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Calculus and conceptual frameworks

August 8, 2010, 12:47 pm

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I was having a conversation recently with a colleague who might be teaching a section of our intro programming course this fall. In sharing my experiences about teaching programming from the MATLAB course, I mentioned that the thing that is really hard about teaching programming is that students often lack a conceptual framework for what they’re learning. That is, they lack a mental structure into which they can place the topics and concepts they’re learning and then see those ideas in their proper place and relationship to each other. Expert learners — like some students who are taking an intro programming course but have been coding since they were 6 years old — have this framework, and the course is a breeze. Others, possibly a large majority of students in a class, have never done any kind of programming, and they will be incapable of really learning programming until they build a conceptual framework to  handle it. And it’s the prof’s job to help them build it.

Afterwards, I thought, this is why teaching intro programming is harder than teaching calculus. Because students who make it all the way into a college calculus surely have a well-developed conceptual framework for mathematics and can understand where the topics and methods in calculus should fit. Right? Hello?

It then hit me just how wrong I was. Students coming into calculus, even if they’ve had the course before in high school, are not guaranteed to have anything like an appropriate conceptual framework for calculus. Some students may have no conceptual framework at all for calculus — they’ll be like intro programming students who have never coded — and so when they see calculus concepts, they’ll revert back to their conceptual frameworks built in prior math courses, which might be robust and might not be. But even then, students may have multiple, mutually contradictory frameworks for mathematics generally owing to different pedagogies, curricula, or experiences with math in the past.

Take, for example, the typical first contact that calculus students get with actual calculus in the Stewart textbook: The tangent problem. The very first example of section 2.1 is a prototype of this problem, and it reads: Find an equation of the tangent line to the parabola \(y = x^2\) at the point \(P(1,1)\). What follows is the usual initial solution: (1) pick a point \(Q\) near \((1,1)\), (2) calculate the slope of the secant line, (3) move \(Q\) closer to \(P\) and recalculate, and then (4) repeat until the differences between successive approximations dips below some tolerance level.

What is a student going to do with this example? The ideal case — what we think of as a proper conceptual handling of the ideas in the example — would be that the student focuses on the nature of the problem (I am trying to find the slope of a tangent line to a graph at a point), the data involved in the problem (I am given the formula for the function and the point where the tangent line goes), and most importantly the motivation for the problem and why we need something new (I’ve never had to calculate the slope of a line given only one point on it). As the student reads the problem, framed properly in this way, s/he learns: I can find the slope of a tangent line using successive approximations of secant lines, if the difference in approximations dips below a certain tolerance level. The student is then ready for example 2 of this section, which is an application to finding the rate at which a charge on a capacitor is discharged. Importantly, there is no formula for the function in example 2, just a graph.

But the problem is that most students adopt a conceptual framework that worked for them in their earlier courses, which can be summarized as: Math is about getting right answers to the odd-numbered exercises in the book. Students using this framework will approach the tangent problem by first homing in on the first available mathematical notation in the example to get cues for what equation to set up. That notation in this case is:

\(m_{PQ} = \frac{x^2 – 1}{x-1}\)

Then, in the line below, a specific value of x (1.5) is plugged in. Great! they might think, I’ve got a formula and I just plug a number into it, and I get the right answer: 2.5. But then, reading down a bit further, there are insinuations that the right answer is not 2.5. Stewart says, “…the closer \(x\) is to 1…it appears from the tables, the closer \(m_{PQ}\) is to 2. This suggests that the slope of the tangent line \(t\) should be \(m = 2\).” The student with this framework must then be pretty dismayed. What’s this about “it appears” the answer is 2? Is it 2, or isn’t it? What happened to my 2.5? What’s going on? And then they get to example 2, which has no formula in it at all, and at that point any sane person with this framework would give up.

It’s also worth noting that the Stewart book — and many other standard calculus books — do not introduce this tangent line idea until after a lengthy precalculus review chapter, and that chapter typically looks just like what students saw in their Precalculus courses. These treatments do not attempt to be a ramp-up into calculus, and presages of the concepts of calculus are not present. If prior courses didn’t train students on good conceptual frameworks, then this review material actually makes matters worse when it comes time to really learn calculus. They will know how to plug numbers and expressions into a function, but when the disruptively different math of calculus appears, there’s nowhere to put it, except in the plug-and-chug bin that all prior math has gone into.

So it’s extremely important that students going into calculus get a proper conceptual framework for what to do with the material once they see it. Whose responsibility is that? Everybody’s, starting with…

  • the instructor. The instructor of a calculus class has to be very deliberate and forthright in bending all elements of the course towards the construction of a framework that will support the massive amount of material that will come in a calculus class. This includes telling students that they need a conceptual framework that works, and informing them that perhaps their previous frameworks were not designed to manage the load that’s coming. The instructor also must be relentless in helping students put new material in its proper place and relationship to prior material.
  • But here the textbooks can help, too, by suggesting the framework to be used; it’s certainly better than not specifying the framework at all but just serving up topic after topic as non sequiturs.
  • Finally, students have to work at constructing a framework as well; and they should be held accountable not only for their mastery of micro-level calculus topics like the Chain Rule but also their ability to put two or more concepts in relation to each other and to use prior knowledge on novel tasks.

What are your experiences with helping students (in calculus or otherwise) build useable conceptual frameworks for what they are learning? Any tools (like mindmapping software), assessment methods, or other teaching techniques you’d care to share?

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