# Chapter 12 Making Meaning in Algebra Examining Students Understandings and Misconceptions

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1 Assessing Mathematical Proficiency MSRI Publications Volume 53, 2007 Chapter 12 Making Meaning in Algebra Examining Students Understandings and Misconceptions DAVID FOSTER Students often get confused and lost when they take Algebra 1. 1 The underpinning of the course is the generalization of the arithmetic they have previously studied and communication about mathematical ideas in a language that is rich in symbolic notation. Therefore it is not surprising for students to find algebra as abstract and unconnected to the real world. Over the past twenty years, there has been a movement in the United States to make algebra more concrete. Specialized manipulatives have been invented in order to provide hands-on materials for students to use. Algebra tiles, positive and negative counters, and balance apparatuses, to name a few, are commercially available materials for concrete learning of algebra. Although concrete materials may be helpful for students to learn algebra, it is not the materials themselves that provide algebraic meaning or understanding. Some educators assume that from the use of hands-on materials, students will automatically jump to abstract understanding of algebra. Research informs us that this is not the case. Physical knowledge is knowledge of objects observable in external reality, while mathematical knowledge is the mental relationships students construct in their heads. The source of mathematical knowledge is thus in the student [Kamii and DeClark 1985]. It is equally true that if students are taught abstract ideas without meaning, there will be no understanding. Students need experiences with a concept to develop meaning for themselves. If we want students to know what mathematics is as a subject, they must understand it. Knowing mathematics really knowing it means understanding it. When we memorize rules for moving 1 In the United States, algebra is often taught in two year-long courses called Algebra 1 and Algebra

2 164 DAVID FOSTER symbols around on paper we may be learning something, but we are not learning mathematics [Hiebert et al. 1997]. In order to provide learning experiences that students can use to develop understanding of important algebra concepts, teachers must learn what students understand, and they must be sensitive to possible misconceptions held by the students. The learning experiences should allow students to confront their misconceptions and build upon knowledge they already understand. If students are unfamiliar with symbols, vocabulary, representations, or materials, the meaning students gain might differ significantly from what the instructor intends. Mathematical tools should be seen as support for learning. But this learning does not happen instantly: it requires more than watching demonstrations, but working with tools over extended periods of time, trying them out, and watching what happens. Meaning does not reside in representations and concrete materials; it is constructed by students as they use them [Hiebert et al. 1997]. What is Central to Algebra? Habits of mind. Identifying what students must learn is paramount. One formulation of important ideas of algebra is in terms of habits of mind that students need for algebra. Examples of habits of mind are doing and undoing, building rules to represent functions, and abstracting from computation. Doing-undoing. Effective algebraic thinking sometimes involves reversibility: being able to undo mathematical processes as well as do them. In effect, it is the capacity not only to use a process to get to a goal, but also to understand the process well enough to work backward from the answer to the starting point.... Building rules to represent functions. Critical to algebraic thinking is the capacity to recognize patterns and organize data to represent situations in which input is related to output by well-defined rules.... Abstracting from computation. This is the capacity to think about computations independently of particular numbers that are used. One of the most evident characteristics of algebra has always been its abstractness. But, just what is being abstracted? To answer this, a good case can be made that thinking algebraically involves being able to think about computations freed from the particular numbers they are tied to in arithmetic that is, abstracting system regularities from computation. [Driscoll 1999] For example, if algebra tiles are used to teach factoring of quadratic polynomials, students first need to understand how an area model represents a multiplication, then abstract from arithmetic computation (a habit of mind). This supports

3 12. STUDENTS UNDERSTANDINGS AND MISCONCEPTIONS 165 students in learning to understand how area is a model for making sense of the relation between factors and product, and how even when actual values are unknown the generalization holds. In the case of factoring, students also need to understand the habits of mind of Doing and Undoing, since factoring is the inverse of multiplying two numbers. Variable and function. An important concept in algebra is the concept of variable. Often students are first introduced to the term variable when they are asked to solve for an unknown in an equation. For example, in the equation 3x C 4 D 19 there is only one value of x that makes the equation true, namely 5. Although in situations like this, x is often called the variable in the equation, its value does not vary. It is important that students understand the notion of variable as something that can vary. In prototypical functional relationships, the unknowns vary because a change in the input affects the output. Students can start to understand functions and variables by drawing on their experiences. For example, students can consider a sliding door as an example of a relationship of two variables in which one is a function of the other. The width of the opening varies as the door moves on its track. The distance moved by the door can be considered as the input and the width of the opening as the output. Students should examine other situations in order to elaborate their understanding of variables and functions. When students are asked to make lists of situations that involve variables and functional relationships, they may come up with: The length of a candle varies with the amount of the time it burns. The height of a child varies as its age increases. The temperature of a liquid varies with the amount of time it cools in a freezer. The distance an object moves varies with the force of a push. The weight of a piece of a given rope varies with its length. Students benefit from developing a connection between concrete experiences and the abstract concepts important to algebra. Equality and equation. Another important idea in algebra is equality. In the United States, although students use the equals sign early in their school careers, they often use it to mean the answer follows. For example, in D?, the equals sign can be and often is interpreted as a signal to execute an arithmetic operation [Siegler 2003]. When used in an equation, the equals sign indicates that the expressions on the left and right sides have the same value. This can be a stumbling block for students who have learned that the equals sign means the answer follows.

4 166 DAVID FOSTER The idea of a balance scale may be used to help students understand how the equals sign is used in equations and what kinds of operations on equations are permissible. Students can connect representations of a balanced scale with operations that preserve equalities in an equation. The equals sign is synonymous with the center of the scale. If a scale is in balance and a weight is added to the pan on the left, an equal weight must be added to the right pan in order for the scale to remain balanced. Experiences of adding or removing weights from both sides of a scale representation may help students develop the concept of equality and strategies for solving for unknowns. For example, suppose a student is asked to solve 3x C 5 D 11 for x. The student uses a representation of a balanced scale. On the left side are three boxes, each representing the unknown x, and five marbles. On the right side are eleven marbles. Five marbles may be removed from each side of the scale. This corresponds to the process of subtracting equal quantities from both sides of an equation. When only the unknowns are left on one side of the equation, then the boxes and marbles may be partitioned to determine the unknown. The importance of using a representation is to emphasize the meaning of the mathematical ideas being investigated. The scale representation is only valuable if students understand that an equation involves the same principles as a balanced scale that both sides are equal. Students must understand the correspondence between the arithmetic operations and their scale counterparts of adding objects, removing objects, or partitioning objects. With these understandings, students can solidify meanings of solving equations. An example of a student utilizing the meaning of the equals sign and the power of habits of mind is illustrated by a third-grade student who is determining

6 168 DAVID FOSTER Assessment Task Focused on Doing-Undoing Number Machines This problem gives you the chance to: work with number chains explain your reasoning Here are two number machines: Machine A Machine B In In Out Out When you put an integer into the In box of a machine and do the operations shown in order, an answer appears in its Out box. For example, if you put 3 into the In box of Machine A, 12 appears in its Out box. Machine A In Out 1. Ray puts 13 into the In box of both machines. (a) Which machine gives the largest number in its Out box? (b) What is the largest answer he gets when he puts in 13? 2. Ray puts an integer into the In box of one of the machines. The integer 196 appears in its Out box. (a) Which machine did he use? Which integer did he put in? (b) Explain how you can tell that he did not use the other machine. 3. Leila puts an integer into the In box of each machine. She finds that the answer that appears in the Out box of Machine A is the same as the answer that appears in the Out box of Machine B. What was the answer produced by both machines? Show how you figured it out. The student whose work is shown on the next page successfully answers question 1 by working his way forward: he fills in the boxes on the top two rows with the appropriate numbers, and concludes that Machine B, with a result of 164, wins out. He can also solve question 2 by using a working backward strategy specifically, he writes above the boxes the result of applying each

7 12. STUDENTS UNDERSTANDINGS AND MISCONCEPTIONS 169 step backwards, from right to left: Machine A Machine B In Out In Out As an answer to part (b) of this question, he writes: I can tell he didn t use the other machine because, while I was working backwards, when I got to the last part I noticed 5 did not go evenly into 107. So it couldn t be that one. The student does not attempt to answer question 3. Assessment Task Focused on Building Rules to Represent Functions Square Patterns This problem gives you the chance to: work with a sequence of tile patterns write and use a formula Mary has some white and gray square tiles. She uses them to make a series of patterns like these: Pattern #1 Pattern #2 Pattern #3 1. How many gray tiles does Mary need to make the next pattern? 2. What is the total number of tiles she needs to make pattern number 6? Explain how you figured it out. 3. Mary uses 48 tiles in all to make one of the patterns. What is the number of the pattern she makes? Show your work. 4. Write a formula for finding the total number of tiles Mary needs to make pattern # n.

8 170 DAVID FOSTER Mary now uses gray and white square tiles to make a different pattern. Pattern #1 Pattern #2 Pattern #3 5. How many gray tiles will there be in pattern # 10? Explain how you figured it out. 6. Write an algebraic formula linking the pattern number, P, with the number of gray tiles, T. The student is willing to experiment with patterns in a variety of ways to help make sense of the relationships. In the beginning he uses drawings to solve for parts 2 and 3:

9 12. STUDENTS UNDERSTANDINGS AND MISCONCEPTIONS 171 Then he notices a pattern of adding four every time and uses this relationship to verify the drawing. By doing all this thinking about the relationships, the student is then able to come up with an algebraic expression in part 4 that works for any pattern number: In part 5, the student first notices the differences increases by consecutive odd numbers. With further thinking about the pattern number, he sees that you square one more than the pattern number and subtract 1. It is interesting to see all the stages of the student s thinking. Assessment Task Focused on Abstracting from Computation Multiples of Three This problem gives you the chance to: test statements to see if they are true find examples to match a description explain and justify your conclusions If a number is a multiple of three, its digits add up to a multiple of three.

10 172 DAVID FOSTER

11 12. STUDENTS UNDERSTANDINGS AND MISCONCEPTIONS 173 Assessment Task Focused on Variable and Function ROPE This problem gives you the chance to: Interpret information from a graph The six points on the graph represent pieces of climbing rope. Weight of the rope A B C D E F Length of the rope (a) Which pieces are the same length as rope D? (b) Which have the same weight as rope D? The ropes are made from the same material, but there are 3 different thicknesses: 'Thin' 'Medium' 'Thick' (c) Which points represent 'thin' rope? (d) Which points represent 'thick' rope? Explain how you know. This student illustrates his knowledge of the functional relationship between the length of the rope and the weight of the rope. He is able to identify sets of points corresponding to same weight, same length, and using lines drawn from the origin through sets of points same weight/length ratio.

12 174 DAVID FOSTER Thus he correctly completes parts (a) (d) of the task. To explain how he determined the pairs of points that represent thick, medium and thin pieces of rope, he writes: Assessment Task Focused on Equality Party Flags This problem gives you the chance to: find sizes by interpreting a diagram express a function by a formula 80 centimeters 170 centimeters Erica is putting up lines of colored flags for a party. The flags are all the same size and are spaced equally along the line. 1. Calculate the length of the sides of each flag, and the space between flags. Show all your work clearly. 2. How long will a line of n flags be? Write down a formula to show how long a line of n flags would be. The student uses a visual strategy to make sense of the given information, formulating an algebraic expression and solving for the missing values for the

13 12. STUDENTS UNDERSTANDINGS AND MISCONCEPTIONS 175 space between the flags and their sides. The focus on the physical model also allows the student to generalize a formula for any size string of flags. References [Ball 1999] D. L. Ball, Crossing boundaries to examine the mathematics entailed in elementary teaching, pp in Algebra, K-theory, groups, and education: on the occasion of Hyman Bass s 65th birthday, edited by T. Lam, Contemporary Mathematics 243, Providence, RI: American Mathematical Society, [Carpenter et al. 2003] T. Carpenter, M. Franke, and L. Levi, Thinking mathematically: Integrating arithmetic and algebra in elementary school, Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, [Driscoll 1999] M. Driscoll, Fostering algebraic thinking: A guide for teachers grades 6 10, Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, [Hiebert et al. 1997] J. Hiebert, T. P. Carpenter, E. Fennema, K. Fuson, D. Wearne, H. Murray, A. Olivier, and P. Human, Making sense: Teaching and learning mathematics with understanding, Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, [Kamii and DeClark 1985] C. Kamii and G. DeClark, Young children reinvent arithmetic: Implications of Piaget s theory, New York: Teachers College Press, [Siegler 2003] R. S. Siegler, Implications of cognitive science research for mathematics education, pp in A research companion to Principles and Standards

14 176 DAVID FOSTER for School Mathematics, edited by J. Kilpatrick et al., Reston, VA: National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, 2003.

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