College Math Teaching

December 1, 2012

One challenge of teaching “brief calculus” (“business calculus”, “applied calculus”, etc.)

Today’s exam covered elementary integrals and partial derivatives; in our course we usually mention two variable functions and show how to calculate some “easy” partial derivatives.

So today’s exam saw a D/F student show up late (as usual); keep in mind this is an 8 am class (no class prior to it). He, as usual, got little or nothing correct. Of course we had the usual \int \frac{1}{x^2} dx = ln(x^x) + C, \int^1_0 3e^{5x}dx = (15e^5 -15) + C , etc.

But there was this too: note that we had barely discussed partial derivatives and how to calculate them “by the formula”. But I did give the following bonus question: “is it possible to have a function f(x,y) where f_x = x^3 + y^3 and f_y = 3xy ? Yes, this is a common question in multivariable calculus (e. g., “is this vector field conservative?”) but remember this is a “brief calculus” course.

A few students took the challenge; some computed \int(x^3 + y^3)dx = \frac{x^4}{4}+ xy^3 + C, \int (3xy^2)dy = \frac{3}{2}xy^2+C and noted that the two functions cannot be made to match (I didn’t expect them to recognize that functions of one variable alone represents constants of integration). Some took the second partials and noted f_{xy} = 3y^2, f_{yx} = 3y and that these don’t match. Again, this was NOT a problem that we practiced.

Another instance: given the ideal gas law PV = nRT I challenged them to show \frac{\partial P}{\partial V}\frac{\partial V}{\partial T}\frac{\partial T}{\partial P} = -1 and someone got it!

Bottom line: in one course, we have some bright, interested students who enjoy thinking and we have some who either don’t or can’t. This makes teaching difficult; if one tries to “teach to the mean” one is teaching to the empty set. It is almost: either bore half the class, or blow away half the class.


1 Comment »

  1. […] Posts: nothing today, but I did write this about mathematics education. […]

    Pingback by Busy Time of Year and… « blueollie — December 1, 2012 @ 2:37 am

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Create a free website or blog at

%d bloggers like this: