Yesterday I was doing some literature review for an article I’m writing about my inverted transition-to-proof class, and I got around to reading a paper by Guershon Harel and Larry Sowder¹ about student conceptions of proof. Early in the paper, the authors wrote the following passage about mathematical proof to set up their main research questions. This totally stopped me in my tracks, for reasons I’ll explain below. All emphases are in the original.

An observation can be conceived of by the individual as either a conjecture or as a fact.

A conjecture is an observation made by a person who has doubts about its truth. A person’s observation ceases to be a conjecture and becomes a fact in her or his view once the person becomes certain of its truth.

This is the basis for our definition of the process of proving:

As I wrote before, each 50-minute class meeting was split up into a 5-minute clicker quiz over the reading and the viewing followed by a Q&A session over whatever we needed to talk about. The material for the Q&A was a combination of student questions from the Guided Practice, trends of misconceptions that I noticed in the Guided Practice responses (whether or not students brought them up), quiz questions with…

In the last couple of posts on the inverted transition-to-proofs course, I talked about course design, and in the last post one of the prominent components of the course was an assignment type that I called Guided Practice. In my opinion Guided Practice is the glue that held the course together and the engine that drove it forward, and without it the course would have gone a little like this.

So, what is this Guided Practice of which I speak?

First let’s recall one of the most common questions asked by people learning about the inverted classroom. The inverted classroom places a high priority on students preparing for class through a combination of reading, videos, and other contact with information. The question that gets asked is — How do you make sure your students do the reading? Well, first of all I should say that the answer is that there really is no simple way to …

This week I am adding to the playlist of screencasts for the inverted intro-to-proofs class I first mentioned here. There are seven chapters in the textbook we are using and my goal is to complete the screencasts for the first three of those chapters prior to the start of the semester (August 27). Yesterday I added four more videos and I am hoping to make four more tomorrow, which will get us through Chapter 1.

The four new ones focus on conditional (“if-then”) statements. I made this video as the second video in the series as a prelude to proofs, which are coming in Section 1.2 and which will remain the focus of the course throughout. Generally speaking, students coming into this course have had absolutely no exposure to proof in their background with the exception of geometry and maybe trigonometry, in which they hated proofs. Watch a part of this and see if you can figure out my …

Dave Richeson at Division By Zero wrote recently about a “proof technique” for proving equalities or inequalities that is far too common: Starting with the equality to be proven and working backwards to end at a true statement. This is a technique that is almost a valid way to prove things, but it contains — and engenders — serious flaws in logic and the concept of proof that can really get students into trouble later on.

I left a comment there that spells out my feelings about why this technique is bad. What I wanted to focus on here is something I also mentioned in the comments, which was that it’s so easy to take a “backwards” proof and turn it into a “forwards” one that there’s no reason not to do it.

Take the following problem: Prove that, for all natural numbers \(n\),

We interrupt this blogging hiatus to throw out a question that came up while I was grading today. The item being graded was a homework set in the intro-to-proof course that I teach. One paper brought up two instances of the same issue.

The student was writing a proof that hinged on arguing that both sin(t) and cos(t) are positive on the interval 0 < t < π/2. The “normal” way to argue this is just to appeal to the unit circle and note that in this interval, you’re remaining in the first quadrant and so both sin(t) and cos(t) are positive. But what the student did was to draw graphs of sin(t) and cos(t) in Maple, using the plot options to restrict the domain; the student then just said something to the effect of “The graph shows that both sin(t) and cos(t) are positive.”

Another proof was of a proposition claiming that there cannot exist three consecutive natural numbers such that the …

This paper by Xian-Jin Li at arXiv purports to have proven the Riemann Hypothesis, arguably the most famous of the seven Millenium Problems. It’s just a preprint, of course, so it’s not final (or even peer-reviewed) yet. As commenters in the related Slashdot story mention, articles claiming the proof of the RH show up on arXiv about once per week, so I’m not getting my hopes up. Still, it would be a major breakthrough if it works out.

Sorry for the slowdown in posting. It’s been tremendously busy here lately with hosting our annual high school math competition this past weekend and then digging out from midterms.

Today in Modern Algebra, we continued working on proving a theorem that says that if \(a\) is a group element and the order of \(a\) is \(n\), then \(a^i = a^j\) if and only if \(i \equiv j \ \mathrm{mod} \ n\). In fact, this was the third day we’d spent on this theorem. So far, we had written down the hypothesis and several equivalent forms of the conclusion and I had asked the students what they should do next. Silence. More silence. Finally, I told them to pair off, and please exit the room. Find a quiet spot somewhere else in the building and tell me where you’ll be. Work on the proof for ten minutes and then come back.

As I wandered around from pair to pair I was very surprised to…

I am a mathematician and educator with interests in cryptology, computer science, and STEM education. I am affiliated with the Mathematics Department at Grand Valley State University in Allendale, Michigan. The views here are my own and are not necessarily shared by GVSU.

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