Most of the students I help have a pretty good grasp of the three straightforward power laws:

$(x^a)^b = x^{ab}$ $x^a \times x^b = x^{a+b}$ $x^a \div x^b = x^{a-b}$

So far, so dandy - and usually good enough if you’re hoping for a B at GCSE. The trouble comes when they start throwing strange things in: what’s $3^{-2}$? Or $81^{\frac14}$? Or, for the love of all that’s holy, $16^{-\frac32}$? How on earth do you multiply something by itself negative two times? Or a quarter of a time?

Non-positive powers

Non-positive numbers are probably the easier of the two to get to grips with, and I have two ways to explain them. The first involves making a list:

$10^3 = 1,000$ $10^2 = 100$ $10^1 = 10$ … you see how it’s dividing by 10 each time? That pattern continues: $10^0 = 1$ $10^{-1} = \frac{1}{10}$ $10^{-2} = \frac{1}{100}$ … and so on. In general, $x^{-k} = \frac{1}{x^k}$ - the negative power just ‘flips’ whatever you’re working with and turns it into a fraction.

That means $3^{-2} = \frac{1}{3^2} = \frac19$; similarly, $2^{-6} = \frac{1}{2^6} = \frac{1}{64}$.

The second argument is that $3^{-2}$ must be the same as $3^{0-2} = 3^0 \div 3^2 = \frac{1}{9}$. Easy!

Non-integer powers

Fractional powers are a bit harder to get your head around, but they do make sense - fractions, remember are really division sums. Division sums are the opposite of multiplications.

Remember that $x^{ab} = (x^{a})^b$? Well, it stands to reason - since roots are the opposites of powers - that $x^{\frac ab}$ is the same as $\sqrt[b]{x^a}$.

So, to work out $81^\frac14$, you need to work out the fourth root of 81. 81 is $9^2$, or $3^4$, so $81^\frac14 = 3$.

In the same vein, $8^\frac23 = \sqrt[3]{8}^2 = 2^2 = 4$.

Combining the two

And how about when they’re combined? Well, you break it down into small steps. If you’ve got $16^{-\frac32}$, you deal with the ugliest thing first: the bottom of the fraction. That means ‘square root’, so you’re left with $4^{-3}$. Already looking better! $4^3 = 64$, so you’ve got $64^{-1}$; the power of negative one is just the reciprocal - so your answer is $\frac{1}{64}$.