Teaching and Learning Theorems

Theorems are carefully worded statements about mathematical facts that have been proved to be true. Important (and some not so important) ideas in calculus and all of mathematics are summarized as theorems. When you come across a theorem you need to understand it; the author of your textbook would not have included it and the AP Exams would not test it if it were not.  This post discusses some things about theorems in general. Students often do not realize these things; understanding them will help students understand a new theorem when it is presented to them.

Theorems have the form of IF one or more things are true (called the hypothesis), THEN some other thing is true (called the conclusion).  This is abbreviated p\to q where p represents the hypothesis and q represents the conclusion. This is read as “if p, then q or “p implies q.” Theorems are also known as conditional statements.

In a certain instance, once you are sure all the conditions of the hypothesis are true, then you may be absolutely certain the conclusion is also true. When trying to determine if something is true about some function, check to see if the conditions of the hypothesis are all true.

People using a theorem need to know the hypotheses as well as the conclusion.

When teaching about a particular theorem, one thing that is often helpful to students is to “play” with the hypothesis and see how it affects the conclusion. For instance, if the hypothesis requires a function to be continuous, see what happens if the function is not continuous. If there are several parts to the hypothesis, see what happens if one or the other is changed. Hint: A change in part of the hypothesis will make some difference – good theorems do not have extra, unneeded, or superfluous conditions.

To make them read better, some theorems are not stated in if …, then… form. If there is any confusion, restate the theorem in if…, then… form.

  • The theorem often stated as, “Differentiability implies continuity,” really means: IF a function is differentiable at a point, THEN it is continuous at that point.
  • The geometry theorem, “The diagonals of a rhombus are perpendicular,” really means: IF a quadrilateral is a rhombus, THEN its diagonals are perpendicular.

The Contrapositive

Since if p is true, q must be true, what happens if q is false? The answer is that p must also be false. This is a related conditional statement (theorem) called the contrapositive of the theorem. The contrapositive is abbreviated IF not q, THEN not p, or IF q is false, THEN p is false, or \tilde{\ }q\to \tilde{\ }p.  The contrapositive of a theorem is also true, always.

There are several theorems in the calculus where the contrapositive seems to be used more often than the theorem itself.

  • Differentiability implies continuity. The contrapositive of this theorem is: IF a function is not continuous at a point, THEN it is not differentiable at that point. This is a quick way to tell if a function is not differentiable.
  • IF an infinite series converges, THEN the limit as n goes to infinity of its nth term is zero. Here the contrapositive is IF the limit as n goes to infinity of its nth term of an infinite series is not zero, THEN the series does not converge. This is called the nth term test for divergence.
  • IF the diagonals of a quadrilateral are not perpendicular, THEN the quadrilateral is not a rhombus.

The converse

The converse of a theorem is a statement formed by switching the hypothesis and conclusion of the theorem: IF q, THEN p (or q\to p). The converse is not necessarily true. It may be true, in which case it need to be proved as a separate theorem. Students (among others) often assume that the converse is true – this is called the fallacy of the converse.

  • IF a function is continuous at a point, THEN it is differentiable there, is the converse of our previous example. It is false: a simple counterexample is f(x) = |x|. This function is continuous at the origin but not differentiable there.
  • Another theorem states that IF the derivative of a function is positive on an interval, THEN the function is increasing on the interval. The converse is, IF a function is increasing on an interval, THEN its derivative is positive on the interval. The converse is false: for example, f(x) = x3 is increasing everywhere, yet its derivative at the origin is zero. (See Going up?)
  • IF the diagonals of a quadrilateral are perpendicular, Then the quadrilateral is a rhombus, if false. The quadrilateral may have perpendicular diagonals, but unless they intersect at their midpoints the figure is not a rhombus (it is a kite shape).

The inverse

The inverse is the contrapositive of the converse or IF not p, THEN not q (or\tilde{\ }p\to \tilde{\ }q ). The inverse will be true if the converse is true, and false if the converse is false.

  • The inverse of our fist example is,IF a function is not differentiable on an interval, THEN it is not continuous there. This is false, since the function my fail to be differentiable even though it is continuous. An example is f(x) = |x|. again.
  • IF a quadrilateral is not a rhombus, THEN he diagonals are not perpendicular (false – the kite again).

Biconditional statements

A biconditional theorem is a theorem whose converse is also true (and therefore its inverse and contrapositive are true). These are written in the form p if, and only if, q or p\leftrightarrow q (or for that matter q\leftrightarrow p). It is equivalent to p\to q\text{ and }q\to p.

  • An example from Geometry: IF two sides of a triangle are congruent, THEN the angles opposite them are congruent. The converse of this theorem is, if two angles of a triangle are congruent,THEN the sides opposite them are congruent. Since both the theorem and its converse (and its inverse, and its contrapositive) are true, you may write, “Two sides of a triangle are congruent if, and only if, the angles opposite them are congruent.”

Definitions are always biconditional statements. They are always true and do not need to be proved; in fact they cannot be proved.

  • The definition of continuous at a point is, “A function is continuous at a point \left( {a,f\left( a \right)} \right) if, and only if, \underset{{x\to a}}{\mathop{{\lim }}}\,f\left( x \right)=f\left( a \right) and both the limit and value are finite.”
  • A rectangle is defined as a quadrilateral with four right angles or A quadrilateral is a rectangle if, and only if, it has four right angles.

Which is which?

The theorem, its contrapositive, converse, and inverse are all theorems. Any of them could be taken as “the theorem” and the others would rearrange their names accordingly. (Which is good practice for your students.)

One other thing

What if the hypothesis of a theorem is false: can the conclusion still be true? The answer is, yes! The hypothesis of a theorem tells us that if true, the conclusion must be true. But the conclusion may be true anyway.

Consider the Mean Vale Theorem (MVT): IF a function, f, is continuous on the closed interval [a, b] and differentiable on the open interval (a, b), THEN there exists at least one number c in the open interval (a, b) such that \displaystyle {f}'\left( c \right)=\frac{{f\left( b \right)-f\left( a \right)}}{{b-a}}.

  • But consider the function f\left( x \right)=\left\{ {\begin{array}{*{20}{c}} {{{x}^{2}}} & {-2\le x\le 1} \\ \text{4} & {1<x\le 2} \end{array}} \right.
  • This function has a jump discontinuity at x = 1 and therefore is neither continuous nor differentiable on the interval [-2, 2]; the MVT does not apply. Yet \displaystyle {f}'\left( 0 \right)=\frac{{f\left( 2 \right)-f\left( {-2} \right)}}{{2-\left( {-2} \right)}}=\frac{{4-4}}{4}=0. (In fact, c could be 0 or any number between 1 and 2). In this example and not every example, the conclusion of the MVT is true even though the hypothesis is false.
  • On the 2017 International exam AB 15 makes use of the idea that even though the theorem about limits that seems to apply doesn’t because the conditions are not met, but, nevertheless, the conclusion is true.


The proofs of all the important theorems are given in any good textbook. You study proofs for two reasons: (1) to see why a theorem is true, and (2) to learn how to write a proof of your own. If neither of these reasons concern you or your students (and they may not), then you still need to learn the hypothesis and conclusion, and how to apply the theorem. This cannot be avoided.

Some proofs are rather tricky. That is, the key step is not obvious. A beginning calculus student should not expect to know how to prove most of the theorems; they should, however, be able to follow the proofs in the textbook. The AP Calculus exams never ask for proof, per se, although they may ask you to justify a conclusion you make. The justification should show that the hypotheses are all true and state the name of the theorem that implies your conclusion.

I can recall only one time many years ago where students were asked to “prove” something on an AP Calculus Exam. The usual instruction is “Justify your answer” or “Explain your reasoning.” This means that students are supposed to cite the appropriate theorem and show that the hypotheses are met in the given situation. So, not quite “prove” but close. It’s not “prove” an original theorem, but rather determine which (unnamed) theorem applies (or does not apply) in a particular situation and verify that the conditions are (or are not) met.

As always, look at a number of past exams and see just what is asked and how it is asked.


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