*Nothing makes the heart of a reluctant mathematician sink like an algebra question.*

Algebra is supposed to make life easier. By learning a formula or an equation, you can solve any similar type of problem whatever the numbers involved. However, an awful lot of students find it difficult, because letters just don’t seem to ‘mean’ as much as numbers. Here, we’ll try to make life a bit easier…

*Gathering terms*

X’s and y’s look a bit meaningless, but that’s the point. They can stand for anything. The simplest form of question you’ll have to answer is one that involves gathering your terms. That just means counting how many variables or unknowns you have (like x and y). I like to think of them as pieces of fruit, so an expression like…

2x + 3y – x + y

…just means ‘take away one apple from two apples and add one banana to three more bananas’. That leaves you with one apple and four bananas, or…

x + 4y

Here are a few practice questions:

- 3x + 4y – 2x + y
- 2m + 3m – 2n + 3n
- p + 2q + 3p – 3q
- 2a – 4b + a + 4b
- x + y – 2x + 2y

*Multiplying out brackets*

This is one of the commonest types of question. All you need to do is write down the same expression without the brackets. To take a simple example:

2(x + 3)

In this case, all you need to do is multiply everything inside the brackets by the number outside, which is 2, but what do we do about the ‘+’ sign? We could just multiply 2 by x, write down ‘+’ and then multiply 2 by 3:

2x + 6

However, that gets us into trouble if we have to subtract one expression in brackets from another (see below for explanation) – so it’s better to think of the ‘+’ sign as belonging to the 3. In other words, you multiply 2 by x and then 2 by +3. Once you’ve done that, you just convert the ‘+’ sign back to an operator. It gives exactly the same result, but it will work ALL the time rather than just with simple sums!

Here are a few practice questions:

- 2(a + 5)
- 3(y + 2)
- 6(3 + b)
- 3(a – 3)
- 4(3 – p)

*Solving for x*

Another common type of question involves finding out what x stands for (or y or z or any other letter). The easiest way to look at this kind of equation is using fruit again. In the old days, scales in a grocery shop sometimes had a bowl on one side and a place to put weights on the other. To weigh fruit, you just needed to make sure that the weights and the fruit balanced and then add up all the weights. The point is that every equation always has to balance – the very word ‘equation’ comes from ‘equal’ – so you have to make sure that anything you do to one side you also have to do to the other.

There are three main types of operation you need to do in the following order:

- Multiplying out any brackets
- Adding or subtracting
- Multiplying or dividing

Once you’ve multiplied out any brackets (see above), what you want to do is to simplify the equation by removing one expression at a time until you end up with something that says x = The Answer. It’s easier to start with adding and subtracting and then multiply or divide afterwards (followed by any square roots). To take the same example as before:

2(x + 3) = 8

Multiplying out the brackets gives us:

2x + 6 = 8

Subtracting 6 from both sides gives us:

2x = 2

Dividing both sides by 2 gives us the final answer:

x = 1

Simple!

Here are a few practice questions:

- b + 5 = 9
- 3y = 9
- 6(4 + c) = 36
- 3(a – 2) = 24
- 4(3 – p) = -8

*Multiplying two expressions in brackets*

When you have to multiply something in brackets by something else in brackets, you should use what’s called the ‘FOIL’ method. FOIL is an acronym that stands for:

First

Outside

Inside

Last

This is simply a good way to remember the order in which to multiply the terms, so we start with the first terms in each bracket, then move on to the outside terms in the whole expression, then the terms in the middle and finally the last terms in each bracket. Just make sure that you use the same trick we saw earlier, combining the operators with the numbers and letters before multiplying them together. For example:

(a + 1)(a + 2)

First we multiply the first terms in each bracket:

a x a

…then the outside terms:

a x +2

…then the inside terms:

+1 x a

…and finally the last terms in each bracket:

+1 x +2

Put it all together and simplify:

(a + 1)(a + 2)

= a² + 2a + a + 2

=a² + 3a + 2

Here are a few practice questions:

- (a + 1)(b + 2)
- (a – 1)(a + 2)
- (b + 1)(a – 2)
- (p – 1)(q + 2)
- (y + 1)(y – 3)

*Subtracting one expression from another**

Here’s the reason why we don’t just write down operators as we come across them. Here’s a simple expression we need to simplify:

20 – 4(x – 3) = 16

If we use the ‘wrong’ method, then we get the following answer:

20 – 4(x – 3) = 16

20 – 4x – 12 = 16

8 – 4x = 16

4x = -8

x = -2

Now, if we plug our answer for x back into the original equation, it doesn’t balance:

20 – 4(-2 – 3) = 16

20 – 4 x -5 = 16

20 – -20 = 16

40 = 16!!

That’s why we have to use the other method, treating the operator as a negative or positive sign to be added to the number before we multiply it by whatever’s outside the brackets:

20 – 4(x – 3) = 16

20 – 4x + 12 = 16

32 – 4x = 16

4x = 16

x = 4

That makes much more sense, as we can see:

20 – 4(4 – 3) = 16

20 – 4 x 1 = 16

20 – 4 = 16

16 = 16

Thank Goodness for that!

Here are a few practice questions:

- 30 – 3(p – 1) = 0
- 20 – 3(a – 3) = 5
- 12 – 4(x – 2) = 4
- 24 – 6(x – 3) = 6
- 0 – 6(x – 2) = -12

*Other tips to remember*

- If you have just one variable, leave out the number 1, eg 1x is just written as x.
- When you have to multiply a number by a letter, leave out the times sign, eg 2 x p is written as 2p.
- The squared symbol only relates to the number or letter immediately before it, eg 3m² means 3 x m x m, NOT (3 x m) x (3 x m).