Monthly Archives: April 2013

Volume in Calculus: Conceptualizing before Formalizing

One of our PD sessions in the past was about how to support students with learning differences. One of the points that the presenter made was that most pedagogical tools that you would use the better serve these students are great tools to reach all learners. This struck me especially because I teach almost entirely students for whom English is their second language, and sometimes when I do something specifically to help students with the language of mathematics I come to larger and more general pedagogical understandings.

For example, this past week, I introduced solids of known cross-section in AP Calculus in a way that I thought would ease my students understanding of the tricky language involved in the problems, but what I ended up doing was really effectively let them develop their own conception of how these solids are formed and THEN interpret the AP problem language and integral notation in those terms. Conceptualize and then add mathematical formality to their own conceptual framework.

Here’s how it worked. I put 4 of these solids out around the room:

  1. First, I gave them 1-2 minutes to SILENTLY write down in bullet points how they would describe to someone else how the solid was formed.
  2. Then I gave them 2 minutes to share ideas in groups.
  3. Then I cold called on 7 or 8 students via a deck small cards with their names on them (which is by far my new favorite teaching tool). After I called on some students, I called for volunteers with any other ideas.
  4. LAST, I asked them to flip to the back of the paper and read the actual description.

During the “share” part, students said some of the craziest, random stuff, but most of the important parts of the description were said by various students. When it came time for them to read the description, at first they were like “whoa” because the language is still a bit daunting. But after a minute or so of close reading, they connected everything in that description with things that they themselves had said. So when it was time to do the actual integral, the intermediate notation I use made 100% sense:


So general pedagogical moral of the story? Letting students conceptualize something on their own before bringing in mathematical language and notation makes it more likely that the notation will aid in their understanding rather than provide another hurdle in learning. 

A teaching fellow (a first year teacher) was observing my class (and has been observing periodically throughout the year). Afterwards, she remarked that she felt this was one of the most effective 10 minutes of the year, and I agree! And I think 10 minutes on this (instead of just 1 minute reading the question) will save lots of time in the future. Next week, I hope to try the same strategy with solids of revolution!!