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My System for Transcribing Remote Math Classes

Transcriber Darla Sautter developed a system to overcome the greatest challenge of remote work: not being able to see the board.

After working for more than two years on my local university campus, I made my first foray into remote work in 2011, transcribing a College Algebra class twice a week. Not only was it my first remote class, but it was my first math class as well. I made sure the agency that hired me knew that. Since things were going well with my transcribing and I was comfortable using TypeWell's Math Mode feature, and because the agency was short-staffed, they said, "Go for it." But, I also knew that I would probably lapse into transcribing words instead of symbols (typing "a to the 6th" instead of a6 and "half" instead of ½) until I got the hang of it. And I did.

I’m still not a Math Mode expert by any means, but I have transcribed a variety of math-related classes since that Algebra class seven years ago, from basic math to all levels of algebra, some calculus, discrete math and (most recently) applied ordinary differential equations. All but one of those has been remote instead of on campus. I have also taken TypeWell's Math Mode short course, which I highly recommend.

If you've transcribed any math from a remote location, you know it is impossible to see exactly what the instructor is writing as they work problems out on the board. 

They usually write faster than they speak, and they usually don’t verbalize everything they write. For example, you may hear, "2x plus 3 over 14 … oh, and the radical goes here." You may have captured the first part, but then there was that "fading off" and a mention of a symbol.

I do not want to transcribe equations and formulas incorrectly, so I have developed a system that I use for a lot of remote math classes (though not all of them, as I’ll explain later). This system has served both me and the students well. Recently, I transcribed Differential Equations and the student in this class told me he relies on my special system for his studying. So, when I took a week off that term, I made sure to contact the transcribers who were subbing for me. I explained the system so they, too, could support this student in the same way.

Here's how it works

The system I developed involves orienting the student to the board with a bracketed comment, followed by an asterisked number. When the instructor starts to read an equation or do a problem that I know I probably won’t be able to follow completely, I type [Writing problem on board] followed by *1. If I know the problem number from the book or homework, I include that, too (but this is not usually the case).

Screenshot of TypeWell math transcript

When the student sees the asterisked number, they also put a *1 in their notes, next to the information that they are copying down from the board (i.e., the information that I’m not able to capture because I can't see the board). Later, the student can match up the *1 in their notes with the *1 in the TypeWell transcript to recall which problem the instructor was working on at that point in the transcript.

If the instructor starts explaining why or how they are doing something, that, of course, should be transcribed in the usual fashion. 

I start a new paragraph to transcribe the instructor's explanation. Then, if they go back to board work for the same problem, I start a new paragraph again, orienting the student to the same problem, "continued."

Screenshot of TypeWell math transcript

I repeat this notation throughout the class, moving from *2 to *3 to *4 and so on, for each new problem or equation. When I was transcribing the Differential Equations class, I sometimes reached *50 or higher over the course of 75 minutes! Typically, though, a 60-minute class will cover 5-10 problems, depending on the class content and teaching style.

(By the way, my examples for the purpose of this blog post are not super high-level math; I didn’t want to get bogged down in the math as I described the system.)

Here is another example:

Screenshot of TypeWell math transcript

And here is what the student might write on their paper:

Student's Math notebook and a pen

Having described this system that I use for transcribing remote math classes, I do have some additional thoughts and a word of warning regarding the possible overuse of this system. 

There are times when I think it’s best not to transcribe math in this way.

Obviously, you would have to discuss implementing this system with the student ahead of time. When I contact the student in Skype before class, I give a brief description of the notation system (and that description is stored in my Personal Abbreviation List). I then ask if it makes sense to them and if they would like to use the system.

Without the student’s understanding, the asterisked numbers could be confusing. In addition, the system works in conjunction with the student taking good notes while they are in class, and that is something outside of my control. 

Some students are not able to take their own notes, and just like any other student in the class, they can always choose not to take notes.

All of the students to whom I’ve made this proposal, however, have taken me up on it! If a student did opt out, I would have to transcribe the class using my usual listening, processing, and chunking skills, doing the best I could. In situations where I’m not using the asterisked numbers, I find that I use [see board] and [verify] more often.

Words of warning

While I do welcome you to give this system I try, I also have a couple of words of warning about it.

First, if you’re transcribing on site, you should be capturing the spoken words and using what you can see on the board to complete the transcript. I don’t think this system has as much of a place when the transcriber is on site, since the transcriber has visual access. I only developed this system because, as a remote transcriber, I couldn’t see what the instructor was writing.

Second, please don’t use this system by default for all remote math classes. In my experience, unless the instructor has a very rapid rate of instruction, and/or says virtually nothing while working problems out on the board, I do not think this system should be used in basic math or basic algebra classes. In lower-level classes, I believe the student is better served by seeing the problems typed out in the transcript.

Here is an example where basic algebra skills were not applied in transcribing a simple pre-algebra problem:

Screenshot of TypeWell math transcript

Following is a much better transcript because it shows the student how the problem was worked out:

Screenshot of TypeWell math transcript

In my opinion, any transcriber taking on math classes should have a good handle on basic math, up through the foundational principles of Algebra I so that they understand and can type out the equations/problems that the instructor is covering in the classroom. That background knowledge enables transcribers to use their brain to capture the unspoken math, as needed. Remember, we’re transcribing meaning-for-meaning, not verbatim.

As a transcriber takes on higher and higher levels of math, furthering that mathematical understanding is very helpful. 

I still use the built-in Math/Science Tutorial in TypeWell when I begin an assignment that isn’t as familiar to me, refreshing my memory or learning the vocabulary, symbols, and basic principles.

Transcribing math has been both “good challenging” and “hard challenging” as I’ve matured as a transcriber. When I sub more difficult classes, it still makes me a little bit nervous. In the end, I think it’s never a bad idea to increase our value as transcribers by stepping out of our comfort zones and taking on more difficult assignments. Perhaps learning about and practicing the system I described herein will encourage you to move forward with transcribing some math classes.


Darla Sautter

Darla Sautter loves transcribing from home so she can continue homeschooling her kids. Her family lives on a two-acre mini-farm in central Washington with dairy goats and chickens, and is actively involved in the Eastern Orthodox Church.

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