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connecting research

to teaching
Keith Weber

Teaching Trigonometric Functions:

Lessons Learned from Research

rigonometry is an important subject in the little research has focused on this subject. This arti-
high school mathematics curriculum. As one cle will present lessons learned from research inves-
of the secondary mathematics topics that are tigating the learning and teaching of trigonometric
taught early and that link algebraic, geometric, and functions (Weber 2005). It will report difficulties
graphical reasoning, trigonometry can serve as an that students have in understanding trigonometric
important precursor to calculus as well as college- functions and describe tested instructional strategies
level courses relating to Newtonian physics, archi- to help students overcome their difficulties.
tecture, surveying, and engineering. Unfortunately,
many high school students are not accustomed to TRIGONOMETRIC FUNCTIONS AS RATIOS
these types of reasoning (Blackett and Tall 1991), AND FUNCTIONS
and learning about trigonometric functions is What does it mean to understand a trigonometric
initially fraught with difficulty. Trigonometry function? Just as taking a square root or cubing a
presents many first-time challenges for students: It number can be thought of as operations applied to
requires students to relate diagrams of triangles to numbers, the terms sine, cosine, and tangent can be
numerical relationships and manipulate the sym- thought of as mathematical operations applied to
bols involved in such relationships. Further, trigo- angles. These trigonometric functions are generally
nometric functions are typically among the first presented in two ways. First, they are presented as
functions that students cannot evaluate directly by ratios that can be applied to labeled right triangles.
performing arithmetic operations. For instance, students can use a ratio understand-
Despite the importance of trigonometry and stu- ing of the trigonometric functions to determine that
dents potential difficulties in learning it, relatively sinA = 3/5, cosA = 4/5, and tanA = 3/4 (see fig. 1).
Using calculators, students can use a ratio under-
This department consists of articles that bring research insights and findings to
standing of sine and cosine to determine the missing
an audience of teachers and other mathematics educators. Articles must make lengths (a and b) of the triangle (see fig. 2). Such an
explicit connections between research and teaching practice. Our conception of understanding is obviously useful; it is sufficient to
research is a broad one; it includes research on student learning, on teacher think- solve various types of word problems and perform
ing, on language in the mathematics classroom, on policy and practice in math- other tasks. For instance, adding vectors in physics
ematics education, on technology in the classroom, on international comparative requires this type of trigonometric reasoning.
work, and more. The articles in this department focus on important ideas and
However, a ratio understanding is also limited.
include vivid writing that makes research findings come to life for teachers. Our
goal is to publish articles that are appropriate for reflection discussions at depart-
Principles and Standards for School Mathematics
ment meetings or any other gathering of high school mathematics teachers. For argues that understanding an operation involves
further information, contact the editors. being able to estimate the result of that operation
(NCTM 2000, pp. 3233). For example, under-
Libby Knott, standing fractions involves knowing that 7/8 +
University of Montana, Missoula, MT 59812 13/12 should be approximately 2 because each
fraction is approximately 1. By itself, a ratio
Thomas A. Evitts,
Shippensburg University, Shippensburg, PA 17257
understanding of sine would not permit students
to approximate sin15, because sin15 could be

144 Mathematics Teacher | Vol. 102, No. 2 September 2008

Copyright 2008 The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, Inc. All rights reserved.
This material may not be copied or distributed electronically or in any other format without written permission from NCTM.

10 a
5 3


A b
Fig. 2 A right triangle with a given angle, a given side, and
4 two missing sides

Fig. 1 A labeled right triangle opportunity to apply this process. The exercises they
are asked to complete rarely require a process under-
found only if two sides of a right triangle having an standing of trigonometric operations; most simply
angle of 15 were given. A ratio understanding of require using a ratio conception of the trigonometric
sine would also not permit students to determinea operations or applying algebraic techniques. Other
in which quadrants sine was increasing or to graph researchers note that traditional instruction empha-
sin2x. Many calculus tasks, such as determining sizes understanding trigonometric functions as ratios
the derivative of sinx, make little sense with a ratio and does not enable students to understand them as (0, 1)
understanding30of sine. functions (Kendal and Stacey 1997).
To address the latter tasks, students need to
have a function-based understanding of trigono- THE EFFECT OF TRADITIONAL INSTRUCTION
metric operations (Weber 2005). They need to ON STUDENTS UNDERSTANDING OF
understand operations such as sine as a process TRIGONOMETRIC OPERATIONS
that takes an angle as an input and maps this angle To investigate students understanding of trigono-
to a real number. To understand a trigonometric metric operations, I conducted a study of thirty-one
operation as a function, students need to know a students who were completing a college trigonom-
process they can use to evaluate that function for etry class. I asked them to take a test without using
any given angle, and they must be able to anticipate a calculator and then invited four students for
the approximate result of that method and reason an interview. The teacher of the class, who was
about the properties of that result without actually unaffiliated with my study, described his teaching
performing the steps of the process. as traditional; in particular, he claimed to teach
primarily by lectures based largely on the course
TRADITIONAL INSTRUCTION OF TRIGONO- textbook, with an emphasis on students develop-
METRIC OPERATIONS 40 ing procedural skills. The textbook for the course
Too often trigonometry instruction emphasizes was Lial, Hornsby, and Schneider (2001), which
procedural, paper-and-pencil skills at the expense of was structured similarly to the textbooks described
deep understanding (Hirsch, Weinhold, and Nichols Thefull
earlier. The intersection
results and methodology of this
1991). An inspection of several popular high school point
study are0.75 is about
reported in Weber (2005). The purpose
to the right
algebra, geometry, and trigonometry textbooks (e.g., of reporting these
of the results here is to illustrate the
Hollowell, Schultz, and Ellis 1997; Schoen 1990; 40
limited understanding of trigonometric functions
Larson 2004) reveals that students are typically many students have after completing 70 a trigonom- 160
first taught trigonometric operations as ratios (e.g., etry course.
sinq is defined as y/r in a labeled right triangle or Two of the test questions were these:
as opposite over hypotenuse). Students are asked
to use these ratios to accomplish tasks such as those 1. Approximate cos340. The intersection
point is about
suggested in figures 1 and 2 and then solve word 2. For what values of x is sinx decreasing? Why? the
0.65 above
problems. After several sections devoted to these x-axis.
topics, the textbooks introduce the unit circle model Only six of the thirty-one students estimated
of trigonometric functions. At this point, the texts that cos340 was between 0.5 and 1.0. Nine stu-
sometimes ask students to imagine applying a pro- dents correctly noted that sinx was decreasing for
cess to find sine and cosine of a particular angle 90 < x < 270, and six offered a convincing expla-
The intersection
(such as walking r units around the unit circle and nation for why this was the case. These results sug-
point is about
locating the
0.75 and
y-to thex-values,
right respectively, of the stop- gest that these students had difficulty understand-
ping point). However,
of the y-axis. students are not given the ing trigonometric functions.
Vol. 102, No. 2 September 2008 | Mathematics Teacher 145 230
My interviews with a subset of the students a protractor and a unit circle drawn on graph paper
revealed some reasons why. Consider the tran- and marked with Cartesian coordinates such that ten
scripts below (all students names are pseudonyms): tick marks constituted one unit. I then described and
modeled a procedure for computing sines and cosines
Interviewer: Describe sinx for me in your own by using a protractor to draw an angle with vertex
words. at the origin and one ray along the x-axis, marking
Steve: To find sine, it would depend on the problem where the other ray intersected the circle, and using
that was given to me. If I was given a triangle, the tick marks to estimate the x- or y-coordinate of
I would divide y and r. If I were given one of that point. This procedure was also fully described
the special angles, like 30, 45, or 60, I would in a student handout. Students worked in groups on
have this number memorized. There are other a series of classroom activities in which they found
problems which can be solved by reference the sines and cosines of six angles by using the proce-
angles, or using formulas, like sinq + cosq = 1 dure. While they worked, I circulated among them to
[sic]. How you find the answer depends on how answer any questions they might have and make sure
the problem is worded. they were applying the procedure correctly.
Interviewer: What can you tell me about sin170? Can Students were next asked to evaluate the sines
you give me an approximation for this number? and cosines of some angles by anticipating the
Steve: I dont ... I would need the triangle. Maybe if you results of the procedure without applying the
told me what some other value of sine would be, or, procedure itself. For instance, students could find
like, what cos170 would be, I could find what sine sin270 by realizing that they needed to examine
is. Otherwise, I would need to use a calculator. where the bottom half of the y-axis intersected
the unit circle. Students were also asked to make
Steves responses were representative of those judgments about the procedures output without
of the four students I interviewed. Steve seemed actually applying it. For instance, they were asked
to view sine and cosine as algorithms (based on to determine which was greatersin23 or sin37.
ratios or on algebraic manipulations) that could These tasks helped students reason about the
be applied but only if other information, such as a process in general and make judgments about sines
labeled right triangle, was also provided. Without and cosines without applying each step.
this information, Steve could not conceive of how I used lessons of this type throughout the course.
to apply the sine or cosine operation to an angle, For instance, students learned how to find sines,
except for special cases. (Because my tested sample cosines, and tangents by constructing right trian-
consisted of only one class of students, we must not gles on a Cartesian plane, measuring the lengths of
generalize these results inappropriately.) the sides, and computing ratios. Once the students
understood this procedure, they could perform
AN ALTERNATIVE APPROACH TO tasks like those required in figure 1, because they
TEACHING TRIGONOMETRY understood the essentials; it was as if someone had
The following suggested instruction is based on created a triangle and measured the lengths of the
the idea that trigonometric operations such as sine sides for them. However, students understanding
can be understood as geometric processes. One pro- of the functions was not restricted to reasoning
cess for computing sine is to construct a unit circle from diagrams; they could imagine producing the
on a Cartesian plane, use a protractor to draw a diagrams themselves, if necessary. When studying
ray emanating from the origin such that the angle reference angles, students were first asked to draw
between the positive half of the x-axis and the the desired angle, find the appropriate reference
ray is the input angle, locate the point of intersec- angle themselves, and then compute the sines and
tion between the ray and the circle, and determine cosines by looking at it. Students instructed in this
the y-value, or height, of that intersection. Recent geometric approach understood reference angles
research in mathematics education indicates that easily and did not need to rely on the mnemonic
students have difficulty imagining the application of strategies that trigonometry students commonly
a process without the experience of actually applying use. A more thorough description of this instruc-
it. Instead, students may best develop a deeper tion is provided in Weber (2005).
understanding of processes by first applying them Toward the end of the course, I gave the forty
and then reflecting on their actions (Tall et al. 2000). students in my class the same paper-and-pencil
Here I describe instruction that I designed and test I had given to the students in the lecture-based
then implemented in a college trigonometry class class described earlier. When asked to approximate
that I taught. (One typical lesson is provided in the cos340, thirty-seven of the forty students gave a
appendix.) To involve students kinesthetically in response of some number between 0.5 and 1. When
computing sines and cosines, each student was given asked for those values for which sinx was decreas-

146 Mathematics Teacher | Vol. 102, No. 2 September 2008

ing, thirty-four students gave a correct answer, and DISCUSSION
thirty-two provided an adequate justification. The data from this research suggest that the geo-
On the basis of the students test responses, I metric approach to trigonometry can lead students
interviewed four students whose abilities varied to understand trigonometric operations as func-
(one very good student, two average students, and tions while traditional instruction does not. In this
one struggling student) and whose responses were section, I describe the features that distinguish this
typical of those of other students. Throughout approach from the lessons that appear in many
these interviews, the students were able to explain popular high school textbooks. The first is the
properties of the sine function by reasoning about emphasis placed on performing a geometric process
the process of computing sines. Two representative to compute sines, cosines, and tangents physically. I
excerpts of these interviews follow: examined the way in which several high school and
college textbooks presented trigonometric functions
Interviewer: Why is sinx a function? and found that most mentioned a process (using the
John: Because for, uh, each angle, theres going unit circle) only in passing. The questions students
back to the unit circle, if you put something in were asked to complete could almost always be
for the sinx, its only going to cross at one point. accomplished by treating trigonometric operations
Each angle is going to be one angle, and that as ratios. Second, the alternative approach asks stu-
one angle is going to cross the unit circle at one dents to perform this process physically and reflect
point. That one point is going to have a y-value. on their actions. The textbooks provide neither of
It will have one and only one y-value. these two features.
It is tempting to say that the emphasis on the unit
Note that John refers to the process used to com- circle was the reason students instructed in the alter-
pute sines to justify why sine has a certain prop- native approach did better, but in a large-scale study,
erty. Three of the four students interviewed gave Kendal and Stacey (1997) found otherwise. They
similar responses. It is also worth noting that none compared students learning in classes in which a
of the four interviewed students in the traditionally right-triangle model was used with students learn-
taught class could justify why sinx was a function, ing in classes in which a unit-circle model was used.
even after being told that an operation was a func- Students who were taught the right-triangle method
tion if each input had a unique output. performed significantly better on a subsequent post-
In the following excerpt, Erica is able to use her test than students who were given the unit-circle
process conception of sine to approximate sin170: model. So simply teaching about trigonometric oper-
ations by using a unit circle model is no guarantee
Interviewer: What can you tell me about sin170? Can that substantial learning will occur. However, giving
you give me an approximation for this number? students the opportunity to think of sine and cosine
Erica: The answer would, oh, be, Id say, 0.1. as processes is critical, regardless of the model used
Interviewer: That is a good guess. How did you get to teach these operations.
that answer? If students are given the opportunity to apply
Erica: I pictured making a 170 angle with and reflect on the constructive geometric processes
a protractor and seeing where the angle used in evaluating trigonometric operations, they
intersected the circle. will understand these operations at a much deeper
Interviewer: I see. And how did you know it would level than if they are taught that these operations
intersect at 0.1? are merely ratios that can be applied to given right
Erica [drawing a diagram]: Well, it would intersect triangles. One appealing aspect of the geometric
right there [pointing to the point of intersection]. approach is that implementing it does not require
a teacher to alter his or her classroom radically.
Here Erica is able to show how she can adapt her No special technology or training in special teach-
understanding of a process used to compute sines ing methods is required. Implementing the ideas
to approximate sinx quickly and accurately for an expounded here offers practicing teachers the
arbitrary angle x. opportunity to create an active, collaborative, hands-
These results are from only one class, one that on learning environment that has the potential to
I taught myself, so it is important not to generalize help students understand trigonometric concepts.
these results inappropriately. These results,
however, do show that a geometric approach REFERENCES
to trigonometry can be effective in developing Blackett, N., and D. O. Tall. Gender and the Versa-
students understanding of trigonometric tile Learning of Trigonometry Using Computer
operations and suggest that this approach could be Software. In Proceedings of the 15th Meeting of
applied in other classrooms. the International Group for the Psychology of Math-

Vol. 102, No. 2 September 2008 | Mathematics Teacher 147

ematics Education 1, edited by F. Furinghetti, pp. Tall, D. O., M. Thomas, G. Davis, E. Gray, and A.
14451. Assisi, Italy. 1991. Simpson. What Is the Object of the Encapsulation
Hirsch, Christian R., Marcia Weinhold, and Cameron of a Process? Journal of Mathematical Behavior 18,
Nichols. Trigonometry Today. Mathematics no. 2 (2000): 119.
Teacher 84, no. 2 (1991): 98106. Weber, Keith. Students Understanding of Trigo-
Hollowell, K. A., J. E. Schultz, and W. Ellis Jr. HRW nometric Functions. Mathematics Education
Geometry. Austin, TX: Holt, Rinehart, and Win- Research Journal 17, no. 3 (2005): 94115.
ston, 1997.
Kendal, M., and K. Stacey. Teaching Trigonometry.
Vinculum 34, no. 1 (1997): 48.
Larson, R. Trigonometry. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2004. KEITH WEBER,
Lial, M. L., J., Hornsby, and D. I. Schneider. College, is an assistant professor
Algebra and Trigonometry. Menlo Park, CA: of mathematics education at Rutgers
Addison Wellesley, 2001. University in New Brunswick, New
National Council of Teachers of Mathematics Jersey. He is interested in how high school and
(NCTM). Principles and Standards for School college students learn mathematics, including
Mathematics. Reston, VA: NCTM, 2000. trigonometry and proof. Photograph by Erin Maguire;
Schoen, H. Trigonometry and Its Applications. all rights reserved
Columbus, OH: Glencoe/McGraw Hill, 1990.

Computing Sines and Cosines by Using the Unit Circle
1. Start with a unit circle drawn on a Cartesian graph. A unit circle is a circle with a radius of 1 whose
center is the origin.

5 3

A 10 a


10 a 2. Use your protractor to make an angle with respect to the positive part of the x-axis. A 40 angle is
shown here.
(0, 1)




148 Mathematics Teacher | Vol. 102, No. 2 September 2008

70 1
3. Locate the point of intersection between the ray you have just drawn to complete the angle and the
unit circle. Using a ruler or your graph paper, find the coordinates of your intersection. The x-value
is the cosine of the angle you have constructed, and the y-value is the sine. In this case, sin40 is
about 0.65, and cos40 is about 0.75.

The intersection
point is about
0.75 to the right
of the y-axis.

The intersection
point is about
0.65 above the

Classroom Exercises

1. Compute the following sines and cosines by using a protractor and a unit circle:

(a) sin30 and cos30 (b) sin170 and cos170

(c) sin120 and cos120 (d) sin260 and cos260
(e) sin80 and cos80 (f) sin325 and cos325
5 3

2. Without explicitly computing these values (i.e., without using a protractor and a ruler), compute
A the following sines and cosines. To get you started, I will do the first exercise for you.

4 (a) sin90 and cos90 (see diagram below)

Explanation: A 90 angle is a right angle. I draw a 90 angle inside the unit circle. It intersects the
circle at the top of the circle. This point is (0, 1). So sin90 = 1 and cos90 = 0.
10 a

(0, 1)

40 sin0 and cos0 (c) sin180 and cos180
(d) sin270 and cos270 (e) sin360 and cos360

70 160

Vol. 102, No. 2 September 2008 | Mathematics Teacher 149

The intersection
point is about
0.75 to the right
of the y-axis.

3. Approximate the sine and cosine of the angles drawn in the diagrams below:
10 a

(0, 1)
70 160

4. Without doing the computations, answer the following questions. Justify your answer.

(a) Is sin140 a positive number or a negative number? (Hint: Draw a unit circle and approximate a
The intersection 140 angle).
point is about
0.75 to the right (b) Is cos200 a positive number or a negative number?
of the y-axis.
40 (c) Which is biggersin23 or sin37?
(d) Which is biggercos300 or cos330?
85 230

intersection Questions
point is about
0.65 above the
1. Compute
x-axis. the following sines and cosines by using a protractor and160
a unit circle:

(a) sin50 and cos50 (b) sin127 and cos127

(c) sin200 and cos200 (d) sin300 and cos300

2. Approximate the sine and cosine of the angles drawn in the diagrams below:

The intersection
point is about
0.75 to the right
of the y-axis.
85 230

The intersection
point is about
0.65 above the

3. Without doing the computations, answer the following questions. Justify your answer.

(a) Is sin240 a positive number or a negative number? (Hint: Draw a unit circle and approximate a
240 angle.)
(b) Is cos300 a positive number or a negative number?
(c) Which is biggersin130 or sin147?
(d) Which is biggercos30 or cos230?

4. In what quadrants will sinx be positive? In what quadrants will cosx be positive?

5. Can you find an angle x so that sinx = 2? If so, what angle is it? If you cannot find such an angle,
why not?

150 Mathematics Teacher | Vol. 102, No. 2 September 2008