Students start work on solving equations in 6th grade. They work on it in 7th and 8th and into algebra classes in high school and college. Despite this, many struggle at all levels with solving. I have witnessed and heard about this at each level. This post addresses one possible reason, which is the students are not grasping the concepts. This may be due to the way equations are presented. This post unpacks the possible reason and presents a scaffolded handout to unpack the concepts and vocabulary.
Add-on Steps We Teach
The image below shows a earlier scaffolded handout I had used for years. It includes two elements that in my experience are common: referring to the “sides” of the equation, and the vertical orientation of the step with inverses.
I think these are “add-ons” that we teachers incorporate into math. I assume there are advantages and disadvantages for each. In this case, the disadvantages as I see them are a follows.
The term side may be somewhat ambiguous. We use it in the contexts of which side are you on, stand off to the side, side of a building, there are two sides to every story etc. We know this because most of us probably have experienced something like what is shown in the image below left.
The vertical orientation (image above “-1”) does not produce an expression that they have seen before. We are changing the rules of the game and then wonder why they are confused -see another in image below right. (I have used my share of add-ons.)
Explanation of the Handout
I am attempting to wean myself off of the use of add-ons. This handout The handout scaffolds both mental steps and written steps. In addition to the skill based steps, they focus on concepts and vocabulary. Here is a YouTube video showing how it works, shown on a Jamboard accessible using this link. (You have to make a copy to access it.)
The first 5 steps focus on mental steps which are identifying components of the equations using vocabulary. The steps prompt them to write what their thinking is. The example can be presented in “I Do” fashion with think alouds.
The solving steps guide a horizontal orientation. This allows students to focus on the expressions as a whole and not in split-level fashion.
Because the expressions with steps included are horizontally oriented, it is easier for the students to see the expressions as a whole and then simplify them.
The 0 is written and addressed with an additional step to highlight the identity.
I considered adding another step for the students to indicate that the final equation shows the solution.
The second sheet has blank templates. One possibility is that you could assign students problems and they can complete the first 4 on here.
Solving 2-step Equations is an escalation in terms of task demand. Starting in elementary school, they are exposed to math sentences in which there is a single operation. Now they are asked to choose a number to eliminate. This post provides details about a scaffolded handout. It addresses the choice of number to eliminate and how one choice may provide the path of least resistance.
Similar to the handout for solving 1-step equations, this scaffolded handout engages the students with the mental steps in addition to the steps they write out when they show their work. A key concept is identifying that there are two numbers to eliminate and then eliminating them, one at a time.
Choosing the Number
In lieu of teaching the method of doing PEMDAS or order of operations in reverse, I focus on presenting both the respective steps for eliminating either number in the expression with the variable. I believe it strengthens their understanding of the steps for solving and it shows them a reason to choose one route over the other – but they are free to choose! Here is a FB Reel and Youtube video addressing this.
I previously posted scaffolded handouts for solving 1 step linear equations. I added a couple steps to create a new handout. In it I flesh out ALL of the steps, including identifying the inverse, the number to eliminate, simplifying the expressions to get the identity (0 or 1) and then simplifying again to eliminate the identity (see images below).
Here is an introduction to solving equations using a Jamboard (see photo at very bottom for how to make a copy). A seesaw is used to unpack the concept of an equation as two sides that are equivalent. The box is used to unpack the concept of a variable representing an unknown number (or oranges in this context). The form of a solution for an equation is established, with students revising to create other solutions. Here is a YouTube video and a FB Reel showing how it works.
Students are then provided a couple slides to match seesaw representations with actual equations. The matching provides a scaffold to support the connection between representations.
Then the seesaw and box representation is used to unpack the steps. Students are provided the steps as written directions on how to model the given solving steps with the seesaw.
The students are then provided the equation and seesaw representation, along with the solving steps provided as moveable pieces. Students slide pieces and move seesaw objects to make the connection between the two. Here is a link to a post with an updated version of this handout.
Finally, students are given the equation and tasked with completing all of the steps including the initial set up. This slide can be copied with new equations entered for additional practice (including having the variable on the right or writing the number before the variable (e.g., 5+m=8).
I have produced a Beta version of a sequence of algebra 1 videos (up to 1 step equations as of Aug 15, 2021 with more on the way).
My approach is to unpack the concepts before showing the steps so the student understand how the math works. The videos are kept shorter, when possible, and they build on each other.
I will eventually revise many if not most videos based on feedback. Also, I will create a practice worksheet for each. For now I am simply trying to get something out there for the start of the school year. Solving equations is an incredibly important math topic to master and I hope these help.
I am rolling out a series of videos on math topics from middle school and algebra 1. Here is a link to the folder with the accompanying handouts. This post will be updated periodically.
Let me know if your school is covering a topic that is challenging and students would benefit from an alternative presentation. I will see what I can do. The links to the videos are listed below the photo.
In general math is taught by focusing on the steps. Conduct a Google search for solving equations and you will see the steps presented (below). You need a video to help your student understand solving and you typically get a presenter standing at the board talking through the examples. (I’ve posted on my approach to solving equations.)
When the math is taught through the skill approach the student may be able to follow the steps but often does not understand why the steps work (below). The brain wants information to be meaningful in order to process and store it effectively.
To help flesh this situation out consider the definitions of concept and skills (below). Concept: An idea of what something is or how it works – WHY. Skill: “Ability” to execute or perform “tasks” – DOING.
Here is how the concept first approach can play out. One consultation I provided involved an intelligent 10th grader who was perpetually stuck in the basic skills cycle of math (the notion that a student can’t move on without a foundation of basic skills). He was working on worksheet after worksheet on order of operations. I explained down and monthly payments then posed a situation shown at the top of the photo below. I prompted him to figure out the answer on his own. He originally forgot to pay the down-payment but then self-corrected. Then I showed him the “mathy” way of doing the problem. This allowed him to connect the steps in solving with the steps he understood intuitively, e.g. pay the $1,000 down payment first which is why the 1000 is subtracted first. Based on my evaluation the team immediately changed the focus of this math services to support algebra as they realized he was indeed capable of doing higher level math.
First I develop an understanding of a balanced equation vis-a-vis an unbalance equation using the seesaw representation.
I then explain that the same number of guys must be removed from both sides to keep the seesaw balanced.
I then apply the subtraction shown above to show how the box (containing an unknown number of guys) is isolated. I explain that the isolated box represents a solution and that getting the box by itself is called solving.
I use a scaffolded handout to flesh out the “mathy” steps. This would be followed by a regular worksheet.
I extend the solving method using division when there are multiple boxes. I introduce the division by explaining how dividing a Snickers bar results in 2 equal parts. When the boxes are divided I explain both boxes have the same number of guys.
The students are then provided a scaffolded handout followed by a regular worksheet.
This is a meaning making approach to introducing equations. I will walk through the parts shown in the photo in the space below this photo. (A revised edition of this handout will be used in a video on this topic.)
First I explain the difference between an expression (no =) and an equation (has =). An equation is two expressions set equal to each other (21 is an expression).
I then develop the idea of a balanced equation and will refer to both sides of the see saw as a prelude to both sides of the equation. I also focus on the same number of people on both sides as necessary for balance.
At this point I am ready to talk about an unknown. Here is the explanation I use with the photo shown below.
I start with the seesaw at the top. The box has some guys in it but we don’t know how many.
We do notice the seesaw is balanced so both sides are equal.
This means there must be 2 guys in the box.
I follow by prompting the students to figure out how many guys are in the box(es) in the bottom two seesaws.
Finally, I explain that the number of guys in the box is the solution because it makes the seesaw balanced.
There are multiple instructional strategies in play.
Connection to student prior knowledge – they intuitively understand a seesaw. This lays the foundation for the parts of an equation and the concept of equality.
Visual representation that can be recalled while discussing the symbolic representation, e.g. x + 1 = 3
Meaning making which allows for more effective storage and recall of information.
I have posted on how to effectively provide support for current math topics. Here is an example (below) of how support can focus on both the current topic and prerequisite skills.
For example, on the 22nd in this calendar the current topic is solving equations. The steps for solving will include simplifying expressions and may involve integers. The support class can address the concept of equations, simplifying and integers which are all prerequisite skills from prior work in math.
This approach allows for alignment between support and the current curriculum and avoids a situation in which the support class presents as an entirely different math class. For example, I recently encountered a situation in which the support class covered fractions but the work in the general ed classroom involved equations. Yes, equations can have fractions but often they do not and the concepts and skills associated with the steps for solving do not inherently involve fractions.