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Note Assistants: Support for Solving Math Problems

In this text I describe a method that supports think-and-write processes for the work on math
What are the basic ideas?......................................................................................................................1
How can I make notes?.........................................................................................................................2
Note assistants: An example.................................................................................................................4
How can I use the note assistant?.........................................................................................................6
How can I produce and adapt my own note assistants?.......................................................................7
Criticism and responses........................................................................................................................8
Appendix 1: Note assistants as a framework for problem solving.......................................................9
Appendix 2: Other elements in note assistants...................................................................................10
Document changes..............................................................................................................................11
About the author.................................................................................................................................12
What are the basic ideas?
The method is perhaps best introduced by the term paper software - a software that does not run
on a computer, but on sheets of paper, as the most flexible hardware available in many
Imagine on my left a single A3 sheet of paper called the note assistant. This acts as a kind of
menu and contains advice for crucial problem solving situations how to start, how to generate
new ideas, what to do when I'm stuck, etc.
On my right is an A4 sheet where I make the actual notes on my problem the editor. As in real
software, I can choose a layout suitable for my notes.
Whenever I feel I could do with some problem solving support, I have a look at the menu.
This menu offers things I can insert into the note sheet how to arrange the notes for a special
kind of investigation, what keywords to write down, and above all, what thinking tools to use, what
questions to ask or what ideas to try.

The diagram indicates how suggestions from the note assistant for various problem solving
situations can be taken over into the note sheet and that there is certainly no need to use the note
assistant at all if work is going on well.
Whether the items in the note assistant are actually helpful to me as the problem solver depends on
my level of expertise, my note-making preferences, my field of work and other factors - so note
assistants should ideally be adapted to me and evolve together with my growing experience.
Later, I will present ideas on how to customize note assistants.
How can I make notes?
As mentioned, I can choose between several methods of note-making on the note sheet.
Here comes my favorite, followed by a number of possible variations.
I use a blank sheet of paper in landscape format, size A4 (or larger).
I separate the sheet by vertical lines into four equal columns.
I organize the text in boxes that are separated by horizontal lines.
These boxes are labeled 1A, 1B in column 1, 2A, 2B in column 2 etc. in the upper right
corner. (At this position, the labels need less column space, and it's easier to add them later.)
In each box, I can organize the text in hierarchies by indentations.
For a major new idea, I can start a new column.
I can note sudden ideas at the bottom of column 4, in boxes 4Z, 4Y etc.
To mark open issues, I can add check-boxes like at the right column border. It's easy to
find them later, examine the issue and tick off the check-box.
If I want to continue the work from one box in a new one, I can indicate this by arrows
between neighboring boxes or by references like see 2C or from 3:1D for box 1D on
page 3.
I can add footnotes at the bottom of a column.
I use a mechanical pencil and an eraser. The method works best if I write fairly small.
Having a non-smear pen is essential.
In my eyes, this method of note-making has a number of advantages:
As with other forms of note-making, my memory is unburdened, and I find it easier to
manage complex chains of thought and trees of thought.
My thoughts are permanently documented.
The method works well with usual math operations, like manipulating equations.
By switching between columns, I can cope with changes between different lines of thought,
at least to a certain degree.
The same could be done by using separate sheets, but for me this is often a massive
disruption of the flow of work.
I can store away sudden ideas with ease and examine them later.
From my experience, writing in narrowish columns encourages me to write neat notes, and
this neatness transfers to some extent to the entire work on the math problem.
There are many ways to alter the method:
I can write on larger sheets like A3, or on A4 double pages in a notepad.
I can try a different number of columns especially if the columns seem too narrow.
If labeling the boxes with 1A, 2B seems too much trouble, I can leave it out and address the
boxes by coordinates: I imagine the columns separated vertically in equal parts a, b, c, d and
use references like 3b. (The printed Encyclopdia Britannica had a similar system.)

If a larger diagram is needed, I can use a layout like this:

Notes on a problem will often stretch over more than one sheet. I have found it easier to continue
my thinking when I have previous notes within sight, so for me single sheets work better than a
bound notebook, where I have to switch between pages to read and to write.
The problem of dealing with a large number of sheets is not within the scope of this text. My ideas
on this would probably have to do with slip boxes or Zettelksten.
It should be clear that the method is designed for finding a solution, not presenting it.
The box idea was sparked by the essay Stop Making Stupid Mistakes by Richard Rusczyk,
founder of the Art of Problem Solving website (
The next page shows a non-math example of a result of the note-making method. The sheet contains
some aspects that have not been mentioned in the text.
The tables on the following two pages should give an impression of the actual layouts.
Since the first table is basically an A4 table on an A5 space and the second an A3 table on an A4
space, the text is very dense, especially if viewed on a small display.
Viewing the document on a larger screen or printing it out will help.
(Thanks to Dr. Houston for pointing out this problem.)

What is this sheet about?

- it shows a way of note-making,
a way of thinking on paper
What do you need?
- blank paper in A4
- a non-smear pen
- e.g. mechanical pencil + eraser
What's the basic layout?
- use paper in landscape format
- draw lines to form 4 columns

More things you can try

- page numbers
- date

|2A When to start new columns

and new boxes?
- for important new ideas:
- start a new column
- footnotes at the column bottom
- start a new box
- numbering
- when resuming work
- underline, colour
from one box in a new one:
- tables
- draw arrows OR
- diagrams
- use cross-references with
- equations ...
see 3A and from 2C etc.
How to deal with sudden ideas |2B _____________________________________
Some advice on
- you can mark ideas for
follow-up with a check box :

- try A3 in landscape format
with 6 columns
- lots of space for your ideas
How to make text boxes
- number the boxes
- in column 1 with 1A, 1B etc.
- write the headline + underline it
- questions make
good headlines!
- write down your thoughts
- short but intelligible
- outline your text
- indent your lines
- to show hierarchies
- like this
- when you're finished with a box:
- draw a horizontal line
- start a new box

- work out a more detailed

check-box system
- work patiently
- from one box to another
- you can later tick off
- from one page to another ...
these boxes:
- always pursuing
- add some remarks on
- open questions,

- things you don't understand

(see 2C)
- things you can make better
- you can store unrelated ideas
at the bottom of column 4
- ask basic questions
- look at the example!
1) What would be logical?
2) What's bothering me here?
How to cross-reference
What's the key problem here?
- there are examples in 2B and 3B
3) What can I do now?
- referencing box 4C on page 2:
- see 2:4C
- start a Q section
- Q stands for Questions
- use it at the end of a box,
of a column to find open topics
_____________________________________ - how to design a more refined
system of thinking tools?

1) footnote for later remarks

- pros & cons of this method?
and other things
(see 4A)

Pros & Cons

- compare these notes with

- mind maps
- Cornell Notes
- digital note-making
- other note-making systems
(they all have their pros & cons!)
- look at the following points:
- can you focus on your work?
- no distractions from apps etc.?
- can you develop long coherent
lines of thought?
- can you store away
sudden ideas and
examine them later?
- can you switch to other
lines of thought without much
document fiddling?
- do you have an overview
of your notes?
- is straightforward, organized
thinking encouraged?
- are your notes still
comprehensible after
3 days, 2 months, 1 decade?
- are tables, diagrams,
equations encouraged?
- digital version of this method?
- table for above comparison?

image search
on note-making

Date: 11.01.2015
Page 1

Note assistants: An example

The main task of the table on the next page is to provide concrete suggestions for major problem
solving situations, with regard both to clever layout and to smart thinking tools.
These building blocks should give structure to the overall work on the problem.
The problem solving situations are highlighted in orange, suggestions for keywords that could be
written down are in yellow.
The sheet is intended for an A3 format. It contains 2 x 4 columns, numbered from 1 to 8.
The sheet is inspired by a lot of authors, especially Mason (Thinking Mathematically), Polya (How
to Solve It), Zeitz (The Art and Craft of Problem Solving), Engel (Problem Solving Strategies),
Schoenfeld (Mathematical Problem Solving), Tao (Solving Mathematical Problems) and Bruder
(Problemlsen lernen im Mathematikunterricht).
For Kalomitsines' How to Solve Problems: New Methods and Ideas see Appendix 2.


How to start?

> write down the problem statement
What is given?
What is unknown?
What has to be shown?
> introduce math notation;
if possible:
> choose a smart point of origin
> use symmetry
> write down what you know
in the notation selected
(equations, inequalities)
> draw a figure
Special cases
> look at special / simple / extreme
> bring structure to these cases
> look for patterns
Useful facts
>write down known facts
about the problem elements
> useful theorems?
> what ideas could connect the
problem elements?

I think I have succeeded!

> write down the complete solution
> check every step
> can the result be
generalized / improved?
> can the method be
generalized / improved?
> can I find a different solution?
> what can I learn from my work?
> what were the key difficulties?
> is there some problem solving
behaviour I should change?
> how could I improve the
note assistant?

Some standard things to do

> use the most direct ideas
that come to mind
> use ideas from problems
that share some similarity
> work forward:
what can I infer
from the given facts?
> work backward:
start with the aim how can it be reached?
> what could be the step that leads
to the conclusion the penultimate step?
> start with the big picture
for a solution,
then zoom into the details
> ask repeatedly
how can this be reached?

How to try further approaches I'm confused! - I'm stuck!

Collection of approaches
> 1. get inspiration from 8A 8D:
how can items be applied?
make a collection like this:
A1: induction


A2: ...........

(make some notes on an approach

in the spirit of let's try something
- it can be named later)
A3: extreme cases

> 2. investigate
in suitable order best ones first
A2 Investigation
> investigate approach A2
> mark check-box in 3A for A2
A1 Investigation
> ...

I'm frustrated / demotivated! I have a sudden idea!

Cheer up!
> use supportive self talk
(This problem looks hard, but:
- I can proceed in small steps,
- I can examine one idea
after the other ...)
> remember successes from the past
(decide what to write down)
> work on for just 15 minutes
> have a break
and resume work later

Aha! OR Idea
> write the idea into box 4Z OR
> start a new column
> mark sudden ideas with a
for later check-ups

All-Purpose Tools

> collect questions:
Question Q1

Question Q2
Q1 Investigation
> find answers to Q1
Smart little questions
> what would be natural
or straightforward?
> natural questions?
> natural things to do?
> what would be logical?
> what is the core issue or
the core confusion here?
> repeat that question!
> what can I do to make progress?
> do it!


Note Assistant


orange: Problem Situations

yellow: keywords I can write
>: things I can do
blue: Math Concepts etc.

Here's something confusing! |4A
Here's a difficulty / an obstacle!
Confusion OR Obstacle
> what things are confusing?
> why are they confusing?
> describe the situation
> describe the difficulties
> what is the core obstacle?
> repeat that question!
What can you do?
> how can the confusion
be cleared up?
> is it possible to make
the obstacle disappear?
> make a list of options
> investigate the most
promising ones
(see 3A for layout)
> stay flexible postpone an approach:
mark it with a check-box
come back later

Other Useful concepts

Methods of Proof
- direct proof
- proof by contradiction
- proof by induction
- visual proof ...
Heuristic Principles
- look for patterns
- look for analogies
- look for symmetry
- look for invariants
- look at extreme cases
- look at limits
- guess and check
- stepwise approximation
- use colourings
- use the pigeonhole principle
- use parity ...
General Objects
- complex numbers
- graphs
- generating functions ...
How to modify objects?
- substitute - eliminate
- adapt
- split
- rearrange - introduce new items
- maximize / minimize

How can I use the note assistant?

A problem is given, and the I want to work on it.
I have my note sheet as an editor in front of me, prepared with 4 empty columns and
perhaps a page number and the date.
I can access the note assistant as a menu with a single glance.
Guided by the list of problem situations highlighted in orange, I find advice on How to
start in column 1, with some reasonable initial operations. I can fill the first boxes in my
note sheet with text, math terms, equations and diagrams, using the layout, the keywords and
the thinking tools suggested by the note assistant.
After this start, columns 2 and 3 provide ideas on how to try several approaches.
Column 2 describes a number of standards approaches. It seems natural to check these first
and turn to less direct approaches later.
Column 3 suggests a two-step method.
- First step: I may look for inspiration in several lists (here: 8A - 8D) in the note assistant. I
can write down a collection of approaches that seem worth closer investigation.
- Second step: I can examine these approaches in a suitable order and work out the details.
If a first round of these steps did not lead to a solution, I can repeat the process.
Using a reference from a box with general content to boxes with more specific content (as in
box 3A referencing boxes 8A 8D) is a helpful design, especially when it comes to much
more specific problem solving tools for single branches of mathematics.
When difficulties arise, column 4 has a number of suggestions.
Box 4A has an interesting function in the note assistant it illustrates the interplay between
existing notes that lead to a certain situation, and new elements in boxes 4B and 4C.
It seems important to me to ask for confusion and its causes this focuses on my immediate
experiences as a problem solver.
Box 4D suggests to postpone an approach if further progress seems not likely.
Column 5 suggests some things to do when the main work is done. Many authors emphasize
the key importance of this kind of reflection.
There is a direct question on how to improve the note assistant.
The contents of column 6 on dealing with emotions are arguably experimental.
I just wanted to show in principle how this aspect could be included.
The ideas on self-talk are inspired by Richard Nelson-Jones' book Effective Thinking
The item on sudden ideas in 7A is perhaps of lesser value, although a keyword like Aha! .
The All Purpose Tools in 7B-7D contain a smallish number of questions and suggestions
that should lead to some progress in almost any situation.
Column 8 forms a bridge between general processes and more specific math contents. The
collection given here is a bit arbitrary and serves as an illustration.
Box 8D presents items to generate more ideas:
In the spirit of creativity tools from other fields, one might try to manipulate the problem
elements by a number of basic operators and see if this leads to interesting insights.
The list in 8D is largely inspired by the well-known SCAMPER creativity tool.
It seems reasonable to try this method after more direct approaches have failed.
(Remark: A much more ambitious project would be to transfer concepts from the TRIZ
approach to creativity in engineering to math.)

How can I produce and adapt my own note assistants?

This question has two aspects:
Which tools can I use to produce and adapt the note assistants physically?
How can I find the content I put into them?
A word before. It seems a good idea to form note assistants from single modules. A module could
consist of a headline that describes which problem situation or which math objects the module is
intended for, followed by a collection of note-making and thinking tool suggestions. Examples are
given in the note assistant above; basically, the modules correspond to the columns in the note
Using modules offers a number of benefits:
With modules it's easy to add layouts and thinking tools for new problem situations and new
math objects.
It's possible to adapt and improve only one module without having to replace the entire
It may be stimulating to exchange modules within a community of students and teachers
using the note assistant framework.
Here are some ideas on the tools I can use to produce and adapt my own note assistants.
Large paper sheets written by hand.
This is arguably the most straightforward way. In my experience however, these sheets soon
become rather messy.
In this essay I prepared the note assistants with office software. The results are neat, but the
workflow of making some changes, then printing out the note assistant is cumbersome. To
avoid this, I can collect new ideas for the note assistants on a separate sheet and incorporate
them from time to time into the note assistant.
Plastic sheets for filing business cards.

Those sheets have 8 or 10 pockets for papers of business card size, so by using front and
back side they can store up to 20 modules.
These sheets can form an entire library of note assistants for various purposes and various
domains of math.
Single sheets or flash cards for the modules.
In this case however, the one-sheet-one-glance-mantra has to be abandoned.
Digital and mobile devices.
Here again, the one-sheet-one-glance mantra has to be given up.

Here are some ideas on the contents I can put into the note assistants.
I can exploit the existing literature on math problem solving.
I can ask people for advice.
I can adapt the note assistants according to my experiences with problems I've worked on.

In my experience, note assistants do not necessarily become more helpful by containing more items.
I found it more useful to focus on those situations where I am really stuck.
Criticism and responses
There are several points of criticism, and I would like to address some of them.
The four column layout is a wildly over-specified straitjacket.
In my opinion it's better to have a clear concept of how helpful math notes could look like,
and then deviate from that concept for good reasons, than to have no concept at all.
As mentioned, there are many layout variations possible.
The entire process is too formal and too complex.
I certainly would not want to see the process followed in a dull routine.
It is meant to provide support - if the problem solver wants it.
If the process is presented to a group of students, it seems reasonable to advance in suitable
moderate steps, presenting elements of the process one by one.
(Thanks to Professor Mason for addressing this point.)
Abstract heuristic advice like look at invariants is worthless to lots of students.
Yes. I think that choosing the right set of thinking tools to help an individual student is a
major issue. Arguably, these tools have to be introduced, illustrated by examples and then be
made available in the note assistant.
What about knowledge? What about experience?
I think that there is an immense literature on math and on math problem solving that will
help readers to build up knowledge and experience.
But there seems to be comparatively little information on the aspect of note-making, so I
concentrated on this.
Is there any evidence that this actually works?
A previous version of a problem solving method based on mind maps was well received in
seminars I've given in the past participants seemed comfortable with the combination of a
note-making method and thinking tools.
From my personal experience, I have no doubt that the note-making method presented in
this paper is much better suited to math problems.
It is my hope that readers may find some ideas useful and make them a part of their own problem
solving practices.
If you have suggestions on how to improve the method in general or single aspects of it, I would be
thrilled to hear from you.
Please don't hesitate to contact me under

Appendix 1: Note assistants as a framework for problem solving

From a more abstract point of view, and without reference to math specifics, we have
operate with two elements:
First: A note-making method we want to use for our work on a problem. This method can be
- the four column layout described above,
- or a two column layout with a main column and a reflection column,
- or mind mapping,
- or ordinary linear notes,
- or notes in a digital notebook,
- or notes with a math editor like LyX,
- or something else.
Second: A set of thinking tools we could use for solving problems.
A note assistant should provide combinations of note-making elements and thinking tools combinations that can be applied directly to the problem. In my experience, this is of special
importance with regard to the handling of confusion and obstacles, reflections and of dealing
with multiple approaches.
With this general perspective in mind, it is possible to construct various note assistants by
combining thinking tools from texts on (math) problem solving and note-making methods.
In this spirit, Alan Zollman's Four Corner method can be viewed as a note assistant, namely
a combination of a layout and a set of thinking tools. The Four Corner method uses a static
graphic organizer, while the note assistant is something of a dynamic graphic organizer
that combines single layout modules.
A description of the Four Corner method can be found at
Several books on math problem solving highlight the importance of note-making, but
provide very little details on how to do this in practice.
In the past, a combination of mind mapping and problem solving tools seemed very
promising to me. Today I think that the four column layout is much better suited for dealing
with math problems.
(The older ideas on mind mapping can be found at
Obviously, the note assistant framework can be adapted to a number of fields besides math.

Appendix 2: Other elements in note assistants

Here is a list of other elements a note assistant could contain.
Items to prepare for problem solving
It may prove very useful to have an initial box in the note assistant (and subsequently in the
note sheet) to set the right attitude and the right mood towards problem solving. Here are
some possible items:
- recalling previous successes,
- bringing to mind the importance of reflection etc.
Images may have more impact than words portraits of role models, images of goals,
images evoking clarity or straightforwardness etc. Or:
An image of a rubber duck
From the wikipedia article on rubber duck debugging:
Rubber duck debugging is an informal term used in software engineering for a
method of debugging code. The name is a reference to a story in the book The
Pragmatic Programmer in which a programmer would carry around a rubber duck
and debug his code by forcing himself to explain it, line-by-line, to the duck. [...]
Many programmers have had the experience of explaining a programming problem
to someone else, possibly even to someone who knows nothing about programming,
and then hitting upon the solution in the process of explaining the problem. In
describing what the code is supposed to do and observing what it actually does, any
incongruity between these two becomes apparent. By using an inanimate object, the
programmer can try to accomplish this without having to involve another person.
The method seems fit to be applied to problems outside debugging.
(Some readers may find this and the previous item over the top. The individual problem
solver may decide what works for her and what doesn't.)
A special mention must be given to the book How to Solve Problems: New Methods and
Ideas by S. Kalomitsines, published in 2008 and in central parts based on articles from the
1980s. Dr. Arakali brought my attention to this book after I had written several versions of
this paper, see the document history.
Kalomitsines proposes several problem solving methods with a strong emphasis on
combining writing activities and thinking tools, in particular:
a) The description method:
When first approaches to solve a problem have failed, take each single part of the problem
and write down a list of everything you know about this part, using short sentences. Then
look at the list and see if the items may help to solve the entire problem.
b) The method of getting out of loops:
Write down a table: in the left column a list of all attempts to solve a problem you have tried
unsuccessfully so far, and in the right column a list of negations to these attempts. Then try
to construct new approaches to the problem from these negations.
c) The spiral method for solving problems:
This is an algorithm-like combination of the description method, a means-end-analysis and
the method of getting out of loops. In the means-end-analysis, you look at the difference
between what is given and the goal. The method is called spiral since you may go through
several loops of the process, each time knowing more about the problem.
Details on these methods and many examples can be found in Kalomitsines' book, which I
strongly recommend.


Many people have contributed to the ideas presented in this paper.
I would like to thank Dr. Abhijith Arakali, Werner Begoihn, Dr. Astrid Brinkmann, Hans-Jrgen
Elschenbroich, Dr. Kevin Houston, Dr. Jrg Konopka, Dr. Armin Kramer, Prof. Dr. Timo Leuders,
Prof. Dr. John Mason, Hubert Massin, Prof. Dr. Manfred Prenzel, Dr. Frauke Rademann, Prof. Dr.
Harold Shapiro, Martina Teepe and Christian Wolf.
Document changes
This document is available for free on
I upload revised versions from time to time, so here comes a list of changes made to the document.




07.01.2015 Added:
Table of Contents, document changes table, about the author.
Note assistants and modules.
Remark on introducing the process step by step.
Minor changes.


08.01.2015 Changed:
Introduction with the paper software metaphor.
Minor changes.
Other elements in note assistants.


14.01.2015 Changed:
Box name in upper right corner (instead of left).
Numerous improvements to the note assistant example.
Expanded description of how to use the note assistant.
Some ideas on criticism.


17.01.2015 Minor changes.


17.01.2015 Changed:
Ideas on producing and adapting note assistants.


21.01.2015 Added:
Ideas from S. Kalomitsines' How to Solve Problems


26.01.2015 Minor changes.


About the author

I was born in 1971 in Ibbenbren (Germany). I finished my doctoral thesis on genetic algorithms at
the University of Mnster in 2001, and since leaving university I'm working as an actuarial
In the past years, I have spent a lot of time thinking about methods of math problem solving and of
problem solving relevant to my job and, occasionally, to my life.
Thomas Teepe
Klotzstrae 1A
70190 Stuttgart