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Here is an index card that goes with this lesson (side 1a only).
The ideas are discussed more fully below.

You may want to copy (hand-write) this information onto your own index card,
to have an in-a-nutshell summary of important calculus ideas.

You can get an entire set of Calculus Index Cards here.
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Recall that a function is a rule that takes an input, does something to it, and gives a corresponding output.
Function notation is extremely useful for describing this input/output relationship:
if the function name (the rule) is $\,f\,,$ and the input is $\,x\,,$ then the corresponding output is $\,f(x)\,.$
That is, the notation $\,f(x)\,$ (read as ‘$f$ of $x$’) represents the output from the function $\,f\,$ when the input is $\,x\,.$

As inputs change, you often want to know how the corresponding outputs (function values) change.
That is, as inputs change from $\,a\,$ to $\,b\,,$ how is $\,f(a)\,$ changing to $\,f(b)\,$? Are these outputs increasing? Decreasing? Quickly? Slowly?

Here's an example.
Suppose you have a shower dial that controls the temperature of the water.
How do adjustments of the dial (changes in the input) affect the temperature of the water (changes in the output)?
When you move the dial from (say) position $\,a\,$ to position $\,b\,,$ does the water get hotter or colder?
(Perhaps the dial is broken, and the temperature doesn't change at all!)
Does moving the dial from $a$ to $b$ change the temperature a lot, or only a little?
These are the sorts of questions we want answered, and the concept of average rate of change comes to the rescue.

DEFINITION average rate of change of a function $\,f\,$ from $\,a\,$ to $\,b\,$
The average rate of change of $\,f\,$ from $\,a\,$ to $\,b\,$ is: $$\frac{f(b) - f(a)}{b - a} $$

Observations on the definition:

  • Different names for the same thing:
    • the average rate of change of $\,f\,$ from $\,a\,$ to $\,b\,$
    • the average rate of change of $\,f\,$ on the interval $[a,b]$
    • the average rate of change of $\,f\,$ between $a$ and $b$
  • The denominator, $\,b - a\,,$ gives the change in the inputs.
    The numerator, $\,f(b)-f(a)\,,$ gives the corresponding change in the outputs.
  • The uppercase Greek letter delta ($\Delta$) denotes a change in a quantity.
    For example, $\Delta x$ can be read as ‘change in $x$’ or ‘delta $x$’, and denotes a change in $x$.
  • The average rate of change of a function $f$ takes the form $$\frac{\Delta{\text{ output}}}{\Delta{\text{ input}}} = \frac{\Delta f(x)}{\Delta x} $$

EXAMPLE:   a particle moving along a number line
A particle is moving along a number line.
Let $s(t)$ (in feet) give the position of the particle at time $t$ (in seconds).
Here are some values of $t$ and $s(t)$:


(a) Find the average velocity of the particle on $[0,2]$. Use correct units.


$\displaystyle\frac{\text{change in position}}{\text{change in time}} = \frac{s(2)-s(0)}{2-0} = \frac{7-10}{2} = -\frac 32$;     the average velocity is $-\frac 32$ feet/second

(b) Since we only have ‘snapshots’ of the particle at one-second intervals, it is impossible to know exactly how it is moving.
From the limited data, however, how does the particle appear to be moving?

The particle appears to be moving to the left, and speeding up:
in the first second, it moved one unit to the left;
in the next second, it moved two units to the left, and so on.

You can explore average rate of change using JSXGraph below:

Input the desired function $f$ and interval $[a,b]$ below:
(use x*x for $\,x^2\,,$ NOT x^2)
$f(x) = $ a = b =
Master the ideas from this section
by practicing the exercise at the bottom of this page.

When you're done practicing, move on to:
Introduction to Limits

On this exercise, you will not key in your answer.
However, you can check to see if your answer is correct.
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8

(MAX is 8; there are 8 different problem types.)