My trig students are now learning about the graphs of trig functions. (Yes, I’m behind.) I started off by talking about periodicity, and then I talked about how the values of sine and cosine repeat once we get all the way around the unit circle and start going around again. I then presented the idea of f(x)=sin(x) and started getting them to tell me what values I would plot.

They were confused. I figured out two major reasons for their confusion. The first one, I think I’ve addressed, but the second is, I think, still causing befuddlement.

Reason #1: I put a graph up there and used crazy things like pi/2, pi, 3pi/2, and 2pi as my notch marks on the x-axis. They’re used to integers there, and to think that I could divide my axis so that each notch represented pi/2…well, that was just insane to them. I think it relates to the way they don’t really like to think of pi as a constant, since they can’t express its value exactly in any way other than a weird Greek symbol. But I think I dealt with this one okay, though I might mention it again today just to make sure they caught on.

Reason #2: This is best expressed by giving a quote from a student.

“Why are you saying ‘sin x’ when sine is y?”

The student was confused because, on the unit circle, she had memorized that the y-value is the sine of the angle (which we’ve been calling theta). All that relating of the values on the unit circle to right triangles? Yeah, that didn’t work for her. She just memorized that “sine is y.” I tried to show her that we had been saying that sin(theta)=y on the unit circle, and that now instead of theta, x is the angle of which we’re taking the sine for our function…but I don’t think it clicked for her. Well, I thought it had, but then when I said that we could also do a function f(x)=cos(x), she said, “But then cos(x) would be y, and I thought sine was y?”

So I’m still working on that one. But I’m making myself notes, so that next year I’ll be able to anticipate these misconceptions and hopefully prevent them by changing my earlier instruction. I’m sure new ones will pop up to surprise me then. ;)