December 16, 2010, 2:30 pm

By Robert Talbert

I have a bone to pick with problems like the following, which is taken from a major university-level calculus textbook. Read it, and see if you can figure out what I mean.

This is located in the latter one-fourth of a review set for the chapter on integration. Its position in the set suggests it is less routine, less rote than one of the early problems. But what’s wrong with this problem is that it’s not a *problem* at all. It’s an *exercise*. The difference between the two is enormous. To risk oversimplifying, in an *exercise*, the person doing the exercise knows exactly what to do at the very beginning to obtain the information being requested. In a *problem*, the person doesn’t. What makes an exercise an exercise is its familiarity and congruity with prior exercises. What makes a problem a *problem* is the lack of these things.

The above is not a problem, it is an exercise. *Use the *

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March 21, 2010, 7:32 pm

By Robert Talbert

There’s a discussion going on right now in the Project NExT email list about calculus textbooks, the merits/demerits of the Stewart Calculus textbook, and where — if anywhere — the “next wave” of calculus reform is going to come from. I wrote the following post to the group, and I thought it would serve double-duty fairly well as a blog post. So… here it is:

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I’d like to add my $0.02 worth to this discussion just because (1) I’m a longtime Stewart Calculus user, having used the first edition (!) when I was an undergrad and having taught out of it for my entire career, and (2) I’m also a fairly consistent critic of Stewart’s calculus and of textbooks in general.

I try to see textbooks from the viewpoints of my students. From that vantage point, I unfortunately find very little to say in favor of Stewart’s franchise of books, including the current edition, all of the…

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January 19, 2010, 9:22 pm

By Robert Talbert

This is probably the last of three articles on how piecewise-linear functions could be used as a helpful on-ramp to the big ideas in calculus. In the first article, we saw how it’s possible to develop some of the main conceptual ideas of the derivative, without much of the technical notation or jargon, by using piecewise-linear functions. In the second article, we saw how to use the piecewise-linear approach to develop an alternative limit-based definition of the derivative of a function at a point. To wrap things up, in this article I’ll discuss how this same sort of approach can help in students’ first contact with integration, again by way of a hypothetical classroom exercise.

When we took this approach with derivatives, we used the travels of three college students from their dorm rooms to the cafeteria. Each student had a different graph showing his position as a (piecewise-linear)…

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May 12, 2009, 1:02 pm

By Robert Talbert

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…

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May 5, 2008, 1:48 pm

By Robert Talbert

Asking the following question may make me less of a mathematician in some people’s eyes, and I’m fine with that, but: How do you explain the meaning of the differential *dx* inside an integral? And more importantly, how do you treat the dx in an integral so that, when you get to u-substitutions, all the substituting with du and dx and so on means more than just a mindless crunching of symbols?

Here’s how Stewart’s *Calculus* does it:

- In the section introducing the definite integral and its notation, it says: “The symbol dx has no official meaning by itself; \(\int_a^b f(x) \, dx\) is all one symbol.” (What kind of statement is that? If dx has “no official meaning”, then why is it there at all?)
- In the section on Indefinite Integrals and the Net Change Theorem, there is a note — almost an afterthought — on units at the very end, where there is an implied connection between…

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