Two questions from my last group-theory 101 exam:

(a) : What are the Jordan-Holder components of the Abelian group $\mathbb{Z}/20 \mathbb{Z} $?

(b) : Determine the number of order 7 elements in a simple group of order 168.

Give these to any group of working mathematicians, and, I guess all of them will solve (a), whereas the number of correct solutions to (b) will be (substantially) smaller.

Guess what? All(!) my students solved (b) correctly, whereas almost none of them had anything sensible to say about (a). A partial explanation is that they had more drill-exercises applying the Sylow-theorems than ones concerning the Jordan-Holder theorem.

A more fundamental explanation is that (b) has to do with sub-structures whereas (a) concerns quotients. Over the years I’ve tried numerous methods to convey the quotient-idea : putting things in bags, dividing a big group-table into smaller squares, additional lessons on relations, counting modulo numbers … No method appears to have an effect, lasting until the examination.

At the moment I’m seriously considering to rewrite the entire course, ditching quotients and using them only in disguise via groupoids. Before you start bombarding me with comments, I’m well aware of the problems inherent in this approach.

Before you do groupoids, students have to know some basic category theory. But that’s ok with me. Since last year it has been decided that I should sacrifice the first three weeks of the course telling students the basics of sets, maps and relations. After this, the formal definition of a category will appear more natural to them than the definition of a group, not? Besides, most puzzle-problems I use to introduce groups are actually examples of groupoids…

But then, what are the main theorems on finite groupoids? Well, I can see the groupoid cardinality result, giving you in one stroke Lagrange’s theorem as well as the orbit-counting method. From this one can then prove the remaining classical group-results such as Cauchy and the Sylows, but perhaps there are more elegant approaches?

Have you seen a first-year group-theory course starting off with groupoids? Do you know an elegant way to prove a classical group-result using groupoids?