Why Labels Are Good

I thought I had covered somewhere in the past, but it would appear that I’ve only shared this bit of wisdom with my students.

Labels are important. Labels are things like units of measurement, what you write along axes on a graph, or materials you’re counting. Labels are what provide the context for your response. They explain clearly what is going on. I often tell my students that the difference between an answer with the correct label and an answer with an incorrect or missing label is the difference between a building and a pile of rubble.

It’s true if you think about it. Imagine you’re trying to install a pool in someone’s backyard. The homeowner tells you they want a rectangular pool that’s 5 yards by 3 yards. As you’re doing your calculations for the materials, you lose that, and suddenly you’ve built a lovely 5-foot by 3-foot wading pond and really upset the owner in the process. By your calculations, your numbers were reasonable for the space. You just forgot to include the unit.

And if you look at a graph where there aren’t any labels, then it’s really hard to interpret the data. You have nothing to base it on. Dig out your science or history book, find a graph, and cover up anything written next to the axes and the graph’s title. What does this graph tell you? Does it make sense, or is it just some weird graph? Now, remove the covers and look at the graph again. With the labels, you can now find answers with this graph, allowing the graph to do its job.

Even word problem answers have labels. If you’re trying to find how many books fit a shelf, a number alone is not a sufficient answer. Did you mean that number of books? Did you misread the question and mean that many shelves? It’s also a bad idea to get the right number and put the wrong label next to it. Always reread the question to make sure your answer is reasonable and your label is correct.

When you’re taking an open-ended test (one that requires you to show your work or explain your answer), forgetting to include labels can cost you points. There’s nothing worse than doing the math perfectly and failing a test because you weren’t careful with your labels.

Take an extra moment when you think you’ve finished a problem. Ask yourself if your answer is reasonable, and then ask yourself what label you need to include. It’s a good habit to develop.


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