Math teachers frequently discuss how students forget what the exponent rules actually mean when they make mistakes applying them. The layer of abstraction that these rules lay over the numbers and operations is at fault, of course. The reason we teach the rules is that they show structure that goes beyond the operations. They simplify our work in calculating expressions.
I would much rather a student move back to a method they know rather than blindly apply the rules they don’t. This method, or crutch, is less efficient, but holds more meaning for the student. We dissuade students from crutches like counting on their fingers because they should be able to do the arithmetic in other ways. Building meaning is important, however, and the better approach would be to show how learning the mathematical ideas and structures can simplify the process. In speaking with this student afterwards, it was clear that going back to this method that we used to motivate the rule helped her understand what it meant.
I continued with this approach in reviewing zero and negative exponents today. Of the students that said they knew the rule already, only a couple of them actually applied it correctly before we did this activity. I primed the class with this:
Students worked in groups to apply the rules and rewrite them, and I nudged them gently with using what they saw as motivation for rules about zero and negative exponents. From this, I introduced a new crutch as a way to show what negative exponents mean:
Just as the student wrote out the factors and then divided them out in the problem above, I don’t mind if a student does this as a reminder of what the rule means. I find this much more productive than a simple rule that states that fractions to a negative power simply ‘flip’. Hopefully I’ll see the benefits of this approach moving forward.