Students’ Interpretations of Expressions in the Graphical Register and Its Relation to Their Interpretation of Points on Graphs when Evaluating Statements about Functions from Calculus
Functions represented in the graphical register, as graphs in the Cartesian plane, are found throughout secondary and undergraduate mathematics courses. In the study of Calculus, specifically, graphs of functions are particularly prominent as a means of illustrating key concepts. Researchers have identified that some of the ways that students may interpret graphs are unconventional, which may impact their understanding of related mathematical content. While research has primarily focused on how students interpret points on graphs and students’ images related to graphs as a whole, details of how students interpret and reason with variables and expressions on graphs of functions have remained unclear.
This dissertation reports a study characterizing undergraduate students’ interpretations of expressions in the graphical register with statements from Calculus, its association with their evaluations of these statements, its relation to the mathematical content of these statements, and its relation to their interpretations of points on graphs. To investigate students’ interpretations of expressions on graphs, I conducted 150-minute task-based clinical interviews with 13 undergraduate students who had completed Calculus I with a range of mathematical backgrounds. In the interviews, students were asked to evaluate propositional statements about functions related to key definitions and theorems of Calculus and were provided various graphs of functions to make their evaluations. The central findings from this study include the characteristics of four distinct interpretations of expressions on graphs that students used in this study. These interpretations of expressions on graphs I refer to as (1) nominal, (2) ordinal, (3) cardinal, and (4) magnitude. The findings from this study suggest that different contexts may evoke different graphical interpretations of expressions from the same student. Further, some interpretations were shown to be associated with students correctly evaluating some statements while others were associated with students incorrectly evaluating some statements.
I report the characteristics of these interpretations of expressions in the graphical register and its relation to their evaluations of the statements, the mathematical content of the statements, and their interpretation of points. I also discuss the implications of these findings for teaching and directions for future research in this area.