Long division is always a struggle at the beginning of the year. Many students do not know the process and even more students do not understand what they are doing. I’m afraid that long division will join algebra soon and mathematics education will only require students to learn how to multiply.

Long division is a multi-step process that many students struggle with to the point of making up rote memorization mnemonics. Students that have been shown how to repeatedly subtract multiples of the divisor don’t understand how this connects to the more efficient method.

My sixth grade classes today looked at me stunned when I asked them to divide 32 into a ten digit dividend. Does it matter? Have they never been asked to do something that is not printed on a worksheet? Something that might be challenging?

Several students asked if they could just do short division. This is something that really bugs me! Am I the only one?

I think there is so much math in long division that short division loses. Remainders are so important. Which remainders are repeating? Can we have a remainder larger than our divisor? What are the possible remainders when we are dividing by 32? These are questions that sixth graders don’t know the answers to. These are questions that are important to their understanding of division.

When I divided 132 by 11 today students couldn’t tell me what it meant to say 11 goes into 13 once. Why didn’t I put the 1 over the two? Why don’t I just subtract the 11 from the 32? These students have all seen their fourth grade teacher repeatedly subtracting multiples of 11’s. What is missing? Is it repetition? How do we help students “really” understand what they are doing?

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I was surprised several times last year (my first year teaching) to see the methods my 6th graders have used to divide. We start with a unit on fractions in my school but next we will do division with decimals – and I’ve made a note to review long division first. Do you have any resources you suggest to provide structure to the standard division algorithm?

I wish that I did. I haven’t found anything that fills in the gaps as quickly as I would like.