One possibility is that I just mention the site (which I've actually done in passing). Another, would be that I require them to visit or even post a question.

The class is not required for any major so, generally, the students enrolled are genuinely motivated to learn Mathematica. Nonetheless, it is a one credit hour class with only Calculus I and no programming pre-requisite. Thus, my concern would be that the level of their questions might not be too high. The course has run once per year for the last 5 or 6 years and typically has 15 to 20 students. Would people be irritated if I unleashed such a deluge on the site? Or would the site view this as a good thing?

The advantage for the students is clear, as a primary objective of the course is to get the students to the point where they can progress on their own. This forum is clearly a tool that could help them do that.


Edit in response to some concerns

I suppose another question might be - is there a way to strongly encourage students to participate and/or explore without quite posing a question to the forum? Perhaps I could create an assignment where the students write up or explain something they learned while exploring the site.

Expanding on belisarius' comment, perhaps I could require that the students find say 4 or 6 questions that they must write about or otherwise describe to the class. The twist is that a question of their own could count for two. That way, students really have nothing to ask need not do so.

And certainly, if it went bad it's not something I'd continue.

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    Upvoted because I appreciate you asking. My preference would be that you mention the site without requiring them to use it (and tell them not to just dump their homework questions!). Don't forget to tell them about all the tutorial videos on the Wolfram site. I would require them to view certain key videos and tutorials there. – Verbeia Sep 19 '12 at 2:38
  • @Verbeia I can see that point of view, thanks. And good point on the videos! – Mark McClure Sep 19 '12 at 3:53
  • of course the brighter students will find the site on their own.. How about letting them know you monitor the site and dock their grade if the ask a question that gets downvoted :) – george2079 Sep 19 '12 at 20:31
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I'd like to suggest another way of "participation" that perhaps requires more work on your and your student's side, but I envision as better for them and for us: select 20 good questions and/or answers and assign one of them to each of your students. Make them analyze the concepts, code, and comments. Make them understand why the question was posted, or why the answer is outstanding. Make them to improve the solutions and allow them to post comments asking for further information if they need it.

Some of those comments (perhaps) could arise a true question, but let them post it only if its quality is up to your standards (not theirs).

That way (I think) the game is fair for both sides.

  • Ha - You answered my edit! Thanks! – Mark McClure Sep 19 '12 at 4:19
  • ok, removed the second half of my answer since this is a much better suggestion +1 – rm -rf Sep 19 '12 at 4:21
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    @MarkMcClure As an aside, I strongly support beginner's right to ask questions here. But I think making that an obligation (instead of a right) is quite wrong. – Dr. belisarius Sep 19 '12 at 4:26
  • @belisarius As a college professor, the reality is that I make assignments that students might or might not want to do all the time. I stopped worrying about that a long time ago. Nonetheless, my most recent edit might sound more palatable to you. – Mark McClure Sep 19 '12 at 4:30
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    @MarkMcClure yes, and I upvoted the question. However, I still disagree about encouraging them to ask. Perhaps we could meet halfway: give them a few assignments on Q&A first, and then ask them if they are prepared for asking a question. Also remember that they could receive a RTFM answer, which is not encouraging at all. – Dr. belisarius Sep 19 '12 at 4:40
  • @belisarius Thanks - that's exactly the kind of opinion I need to know! – Mark McClure Sep 19 '12 at 4:46
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I wouldn't require them to post their own questions (arguably by force if it's homework), but I think in general this site can be an excellent part of homework assignments. For one, the obvious use is getting help when you're stuck. The other use is much more useful for a beginner: knowing how to learn new and complex things effectively using all the means available to you. Mention this site a few times, talk about Mathematica's help function, and then give them a homework assignment asking them what a matrix as second argument to Flatten does. There are plenty of these questions answered on this site, and their answers can of course be incorporated in other Mathematica programs.

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I would definitely support this. I think we can all remember the days when we first started out with mma, stumbling through with just the documentation to refer to (and the book, perhaps) and (in most cases) no additional help/courses... it can be rough. I've heard from my friends that they "gave up" on it because Maple was easier to learn (syntax wise). Introducing your students to this site would serve two purposes:

  • It would expose them to a friendly community that is ready to help if they're willing to learn. It would also help them in being able to formulate their questions/problems so that it can be understood by others (very important skill!)
  • It will provide a steady supply of relatively easy questions for the newer users who feel that they have nothing left to answer.

However, they should also be made aware of all the resources they should look into first — the documentation, the tutorials, existing questions on this site — before asking a new question. Oh, and no dumping! :) I would've suggested Faysal's giant compilation of resources, but I think it might be overwhelming for an intro class where they don't even know what to look for.

  • Thanks for the input! Just remember, though, you might be moderating their questions! – Mark McClure Sep 19 '12 at 3:51
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    Although I agree with most of your points, I am downvoting this because you are explicitly supporting the idea of making the participation a requirement for the course, and I strongly disagree with that. If that kind of behavior is followed by (say) ten more teachers, we will get 200 questions per month posted just to comply with a toxic rule. – Dr. belisarius Sep 19 '12 at 4:00
  • @belisarius Fair enough. Although, the suggestion was that this be considered a pilot program, which will help shape site rules and policy. I don't doubt what the outcome will be, but there might be an interesting middle ground to be found. I'm equally interested in the interaction of classroom and online resources like this site as I am in nurturing the said resource. – rm -rf Sep 19 '12 at 4:04
  • @belisarius Toxic? – Mark McClure Sep 19 '12 at 4:10
  • @MarkMcClure Perhaps I exaggerated a little :D – Dr. belisarius Sep 19 '12 at 4:19
  • @R.M We could open an Area51 proposal for Mma.students.playground.SE if we want to experiment with that. I'm in – Dr. belisarius Sep 19 '12 at 4:29

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