Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Two Trains and a Tunnel! Is There Room For This In The Tunnel And In Your Curriculum?

At the same instant of time, trains A and B enter the opposite ends of a tunnel which is 1/5 mile long. Don't worry -- they are on parallel tracks and no collision occurs!

Train A is traveling at 75 mi/hr and is 1/3 mile long.
Train B is traveling at 100 mi/hr and is 1/4 mile long.

When the rear of train B just emerges from the tunnel, in exactly how many more seconds will it take the rear of train A to emerge?

Click on More to see answer (Feed subscribers should see answer immediately).


1. Appropriate for middle schoolers even before algebra? Exactly when are middle schoolers in your district introduced to the fundamental Rate_Time_Distance relationship?
2. What benefits do you think result from tackling this kind of exercise? If it's not going to be tested on your standardized tests, is it worth all the time and effort?
3. How much "trackwork" needs to be laid before students are ready for this level of problem-solving?
4. As an instructional strategy, would you have the problem acted out with models in the room or use actual students to represent the trains and the tunnel? OR just have them draw a diagram and go from there? Do a simulation on the TI-Inspire or TI-84 using graphics and parametric equations for the older students?
5. If you believe there is still a place for this type of problem-solving, should it be given only to the advanced classes and depicted as a math contest challenge?
6. I'm dating myself but I remember seeing problems like this in my old yellow Algebra 2 textbook? Uh, I believe this was B.C. -- before calculators! Can you imagine! Do you recall these kinds of problems? Do you recall the author or publisher?
7. Of course, the proverbial "two trains and tunnel" problems are frequently parodied and used as emblematic of the "old math"! They've been replaced by "real-world" applications. "Progress makes perfect!"


Answer: 9.4 seconds (challenge this if you think I erred!)

...Read more

Thursday, September 24, 2009

More Challenges/SAT Practice, Core Curriculum Standards, Reminders, Comments...

Additional SAT/Contest/Challenges

Challenge 1:


Challenge 2:


Challenge 3:

Jorge can run a 6-minute mile while Alex can run a 5-minute mile. If they start at the same time, how much less distance, in miles, will Jorge run in 10 minutes?

(Yes, you can respond with answers and solutions to these in the comments!)

The Common Core State Standards Initiative
First look here for a quick overview and here for an index to the latest draft of the standards. Of course, this blog only discusses the mathematics part of the document.


The Common Core State Standards Initiative is a joint effort by the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices (NGA Center) and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) in partnership with Achieve, ACT and the College Board. Governors and state commissioners of education from across the country committed to joining a state-led process to develop a common core of state standards in English-language arts and mathematics for grades K-12.

These standards will be research and evidence-based, internationally benchmarked, aligned with college and work expectations and include rigorous content and skills. The NGA Center and CCSSO are coordinating the process to develop these standards and have created an expert validation committee to provide an independent review of the common core state standards, as well as the grade-by-grade standards.


  • Each standard is broken into Core Concepts and Skills, provides research-based evidence and many illustrative examples to clarify the language
  • Alignment of these standards to those of 5 representative states: California, Florida, Georgia, Massachusetts and Minnesota
  • Standards reduce the number of Core Concepts and Skills in accordance with many recommendations to pare down the number of required topics to allow for greater depth
Example of a Standard (Standard 5)

Equations | see evidence
An equation is a statement that two expressions are equal. Solutions to an equation are the values of the variables in it that make it true. If the equation is true for all values of the variables, then we call it an identity; identities are often discovered by manipulating one expression into another.

The solutions of an equation in one variable form a set of numbers; the solutions of an equation in two variables form a set of ordered pairs, which can be graphed in the plane. Equations can be combined into systems to be solved simultaneously.

An equation can be solved by successively transforming it into one or more simpler equations. The process is governed by deductions based on the properties of equality. For example, one can add the same constant to both sides without changing the solutions, but squaring both sides might lead to extraneous solutions. Strategic competence in solving includes looking ahead for productive manipulations and anticipating the nature and number of solutions.

Some equations have no solutions in a given number system, stimulating the formation of expanded number systems (integers, rational numbers, real numbers and complex numbers).

A formula is a type of equation. The same solution techniques used to solve equations can be used to rearrange formulas. For example, the formula for the area of a trapezoid, A = ((b1 + b2)/2) h, can be solved for h using the same deductive process.

Inequalities can be solved in much the same way as equations. Many, but not all, of the properties of equality extend to the solution of inequalities.

Connections to Functions, Coordinates, and Modeling. Equations in two variables may define functions. Asking when two functions have the same value leads to an equation; graphing the two functions allows for the approximate solution of the equation. Equations of lines involve coordinates, and converting verbal descriptions to equations is an essential skill in modeling.

Core Concepts
Students understand that:
  1. An equation is a statement that two expressions are equal.
    see examples

  2. The solutions of an equation are the values of the variables that make the resulting numerical statement true.
    see examples

  3. The steps in solving an equation are guided by understanding and justified by logical reasoning.
    see examples

  4. Equations not solvable in one number system may have solutions in a larger number system.
    see examples

Core Skills
Students can and do:
  1. Understand a problem and formulate an equation to solve it.
    see examples

  2. Solve equations in one variable using manipulations guided by the rules of arithmetic and the properties of equality.
    see examples

  3. Rearrange formulas to isolate a quantity of interest.
    see examples

  4. Solve systems of equations.
    see examples

  5. Solve linear inequalities in one variable and graph the solution set on a number line.
    see examples

  6. Graph the solution set of a linear inequality in two variables on the coordinate plane.
    see examples


Very Important!
(Click on image to see a clearer view)


  1. Exceptionally clear and definitive document
  2. Influenced by NCTM (Curriculum Focal Points), Achieve, College Board, ACT
  3. Illustrative examples are of high quality
  4. Will serve as a basis for states' revisions of current standards hopefully creating more consistency than currently exists
  5. Leaving curriculum to local districts and states was a politically necessary decision, however, in my opinion, developing a reasonably consistent curriculum by grade level and/or course across districts and states from these standards may prove to be difficult and may again lead to considerable disparity. Hopefully, this will be self-correcting when standardized assessments are created as is currently being done with the End of Course Tests from Achieve

Sunday, September 20, 2009

A Practice PSAT/SAT Quiz with Strategies!!

UPDATE #2: Answers to the quiz are now provided at the bottom. If you disagree with any answers or would like clarification, don't hesitate to post a comment or send an email to dmarain "at gmail dot com".

UPDATE: No comments from my faithful readers yet -- I suspect they are giving students a chance to try these! I will post answers on Friday 9-25. However, students or any readers who would like to check their answers against mine need only email me at dmarain "at" gmail "dot" com and I will let them know how they did!

With the SAT/PSAT coming in a few weeks, I thought it would be helpful to your students to try a challenging "quiz". Most of these questions represent the high end level of difficulty and some are intentionally above the level of these tests. Then again, difficulty is very subjective. A student taking Honors Precalculus would have a very different perspective from the student starting Algebra 2!

Also, these questions can also be used to prepare for some math contests such as the THIRD MATHNOTATIONS FREE ONLINE MATH CONTEST! Yes, another shameless plug, but time is running out for your registration...

A Few Reminders For Students

(1) Do not worry about the time these take although I would suggest about 30 minutes. The idea is to try these, then correct mistakes and/or learn methods/strategies. It's what you do after this quiz that will be of most benefit!

(2) I added strategies and comments after the quiz. I suggest trying as many as you can without looking at these. Then go back, read the comments and re-try some. I will not provide answers yet!

(3) Don't forget these problems are copyrighted and cannot be reproduced for commercial use. See the Creative Commons License in the sidebar. Thank you...


1. If n is an even positive integer, how many digits of 1002n - 1002n-2 will be equal to 9 when the expression is expanded?

(A) 2 (B) 4 (C) 8 (E) 2n (E) 2n - 4

2. The sides of a triangle have lengths a, b and c. Let S represent (a+b+c)/2. Which of the following could be true?

I. S is less than c
II. S > c
III. S = c

(A) I only (B) II only (C) I and II only (D) I and III only (E) I, II and III

3. The mean, median and mode of 3 numbers are x, x+1 and x+1 respectively. Which of the following represents the least of the 3 numbers?

(A) x (B) x - 1 (C) x - 2 (D) x-3 (E) 2x - 2

4. (10/√5)500 (1/(2√5))500 = _________

5. A point P(x,y) lies on the graph of the equation x2y2 = 64. If x and y are both integers, how many such points are there?

(A) 4 (B) 8 (C) 16 (D) 32 (E 64

6. Each side of a parallelogram is increased by 50% while the shape is preserved. By what percent is the area of the parallelogram increased? __________


AB is parallel to CD , AB = 3, CD = 5, AD = BC = 4. If segments AD and BC are extended to form a triangle ABE (not shown), what would be the length of AE?

Figure not drawn to scale


1. Most students learn to substitute numbers for n here although it can be done algebraically by factoring. However, the real issue here is figuring out what the question is asking. Reading interpretation - ugh!!

2. When you are not given any information about what type of triangle it is, just choose a few special cases and draw a conclusion. O course, if one recalls a key inequality theorem from geometry, this problem can be done in short order.

3. If you don't feel comfortable setting this up algebraically (preferred method), PLUG IN A VALUE FOR x...

4. Your calculator may not be able to handle the exponent so skills are needed. The large exponent also suggests a Make it Simpler strategy. This is a "Grid-In" question so if one is guessing remember that most answers are simple whole numbers! Finally, if one knows their basic exponent rules and basic radical simplification, none of the above strategies are needed!

5. Possibilities should be listed carefully. It is possible to count these efficiently by recognizing the effect of reversals and signs. Easy to get this one wrong if not careful.

6. For those who do not remember or want to apply a key geometry concept about ratios in similar figures, there are a couple of essential test-taking strategies which all students should be aware of of:
(a) Consider a special case of a parallelogram
(b) choose particular values for the sides.
In the end, even strong students often make a different error, however. That darn ol' percent increase idea!

7. Should you skip this if you have no idea how to start? Absolutely not! Draw a complete diagram and even if you don't recognize the similar triangles, make an educated guess! It's a grid-in and there's no penalty for guessing. Further, answers tend to be positivc integers!!


1. B

2. B

3. C

4. 1

5. C

6. 125

7. 6

...Read more

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Demystifying Per Cent Problems Part II - Using Multiple Representations and an SAT Problem

Have you forgotten to register for MathNotation's Third FREE Online Math Contest coming in mid-October? We already have several schools (from around the world!) registered. For details, link here or check the first item in the right sidebar!!

Before tackling a more challenging problem in the classroom, I would typically begin with one or more simpler examples. My objective was to review essential concepts and skills and demonstrate key ideas in the harder problem. This incremental approach (sometimes referred to as scaffolding) enabled some students to solve the problem or at least get started. Usually within each group of 3-4 students, there was at least one who could help the others. Some groups or classes might still not be ready after one example, so more would be needed. I never felt that this expense of time was too costly since my goal was to develop both skill and understanding.

Consider the following two statements about positive numbers A and B:

(1) A is 80% of B.
(2) A is 20%
less than B .

Are these equivalent, that is, if values of A and B satisfy (1), will they also hold true for (2) and conversely?

How would you get this idea across to your students?

Again, depending on the students, I would often allow them to discuss it first in small groups for two minutes, then open up the discussion.

Note: If the group lacks the skills, confidence or background (note that I left ability out, intentionally!), I might first start with concrete values before giving them the 2 statements above: E.g., What is 80% of 100?

How would I summarize the methods of solution to this question. Here's what I attempted to do in each lesson. I didn't reach everyone but I found from further questioning and subsequent assessment that this multi-pronged approach was more successful than previous methods I had used. Most of these methods came from the students themselves!


I. Choose a particular value for one of the numbers, say B = 100. Ask WHY it makes sense to start with B first and why does it make sense to use 100. Calculate the value of A and discuss.

II. Draw a pie chart (circle graph) showing the relationship between A and B. Stress that B would represent the whole or 100%.

III. Write out the sentence:
80% of B is the same as 100% of B - 20% of B
In other words:
80% of B is the same as 20% less than B.

IV. Express algebraically (as appropriate):
0.8B = 1B - 0.2B

Numerical (concrete values)
Visual (Pie chart)
Verbal (using natural language)

Symbolic (algebra)

Yes, it's Multiple Representations! The Rule of Four!

To me, it's all about accessing different modes of how students process. Call it learning styles, brain-based learning, etc., it still comes down to:

Now for today's challenge.
(Assume all variables represent positive numbers)

M is x% less than P and N is x% less than Q. If MN is 36% less than PQ, what is the value of x?

Can you think of several methods?
I will suggest one of the favorite of many successful students on standardized assessments:

Choose P = 10, Q = 10. Then...

Click on More (subscribers do not need to do this) to see the answer without details.

Answer: x = 20

...Read more

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Demystifying Harder Per Cent Word Problems for Middle Schoolers and SATs - Part I

Example I
40% of the the Freshman Calculus class at Turing University withdrew. If 240 students left, how many were in the class to start?

Solution without explanation or discussion:

0.4x = 240 ⇒ x = 600

Example II
40% of the the Freshman Calculus class at Turing University withdrew. If 240 students were left, how many were in the class to start

Solution without explanation or discussion:

0.6x = 240 ⇒ x = 400

Thinking that the issues in the problems above are more language-dependent than based on learning key mathematics principles or effective methods? I would expect that many would say that using the word "left" in both problems was unnecessarily devious and that clearer language should be used to demonstrate the mathematics here. Perhaps, but when I taught these types of problems I would frequently juxtapose these types of questions and intentionally use such ambiguous language to generate discussion - creating disequilibrium so to speak. If nothing else, the students may become more critical readers! Further, the idea of using similar but contrasting questions is an important heuristic IMO.

Even though I've been a strong advocate for a standardized math curriculum across the grades, I fully understand that the methods used to present this curriculum are even more crucial. Instructional methods and strategies are often unpopular topics because they seem to infringe on individual teacher's style and creativity. BUT we also know that some methods are simply more effective than others in reaching the maximum number of students (who are actually listening and participating!). I firmly believe there are some basic pedagogical principles of teaching math, most of which are already known to and being used by experienced teachers.

Percent word problems are easy for a few and confusing to many because of the wide variety of different types.

Here are brief descriptions of some methods I've developed and used in nearly four decades in the classroom.

I. (See diagram at top of page)
The Pie Chart builds a strong visual model to represent the relationships between the parts and the whole and the "whole equals 100%" concept. How many of you use this or a similar model ? Please share! There's more to teaching this than drawing a picture but some students have told me that the image stays longer in their brain. I learn differently myself but I came to learn the importance of Multiple Representations to reach the maximum number of students.

The latter is generally more powerful once the student is in Prealgebra but, of course, the word "OF" does not appear in every percent so many different variations must be given to students and practiced practiced practiced practiced over time. The first method can be modified as a shortcut in my opinion to find a missing percent and that may be its greatest value. However many middle schoolers use proportions for solving ALL percent problems. I personally do NOT recommend this!

Well, I could expound on each of these methods ad nauseam and bore most of you, but I think I will stop here and open the dialg for anyone who has strong emotions about teaching/learning per cents...

Monday, September 7, 2009

Using Number Theory To Promote Logic and Writing in Middle Schoool and Beyond

The following examples also provide practice for open-ended questions and a view of the Explain or Show type questions on our next Online Math Contest to be held in 5 weeks (see info below). Since formal proof is not the goal here, students are encouraged to write a logical chain of reasoning in which they can use/assume basic knowledge about odd and even integers. Further, these questions strongly suggest the strategies consider a simpler case first and patterning.

Another benefit of these types of questions is to review important terminology and to help students improve reading comprehension, a major obstacle for many youngsters in math class (and everywhere else!). Some middle schoolers and high schoolers will have difficulty making sense out of what the question is asking because of both the wording and the information load in the problem. We need to help them group key phrases together and, yes, I guess that means we are also reading teachers!

Example 1
Is the sum of the squares of the first 2009 positive integer multiples of three odd or even? Explain your reasoning.

Example 2
Is the sum of the squares of the first 2010 positive integer multiples of three odd or even? Explain your reasoning.



MathNotations' Third Online Math Contest is tentatively scheduled for the week of Oct 12-16, a 5-day window to administer the 45-min contest and email the results. As with the previous contest, it will be FREE, up to two teams from a school may register and the focus will be on Geometry, Algebra II and Precalculus. If any public, charter, prep, parochial or homeschool (including international school) is interested, send me an email ASAP to receive registration materials: "dmarain 'at' gmail dot com."
Read Update (4) below!

Updates (Pls Read!!)
(1) The first draft of the contest is now complete.
(2) As with the precious two contests there will be one or two questions which require demonstration, that is, the students will have to derive, explain or prove a statement. This is best done freehand and then scanned as a jpeg image which can be emailed as an attachment along with the official answer sheet. In fact, the entire answer sheet can be scanned but there is information on it that I need to have.
(3) Some of the questions are multipart with the last part requiring more generalization.
(4) Even if you have previously indicated that you wish to participate, please send me another email using the title: THIRD MATHNOTATIONS CONTEST. Please copy and paste that into the title. Also, when sending the email pls include your full name and title (advisor, teacher, supervisor, etc.), the name of your school (indicate if HS or Middle School) and the complete school address. I have accumulated a database of most of the schools which have expressed interest or previously participated but searching through thousands of emails is much easier when the title is the same! If you have already sent me an email this summer or previously participated, pls send me one more if interested in participating again.
(5) Finally, pls let your colleagues from other schools in your area know about this. Spread the word! If you have a blog, pls mention the contest. If you're connected to your local or state math teachers association, pls let them know about this and ask them to post this info on their website if possible.
Note: Sending me the email is not a commitment! It simply means you are interested and will receive a registration form.