What comes to mind when you think about the equal sign in mathematics? Chances are, you’ve never been asked that before. After all, isn’t that obvious? As adults it’s easy to assume that our students fully understand what this symbol signifies. However studies show that many students have a misconception when it comes to its meaning.
For a lot of children the equal sign is a signal for “here comes the answer” instead of viewing it as a symbol of a relationship. They believe it is a sign to carry out a calculation from left to right. For example, a problem like 8+2=__+6 is answered in the following manner: 8+2=10+6, instead of the correct answer of 8+2=4+6. Many students will even tack on an extra equal sign so that the problem now reads 8+2=10+6=16.
This misconception, according to researchers at Texas A&M University, can inhibit a student’s mathematical achievement. According to their research, students who exhibit the correct understanding of the equal sign show the greatest achievement in mathematics and persist in fields that require mathematic proficiency like engineering (Capraro & Capraro 2010).
With the increase need for qualified STEM workers it is imperative that we as educators be aware of these common misconceptions, and try to stop them before they occur. How we communicate in our teaching of mathematics can either help or hinder our students as they begin to develop mathematical thinking.
Tips for tackling misconceptions about the equal sign include:
Be aware of the language used when introducing the equal sign: Using the phrase “is equal to” or “is the same as” when referring to the equal sign and avoiding words like “makes” or “gives” helps to emphasize the equality nature of the symbol.
Give opportunities early on for the students to see the equal sign used in a variety of contexts: For example, use fact families to illustrate its correct use by saying “2+3 is the same as 3+2” when showing 2+3=3+2 on the board. Giving students opportunities beyond 4+5=9, 6+6=12, 2+3=5, and so forth demonstrates more conceptually the relational meaning of the equal sign, and that it is not always meant as a signal to add two numbers together.