Mathematical Autobiographies

Written by: Christine von Renesse

I start every semester with a mathematical autobiography. Each student submits his or her own story describing their history as a learner of mathematics. It sets the stage for me to get to know my students and learn about how they think. In the mathematics for liberal arts classes it is often depressing to read similar experiences resulting in math anxiety and even math hate. But I need to be reminded of these facts in order to have compassion for my students’ dispositions.

The autobiographies can also be used to start a discussion in small groups about students' expectations and feelings about the class they are about to start. Combined with a gallery walk to share the groups' feelings with the whole class this can be a powerful way to create a classroom community. See video below.

Usually I absolutely dread going to math class. I think it is because I have the negative mindset that I am just going to fail. This class has helped me widen my horizons and see that I do have the ability to succeed in math.

—DAoM Student, Spring 2014

Here is the Mathematical Autobiography Assignment I am handing to my students.

And these are examples of two very different auto-biographies:
Mathematical Autobiography Example 1,
Mathematical Autobiography Example 2.
Seeing the differences in the biographies is a good reminder how diverse the audience of a mathematics for liberal arts course is. Right away I need to motivate and encourage the scared student while allowing the stronger, already confident students to deepen his or her understanding of mathematics.

The following video shows a class conversation about mathematics after the students talked about their mathematical auto-biographies. The students just read “A Mathematician's Lament” by Paul Lockhart.