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This paper describes a method for solving math problems. The basic idea is to combine two things: • First, a simple method for making handwritten notes while thinking about a problem. This method is aimed at supporting – a step-by-step approach to problem solving and – reﬂective thinking: Better understand and control what you do while solving a problem. • Second, a densely packed cheat sheet with broad advice on math problem solving. At present, this sheet focuses on general methods for problem solving. Later versions may contain material on speciﬁc domains like calculus or algebra. You can download this paper • as a .pdf ﬁle: http://dl.dropbox.com/u/4884231/MathProbSolv.pdf, • as a .tex ﬁle: http://dl.dropbox.com/u/4884231/MathProbSolv.tex. This is useful if you want to adapt the cheat sheet.
Layout for the notes
Here are some ideas on how to use the notemaking process. • Use a two column layout. (Read on! This is not the two-column proof you may know from geometry lessons.) The paper (in portrait format) is divided by a vertical line. The left part is about two thirds of the the page width and is used for the main body of notes. The right part is used for reﬂection about what you are doing. You can use the problem name as a headline. • Organize your notes by process stages. As we will see a few paragraphs later, the cheat sheet suggests several process stages, like ”Getting Started”, ”Make a plan” and so on. For each process stage a collection of useful problem solving tools is given - for the ”Getting Started” stage you can use tools like ”make a diagram”, ”introduce useful notation” or ”make a table of special cases for small numbers”. • Use abbreviations for important stages and tools. For example, use ”signposts” like ”gs” for ”Getting Started”, ”rep” for ”Representations” and so on. • Use the reﬂection column. Here you can add what you think about the material in the main left column. E.g., are you stuck? What can you do about it? What are alternatives to your current approach? The cheat sheet contains a number of useful tools for reﬂection. You can use tool abbreviations again - a question mark for obstacles or an exclamation mark for insights. Don’t worry whether your notes really belong in the left or right column - remember these are your work notes and not a ﬁnal presentation of your results. The separate reﬂection column is merely a vehicle to give you better control over what you are doing in your problem solving. • Use a hierarchic layout, linking ideas by short lines. This may be a matter of liking, but again it works well for me. With these lines, I can better see connections between ideas, especially if I add an idea later.
Here are some remarks about special aspects of notemaking. • Use reﬂections at least at the end of each stage, and whenever you feel confused. Writing up is often a great help. • Dealing with parallel approaches. Often enough a problem can be tackled via diﬀerent roads - e.g. using induction or contradiction. You could note both approaches and examine them one after the other, starting with the most promising one, or you can try a parallel strategy and start a separate sheet for each approach. For complex problems, this may be the better process.
• Referencing. Sometimes you have to make a reference to another part of your notes. A simple way to do this is via numbers. Number your pages to manage references between sheets, e.g. 5-3: page 5, remark number 3. Finally, here are two trivial things that work well for me. • Write small. Getting large amounts of information on one sheet is very useful. Perhaps you’ll ﬁnd that larger sheets of paper and ﬁner pencils work well for you. • Write lightly. This makes erasing much easier.
The picture on the next page shows a number of layout essentials.
Remarks on the cheat sheet
• A focus on heuristics. The cheat sheet in its present state contains only heuristic advice. You’ll ﬁnd almost no domain speciﬁc information, e.g. about primes or about calculus. • Use of endnotes. The cheat sheet is meant to contain as much information as reasonable and legible (hrmpf?), so it consists mainly of short descriptions of concepts that are by no means self-explanatory. More (but arguably still insuﬃcient) information about some of the cheat sheet items can be found in the endnotes. • Redundant information. You’ll ﬁnd that some items appear more than once. This is to increase chances that you ﬁnd it quickly in diﬀerent contexts. • References. A simple ”>” points to other paragraphs of the cheat sheet. • Adapt. This is by far the most important point: Adapt this cheat sheet for your own purposes. (Sharing and discussing the result with others might be a good idea.) • Document structure. A This document was designed for easy adaptation, so I tried to keep the L TEX-aspects of the document easy. There are a few parameters you can change to manipulate the cheat sheet, especially the font size and the number of columns. • Download. You can download the .tex ﬁle for this document at http://dl.dropbox.com/u/4884231/MathProbSolv.tex. • More Cheat Sheets. You ﬁnd more cheat sheets on http://math-blog.com/2008/09/20/13-useful-math-cheat-sheets/ or http://www.cheat-sheets.org/#Math or http://prairiestate.edu/skifowit/sheets/sheets.htm or http://physics.eou.edu/opensource/math/index.html. On the following page you ﬁnd the cheat sheet.
Math Tool Box
Use Layout Elements
use two columns main column reflection column — use ”signposts” for important elements of problem solving: U: unknown D: data C: condition1 — pr: problem2 an: analysis dr: desired result pl: plan op: options3 so?!: what to do next?4 si: spontaneous ideas gs: getting started rep: representations5 hyp: hypothesis6 ...7
Look at Related Problems
look at more special problems look at similar / analog problems look at more general problems16
Find New Approaches
general idea: choose objects of problem solving modify objects observe the results — what to modify: problem objects — problem elements unknown data condition — representations > points of view context of reference diagrams — how to modify: substitute, replace combine with other elements reverse, rearrange eliminate exchange adapt, alter add minimize, maximize break down into parts approximate — what to look at: symmetry patterns extremes limits data invariants details - more or less of them parity ...
Advice from tricki.org
Don’t start from scratch55 Hunt for analogies56 Mathematicians need to be metamathematicians57 Think about the converse58 Try to prove the opposite59 Look for related problems60 Work on clusters of problems61 Look at small cases62 Try to prove a stronger result63 Prove a consequence first64 Think axiomatically even about concrete objects65 Temporarily suspend rigor66 Turn off all but one of the difficulties67 Simplify your problem by generalizing it68 If you don’t know how to make a decision, then don’t make it69 If an argument looks promising but needs some technical hypothesis, try assuming that hypothesis for now, but aim to remove it later.70
Use Your Knowledge
use relevant theorems use solved problems use their results use their methods — how to find such material: from memory via the unknown: which material has the same unknown? via explicit search process gather information > — utilize the material: make material applicable to problem modify your problem modify your material
introduce notation draw diagrams develop mental images17 — use representation types: geometric coordinate systems cartesian, polar, cylindrical... choose the origin — algebraic b-adic factorisations — algorithmic miscellaneous — organize data: in tables in diagrams figures, hierarchical trees... — exploit symmetries, invariants...
Your Own Tools
Use A General Process
go through the following stages8 leave out or repeat stages if necessary — get started > make a plan > carry out the plan > reflect >
look at special cases collect and organize data look at extreme cases make things simpler9 — find representations > — break down the problem into unknown data condition examine these parts simplify these parts modify these parts — check definitions
Useful Math Concepts
complex numbers graphs generating functions ... — constant vs. variable parameters - change — estimates and approximations use inequalities
Types of Proof
direct proof18 proof by mathematical induction proof by transposition proof by contradiction proof by construction proof by exhaustion probabilistic proof combinatorial proof nonconstructive proof visual proof computer-assisted proofs
Change Heuristic Approach
general idea: take heuristic objects modify them — heuristic objects: proof hierarchy proof strategy proof tactics proof details representations problem ingredients unknown data conditon search direction forward / backward — modifications: try alternatives try opposites
Make a Plan
construct a proof hierarchy:10 proof strategy11 proof tactics proof details — construction tools: ask repeatedly: ”How can I do this?”12 work top-down work bottom-up construct intermediate elements of the proof hierarchy construct a penultimate step13 use wishful thinking / make it easier14 — use forward search use backward search — generate seminal ideas for a proof look at related problems > use your knowledge > use important principles > find new approaches >
talk to people — eat / drink... exercise, physical activity breathe deeply and calmly take a break; sleep work in a new setting — music - make or listen nonmath activity math activity outside your domain flood yourself with new ideas
analogy19 20 Fubini principle21 parity22 Dirichlet principle23 inclusion/exclusion24 opposites25 induction26 generalisation27 specialisation28 variation29 invariance30 monovariance31 infinite descent32 symmetry33 extremes34 recursion35 stepwise approximation colouring36 randomisation37 change of perspective38 modularisation39 brute force40 — use a computer... for computation for simulation — use a ”greedy algorithm”41 build a model42 guess and check43
talk to others directly, via email — use the internet: math encyclopedias Wolfram MathWorld44 PlanetMath45 Springer Encyclopedia46 Wikipedia ... — math communities47 AoPS48 PlanetMath49 mathoverflow50 ... — accessing literature MathSciNet51 Zentralblatt MATH52 ... — use books and libraries: scripts, textbooks, formularies...
work on for just 15 minutes (and repeat this) use coping self talk imagine the work done remember previous successes
Carry Out the Plan
work with care correctness proved? correctness evident? be critical
use the reflection column — reflect on the way:15 ask ”So what?” collect questions what’s the problem / obstacle? what’s the conflict? what’s your aim? what’s your plan? what can you do? can you do something better? — reflect at the end: what worked? what didn’t work? and why? use results elsewhere use methods elsewhere — check list of Common Errors>
thinking that is... hasty narrow fuzzy sprawling53 — working without aim working without plan errors in carrying out a plan lack of reflection — check lists of errors54
1 What is unknown? What are the data? What is the condition? - These fundamental questions are of course due to George Polya’s ”How to Solve It”, Princeton 1988. 2 Use ”pr” not only for the initial problem, but for later sub-problems that arise in the course of your work. 3 Use this for collecting the options you have in a given situation. 4 For me, this is an especially useful tool. 5 Cf. the section on representations. 6 Use this to formulate a hypothesis. Then try to proof or disproof it. 7 You can highlight these signposts by drawing a little circle around them. 8 The General Process and much of the rest of this sheet is of course masssively inﬂuenced by Polya’s ”How to Solve It”. 9 E.g., replace nasty things with nice ones. Cf. the ”wishful thinking tool” below. 10 Build a hierarchy of steps to prove something. Example - Induction: On the top level, we have the induction principle. On the level below, we have the base case (often for n = 0 or n = 1) and the induction step. Then we have arguments for proving the base case and arguments for the induction step. In most cases however, a proof cannot be constructed in such a neat top-down manner - we have to assemble it from several building blocks, using a combination of top-down and bottom-up strategies. To get a better impression of the proof hierarchy idea - Leslie Lamport’s article on writing structured proofs is a worthwhile read: http://research.microsoft.com/en-us/um/people/lamport/pubs/lamport-how-to-write.pdf. 11 The three hierarchy levels strategy, tactics and details are not quite sharp, but nevertheless useful. 12 This and the next tool are of course closely releated to the ”working backwards” tool. 13 Ask yourself what might be the last step in your argument, the one that will yield the conclusion. (From: Paul Zeitz, Art and Craft of Problem Solving, New York 1999, chapter 2.2). 14 Try to make diﬃculties in your problem disappear - ”[...] if the problem involves big, ugly numbers, make them small and pretty” - again taken from Paul Zeitz’ book. 15 Use the reﬂection column for applying these items. 16 Looking at more general problems is sometimes useful. In induction for example, you have more to prove - but also more to build on. 17 There are countless websites that illustrate math concepts. For starters, have a look at http://www.cinderella.de/files/HTMLDemos/, http://www.artofproblemsolving.com/Resources/videos.php?type=other or http://demonstrations.wolfram.com/. 18 This list is largely taken from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mathematical_proof. 19 Major source for this list of ”Important Principles”: Christian Hesse: Das kleine Einmaleineins des klaren Denkens, Munich 2009 20 Try to reduce the problem to another problem that is already solved. 21 Count something by counting something else. Little Gauss’ summation of 1 + ... + 100 is a famous example. 22 Consider even and odd numbers, or more abstract: Try to establish two nonoverlapping classes and extract information from this. 23 If n + 1 items are put into n boxes, there must be at least one box with two or more items. 24 |A ∪ B| = |A| + |B| − |A ∩ B| and the general case for this. 25 Assume the opposite of what is to be shown and develop a contradiction. 26 Besides classical induction, think of more elaborate versions like downward induction. 27 Try to solve a more general problem. 28 Consider special cases. 29 Get insight into the problem by varying several aspects of it. 30 Construct something that remains unchanged under certain transformations. 31 Construct something that can only increase under certain transformations. 32 Tool for contradiction proofs: Show that if a certain solution exists, there should be a smaller one, and then another even smaller, but that such an inﬁnite descent isn’t possible for the given problem. 33 Look for symmetries in a given system. 34 Look at extremal elements. 35 Can you reduce a problem to a simpler version of itself? 36 Colour your problem and derive information from this. Example: Missing corners in a checkerboard.
elements of chance into your problem to make it simpler. backwards. 39 Divide the problem into smaller parts, solve them and combine this for a solution of the initial problem. 40 Check all possible solutions. 41 If you have to construct something via an algorithm, take the most you can get in every step, or more abstract: Use locally optimal solutions to construct a global optimum. Cf. Arthur Engel’s ”Problem Solving Strategies”, New York 1998. 42 For example, build a physical model of a spatial construct. 43 Try to guess a solution and check it. 44 http://mathworld.wolfram.com/. 45 http://planetmath.org/encyclopedia. 46 http://eom.springer.de/. 47 Purpose and scope of the sites diﬀer. Read the introductions and FAQs carefully. 48 http://www.artofproblemsolving.com/Forum/index.php. 49 http://planetmath.org/?op=forums. 50 http://mathoverflow.net/ - for research level math questions. 51 http://www.ams.org/mathscinet/. 52 http://www.zentralblatt-math.org/zbmath/advanced/. 53 This diagnosis is taken from David Perkins, Outsmarting IQ 54 For a list of common erros in undergraduate mathematics, have a look at http://www.math.vanderbilt.edu/~schectex/commerrs/. 55 A common mistake people make when trying to answer a mathematical question is to work from ﬁrst principles: it is almost always easier to modify something you already know. This article illustrates the point with examples that range from simple arithmetic to problems from the forefront of research. 56 It is surprising how often the following general approach to problem-solving is successful: you have a problem you don’t yet know how to solve; you think of a somewhat similar context where you can formulate an analogous problem that you do know how to solve; you then work out what the corresponding solution ought to be in the context you started with. Even quite loose analogies can do a wonderful job of guiding you in the right direction. 57 If you want to prove a theorem, then one way of looking at your task is to regard it as a search, amongst the huge space of potential arguments, for one that will actually work. One can often considerably narrow down this formidable search by thinking hard about properties that a successful argument would have to have. In other words, it is a good idea to focus not just on the mathematical ideas associated with your hoped-for theorem, but also on the properties of diﬀerent kinds of proofs. This very important principle is best illustrated with some examples. 58 If you are trying to prove a mathematical statement, it is often a good idea to think about its converse, especially if the converse is not obvious. This is particularly useful if the statement you are trying to prove is a lemma that you would like to use to prove something else. Some examples will help to explain why. More obviously, it is useful if you are trying to prove a result that would, if true, be best possible. 59 If you want to prove a mathematical statement, try proving the negation of that statement. Very often it gives you an insight into why the original statement is true, and sometimes you discover that it is not true. This tip can be iterated. 60 When you are trying to solve a problem, it can be very helpful to formulate similar-looking problems and think about those too. Sometimes they turn out to be interesting in themselves, and sometimes they lead you to ideas that are useful for the original problem. 61 It is not usually a good research strategy to think about one isolated problem, unless you are already some way to solving it. Solving a problem involves a certain degree of luck, so your chances of success are much greater if you look at a cluster of related problems. 62 Can’t see how to solve a problem? Then see if you can solve it in special cases. Some special cases will be too easy to give you a good idea of how to approach the main problem, and some will be more or less as diﬃcult as the main problem, but if you search for the boundary between these two extremes, you will often discover where the true diﬃculty lies and what it is. And that is progress. 63 As a student, one is asked to prove many statements that have been carefully designed so that their hypotheses are exactly the appropriate ones for deducing the conclusion. This makes it possible to design ”trick” questions with unnecessarily strong hypotheses: these questions can be hard if one tries to use the hypotheses as they stand, since their full strength is irrelevant. The problems that arise when one is doing research are often of the ”trick” variety: one has not been set them by a benign professor in the sky. So it is a good idea to investigate whether weaker hypotheses will suﬃce. As with looking at small cases, this can help one to locate the true point of diﬃculty of a problem. Similarly, if you are trying to ﬁnd an example of a mathematical structure X that has a certain property P ,
it may be easier to look for an X that has a stronger property Q. And even if you fail, you are likely to understand much better what is required to ﬁnd an X that satisﬁes P . 64 This is the ﬂip side of ”Try to prove a stronger result”; if one wants to prove some statement, it can be useful to ﬁrst prove a weaker consequence of that statement, and then use that weaker result as a stepping stone to the full result. 65 If you are trying to prove a fact about the exponential function, it may be easier not to use any of the common deﬁnitions of this function, but to use instead a few properties that it has, of which the most important is that exp(x + y) = exp(x) exp(y). In general, it is often possible to turn concrete problems into abstract ones in this way, and doing so can considerably clarify the problems and their solutions. 66 The ﬁnal proof of a result should of course be fully rigorous. But this certainly does not prevent one from suspending rigor in order to locate the right proof strategy to pursue. For instance, if one needs to compute some complicated integral expression, one can temporarily suspend concerns about whether operations such as interchange of integrals is actually justiﬁed, and go ahead and perform these operations anyway in order to ﬁnd a plausible answer. One can always go back later and try to make the argument more rigorous. 67 A problem may have several independent diﬃculties plaguing it; for instance one may need to establish an estimate which is uniform both with respect to a large parameter N , and an independent small parameter ε. In that case, one can often proceed by passing to a special case in which only one of the diﬃculties is ”active”, solving each of these basic special cases, and then try to merge the arguments together. For instance, one could set N = 1 and get an argument which is uniform as ε → 0, then set ε = 1 and get an argument which is uniform as N → ∞, then try to put them together. 68 Sometimes if you generalize a statement, the result is easier to prove. There are several reasons for this, discussed in separate articles linked to from this page. 69 Very often a proof requires one to choose some object that will make the rest of the proof work. And very often it is far from obvious how to make the choice. Often a good way of getting round the problem is to take an arbitrary object of the given type, give it a name X, and continue with the proof as if you had chosen X. Along the way, you will ﬁnd that you need to assume certain properties P1 , . . . , Pk of X. Then your original problem is reduced to the question ”Does there exist an object of the given type with properties P1 , . . . , Pk ?” Often, this is a much more straightforward question than the main problem you were trying to solve. 70 This entire section is an unchanged quotation from: http://www.tricki.org/article/General_problem-solving_tips. If there are any copyright problems, please let me know.
Thomas Teepe December 15, 2011
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