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Preparing for Calculus


Calculus is a specified field of mathematics.  Limits, derivatives, integrals, and infinite series are all applied to various types of functions (i.e., linear, quadratic, exponential, trigonometric, etc.).  They each depend on the understanding of basic arithmetic as well as specific concepts of other branches of secondary level mathematics such as algebra, geometry, and trigonometry.  Prior to taking a calculus course students should develop specific skills in each of these areas of study.

Below, I briefly discuss key skills and concepts required from three branches of mathematics (algebra, geometry, and trigonometry) to prepare students for calculus.  I discuss this material as it relates to differentiation, a fundamental component of calculus.

Algebra (Functions)

Differentiation converts formulas into other formulas.  These formulas are functions.  Algebra is the study of functions.  Since functions are the object of differentiation, it is imperative that students entering into a course of study in calculus have a thorough understanding of functions.

Many secondary students can follow instructions to substitute a value into an equation, but the study of functions will provide a greater understanding of why the method of substitution works and why a relationship exists between the parameters.

Geometry (Graphs)

The result of differentiation is a derivative.  Derivatives are used to calculate the slope of a line tangent to a point on the graph of a function.  A student can find an estimated value using the slope of a line secant to the same graph, but calculus makes it possible to find the exact value.  Students must have a thorough understanding of graphs, slopes, and functions to understand the use of derivatives with respect to graphs of functions.

Trigonometry (Angles, Periods of revolution)

Trigonometry is the study of trigonometric functions.  Trigonometric functions are used to calculate measures involving triangles, periods of revolution, etc.  During the course of a calculus class students will encounter problems involving trigonometric functions which are useful for explaining periodicity.  Students studying calculus should understand trigonometric functions, their properties, and their graphs.

As discussed above, students preparing to take calculus should have a specific set of skills relating to calculus content.  The major subjects required for the development of these skills, and the understanding of the related concepts, are algebra, geometry, and trigonometry.  More specifically, students need to have a thorough understanding of functions, graphs, slopes, and trigonometric functions, to name a few, in order to effectively prepare to enter into a calculus course.

Although students have the benefit of the use of technology to solve many problems, they must have an understanding of the relationship between the functions used, their graphs, and the derivative so they can understand the output generated from the use of technology.  Simply plugging values into a technological tool does not provide this level of understanding.  In most cases, students will not have access to technological tools in college level math courses (see “Calculators Not Allowed” on this blog site), so it’s best to learn and understand the concepts without these aids.

Do you have any other ideas about concepts students should learn prior to taking a calculus course?


Author: Math Education Concepts

I am a Co-founder of and Program Coordinator for Math Corps Philadelphia, a combined academic enrichment and mentoring program. I am the author of "Teacher Training Manual: Designed for Secondary Mathematics Teachers of African American Urban Students." I hold a Master of Education degree in Secondary Mathematics and have several years of experience teaching secondary and post-secondary mathematics.

5 thoughts on “Preparing for Calculus

  1. Khan Academy has a pre-calculus section that you could possibly use as a homework exercise or simply just let those having trouble know about. They recommend doing the algebra section first to be able to properly tackle pre-calculaus, however your students have probably been taught most of that previously!


    • Thank you for the link. I’m sure it will be useful to someone in my class! Although they should have learned algebra, many of my students lack the skills necessary to be successful with precalculus. Every bit helps as they always ask for additional practice and resources.


  2. Pingback: Calculus calculations « Rubber Tyres –> Smooth Rides

  3. I am going to save this. A wonderful refresher for one who majored in esperimental psychology for the 1st 2 years of study at St. Joeseph’s University.


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