Types of proof & proof-writing strategies

Students who are new to proofs will need guidance for how to structure proofs and how to be sufficiently rigorous without going into too much detail. Perhaps the most helpful strategy is to provide individual feedback on assignments. It can also be helpful, however, to point out to the class peculiarities of particular kinds of proof and to discuss proof-writing strategies.

Kinds of proof

Texts for proof-writing courses teach the basics (see Resources below). The following materials can help students to discern when and how to apply various kinds of proof.

Teaching students to generate and write proofs

  • Cathy O’Neil’s blog post How to teach someone how to prove something summarizes her proof-writing course, which is designed to avoid some common pitfalls of such courses. These common pitfalls include rewarding speed and “ostentatious displays of cleverness.” Cathy’s course avoids such pitfalls in part by permitting students to revise and resubmit their proofs as many times as they like.
  • To help students learn to write proofs, Russell E. Goodman of Central College has developed Proof-Scrambling Activities. Students must correctly order the scrambled sentences of a proof. These activities help students identify when a proof is logically correct, to recognize how authors use words like “therefore,” “next,” etc., to indicate the direction of the logic, and to gain experience reading and comprehending proofs.
  • The following recitations from M.I.T.’s communication-intensive offering of Real Analysis address proof writing:

Please feel free to contribute teaching strategies for this page.

Textbooks, examples of elegant proofs, & other resources for students

Many texts are available to help students with proof writing. A few follow:

  • How to Think Like a Mathematician: A Companion to Undergraduate Mathematics, by Kevin Houston
  • M. Aigner, G. Ziegler, Proofs from THE BOOK Springer 2004
    A collection of elegant proofs. THE BOOK refers to God’s book of perfect proofs, an idea of Paul Erdös.
  • Stephen Maurer’s Undergraduate Guide to Writing Mathematics contains a chapter about reasoning and proofs (Chapter 7).
  • A. Cupillari The Nuts and Bolts of Proof Elsevier Academic Press 2005 (MAA Review)
  • J. Brown, Philosophy of mathematics: A contemporary introduction to the world of proofs and pictures. Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group, 2008.
  • Alsina, Claudi(E-UPB); Nelsen, Roger B. Charming proofs: A journey into elegant mathematics The Dolciani Mathematical Expositions, 42. Mathematical Association of America, Washington, DC, 2010.
  • Reuben Hersh’s book Experiencing Mathematics: What do we do, when we do mathematics? (AMS 2014) includes a chapter on how mathematicians convince each other. The book makes the point that a proof is not a logically rigorous progression from certain facts to a conclusion, but rather it is a means by which mathematicians convince each other.

This 2-page handout illustrates the basic theorem-proof format:

 

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What is Math Comm

MAA Mathematical Communication (mathcomm.org) is a developing collection of resources for engaging students in writing and speaking about mathematics. The site originated in the MIT Department of Mathematics and was expanded through support from an NSF grant.