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Peeve about calculus

February 2, 2008, 4:33 pm

Here’s a problem I have with the way most calculus textbooks are written, and therefore by default the way most calculus courses end up being taught. Tell me if I am crazy or missing something.

We teach calculus from a depth-first viewpoint. That means that whenever we encounter a concept, we go as deeply as possible in that concept before moving on to the next one. There are some subjects where this makes sense, but in calculus we have a small number of main ideas that are made out of several concepts, and if we stop to attain maximal depth on every single thing, there’s a good chance that we never arrive at the main idea with any degree of understanding.

The big ideas of calculus — the rate of change (derivative) and accumulated change (integral) — are actually really simple if you consider them simply for what they are and what they were invented to do. Derivatives, for instance: You have a function, and it is changing in all kinds of ill-behaved ways. The object is to find out exactly how quickly it is changing at a given point. We quantify that rate of change by sticking a tangent line on the graph of the function at that point and measuring its slope. Really, that’s it. Slopes of lines. The rest are technical details on how to calculate this slope with some degree of accuracy, and those details range from graphical estimation to interpolation tricks to algebraic techniques.

But in Stewart’s Calculus book, the coin of the realm of calculus texts, here’s what students have to study before the derivative is defined: an entire chapter of precalculus review (a mind-numbing section 1.1 on functions and notation, mathematical models, families of functions, exponential functions, inverse functions and logarithms), then a chapter on limits in which students have to master finding limits from graphs, calculating limits using the Limit Laws, the epsilon-delta definition of a limit (mostly untaught these days), continuity, and limits at infinity.

Then there’s a section on “Tangents, Velocities, and Other Rates of Change” followed by two sections on the Derivative.*

This approach plays directly in to the greatest weakness of the average calculus student, which is algebra/precalculus content mastery and the ability to master technical details of calculations and theory. How likely is it, for the student who struggles to read mathematics or use algebra correctly, that this student will be in any shape to learn what a derivative is, and what one is for, by the time they get there?

You want students to master those technical calculations and theory, of course. But you also want those to be mastered in context, not just as mathematical tricks to be learned as parlor games. The few students who survive the onslaught of detail mastery and are still psychologically around to learn what a derivative is, often find it extremely hard to know what f’(3) = 2 actually means. All they know is that you bring the power down and subtract one, and maybe the Product Rule.

I’d prefer some kind of approach to calculus that is not depth-first but more like breadth-first, where students get a good grounding in the overall ideas of calculus and do some basic work before mining into the really deep details. Not all students really need those deep details, after all.


* OK, there is a section (2.1) where the ideas of tangent lines and velocities are briefly introduced. And then summarily ignored until the end of that chapter. The students typically ignore that material right along with the book.

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