There are several groups of people that would benefit from learning LaTeX in college. Future teachers can use it to write exams, scientists and mathematicians can write papers, and everyone can write theses with it.

There are three ways to introduce LaTeX:

  • A formal class devoted to LaTeX
  • Portions of other classes focused on LaTeX
  • Students picking it up on their own

These are arranged in decreasing required time investment.

What, from your actual experiences or empirical data, is the most effective way for students to learn LaTeX?

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    $\begingroup$ While it is a good question in the abstract, I am struggling to see why this is here and not at, say, Academia.SE or TeX.SE. (All in the spirit of the private-beta phase being in part for defining "good questions" for the site.) $\endgroup$ – Willie Wong Mar 19 '14 at 7:46
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    $\begingroup$ I do think the question belongs here since it is (perhaps a bit tangential to, but just a bit) about maths education. $\endgroup$ – Ittay Weiss Mar 19 '14 at 8:05
  • $\begingroup$ You did not asked when someone should learn LaTeX, but I would say this is also very important: I strongly recommend to students to learn LaTeX as soon as possible in their studies: 1) They have to learn it anyway if they are math majors in order to write their thesis. 2) It's a lot easier if you don't have that much symbols to look up as in the end of their studies. 3) It actually helps writing mathematical arguments, like @JimBelk pointed out in his answer. $\endgroup$ – Markus Klein Mar 19 '14 at 8:22
  • $\begingroup$ @WillieWong I ask because I am currently teaching LaTex in a math-writing course. $\endgroup$ – Brian Rushton Mar 19 '14 at 11:10
  • $\begingroup$ @MarkusKlein not all math majors write a thesis. $\endgroup$ – Aru Ray Mar 19 '14 at 12:42

In my experience, students in sophomore or junior level math courses usually have very little trouble picking up LaTeX on their own. They typically require the following assistance:

  1. Some guidance in downloading and installing it, e.g. links to user-friendly distributions for both the Mac and the PC. I post links to my course webpage.

  2. A sample LaTeX source file, 1-2 pages in length, using simple commands, and similar in format to a homework assignment for the course. Again, I just make this downloadable from my course webpage.

  3. A relatively short first homework assignment. Most of the first "homework" is actually just getting LaTeX working!

  4. Occasional help with LaTeX during office hours.

I have required LaTeX for all written homework when teaching introductory proofs, introductory abstract algebra, introductory point-set topology, and introductory real analysis, and in each case there was essentially no problem. Usually one or two students per class had trouble getting it up and running before the first weekly homework assignment was due, but they would all have it working by the end of the second week.

I really think that LaTeX helps students to write better proofs. It makes them spend more time on the writing, and it also gives them the ability to their edit proofs a bit after they write a first draft. Students often show me a LaTeX version of a proof during office my hours, and I suggest ways in which the writing could be improved.

Another huge advantage of requiring LaTeX is that students can simply e-mail you their homework assignments. I have a tablet and a stylus that I use for grading, so I just write my comments directly on the PDF and then e-mail it back to them. In addition to being faster, this has the nice advantage that you retain copies of the students' assignments, which can be helpful in a variety of situations. Without a tablet, it would work just fine to simply print out the students' assignments and hand them back as paper.

Of course, requiring LaTeX is somewhat more work for the students. Fortunately, most of the extra work for the students happens during the first few weeks of class, which means that it isn't much of a burden for them. I've never had students complain about the extra work.

One more note: I don't think it would work very well to require LaTeX in a course such as graph theory where students commonly have to draw pictures on their homework assignments. Even in topology, I had to drop the LaTeX requirement near the end of the course when we started talking about geometric topology, because the students' homeworks were full of pictures!

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    $\begingroup$ (+1) for "LaTeX helps students to write better proofs" :) $\endgroup$ – Ittay Weiss Mar 19 '14 at 8:10
  • $\begingroup$ By the way, you've been nominated as a moderator:meta.matheducators.stackexchange.com/questions/131/… $\endgroup$ – Brian Rushton Mar 21 '14 at 0:11
  • $\begingroup$ Brilliant! I regret failing to learn LaTeX as an undergrad. It would have been far more convenient if a professor had done for me what you are suggest here. $\endgroup$ – David Ebert Apr 12 '14 at 22:04
  • $\begingroup$ To add to this: One thing that I have seen used to teach latex was an example latex document with deliberate errors. The students have to compile it and then search out and correct the errors until it works. I didn't make it so I can't give you an example, but I recall it was a most productive exercise. $\endgroup$ – DavidButlerUofA Sep 10 '14 at 8:46
  • $\begingroup$ You might also suggest something like ShareLatex or WriteLatex, which are websites which take care of both your points 1 and 2, as well as making "I forgot to save it" a less likely outcome. $\endgroup$ – Steven Gubkin Nov 16 '14 at 14:52

In my experience, the only way to learn to use tools is to use them for real. A LaTeX course on its own will be forgotten by the time they need it. At LSU the library organized a series of short courses (2 or 3 sessions, longest was a week or so) on several aspects of using the library effectively. They were voluntary, and repeated irregularly during the year. It worked well, AFAIU. Somtehing like that for the wider audience, and perhaps dedicate the first week's session with the teaching assistant to get up to speed with LaTeX (or other tools in use in the course).

Here we use moodle, students are encouraged to turn in homework (in LaTeX) through it. I schedule a homework number 0 (worth half a regular homework) to get the acquainted with the system, get their account in order, and all the other administrative overhead. It must be turned in in LaTeX, for follwing homework LaTeX gives extra points.

Having the homeworks saved in the system has the extra benefit that they are available, and the exact instant time of turn in is recorded.

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This semester I, for the first time, require all my students to submit their assignments typed and to use LyX for that. I find LyX to be much more easy to digest for students and it teaches both LyX and Latex at the same time. I devote labs to introduce LyX to the students. Most students have no problem working with LyX but some struggle considerably. I find that LyX, as compared to Latex, has a very minor learning curve. After the first few weeks most students are proficient enough and are able to deal with typing up their solutions just fine.

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    $\begingroup$ I think it is better to avoid systems like LyX. It gets in the way when you need more advanced LaTeX, so it is better to learn markup from the start! Besides, LaTeX is mostly easy to learn (myself, I learned it in 5 minutes. Today it has grown, but 15 minutes should be enough to get started). $\endgroup$ – kjetil b halvorsen Mar 19 '14 at 11:23
  • $\begingroup$ I usually avoid getting into the typically futile attempts to convince anybody in the lyx/latex debate. I'll just say that everything I write (articles and books included) I write in Lyx and I never had any problem with type-setting whatever I needed to. Lyx then exports to latex smoothly so I can submit my work as latex as most publishers demand. $\endgroup$ – Ittay Weiss Mar 19 '14 at 11:42

If all you want your students to do is write mathematics using LaTeX syntax using only default packages, you could circumvent many of the logistical problems of a full LaTeX installation altogether by using MarkDown and MathJax. For instance, the online text editor StackEdit combines the functionality of MarkDown (which has almost no learning curve) with MathJax (which renders math symbols via LaTeX syntax) to produce a way to type mathematics that:

  • Requires no software installation and is free to use
  • Has a very easy learning curve (apart from math syntax in LaTeX)
  • Allows students to learn only the math syntax of LaTeX rather than all of LaTeX at once
  • Avoids writing and compiling complete TeX files (which has a fairly steep learning curve)
  • Can be used offline since it saves files in the web browser's cache
  • Allows files to be downloaded as text (MarkDown .md files) or pdf files
  • Can synchronize documents with Google Drive and DropBox (and can therefore be shared easily)
  • Automatically saves documents every few minutes

If your goal is to teach them how to install and use a full LaTeX system, then the lightweight solution proposed here is not what you're looking for. Note: there are also other MarkDown + MathJax editors out there that are packaged as software to be installed on a computer hard drive rather than used in the cloud.

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    $\begingroup$ If you really want to avoid the local installation wouldn't something like writelatex or sharelatex be better than stackedit? Markdown+MathJaX sounds like a horrendous thing to introduce students to. $\endgroup$ – Andrew Stacey Mar 20 '14 at 9:35
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    $\begingroup$ I have had great success with students and writelatex thus far. I'm horrible at installation issues so it is truly a great work around. I've actually posted my source files for a bunch of homeworks so they can edit and use it as a template. $\endgroup$ – James S. Cook Mar 22 '14 at 2:29

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