how to solve quadratic equations without melting your brain

How to Solve Quadratic Equations Without Melting Your Brain

quadratic equationsAlgebraic equations can look pretty puzzling, especially if you don’t consider yourself a math person or if it has been a long time since you worked one out for yourself. If you’re struggling with quadratic equations, or need a quick review, we put this guide together to go over the basics of solving these equations and help you memorize the formulas that you need to know.

What is a Quadratic Equation?

quadratic equation parabola graphA quadratic equation is a univariate equation with two solutions or roots. Wait, what does that mean?  Basically, univariate means there is one variable that needs to be solved for, x. All other values in the equation are known. So if you’re only trying to solve for one value, x, why does the equation have two answers?

Quadratic equations are graphed as parabolas, symmetrically curved lines. X has two values because it represents the two places where the parabola will cross the x axis, like in the graph at the left.

How to Identify Quadratic Equations

The standard form of a quadratic equation looks like this: ax2 + bx + c = 0. A, b, and c stand for actual numbers, or known values, and x stands for the unknown value, or variable. When you solve the equation, you will be determining the values for x. Here’s an example of a quadratic equation with the known values plugged in: 2x2 + 8x + 7 = 0. Note that in standard form, quadratic equations always equal zero.

Some sneaky math teachers might present you with an equation that looks like this: x2 + 2x = 3. Don’t let this trick fool you! Simply subtract 3 from each side of the equation so that it equals zero. Remember: you have to subtract from both sides of the equation to keep it even! The result looks like this: x2 + 2x – 3 = 0.

Factoring Quadratic Equations

Some of the “easier” quadratic equations can be solved by a process called factoring. To factor a quadratic equation, take a look at the b and c values. You’ll need to find two numbers when multiplied together equal c, but when added together equal b. Don’t worry if this sounds kind of abstract. Let’s take a look at an example so you can see how factoring works.

x2 + 5x + 6 = 0

To solve this equation, you’ll need to think of two numbers that add up to five and multiply to make six. You can add two and three to make five, or multiply two times three to get six, so these are your factors for this example. You’ll want to write  your answer like this: x2 + 5x + 6 = (x + 3)(x + 2). You can check your work by multiplying the factors (x + 3) and (x + 2) to make sure they equal the original equation.

Factoring an equation with negative numbers involved can be a little trickier. If c is positive, then the factors are either both positive or both negative. If b is negative and c is positive, both factors are negative. If b is positive and c is positive, both factors are positive.

If you’re looking at an equation and c is negative, this means that one factor is negative and one factor is positive. If b is positive, the larger factor is positive. If b is negative, the larger factor is negative.

Using the Quadratic Formula

Sometimes, because life isn’t fair, quadratic equations can’t be solved with simple factoring. When you come across one of these weird and wily equations, you’ll need to bust out the quadratic formula to get the job done. The quadratic formula looks like this:

quadratic equation


Note that before the square root sign, there is a plus sign and a minus sign. This stands for plus or minus, which means the formula must be solved twice, once adding the root to -b and once subtracting in order to get both values for x. 

To get started, plug the values in for a, b, and c. Once you have your numbers plugged in, solve for x following the order of operations: parentheses, exponents, multiply, divide, add, subtract. A common mnemonic phrase to help you memorize the order of operations is “please excuse my dear aunt Sally”; the first letter of each word in this phrase is the same as the order of operations.

For example, solving the equation x2 + 3x – 4 = 0 would look like this: 

quadratic plus work







Since this equation can be factored (x + 4, x = -4, and x – 1, x = 1), you can easily check your work.

As you can see, once you have the values plugged in to the correct place in the quadratic formula, working out the answer is fairly simple. Students tend to struggle most with remembering how to construct the quadratic formula. Here are a couple of tips to memorizing this magic formula.

  • Sing it to the tune of “Pop Goes the Weasel”, using these lyrics:                                                           x equals negative b
    plus or minus the square root
    of b squared minus 4ac
    all over 2a             
  • Memorize this story: There once was a negative boy, who was all mixed up, so he went to a radical party, but because he was square, he lost out on four awesome chicks, so he cried his way home and when the night was all over, it was 2 AM.                  
  • Just stare at this GIF until you become one with the formula (not the best method, but it could work I guess):

quadratic formula

If you’re still having trouble working through quadratic equations, an academic tutor can give you personal attention and help you with any questions you might have. TakeLessons tutors are qualified, prescreened, and motivated to help you succeed. Tutors are available online and in-person, so search for your perfect tutor today!


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TakeLessons Staff Member and Blogger
Photo by Ianqui

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