Teaching the Chain Rule inductively

I taught Calculus I every spring between 1996 and 2008. Perhaps the hardest topic to teach — at least for me — in the entire course was the Chain Rule. In the early years, I would show students the technique, but it seemed like my students accepted it on faith that their professor knew what he was talking about it. Also, it took them quite a while to become proficient with the Chain Rule… as opposed to the Product and Quotient Rules, which they typically mastered quite quickly (except for algebraic simplifications).

It took me several years before I found a way of teaching the Chain Rule so that the method really sunk into my students by the end of the class period. Here’s the way that I now teach the Chain Rule.

On the day that I introduce the Chain Rule, I teach inductively (as opposed to deductively). At this point, my students are familiar with how to differentiate y = x^n for positive and negative integers n, the trigonometric function, and y = \sqrt{x}. They also know the Product and Quotient Rules.

I begin class by listing a whole bunch of functions that can be found by the Chain Rule if they knew the Chain Rule. However, since my students don’t know the Chain Rule yet, they have to find the derivatives some other way. For example:

Let y = (3x - 5)^2. Then

y = (3x - 5) \cdot (3x -5)

y' = 3 \cdot (3x -5) + (3x -5) \cdot 3

y' = 6(3x-5).

Let y = (x^3 + 4)^2. Then

y = (x^3 + 4) \cdot (x^3 + 4)

y' = 3x^2 \cdot (x^3 + 4) + (x^3 + 4) \cdot 3x^2

y' = 6x^2 (x^3 + 4)

Let y = (\sqrt{x} + 5)^2. Then

y = x + 10 \sqrt{x} + 25

y' = 1 + \displaystyle \frac{5}{\sqrt{x}}

Let y = \sin^2 x. Then

y = \sin x \cdot \sin x

y' = \cos x \cdot \sin x + \sin x \cdot \cos x

y' = 2 \sin x \cos x

Let $y = \sin 2x$. Then

y = 2 \sin x \cos x

y' = 2 \cos x \cos x - 2 \sin x \sin x

y' = 2 (\cos^2 x - \sin^2 x)

y' = 2 \cos 2x

The important thing is to list example after example after example, and have students compute the derivatives. All along, I keep muttering something like, “Boy, it would sure be nice if there was a short-cut that would save us from doing all this work.” Of course, there is a short-cut (the Chain Rule), but I don’t tell the students what it is. Instead, I make the students try to figure out the pattern for themselves. This is absolutely critical: I don’t spill the beans. I just wait and wait and wait until the students figure out the pattern for themselves… though I might give suggestive hints, like rewriting the 6 in the first example as $\latex 3 \times 2$.

This can take 20-30 minutes, and perhaps over a dozen examples (like those above), as students are completely engaged and frustrated trying to figure out the short-cut. But my experience is that when it clicks, it really clicks. So this pedagogical technique requires a lot of patience on the part of the instructor to not “save time” by giving the answer but to allow the students the thrill of discovering the pattern for themselves.

Once the Chain Rule is discovered, then my experience is that students have been prepared for differentiating more complicated functions, like y = \sqrt{4 + \sin 2x} and y = \cos ( \sqrt{x} ). In other words, there’s a significant front-end investment of time as students discover the Chain Rule, but applying the Chain Rule generally moves along quite quickly once it’s been discovered.

2 thoughts on “Teaching the Chain Rule inductively

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