I’m on a mission to fix all kinds of things about Calculus, especially Calculus AB. Next on deck is Curve Sketching. Previously, while working on integration of Intermediate Value Theorem and Mean Value Theorem, I integrated some curve sketching ideas. Students calculated average rates of change and created rudimentary graphs of a function’s first derivative.

A few weeks later, students now have more familiarity with the first and second derivative and we can talk about how those tables help us analyze a function.

Start with an arbitrary function and interval, and create a table of f’(x) and f’’(x) in Desmos.

At the moment we aren’t concerned with the graphs, those this will be useful later on. Have students recreate the table, but we’re going to declutter the results. Rather than worry about all the values generated, let’s look at whether the first and second derivative were positive or negative at the point.

Having discussed the Intermediate Value Theorem, we have a discussion about where values of zero should appear on our table. For the first derivative, we reestablish a connection we made before, that if the slope of a function is positive, it must be increasing. A zero should mark the transition between increasing/decreasing or decreasing/increasing and these points are important enough to have names.

Next we have a discussion about the second derivative, which is a newcomer to the party. Some days before this activity, we plotted tangent lines, computed second derivatives, and looked at whether the tangent line was an overestimate or underestimate. That opened up the idea of concavity, that the concavity of a function plays a role in how accurate a tangent line will be.

Now it’s time to define concavity a little better. We look for points where the second derivative must be zero and what that could mean. At this point I’m talking with the table and graphs in view, so students can see that something is happening to f(x) at the point where there should be a zero on f’’(x).

Going back to their horizontal table, we now annotate the table with our findings. Based solely on sign value, we can quickly determine where a function is increasing, decreasing, concave up, concave down, and the role of the various critical numbers.

The purpose of all this is to improve a HUGE weakness I’ve seen over the years. For whatever reason, while I could get students sketching f, f’, and f’’ like geniuses, there was a disconnect between how they were making their sketches and what they represented. If a non-sketching question said something about the first derivative being positive, I’d get nothing but blank stares. Very few of them were able to determine that corresponded to increasing behavior.

By building this competency with tables AND graphs, I’m hoping things improve quite a bit. By sticking with equations of tangent lines and tables as recurring themes, I’m hoping free response style questions are more comfortable. It’s way too early to tell, but I’ve really liked how this is going.

AuthorJonathan Claydon