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Posts tagged ‘Solving Equations’

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

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“Simple” equations? Not always so simple.


Have you ever wondered how students can make mistakes with equations that appear extremely simple to solve, equations as basic as: 9 – x = 11, or: – 9 + x = 11?

To me this was rather baffling until I started to see these equations through students’ eyes, thanks to some tutorees who told me why they were making some mistakes here.

Through this experience, I’ve come to realize that I should be careful before I label any equations “simple equations.”

Here’s a case in point, which I’ll call Example #1:

9 – x = 11

If you ask students how the 9 in this problem is connected to the left side of this equation, a distressingly LARGE NUMBER will say that the 9 is connected by SUBTRACTION. If you just think about it, it’s a very understandable mistake. There’s a big glaring negative sign to the the right of the 9. When students look at that negative sign, many think it tells them that the 9 is connected by SUBTRACTION. Using this analysis, and armed with the knowledge that you do “the opposite operation,” these students will blithely ADD 9 to both sides of the equation, but they’ve just gotten off on the wrong track, getting: 18 – x = 20.

Similarly, given an equation as “simple” as this, Example #2:

– 9 + x = 11

many students will tell you that the – 9 is connected by addition. Why? Because of the big glaring + sign to the right of the – 9. . Reasoning thus, these students will gleefully do the opposite operation and subtract 9 from both sides of the equation, landing in an equally sticky puddle of wrong thinking, getting: – 18 + x = 2

How can we help students avoid these common algebraic pitfalls? Here’s what I’ve found helps.

Tell students that if a number is connected to a variable by an ADDITION or SUBTRACTION sign, you have to look to the LEFT of the number — not to the right — to determine how it is connected to that side of the equation.

To see how this works, let’s look back at Example #1: 9 – x = 11

A student who understands the correct process knows she must look to the LEFT of the 9 to see how it is connected to this side of the equation. Since there’s NO VISIBLE SIGN to the LEFT of the 9, that means that there’s an invisible + sign, so the problem can be re-written, for sake of clarity as: + 9 – x = 11

Now the student is getting somewhere. Using the idea of looking to the LEFT, she looks to the left of the 9 and sees this + sign. This tells her that the 9 is connected by ADDITION, not by subtraction. Following the rule of inverse operations, she now knows to SUBTRACT 9 from both sides of the equation, to get: – x = 2

From there it’s just a matter of multiplying both sides by (– 1) to get the variable alone in its positive form, obtaining the answer: x = – 2

Similarly, Example 2 can be solved using the Look to the LEFT rule of thumb.

This problem is: – 9 + x = 11

The student must ignore the + sign to the right of the 9, and instead look to the LEFT of the 9, finding a – sign. That – sign tells the student that the 9 is connected to the left side of the equation by SUBTRACTION. Using the rule of inverse operations, he knows to add 9 to both sides of the equation, getting: x = 20 And that is the final answer.

As I think about this area of confusion, I think it occurs because we teachers sometimes tell kids that they must “get rid of the number that is connected to the variable.” I know I’ve been guilty of talking this way (but I am trying to reform myself).

When a number is multiplying or dividing a variable, it is perfectly appropriate to tell kids to “get rid of the number next to the variable.” For example, in: 3x = 21, students need to get rid of the 3 which is connected to x through multiplication. Likewise, in x/5 = 6, students must “get rid” of the 5 that is connected through division.

But my recent algebra epiphany is that when numbers are connected through addition or subtraction, as in these problems:

10 – x = 23

x + 7 = – 5

– 8 + x = 13

– 2 – x = 8

we need to be more subtle in our instructions. We must tell students to Look to the LEFT of the number on the same side of the variable. And then tell students to let the sign they see to the LEFT guide them as to how to get rid of the number term that is in the way.

Just a little self-confession that I thought I’d pass along.

Good news: I’ve already started using this “Look to the Left” approach, and it is clearing up lots of confusion for students.

Happy teaching!

— Josh


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Making Sense of Negative Signs


If you’ve ever seen students struggle with expressions that have a negative sign in front of parenthses (I sure do!), expressions like this:  – (8x – 5)

then this blog entry is for you!

I’ve developed a new way to help students get this concept right — and to remember the concept so they continue to get it right, week after week. I’ll explain the basic approach in this entry, then give more details in the next entry.

The big problem with the typical textbook presentation for this concept is that it is filled with math gobbledygook. I’ve found that you can cut out the gobbledygook and instead relate this kind of problem to everyday life. Once students learn it this way, they’ll never forget it!

 

MAIN IDEA: encourage students to think of the negative sign as the as the everyday word, OPPOSITE.

So start out by asking simple questions, but writing them in a pseudo-math format.

Example:

Write:  opp (black)

while you ask:  What is the opposite of black?

When students give the answer, what you write now looks like this:

opp (black)

= white

————————

Continue with other examples, like this:

opp (tall)

= short

————

opp (down)

= up

———–

Once students get the basic idea, expand on the idea by telling students they can take the opposite of two concepts, not just one. Show this by writing expressions like:

opp (white, short)

Students should answer:

opp (white, short)

= black, tall

and: 

opp (left, slow)

= right, fast

————-

Once students master this idea, extend the lesson to NUMBERS, first by pointing out that all numbers (except 0) and MONOMIALS have opposites. e.g., that the opposite of + 3 is – 3; the opposite of – 5 is + 5, the opposite of – 8x is + 8x, the opposite of 6ab is – 6ab, etc.

Now challenge students to do problems like this:

opp ( + 5x, – 7 )

They should get:

opp ( + 5x, – 7 )

=     – 5x, + 7

——————–

Then simply explain that in math, we express the idea of opposite by using a “–” sign in front of the (    ), and that we write the terms inside (    )  without commas.

Give students this problem:

– ( 7x + 4 )

See if they can get the answer, which should look like this:

–  ( + 7x – 4 )

= – 7x + 4

——————-

I hear a lot of: “Oh, that’s easy,” when I explain it this way. I think that’s because opposites is a concept students know “cold.” Plus, using the opposites concept connects the algebra to non-math concepts, and students often find that refreshing. I’m sure you’ve noticed that, too.

Then give students a set of problems, like these:

1)  – ( – 7a – 4 )

2)  – ( – 3x + 7 )

3)  – ( + 8y – 3 )

4) – ( 4p – 6a + 12 )

5)  – ( 9x + 4y – 3 )

Have fun with this lesson. If you think of any ways to extend it, or if you find any tricks that make it work especially well, feel free to share them by sending them to:  josh@SingingTurtle.com