Sunday, January 1, 2017

IJRUME: Approximation in Calculus

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In an earlier column, "Beyond the Limit, III," I talked about how Michael Oehrtman and colleagues have been able to use approximation as a unifying theme for single variable calculus that helps students avoid many of the confusing aspects of the language of limits. I also pointed out that this is hardly a new idea, having been used by many textbook authors including Emil Artin in A Freshman Honors Course in Calculus and Analytic Geometry and Peter Lax and Maria Terrell in Calculus with Applications. The IJRUME research paper I wish to highlight this month, “A study of calculus instructors’ perceptions of approximation as a unifying thread of the first-year calculus” by Sofronas et al., looks at how common this approach actually is.

The authors address four research questions:

  1. Do calculus instructors perceive approximation to be important to student understanding of first-year calculus? 
  2. Do calculus instructors report emphasizing approximation as a central concept and-or unifying thread in the first-year calculus? 
  3. Which approximation ideas do calculus instructors believe are “worthwhile” to address in first-year calculus?  
  4. Are there any differences between demographic groups with respect to the approximation ideas they teach in first-year calculus courses? 
They surveyed calculus instructors at 182 colleges and universities, collecting 279 responses.

To the first two questions, 89% agreed that approximation is important, but only 51% considered it a central concept, and only 40% found that it provides a unifying thread (see Figure 1). For those who did consider it central and-or unifying, the reasons that they gave included: (a) it illuminates reasons for studying calculus, (b) most functions are not elementary and approximation is helpful in dealing with such functions, (c) approximation facilitates the understanding of fundamental concepts including limit, derivative, integral, and series, (d) linear approximations lie at the foundation of differential calculus, and (e) an emphasis on approximation resonates with the instructors personal interests in applied mathematics or numerical analysis.
Figure 1: Graph depicting participants’ perceptions of approximation (N=214).
 Source: Sofronas et al. 2015.

For those who did not consider approximation to be central or unifying, many stated that it is not sufficiently universal, only important in a few contexts such as motivating the definition of the derivative at a point or the value of a definite integral. Many stated other unifying threads such as limit or the study of change. Some objected to an emphasis on approximation because of its inevitable ties to the use of technology. There were also a large number of obstacles to the use of approximation that instructors identified. These included: (a) an overcrowded syllabus that left no room for the instructor to develop a unifying thread, (b) required adherence to a curriculum emphasizing procedural facility, (c) students with weak preparation who are not prepared to understand the subtleties of approximation arguments, (d) lack of access to technology, (e) lack of familiarity with how to use approximation ideas in developing calculus. I personally find these obstacles to be very sad, in particular the assumption on the part of many instructors that the only way to get through the required syllabus or to enable students to pass the course is to focus exclusively on memorizing procedures.

Jumping ahead to the fourth question, the authors found that the single factor that most highly correlated with emphasizing approximation as a central concept and-or unifying thread was having served on either a local or national calculus committee. Not surprisingly, this factor was also highly correlated with number of years teaching calculus, rank, being the recipient of a teaching award, and having published or presented on a calculus topic.

To the third research question, the combined list of topics gleaned from all of the responses truly spans first-year calculus: numerical limits, definition of limit, definition of the derivative, derivative values, tangent line approximations, differentials, error estimation, function change, functions roots and Newton’s method, linearization, integration, Riemann sums, Taylor polynomials and Taylor series, Newton’s second law, Einstein’s equation for force, L’Hospital’s rule, Euler’s method, and the approximation of irrational numbers. One unexpected outcome of the survey is that several of the respondents commented that answering this survey about their use of approximation in first-year calculus opened their eyes to the opportunity to use it as a unifying theme. As one respondent wrote,
I agree that approximation is an important concept AND after taking this survey I can see teaching calculus using approximation as the main theme. The rate of change theme offers many opportunities for real-life applications but I can see how using approximations from the beginning would offer other opportunities. It is an interesting idea, and I would love to incorporate more of this theme into my lessons.
For those who are interested in following up on the use of approximation as a unifying thread, this article also supplies a wealth of background information that includes a discussion of the different ways in which approximation can be used and the research evidence for its effectiveness as a guiding theme in developing student understanding of limits, derivatives, integrals, and series.


Artin, E. (1958). A Freshman Honors Course in Calculus and Analytic Geometry Taught at Princeton University. Buffalo, NY: Committee on the Undergraduate Program of the Mathematical Association of America

Lax, P. & Terrell, M.S. (2014). Calculus with Applications, Second Edition. New York, NY: Springer.

Sofronas, K.S., DeFranco, T.C., Swaminathan, H., Gorgievski, N., Vinsonhaler, C., Wiseman, B., Escolas, S. (2015). A study of calculus instructors’ perceptions of approximation as a unifying thread of the first-year calculus. Int. J. Res. Undergrad. Math. Ed. 1:386–412 DOI 10.1007/s40753-015- 0019-5

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