Four things I used to think about calculus, and what I've replaced them with

May 12, 2009, 1:02 pm

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I’ve been teaching calculus since 1993, when I first stepped into a Calculus for Engineers classroom at Vanderbilt as a second-year graduate student. It hardly seems possible that this was 16 years ago. I can’t say whether calculus itself has changed that much in that span of time, but it’s definitely the case that my own understanding of how calculus is used by professionals in the real world has developed, from having absolutely no idea how it’s used to learning from contacts and former students doing quantitative work in business amd government; and  as a result, the way I conceive of teaching calculus, and the ways I implement my conceptions, have changed.

When I was first teaching calculus, at a rate of roughly three sections a year as a graduate student and then 3-4 sections a year as a newbie professor:

  • I thought that competency in calculus consisted in the ability to think through difficult mechanical calculations. For example, calculating \(\displaystyle{\lim_{x \to 9} \frac{9-x}{3-\sqrt{x}}}\) using multiplication by the conjugate was an essential component of learning limits.
  • There were certain kinds of problems which I felt were inseparable from a proper understanding of calculus itself: related rates, trigonometric integrals, and a few others.
  • I thought nothing of calculus that didn’t involve algebra. I’m not saying I held a low opinion of numerical or graphical calculus problems or concepts; I’m saying I didn’t even have them on my radar screen. I spent no time on them, because I didn’t know they were there.
  • Mechanical mastery was the main, and in some cases the sole, criterion for student learning.

Since then, I’ve replaced those criteria/priorities with these:

  • I care a lot less about mechanical fluency in algebra and trig, and I care a lot more about whether a student can read a problem for comprehension and then get an optimal solution for it in a reasonable amount of time and using a reasonable method.
  • I don’t think twice about jettisoning any of the following topics from a calculus course if they impede the students’ attainment of the previous bullet point: epsilon-delta proofs of limits*, algebraic limits that involve sophisticated algebra tricks that students saw five times three years ago, formal definitions of continuity, related rates problems, calculation of integrals using limits of Riemann sums, and so on. I always want to include these, and I do it if I can afford to do so from the standpoint of managing class time and maximizing student learning. But if they get in the way, out they go.
  • I care very much about whether students can do calculus on functions of all shapes and sizes — not only formulas but also tables of data and graphs — and whether students can convert one kind of function to the other, and whether students can judge the relative pros and cons of doing calculus on one kind of function versus another. The vast majority of functions real people encounter are not formulas — they are mostly evenly split between tables and graphs — and it makes no sense to spend 90% of our time in calculus working with formulas if they are so rarely the only option.
  • I don’t get bent out of shape if a student struggles with u-substitution and the like; but it drives me up the wall if a student gets the units of a derivative wrong, or doesn’t grasp that a derivative is a rate of change, or doesn’t realize that the primary purpose of calculus is to quantify what we mean by “rate of change”. I guess that means my priorities for student learning are much more about the big picture and the main ideas than they are the minute, party-trick algebra/trig calculations.

Perhaps the story would have been different if I’d remained tasked with teaching calculus to an all-engineer audience. But here, my classes are usually 50% business majors, about 25% biology or chemistry majors, and 15% undecided with only a fraction of the remaining 10% being declared majors in mathematics (which includes students in our 3:2 engineering program). But that’s the story as it is, and I’m sticking to it.

* Technically I never have to omit these, because we don’t do them in our intro Calculus class here.

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