by Mark Johnson
Central College, Pella, Iowa
The intelligent reader of a mathematical book desires two things:
First, to see that the present step of the argument is correct.
Second, to see the purpose of the present step.
Everyone in college knows how to read.
We've been reading for a long time.
But it takes a while to learn that there are
different kinds of reading,
as well as more and less effective ways of reading.
You already have your own ``way of reading
even if you aren't particularly aware of it.
The advice here is aimed to help you
think about how you read mathematics
and (hopefully!) help you to
read it more effectively.
- Read the authors' advice.
It's in the section labelled something like,
``How to use this book:
notes for students,''
usually located before the table of contents.
- First Reading: look for the Big Picture.
It's easy to get bogged down with details in a math book.
No doubt about it.
So, it's helpful to let yourself skim through a section
your first time through it.
Just get a sense for what's there and maybe why.
Try to see where the authors are taking you,
and worry about the details later.
- Second Reading: with paper, pen(cil), and calculator.
Now start worrying about details.
Try, as much as you can, to verify everything
that is in your text.
In other words, make sure YOU think each step is
Notice that last line: the pen must always be in
your hand ``while engaged in any mathematical process.''
To a great extent, people think mathematically
It's hard to do in your head.
Many results must be given of which the details
These must not be taken on trust by the student,
but must be worked out by his [her] own pen,
which must never be out of his [her] own hand while
engaged in any mathematical process.
- Continually ask: What is the Point?
The only way you will learn mathematics is to make it
It has to become part of you-not in some weird way,
where you suddenly start wearing pocket protectors-but
in the way that ``1+1 = 2'' is just a part of what
It's not alien.
Asking the question, ``Why is this here?'' or ``What is
the point of this?'' can help the process
of making the mathematics your own.
It is a particularly good question to ask of examples,
which are almost always in the text for a specific
The reason isn't always stated,
but if you look for it, often it isn't too hard to find.
The same advice applies on a smaller scale,
and I think that's what Polya had in mind.
As you read through an example or proof of a theorem
and are checking each step (remember the Second Reading!),
try to be thinking of what the point or purpose is
of each step.
Why do they calculate this here?
Another way of saying the same thing is,
``Keep your head up out of the sand.''
Don't get buried too deep in calculations.
- Learn the vocabulary.
Mathematics obtains much of its power
by constructing a very precise
When learning new mathematical vocabulary,
it's helpful to distinguish between
formal and informal definitions.
Informal ones are good for getting a feeling
for what the word means.
They help to build up your intuition.
Formal definitions are also important for building
What does this mean?
Just that working with a formal definition
will help you to develop correct mathematical
intuition for the concept.
It comes from no other place-mathematicians
(usually!) aren't born with an intuitive knowledge
of, say, continuous functions.
They develop it by working with the formal
Because formal definitions are precise, they
are one of the few places in mathematics where
memorization can be useful.
So, during your second reading-with pen
or pencil in hand-look for both formal and
informal definitions and rewrite them someplace.
(Rewriting is one way to memorize.
It gets your hands involved.)
It may be worth collecting them in one
place, to build up a calculus glossary.
- Learn the Theorems.
Theorems are another source of power for mathematics.
Because a theorem is something
we know for sure.
Working from precise definitions,
mathematicians prove consequences of those
and in doing so, they create theorems.
There are few things in life as certain
as a good theorem.
Like definitions, theorems are stated precisely
and should be rewritten and remembered in the same way.
- Read backwards and forwards.
Think of your knowledge of calculus as an organic,
A beast, if you like.
Beasts do not grow in a straight line.
They grow in all directions, at different rates in
Your knowledge is like that.
You may not fully learn something in Chapter 1 until
we are halfway through Chapter 3.
But to facilitate such things, it's a good idea to
look back once in a while over previous sections.
See if things are getting any clearer.
Look a bit more at the things you were most puzzled by.
It helps if you're aware of what you were puzzled by,
so we'd better add:
- Mark things you find puzzling.
But don't just mark them.
They may be puzzling you for a reason.
Maybe there's something wrong in the text.
Maybe the material is hard.
It is hard!
And that leads to my last piece of advice.
- Ask for help.
I'm thinking here especially of things that are hard
with the reading,
but the advice applies to every aspect of the course.
If you're stuck somewhere, the odds are good that
you're not alone.
See if anyone else you know is having the same trouble-you
might have better luck together.
Or ask your professor, ask the SI, ask the tutors at
the Center for Academic Excellence.
But don't be afraid to ask.
Return to MCS121 Home