## Kiss those Math Headaches GOODBYE!

### How to Combine Positive & Negative Numbers — Quickly and Easily

If you or someone you know struggles when combining numbers with opposite signs — one positive, the other negative — this post is for you!

To be clear, I’m referring to problems like these:

– 2 + 7 [first number negative, second number positive], or

+ 13 – 20 [first number positive, second number negative]

To work out the answers, turn each problem into a math-story. In this case, turn it into the story of a tug-of-war battle. Here’s how.

In the first problem, – 2 + 7, view the – 2 as meaning there are 2 people on the “negative” team; similarly, view the + 7 as meaning there are 7 people on the “positive” team.

There are just three things to keep in mind for this math-story:

1)  Every “person” participating in the tug-of-war is equally strong.

2)  The team with more people always wins; the team with fewer people always loses.

3)  In the story we figure out by how many people the winning team “outnumbers” the other team. That’s simple; it just means how many more people are on that team than are on the other team. Example: if the negative team has 2 people and the positive team has 7 people, we say the positive team “outnumbers” the negative team by 5 people, since 7 is 5 more than 2.

Now to simplify such a problem, just answer three simple questions:

1)  How many people are on each team?
In our first problem, – 2 + 7, there are 2 people on the negative team and 7 people on the positive team.

2)  Which team WINS?
Since there are more people on the positive team, the positive team wins.

3) By how many people does the winning team OUTNUMBER the losing team?
Since the positives have 7 while the negatives have only 2, the positives outnumber the negatives by 5.

Now ignore the answer to the intro question, Question 1, but put together your answers to Questions 2 and 3.

ANSWER TO QUESTION 2:  +

ANSWER TO QUESTION 3:  5

ANSWERS TOGETHER:  + 5

All in all, this tells us that:  – 2 + 7 = + 5

For those of you who’ve torn your hair out over such problems, I have good news …

… THEY REALLY ARE THIS SIMPLE!

But to believe this, it will help to work out one more problem:  + 13 – 20.

Here, again, are the common-sense questions, along with their answers.

1)  How many people are on each team?
In this problem, + 13 – 20, there are 13 people on the positive team and 20 people on the negative team.

2)  Which team WINS?
Since there are more people on the negative team in this problem, the negative team wins.

3) By how many people does the winning team OUTNUMBER the losing team?
Since the negatives have 20 while the positives have only 13, the negatives outnumber the positives by 7.

Just as you did in the first problem, put together your answers to Questions 2 and 3.

ANSWER TO QUESTION 2:

ANSWER TO QUESTION 3:  7

ANSWERS TOGETHER:  – 7

All in all, this tells us that:  + 13 – 20  = – 7

Now try these for practice:

a)  – 3 + 9

b) + 1 – 4

c)  –  9 + 23

d)  – 37 + 19

e) + 49 – 82

Answer to Practice Problems:

a)  – 3 + 9 = + 6

b) + 1 – 4 = – 3

c)  –  9 + 23 = + 14

d)  – 37 + 19 = – 18

e) + 49 – 82 = – 33

Josh Rappaport is the author of five books on math, including the Parents Choice-award winning Algebra Survival Guide. If you like the way Josh explains these problems, you will very likely like the Algebra Survival Guide and companion Workbook, both of which are available on Amazon.com  Just click the links in the sidebar for more information!

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### The “Unknown” Order of Operations

Talk about a major point that’s usually unspoken …

We make such a big deal out of the Order of Operations in Algebra, and yet there’s a second order of operations, equally important but seldom mentioned.

First, to clarify, the standard Order of Operations (caps on the two O’s to indicate this one) helps us simplify mathematical expressions. It tells us how to take a group of math terms and boil them down to a simpler expression. And it works great for that, as it should, as that’s what it’s designed for.

EXAMPLE:  this Order of Operations tells us that, given an expression like:  – 2 – 3(4 – 10), we’d first do the operations inside PARENTHESES to get – 6, then we’d MULTIPLY the 3 by that – 6 to get – 18. Then we would SUBTRACT the – 18 from the – 2, to get 16. You know, PEMDAS.

But it turns out that there’s another order of operations, the one used for solving equations. And students need to know this order as well.

In fact, a confusing thing is that the PEMDAS order is in a sense the very opposite of the order for solving equations. And yet, FEW people hear about this. In fact, I have yet to see any textbook make this critical point.  That’s why I’m making it here and now: so none of you  suffer the confusion.

In the Order of Operations, we learn that we work the operations of multiplication and division before the operations of addition and subtraction. But when solving equations we do the exact opposite: we work with terms connected by addition and subtraction before we work with the terms connected by multiplication and division.

Example: Suppose we need to solve the equation,
4x – 10 = 22

What to do first? Recalling that our goal is to get the ‘x’ term alone, we see that two numbers stand in the way: the 4 and the 10. We might  think of them as x’s bodyguards, and our job is to get x alone so we can have a private chat with him.

To do this, we need to ask how each of those numbers is connected to the equation’s left side. The 4 is connected by multiplication, and the 10 is connected by subtraction. A key rule comes into play here. To undo a number from an equation, we use the opposite operation to how it’s connected.

So to undo the 4 — connected by multiplication — we do division since division is the opposite of multiplication. And to undo the 10 — connected by subtraction — we do addition since addition is the  opposite of subtraction.

So far, so good. But here’s “the rub.” If we were relying on the PEMDAS Order of Operations, it would be logical to undo the 4 by division BEFORE we undo the 10 with addition … because that Order of Operations says you do division before addition.

But the polar opposite is the truth when solving equations!

WHEN SOLVING EQUATIONS, WE UNDO TERMS CONNECTED BY ADDITION AND SUBTRACTION BEFORE WE UNDO TERMS CONNECTED BY MULTIPLICATION OR DIVISION.

Just take a look at how crazy things would get if we followed PEMDAS here.

We have:  4x – 10 = 22

Undoing the 4 by division, we would have to divide all of the equation’s terms by 4, getting this:

x – 10/4 = 22/4

What a mess! In fact, now we can no longer even see the 10 we were going to deal with. The mess this creates impels us to undo the terms connected by addition or subtraction before we undo those connected by multiplication or division.

For many, the “Aunt Sally” memory trick works for PEMDAS. I suggest that for solving equations order of operations, we use a different memory trick.

I just remind students that in elementary school, they learned how to do addition and subtraction before multiplication and division. So I tell them that when solving equations, they go back to the elementary school order and UNDO terms connected by addition/subtraction BEFORE they UNDO terms connected by multiplication/division.

And this works quite well for most students. Try it and see if it works for you as well.

Josh Rappaport is the author of the Algebra Survival Guide and Workbook, which together comprise an award-winning program that makes algebra do-able! Josh also is the author of PreAlgebra Blastoff!, an engaging, hands-on approach to working with integers. All of Josh’s books, published by Singing Turtle Press, are available on Amazon.com

### How to Decrease Algebraic Mistakes – Part 5

This is the fifth in a series of posts on how to help students make fewer mistakes in algebra.

Let's Reduce Mistakes in Algebra!

So far I have introduced a form of notation I have developed, the double-slash, which looks like this:

//

and I have described some of the ways that students can use it.

I’ll continue the conversation by showing how this notation can help students combine like terms with greater care.

### How to decrease Algebraic mistakes – Part 4

Combining integers … does any early algebraic skill cause more problems?

If so, I can’t think of one.

Fortunately, though, using the double-slash notation that I’ve been talking about this week helps students make sense of this tricky topic.

Let's Reduce Mistakes in Algebra!

Even a problem as simple as the following can be made easier with the double-slash:

– 2 + 5 – 3 + 7 – 9

### How to Decrease Mistakes in Algebra – Part 2

When I left off yesterday, I pointed out a certain kind of algebra expression that tends to lead students to make mistakes. It was an expression like this:

8 – 2(3x – 7)

I pointed out that students often mistakenly combine the 8 and the 2, to get this:

=            6(3x – 7)

=            18x – 42

The theme of these posts is:  how to help students avoid mistakes in algebra.

Let's Reduce Mistakes in Algebra!

### How to Decrease Algebraic Mistakes – Part 1

Anyone who has worked with students learning algebra knows the truth to the maxim:  MISTAKES HAPPEN.

This is the first in a series of posts offering PRACTICAL SUGGESTIONS for decreasing the number of algebraic mistakes students make.

Let's Reduce Mistakes in Algebra!

First, it’s useful to recognize a key fact:  we can’t help students with mistakes if we don’t know what causes those mistakes.

Years of tutoring have taught me a lot about why students make mistakes. And one major cause of mistakes in algebra is that students combine terms that should not be combined. Not all their fault, though. Students are often confused about what they may and may not combine. And it is tricky!

Take a problem like this:  8 – 2(3x – 7)

Certainly some kids can simplify this expression with no trouble. But in my experience, many struggle with a problem like this (when first learning it), and quite a few stay befuddled for quite some time.

The biggest mistake is that students think they can and should combine the 8 and the 2 through subtraction, proceeding like this:

8 –  2(3x – 7)

=            6(3x – 7)

=            18x – 42

Q:  How can we help students avoid this mistake?

A:  Use a mark that show students what gets combined and what stays separate.

I will start to elaborate on how I do this in tomorrow’s post.

Extra, extra!   I thought it would be interesting for you readers to send in comments on the kinds of algebraic mistakes that “drive you up the wall” the most. When I get a number of comments in, I will conduct a poll to see which mistakes people find most vexing. Should be “fun.”

### Common Algebra Mistake: How to Understand a Negative Sign in Front of Parentheses

Certain areas of algebra are like pebbles in your shoe: looked at closely they’re tiny. And yet they are “oh-so-bothersome!”

As a tutor, I’ve long felt this way about a negative sign before parentheses. It’s a small thing, and it seems simple to grasp to those who get it. Yet students make so many mistakes when facing this situation, so to them it’s extremely irritating!

And there I was again, trying to help a girl understand how to simplify this expression:
– (– 5x + 3y – 7)

However this time I came up with something different, the word “opposite.”

I talked for a moment with my tutee about the idea of opposites, and then I started out like this:

Q:  So, what’s the opposite of black?

She replied:  White (with the teenage “that’s-totally-obvious-what are you-doing?-insulting-my-intelligence? accent)

I told her not to worry, this would lead back to the problem. Next I gave her two terms for which she were to find the opposite, as in:

Q:  opp (tall, happy)

She wrote:   (short, sad), still wondering …

And I continued:

Q:  opp (heavy, up)

She wrote:  (light, down), sighing.

Then I explained that in math we express the idea of “opposite” with nothing more than the negative sign.

Then I gave her some problems with the negative sign:

Q:  –  (cold, left)

A:  (hot, right)

and

Q:  –  (under, near)

A:  (over, far)

She was still giving me that “this-is-so-easy-I-could-die” kind of look. When I thought about that, I realized it was good!

Next I  explained that in math, just as in real life, there are opposites. And we find mathematical opposites by examining signs. For example, the opposite of 5 is – 5; opposite of – 3/4 is 3/4; opposite of – 3x is 3x; opposite of y is – y, and so on.

Then I gave her these problems:

Q:  – (+ 2x, – 5)

Still she was with me:  – 2x, + 5

and

Q:  – (– 4y, + 3x, – 6)

A:  + 4y, – 3x, + 6

The sighing was slowing down, finally. Then I simply told her that we’re going to “lose” the comma (how’s that for modern slang!), both in the original expression and in their answer. Then I gave her a new problem:

Q:  – (5a – 3a – 9)

This puzzled her a bit. So I explained that she needs to mentally group the term with the sign that lies to the left. And that if no sign is showing, as for leading positive terms, she needs to mentally insert the invisible positive sign:  5 becomes + 5;  2a becomes + 2a. Once she got that, she was able to proceed:

Q:  – (5a – 3a – 9)

A:  – 5a + 3a + 9

And so on … one success after another. The concept was sticking. And best of all, she had a conceptual framework — the concept of opposite — that she could “lean against” any time she got stuck.

The longer I tutor the more I realize that this kind of conceptual framework — a story or concept we know from everyday life, which relates to the algebra in a direct way — is a big key to helping students grasp algebra. I use these kinds of stories in my book, the Algebra Survival Guide, providing stories we know from everyday life, which serve as analogies that show how the math works. For example, in the Guide I use a “tug-of-war” analogy to show how you solve problems like:  – 3 + 8.

Tur-of-War Teaches – 3 + 8

I’ve had so much success with this “story”-approach to algebra that I am working on an eBook that provides a whole litany of stories that work for algebra. It is fun to work on, and kids like this approach because it gives them a new way — an everyday way — to relate to the math.

So in any case, my suggestion is that when you teach or review the concept of negative signs before parentheses, you might just try the “opposites”  approach and see how it works with your students.