What you need to know

A factor of some value is a number that can be multiplied by another number to get that value. For example, 2 is a factor of 10 because 2 \times 5 = 10, and for this reason 5 is also a factor of 10.

In algebra, this works the same way. If our algebraic expression is 5xy, then we can say that x is a factor of this because x \times 5y = 5xy. In fact, spotting the factors of this is maybe even easier than with numbers because it’s immediately broken up into the factors of 5, x, and y.

The aim of factorising is to manipulate an algebraic expression (one with multiple terms) by “taking out” common factors – factors that each term in this expression has. This amounts to writing the common factors on the outside of a pair of brackets and writing the algebraic expression with those factors removed on the inside. Mathematically, this means that everything outside the bracket is being multiplied by everything inside the bracket (note: if you actually do this process known as expansion, you should end up back where you started – we’ll use this to check our answer below).

To make sense of this, let’s see an example.

Example: Factorise fully 3xy + 6x^2.

So, we’re looking for things that both terms have in common. Let’s consider the coefficients (the numbers in front of the algebraic bits) first. One is 3 and the other is 6 – both these numbers have a common factor of 3, so that means we can take a 3 out to the front of our brackets.

If we remove the factor of 3 from the first term, all that’s left is xy, but if we remove a factor of 3 from the second term, there is still a factor of 2 there (as well as the algebra part), meaning the result is 2x^2. So, we get

3xy + 6x^2 = 3 \times xy + 3 \times 2x^2 = 3(xy + 2x^2)

Now we ask: are there any other common factors? Yes, both terms in the bracket on the right-hand side have a factor of x (note: the second term actually has an x^2, but we only take out one factor of x). So, taking the x out as a factor we get:

3(xy + 2x^2) = 3(x \times y + x \times 2x) = 3x(y + 2x)

The terms left inside the bracket have no more common factors, so we are done. Just as a check, if we are to expand the bracket, then that means multiplying 3x by y to get 3xy, multiplying 3x by 2x to get 6x^2, and finally adding the results together. So indeed, the result of the expansion is

3xy + 6x^2

The fact that this is the expression we started with tells us that we probably did the factorising correctly. It’s either that or we’ve managed to be doubly wrong in such a way that our errors have magically cancelled each other out and we’ve ended up in the right place, which would be very impressive.

Before we go further, it helps to recall the laws of indices (https://mathsmadeeasy.co.uk/gcse-maths-revision/rules-indices-gcse-maths-revision-worksheets/), specifically the multiplication rule:

a^m \times a^n = a^{m + n}.

You’ll probably see why in this next example. The idea is exactly the same as the last one, there’s just going to be a little more going on.

Example: Factorise fully 4abc^5 + 2ac^2 + 8a^{3}c^3.

Like before, we’ll look at the numbers first. They are all multiples of 2, so we can take a factor of 2 out. This leaves us with

4abc^5 + 2ac^2 + 8a^{3}c^3 = 2(2abc^5 + ac^2 + 4a^{3}c^3)

Next up, the algebra. We can see that they all have a factor of a in common. Taking this outside the bracket (and so removing an a from each term inside the bracket), we get

2a(2bc^5 + c^2 + 4a^{2}c^3)

Now, the first term is the only one with a b, so we can’t take that out as a factor. They all have a factor of c, but rather than taking this out we can actually go one further – they all also have a factor of c^2. Using the multiplication rule of indices, we get

c^5 = c^2 \times c^3 \text{ and } c^3 = c^2 \times c,

and furthermore,

2bc^5 = c^2 \times 2bc^3 \text{ and } 4a^{2}c^3 = c^2 \times 4a^{2}c.

In general, we want to look for the highest power of a factor that is shared by every term – here, this is c^2. Otherwise we’ll have to take c out once and then take out c again later. So, the expression becomes

2ac^2(2bc^3 + 1 + 4a^{2}c)

Note: removing the c^2 as a factor from the middle term does not mean the middle term disappears, it means that there is a 1 left in its place. If you aren’t sure about why this is the case, try expanding the bracket with/without the 1 there.

Finally, the terms inside the brackets have no more common factors, so we are done.

It’s definitely worth going through this process step-by-step a few times, as in: numbers first, then taking each algebraic factor one-by-one. Once you get good at this, you can start saving yourself time by looking for multiple factors at once, but mistakes are easier to make doing it this way so make sure you’re ready.

Example Questions

1) Factorise fully 10pq + 15pqr.

Answer

Take out a factor of 5 from both terms to get

 

5(2pq + 3pqr)

 

There is both a p and a q in the two terms inside the bracket. Taking out both p and q, we get

 

5pq(2 + 3r)

 

The two numbers in the bracket have nothing more in common so we are done.

2) Factorise fully 4xy^5 + y^5 + 12y^7.

Answer

The first and last term have a factor of 4 in common, but the middle term doesn’t, so we can’t take any numbers out as factors.

 

All 3 terms have a factor of y in them. Specifically, the highest power of y that all 3 terms have in common is y^5. Taking y^5 out as a factor, we get

 

y^5(4x + 1 + 12y^2)

 

The terms in the bracket have no more common factors, so we are done.

3) Factorise fully 7abc + 14a^{2}bc + 21ab^{2}c + 49abc^3.

Answer

Take out a factor of 7 from every term to get

 

7(abc + 2a^{2}bc + 3ab^{2}c + 7abc^3)

 

Now, clearly each term has a factor of a, b, and c, so we just need to determine what the highest power of each factor we can take out is.

 

The first term only has the three factors a, b, and c to the power of 1 (note that we don’t write the power of 1 since x^1 = x), which means that this is the highest power of each factor we can take out is 1. Taking out a factor of a, b, and c, we get

 

7abc(1 + 2a + 3b + 7c^2)

 

The terms inside the bracket have no more common factors, so we are done.

To those teachers and Maths tutors who are looking for high quality factorising materials then you have found the right site. The worksheets and factorising revision materials above are relevant to those starting their GCSE courses or for those who are studying foundation Maths. They are also great as starters and refreshers for those students who haven’t factorised in a while! You can find more great resources on our GCSE Maths revision page.