Engaging students: Factoring polynomials

In my capstone class for future secondary math teachers, I ask my students to come up with ideas for engaging their students with different topics in the secondary mathematics curriculum. In other words, the point of the assignment was not to devise a full-blown lesson plan on this topic. Instead, I asked my students to think about three different ways of getting their students interested in the topic in the first place.

I plan to share some of the best of these ideas on this blog (after asking my students’ permission, of course).

This student submission again comes from my former student Banner Tuerck. His topic, from Algebra: factoring polynomials.

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A1. What interesting (i.e., uncontrived) word problems using this topic can your students do now?

In relation to a specific case one can generate a word problem well within their students reach by relating the factors of a said quadratic polynomial to the length and width of a rectangle or perfect square. Many online resources, such as http://www.purplemath.com/, offer diverse and elaborate examples one could use in order to facilitate this concept. Nevertheless, this way of viewing a factored polynomial may appear more comfortable to a class because it is applying the students preexisting knowledge of area to the new algebraic expressions and equations. Furthermore, it has been my experience that geometric activities interrelating algebra aid in straying students away from ignoring the variable in an expression as a value.

A garden measuring 12 meters by 16 meters is to have a pedestrian pathway installed all around it, increasing the total area to 285 square meters. What will be the width of the pathway?


The above problem is a prime example pulled from the Purple Math website one could use to illustrate a physical situation in which we need to actually determine the factors in order to formulate a quadratic expression to solve for the width. It should be noted that some of these particular word problems can quickly fall into a lesson relating more towards distributing and foiling factors to form an expanded form equation. However, as an instructor one can easily work backwards from an expanded equation to interpret what the factored form can tell us, say about the garden with respect to the example given above.


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B1. How can this topic be used in your students’ future courses in mathematics or science?

Factoring polynomials allows students to further comprehend the properties of these expressions before they are later applied as functions in areas such as mathematics and physics. For example, projectile motion stands as a great real world topic capable of enlightening students further on the factors of the polynomial. Specifically, how these factors come about geometrically and how knowing their role will benefit our understanding of the functions potential real world meaning. Lastly, factoring polynomials and evaluating them as roots during middle and high school mathematics will definitely be used when students approach college level calculus courses in relation to indefinite and definite integrals. The previous are just a few examples of how factoring polynomials plays a role in students’ future courses.


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How can technology (YouTube, Khan Academy [khanacademy.org], Vi Hart, Geometers Sketchpad, graphing calculators, etc.) be used to effectively engage students with this topic?

Doing a simple YouTube search of the phrase “factoring polynomials” allows anyone access to nearly 57,000 videos of various tutors, instructors, and professors discussing factoring and distributing respectfully. I would say that future generations will definitely not be without resources. That is not even to mention the revolutionary computation website that is www.wolframalpha.com. This website in and of itself will allow so many individuals to see various forms of a factored polynomial, as well as the graph, roots (given from factors), domain, range, etc. Essentially, computation websites like Wolfram Alpha are intended to allow students the opportunity to discover properties, relationships, and patterns independently. However, there is a potential risk for such websites to become a crutch the students use in order to get good grades as opposed to furthering their understanding. Similarly, with the advancing technology of graphing calculators students will become more engaged when discussing polynomial factorization for the first time in class. Many modern calculators have the ability to identify roots, give a table of coordinates, trace graphs, etc. Some even have a LCD screen or a backlit display to aid in viewing various graphs. Although, just as with computation engines, calculators could potentially distract students from thinking about their problem solving method by them just letting the calculator take over the calculation process. Therefore, I would suggest using caution regarding how soon calculators are introduced when initially engaging a class in factoring polynomials.










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  1. The whole purpose of factoring quadratics with integer coefficients by inspection methods is not to get the answer, but to develop observation (and make use of) structure. This is not easy to motivate except for the already converted!
    I sometimes think that this is best left till last, after “plot the graph”, “complete the square”, “find and use the formula” and “use a computer”. These egt ” the answer”, which initially is the important thing,

    • I must confess that I’ve never thought of waiting so long before introducing factoring quadratics with integer coefficients. It’s certainly an interesting pedagogical idea, and I can see it working in the hands of a skilled teacher.


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