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.

Here’s a typical problem that arises in Algebra II or Precalculus:

Find all solutions of .

There is a formula for solving such quartic equations, but it’s very long and nasty and hence is not typically taught in high school. Instead, the one trick that’s typically taught is the Rational Root Test: if there’s a rational root of the above equation, then (when written in lowest terms) the numerator must be a factor of (the constant term), while the denominator must be a factor of (the leading coefficient). So, using the rational root test, we conclude

Possible rational roots =

.

Before blindly using synthetic division to see if any of these actually work, I’ll try to address a few possible misconceptions that students might have. One misconception is that there’s some kind of guarantee that one of these possible rational roots will actually work. Here’s another: students might think that we haven’t made much progress toward finding the solutions… after all, we might have to try synthetic division 24 times before finding a rational root. So, to convince my students that we actually have made real progress toward finding the answer, I’ll tell them:

Yes, 24 is a lot\dots but it’s better than infinity.

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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