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RE: Trying to use Mathematica as "word processor" for my math homework

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  • Subject: [mg44364] RE: [mg44293] Trying to use Mathematica as "word processor" for my math homework
  • From: "David Park" <djmp at>
  • Date: Fri, 7 Nov 2003 05:16:07 -0500 (EST)
  • Sender: owner-wri-mathgroup at


I replied to this privately suggesting the use of Text Cells instead of
using Input Cells for running comments.

I would like to make some more general comments about using Mathematica to
do homework. I am going to assume that the "reader" or "grader" of the
notebook has Mathematica and access to all the packages that the student

I think it is possible to do most, and maybe all, homework on Mathematica
without having to resort to a "word processor mode". That is, it is possible
to do things clearly and concisely, with a reasonable attempt at elegance,
and have it fully evaluable. But I do admit that it takes some practice and
familiarity with Mathematica to do this. So I do not fault relative
beginners who are constrained by time and have to fall back on the "word
processor mode". I only suggest that they push the envelop whenever they can
toward the full evaluation mode.

If the homework can pass the evaluation test, then it is more likely to be
consistent and correct. And the student is more likely to understand
precisely what is involved.

So here are some suggestions for preparing homework or study notebooks.

1) The notebook should contain all necessary initialization cells and
definitions. It should be fully evaluable. i.e., it shouldn't beep and give
error messages when the reader evaluates it.

2) The notebook should make use of the notebook titles and section grouping
so that it is easily navigable by the reader. Required definitions used
throughout the notebook can be put in a "Routines" section near the
beginning of the notebook. Also, stay with AutomaticGrouping. It is very
difficult for a reader to use a manually grouped notebook, and I have never
seen a good manually grouped notebook.

3) Text cells should be used for discursive comments. These are often as
important as the actual calculations.

4) It is often convenient to have multiple Input statements (not just
compound statements) on separate lines in one Cell. You can safely use % and
%% when these refer to output generated in the same cell. You can interleaf
the calculation or symbolic manipulation statements with Print statements
that give a brief explanation for each step. This is a nice compact way to
present a connected series of steps in a derivation or calculation.

5) Use can use closed Cells (different from closed Groups) to hide a series
of input statements and present only the output. For example you could use
this with (4) to show just the steps and hide the code that generated the
steps. Or you could use it to present a plot and hide all the code that
generates the plot.

6) It is probably best to stay with the Default notebook style. At least
everybody understands that and it is reasonably good. Don't waste time on
fancy formats, colored cells and things like that because the reader is
unlikely to understand what you mean by them anyway. It would be nice if
Wolfram supplied a better notebook style for doing homework. One thing I
would like to see is GroupOpenCloseIcons on all of the Section headings -
but NOT on Input/Output groups. It would also be useful to have an extra
grouping level (but without changing the keys for the regular groups and
Text cells).

7) Making the derivations and calculations fully evaluable will often
require writing short routines to perform common tasks. Mathematica does not
have every routine you will need built in. Writing these routines is often a
good way to engage the material and also better learn Mathematica.

Unfortunately many, if not most students are hit with demanding subject
matter AND Mathematica at the same time. It's not easy. So if you're young,
and you are looking toward a technical or scientific career, start learning
Mathematica in high school. By the time you get to grad school it will be a

David Park
djmp at

From: Bob Harris [mailto:nitlion at]
To: mathgroup at


I have recently returned to grad school, and am attempting to use
mathematica as my "word processor" for my math-related homework.  There are
a few annoying things that keep happening to my attempts at this, and I
thought I'd describe them here in hopes that someone would have some better

For an example of what I've been doing, see

My motivations are (a) it will give me a clean output that will be easier on
the grader's eyes, (b) it will make it easier for me to edit changes to
equations, etc., and (c) I can include mathematica-generated plots and
import drawings from other packages.

I've been doing this with some success from the beginning of the fall
semester.  I'm not incredibly sophistocated with mathematica, but have
managed to do this using only InputForm and StandardForm cells (i.e. I have
set the cells to DisplayAs one of those two forms, depending on whether the
cell contains running text or equations).  This sort of works, but there are
many shortcomings:

1) Mathematica likes to auto format things, so it is difficult for me to get
things to line up the way I want them to.  This has made the inclusion of
mathematical symbology in my running text difficult.  I think I have
discovered that displaying a cell as Text rather than InputForm is better,
but haven't tried it much yet.

2) In many cases when I include a plot, or an imported drawing, when I print
out the notebook I get an unnecessary page feed before and/or after the

3) Font sizes on the printout don't seem to correlate with font sizes on the
screen.  The default size of 12 pt is fine to read on the screen, but is too
small on the printed page.  Very surprisingly, it is not as large on paper
as wehen I use 12 pt fonts in other programs.

4) Trying to set font sizes on things seems like a nightmare of hard to
comprehend results.  E.g. slecting a cell and setting the font size many
times seems to have no effect whatsoever.

5) ... others ...

I've also looked at style sheets a little bit.  Like I said, I'm not very
mathematica-sophistocated, and am trying to find a fairly quick solution
that I can implement without having to dig *too* deep (am willing to dig
some, but don't really have the time with my current class and teaching load
to spend a lot of time with this).

It seems like what I'm after is the same sort of set up that someone writing
a paper for publicatiojn would need.  Have looked for such examples, but
have not found any.

Thanks for any help or suggestions,
Bob Harris

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