Tag Archives: abstraction cliff

Introducing abstract topics

I have been busy for the past several years revising abstractmath.org (abmath). Now I believe, perhaps foolishly, that most of the articles in abmath have reached beta, so now it is time for something new.

For some time I have been considering writing introductions to topics in abstract math, some typically studied by undergraduates and some taken by scientists and engineers. The topics I have in mind to do first include group theory and category theory.

The point of these introductions is to get the student started at the very beginning of the topic, when some students give up in total confusion. They meet and fall off of what I have called the abstraction cliff, which is discussed here and also in my blog posts Very early difficulties and Very early difficulties II.

I may have stolen the phrase “abstraction cliff” from someone else.

Group theory

Group theory sets several traps for beginning students.

Multiplication table

  • A student may balk when a small finite group is defined using a set of letters in a multiplication table.
    “But you didn’t say what the letters are or what the multiplication is?”
  • Such a definition is an abstract definition, in contrast to the definition of “prime”, for example, which is stated in terms of already known entities, namely the integers.
  • The multiplication table of a group tells you exactly what the binary operation is and any set with an operation that makes such a table correct is an example of the group being defined.
  • A student who has no understanding of abstraction is going to be totally lost in this situation. It is quite possible that the professor has never even mentioned the concept of abstract definition. The professor is probably like most successful mathematicians: when they were students, they understood abstraction without having to have it explained, and possibly without even noticing they did so.


  • Cosets are a real killer. Some students at this stage are nowhere near thinking of a set as an object or a thing. The concept of applying a binary operation on a pair of sets (or any other mathematical objects with internal structure) is completely foreign to them. Did anyone ever talk to them about mathematical objects?
  • The consequence of this early difficulty is that such a student will find it hard to understand what a quotient group is, and that is one of the major concepts you get early in a group theory course.
  • The conceptual problems with multiplication of cosets is similar to those with pointwise addition of functions. Given two functions $f,g:\mathbb{R}\to\mathbb{R}$, you define $f+g$ to be the function \[(f+g)(x):=f(x)+g(x)\] Along with pointwise multiplication, this makes the space of functions $\mathbb{R}\to\mathbb{R}$ a ring with nice properties.
  • But you have to understand that each element of the ring is a function thought of as a single math object. The values of the function are properties of the function, but they are not elements of the ring. (You can include the real numbers in the ring as constant functions, but don’t confuse me with facts.)
  • Similarly the elements of the quotient group are math objects called cosets. They are not elements of the original group. (To add to the confusion, they are also blocks of a congruence.)

Isomorphic groups

  • Many books, and many professors (including me) regard two isomorphic groups as the same. I remember getting anguished questions: “But the elements of $\mathbb{Z}_2$ are equivalence classes and the elements of the group of permutations of $\{1,2\}$ are functions.”
  • I admit that regarding two isomorphic groups as the same needs to be treated carefully when, unlike $\mathbb{Z}_2$, the group has a nontrivial automorphism group. ($\mathbb{Z}_3$ is “the same as itself” in two different ways.) But you don’t have to bring that up the first time you attack that subject, any more than you have to bring up the fact that the category of sets does not have a set of objects on the first day you define categories.

Category theory

Category theory causes similar troubles. Beginning college math majors don’t usually meet it early. But category theory has begun to be used in other fields, so plenty of computer science students, people dealing with databases, and so on are suddenly trying to understand categories and failing to do so at the very start.

The G&G post A new kind of introduction to category theory constitutes an alpha draft of the first part of an article introducing category theory following the ideas of this post.

Objects and arrows are abstract

  • Every once in a while someone asks a question on Math StackExchange that shows they have no idea that an object of a category need not have elements and that morphisms need not be functions that take elements to elements.
  • One questioner understood that the claim that a morphism need not be a function meant that it might be a multivalued function.


  • That misunderstanding comes up with duality. The definition of dual category requires turning the arrows around. Even if the original morphism takes elements to elements, the opposite morphism does not have to take elements to elements. In the case of the category of sets, an arrow in $\text{Set}^{op}$ cannot take elements to elements — for example, the opposite of the function $\emptyset\to\{1,2\}$.
  • The fact that there is a concrete category equivalent to $\text{Set}^{op}$ is a red herring. It involves different sets: the function corresponding to the function just mentioned goes from a four-element set to a singleton. But in the category $\text{Set}^{op}$ as defined it is simply an arrow, not a function.

Not understanding how to use definitions

  • Some of the questioners on Math Stack Exchange ask how to prove a statement that is quite simple to prove directly from the definitions of the terms involved, but what they ask and what they are obviously trying to do is to gain an intuition in order to understand why the statement is true. This is backward — the first thing you should do is use the definition (at least in the first few days of a math class — after that you have to use theorems as well!
  • I have discussed this in the blog post Insights into mathematical definitions (which gives references to other longer discussions by math ed people). See also the abmath section Rewrite according to the definitions.

How an introduction to a math topic needs to be written

The following list shows some of the tactics I am thinking of using in the math topic introductions. It is quite likely that I will conclude that some tactics won’t work, and I am sure that tactics I haven’t mentioned here will be used.

  • The introductions should not go very far into the subject. Instead, they should bring an exhaustive and explicit discussion of how to get into the very earliest part of the topic, perhaps the definition, some examples, and a few simple theorems. I doubt that a group theory student who hasn’t mastered abstraction and what proofs are about will ever be ready to learn the Sylow theorems.
  • You can’t do examples and definitions simultaneously, but you can come close by going through an example step by step, checking each part of the definition.
  • There is a real split between students who want the definitions first
    (most of whom don’t have the abstraction problems I am trying to overcome)
    and those who really really think they need examples first (the majority)
    because they don’t understand abstraction.

  • When you introduce an axiom, give an example of how you would prove that some binary operation satisfies the axiom. For example, if the axiom is that every element of a group must have an inverse, right then and there prove that addition on the integers satisfies the axiom and disprove that multiplication on integers satisies it.
  • When the definition uses some undefined math objects, point out immediately with examples that you can’t have any intuition about them except what the axioms give you. (In contrast to definition of division of integers, where you and the student already have intuitions about the objects.)
  • Make explicit the possible problems with abstractmath.org and Gyre&Gimble) will indeed find it difficult to become mathematical researchers — but not impossible!
  • But that is not the point. All college math professors will get people who will go into theoretical computing science, and therefore need to understand category theory, or into particle physics, and need to understand groups, and so on.
  • By being clear at the earliest stages of how mathematicians actually do math, they will produce more people in other fields who actually have some grasp of what is going on with the topics they have studied in math classes, and hopefully will be willing to go back and learn some more math if some type of math rears its head in the theories of their field.
  • Besides, why do you want to alienate huge numbers of people from math, as our way of teaching in the past has done?
  • “Our” means grammar school teachers, high school teachers and college professors.


Thanks to Kevin Clift for corrections.

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Thinking about abstract math


The abstraction cliff

In universities in the USA, a math major typically starts with calculus, followed by courses such as linear algebra, discrete math, or a special intro course for math majors (which may be taken simultaneously with calculus), then go on to abstract algebra, analysis, and other courses involving abstraction and proofs.

At this point, too many of them hit a wall; their grades drop and they change majors.  They had been getting good grades in high school and in calculus because they were strong in algebra and geometry, but the sudden increase in abstraction in the newer courses completely baffles them. I believe that one big difficulty is that they can't grasp how to think about abstract mathematical objects.  (See Reference [9] and note [a].)   They have fallen off the abstraction cliff.  We lose too many math majors this way. (Abstractmath.org is my major effort to address the problems math majors have during or after calculus.)

This post is a summary of the way I see how mathematicians and students think about math.  I will use it as a reference in later posts where I will write about how we can communicate these ways of thinking.

Concept Image

In 1981, Tall and Vinner  [5] introduced the notion of the concept image that a person has about a mathematical concept or object.   Their paper's abstract says

The concept image consists of all the cognitive structure in the individual's mind that is associated with a given concept. This may not be globally coherent and may have aspects which are quite different from the formal concept definition.

The concept image you may have of an abstract object generally contains many kinds of constituents:

  • visual images of the object
  • metaphors connecting the object to other concepts
  • descriptions of the object in mathematical English
  • descriptions and symbols of the object in the symbolic language of math
  • kinetic feelings concerning certain aspects of the object
  • how you calculate parameters of the object
  • how you prove particular statements about the object

This list is incomplete and the items overlap.  I will write in detail about these ideas later.

The name "concept image" is misleading [b]), so when I have written about them, I have called them metaphors or mental representations as well as concept images, for example in [3] and [4].

Abstract mathematical concepts

This is my take on the notion of concept image, which may be different from that of most researchers in math ed. It owes a lot to the ideas of Reuben Hersh [7], [8].

  • An abstract mathematical concept is represented physically in your brain by what I have called "modules" [1] (physical constituents or activities of the brain [c]).
  • The representation generally consists of many modules.  They correspond to the list of constituents of a concept image given above.  There is no assumption that all the modules are "correct".
  • This representation exists in a semi-public network of mathematicians' and students' brains. This network exercises (incomplete) control over your personal representation of the abstract structure by means of conversation with other mathematicians and reading books and papers.  In this sense, an abstract concept is a social object.  (This is the only point of view in the philosophy of math that I know of that contains any scientific content.)


[a]  Before you object that abstraction isn't the only thing they have trouble with, note that a proof is an abstract mathematical object. The written proof is a representation of the abstract structure of the proof.  Of course, proofs are a special kind of abstract structure that causes special problems for students.

[b] Cognitive science people use "image" to include nonvisual representations, but not everyone does.  Indeed, cognitive scientists use "metaphor" as well with a broader meaning than your high school English teacher.  A metaphor involves the cognitive merging of parts of two concepts (specifically with other parts not merged). See [6].

[c] Note that I am carefully not saying what the modules actually are — neurons, networks of neurons, events in the brain, etc.   From the point of view of teaching and understanding math, it doesn't matter what they are, only that they exist and live in a society where they get modified by memes  (ideas, attitudes, styles physically transmitted from brain to brain by speech, writing, nonverbal communication, appearance, and in other ways).


  1. Math and modules of the mind (previous post)
  2. Mathematical Concepts (previous post)
  3. Mental, physical and mathematical representations (previous post)
  4. Images and Metaphors (abstractmath.org)
  5. David Tall and Schlomo Vinner, Concept Image and Concept Definition in Mathematics with particular reference to limits and continuity, Journal Educational Studies in Mathematics, 12 (May, 1981), no. 2, 151–169.
  6. Conceptual metaphor (Wikipedia article).
  7. What is mathematics, really? by Reuben Hersh, Oxford University Press, 1999.  Read online at Questia.
  8. 18 Unconventional Essays on the Nature of Mathematics, by Reuben Hersh. Springer, 2005.
  9. Mathematical objects (abstractmath.org).



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