Under is a Long Way Down

The development of the ideas and concepts related to definite integrals almost always begins with finding the area of a region between a graph in the first quadrant and the x-axis between two vertical lines. Everyone, including me in the past, refers to this as “finding the area under the curve.”

Under is a long way down. And while everyone understands what this means, I suggest that a better phrasing is “finding the area between the curve and the x-axis.” Here is why:

  • That is what you are doing.
  • You will soon be finding the area between the curve and the x-axis where the curve is below the x-axis. This often leads to something you may be tempted to call “negative area” and of course there is no such thing as a negative area, regardless of what you may find in some textbooks.

As with so many integration problems, the results is often a formula that obscures what is really going on – the Riemann sum whose value the integral gives. The first such formula is that the area is given by \int_{a}^{b}{f\left( x \right)dx}. This is correct only if  f (x) > 0. There is a natural confusion for beginning students between the facts that if f (x) < 0 the integral comes out negative, but the area is positive.

For all the applications of integration always emphasize the Riemann sum – not just the final formula. In the area problem with f (x) > 0 the integrand is the vertical length of the rectangles that make up the sum and this is the upper function’s value minus the lower function’s value, with the lower being the x-axis, y = 0. Then when f (x) < 0 the upper minus the lower is 0 – f (x) and the area is given by \int_{a}^{b}{0-f\left( x \right)dx}=-\int_{a}^{b}{f\left( x \right)dx} which is positive as it should be. And students will immediately see that \int_{a}^{b}{f\left( x \right)dx} is not automatically the area.

To help students see this you could start (very first problem) by helping them to find the area of the region between f (x) > 0 and the line y = 1 so they have to deal with the lower curve. Then consider another problem using the x-axis.

There is a fair amount of ground to cover between the first area between the curve and the x-axis problems with f (x) > 0 and other area problems. Teaching students how to set up those first Riemann sums, what a Riemann sum is, the definition of the definite integral and even the Fundamental Theorem of Calculus may all come between the first problem and when this distinction becomes important. Starting with the right words, “area between the graph and the x-axis”, will help in the long run.


1 thought on “Under is a Long Way Down

  1. Pingback: Area Between Curves | Teaching Calculus

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