When Students Prove a Theorem without Explicitly Using a Necessary Condition: Digging into a Subtle Problem from Practice

  • Kathleen MelhuishEmail author
  • Sean Larsen
  • Samuel Cook


Over the years, we have noticed our students constructing proofs that commutativity is preserved by isomorphism that do not explicitly use the fact that the isomorphism is surjective. These proofs are typically valid otherwise. However, such proofs are invalid because they would prove the false claim that commutativity is preserved by any homomorphism. This observation from practice raises researchable questions: How common is this phenomenon? What is the nature of this phenomenon and can we explain why students produce this type of argument? In this paper, we report a small-scale two-part survey study and a preliminary interview study designed to begin exploring these questions. Our results suggest that this phenomenon is likely quite common and goes beyond a simple omission of a proof detail. Drawing on the research literature and our follow-up interviews, we propose potential explanations for this phenomenon. Finally, we discuss two different ways to think about supporting students who make this error, one that focuses on refining the students’ proofs and one that involves encouraging students to use the conclusion of a statement to structure a proof.


Proof Proof frameworks Group theory Abstract algebra 


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Conflict of Interest

On behalf of all authors, the corresponding author states that there is no conflict of interest.


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© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of MathematicsTexas State UniversitySan MarcosUSA
  2. 2.Fariborz Maseeh Department of Mathematics and StatisticsPortland State UniversityPortlandUSA
  3. 3.Wheelock College of Education and Human DevelopmentBoston UniversityBostonUSA

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