What Are the Advantages & Disadvantages of Using Graphs in Math?

By Kristine Tucker
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Elementary, middle school and high school teachers often use graphs as part of their math curriculum. Graphs help students organize and analyze information in well-structured formats, making it easier to interpret data. Visual learners respond especially well to graphs and often understand the information better without pages of text. Graphs do have a downside -- students might jump to conclusions without carefully analyzing the limitations and parameters. Students might also rely on graphing calculators, without being able to solve equations or do the graphing themselves.

Advantage: Explain Mathematical Relationships

Graphs provide a simple, visual way for students of all ages to interpret data and to draw conclusions about mathematical relationships, such as equality, inequality, more than, less than and grouping, according to professors Mark Larson and David Whitin at Wayne State University in Detroit. Students also learn that graphs have limits -- many don't show all of the data and they don't explain alternate options. Students who learn to graph equations are often well-prepared for upper-level math, statistics, engineering and science courses.

Advantage: Visually Appealing

Graphs provide visual clues that words and equations don't. For example, it might take middle school or high school students several minutes to read, digest, interpret and map a word problem. With a graph, students can quickly draw conclusions. Graphs show trends, gaps and clusters, and compare multiple data sets at once, often accommodating large sets of data, according to the Wisconsin Hospital Association Quality Center. Graphs make it easy for students to form hypotheses and draw conclusions.

Disadvantage: Data Misinterpretation

Some students jump to conclusions and interpret graphs inaccurately, resulting in incorrect answers to applied math problems. They might ignore important information, rush through problem details, fail to read instructions, treat irrelevant data as important and forget to rely on prior knowledge, according to Intervention Central, a resource center for teachers who want to help struggling learners. Graphs are designed to work in conjunction with other information sources, such as text, so students who focus solely on graphs often misinterpret data.

Disadvantage: Complacency

Students who rely solely on technology-generated math graphs for classroom learning, such as those produced by graphing calculators and computer programs, might become complacent, according to Concordia University in Portland. Computerized graphs often reduce the amount of work that needs to be done -- which can be a benefit during timed tests -- but they also interfere with the learning process. Students might not fully develop their own graphing skills, potentially leading to problems when batteries die or computer programs go haywire.

About the Author

As curriculum developer and educator, Kristine Tucker has enjoyed the plethora of English assignments she's read (and graded!) over the years. Her experiences as vice-president of an energy consulting firm have given her the opportunity to explore business writing and HR. Tucker has a BA and holds Ohio teaching credentials.