Physics KS3/KS4: The importance of checking mathematical answers

In this short video Professor Brian Cox serves a useful reminder to students to always use common sense and check that any mathematical answers seem reasonable.

The context used in the film is to consider that if you calculated that you walk at a speed of 10,000 metres per minute, does that seem reasonable? And if it does not, to go back and check your calculations.

Teachers and examiners know that students often fail to make this essential, final sense check and that they often find such reasoned judgements difficult to make.

This basic message of this video is widely applicable, and not limited to speed or to physics. It is just as valid wherever calculations are made, for example in biology, chemistry, maths or design & technology.

Teacher Notes

Points for discussion:
When carrying out calculations, students often just ‘plug in’ numbers and generate an answer without engaging with the calculation and answer to check that it seems reasonable.

Encouraging students to include this sense check as an essential step in any calculation, will be extremely beneficial in identifying and correcting errors and developing confidence with the calculations.

Suggested activities:
This video follows on well from clip 3 in this collection, which introduces the speed equation.

This video could be used to stimulate discussion about typical speeds for walking, running, cycling, driving, etc, and to support students’ general knowledge around those values.

Students could be given answers to calculations linked to the speed equation and asked to say whether or not they appear reasonable, and if not, to identify the mistake.

Alternatively, students could be given with calculations with missing units and asked to suggest the most appropriate element, for example, metres or kilometres, minutes or seconds.

The principle of sense-checking answers is valid for all sciences where calculations are made.

Curriculum Notes

Suitable for KS3, Combined Science and Separate Sciences GCSE in England, Wales and Northern Ireland and at National 4 and 5 in Scotland (also relevant wherever calculations are carried out).

More from this series:

Newton’s First Law
Hooke’s Law
An introduction to the speed equation
Average speed
Relative speed