Order Matters! Learning Order of Operations

By: Mary Kienstra on: September 2, 2014  in: Collaboration, Discussion, Greg Tang math, Marcy Cook math, math engagement, order of operations

Nothing rocks the world of young mathematicians like the order of operations. Just when they are feeling confident with their math facts, the rules change! Now they have to follow a certain order – and it makes no sense to them at all!

I introduce the proper order using PEMDAS as a guide, but there is no substitute for practice when it comes to using the order of operations efficiently. Students need to think about this new rule for solving equations in several different ways, using several kinds of practice.  

When students work with a partner or a small group, they discuss their thinking and gain the support of the peer group.  That support provides the feedback students need to be successful with this new skill.

My favorite website, www.gregtangmath.com has a game called “Expresso” that provides students practice in placing the operators in an equation. Students can play as a group on the SmartBoard in front of the class or on individual devices such as iPads or laptops.  Students love this game and enjoy the immediate feedback that this site provides. Expresso is available in several levels to allow students to progress through the more difficult order of operations problems.



Marcy Cook tiles are another style of practice as students solve complex equations using the order of operations.  The tile problems are difficult – students need to work together to solve these.  Using the tiles is another way to give immediate feedback since the students must fit each tile onto the problem card.  These tiles are engaging, especially when students work together to solve them.


We have a game in my class called “The Curse of the 4’s” where the class works together to create equations using 6 4’s to equal every whole number from 1-100.  I call it the curse because once students get started on this, they don’t want to stop!  The “Happy New Year” game, on the Math Forum website uses the digits in the year (such as 2014) to create equations from 1-100.  These “games” engage students in creating equations using the order of operations in a fun, somewhat competitive way.  We start the year with the Curse of the 4’s and then review the order of operations in January with the Happy New Year game.

Once students embrace the order of operations, they feel like they are part of a secret society of mathematicians who know and understand it!  The key is for students to have many opportunities to practice this new skill in many different ways!  Mix it up, have some fun!  


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