Some Thoughts on Olympiad Material Design

(This is a bit of a follow-up to the solution reading post last month. Spoiler warnings: USAMO 2014/6, USAMO 2012/2, TSTST 2016/4, and hints for ELMO 2013/1, IMO 2016/2.)

I want to say a little about the process which I use to design my olympiad handouts and classes these days (and thus by extension the way I personally think about problems). The short summary is that my teaching style is centered around showing connections and recurring themes between problems.

Now let me explain this in more detail.

1. Main ideas

Solutions to olympiad problems can look quite different from one another at a surface level, but typically they center around one or two main ideas, as I describe in my post on reading solutions. Because details are easy to work out once you have the main idea, as far as learning is concerned you can more or less throw away the details and pay most of your attention to main ideas.

Thus whenever I solve an olympiad problem, I make a deliberate effort to summarize the solution in a few sentences, such that I basically know how to do it from there. I also make a deliberate effort, whenever I write up a solution in my notes, to structure it so that my future self can see all the key ideas at a glance and thus be able to understand the general path of the solution immediately.

The example I’ve previously mentioned is USAMO 2014/6.

Example 1 (USAMO 2014, Gabriel Dospinescu)

Prove that there is a constant ${c>0}$ with the following property: If ${a, b, n}$ are positive integers such that ${\gcd(a+i, b+j)>1}$ for all ${i, j \in \{0, 1, \dots, n\}}$, then

$\displaystyle \min\{a, b\}> (cn)^n.$

If you look at any complete solution to the problem, you will see a lot of technical estimates involving ${\zeta(2)}$ and the like. But the main idea is very simple: “consider an ${N \times N}$ table of primes and note the small primes cannot adequately cover the board, since ${\sum p^{-2} < \frac{1}{2}}$”. Once you have this main idea the technical estimates are just the grunt work that you force yourself to do if you’re a contestant (and don’t do if you’re retired like me).

Thus the study of olympiad problems is reduced to the study of main ideas behind these problems.

2. Taxonomy

So how do we come up with the main ideas? Of course I won’t be able to answer this question completely, because therein lies most of the difficulty of olympiads.

But I do have some progress in this way. It comes down to seeing how main ideas are similar to each other. I spend a lot of time trying to classify the main ideas into categories or themes, based on how similar they feel to one another. If I see one theme pop up over and over, then I can make it into a class.

I think olympiad taxonomy is severely underrated, and generally not done correctly. The status quo is that people do bucket sorts based on the particular technical details which are present in the problem. This is correlated with the main ideas, but the two do not always coincide.

An example where technical sort works okay is Euclidean geometry. Here is a simple example: harmonic bundles in projective geometry. As I explain in my book, there are a few “basic” configurations involved:

• Midpoints and parallel lines
• The Ceva / Menelaus configuration
• Harmonic quadrilateral / symmedian configuration
• Apollonian circle (right angle and bisectors)

(For a reference, see Lemmas 2, 4, 5 and Exercise 0 here.) Thus from experience, any time I see one of these pictures inside the current diagram, I think to myself that “this problem feels projective”; and if there is a way to do so I try to use harmonic bundles on it.

An example where technical sort fails is the “pigeonhole principle”. A typical problem in such a class looks something like USAMO 2012/2.

Example 2 (USAMO 2012, Gregory Galperin)

A circle is divided into congruent arcs by ${432}$ points. The points are colored in four colors such that some ${108}$ points are colored Red, some ${108}$ points are colored Green, some ${108}$ points are colored Blue, and the remaining ${108}$ points are colored Yellow. Prove that one can choose three points of each color in such a way that the four triangles formed by the chosen points of the same color are congruent.

It’s true that the official solution uses the words “pigeonhole principle” but that is not really the heart of the matter; the key idea is that you consider all possible rotations and count the number of incidences. (In any case, such calculations are better done using expected value anyways.)

Now why is taxonomy a good thing for learning and teaching? The reason is that building connections and seeing similarities is most easily done by simultaneously presenting several related problems. I’ve actually mentioned this already in a different blog post, but let me give the demonstration again.

Suppose I wrote down the following:

$\displaystyle \begin{array}{lll} A1 & B11 & C8 \\ A9 & B44 & C27 \\ A49 & B33 & C343 \\ A16 & B99 & C1 \\ A25 & B22 & C125 \end{array}$

You can tell what each of the ${A}$‘s, ${B}$‘s, ${C}$‘s have in common by looking for a few moments. But what happens if I intertwine them?

$\displaystyle \begin{array}{lllll} B11 & C27 & C343 & A1 & A9 \\ C125 & B33 & A49 & B44 & A25 \\ A16 & B99 & B22 & C8 & C1 \end{array}$

This is the same information, but now you have to work much harder to notice the association between the letters and the numbers they’re next to.

This is why, if you are an olympiad student, I strongly encourage you to keep a journal or blog of the problems you’ve done. Solving olympiad problems takes lots of time and so it’s worth it to spend at least a few minutes jotting down the main ideas. And once you have enough of these, you can start to see new connections between problems you haven’t seen before, rather than being confined to thinking about individual problems in isolation. (Additionally, it means you will never have redo problems to which you forgot the solution — learn from my mistake here.)

3. Ten buckets of geometry

I want to elaborate more on geometry in general. These days, if I see a solution to a Euclidean geometry problem, then I mentally store the problem and solution into one (or more) buckets. I can even tell you what my buckets are:

1. Direct angle chasing
2. Power of a point / radical axis
3. Homothety, similar triangles, ratios
4. Recognizing some standard configuration (see Yufei for a list)
5. Doing some length calculations
6. Complex numbers
7. Barycentric coordinates
8. Inversion
9. Harmonic bundles or pole/polar and homography
10. Spiral similarity, Miquel points

which my dedicated fans probably recognize as the ten chapters of my textbook. (Problems may also fall in more than one bucket if for example they are difficult and require multiple key ideas, or if there are multiple solutions.)

Now whenever I see a new geometry problem, the diagram will often “feel” similar to problems in a certain bucket. Exactly what I mean by “feel” is hard to formalize — it’s a certain gut feeling that you pick up by doing enough examples. There are some things you can say, such as “problems which feature a central circle and feet of altitudes tend to fall in bucket 6”, or “problems which only involve incidence always fall in bucket 9”. But it seems hard to come up with an exhaustive list of hard rules that will do better than human intuition.

4. How do problems feel?

But as I said in my post on reading solutions, there are deeper lessons to teach than just technical details.

For examples of themes on opposite ends of the spectrum, let’s move on to combinatorics. Geometry is quite structured and so the themes in the main ideas tend to translate to specific theorems used in the solution. Combinatorics is much less structured and many of the themes I use in combinatorics cannot really be formalized. (Consequently, since everyone else seems to mostly teach technical themes, several of the combinatorics themes I teach are idiosyncratic, and to my knowledge are not taught by anyone else.)

For example, one of the unusual themes I teach is called Global. It’s about the idea that to solve a problem, you can just kind of “add up everything at once”, for example using linearity of expectation, or by double-counting, or whatever. In particular these kinds of approach ignore the “local” details of the problem. It’s hard to make this precise, so I’ll just give two recent examples.

Example 3 (ELMO 2013, Ray Li)

Let ${a_1,a_2,\dots,a_9}$ be nine real numbers, not necessarily distinct, with average ${m}$. Let ${A}$ denote the number of triples ${1 \le i < j < k \le 9}$ for which ${a_i + a_j + a_k \ge 3m}$. What is the minimum possible value of ${A}$?

Example 4 (IMO 2016)

Find all integers ${n}$ for which each cell of ${n \times n}$ table can be filled with one of the letters ${I}$, ${M}$ and ${O}$ in such a way that:

• In each row and column, one third of the entries are ${I}$, one third are ${M}$ and one third are ${O}$; and
• in any diagonal, if the number of entries on the diagonal is a multiple of three, then one third of the entries are ${I}$, one third are ${M}$ and one third are ${O}$.

If you look at the solutions to these problems, they have the same “feeling” of adding everything up, even though the specific techniques are somewhat different (double-counting for the former, diagonals modulo ${3}$ for the latter). Nonetheless, my experience with problems similar to the former was immensely helpful for the latter, and it’s why I was able to solve the IMO problem.

5. Gaps

This perspective also explains why I’m relatively bad at functional equations. There are some things I can say that may be useful (see my handouts), but much of the time these are just technical tricks. (When sorting functional equations in my head, I have a bucket called “standard fare” meaning that you “just do work”; as far I can tell this bucket is pretty useless.) I always feel stupid teaching functional equations, because I never have many good insights to say.

Part of the reason is that functional equations often don’t have a main idea at all. Consequently it’s hard for me to do useful taxonomy on them.

Then sometimes you run into something like the windmill problem, the solution of which is fairly “novel”, not being similar to problems that come up in training. I have yet to figure out a good way to train students to be able to solve windmill-like problems.

6. Surprise

I’ll close by mentioning one common way I come up with a theme.

Sometimes I will run across an olympiad problem ${P}$ which I solve quickly, and think should be very easy, and yet once I start grading ${P}$ I find that the scores are much lower than I expected. Since the way I solve problems is by drawing experience from similar previous problems, this must mean that I’ve subconsciously found a general framework to solve problems like ${P}$, which is not obvious to my students yet. So if I can put my finger on what that framework is, then I have something new to say.

The most recent example I can think of when this happened was TSTST 2016/4 which was given last June (and was also a very elegant problem, at least in my opinion).

Example 5 (TSTST 2016, Linus Hamilton)

Let ${n > 1}$ be a positive integers. Prove that we must apply the Euler ${\varphi}$ function at least ${\log_3 n}$ times before reaching ${1}$.

I solved this problem very quickly when we were drafting the TSTST exam, figuring out the solution while walking to dinner. So I was quite surprised when I looked at the scores for the problem and found out that empirically it was not that easy.

After I thought about this, I have a new tentative idea. You see, when doing this problem I really was thinking about “what does this ${\varphi}$ operation do?”. You can think of ${n}$ as an infinite tuple

$\displaystyle \left(\nu_2(n), \nu_3(n), \nu_5(n), \nu_7(n), \dots \right)$

of prime exponents. Then the ${\varphi}$ can be thought of as an operation which takes each nonzero component, decreases it by one, and then adds some particular vector back. For example, if ${\nu_7(n) > 0}$ then ${\nu_7}$ is decreased by one and each of ${\nu_2(n)}$ and ${\nu_3(n)}$ are increased by one. In any case, if you look at this behavior for long enough you will see that the ${\nu_2}$ coordinate is a natural way to “track time” in successive ${\varphi}$ operations; once you figure this out, getting the bound of ${\log_3 n}$ is quite natural. (Details left as exercise to reader.)

Now when I read through the solutions, I found that many of them had not really tried to think of the problem in such a “structured” way, and had tried to directly solve it by for example trying to prove ${\varphi(n) \ge n/3}$ (which is false) or something similar to this. I realized that had the students just ignored the task “prove ${n \le 3^k}$” and spent some time getting a better understanding of the ${\varphi}$ structure, they would have had a much better chance at solving the problem. Why had I known that structural thinking would be helpful? I couldn’t quite explain it, but it had something to do with the fact that the “main object” of the question was “set in stone”; there was no “degrees of freedom” in it, and it was concrete enough that I felt like I could understand it. Once I understood how multiple ${\varphi}$ operations behaved, the bit about ${\log_3 n}$ almost served as an “answer extraction” mechanism.

These thoughts led to the recent development of a class which I named Rigid, which is all about problems where the point is not to immediately try to prove what the question asks for, but to first step back and understand completely how a particular rigid structure (like the ${\varphi}$ in this problem) behaves, and to then solve the problem using this understanding.

(Ed Note: This was earlier posted under the incorrect title “On Designing Olympiad Training”. How I managed to mess that up is a long story involving some incompetence with Python scripts, but this is fixed now.)

Spoiler warnings: USAMO 2014/1, and hints for Putnam 2014 A4 and B2. You may want to work on these problems yourself before reading this post.

1. An Apology

At last year’s USA IMO training camp, I prepared a handout on writing/style for the students at MOP. One of the things I talked about was the “ocean-crossing point”, which for our purposes you can think of as the discrete jump from a problem being “essentially not solved” (${0+}$) to “essentially solved” (${7-}$). The name comes from a Scott Aaronson post:

Suppose your friend in Boston blindfolded you, drove you around for twenty minutes, then took the blindfold off and claimed you were now in Beijing. Yes, you do see Chinese signs and pagoda roofs, and no, you can’t immediately disprove him — but based on your knowledge of both cars and geography, isn’t it more likely you’re just in Chinatown? . . . We start in Boston, we end up in Beijing, and at no point is anything resembling an ocean ever crossed.

I then gave two examples of how to write a solution to the following example problem.

Problem 1 (USAMO 2014)

Let ${a}$, ${b}$, ${c}$, ${d}$ be real numbers such that ${b-d \ge 5}$ and all zeros ${x_1}$, ${x_2}$, ${x_3}$, and ${x_4}$ of the polynomial ${P(x)=x^4+ax^3+bx^2+cx+d}$ are real. Find the smallest value the product

$\displaystyle (x_1^2+1)(x_2^2+1)(x_3^2+1)(x_4^2+1)$

can take.

Proof: (Not-so-good write-up) Since ${x_j^2+1 = (x+i)(x-i)}$ for every ${j=1,2,3,4}$ (where ${i=\sqrt{-1}}$), we get ${\prod_{j=1}^4 (x_j^2+1) = \prod_{j=1}^4 (x_j+i)(x_j-i) = P(i)P(-i)}$ which equals to ${|P(i)|^2 = (b-d-1)^2 + (a-c)^2}$. If ${x_1 = x_2 = x_3 = x_4 = 1}$ this is ${16}$ and ${b-d = 5}$. Also, ${b-d \ge 5}$, this is ${\ge 16}$. $\Box$

Proof: (Better write-up) The answer is ${16}$. This can be achieved by taking ${x_1 = x_2 = x_3 = x_4 = 1}$, whence the product is ${2^4 = 16}$, and ${b-d = 5}$.

Now, we prove this is a lower bound. Let ${i = \sqrt{-1}}$. The key observation is that

$\displaystyle \prod_{j=1}^4 \left( x_j^2 + 1 \right) = \prod_{j=1}^4 (x_j - i)(x_j + i) = P(i)P(-i).$

Consequently, we have

\displaystyle \begin{aligned} \left( x_1^2 + 1 \right) \left( x_2^2 + 1 \right) \left( x_3^2 + 1 \right) \left( x_1^2 + 1 \right) &= (b-d-1)^2 + (a-c)^2 \\ &\ge (5-1)^2 + 0^2 = 16. \end{aligned}

This proves the lower bound. $\Box$

You’ll notice that it’s much easier to see the key idea in the second solution: namely,

$\displaystyle \prod_j (x_j^2+1) = P(i)P(-i) = (b-d-1)^2 + (a-c)^2$

which allows you use the enigmatic condition ${b-d \ge 5}$.

Unfortunately I have the following confession to make:

In practice, most solutions are written more like the first one than the second one.

The truth is that writing up solutions is sort of a chore that people never really want to do but have to — much like washing dishes. So must solutions won’t be written in a way that helps you learn from them. This means that when you read solutions, you should assume that the thing you really want (i.e., the ocean-crossing point) is buried somewhere amidst a haystack of other unimportant details.

2. Diff

But in practice even the “better write-up” I mentioned above still has too much information in it.

Suppose you were explaining how to solve this problem to a friend. You would probably not start your explanation by saying that the minimum is ${16}$, achieved by ${x_1 = x_2 = x_3 = x_4 = 1}$ — even though this is indeed a logically necessary part of the solution. Instead, the first thing you would probably tell them is to notice that

$\displaystyle \prod_{j=1}^4 \left( x_j^2 + 1 \right) = P(i)P(-i) = (b-d-1)^2 + (a-c)^2 \ge 4^2 = 16.$

In fact, if your friend has been working on the problem for more than ten minutes, this is probably the only thing you need to tell them. They probably already figured out by themselves that there was a good chance the answer would be ${2^4 = 16}$, just based on the condition ${b-d \ge 5}$. This “one-liner” is all that they need to finish the problem. You don’t need to spell out to them the rest of the details.

When you explain a problem to a friend in this way, you’re communicating just the difference: the one or two sentences such that your friend could work out the rest of the details themselves with these directions. When reading the solution yourself, you should try to extract the main idea in the same way. Olympiad problems generally have only a few main ideas in them, from which the rest of the details can be derived. So reading the solution should feel much like searching for a needle in a haystack.

3. Don’t Read Line by Line

In particular: you should rarely read most of the words in the solution, and you should almost never read every word of the solution.

Whenever I read solutions to problems I didn’t solve, I often read less than 10% of the words in the solution. Instead I search aggressively for the one or two sentences which tell me the key step that I couldn’t find myself. (Functional equations are the glaring exception to this rule, since in these problems there sometimes isn’t any main idea other than “stumble around randomly”, and the steps really are all about equally important. But this is rarer than you might guess.)

I think a common mistake students make is to treat the solution as a sequence of logical steps: that is, reading the solution line by line, and then verifying that each line follows from the previous ones. This seems to entirely miss the point, because not all lines are created equal, and most lines can be easily derived once you figure out the main idea.

If you find that the only way that you can understand the solution is reading it step by step, then the problem may simply be too hard for you. This is because what counts as “details” and “main ideas” are relative to the absolute difficulty of the problem. Here’s an example of what I mean: the solution to a USAMO 3/6 level geometry problem, call it ${P}$, might look as follows.

Proof: First, we prove lemma ${L_1}$. (Proof of ${L_1}$, which is USAMO 1/4 level.)

Then, we prove lemma ${L_2}$. (Proof of ${L_2}$, which is USAMO 1/4 level.)

Finally, we remark that putting together ${L_1}$ and ${L_2}$ solves the problem. $\Box$

Likely the main difficulty of ${P}$ is actually finding ${L_1}$ and ${L_2}$. So a very experienced student might think of the sub-proofs ${L_i}$ as “easy details”. But younger students might find ${L_i}$ challenging in their own right, and be unable to solve the problem even after being told what the lemmas are: which is why it is hard for them to tell that ${\{L_1, L_2\}}$ were the main ideas to begin with. In that case, the problem ${P}$ is probably way over their head.

This is also why it doesn’t make sense to read solutions to problems which you have not worked on at all — there are often details, natural steps and notation, et cetera which are obvious to you if and only if you have actually tried the problem for a little while yourself.

4. Reflection

The earlier sections describe how to extract the main idea of an olympiad solution. This is neat because instead of having to remember an entire solution, you only need to remember a few sentences now, and it gives you a good understanding of the solution at hand.

But this still isn’t achieving your ultimate goal in learning: you are trying to maximize your scores on future problems. Unless you are extremely fortunate, you will probably never see the exact same problem on an exam again.

So one question you should often ask is:

“How could I have thought of that?”

(Or in my case, “how could I train a student to think of this?”.)

There are probably some surface-level skills that you can pick out of this. The lowest hanging fruit is things that are technical. A small number of examples, with varying amounts of depth:

• This problem is “purely projective”, so we can take a projective transformation!
• This problem had a segment ${AB}$ with midpoint ${M}$, and a line ${\ell}$ parallel to ${AB}$, so I should consider projecting ${(AB;M\infty)}$ through a point on ${\ell}$.
• Drawing a grid of primes is the only real idea in this problem, and the rest of it is just calculations.
• This main claim is easy to guess since in some small cases, the frogs have “violating points” in a large circle.
• In this problem there are ${n}$ numbers on a circle, ${n}$ odd. The counterexamples for ${n}$ even alternate up and down, which motivates proving that no three consecutive numbers are in sorted order.
• This is a juggling problem!

(Brownie points if any contest enthusiasts can figure out which problems I’m talking about in this list!)

5. Learn Philosophy, not Formalism

But now I want to point out that the best answers to the above question are often not formalizable. Lists of triggers and actions are “cheap forms of understanding”, because going through a list of methods will only get so far.

On the other hand, the un-formalizable philosophy that you can extract from reading a question, is part of that legendary “intuition” that people are always talking about: you can’t describe it in words, but it’s certainly there. Maybe I would even be better if I reframed the question as:

“What does this problem feel like?”

So let’s talk about our feelings. Here is David Yang’s take on it:

Whenever you see a problem you really like, store it (and the solution) in your mind like a cherished memory . . . The point of this is that you will see problems which will remind you of that problem despite having no obvious relation. You will not be able to say concretely what the relation is, but think a lot about it and give a name to the common aspect of the two problems. Eventually, you will see new problems for which you feel like could also be described by that name.

Do this enough, and you will have a very powerful intuition that cannot be described easily concretely (and in particular, that nobody else will have).

This itself doesn’t make sense without an example, so here is an example of one philosophy I’ve developed. Here are two problems on Putnam 2014:

Problem 2 (Putnam 2014 A4)

Suppose ${X}$ is a random variable that takes on only nonnegative integer values, with ${\mathbb E[X] = 1}$, ${\mathbb E[X^2] = 2}$, and ${\mathbb E[X^3] = 5}$. Determine the smallest possible value of the probability of the event ${X=0}$.

Problem 3 (Putnam 2014 B2)

Suppose that ${f}$ is a function on the interval ${[1,3]}$ such that ${-1\le f(x)\le 1}$ for all ${x}$ and

$\displaystyle \int_1^3 f(x) \; dx=0.$

How large can ${\int_1^3 \frac{f(x)}{x} \; dx}$ be?

At a glance there seems to be nearly no connection between these problems. One of them is a combinatorics/algebra question, and the other is an integral. Moreover, if you read the official solutions or even my own write-ups, you will find very little in common joining them.

Yet it turns out that these two problems do have something in common to me, which I’ll try to describe below. My thought process in solving either question went as follows:

In both problems, I was able to quickly make a good guess as to what the optimal ${X}$/${f}$ was, and then come up with a heuristic explanation (not a proof) why that guess had to be correct, namely, “by smoothing, you should put all the weight on the left”. Let me call this optimal argument ${A}$.

That conjectured ${A}$ gave a numerical answer to the actual problem: but for both of these problems, it turns out that numerical answer is completely uninteresting, as are the exact details of ${A}$. It should be philosophically be interpreted as “this is the number that happens to pop out when you plug in the optimal choice”. And indeed that’s what both solutions feel like. These solutions don’t actually care what the exact values of ${A}$ are, they only care about the properties that made me think they were optimal in the first place.

I gave this philosophy the name Equality, with poster description “problems where looking at the equality case is important”. This text description feels more or less useless to me; I suppose it’s the thought that counts. But ever since I came up with this name, it has helped me solve new problems that come up, because they would give me the same feeling that these two problems did.

Two more examples of these themes that I’ve come up with are Global and Rigid, which will be described in a future post on how I design training materials.