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Archive for the ‘Math Instruction Techniques’ Category

How to Understand and then Forever Memorize the Midpoint Formula


In algebra we have many formulas to learn. But one problem is that those formulas are often hard to memorize. They are written with variables, and the variables frequently have subscripts, and the truth is that a lot of us don’t really understand what the formulas are saying or how they work. So of course that makes formulas difficult to memorize.

“Friendly” Formulas make it easier to learn and memorize algebraic formulas.

Enter the concept of “friendly formulas.” Friendly formulas are the very same formulas but written in a way that you can understand and therefore memorize much more easily. It’s an idea I have come up with through my many years of algebra tutoring, and idea is included in my Algebra Survival Guide, available through Amazon.com

In this post I describe the “friendly formula” for the midpoint formula.

So as a refresher, what is the midpoint formula all about?

Basically, it lets you find the midpoint of any line segment on the coordinate plane. Think of it this way. There’s some line segment on the coordinate plane called segment AB. That means that it has an endpoint at point A, another at point B. We are given the coordinate of points A and B. We want to find the coordinates of the point right in the middle of points A and B.

Now let’s make this idea easy. Suppose we focus only on the x-coordinates. Suppose the x-coordinate of point A is 2, and the x-coordinate of point B is 6. Ask yourself: what x-coordinate is perfectly in the middle of coordinates 2 and 6? It’s just like asking: what number is right in the middle of 2 and 6 on the number line? Well, wouldn’t that be 4, since 4 is two more than 2 and two less than 6? And indeed it is 4.

But notice that there’s another way to get 4, given the coordinates 2 and 6. We also could have just added 2 and 6 to get 8, and then divided 8 by 2, since 8 ÷ 2 = 4. In other words, we could have TAKEN the AVERAGE of the two x-coordinates, since taking an average of two numbers is adding them and dividing by two.

Could the midpoint formula actually be as easy as taking averages?!

Before we say yes, let’s test this idea for more complicated situations. We just saw that it works when both coordinates are positive. But suppose one coordinate is positive, the other negative. Let’s let one coordinate be
– 2, while the other is + 4. What number is right between those two coordinates on the number line? Well, the numbers are 6 apart, right? And half of 6 is 3, so we could just add 3 to – 2, and get + 1 as the point in between them. And we see that + 1 is three away from both – 2 and 4. But could we also get + 1 by averaging -2 and 4? Let’s try:
(- 2 + 4) / 2 = 2 / 2 = + 1. Averaging works again.

And finally, what about the case where both coordinates are negative? Suppose one coordinate is – 2, the other – 8. What number is right between those two numbers on the number line? Well, these numbers are also 6 apart, right? And half of 6 is 3, so we could just add 3 to – 8, and get – 5 as the middle. And we see that – 5 is three away from both – 8 and – 2. But can we also get – 5 by averaging – 8 and – 2? Let’s try: (- 8 + – 2) / 2 = – 10 / 2 = -5. Averaging worked here too!

Since the averaging process works for all three cases, this approach does works always, and in fact it is how the midpoint formula works.

The midpoint formula basically just averages the x-coordinates to get the x-coordinate of the midpoint. Then it averages the y-coordinates to get the y-coordinate of the midpoint.

So here is the “friendly formula” for the midpoint of any segment on the coordinate plane: Given a segment whose x- and y-coordinates are known,

MIDPOINT = (AVERAGE of x-coordinates, AVERAGE of y-coordinates)

And that’s all you have to memorize!

How to Let Kids Use Calculators Without Ruining Their Ability to Think Numerically


Hi folks,

Now that summer has officially begun, I’m enjoying a certain distance from the heat of the school year, and that distance gives me a chance to reflect.

One set of ideas that my mind keeps poking around again and again is this:  a) the weakness in actual number sense among today’s elementary and secondary students,
b) the concomitant modern focus on teaching Number Sense during these school years, and c) the now-rampant overuse of calculators.

I find it interesting that Number Sense has become a “big important new topic” that math instructors are required to teach. I also find it interesting that the new focus on Number Sense has been growing steadily at the very same time that students in so many parts of our country have become more and more calculator dependent.

Could there be a connection?

Yes, undoubtedly! Back when I set up shop tutoring math, K-12, in 1990, Santa Fe (NM) Public School students were not permitted to use calculators willy-nilly. Because of that, our students were not calculator-dependent. Students were expected to know the truths of arithmetic forwards and backwards, and wouldn’t have dreamed of reaching for a calculator to find the value of something so simple as, say, 7 + 5, as happens routinely today. Yes, routinely! I should know; I’m a professional math tutor.

What’s more, I’d say that students in the 1990s generally understood concepts such as odd and even numbers, prime and composite numbers, how to prime factorize, how to find the GCF and the LCM, and the many other skills that are part of the “new area of math instruction we call Number Sense.

That’s because teachers used to require students to use their minds to work with numbers. Students used to grind out 7/18 + 5/12 by hand, not by pressing buttons. They used to figure out the LCM of 22 and 30 by using an algorithm rather than by tapping an app. They used to prime factorize numbers using the good old factor tree and simplify radicals by thinking rather than by pressing a sequence of buttons and scrolling through the numbers flashing across their LCDs.

You can probably see where I’m going with this. Today’s math students have become overly calculator dependent. That dependence on calculators, in turn, has made them deficient at the skills in the topic area we call Number Sense. And precisely because today’s students are so deficient at number sense, precisely because they have been allowed to become so dependent on their e-devices rather than on their mental devices, curriculum designers have devised this whole new area of math, Number Sense, that now gets taught as its own “thing” rather than being an integral thread of everyday math instruction. Number sense used to be something students developed naturally, by mentally working with numbers, day-in, day-out, using paper and pencil and mental math.

Lest I be called a Luddite, I’m not saying that calculators have no place in the math curriculum. But as a tutor who has helped students with math for some 27 years now, I can say with certainty that today’s students’ innate ability to work with numbers, play with numbers and calculate with numbers has been dulled and frankly allowed to atrophy because calculators have become an all-too-easy, all-too-available crutch.

In this way, math curricula and math educators who overly promote calculator usage have done a great disservice to students. The good news, though, is that  teachers could correct course without too much trouble.

Teachers could still allow students to use calculators, quite appropriately, for higher-order processes — such as graphing two functions to see where they intersect, and to see if the answer found that way comports with the answer attained by solving the systems simultaneously by hand — while at the same time disallowing calculator usage for arithmetic calculations.

I’d like to see teachers get their students back to basics in this way because, from my perspective, we’re raising a new generation of students, many of whom have little ability to calculate mentally and little understanding of how numbers work. As a result, these children (soon-to-be adults) are unnecessarily vulnerable.

They’re vulnerable because they cannot tell if they are receiving the correct change from a cashier. They’re vulnerable because they cannot tell if their car or home interest payment is correct. And they’re vulnerable in a larger sense because they lack the ability to easily think numerically, i.e., quantitatively. And when people lack the fundamental ability to think quantitatively, even having a calculator won’t save them in many situations. That’s because they might not even know what operation to do to find a solution in a real-world situation.

But in an even more direct and practical sense, the new calculator-dependent students are vulnerable because they have been set up to struggle mightily in their college math classes. That’s because nearly all U.S. colleges require students to take math tests without using calculators!

So I say let’s get back to basics, and let’s do it in a smart way. Let’s continue to let students use calculators for higher-order thinking skills, but let’s disallow calculators for ALL arithmetic so that students will be required to once again become strong in those critical fundamental skills and so that they will re-gain the natural form of Number Sense that is their right and their due.

 

 

 

 

 

“Algebra Survival” Program, v. 2.0, has just arrived!


The Second Edition of both the Algebra Survival Guide and its companion Workbook are officially here!

Check out this video for a full run-down on the new books, and see how — for a limited time — you can get them for a great discount at the Singing Turtle website.

 

Here’s the PDF with sample pages from the books: SAMPLER ASG2, ASW2.

And here’s the website where you can check out the books more fully and purchase the books.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

How to Factor Trinomials with Understanding!


This video shows the fastest and easiest way I know of for factoring quadratic trinomials. Give it a watch and see if you agree.

How to Remove Math Terms from Parentheses


How do you get math terms out of parentheses? And what happens to those terms when you remove the parentheses?

It seems like the process should be simple. But this issue often plagues students; they keep getting points off on tests, quizzes, homework assignments.  What’s the deal?

The deal is that there’s a specific process you need to follow when taking terms out of parentheses, and what you do hinges on whether there’s a positive sign (+) or a negative sign (–) in front of the parentheses.

But not to worry. This video on this page settles the question once and for all. Not only that, but the video provides a story-based approach that you can teach (if you’re an instructor) or learn (if you’re a student) and remember (no matter who you are). Why? Because stories are FUN and MEMORABLE.

So kick back and relax (yes, it’s math, but you have a right to relax) and let the video show you how this process is done.

And in customary style, I present practice problems (along with the answers, too) at the end of the video so you can be sure you understand what you believe you understand.

 

 

 

 

 

Algebra Mistake #3: How to Work Out (x + y)^2 without Confusion


Ever thought this after you got back a math test … ?

“Why did I do that? I used a rule where it doesn’t apply!”

Yep, that’s exactly what we’re looking at in Algebra Mistake #3, a case of “overgeneralizing.”

The situation we’re dealing with involves over-generalizing everyone’s “favorite” property, the distributive property!

How’s that? Well, you’re supposed to use the distributive property when a number multiplies terms inside parentheses.

But sometimes students get a little bit — shall we say — “carried away” — and use the distributive property principle in other situations, too. The results are a tad bit comic, if you’re the teacher, but not so funny if you’re the student and you’ve made the mistake 19 times on a test with 20 problems.

Anyhow, after you watch the following video you shouldn’t have to worry about this again because we’ll get the two wires in your mind untangled so you never make this mistake again. So just relax, watch and learn.

And oh yes, don’t forget that we’ve provided some practice problems at the end of the video to help you make sure you’ve got the concept nailed down.

 

 

Algebra Mistake #2: How to Understand the Difference between A x A and 2 x A without Confusion


Now that you’ve gotten a taste for the benefits of analyzing algebraic mistakes, it’s time to explore a second common mistake. This one is so common that nearly every student commits it at least once on the road to algebra success.

As you watch the video, notice how by thinking hard about two expressions, we can think this mistake through to its very root, thus discovering the core difference between two similar-looking algebraic expressions.

And along the road, we’ll learn a general strategy for decoding the meaning of algebraic expressions. What I like about this strategy is that you can use it to understand the meaning of pretty much any algebraic expression, and you’ll see that it’s not a hard thing to do. In fact, it just involves using numbers in a nifty way.

Best of all, students usually find this approach interesting, convincing and even a bit fun. So here goes, Common Algebra Mistake #2 …

 

Algebra Mistake #1: How to Understand the Difference Between -1^2 and (-1)^2 without Confusion


Welcome, welcome, welcome to my series on COMMON ALGEBRA MISTAKES!

We’re going to have some fun spotting, analyzing, dissecting, exploring, explaining and fixing those COMMON ALGEBRA MISTAKES, the ones that drive students and teachers UP THE WALL!

I’ve had so much experience tutoring that I find these mistakes fascinating, and I intend to share my (ok, bizarre) fascination in this series of videos.

Also, be aware that I’m very much OPEN to suggestions from you folks on mistakes that you’d like me to explore. I highly value the experience and wisdom of you students and educators, and I want to do all I can to work with you to un-earth the mistakes of algebra, and bring them to the light of day so we can find ways to stay out of their way!

Here’s the first video on these mesmerizing mistakes. Could any mistake be more classic than this very one? I doubt it. But watch the video and form your own opinion …

 

 

 

Everyday Life Sparks Mathematical Puzzles


So here’s the situation: you’re at the breakfast table, enjoying a bowl of steaming-hot steel-cut oats and maple syrup, and you just poured yourself a mug of black coffee. But then you realize you want to pour some milk in the coffee (sorry, purists). But the milk is in the frig, six feet away. So of course you walk to the frig, grab the milk, bring it to the table, pour some in your coffee, return the milk to the frig and sit back down. Question: could you have done this more efficiently?

Yes, of course. You could have brought your cup of coffee with you as you walked to the frig, poured the milk right there at the frig, returned the milk, and then walked back to the table.

Being Smart?

“Morning Joe”

When I realized this this morning, I thought … hmmm. Had I used a bit of forethought, I would save myself an entire round trip from the table to the frig. And while I have no problem making that extra trip (hey, just burned 1.3 calories, right?), the experience made me wonder if anyone has ever developed a mathematics of efficiency for running errands.

I could imagine someone taking initial steps for this. One would create symbols for the various aspects of errands. There would be a general symbol for an errand, and there would be a special ways of denoting: 1) an errand station (like the frig), 2)  an errand that requires transporting an item (like carrying the mug), 3) an errand that requires doing an activity (pouring milk) with two items (mug and milk) at an errand station, 4) an errand that involves picking something up (picking up the mug), and so on. Then one could schematize the process and use it to code various kinds of errands. Eventually, perhaps, one could use such a system to analyze the most efficient way to, say, carry out 15 errands of which 3 involve transporting items, 7 involve picking things up, and 5 involve doing tasks at errand stations. Don’t get me wrong! I have not even begun to try this, but I’ve studied enough math that I can imagine it being done, and that’s one thing I love about math; it allows us to create general systems for analyzing real-world situations and thereby to do those activities more intelligently.

Of course, one reason I’m bringing this up is to encourage people to think more deeply about things that occur in their everyday lives. Activities that appear mundane can become mathematically intriguing when investigated. A wonderful example is the famous problem of the “Bridges of Konigsberg,” explored by the prolific mathematician Leonhard Euler nearly 300 years ago.

Euler in 1736 was living in the town of Konigsberg, now part of Russia. The Pregel River, which flows through Konigsberg, weaves around two islands that are part of the town, and a set of seven lovely bridges connect the islands to each other and to the town’s two river banks. For centuries Konigsberg’s residents wondered if there was a way to take a walk, starting at Point A, crossing each bridge exactly once, and return to Point A. But no one had found a way to do this.

One of the famous Seven Bridges of Konigsberg

One of the famous Seven Bridges of Konigsberg

Enter Euler. The great mathematician sat down and simplified the problem, turning the bridges into abstract line segments and transforming the bridge entrance and exits into points. Eventually Euler rigorously proved that there is no way to take the walk that people had wondered about. This would be just an interesting little tale, but it has a remarkable offshoot. After Euler published his proof, mathematicians took his way of simplifying the situation and, by exploring it, developed two new branches of math:  topology and graph theory. The graph theory ideas that Euler first explored when thinking about the seven bridges sparked a branch of math that’s used today to determine the most efficient ways of connecting servers that form the backbone of the internet!

Of course, there’s also the classic example of Archimedes shouting “Eureka!” and running through the streets naked after seeing water rise in his bathtub. In that moment, Archimedes, who had been trying to help his king figure out if the crown that was just made for him had been created with pure gold, or with an alloy, saw that the water displacement would help him solve the problem. In the end, Archimedes determined that the crown was not pure gold, and the king rewarded the great thinker for his efforts.

As I write this, I find myself wondering if any of you readers can think of other situations in which everyday life experiences led mathematicians or scientists to major discoveries. It would be enlightening to hear more of these stories.

And, if no such stories spring to mind, check out this site, which lists several such stories.  http://www.sciencechannel.com/famous-scientists-discoveries/10-eureka-moments.htm

In any case, the way that such discoveries occur shows that you never know where a seemingly trivial idea might lead … so it’s good to keep your eyes and mind open.

How to Remove (“Unpack”) Algebraic Terms from Parentheses


As you’re probably aware, I’m a big believer in using stories to bring math to life. Especially when you’re teaching tricky concepts, using a story can be the “magic switch” that flicks on the light of understanding. Armed with story-based understanding, students can recall how to perform difficult math processes. And since people naturally like stories and tend to recall them, skills based on story-based understanding really stick in the mind. I’ve seen this over and over in my tutoring.

Stories from My Tutoring Work

The kind of story I’m talking about uses an extended-metaphor, and this way of teaching  is particularly helpful when you’re teaching algebra. Ask yourself: what would you rather have? Students scratching their heads (or tearing out their hair) to grasp a process taught as a collection of abstract steps? Or students grasping  a story and quickly seeing how it guides them in doing the math? I think the answer is probably pretty clear. So with this benefit in mind, let’s explore another story that teaches a critical algebraic skill: the skill of  “unpacking” terms locked inside parentheses.

To get the picture, first imagine that each set of parentheses, weirdly or not, represents a corrugated cardboard box, the kind that moving companies use to pack up your possessions. Extending this concept, the terms inside parentheses represent the items you pack when you move your goodies from one house to another.  Finally, for every set of parentheses (the box), imagine that you’ve hired either a good moving company or a bad moving company. (You can use a good company for one box and a bad company for a different “box” — it changes.) How can you tell whether the moving company is good or bad? Just look at the sign to the left of the parentheses. If the moving company is GOOD, you’ll see a positive sign to the left of the parentheses. If the moving company is BAD, you’ll spot a negative sign there.

Here’s how this idea looks:

+ (    )     The + sign here means you’ve hired a GOOD moving company for this box of stuff.

– (    )     This – sign means that you’ve hired a BAD moving company to pack up this box of things.

Now let’s put a few “possessions” inside the boxes.

+ (2x – 4)  This means a GOOD moving company has packed up your treasured items: the 2x and the – 4.

– (2x – 4)  Au contraire! This means that a BAD moving company has packed up the 2x and the – 4.

[Remember, of course, that the term 2x is actually a + 2x. No sign visible means there’s an invisible + sign before the term.]

What difference does it make if the moving company is GOOD or BAD? A big difference! If it’s a GOOD company, it packs your things up WELL.  Result: when you unpack your items, they come out exactly the same way in which they went into the box. So since a good moving company packed up your things in the expression:  + (2x – 4), when you go to unpack your things, everything will come out exactly as it went in. Here’s a representation of this unpacking process:

+ (2x – 4)

=      + 2x – 4

Note that when we take terms out of parentheses, we call this “unpacking” the terms. This works because algebra teachers fairly often describe the process of taking terms out of (   ) as “unpacking” the terms. So here’s a story whose rhetoric  matches the rhetoric of the algebraic process. Convenient, is it not?

Now let’s take a look at the opposite situation — what happens when you work with a BAD (boo, hiss!) moving company. In this case, the company does such a bad job that when you unpack your items, each and every item comes out  “broken.” In math, we indicate that terms are “broken” by showing that when they come out of the (  ), their signs,  + or – signs, are the EXACT OPPOSITE of what they should be. So if a term was packed up as a + term, it would come out as a – term.  Vice-versa, if it was packed up as a – term, it would come out as a + term. We show the process of unpacking terms packed by a BAD moving company, as follows:

– (2x – 4)

=      – 2x + 4

And that pretty much sums up the entire process. Understanding this story, students will be able to “unpack” terms from parentheses, over and over, with accuracy and understanding.

But since Practice Makes Perfect, here are a few problems to help your kiddos perfect this skill.

PROBLEMS:

“Unpack” these terms by removing the parentheses and writing the terms’ signs correctly:

a)  – (5a + 3)

b)  + (5a – 3)

c)  – (– 3a + 2b – 7)

d)  + (– 3a + 2b – 7)

e)  6 + (3a – 2)

f)  6 – (3a – 2)

g)  4a + 6 + (– 9a – 5)

h)  4a + 6 – (– 9a – 5)

ANSWERS:

a)  – (5a + 3)   =   – 5a – 3

b)  + (5a – 3)  =  + 5a – 3

c)  – (– 3a + 2b – 7)  =  + 3a – 2b + 7

d)  + (– 3a + 2b – 7) = – 3a + 2b – 7

e)  6 + (3a – 2)  =  + 3a + 4

f)  6 – (3a – 2)  =  – 3a + 8

g)  4a + 6 + (– 9a – 5)  =  – 5a + 1

h)  4a + 6 – (– 9a – 5)  =  + 13a + 11


Josh Rappaport is the author of five books on math, including the Parents Choice-award winning Algebra Survival Guide. If you like how Josh explains these problems, you’ll certainly  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!