Educational Studies in Mathematics

, Volume 27, Issue 3, pp 249-266

First online:

Making the transition to formal proof

  • Robert C. MooreAffiliated withDepartment of Mathematics, Southern College of Seventh-Day Adventists

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This study examined the cognitive difficulties that university students experience in learning to do formal mathematical proofs. Two preliminary studies and the main study were conducted in undergraduate mathematics courses at the University of Georgia in 1989. The students in these courses were majoring in mathematics or mathematics education. The data were collected primarily through daily nonparticipant observation of class, tutorial sessions with the students, and interviews with the professor and the students. An inductive analysis of the data revealed three major sources of the students' difficulties: (a) concept understanding, (b) mathematical language and notation, and (c) getting started on a proof. Also, the students' perceptions of mathematics and proof influenced their proof writing. Their difficulties with concept understanding are discussed in terms of a concept-understanding scheme involving concept definitions, concept images, and concept usage. The other major sources of difficulty are discussed in relation to this scheme.