Significant digits can be a frustrating concept if you do not understand the rules. Significant digits are the digits needed to have a precise answer. If you were to take a chemistry class, then you will be familiar with them. Recently, I began working with significant digits in my math class. I think the more you work on a concept the more you understand it. There are different rules when dealing with significant digits. Adding and subtracting numbers have different rules compared to multiplying and dividing numbers.
Adding and subtracting numbers focuses on the accuracy of the answer. The number with the least amount of decimal places is the “winning” number. For example if we are adding 5.36+2.2, the “winning” number is 2.2 because it has the least amount of decimal places. The answer to this problem is 7.56, but since we need to have 1 decimal place the answer is 7.6. In the picture below I have provided an example of a subtraction problem.
Multiplying and dividing numbers focuses on the least number of significant digits. Instead of looking at the amount of decimal places, we look at the whole number and count the amount of significant numbers; therefore, the “winning” number is the number with the least amount of significant digits. The solution to the problem should be rounded to the same amount of numbers as the “winning” number. For example if we are multiplying 82.1×3.2, the “winning” number is 3.2 because it only has 2 significant digits. In the picture above I have included a division problem and some tricky problems dealing with zeroes. I think with effort and determination anyone can understand the rules and differences between adding and subtracting numbers compared to multiplying and dividing!