Anticipating student struggles…

UPDATE: Results from the class described have been added at the end of the post.

Putting my money where my mouth is tonight.

I have had some saucy things to say about our adopted Calc text. In particular, that it has not been written from a perspective that is empathetic with students’ states of mind.

So tonight we’re proving the area of a circle formula as an introduction to trigonometric substitution. There’s a rabbit-out-of-the-hat moment in which the substitution in question gets introduced:

x=r•cos (theta)

I anticipate that this will be a challenging point for students. So we’ll stop there and collect responses to the question, What does this make you wonder, question or think about?

Here’s what I anticipate they’ll say:

  • Why r?
  • Why cosine (instead of, say, sine)?
  • Why theta?
  • Is this like u-substitution?

As always, I am prepared to be schooled.

I know they’ll have ideas I never thought of. Can’t wait to see what they are.

Post mortem

Sue writes in the comments:

I don’t start with the strange substitution. I start with a triangle. For me, the triangle I draw explains the substitution I decide to use. Then it’s all about reasoning, instead of memorizing (?) 3 very strange substitutions.

This is spot on.

Students asked about the theta, they asked about the r. They didn’t make any connection to u-substitution. Lots of them worked on triangles. Students thought about vectors in physics and they thought about the unit circle.

In contrast with Sue’s suggestion, and in contrast with where my students’ minds were, our text talks about this:

In general, we can make a substitution of the form x=g(t) by using the Substitution Rule in reverse. To make our calculations simpler, we assume that g has an inverse function; that is, g is one-to-one…This kind of substitution is called inverse substitution.

And the triangle Sue suggests? That comes in at the end of the technique as a tool for changing variables back from theta to x. So we finish with where students’ minds are, but we start with an abstract, backwards version of something they’re not even thinking about to begin with.

And we wonder why students don’t become better problem solvers in their college courses, and why they don’t develop the kinds of critical thinking skills we would like them to. And why students don’t read the textbook. They don’t read the textbook because it’s not speaking to them.

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3 responses to “Anticipating student struggles…

  1. I don’t start with the strange substitution. I start with a triangle. For me, the triangle I draw explains the substitution I decide to use. Then it’s all about reasoning, instead of memorizing (?) 3 very strange substitutions.

    • Thanks. I’ll have to think this idea through. It certainly matches where my students’ minds were at! See revised post.

  2. Pingback: You Khan learn more about me here | Overthinking my teaching

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