Unpacking the Inequality Symbols

I have found that many students I have taught, including in college, struggle with the inequality symbols. Typically, they cannot remember which symbol is less than or greater than despite various efforts such as the “alligator eats the bigger number” method.

I’ve found traction by using the dot method. It is like a light bulb clicking on for many of the students. I believe the reason is works is that it explicitly addresses the shape. Here’s the approach.

  • Show them an inequality statement
  • Tell them to think of the end points as dots.
  • Draw the dots.
  • Ask, “which number is bigger?”
  • Point out that the bigger number has more dots.
  • Show them two numbers, say 4 and 6.
  • Ask which is bigger?
  • Draw two dots for the 6 because the bigger number gets two dots.
  • Draw one for the 4.
  • Finally, draw the symbol.

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