About cookies

The NCETM site uses cookies. Read more about our privacy policy

Please agree to accept our cookies. If you continue to use the site, we'll assume you're happy to accept them.


Personal Learning Login

Sign Up | Forgotten password?
Register with the NCETM

Secondary Magazine - Issue 141: Quadratic Sequences and Visual Patterns

Created on 09 March 2017 by ncetm_administrator
Updated on 28 March 2017 by ncetm_administrator


Secondary Magazine Issue 141diagram from article

New at GCSE: Quadratic sequences

An item of content newly introduced into GCSE (though it has come and gone over the years) is finding the nth terms of quadratic sequences. Expressing general rules that relate the nth terms of pattern sequences to their values is a way to harness pupils’ natural pattern-seeking to develop their understanding of, and fluency with, algebra. (See: Key Ideas in Teaching Mathematics, Anne Watson, Keith Jones, Dave Pratt, 2013, Oxford University Press, Page 31).

Here are some examples of tasks that provide opportunities for pupils to see visual patterns in various different ways, and thereby arrive at equivalent quadratic expressions for the nth term. Alternatively pupils could count the number of squares in each image to obtain a numerical sequence, and then use an algebraic method to derive an expression for the nth term. Usually the numerical-sequence method is more laborious and is often used without pupils understanding why it works. Therefore pupils should appreciate that, with sequences of images it is often easiest to use the geometric structure of the images - to see how the images ‘grow’ to form the sequence - so that when they arrive at an expression for the nth term they know precisely why it must be correct.

In all the following examples the task is to

find an expression for the number of squares in the nth image

Example 1

diagram 1

Pupils may see each image as a square with side-length n together with a rectangle of height 1, and length n:

diagram 2

The number of squares in the nth image = n2 + n.

A different way to see each image is as a rectangle with side-lengths n and 2n with a smaller rectangle of side-lengths n and n – 1 removed from it:

diagram 3

The number of squares in the nth image  = n × 2nn(n – 1)
= 2n2n2 + n
= n2 + n

The numerical approach entails counting the number of squares in each of the first few images and then working with the numerical sequence so produced. Pupils first have to understand that the general term of a quadratic sequence is of the form an2 + bn + c. They can then use reasoning to deduce the values of a, b and c for the numerical sequence they have formed, as follows.

First write the sequence of number of squares in each image, and underneath write the first differences, and below that write the second differences. Then write the same first few terms algebraically by substituting 1, then 2, then 3, and so on, in turn for n in an2 + bn + c. Also write the first and second differences algebraically.

diagram 4

By comparing the second differences expressed algebraically (2a) with the numerical second differences pupils will see that, for this sequence, 2a = 2, so a = 1.

By equating any of the first differences expressed algebraically with the corresponding numerical first difference pupils can now find the value of b. For example, 3a + b = 4. Since a = 1, 3 + b = 4, so b = 1.

To find the value of c pupils have to understand that when n = 0, the term expressed algebraically is just c, since an2 and bn are both 0. By extending the sequence of first differences backwards (in this example to get 2, shown in brackets above) they can extend the quadratic sequence itself back to arrive (in this example) at 0 as the term when n = 0.

Therefore the nth term, an2 + bn + c, is n2 + n.

Pupils can compare the relatively complex third method to the previous direct ways of seeing the nth term using the structure of the images.

It is helpful to remind pupils that usually the images can be cut up into a combination of rectangles and squares, or every image can be seen as a ‘surrounding’ rectangle from which one or more rectangles have been removed. They then just have to decide how the side-lengths of the squares and rectangles composing, or removed from, an image are related to the position of the image in the sequence. Here is another example in which the images can be cut up into squares and rectangles in various ways.

Example 2

diagram 5

Pupils could imagine cutting each image into a rectangle of side-lengths n + 2 and 2n and a unit square, as shown below:

diagram 6

The number of squares in the nth image  = 2n(n + 2) + 1
= 2n2 + 4n + 1

Or pupils may see a rectangle with side-lengths 2n + 1 and n + 2 from which a rectangle of unit width and height n + 1 has been removed, as shown below:

diagram 7

The number of squares in the nth image  = (2n + 1)(n + 2) – (n + 1)
= 2n2 + 5n + 2 – n – 1
= 2n2 + 4n + 1



Or they may see each image as two n-by-n squares of area n2 plus four n-by-1 rectangles of area n plus a unit square, possibly as shown below:

diagram 8

The number of squares in the nth image  n2n2+ n + n + n + 1
= 2n2 + 4n + 1

Pupils can now compare the relatively simple way in which they found the expression for the nth term by seeing a structure in the images with the more laborious procedure of counting the squares in the first few images and working algebraically on the resulting numerical sequence, as shown below:

diagram 9

By equating the second differences 2a  = 4
= 2
By equating the first differences 3a + b  = 10
Since a = 2, 6 + b  = 10
= 4

By extending the sequence back to n = 0, using the pattern of first differences,

when n = 0, an2 + bn + c = c = 1

Therefore the nth term an2 + bn + c = 2n2 + 4n + 1.

Pupils may enjoy devising their own examples for others to solve. In the meantime here are some more.



Download the magazine as a PDF
Secondary Magazine Archive
Magazine Feed - keep informed of forthcoming issues
Departmental Workshops - Structured professional development activities
Explore the Secondary Forum
Contact us - share your ideas and comments 


Comment on this item  
Add to your NCETM favourites
Remove from your NCETM favourites
Add a note on this item
Recommend to a friend
Comment on this item
Send to printer
Request a reminder of this item
Cancel a reminder of this item



31 March 2017 05:44
Once you have a jutification for the sequence 'continuing in the same way', Colin's description of different ways of treating George Boole's method of constant k'th differences is really really helpful! It could save a lot of students a lot of bother if their techer has considered these different ways of exploiting constant k'th differences!
By JohnMason
         Alert us about this comment  
30 March 2017 21:51
I wrote something here http://www.foster77.co.uk/Foster,%20Mathematics%20In%20School,%20Differences%20Over%20Differences%20Methods.pdf about the pros and cons of different approaches to using "differences methods" with quadratic (and higher) sequences.
By ColinFoster
         Alert us about this comment  
29 March 2017 17:29
There must be some statement of origin of the sequence. I fund that a sequence made of repeating blocks is unique if you are shown a finites equence and told that the repeating block appears at least twice. This can be extended to quadratic terms: if the repeating pattern of constant first diffeences releats at least twice then that sequence, and hence the quadratic sequence, is uniquely determined. But you must be told something about how th sequence continues.
By JohnMason
         Alert us about this comment  
29 March 2017 08:11
Agreed, but how would you extend this to a scenario where they have no picture/shape and only the sequence?
29 March 2017 08:08
It is vital that before students try to count the number of cells making up the nth picture/shape, that they describe verbally how all further shapes are to be built. Only then is there a structure to generalise. Otherwise, mathematucally, any shape could be the next term.
By JohnMason
         Alert us about this comment  
28 March 2017 17:51
This is a good method when finding the nth term for a geometrical quadratic pattern but if they are just given the sequence itself they would have to represent it diagrammatically first to then find the nth term this way which is going to be pretty challenging.
Only registered users may comment. Log in to comment