This come via Lois Burke on twitter, and immediately Max shows up with a possible explanation.

Dave has a different idea. Maybe the student was thinking in words — “5 and minus 1” — and this turns into its homonym “5-1.”

Personally, what I have the easiest time imagining is that the student just had “combine 5 and -1” on their mental ledger. When it came time to address that ledger, there was so much other stuff they were paying attention to that they slipped into the most natural sort of way to combine numbers they had, which is adding. (I like the metaphor of slipping. You’d very rarely see a kid slip in the other direction — from 5 + (-1) to 5 x (-1) — I think. There is a direction to this error.)

Here are the activities we came up with to help develop this sort of thinking in class. Ideas for improvement? More ideas? Other explanations of the student’s thinking?

Response to 5i^2 --- -4 Mistake

Response to 5i^2 --- -4 Mistake (2)

Response to 5i^2 --- -4 Mistake (1)


Pam Harris has an idea:

Love it. Here’s a digital version.

Response to 5i^2 --- -4 Mistake (1)

John Golden point out that there might be issues with the Which One Doesn’t Belong puzzle, so I offer this as an alternative.

Response to 5i^2 --- -4 Mistake (4)

John also offers a different problem string: “I’d be curious to see 5+i, 5+i^2, 5+i^3, 5+i^4, 5i, 5i^2, 5i^3, 5i^4.”


We chatted on twitter about this question for a bit. What predictions can you make about the predictions that were made? Click through to check your answers!


Here are the results from the 59 students who answered this question on an exam:


How would you give feedback to the students who wrote “infinity”?

Imagine that you were to give feedback to the students who wrote “-3/7.” What feedback would you give?

We’ve been studying graphs of rational functions in Precalculus.

Me: “Take 1 minute with your group: what will the graph of y = x/(x+1) look like?”

One group, during discussion, asserted that it had to be a line, using a sort of process of elimination: it’s not a parabola, it’s not cubic, it’s not a hyperbola.

Interesting, right? Why does this seem like a linear equation? I guess that it sort of looks like one…

complex3 (720x960)


One of my little obsessions is teaching complex numbers, but it’s really hard to find genuine instances of complex number mistakes. You start looking around at the most pernicious complex number mistakes, and they’re a lot like this one here: essentially algebraic. These mistakes, to my mind, are indistinguishable from the sorts of mistakes you’d expect from (4-6x)^2.

That observation is probably helpful in itself, though. The mistakes that we see from kids working with complex numbers are essentially algebraic mistakes. That means that kids aren’t really seeing much of a difference between the algebra that they’re usually asked to do and their work with complex numbers. Complex number arithmetic is just algebra with a twist.