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.

One of the techniques commonly taught in Algebra II or Precalculus is the Rational Root Test, which is a way of making a list of candidates of rational numbers that might (emphasis, might) be roots of the polynomial. This is a commonly taught method for finding the roots of polynomials whose degree is higher than 3. (Other techniques that are typically taught to students are Descartes’ Rule of Signs and (less commonly) the Upper and Lower Bound Rules.) For example, for the polynomial .

The factors of the constant term are and , and so the numerator of any rational root must be one of these numbers.

The factors of the leading coefficient are and , and so the denominator of any rational root must be one of these numbers.

In conclusion, if there’s a rational root, then it’s and . In other words, we have a list of 16 possible rational roots. Not all of them will be roots, of course, since the cubic polynomial only has at most three distinct roots. Also, there’s no guarantee that any of them will be roots. The only way to find out if any of them work is by testing them, usually using synthetic division.

So, after a practice problem or two, I’ll ask my students,

What guarantee do you have that at least one of the possible rational roots will actually work?

After letting them think for a few seconds, I give them the answer:

The benevolence of your instructor.

In other words, there is no guarantee that any of the possible rational roots will actually work, except that the instructor (or author of the textbook) has rigged things so that it happens.

I'm a Professor of Mathematics and a University Distinguished Teaching Professor at the University of North Texas. For eight years, I was co-director of Teach North Texas, UNT's program for preparing secondary teachers of mathematics and science.
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