My Favorite One-Liners: Part 32

In this series, I’m compiling some of the quips and one-liners that I’ll use with my students to hopefully make my lessons more memorable for them. Today’s story is a continuation of yesterday’s post. I call today’s one-liner “Method #1… Method #2.”

Every once in a while, I want my students to figure out that there’s a clever way to do a problem that will save them a lot of time, and they need to think of it.

For example, in Algebra II, Precalculus, or Probability, I might introduce the binomial coefficients to my students, show them the formula for computing them and how they’re related to combinatorics and to Pascal’s triangle, and then ask them to compute \displaystyle {100 \choose 3}. We write down

\displaystyle {100 \choose 3} = \displaystyle \frac{100!}{3!(100-3)!} = \displaystyle \frac{100!}{3! \times 97!}

So this fraction needs to be simplified. So I’ll dramatically announce:

Method #1: Multiply out the top and the bottom.

This produces the desired groans from my students. If possible, then I list other available but undesirable ways of solving the problem.

Method #2: Figure out the 100th row of Pascal’s triangle.

Method #3: List out all of the ways of getting 3 successes in 100 trials.

All of this gets the point across: there’s got to be an easier way to do this. So, finally, I’ll get to what I really want my students to do:

Method #4: Write 100! = 100 \times 99 \times 98 \times  97!, and cancel.

The point of this bit of showman’s patter is to get my students to think about what they should do next as opposed to blindly embarking in a laborious calculation.

green line

As another example, consider the following problem from Algebra II/Precalculus: “Show that x-1 is a factor of f(x)=x^{78} - 4 x^{37} + 2 x^{15} + 1.”

As I’m writing down the problem on the board, someone will usually call out nervously, “Are you sure you mean x^{78}?” Yes, I’m sure.

“So,” I announce, “how are we going to solve the problem?”

Method #1: Use synthetic division.

Then I’ll make a point of what it would take to write down the procedure of synthetic division for this polynomial of degree 78.

Method #2: (As my students anticipate the real way of doing the problem) Use long division.

Understanding laughter ensures. Eventually, I tell my students — or, sometimes, my students will tell me:

Method #3: Calculate f(1).


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