Reading to Learn Math

[Photo by Betsssssy.]

Do you ever take your kids’ math tests? It helps me remember what it is like to be a student. I push myself to work quickly, trying to finish in about 1/3 the allotted time, to mimic the pressure students feel. And whenever I do this, I find myself prone to the same stupid mistakes that students make.

Even teachers are human.

In this case, it was a multi-step word problem, a barrage of information to stumble through. In the middle of it all sat this statement:

…and there were 3/4 as many dragons as gryphons…

My eyes saw the words, but my mind heard it this way:

…and 3/4 of them were dragons…

What do you think — did I get the answer right? Of course not! Every little word in a math problem is important, and misreading even the smallest word can lead a student astray. My mental glitch encompassed several words, and my final tally of mythological creatures was correspondingly screwy.

But here is the more important question: Can you explain the difference between these two statements?

Continue reading Reading to Learn Math

Trouble with Percents

Can your students solve this problem?

There are 20% more girls than boys in the senior class.
What percent of the seniors are girls?

This is from a discussion of the semantics of percent problems and why students have trouble with them, going on over at MathNotations. (Follow-up post here.) Our pre-algebra class just finished a chapter on percents, so I thought Chickenfoot might have a chance at this one. Nope! He leapt without thought to the conclusion that 60% of the class must be girls. After I explained the significance of the word “than”, he solved the follow-up problem just fine.


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Secret Message

My algebra students could stand to hear this, too:

(2)(-4x2)n is not equal to (-8 )nx2n.

AAAAAARRRRGGGHH!!!!

From Secret Message to My Calculus Students at Learning Curves blog.


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Improper Fractions: A Mathematical Trauma

Feature photo (above) by Jimmie via flickr. Photo (right) by Old Shoe Woman via Flickr.

Nearing the end of Miquon Blue today, my youngest daughter encountered fractions greater than one. She collapsed on the floor of my bedroom in tears.

The worksheet started innocently enough:

\frac{1}{2} \times 8=\left[ \quad \right]

Continue reading Improper Fractions: A Mathematical Trauma

Confession: I Am Not Good at Math

I want to tell you a story. Everyone likes a story, right? But at the heart of my story lies a confession that I am afraid will shock many readers. People assume that because I teach math, blog about math, give advice about math on internet forums, and present workshops about teaching math — because I do all this, I must be good at math.

Apply logic to that statement. The conclusion simply isn’t valid. …

Update: This post has moved.

Click here to read the new, expanded version


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Mathematics and Imagination

Comments by W. W. Sawyer, in his wonderful, little book, Mathematician’s Delight:

Earlier we considered the argument, ‘Twice two must be four, because we cannot imagine it otherwise.’ This argument brings out clearly the connexion between reason and imagination: reason is in fact neither more nor less than an experiment carried out in the imagination.

Continue reading Mathematics and Imagination