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Algebra - Basics, Concepts, Examples, Practice

Algebra - Basics, Concepts, Examples, Practice

Ah, algebra… This is a real milestone in a math student’s journey. One day you’re practicing times tables, and the next? There are letters now?!

But there’s no need to panic (really!). We’re here to make sure that, with a little background information and a willingness to learn, you can embark on this algebraic adventure calmly and confidently.

Roll your shoulders back, unclench your jaw, and let’s get started!

Students learning algebra math

So, what is algebra?

Essentially, algebra is operations and relationships of variables.

Basic operations are what you already know and love – addition, subtraction, multiplication, division – but there are also more complicated operations like exponentiation, taking roots, and more.

Relations are just the connections between two elements, whatever they are. For example, two elements can be equal, one can be greater than the other, etc. — those are all relations!

A variable is a symbol with no fixed value. You’ll see variables pop up in equations as anything from $$a$$, $$b$$, or $$c$$ to $$x, y$$, and $$z$$; but, because they’re letters, they have no fixed value (e.g. “$$x$$” is not always equal to the same number; sometimes, it’s not even equal to anything at all). Solving the mystery of these variables is what makes algebra so fun!

Think of it this way: Instead of $$2 + 2 = 4$$, you’d see $$2 + 2x = 4$$ and have to figure out what value that variable $$x$$ could represent.

It’s important to know that algebra is an essential building block for calculus, trigonometry, and other branches of math, so make sure you really take the time to understand these fundamental concepts.

Believe it or not, algebra will become that extra-comfy sweatshirt that you reach for over and over again when you’re out of ideas and don’t know where to start. If you start to wonder why you should care, repeat this to yourself: confidence in algebra will mean comfort down the road!

The definition of algebra

If you’re looking for a more formal definition of what makes algebra algebra, here’s our favorite basic definition:

Algebra | noun. the branch of mathematics that describes operations and relations between different types of mathematical objects (sets of numbers, values, vectors, etc.) in the most general way

This definition is comprehensive but not too complicated, so it’s a great home base for defining this branch of math.

What are five different types of algebra?

  1. Elementary algebra - introduces algebraic quantities (real and complex numbers, variables and constants); rules of operations for those quantities; geometric representations; formation of expressions and sentences (equations, inequalities); rules of manipulation with expressions and equations; and how to solve algebraic equations and systems of equations.
  2. Abstract algebra - a study of algebraic structures along with their associated homomorphism. Algebraic structures include groups, rings, fields, modules, and more!
  3. Advanced algebra - the branch of algebra that connects algebraic concepts with other math fields like trigonometry and calculus
  4. Commutative algebra - the branch of algebra that studies commutative rings as part of algebraic number theory and algebraic geometry
  5. Linear algebra - a study of vector spaces and linear transformations

Basic algebra

Before we get into examples or practice problems, let’s break down the basics!

First, let’s look at some vocabulary terms:

Key Term Definition Example
Variable An entity with unknown value $$x, y, z$$
Operator Denotes the operation Addition, multiplication, etc.
Constant An entity with a fixed value $$3, 200, \frac{1}{2}, π$$
Coefficient The constant attached to a variable $$\text{ The } 3 \text{ in } 3x$$

You’ll hear those terms used during lessons and in textbooks, so that’s a good list to keep in your back pocket!

Basic algebra might start with only one variable, but as you progress on your journey, you’ll see more variables (and more operators!) which will make your value sleuthing a little more difficult.

What is algebra used for?

Algebra is used for so much more than just homework! Algebra is employed to uncover an unknown value, which is helpful in everything from calculus class to economic analyses. If you’re trying to calculate how many hot dogs you started with if you ate $$2$$ and there are $$3$$ left… guess what? That’s algebra! You’re solving $$x – 2 = 3$$, and you didn’t even realize it!

Algebra concepts

Algebra is an expansive branch of mathematics that encompasses many different concepts, like:

  • Algebraic expression vs. algebraic equation
  • Combining like terms
  • Compound inequalities
  • Substitution and evaluating expressions
  • Linear equations
  • Slope
  • Systems of equations
  • Evaluating functions

… and more!

Depending on your grade level or class, you might not know some of those concepts yet, which is totally okay. You’re still learning, and that’s amazing!

Whether you’re in pre-algebra or algebra 2, there are certain consistencies and properties that can help you navigate through problems.

If you ask us, this is one of the coolest parts of learning algebra. These properties are like changing your perspective – the information stays the same, but the way you see it makes things clearer!

Basic algebraic properties Property
Commutative Property of Addition $$a + b = b + a$$
Commutative Property of Multiplication $$a × b = b × a$$
Associative Property of Addition $$a + (b + c) = (a + b) + c$$
Associative Property of Multiplication $$a × (b × c) = (a × b) × c$$
Distributive Property $$a × (b + c) = (a × b) + (a × c), ~a × (b - c) = (a × b) - (a × c)$$
Additive Identity Property $$a + 0 = 0 + a = a$$
Multiplicative Identity Property $$a × 1 = 1 × a = a$$
Additive Inverse $$a + (-a) = 0$$
Reciprocal $$\text{Reciprocal of } a \text{ is } \frac{1}{a}$$

Algebraic property names can sound complicated or overwhelming, but if you spend enough time with the column on the right, you’ll see it’s all pretty logical and not as scary as you think.

What is an expression in algebra?

Simply, an algebraic expression is a combination of terms joined by operation, like $$3x + 8$$. An expression can include variables, constants, coefficients, and operators.

An algebraic expression becomes an algebraic equation with the inclusion of an equal sign ($$=$$), like $$3x + 8 = 24$$.

Understanding algebra

Understanding algebra is possible – we promise! In addition to understanding concrete things like the definition of algebra, vocabulary terms, and algebraic properties, the following mindset suggestions can help you unlock the door of truly understanding algebra:

Open book on a table, yellow background
  • Stay curious: After all, algebra is about solving an unknown.
  • Don’t look at it like a chore or a bore; instead, try maintaining a genuine curiosity about how to find your secret value. You don’t have to go full Sherlock Holmes, but you can still have fun with it!
  • Take a step back: It can be easy to get lost in a jumble of letters and numbers. It’s okay to close your eyes for a moment, take a deep breath, and start fresh.
  • Respect the process: Algebra teaches us to focus on the “how” when we’re faced with unknowns; remembering to appreciate the process can be helpful with your homework and beyond!