Confusing letters – a distance-learning problem

I spend a lot of time arguing, especially in the context of students’ mathematical misunderstandings, that the Open University’s mostly mature distance-learning students are not that different from students at conventional universities. However we have a few difficulties that others don’t. One is that students who don’t attend face-to-face or Elluminate tutorials don’t hear others pronouncing words and symbols, or get the opportunity to do so for themselves. We try all sorts of strategies to ameliorate for this e.g. giving pronunciations within written text, using ‘talking glossaries’.

But the problem remains – I am very used to students thinking that ρ (rho) is a p, and have heard λ described as ‘that step-ladder thing’. I’ve posted previously about problems caused when students think that Gln is GIn. This post is about a confusion with the abbreviation for natural logarithms (i.e. logarithms to base e). The first problem is that some people use the abbreviation ‘log’ when describing natural logarithms whilst others use ‘log’ to mean logarithm to base 10. For safety I use ‘ln’ for natural logarithm. Well I thought that was a safe solution until my colleague Christine Leach (who has written iCMA questions for third level chemistry students) told me that she had complaints from students who had typed ‘In’ or ‘1n’ instead of ‘ln’ into their answers – and we marked them wrong! Especially in a sans serif font it really is very difficult to distinguish between the number 1, the letter I (upper case i) and the letter l (lower case L).

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