Category Archives: PreCalculus

Rational Functions

We are studying Rational Functions, and I was looking for technology activities which would help students visualize the graphs of the functions and deepen their understanding of the concepts involved.  Previously, I had taught algebraic and numerical methods to find the key features of the graphs (asymptotes, holes, zeros, intercepts), then students would sketch by hand and check on the graphing calculator.  I wanted to capitalize on technology’s power of visualization* to give students timely feedback on whether their work/graph is correct, and avoid using the grapher as a “magic” answer machine.  I also wanted to familiarize students with the patterns of rational function graphs—in the same way that they know that quadratic functions are graphed as “U-shape” parabolas.

Here are three ideas:

Interactive Sliders

Students can manipulate the parameters in a rational function using interactive sliders on a variety of platforms (Geogebra, TI-Nspire, Transformation Graphing App for TI-84+ family, Desmos).  Consider the transformations of these two parent functions:

eq1 to become  eq3and

eq2 to become    eq4

Each of these can be explored with various values for the parameters, including negative values of a.

Here are screenshots from Transformation Graphing on the TI-84+ family:

Another option is to explore multiple x-intercepts such aseq5.

This TI-Nspire activity Graphs of Rational Functions does just that:


In a lesson using sliders, on any platform, I use the following stages so students will:

  1. Explore the graphs of related functions on an appropriate window.  Especially for the TI-84+ family, consider using a “friendly window” such as ZoomDecimal, and show the Grid in the Zoom>Format menu if desired.  Trace to view holes, and notice that the y-value is indeed “undefined.” capture-6
  2. Record conjectures about the roles of a, h, and k and how the exponent of x changes the shape of the graph.  This Geogebra activity has a “quick change” slider that adjusts the parent function from  eq1  to eq2.capture-geogebra-rationals
  3. Make predictions about what a given function will look like and verify with the graphing technology (or provide a function for a given graph).

A key component of the lesson is to have students work on a lab sheet or in a notebook or in an electronic form to record the results and summarize the findings.  Even if your technology access is limited to demonstrating the process on a teacher computer projected to the class, require students to actively record and discuss.  The activity must engage students in doing the math, not simply viewing the math.


A Desmos activity reminiscent of the classic GreenGlobs, MarbleSlides-Rationals has students graph curves so their marbles will slide through all of the stars on the screen.  If students already have a working understanding of the parent function graphs, this is a wonderful and fun exploration.

The activity focuses on the same basic curves, and it also introduces the ability to restrict the domain in order to “corral” the marbles.  Users can input multiple equations on one screen.

I really liked how it steps the students through several “Fix It” tasks to learn the fundamentals of changing the value and sign of a, h, k and the domains. These are followed by “Predict” and “Verify” screens, one where you are asked to “Help a Friend” and several culminating “Challenges”.  Particularly fun are the tasks that require more than one equation.

On one challenge, students noticed that the stars were in a linear orientation.


Although it could be solved with several equations, I asked if we could reduce it to one or two.  One student wondered how we could make a line out of a rational function.  Discussion turned to slant asymptotes, so we challenged ourselves to find a rational function which would divide to equal the linear function throw the points.  Here was a possible solution:


Asymptotes & Zeros

Finally, I wanted students to master rational functions whose numerator and denominator were polynomials, and connect the factors of these polynomials to the zeros, asymptotes, and holes in the graph.  I used the Asymptotes and Zeros activity (with teacher file) for the TI-84+ family.  It can also be used on other graphing platforms.

Students are asked to graph a polynomial (in blue below) and find its zeros and y-intercept.  They then factor this polynomial and make the conceptual connection between the factor and the zeros.  Another polynomial is examined in the same way (in black below).  Finally, the two original polynomials become the numerator and denominator of a rational function (in green below).  Students relate the zeros and asymptotes of the rational function back to the zeros of the component functions.


I particularly liked the illumination of the y-intercept, that it is the quotient of the y-intercepts of the numerator and denominator polynomials.  We had always analyzed the numerator and denominator separately to find the features of the rational function graph, but it hadn’t occurred to me to graph them separately.

A few concluding thoughts to keep in mind: any of these activities can work on another technology platform, so don’t feel limited if you don’t have a particular calculator or students don’t have computer/internet access.  Try to find a like-minded colleague who will work with you as you experiment with technology implementation, so you can share what worked and what didn’t with your students (and if you don’t have someone in your building, connect with the #MTBoS community on Twitter).  Finally, ask good questions of your students, to probe and prod their thinking and be sure they are gaining the conceptual understanding you are seeking.


*The “Power of Visualization” is a transformative feature of computer and calculator graphers that was promoted by Bert Waits and Frank Demana who founded the Teachers Teaching with Technology professional community.  More information in this article and in Waits, B. K. & Demana, F. (2000).  Calculators in Mathematics Teaching and Learning: Past, Present, and Future. In M. J. Burke & F. R. Curcio (Eds.), Learning Math for a New Century: 2000 Yearbook (51–66).  Reston, VA: NCTM.

All of the activities referenced in this post are found here.  More available on the Texas Instruments website at TI-84 Activity Central and Math Nspired, or at Geogebra or Desmos.

For more about the Transformation Graphing App for the TI-84+ family of calculators, see this information.

GreenGlobs is still available! Check out the website here.

Function Operations

Using Multiple Representations on the TI-84+

Algebra 2 students are studying function operations and transformations of a parent function.  My student had learned about the graph of eq1 and how it gets shifted, flipped, and stretched by including parameters a, h, and k in the equation.

Now he was faced with this question: how to graph  the equation in #58:


It didn’t fit the model of  eq3new-copy  so it wasn’t a transformation of the absolute value parent function.  He knew how to graph each part individually, but didn’t know how to graph the combined equation.  The TI-84+ showed him the graph with an unusual shape—not the V-shape he expected.

TIP: use the alpha2  button to access the shortcut menus above the  yequals-key, window-key, zoom-key and trace-key  keys. The absolute value template is used here.

“Why does the graph look like this?” he wanted to know. We decided to break up the equation into two parts, using ALPHA-TRACE to access the YVAR variable names.* The complete function is found by adding up the two partial functions.


Then we looked at a table of values, to get a numerical view of the situation.  I remind my students that if they are unsure how to graph a particular function, they can ALWAYS make a table of X-Y values as a backup plan—it isn’t the quickest method to graph, but is sure to work.  To get the Y-values of the combined function, add up the Y-values for the partial functions, since sum-function.

Initially, we “turned off” Y3 by pressing ENTER on the equals sign, so we could view the partial functions in the TABLE. I asked the student what he thought the values in the next column should be.


He mentally added them up, and then we verified his thinking by activating Y3 and viewing the table again.capture-5

To further illuminate the flat portion of the graph, we changed the table increment to 0.1 in order to “zoom in” on those values.

TIP: While in the table,  press plus-key to change the increment table-increment , or press 2nd WINDOW to access the TBL SET screen.capture-6Success! The TI-84+ provided graphical and numerical representations that deepened our understanding of the algebraic equation. This task had challenged the student, because it didn’t fit the parent function model he had learned, but he built on his knowledge of function operations to solve is own problem and help some classmates as well.  One of our approaches to learning is to “use what you know.”**


*You can use function notation on the home screen to perform calculations with any function from the Y= screen. Access the YVARs from ALPHA-TRACE.

**Much has been written about Classroom Norms. See Jo Boaler’s suggestions here and my messages to students here.

For more about transformations on parent functions, see this information about the Transformation Graphing App on the TI-84+ family of calculators.

Problems With Parentheses

I have been noticing lately that my students are making mistakes involving the use of parentheses.  Sometimes parentheses are overused and other times they are missing, and errors are also made while using calculator technology.  Using symbols and notation correctly is part of SMP #6, “Attend to Precision”, and is also a component of mathematical communication, since so much of math is written in symbols.  I want my students to be efficient and accurate in their work, and I hope their notation supports their conceptual understanding. So I’ve been contemplating the purposes of parentheses…

Purpose #1: To Provide Clarity with Negative Integers.  Negative integers can be set off with a pair of parentheses for addition and subtraction, as in these examples, but the expression’s value is unchanged if the parentheses are not used:

  1.    (–4) + 6 = 2
  2.    6 – (–4) = 10

With an exponent on a negative integer, however, the parentheses are essential.  We are working on sequences and series in Algebra II.  When a geometric sequence has a negative common ratio, the explicit formula has a negative number raised to an exponent:

  1.    The sequence  2, –6, 18, –54, … has explicit formula  An = 2·(–3)n-1

To convince my Algebra II students that the parentheses are required, consider  –32  vs.  (–3)2  on the TI-84+ calculator:

Capture 1

The calculator executes the order of operations: exponents are evaluated before multiplication. Since the negative sign actually represents –1 times 32, the 32  is evaluated first.  Although I prefer students to focus on conceptual understanding and not merely procedural rules, I say to “always use parentheses for a negative base”.

Purpose #2: To Specify the Base for Exponentiation.  Another class is studying exponents and logs, and students notice that using parentheses has mathematical meaning for the result.

  1.    (2x)3    vs.   2x3
  1. Each component of the fraction within the parentheses gets raised to the power; these are all different (and the TI-Nspire CAS handles them nicely):

04-28-2016 Image004

Attending to precision is essential for students, and by doing three similar but different problems as a set, they get practice analyzing how the notation changes the results.

Purpose #3: To Properly Represent Fractions.  Fractions generally don’t need parentheses when written by hand, and I’m direct with students about my strong preference for a horizontal fraction bar rather than a diagonal bar when writing fractions on paper or on the board.

Complications can occur when students try to enter the fraction into a calculator without using a fraction template.  Pressing the DIVIDE button to create the “slash”, as in 3/4, has the advantage of connecting a fraction with the operation of division but the drawback of the diagonal bar.  For anything more complex than a simple fraction, parentheses are needed to “collect” the numerator and denominator so that the fraction is computed correctly.   For example:

  1. Find the mean of these three test scores: 85, 96, 77.

Capture 4

  1. Graph a rational function

Capture 3

Thankfully, fraction templates are readily available, so errors using parentheses are avoided.   On any TI-84+, set the mode to “MathPrint” and press ALPHA and Y= to access the template.  On a TI-Nspire, press CTRL and DIVIDE or select the fraction from the template palate.

This was especially useful for finding the sum of the following geometric series; notice the error on the first try due to missing parentheses, and then the corrected version:

And the calculator comes to the rescue! I encourage students to enter complicated expressions all at once.  Making separate entries for each part is taking a risk:

Capture 7

Purpose #4: To Indicate Multiplication. Probably the area in which I am observing the most “overuse” of parentheses is for multiplication.  At some time before students reach me in high school, they have been taught that in addition to using the × symbol to multiply, they can also use • , a raised dot. A third alternative is to use parentheses to indicate multiplication, especially for negative integers or to distribute multiplication over addition:

  1.    (–4)( –6) = 24
  2.    2x(x + 5) = 2x2 + 10x

I’ve seen some students “over-distribute” if they rely on parentheses instead of the raised dot for multiplication:

11.       (–4)(x)(3x2)  should be –12x3 ; however what if a student “distributes” the –4?

over distribute

[One more pet peeve of mine: when students utilize the × symbol for multiplying even when using the variable x.  I strongly suggest that once they are in Algebra I, students should “graduate” to the raised dot  •  to symbolize multiplication.]

When using the Chain Rule in Calculus, students sometimes make the error of “invisible parentheses” and then lose them entirely in their subsequent algebraic simplification.

  1. Find the derivative of (3x2 – 4x + 5)–2

invisible parenth

Notice the missing parentheses for (6x – 4) and how the error carries through.

Purpose #5:  Operator Notations.  My final category of parentheses usage is as part of the notation of certain function operators.  Students are familiar with using parentheses in function notation f(x), where the independent variable x is the input for the function expression.  Other functions such as logs and trig functions can use parentheses to set off their “arguments”, and the calculator supports this use by providing the left parenthesis.  Entering the right parenthesis is optional on the TI-84+, but a good practice for students:

Capture 5

If students get in the habit of using the parentheses, it enables them to correctly apply the “expand to separate logs” and “condense to a single log” rule.  Here the parentheses are not “needed” to indicate the argument of the log, but helpful for this student.

  1. Solve each equation:

And in these last two examples, the parentheses helps the student get the correct result:

  1. Expand to separate logs:


  1. Condense to a single log:


One final note: I want my students to harness the power of parentheses to support their conceptual understanding and mathematical accuracy.  Being precise about notation is not about “doing it my way” but instead about doing it in a way that helps them grasp the purpose of the symbols they use to clearly communicate their mathematical thinking.


For more about the “loss of invisible parentheses”, ambiguous fractions and other common math errors, see this site.

For one teacher’s approach to using parentheses to evaluate function values, read this blog post: An Algebraic Oath.

And here is one teacher’s elegant and simple definition of parentheses: Parenthetically Speaking.