The Order of Operations Explained: Exponents, Multiplication and Addition

This is the 4th in the series The Order of Operations Explained.
For the other articles in this series, click here to visit the introduction.

Division (mathematics)
Image via Wikipedia

The Order of Operations can be boiled down into three “real” operations.

Parenthesis are merely a way to group things – they aren’t a real operation. So they doesn’t count as a real operation.

Since division is really just multiplication turned upside down, we don’t need to include it separately, either. Likewise, subtraction is addition on its ear. So we throw him out, too.

Now we have only three: exponents, multiplication and addition.

Exponents are the shortcut for multiplication.

In a previous article about remembering exponent rules, I recorded this video about exponents:

You see that 3 x 3 x 3 x 3 is 34. The exponent is the shortcut for multiplication.

Multiplication is the shortcut for addition.

Likewise, when we get overwhelmed with adding up the same numbers over and over, like in the video, 4 + 4 + 4 + 4 + 4, we can use multiplication to shortcut it: 5 x 4.

Follow the shortcut evolution.

The shortcut evolution is like this

  1. Addition came first.
  2. Then we created multiplication to make addition easier.
  3. Then we created exponents to make multiplication easier.

So when you do arithmetic, we should do the “recent” shortcuts first (exponents) and then the “older” shortcuts (multiplication) and then the “regular” arithmetic (addition). Remember that subtraction is addition and division is multiplication.

And keep in mind that we need to watch the grouping or anything isolated with parenthesis, absolute value bars or in a fraction. The grouping/isolation tools always trump the other operation rules.

Division (mathematics)
Image via Wikipedia

What if your answer isn’t the same as the back of the book?

Some textbooks actually have multiplication done before division. This means that the problem 9  3 x 2 will show a different answer (3/2) in that textbook’s solution pages than what you would get following the OoO I’m describing here (6). These texts are rare, but I’ve seen them. So keep your eyes peeled.

The Order of Operations is a set of rules that we’ve agreed on. Which means that as long as a textbook clearly defines their order that they will follow, they can do things like this.

If you get confused as to which to do first, demand parenthesis. (Yes, you can do that.) Or put parenthesis into your child’s textbook to help them out.

The problem sets should be there to enforce, not confuse.

What do you think? Does this help or hinder the way you’ve always viewed the Order of Operations? Share your thoughts in the comments.

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