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Module 2 Application Assignment

Understanding Variables

Samantha DiMatteo

Marygrove College

In order to gain some perspective as to my students current

understanding of variables and the concept of equivalence I presented
them with the following prompt:

Is x + y + z = x + w + z always, sometimes, or never true?

Knuth, Alibali, Hattikudur, McNeil and Stehpens article (2008) state,

Helping students acquire a view of the equal sign as a symbol that
represents an equivalence relation between two quantities may, in
turn, help prepare them for success in algebra (and beyond) (p. 518).
Out of the twenty-three students that completed this question 12
responded that this statement is never true, 9 stated that this equation
would sometimes hold true, and 2 felt that it would always be a true. I
was surprised that the majority of my students felt that this equation
could never be true. However, as Stephens (2005) explains, the
values of c and r can in fact be equivalent is a mathematical
convention, not a notion that is intuitively obvious (p. 97). An
understanding of the fact that different variables can represent the
same value is therefore a mathematical perspective that needs to be
developed. Prompts that help students gain insight into this idea is an
ideal way to help them comprehend the role variables can play in
mathematics. Therefore,this prompt was followed by a prompt that
was designed to help my students develop a stronger understanding of
variables. It read as follows:

Tommys dog just had 12 puppies. The puppies enjoy running out of the house to
play in the back yard. When they are thirsty they come back inside to get a drink of
water. Show all of the possible scenarios as to where the 12 puppies could be
located at any given time (either in the house or in the backyard).

I chose to design this problem with a total of 12 puppies to allow

for a scenario in which 6 puppies were inside of the house while 6
puppies were outside in the yard. Having an even number of puppies
to distribute can help students recognize the possibility that there can
be the same number of puppies inside as there are outside. This can
help them to visualize the concept that two separate variables can
have the same value. This idea is a fundamental component of
algebra and thus its mastery is essential.
A class discussion followed in which students shared their
methods for identifying the solution to this problem. Driscoll (1999)
states, 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 functional rules (p. 2). The majority
of the class approached this problem using a table, other methods
included drawing a picture, creating a graph, and making an equation.
Five of the twenty-three students in my classroom answered this
question incorrectly. These students did not create an organized list,
nor did they attempt to make a graph or an equation to represent the
data. The students that were the most successful with outlining all
possible solutions to the problem resorted to a table of values or an
equation. Van de Walle, Karp and Bay-Williams (2013) explain,
algebraic thinking is composed of different forms of thought and an
understanding of symbols (p. 259). As a class we briefly discussed
each method but spent a substantial amount of time discussing the
idea of representing this problem using variables: h+ y =12 (Puppies
in the house + puppies in the yard = the total amount of puppies).
Stephens (2005) explains, instead of providing students opportunities
to practice manipulating terms and solving for unknowns, teachers
should encourage students to view variables as shorthand tools for
expressing already-understood ideas about varying quantities (p. 96).
From here we discussed all of the possibilities that could occur, and

expressed them numerically (i.e. 0+12=12, 1+11=12,2+10=12, etc.).

The class agreed that there were 13 ways in which the puppies could
be arranged. The following day, at the start of class I reissued the
same question that I had given at the beginning of class the day before
(Is x + y + z = x + w + z always, sometimes, or never true?). Before
my students answered the prompt for a second time I explained that
they had the option of sticking with their original answer or changing
to an answer that they felt was more appropriate. After tallying the
results I learned that of the 23 students that participated only two
students stated that x+y+z=x+w+z is never true and the remaining
21 students explained that they felt that this equation would
sometimes hold true.
The results of this activity validate the importance of providing
students with opportunities to explore problems that ago beyond rote
recall and simple regurgitation of facts. Stephens (2008) states,
Rather then simple being asked to memorize this information,
however, students should engage in problem situations that support
the adoption of this convention (p. 97). To ensure our students
success with understanding topics such as variables we need to take
the time to develop questions that go beyond solving for unknown
values but rather create problems that foster understanding.
Furthermore, teachers should frequently use such questions to survey
their students understanding and use the feedback from these
questions to help to address common misconceptions as well as
appropriately design future lessons.


Driscoll, M. J. (1999). Fostering algebraic thinking: A guide for

teachers, grades 6-10. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Knuth, E. J., Alibali, M. W., Hattikudur, S., McNeil, N. M., &

Stephens, A. C. (2008). The importance of equal sign understanding in

the middle grades. Mathematics Teaching in the Middle School, 13(9),


Stephens, A. C. (2005). Developing students understandings of

variable. Mathematics Teaching in the Middle School, 11(2), 96-100.

Van de Walle, J. A., Karp, K. S., & Bay-Williams, J. M. (2013).

Elementary and middle school mathematics methods: Teaching

developmentally (8 th ed.). Pearson: Boston.

Vennebush, G. P., Marquez, E., & Larsen, J. (2005). Embedding

algebraic thinking throughout the mathematics curriculum.


Mathematics Teaching in the Middle School, 11(2), 86-93.