Mathematics is about wonder, creativity and fun, so let’s teach it that way

I enjoyed this opinion piece at about project-based instruction in mathematics. A sample quote:

Mathematician Jo Boaler from the Stanford Graduate School of Education says that a “wide gulf between real mathematics and school mathematics is at the heart of the math problems we face in school education.”

Of the subject of mathematics, Boaler notes that: “Students will typically say it is a subject of calculations, procedures, or rules. But when we ask mathematicians what math is, they will say it is the study of patterns that is an aesthetic, creative, and beautiful subject. Why are these descriptions so different?”

She points out the same gulf isn’t seen if people ask students and English-literature professors what literature is about.

In the process of constructing the RabbitMath curriculum, problems or activities are included when team members find them engaging and a challenge to their intellect and imagination. Following the analogy with literature, we call the models we are working with mathematical novels.


A Professor Asked His Students to Write Their Own Exam Questions

I was intrigued by this article in the Chronicle of Higher Education about professors who asked students to write their own exam questions, thus forming a test bank from which the actual exam would be constructed. I’m not sure if I’d try this myself, but it definitely gave me food for thought.

Visualizing Vectors

From the Math Values blog of the Mathematical Association of America:

Anyone who has taught linear algebra knows how easy it is for students to get absorbed in performing matrix computations and memorizing theorems, losing the beauty of the structures in this foundational subject. James Factor and Susan Pustejovsky of Alverno College in Milwaukee, WI, bring back the visual beauty of linear algebra through their NSF-funded project Transforming Linear Algebra Education with GeoGebra Applets.

The applets are freely available in the GeoGebra book Transforming Linear Algebra Education Each topic is packaged with a video to show how the applets work, the applet, and learning activities.

Read more about it here:

Using Rubik’s Cubes to Teach Math

I enjoyed this opinion piece about creative ways to use a Rubik’s cube to engage reluctant students in a mathematics class.

As an added bonus, the article provides a link to You Can Do The Cube, which includes complex mosaics that can be built by arranging one side of multiple Rubik’s cubes, suggesting this as a strategy for getting children hooked on Rubik’s cubes (instead of frustrating novices with the complex task of solving the cube completely).

Expert mathematicians stumped by simple subtractions

This was an interesting psychological article about how the phrasing of a word problem — in particular, adding extra information that has no bearing on the solution — can affect its perception of difficulty. Money quote:

“Sarah has 14 animals: cats and dogs. Mehdi has two cats fewer than Sarah, and as many dogs. How many animals does Mehdi have?”…

“[I]n the problem with animals, we look to calculate the number of dogs that Sarah has, which is impossible, whereas the calculation 14-2 = 12 provides the solution directly,” explains Jean-Pierre Thibaut, a researcher at the University of Bourgogne Franche-Comté. …

“One out of four times, the [professional mathematicians] thought there was no solution to the problem, even though it was of primary school level. And we even showed that the participants who found the solution to the set problems were still influenced by their set-based outlook, because they were slower to solve these problems than the axis problems,” says Gros.

The results highlight the critical impact that knowledge about the world has on the ability to use mathematical reasoning. They show that it is not easy to change perspective when solving a problem. Thus, the researchers argue that teachers need to take this bias into account in math education.

“We see that the way a mathematical problem is formulated has a real impact on performance, including that of experts, and it follows that we can’t reason in a totally abstract manner,” says professor Sander. Educational initiatives are required based on methods that help pupils learn about mathematical abstraction. “We have to detach ourselves from our non-mathematical intuition by working with students in non-intuitive contexts,” concludes Gros.


Learning Math by Seeing It as a Story

I enjoyed this first-person piece about an English teacher who, by grim necessity, found herself thrust in the uncomfortable situation of co-teaching trigonometry and used her training as an English teacher to better engage her students.

Some quotes:

My students struggled with the calculations, thinking they just weren’t good at math. Like me, they hated it. What was the point in working and reworking these calculations? What were we trying to figure out anyway? And I originally agreed with them.

Yet trig slowly became my favorite class of the day. After spending years teaching English and reading, I was being challenged to move beyond what I had always been doing. When you’re new to something, you have a fresh perspective. You’re willing to take risks. You’re willing to try anything because you don’t know how something should be done.


I brought in some books from Chris Ferrie’s Baby University series—books like General Relativity for Babies and Optical Physics for Babies. The idea is that you don’t fully know something unless you can break it down so simply that you can explain it to a young child.

That’s the task I gave my students. We started by reading Ferrie’s board books to see how simple language and illustrations could be used to explain complex subjects. Next, students chose a multistep equation they had initially struggled with. Working in pairs or small groups, they talked through their thinking and the steps needed to solve the equation. Their partners were encouraged to ask questions and get clarification so the ideas were explained at the simplest level.


I used story problems as an opportunity to connect math to students’ lives by creating fictional math-based stories. First, students would work in small groups to go through the chapter in their math textbook and collect the story problems, writing them on index cards. Next, students would lay out the cards to see the questions as a whole: Out of 10 or more story problems in the chapter, were there five similar ones they could group together? What problem-solving skills were called for to work on these problems?

When they used creative writing skills to develop math story problems about things they were interested in, students became more engaged. They wanted to read the other groups’ stories and work on the math in them because they had a real investment in the outcome. The stories helped students find motivation because they created an answer to the question “Why do we need to learn this?”


Veteran teacher shows how achievement gaps in STEM classes can be eliminated

This press release from UC Santa Cruz definitely gave me food for thought about new things to try in my own classes. A few short snippets:

[Professor Tracy Larrabee] uses a three-pronged approach to support underrepresented students in her class.

“The first is that we have had a very diverse teaching staff,” she said. “We have one professor, four TAs and four MSI tutors, and during this time it just happened that of those people, half were female, we always had at least one African American, one Latinx, and one non-gender conforming tutor so that everyone could feel a connection to someone on the teaching staff.”

“Another technique I use is to emphasize failure as the appropriate path to learning,” she said. “Engineering is hard; it’s good to fail the first time you attempt a problem. People who fail at a problem the first time tend to retain things better than those who luck into the right answer.”

Her final tactic is to explicitly discuss stereotype threat. This is the risk that someone (i.e., from an underrepresented minority) might take routine negative experiences as confirmation that they are fundamentally unsuited for something like higher education.

“One of my African American MSI tutors—who are extremely high achieving students selected to provide supplemental tutoring to others—told me it was like having a light bulb go off for him,” Larrabee said. ”Until I discussed the issue in class, he felt like he didn’t belong in this major, but after we talked about stereotypes, he realized it wasn’t that he was unsuited for the material. It was hard for everyone!”

My Favorite One-Liners: Index

I’m doing something that I should have done a long time ago: collecting a series of posts into one single post. The links below show my series on my favorite one-liners.

Mathematical Wisecracks for Almost Any Occasion: Part 2Part 7, Part 8, Part 12, Part 21, Part 28, Part 29, Part 41, Part 46, Part 53, Part 60, Part 63, Part 65, Part 71, Part 79, Part 84, Part 85, Part 100, Part 101Part 108, Part 109, Part 114

All-Purpose Anecdotes: Part 38, Part 50, Part 64, Part 70, Part 92, Part 94

Addressing Misconceptions: Part 3Part 4Part 11, Part 14, Part 15, Part 18, Part 30, Part 32, Part 33, Part 37, Part 45, Part 59

Tricky Steps in a Calculation: Part 5, Part 6

Greek alphabet and choice of variables: Part 40, Part 43, Part 56

Homework and exams: Part 39Part 47, Part 55, Part 57, Part 58, Part 66, Part 77, Part 78, Part 91, Part 96, Part 97, Part 107

Inequalities: Part 99

Simplification: Part 10, Part 102, Part 103

Polynomials: Part 19, Part 48, Part 49, Part 81, Part 90

Inverses: Part 16

Exponential and Logarithmic Functions: Part 1, Part 42, Part 68, Part 80, Part 110

Trigonometry: Part 9, Part 69, Part 76, Part 106

Complex numbers: Part 54, Part 67, Part 86, Part 112, Part 113

Sequences and Series: Part 20, Part 35, Part 111

Combinatorics: Part 27

Statistics: Part 22, Part 23, Part 36, Part 51, Part 52, Part 61, Part 95

Probability: Part 26, Part 31, Part 62, Part 93

Calculus: Part 24, Part 25, Part 72, Part 73, Part 74, Part 75, Part 83, Part 87, Part 88, Part 104

Logic and Proofs: Part 13, Part 17Part 34, Part 44, Part 89, Part 98

Differential Equations: Part 82, Part 105










Engaging students: Defining a function of one variable

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 Phuong Trinh. Her topic, from Algebra: defining a function of one variable.

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How have different cultures throughout time used this topic in their society?

The understanding of functions is crucial in the study of both math and science. Not only that, some functions, especially function with one variable, are often used by everyone in their daily life.  For example, a person wants to buy some cookies and a cake. The person will need to figure how much it will cost them to buy a cake and however many cookies they want. If the cost of the cake is $12, and the price for each cookie is $1.50, the person can set up a function of one variable to find the total cost for any number of cookies, expressed as c. The function can be written as f(c) = 1.50c + 12. With this function, the person can substitute any number of cookies and find out how much they would spend for the cookies and cake. Aside from the situation given by this example, function with one variable can also be used in various different scenarios.

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What interesting (i.e., uncontrived) word problems using this topic can your students do now? (You may find resources such as to be very helpful in this regard; feel free to suggest others.)

Function with one variable can be used in many real life situations. Word problems can be derived from every day scenarios that the students can relate to.

Problem 1: John is transferring his homework files into his flash drive. This is the formula for the size of the files on John’s drive S (measured in megabytes) as a function of time t (measured in seconds): S (t) = 3t + 25

How many megabytes are there in the drive after 10 seconds?

This problem allows the students to get familiar with the function notation as well as letting the students work with a different variable other than x.

Problem 2: (Found at )

“A car rental charge is $100 per day plus $0.30 per mile travelled. Determine the equation of the line that represents the daily cost by the number of miles travelled and graph it. If a total of 300 miles was travelled in one day, how much is the rental company going to receive as a payment?”

Besides giving the students practice with finding a solution from a function, this problem let the students practice setting up the equation. This also shows the students’ understanding of the subject.


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

There are multiple resources that can be used to help the students understand what a function is as well as how they should approach a problem with function. One of the resources can be found at The layout of the website makes it easy to locate the topic of “Functions” under the “Algebra” tab. By comparing a function with a box, Coolmath defines a function in a way that can be easily understood by students, while also showing how a function can be thought of as visually. The site also provides the explanation for function notation with visuals and examples that are easy to understand. On Coolmath, the students will also have the chance to practice with randomly generated questions. They can also check their answers afterward. On other hands, the site also provides definitions and explanations to other ideas such as domain and range, vertical line tests, etc. Overall, is great to learn for students in and out of the classroom, as well as before and after the lesson.




“Linear Function Word Problems.” Inicio,

“Welcome to Coolmath.” Cool Math – Free Online Cool Math Lessons, Cool Math Games & Apps, Fun Math Activities, Pre-Algebra, Algebra, Precalculus,






Engaging students: Finding x- and y-intercepts

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 comes from my former student Lissette Molina. Her topic, from Algebra: finding x- and y-intercepts.

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

Using this topic, students can now use word problems that involve two variables in our everyday lives. One problem that many scientists often use is population growth. In population growth, we can usually see a trend of a line and determine the slope. We initially begin with a certain population in a certain year, this is considered the y-intercept, since we start at the initial year that we consider to be at x=0. Using the slope of the line when we are speaking in terms of population decay, we may then set our y=0 to find when a population would be equal to zero. We can also consider other examples such as the depreciation of a car, or when a business’s grows out of debt and begins to profit. Word problems include, but are not limited to, problems that involve a trend and wanting to find where that trend will lead to at a certain point, x, when we are given an initially amount or reverse this operation.


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

This topic crosses multiple courses in mathematics. In general, knowing the x and y-intercepts of equations help students start outlining what the graph of the function might look like. This gives part of the visual representation needed to complete part of the graph. These intercepts usually also give a prediction of what the shape of the graph may look like. A fun assignment would be giving a student two points on the graph and along with the intercepts of that equation that the points belong to. Along with this, these intercepts give us the solutions of the equations. When there are not x or y-intercepts, we would now know that the solutions do not exist or at least are imaginary. Overall, x and y-intercepts help us get a better understanding of what the graphs of almost all equations must look like. This is essentially especially when we are graphing by hand.

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How can technology be used to effectively engage students with this topic?


Graphing calculators is one fun essential way of finding intercepts as well as learning functions on a calculator. When a student graphs a function on a graphing calculator, for example, the sine function, we can ask the student where they believe the graph would intercept with the x-axis. We would then ask them to find the intercepts using the calculator by pressing [2nd][trace][4] function and proceed to find the approximated x-intercepts. The student would then find that the intercepts occur at every npi/2. Essentially, using this function is an interesting way of estimating the intercepts along the graph in an interactive way. Other online graphing calculators may do this as well and give students a better understanding of where the intercepts occur.