This week, we asked Pre-Algebra students to solve a problem that turned out to be really tough. Students were asked to think about scoring in a game used to practice place value skills in the context of scientific notation. We used some examples to illustrate how the scoring worked, and many students used the examples to start teaching themselves place value in scientific notation.

It was pretty awesome to have a window into how students interpreted the examples we gave. Some students were able to make sense of what was happening. Other students got correct answers, but some of their words made me wonder if they were getting the right answer without really understanding what was going on. And some students saw things in the examples that I never would have thought of… that might lead to problems down the road! The whole experience could be a microcosm of what students see when teachers work out examples on the board.

Here are the examples we gave:

If a card contains the number 3.38 x 10^14 and Mrs. Nasamy picks an 8, the card is worth 8 x 10^12 points. If she picks a 3, it’s worth 3.3 x 10^14 points since 3 appears in two places, you must add both values:(3 x 10^14) + (3 x 10^13) = (3.3 x 10^14) points

We include this example so you can think about how the game is played when the digit pulled appears in more than one place; note that the process would be the same if the digit appeared on two different cards.

And here are some ways students interpreted those examples:

Student 1 thinks about how the exponent and place value of the target digit are manipulated together:

When the 3.38×10^14 card was there the next time they showed it had gone from 3.38×10^14 to 8×10^12. It was like this because you cross out everything but the number pulled. If the number pulled is the first in back of the decimal the exponent needs to take 1 away. If it is the second back you do the same thing but take two away from the exponent.

Student 2 has an AHA! moment relating to the distributive property:

first off, i had to do a lot of time figuring out what the question is. it took me a while, but an AHA! was when i realized that these cards were like three #’s in sci. notation mashed together for example, (1.92×10^9) is (1×10^9)+(9×10^8)+(2×10^7). and if a 2 is pulled, your points are (2×10^7).

Student 3 provides a third example to check his/her understanding:

my interpretation of the problem is this. The teacher pick a card between 1 and 9. Whatever number she draws, you find the number in your scientific notation. for example, if she drew a 7, and one of your notations was 7.37 X 10^

^{3}, it would turn into 7.07 X 10^^{3}. then you would solve the exponent, which is 10^^{3}, and that is 1,000. Now your problem is simply 7.07 X 1,000. When you solve that simple multiplication problem, you get 7,070. That is your answer for that card.

Student 4 applies the examples to the main problem, finding the point score if Ms. Nasamy pulls an 9 and you have cards with 1.92 x 10^9 and 6.59 x 10^8. I am not sure if Student 4 has a misconception or not, because they do eventually come to the correct answer, however, I suspect something’s wrong after very careful reading:

I…started with 1.92*10^9. I then need to cross out the place values that aren’t 9, like the example showed us. Now the problem is 0.9*10^10. The exponent changed because I took the 0.02 place value away. Now, since there are 10 zeros instead of 9, the exponent changes to 10. To solve the problem, I first calculated 10^10, which is 10,000,000,000. Then I did 10,000,000,000*9, which is 90,000,000,000. Then I did the last one which is 6.59*10^8. Next I used the same process for the last card and changed the problem to 0.09*10^8. The exponent didn’t change because the 0.09 is the last place value there. After that, I did the same process as the first card and and solved the problem. I ended up with 900,000,000. Then I added the points together and got 90,900,000,000. I then converted that number into a decimal. I did that by counting the number of place value zeros and the turning that number into the exponent next to ten. I got 9.09*10^8.