The Problem with Calculus Textbooks

Simply put, most calculus textbooks are written in the wrong order.

Unfortunately, this includes the most popular textbooks used in colleges and universities today.

This problem has a long history, and will not be quickly solved for a variety of reasons. I think the solution lies ultimately with high quality, open source e-modules (that is, stand-alone tutorials on all calculus-related topics), but that discussion is for another time. Today, I want to address a more pressing issue: since many of us (including myself) must teach from such textbooks — now, long before the publishing revolution — how might we provide students a more engaging, productive calculus experience?

To be specific, I’ll describe some strategies I’ve used in calculus over the past several years. Once you get the idea, you’ll be able to look through your syllabus and find ways to make similar adaptations. There are so many different versions of calculus taught, there is no “one size fits all” solution. So here goes.

1. I now teach differentiation before limits. The reason is that very little intuition about limits is needed to differentiate quadratics, for example — but the idea of limits is naturally introduced in terms of slopes of secant lines. Once students have the general idea, I give them a list of the usual functions to differentiate. Now they generate the limits we need to study — completely opposite of introducing various limits out of context that “they will need later.”

Students routinely ask, “When am I ever going to use this?” At one time, I dismissed the question as irrelevant — surely students should know that the learning process is not one of immediate gratification. But when I really understood what they were asking — “How do I make sense of what you’re telling me when I have nothing to relate it to except the promise of some unknown future problem?” — I started to rethink how I presented concepts in calculus.

I also didn’t want to write my own calculus textbook from scratch — so I looked for ways to use the resources I already had. Simply doing the introductory section on differentiation before the chapter on limits takes no additional time in the classroom, and not much preparation on the part of the teacher. This point is crucial for the typical teacher — time is precious. What I’m advocating is just a reshuffling of the topics we (have to) teach anyway.

2. I no longer teach the chapter on techniques of integration as a “chapter.” In the typical textbook, nothing in this chapter is sufficiently motivated. So here’s what I do.

I teach the section on integration by parts when I discuss volumes. Finding volumes using cylindrical shells naturally gives rise to using integration by parts, so why wait? Incidentally, I also bring center of mass and Pappus’ theorem into play, as they also fit naturally here. The one-variable formulation of the center of mass gives rise to squares of functions, so I introduce integrating powers of trigonometric functions here. (Though I omit topics such as using integration by parts to integrate unfriendly powers of tangent and secant — I do not feel this is necessary given any mathematician I know would jump to Mathematica or similar software to evaluate such integrals.)

I teach trigonometric substitution (hyperbolic as well — that for another blog post) when I cover arc length and surface area — again, since integrals involving square roots arise naturally here.

Partial fractions can either be introduced when covering telescoping series, or when solving the logistic equation. (A colleague recommended doing series in the middle of the course rather then the end (where it would have naturally have fallen given the order of chapters in our text), since she found that students’ minds were fresher then — so I introduced partial fractions when doing telescoping series. I found this rearrangement to be a good suggestion, by the way. Thanks, Cornelia!)

3. I no longer begin Taylor series by introducing sequences and series in the conventional way. First, I motivate the idea by considering limits like

\displaystyle\lim_{x\to0}\dfrac{\sin x-x}{x^3}=-\dfrac16.

This essentially means that near 0, we can approximate \sin(x) by the cubic polynomial

\sin(x)\approx x-\dfrac{x^3}6.

In other words, the limits we often encounter while studying L’Hopital’s rule provide a good motivation for polynomial approximations. Once the idea is introduced, higher-order — eventually “infinite-order” — approximations can be brought in. Some algorithms approximate transcendental functions with polynomials — this provides food for thought as well. Natural questions arise: How far do we need to go to get a given desired accuracy? Will the process always work?

I won’t say more about this approach here, since I’ve written up a complete set of Taylor series notes.  They were written for an Honors-level class, so some sections won’t be appropriate for a typical calculus course. They were also intended for use in an inquiry-based learning environment, and so are not in the usual “text, examples, exercise” order. But I hope they at least convey an approach to the subject, which I have adapted to a more traditional university setting as well. For the interested instructor, I also have compiled a complete Solutions Manual.

I think this is enough to give you the idea of my approach to using a traditional textbook. Every calculus teacher has their own way of thinking about the subject — as it should be. There is no reason to think that every teacher should teach calculus in the same way — but there is every reason to think that calculus teachers should be contemplating how to make this beautiful subject more accessible to their students.

In the country of Krzl, the Council of Seventeen Electors has created an unusual monetary system based on the costs of many common goods, such as grimm, skeetles, and ploot. The smallest monetary unit is one plak. There are four other monetary units: the bungle, the chip, the dribble, and the forndl. Each may be exchanged for a whole number of plax.

Given the following clues, can you decide how many plax you have if you have one bungle, two chips, three dribbles, and four forndls in your pocket?

1.  Five chips may be exchanged for dribbles, and this is the smallest number of chips which may be exactly changed for dribbles.

2.  Five forndls may be exchanged for dribbles, and this is the smallest number of forndls which may be exactly changed for dribbles.

3.  One forndl may be exactly changed in chips, although one dribble cannot.

4.  Eight bungles are worth a chip and a forndl.

5.  One forndl may be exchanged for two bungles and one dribble.

6.  The number of plax that a bungle is worth is prime.

Published by

Vince Matsko

Mathematician, educator, consultant, artist, puzzle designer, programmer, blogger, etc., etc. @cre8math

3 thoughts on “The Problem with Calculus Textbooks”

  1. I wouldn’t have thought to try differentiation before limits. I do see the sense of it, though, particularly given how many interesting functions like polynomials can be done without a formal idea of limits.

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  2. Yes – the geometry of differentiation is very accessible, and really does help to motivate limits. You can readily introduce the important ideas without a sophisticated understanding of limits.

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