exponents Exponents Linear, Quadratic, and Exponential Models*

(16x^2)^3/4 = 1024x^11/4



OK OK OK I think I’ve got where 1024 comes from but what is going on with that 11?

Update: I think banderson2 nails it in the comments. “It comes from the power of 2. 2 = 8/4 so 8/4 + 3/4 is 11/4.”

Area exponents Fractions Geometric Measurement and Dimension

5 and 1/2 x 2 and 1/4 = 7 and 3/4


I find this fascinating. This student clearly knows how that multiplying the base and the height of a rectangle gives you its area. She even knows how to multiply fraction. But when it comes to part (d), she adds the numbers instead of multiplying them.

In earlier writing I hypothesized that, when put in unfamiliar situations, students often default to an “easier” operation. This idea now seems problematic to me. What, after all, is an “easier” operation any way? And what exactly would trigger this default to some other operation? And how do we explain why competent adults — like me — make similar mistakes on my own work?

It now seems more likely to me that we associate certain pairs of numbers with certain operations. Think about the numbers 100 and 1/2. I’d suggest that most people have an association of “50” with 100 and 1/2. After all, how often have you been asked to add 100 and 1/2 together? How often have you been asked to subtract 1/2 from 100? In contrast, how often have you been asked to find 1/2 of 100?

How often have you been asked to multiply 5 1/2 and 2 1/4 together? My guess is that you — and the student above — have been asked to add these sorts of mixed numbers more often than multiply them.

The idea here is that the pairs of numbers themselves come with associations.

There’s a hard version of this claim that I don’t mean to make. I don’t mean to say that, no matter the context, you’d expect a student to add 5 1/2 and 2 1/4 together. I think a division problem with mixed numbers is unlikely to trigger associations with addition. Maybe I’m moving towards a two-part model? The sorts of mistakes we make with numbers depends both on the associations with the operation and also associations with the numbers? And things get really bad when these two associations point in the same direction?

This theory feels very testable, but at the moment I’m having a hard time articulating a possible test of it. But we should be able to mess with people’s associations with numbers and see if that changes the sorts of mistakes that they make. Ideas?

exponents Expressions and Equations

A tough exponents question



Oh man, this is going to be tough for kids. Good mistake.

What makes this so hard? Or am I over-estimating its difficulty?

Thanks Matt!


exponents Exponents Expressions and Equations

Another chapter in this site’s continuing chronicle of the ways exponents are hard for kids




exponents Expressions and Equations

What does the exponent stick to?



I know the pic is a bit small, but can you see the mistake? It all has to do with what the exponent applies to. Somewhere on the internet one of you wrote about how you tell kids that “the exponent only sticks to one thing.” This mistake is about just that.

Thanks to Gregory for the submission.

exponents Expressions & Equations

Negative powers, with numbers and exponents



I just dug this up. It’s what I handed back students after a “pre-quiz” (i.e. a quiz at the end of the unit, but before their quiz). I had forgotten that during that first year I handed back these things with class performance percentages on them.

Anyway, the way those percentages break down is interesting to me. Is it surprising that kids had so much trouble with negative exponents in numerical context, but had such less trouble with variables?

exponents Expressions and Equations Multiplying Polynomials

Another pre-instruction survey, this time about polynomial multiplication

View this document on Scribd


  • The kids have a ton of confidence, even in the stuff that they haven’t formally studied in class yet.  (For this survey, Questions 1-3 had been covered formally, and Questions 4-5 had not.) To my mind, this continues to reaffirm that the most annoying mistakes aren’t the distortion of instruction; they’re the failure of instruction to override preconceptions.
  • Kids like to say that (x+7)^2 = 49, and teachers like to say that this is due to overuse of the Distributive Property. That might be true, but those teachers also have to recognize that kids said that (a+3)(a+3)=a^2 + 9 with almost the same verve and frequency. It’s hard to blame exponents or notation for that mistake, right? So where does this intuition come from?
  • A couple of kids included a 2a term in Q4 and a x^2 term in Q5. I find this interesting, but I’m not exactly sure what its significance is. Is the temptation to add a+3 and a+3 when the binomials are in the same visual position that they are for addition problems?

The idea that kids walk into our classes with these intuitions is, I think, counter to the way that most math teachers talk and think about these mistakes. I think that realizing that these mistakes are the result of deep intuitions about how math should be is important. I also think thinking about where these intuitions come from is important, because maybe we can avoid setting them in earlier years.

I hope that some of you will give this survey to your students who haven’t yet received instruction on how to multiply polynomials. The original survey can be found here.

You’ll disagree with me in the comments, right? I’m counting on you all…

exponents The Number System

Why kids mess up exponents

I’m trying very hard to get people as excited by exponent mistakes as I am. I just think that they’re really cool and interesting. I gave kids this survey today in class to 9th graders who have never seen negative or rational exponents before, just to see what they’d do.

survey 1

The results did not disappoint.  The mistakes they made will find their way to the site soon enough, but for now, drop by Rational Expressions and let me know what you think of the experiment and its results.

Here’s one result of the survey to whet your appetite:


If you decide to give your students the exponents survey, or make a survey of your own on exponents or any subject, I would sure love to see it. Send it my way, if you will.

exponents Expressions and Equations

(-2)^5 + (2)^0 = 0


Open comment thread.

A tip of the hat to Gregory Taylor for the submission.

Arithmetic with Polynomials and Rational Expressions exponents Exponents

Negative Exponents with Tons of Variables

Camera 360


I think the temptation I have is to call this a “careless” mistake and urge more practice. Let’s probe deeper.

1. What does this kid know and understand about exponents?

2. What’s the fastest way to help?

3. What makes this mistake so tempting?

Thanks to Sadie Estrella for the awesome addition to our ever-mounting pile of exponents mistakes.