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Understanding Variables

Samantha DiMatteo

Marygrove College

UNDERSTANDIGN VARIABLES 2

understanding of variables and the concept of equivalence I presented

them with the following prompt:

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).

UNDERSTANDIGN VARIABLES 3

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

UNDERSTANDIGN VARIABLES 4

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.

UNDERSTANDIGN VARIABLES 5

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