Some General Advice for Math Students of All Ages
I recently saw the question “Why aren’t math textbooks more straightforward?” on Quora.
In fact, I would argue that most math textbooks are very straightforward!
The real issue most students are experiencing is one of relativity and experience. Mathematics is an increasingly sophisticated, cumulative, and more complicated topic the longer you study it. Fortunately, over time, it also becomes easier, more interesting, and intriguingly more beautiful.
As an example of what we’re looking at and what most students are up against, let’s take the topic of algebra. Typically in the United States one might take introductory algebra in eighth grade before taking algebra II in ninth or tenth grade. (For our immediate purposes, here I’m discounting the potential existence of a common pre-algebra course that some middle schools, high schools, and even colleges offer.) Later on in college, one will exercise one’s algebra muscles in calculus and may eventually get to a course called abstract algebra as an upper-level undergraduate (in their junior or senior years). Most standard undergraduate abstract algebra textbooks will cover ALL of the material that was in your basic algebra I and algebra II texts in about four pages and simply assume you just know the rest! Naturally, if you started out with the abstract algebra textbook in eighth grade, you’d very likely be COMPLETELY lost. This is because the abstract algebra textbook is assuming that you’ve got some significant prior background in mathematics (what is often referred to in the introduction to far more than one mathematics textbook as “mathematical sophistication”, though this phrase also implicitly assumes knowledge of what a proof is, what it entails, how it works, and how to actually write one).
Following the undergraduate abstract algebra textbook there’s even an additional graduate level course (or four) on abstract algebra (or advanced subtopics like group theory, ring theory, field theory, and Galois theory) that goes into even more depth and subtlety than the undergraduate course; the book for this presumes you’ve mastered the undergraduate text and goes on faster and further.
A Weightlifting Analogy
To analogize things to something more common, suppose you wanted to become an Olympic level weightlifter. You’re not going to go into the gym on day one and snatch and then clean & jerk 473kg! You’re going to start out with a tiny fraction of that weight and practice repeatedly for years slowly building up your ability to lift bigger and bigger weights. More likely than not, you’ll also very likely do some cross-training by running, swimming, and even lifting other weights to strengthen your legs, shoulder, stomach, and back. All of this work may eventually lead you to to win the gold medal in the Olympics, but sooner or later someone will come along and break your world record.
Mathematics is certainly no different: one starts out small and with lots of work and practice over time, one slowly but surely ascends the rigors of problems put before them to become better mathematicians. Often one takes other courses like physics, biology, and even engineering courses that provide “cross-training.” Usually when one is having issues in a math class it’s because they’re either somehow missing something that should have come before or because they didn’t practice enough in their prior classwork to really understand all the concepts and their subtleties. As an example, the new material in common calculus textbooks is actually very minimal – the first step in most problems is the only actual calculus and the following 10 steps are just practicing one’s algebra skills. It’s usually in carrying out the algebra that one makes more mistakes than in the actual calculus.
Often at the lower levels of grade-school mathematics, some students can manage to just read a few examples and just seem to “get” the answers without really doing a real “work out.” Eventually they’ll come to a point at which they hit a wall or begin having trouble, and usually it comes as the result of not actually practicing their craft. One couldn’t become an Olympic weightlifter by reading books about weightlifting, they need to actually get in the gym and workout/practice. (Of course, one of the places this analogy breaks down is that weightlifting training is very linear and doesn’t allow one to “skip around” the way one could potentially in a mathematics curriculum.)
I’m reminded of a quote by mathematician Pierre Anton Grillet: “…algebra is like French pastry: wonderful, but cannot be learned without putting one’s hands to the dough.” It is one of the most beautiful expressions of the recurring sentiment written by almost every author into the preface of nearly every mathematics text at or above the level of calculus. They all exhort their students to actually put pencil to paper and work through the logic of their arguments and the exercises to learn the material and gain some valuable experience. I’m sure that most mathematics professors will assure you that in the end, only a tiny fraction of their students actually do so. Some of the issue is that these exhortations only come in textbooks traditionally read at the advanced undergraduate level, when they should begin in the second grade.
“It’s Easy to See”
A common phrase in almost every advanced math textbook on the planet is the justification, “It’s easy to see.” The phrase, and those like it, should be a watchword for students to immediately be on their guard! The phrase is commonly used in proofs, discussions, conversations, and lectures in which an author or teacher may skip one or more steps which she feels should be obvious to her audience, but which, in fact, are far more commonly not obvious.
It’s become so cliche that some authors actually mention specifically in their prefaces that they vow not to use the phrase, but if they do so, they usually let slip some other euphemism that is its equivalent.
The problem with the phrase is that everyone, by force of their own circumstances and history, will view it completely differently. A step that is easy for someone with a Ph.D. who specialized in field theory to “see” may be totally incomprehensible for a beginning student of algebra I in the same way that steps that were easy for Girgory Perelman to see in his proof of the Poincaré conjecture were likewise completely incomprehensible for teams of multiple tenured research professors of mathematics to see. (cross reference: The Poincaré Conjecture: In Search of the Shape of the Universe by Donal O’Shea (Walker & Co., 2007))
How to Actively Read a Math Text
So how are students to proceed? It will certainly help to see a broader road map of what lies ahead and what the expected changes in terrain will look like. It will also help greatly if students have a better idea how to approach mathematics for themselves and even by themselves in many cases.
In my opinion, the most common disconnect occurs somewhere between high school mathematics and early college mathematics (usually a calculus sequence, linear algebra) and then again between linear algebra/differential equations (areas which usually have discussion followed by examples and then crank-out problems) and higher abstract mathematical areas like analysis, abstract algebra, topology (areas in which the definition-theorem-proof cycle of writing is more common and seemingly more incomprehensible to many).
The first big issue in early college mathematics is the increased speed at which college courses move. Students used to a slower high school pace where the teachers are usually teaching to the middle or lower end of the class get caught unaware as their college professors teach to the higher ability students and aren’t as afraid to leave the lower end of the spectrum behind. Just like high school athletes are expected to step up their game when they make the transition to college and similarly college athletes who go pro, mathematics students should realize they’re expected to step up their game at the appropriate times.
Often math students (and really any student of any subject) relies on the teacher assigning readings or problems from their book rather than excersizing their curiosity to more avidly and broadly explore the material on their own. If they can take the guidance of their teacher as well as that of the individual authors of books, they may make it much further on their own. High school teachers often skip sections of textbooks for time, but students should realize that there is profitable and interesting material that they’re skipping. Why not go and read it on their own?
Earlier I mentioned that an average undergraduate abstract algebra textbook might cover the totality of a high school algebra textbook in about three pages. What does this mean for upper level mathematics students? It almost always means that the density of material in these books is far greater than that of their earlier textbooks. How is this density arrived at? Authors of advanced textbooks leave out far more than they’re able to put in, otherwise their 300 page textbooks, if written at the same basic level as those that came before would be much more ponderous 1000+ page textbooks. What are they leaving out? Often they’re leaving out lots of what might be useful discussion, but more often, they’re leaving out lots of worked out examples. For example, a high school text will present a definition or concept and then give three or more illustrations or examples of problems relating to the concept. The exercises will then give dozens of additional drill problems to beat the concept to death. This type of presentation usually continues up to the level of calculus where one often sees massive tomes in the 800+ page length. Math texts after this point generally don’t go much over 300 pages as a rule, and it’s primarily because they’re leaving the examples out of the proverbial equation.
How does one combat this issue? Students need to more actively think back to the math they’ve taken previously and come up with their own simple examples of problems, and work though them on their own. Just because the book doesn’t give lots of examples doesn’t mean that they don’t exist.
In fact, many textbooks are actually presenting examples, they’re just hiding them with very subtle textual hints. Often in the presentation of a concept, the author will leave out one or more steps in a proof or example and hint to the student that they should work through the steps themselves. (Phrases like: “we leave it to the reader to verify” or “see example 2.”) Sometimes this hint comes in the form of that dreaded phrase, “It’s easy to see.” When presented with these hints, it is incumbent (or some students may prefer the word encumbering) on the student to think through the missing steps or provide the missing material themselves.
While reading mathematics, students should not only be reading the words and following the steps, but they should actively be working their way through all of the steps (missing or not) in each of the examples or proofs provided. They must read their math books with pencil and paper in hand instead of the usual format of reading their math book and then picking up paper and pencil to work out problems afterwards. Most advanced math texts suggest half a dozen or more problems to work out within the text itself before presenting a dozen or more additional problems usually in a formal section entitled “Exercises”. Students have to train themselves to be thinking about and working out the “hidden” problems within the actual textual discussion sections.
Additionally, students need to consider themselves “researchers” or think of their work as discovery or play. Can they come up with their own questions or exercises that relate the concepts they’ve read about to things they’ve done in the past? Often asking the open ended question, “What happens if I…” can be very useful. One has to imagine that this is the type of “play” that early mathematicians like Euclid, Gauss, and Euler did, and I have to say, this is also the reason that they discovered so many interesting properties within mathematics. (I always like to think that they were the beneficiaries of “picking the lowest hanging fruit” within mathematics – though certainly they discovered some things that took some time to puzzle out; we take some of our knowledge for granted as sitting on the shoulders of giants does allow us to see much further than we could before.)
As a result of this newly discovered rule, students will readily find that while they could read a dozen pages of their high school textbooks in just a few minutes, it may take them between a half an hour to two hours to properly read even a single page of an advanced math text. Without putting in this extra time and effort they’re going to quickly find themselves within the tall grass (or, more appropriately weeds).
Another trick of advanced textbooks is that, because they don’t have enough time or space within the primary text itself, authors often “hide” important concepts, definitions, and theorems within the “exercises” sections of their books. Just because a concept doesn’t appear in the primary text doesn’t mean it isn’t generally important. As a result, students should always go out of their way to at least read through all of the exercises in the text even if they don’t spend the time to work through them all.
One of the difficult things about advanced abstract mathematics is that it is most often very cumulative and even intertwined, so when one doesn’t understand the initial or early portions of a textbook, it doesn’t bode well for the later sections which require one to have mastered the previous work. This is even worse when some courses build upon the work of earlier courses, so for example, doing well in calculus III requires that one completely mastered calculus I. At some of the highest levels like courses in Lie groups and Lie algebras requires that one mastered the material in multiple other prior courses like analysis, linear algebra, topology, and abstract algebra. Authors of textbooks like these will often state at the outset what material they expect students to have mastered to do well, and even then, they’ll often spend some time giving overviews of relevant material and even notation of these areas in appendices of their books.
As a result of this, we can take it as a general rule: “Don’t ever skip anything in a math textbook that you don’t understand.” Keep working on the concepts and examples until they become second nature to you.
Finally, more students should think of mathematics as a new language. I’ve referenced the following Galileo quote before, but it bears repeating (emphasis is mine):
Though mathematical notation has changed drastically (for the better, in my opinion) since Galileo’s time, it certainly has its own jargon, definitions, and special notations. Students should be sure to spend some time familiarizing themselves with current modern notation, and especially the notation in the book that they choose. Often math textbooks will have a list of symbols and their meanings somewhere in the end-papers or the appendices. Authors usually go out of their way to introduce notation somewhere in either the introduction, preface, appendices, or often even in an introductory review chapter in which they assume most of their students are very familiar with, but they write it anyway to acclimate students to the particular notation they use in their text. This notation can often seem excessive or even obtuse, but generally it’s very consistent across disciplines within mathematics, but it’s incredibly useful and necessary in making often complex concepts simple to think about and communicate to others. For those who are lost, or who want help delving into areas of math seemingly above their heads, I highly recommend the text Mathematical Notation: A Guide for Engineers and Scientists by my friend Edward R. Scheinerman as a useful guide.
A high school student may pick up a textbook on Lie Groups and be astounded at the incomprehensibility of the subject, but most of the disconnect is in knowing and understanding the actual language in which the text is written. A neophyte student of Latin would no sooner pick up a copy of Cicero and expect to be able to revel in the beauty and joy of the words or their meaning without first spending some time studying the vocabulary, grammar, and syntax of the language. Fortunately, like Latin, once one has learned a good bit of math, the notations and definitions are all very similar, so once you can read one text, you’ll be able to appreciate a broad variety of others.
Actively Reading a Mathematics Text Review:
- Work through the steps of everything within the text
- Come up with your own examples
- Work through the exercises
- Read through all the exercises, especially the ones that you don’t do
- Don’t ever skip anything you don’t fully understand
- Math is a language: spend some time learning (memorizing) notation
Naturally there are exceptions to the rule. Not all mathematics textbooks are great, good, or even passable. There is certainly a spectrum of textbooks out there, and there are even more options at the simpler (more elementary) end, in part because of there is more demand. For the most part, however, most textbooks are at least functional. Still one can occasionally come across a very bad apple of a textbook.
Because of the economics of textbook publishing, it is often very difficult for a textbook to even get published if it doesn’t at least meet a minimum threshold of quality. The track record of a publisher can be a good indicator of reasonable texts. Authors of well-vetted texts will often thank professors who have taught their books at other universities or even provide a list of universities and colleges that have adopted their texts. Naturally, just because 50 colleges have adopted a particular text doesn’t necessarily mean that that it is necessarily of high quality.
One of the major issues to watch out for is using the textbook written by one’s own professor. While this may not be an issue if your professor is someone like Serge Lang, Gilbert Strang, James Munkres, Michael Spivak, or the late Walter Rudin, if your particular professor isn’t supremely well known in his or her field, is an adjunct or associate faculty member, or is a professor at a community college, then: caveat emptor.
Since mathematics is a subject about clear thinking, analysis, and application of knowledge, I recommend that students who feel they’re being sold a bill of goods in their required/recommended textbook(s), take the time to look at alternate textbooks and choose one that is right for themselves. For those interested in more on this particular sub-topic I’ve written about it before: On Choosing Your own Textbooks.
Often, even with the best intentions, some authors can get ahead of themselves or the area at hand is so advanced that it is difficult to find a way into it. As an example, we might consider Lie groups and algebras, which is a fascinating area to delve into. Unfortunately it can take several years of advanced work to get to a sufficient level to even make a small dent into any of the textbooks in the area, though some research will uncover a handful of four textbooks that will get one quite a way into the subject with a reasonable background in just analysis and linear algebra.
When one feels like they’ve hit a wall, but still want to struggle to succeed, I’m reminded of the advice of revered mathematical communicator Paul Halmos, whose book Measure Theory needed so much additional background material, that instead of beginning with the traditional Chapter 1, he felt it necessary to include a Chapter 0 (he actually called his chapters “sections” in the book) and even then it had enough issueshewas cornered into writing the statement:
This is essentially the mathematician’s equivalent of the colloquialism “Fake it ’til you make it.”
When all else fails, use this adage, and don’t become discouraged. You’ll get there eventually!