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I'm a math TA and I find that my most consistent comment for improvement involved my board handwriting. Anybody have some tips or techniques I can use to make things a little neater on the board?

There are, of course, time constraints with teaching any course, so I don't want to simply write more slowly in order to assist in writing more neatly. Thankfully in a math course much of what I write is symbols which are easier to (borrowing a typography term) kern than sentences, but I still feel like I need to vastly improve my handwriting on a board if I plan on teaching for any length of time.

This is a sample of my handwriting: sample handwriting

Any advice would be greatly appreciated. Thank you!

EDIT: After checking the room in which I'm assigned to teach this semester, it turns out I do actually have a whiteboard instead of a chalkboard. Like I commented below somewhere, I'm sure 90% of the answers mentioned (those not expressly about chalk, anyway) will be completely cross-transferable and I'll try to make them all work. Thanks again for all the great answers!

  • 3
    Here's a sample of some writing for my own study purposes: i.imgur.com/Nb4IE3j.jpg I can read all of it, but my friend I was studying with had to ask about several words. – walkar Jan 14 '15 at 3:51
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    You may also be interested in matheducators.stackexchange.com/questions/41/… on Mathematics Educators Stack Exchange. – J W Jan 14 '15 at 5:44
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    Looking at your handwriting, I suggest paying attention to make sure you write every letter completely! For example, look at criterion (in Einstein's criterion on the board: the t is lacking in length in its lowest vertical line and missing the curve, the r after e is essentially non existent! The second i is just two dots, the o is a tiny u and the final n is like the first half of a ~. Our brains learn the alphabet with visual cues, such as "for whatever letter, there is some line jutting out of the corner of that curve with an acute angle etc". – Shahbaz Jan 14 '15 at 9:52
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    @Shahbaz: I just note that it is actually Eisenstein's criterion, proving that your good advice is very necessary! :) – potentially dense Jan 14 '15 at 15:40
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    @james.garriss: No. Powerpoint slides are the death of understandable teaching. They lead to going too fast; they force a single rate of coverage without responding to what the class "gets" or doesn't get; they discourage responding to students' interest or confusion; they put everyone to sleep. When you are doing example problems, and ask the students what to do, what happens? "Oh, well that might work, but it's not what's on the slide so we'll ignore your input." That's horrible. – Nick Matteo Jan 15 '15 at 16:39

13 Answers 13

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I have struggled with this too. Two things that I find help are:

  1. Write much bigger than you think you should. It's easier to be neater with bigger letters. You can fit less on a board, but honestly that's generally a good thing.
  2. Move your body along with your writing as you go. My writing gets worse the farther my hand is from my center of mass, and tends to trail downward too.
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    Thanks for the response! I've noticed that too, I often finish lines in a downward curve that is very noticeable. I'll give both of these a shot! – walkar Jan 14 '15 at 3:52
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    Write much bigger than you think you should, is something I have come to realize as well! – Shahbaz Jan 14 '15 at 9:45
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    +1 for "You can fit less on a board, but honestly that's generally a good thing." – Hagen von Eitzen Jan 14 '15 at 21:38
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    A professor of mine has given me the opposite advice: write smaller than I think I should. And I think it actually helped (not too much, but still...). With the second tip, it is worth noting that you should take care not to obscure what you're writing with your body (not too much, anyway). – tomasz Jan 15 '15 at 17:18
  • "and tends to trail downward too": This problem was especially bad for me; sometimes my writing would start out straight, but then curve downwards at a 45-degree angle, and eventually crash into the bottom of the chalkboard (and I'm short, which made the effect even more pronounced). – DumpsterDoofus Jan 15 '15 at 18:55
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I would say the biggest thing that makes my boardwriting messy is rushing. I know you said you don't want to write more slowly, so my suggestion is to try this: write (and speak) more judiciously. Then you can write slower and more neatly, when you don't need to hurry. It takes practice, and requires more preparation, but with a little more thought and planning, you can often be more clean with your presentation, which allows your writing and speaking to become more clean. [Disclaimer: I don't always practice this, particularly when I'm in a hurry before class.]

Also, jakebeal's answers are good. The angle at which you write (both side-to-side and up-down) is also important, and when you're not in a hurry you naturally adjust your body to write at a more comfortable angle.

  • So you're saying that generally being more concise will allow me to have more time to write neatly, correct? That's something I'm always working on, because as a math TA, often my students don't particularly want to be there; the more concisely I can present it, the better. – walkar Jan 14 '15 at 5:23
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    Yes, and (at least for me) it takes proper planning to be concise. It also makes lectures easier to follow--if you're not in a hurry, then students don't have to rush so much to keep up with you. Easier said than done, of course. – Kimball Jan 14 '15 at 6:51
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In addition to Jake's great answer, what helped me was a chalk holder (you can find them online for $5-10). One reason people write terribly badly with chalk is that either the pieces feel like the are about to break, or they are tiny. Using a chalk holder makes writing with chalk more like writing with a pen.

I'd also recommend having two or three loaded chalk-holders waiting in reserve; having to pause mid-lecture to empty out small fragments, reload a new piece, and regain the thread of your discourse is terribly awkward.

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    I'll check them out! What brands have you tried/liked? – walkar Jan 14 '15 at 4:15
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    @walkar I use one called School Smart. You have to be a little bit careful when you buy them, so they work with the chalk brand your university uses. – Johanna Jan 14 '15 at 4:17
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    I think my university provides just Crayola chalk. I'll definitely look into reviews for that that brand and other models. Thanks! – walkar Jan 14 '15 at 4:21
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Looking at your sample, I notice a couple of things.

  • Size: Some of the writing, e.g. all but the first bullet in the right half, is too small, in particular non-capital letters.

  • Whitespace: Be mindful of spacing letters, words, formulae, paragraphs differently and consistently. For instance, "factors over R" has more space between "fac" and "tors" then between "factors" and "over".

  • Font: Curved lines are harder to draw with chalk than straight lines. Many small letters and some of your big letters contain curves; try to use a more block capitalish style.

    Whichever font you use, make sure that letters/symbols are clearly distinct.

  • Consistency: Make the same letter or symbol look as similar as possible between instances (note your equivalency arrows and small "n" in formulae). Space structure elements consistently.

I think spacing is the biggest issue here, followed by consistency. Note that the basic rules are mostly the same as in typesetting for print, for which lots of literature exists.

As for general advice for avoiding writing yourself in a position where it is hard to write well, these come to mind.

  • Keep your hand approximately at eyelevel. That means moving the board a lot.
  • Break new pieces of chalk in half; that way they are easier to hold and do not screech.
  • Rotate your piece of chalk frequently so you have a somewhat symmetric tip at all times.
  • Disregard pieces of chalk that have become smaller than your first digital bones.
  • Do not squeeze. If there is not enough space, switch to the next board.
  • Write with enough pressure. If you apply too little you do not get enough chalk on the board for clear lines. The necessary amount of pressure depends on chalk and board surface.

As for writing speed, note that at least when you change your font you will have to write more consciously, hence slower, for a while. Train slowly, speed will follow.

  • 1
    Thanks for the great response! I'll give all of these a shot -- rotating the chalk is something I've never heard before. As for the smaller pieces of chalk, I'll be using a newly purchased chalk holder (at the recommendation of another answerer) so I should be alright with anything that the holder will hold. – walkar Jan 15 '15 at 6:46
  • I agree with almost all of this, except the suggestion of using "a more block capitalish style". Writing in capitals is slow and hard to read (that's why road signs are in mixed case, for example). Do you mean something more like "Write in a simple, sans-serif-style font rather than attempting cursive letter forms"? – David Richerby Jan 15 '15 at 23:10
  • @DavidRicherby That's two distinct possibilities. I know some people who write block-style capitals only and very quickly -- it's a matter of training. If you can get the curvy non-capitals down quickly and clearly, go with it by all means. (Personally, when I want to write very clearly, I try to emulate \textsc, i.e. small capitals instead of non-capital letters.) – Raphael Jan 16 '15 at 11:13
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In addition to everything above: write with your arm, not with your hand. The movement needs to come from shoulder and elbow, not from wrist. Some people write on paper this way anyway, but some (including me) tend to keep their arm still except for moving along the line, and use their wrist. This simply does not work on boards.

6

Practice makes perfect.

My own handwriting (on paper) went from hideous to beautiful enough to get me compliments. I accomplished this by making a conscious effort to write neatly when taking lecture notes (even if it meant writing slowly), as well as writing things over and over until it was satisfactory (often compared to a sample).

I don't feel like it really slowed me down all that much. Occasionally, during exams or fast speeches, I still revert to uglier handwriting in hopes of saving precious seconds, but rarely gain all that much. Conversely, I doubt you will really end up losing significant lecture time by writing neatly during real lectures, but of course you can always try it out in a mock lecture (note that writing neatly the at first will be much slower because you are not used to it). However, it did take me time to get better: The bulk of the improvement was over several months, and even after several years the quality of my handwriting was changing, though not as noticeably. Keep in mind that I would spend several hours taking notes in lectures every day, in addition to writing in my free time. Perhaps you can be a more diligent student than I was, but I would still say don't expect big changes overnight.

That said, I don't see why my experience wouldn't translate to board writing also. If you want your handwriting to be better, find a board and keep writing on it until it is better. It helps to actively force yourself to write neater.

As I said, lectures are a great opportunity for getting some regular, intense practice. If you can at all afford to slow down even a little bit, you should do so and you can get results sooner.

Regardless of whether you decide to risk slowing down your lectures, you can always practice by yourself. As a grad student you will almost certainly have access to a blackboard. Go up there and write on it until your hand gets tired. Then erase and do it again. Keep an eye out for motions that make letters come out particularly ugly or pretty.

Small children learn to write by tracing dashed lines of letter shapes. You could simulate this by using some kind of projector to project "worksheets" on the board (with a blackboard, white on black would probably look better, and a dim room helps).

If you feel like this is too much of a waste of time, write out material that you are having difficulty learning, research ideas and notes of future lectures. That way you are both practicing your handwriting AND doing some useful work.

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The first few lines are quite legible if not that neat, but as you go on the font gets smaller. If someone was at the back of the room they would have a hard time reading it.

I would try and keep the first lines as the minimum size for your writing, but if you are in a large lecture theatre it probably needs to be larger.

I think this is a problem lots of people have. I don't know of an easy solution other than to consciously make your writing bigger than you think it needs to be.

  • Thankfully I have yet to teach in a large lecture room, but as you and others have said, writing bigger is probably the quickest change I can make. Thanks! – walkar Jan 14 '15 at 15:48
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You say that you can read the text at http:// i.imgur.com/Nb4IE3j.jpg, but is that partly because you're familiar with what it should say. There has been a meme over the last few years something along the line of:

fi yuo cna raed tihs, yuo hvae a sgtrane mnid too. Cna yuo raed tihs? Olny 55 plepoe out of 100 can.

i cdnuolt blveiee taht I cluod aulaclty uesdnatnrd waht I was rdanieg. The phaonmneal pweor of the hmuan mnid, aoccdrnig to a rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it dseno’t mtaetr in waht oerdr the ltteres in a wrod are, the olny iproamtnt tihng is taht the frsit and lsat ltteer be in the rghi t pclae. The rset can be a taotl mses and you can sitll raed it whotuit a pboerlm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe. Azanmig huh?

It's the same for other presentation skills too. I know I tend-to-speed up a bit when talking in public, probably due to nerves etc., which doesn't help sometimes.

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    I do understand that phenomenon, but I guess that's an inescapable fact -- if you write something, you should have an idea of what it's supposed to say, so you can't accurately evaluate what's written. There are sometimes, however, going back through my handwritten notes for courses that I can't read things which is why I've taken to using LaTeX in class for notes. – walkar Jan 14 '15 at 15:49
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In addition to good suggestions above, I can suggest one improvement seeing your writing.

Alphabets like a, p, e, g d, all have very small 'compressed' circles. If you consciously try to make them larger(while of course, keeping the circle proportionate to alphabet size), the writing will be more readable.

You can write a paragraph on board which has all alphabets in it. You can then observe which alphabets have the problem I mentioned above, and improve on that.

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    I rarely write entire paragraphs, and thankfully my choice of letters gets pretty narrow just teaching mathematics -- my best letters should be x, y, z, a, b, c, p, q, and the like. That does give me the idea to write down each letter from the alphabet in succession and analyze how I write it on the board and try to consciously change it to something more legible though, thanks! – walkar Jan 14 '15 at 15:51
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Use simpler letter-forms. In particular, your upper-case 'L' and lower-case 'f' are very intricate: compare them to the shapes of those letters in a simple sans-serif font, such as Arial or Helvetica. And make sure you finish writing every letter: many of the ones in the sample just deteriorate into a squiggle, as if you got half-way through the letter and were so eager to start the next one that you abandoned the one you were writing.

  • The L and f are usually more legible (in my opinion) than most other letters, in part I believe because I've gone out of my way to make them fancier than other letters. The "finish writing every letter" advice is very useful though, thanks! – walkar Jan 16 '15 at 0:18
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I think most people have already covered the important points.

For me the main items are 4 -

1) Size: Write BIG! Then go back to the last bench and see if you can read it without squinting. At the beginning, a good way is to write a sample in a corner, go to the last bench, and if that is ok, dont rub this throughout the course. Use it as a reference all through till you get the hang of it.

2) Write in capitals

Avoid cursive.

A bad capital handwriting is far better than a bad cursive. and sometimes better than a mediocre cursive too.

Added edit: exception - If you write in small letters, write spaced out and avoid running handwriting. I write small letters like a child on the blackboard so that it is readable. It is much different from the cursive that I normally use for writing on paper.

3) Use a little more space between letters and words It tends to make your existing writing neater and nicer! A useful illusion.

4) Use flow charts and text boxes - Just like 3, they create the illusion of neatness and order.

PS: I think 1 and 3 have already been mentioned by many others, but that just reminds you how important it is :)

  • Re 2: YOURE NOT SUGGESTING ALL CAPS ARE YOU? Also 1) and 3) are in jakebeal's and raphael's answers. I'm not sure what 4) would mean with the example board given. – Kimball Jul 27 '16 at 10:10
  • @Kimball - Actually you are right, I was suggesting ALL CAPS! I know it is difficult (and I guess it would also depend on the topic being taught), but I started doing this when I found that students often misspelled what I had written on the board, or kept asking me about it. It takes some time to get used to this but is 100% worth it. I'll add a photo from one of my classes for (4) – Ashutosh Rana Jul 28 '16 at 5:24
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you could counter your tendency towards cursive ligatures by trying block capital letters for natural language text. the height of those letters is consistent, they are less likely to disappear among their neighbors, and the text fills out a rectangular block. i do it that way, but admittedly, i am used to handwriting in all caps.

  • Block capitals are horrible to read and very slow to write. Notice how, for example, road signs are almost always in mixed case. – David Richerby Jan 15 '15 at 23:12
  • road signs are designed for the accurate reading of proper nouns in just an instant, a very different use case from prepositional phrases on a chalkboard. OP can hardly complain that improved approaches would be slower to write than the quasi-cursive shown above. – Aaron Brick Jan 17 '15 at 6:12
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The calligraphy - well that is fixed with paper, pencil and patience.

On the chalkboard it tends to be just slightly different.

The main trick that helped me was just to push the chalk into the chalkboard instead of pulling it, like we do it with the pencil on paper.

  • I haven't tried your method, but it seems that board is not commensurate to the paper since it is hung on the wall. – Ooker Jan 15 '15 at 15:08
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    Pushing the chalk into the board rather than pulling it is exactly the wrong thing to do, as it makes it judder and bounce. It's how Walter Lewin did his famous dotted lines, for example. – David Richerby Jan 15 '15 at 23:15
  • Push the chalk into the board, don't push it through the wall. – Andrei Jun 17 '15 at 13:12

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