Introduction to Mathematical Thinking

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Course Date: 29 September 2014 to 08 December 2014 (10 weeks)

Price: free

Course Summary

Learn how to think the way mathematicians do - a powerful cognitive process developed over thousands of years.

Estimated Workload: 8-10 hours/week

Course Instructors

Keith Devlin

Dr. Keith Devlin is a co-founder and Executive Director of Stanford University's H-STAR institute and a co-founder of the Stanford Media X research network. He is a World Economic Forum Fellow, a Fellow of the American Mathematical Society, and a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. His current research is focused on the use of different media to teach and communicate mathematics to diverse audiences. He also works on the design of information/reasoning systems for intelligence analysis. Other research interests include: theory of information, models of reasoning, applications of mathematical techniques in the study of communication, and mathematical cognition. He has written 32 books and over 80 published research articles. He is a recipient of the Pythagoras Prize, the Peano Prize, the Carl Sagan Award, and the Joint Policy Board for Mathematics Communications Award. In 2003, he was recognized by the California State Assembly for his "innovative work and longtime service in the field of mathematics and its relation to logic and linguistics." He is "the Math Guy" on National Public Radio.

Course Description

NOTE: For the Fall 2014 session, the course website will go live at 10:00 AM US-PST on Saturday September 27, two days before the course begins, so you have time to familiarize yourself with the website structure, watch some short introductory videos, and look at some preliminary material.

The goal of the course is to help you develop a valuable mental ability – a powerful way of thinking that our ancestors have developed over three thousand years.
Mathematical thinking is not the same as doing mathematics – at least not as mathematics is typically presented in our school system. School math typically focuses on learning procedures to solve highly stereotyped problems. Professional mathematicians think a certain way to solve real problems, problems that can arise from the everyday world, or from science, or from within mathematics itself. The key to success in school math is to learn to think inside-the-box. In contrast, a key feature of mathematical thinking is thinking outside-the-box – a valuable ability in today’s world. This course helps to develop that crucial way of thinking.
The course is offered in two versions. The eight-week-long Basic Course is designed for people who want to develop or improve mathematics-based, analytic thinking for professional or general life purposes. The ten-week-long Extended Course is aimed primarily at first-year students at college or university who are thinking of majoring in mathematics or a mathematically-dependent subject, or high school seniors who have such a college career in mind. The final two weeks are more intensive and require more mathematical background than the Basic Course. There is no need to make a formal election between the two. Simply skip or drop out of the final two weeks if you decide you want to complete only the Basic Course.

Subtitles for all video lectures available in: Portuguese (provided by The Lemann Foundation), English


  • Will I get a certificate after completing this class?

    The course does not carry Stanford credit. If you complete the Basic Course with more than a minimal aggregate mark, you will get a Statement of Accomplishment. If you go on to complete the Extended Course with more than a minimal mark, you will receive a Statement of Accomplishment with Distinction.

  • What are the assignments for this class?

    At the end of each lecture, you will be given an assignment (as a downloadable PDF file, released at the same time as the lecture) that is intended to guide understanding of what you have learned. Worked solutions to problems from the assignments will be described the following week in a video tutorial session given by the instructor.

    Using the worked solutions as guidance, together with input from other students, you will self-grade your assignment work for correctness. The assignments are for understanding and development, not for grade points. You are strongly encouraged to discuss your work with others before, during, and after the self-grading process. These assignments (and the self-grading) are the real heart of the course. The only way to learn how to think mathematically is to keep trying to do so, comparing your performance to that of an expert and discussing the issues with fellow students.
  • Is there a final exam for this course?

    No. The Test Flight exercise in the final two weeks of the Extended Course is built around a Problem Set similar to those used throughout the course, and your submission will be peer evaluated by other students, but the focus is on the process of evaluation itself, with the goal of developing the ability to judge mathematical arguments presented by others. Whilst not an exam, Test Flight is an intense and challenging capstone experience, and is designed to prepare students for further study of university level mathematics.

  • How is this course graded?

    In the Basic Course, grades are awarded for the weekly Problem Sets, which are machine graded. The aggregate grade is provided in the cover note to the Statement of Accomplishment, with an explanation of its significance within the class. In the Extended Course, additional grades are awarded for a series of proof evaluation exercises and for the Test Flight Problem Set (peer evaluated). The aggregate grade is provided in the cover note to the Statement of Accomplishment with Distinction, with an explanation of its significance within the class.


Instructor’s welcome and introduction
 1.  Introductory material
 2.  Analysis of language – the logical combinators
 3.  Analysis of language – implication
 4.  Analysis of language – equivalence
 5.  Analysis of language – quantifiers
 6.  Working with quantifiers
 7.  Proofs
 8.  Proofs involving quantifiers
 9.  Elements of number theory
10.  Beginning real analysis


The Basic Course lasts for eight weeks, comprising ten lectures, each with a problem-based work assignment (ungraded, designed for group work), a weekly Problem Set (machine graded), and weekly tutorials in which the instructor will go over some of the assignment and Problem Set questions from the previous week.

The Extended Course consists of the Basic Course followed by a more intense two weeks exercise called Test Flight. Whereas the focus in the Basic Course is the development of mathematically-based thinking skills for everyday life, the focus in Test Flight is on applying those skills to mathematics itself. 

Suggested Reading

There is one reading assignment at the start, providing some motivational background.

There is a supplemental reading unit describing elementary set theory for students who are not familiar with the material.

There is a course textbook, Introduction to Mathematical Thinking, by Keith Devlin, available at low cost (US base price $10.99) from Amazon, in hard copy and Kindle versions, but it is not required in order to complete the course.

For general background on mathematics and its role in the modern world, take a look at the five week survey course on mathematics ("Mathematics: Making the Invisible Visible") Devlin gave at Stanford in fall 2012, available for free download from iTunes University (Stanford), and on YouTube (1, 2, 3, 4, 5), particularly the first halves of lectures 1 and 4.

Course Workload

8-10 hours/week

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