How to Write Up the Term Paper

An Incomplete Guide to Happiness (Yours and Mine)

A specific format is required for the term paper. Not surprisingly, this format follows the same form as a scientific paper, whose purpose is to inform the reader about the results of a scientific investigation.
Why so picky? Two reasons, really, which both follow from the same fact: Computers are great ways to spew out tons of unorgainized (as opposed to organized) gibberish in rather short periods of time. By requiring students to organize their results in a report, they must synthesize their output. In the process, they will be required to think about the results. This will lead to greater understanding of the material and, hopefully, catch errors. Nothing is worse than simply turning in a bunch of wrong answers without noticing that they are wrong. It is much easier to turn in incorrect computer results than incorrect analytical homework problems typically done in other classes, and the hope is that by following this ritual, turning in incorrect solutions will be avoided. The second reason is more practical: I don't want to have to read piles of computer generated gibberish.

The format is:

I. Statement of Problem

A short synopsis of the problem. Example: "Use a fourth order Taylor polynomial to approximate exp(x) on the interval [-1,1] and estimate the error. Show the error estimate is valid."

II. Description of The Mathematics

Briefly describe the mathematics used. For example, for the Taylor polynomial, describe the general form and the form of the remainder. Derive the approximation for exp(x) and derive a bound for the error.

III. Description of the Algorithm

Write down and explain the numerical method and how you implemented it. For the example you would show how the polynomial evaluation is factored and explain why this is the most efficient way to evaluate the polynomial. You might also copy (by hand) the relevant piece of code.

IV. Results

Present the results of the computations. Use Tables and Graphs! A concise, easy to read format is very important!

V. Conclusions (The Most Important Part!)

Discuss your results. Show me that you understand the meaning of the results you get. If you predicted in Section II that the error is less than some bound and this is reflected in your table, say so. Like, "as predicted, the results show that the actual error is less than the estimate". If your predictions don't come true, try to explain why. You could have a mistake in your code or there are assumptions made in Sec. II that aren't valid. A good explanation could salvage an otherwise incorrect set of numbers. You must convince me in this section that you know what the answers should be and that you did indeed get them. Not only are correct answers important, but the fact that you can show me the answers are correct is important. (Think about it, if you can't convince someone that the results are correct, how will you know when they are incorrect?) This view is very different than that of most other classes where the student turns in the solutions and the professor gives determines the grade based on the correctness of the solution. The reason for the difference is that the computer is doing the work! I don't trust the computer, and the student shouldn't either. This section is very important.

VI. Program Listing

Include this for completeness. I do not grade specifically on programming style, but I might want to comment on more efficient ways of coding something.


(1) All work must be organized on standard 8.5 x 11 Paper! This means that you must either copy your results onto a sheet of notebook paper or carefully format them so that they can be cut out and pasted onto such paper, or include them in your word processor document. I will not grade it otherwise. If I have to hunt for your answer(s) through a pile of computer output I will assume that you don't know what the answers are and hence you will not get credit for the work!

(2) All graphs must be computer generated or hand plotted on graph paper according to the standard conventions. Standard conventions include labels, titles, etc. Ask if you are not sure. Notebook paper is not graph paper.