Exponents Numbers & Operations in Base 10

“Two cubed is eight, but seven squared is fourteen.”


mistake5 mistake4 mistake3  mistake2


Yes, yes, kids multiply the base and the power. Here’s what’s remarkable about this:

  1. They do know the definition of exponents. It’s written a line above. They did it a line above.
  2. They’re doing this with confidence. There aren’t erased numbers. This isn’t slow thinking. This is just what kids think seven squared ought to be.

By defining exponents in terms of multiplication while offering no other images or models for what exponentiation does, we create a default model for exponents that sticks with people forever. When mentally taxed — either with a tough multiplication, or with an unusual power — kids revert back to this default model. They’ll do this especially in high school, and they’ll get questions wrong on tests and all sorts of other things not because they’re being sloppy, but because this default model is constantly lurking in their minds.

Incidentally, I asked these kids why they think about multiplication when they see powers, and this is what they said:

their notes

I’ve written about a lot of this stuff before. See here, especially, where I shared the high school versions of this mistake.

Now that all of this has been established, the next step needs to be finding a curricular approach that doesn’t rely as heavily on the “repeated multiplication” model for exponents. We need to build a distinctive set of images and intuitions that are native to exponents so that our kids aren’t always defaulting into multiplication when they have to think hard about math.

This is work that I’ve started, in a post titled “Exponents Without Repeated Multiplication.”  I’ll send you there for the details, but I stake out two major claims about exponents education:

  1. Much in the way that arrays support early multiplication work, geometric notions of area and volume can serve as the bedrock of an exponents education
  2. We tend to think of four, not five, major operations of arithmetic, but we need to start thinking about exponents as on par with all the others and taking care to build them thoughtfully throughout the entire curriculum.

Beyond all of this, these exponents mistakes serve as a big reminder about the nature of learning, teaching and knowledge. The big, big lesson of all of this is that knowing/not-knowing is not clean and it’s not binary. There are degrees of knowing something. Would you say that these students don’t yet understand what exponents mean? What does that even mean, given the contradictory evidence we have in front of us.

But, then, what does it mean to understand something at all?

exponents Exponents Expressions and Equations

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




Exponents Feedback Linear, Quadratic, and Exponential Models* logarithms

Constants and Exponents

pam patterson 3


Open thread. Go wild!

(Thanks to Pam for the submission.)

Exponents Expressions Expressions Expressions & Equations Feedback

PEMDAS and powers

Question: Evaluate the expression -z^{2} + x(3-y)^2  when x = 10,   $latex y = -2$, and  $latex z = -2$.

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These submissions come from Julie, who posted about this stuff on her blog:

What happened?  First, I HATE PEMDAS AND ANYONE WHO USES IT.  This starts early, and students are already brainwashed by 6th grade when I get them.  All of the GEMS in the world can’t seem to fix this.  I hate PEMDAS because students see parenthesis and go into “I must do that first” mode, even when there is only ONE number inside the parenthesis.  Just because it is in parenthesis, one number, for example (2), does NOT a group make.

Discuss her evaluation of the problem, and her next steps, either in the comments or at her place.

Exponents Numbers & Operations in Base 10

Exponents Mistake from Middle School

cathy campbell

What makes this mistake so common?

Thanks to Cathy Campbell for the student work!