Extreme Average

A recent post on the AP Calculus bulletin board observed that the maximum value of the average value of a function on an interval occurred at the point where the graph of the average value and the function intersect. I am not sure if this concept is important in and of itself, but it does make an interesting exercise.

For a function f(x), we may treat its average value as a function, A(x), defined for all x ∈ [a, b], interval [a, x] as

\displaystyle A\left( x \right)=\left\{ {\begin{array}{*{20}{c}} {\tfrac{1}{{x-a}}\int_{a}^{x}{{f\left( t \right)dt}}} & {x\ne a} \\ {f\left( a \right)} & {x=a} \end{array}} \right.

Graphically, the segment drawn at y = A(x) is such that the regions between the line and the function above and below the segment have equal areas. See figure 1 in which the red curve is the function, and the blue curve is the average value function. The two shaded regions have the same area.

Figure 1: The shaded regions have the same area.

Regardless of the starting value, the function and its average value start at the same value. If the function is increasing the average value is less than the function and increasing. When the function starts to decrease, the average value will continue to increase for a while. When the two graphs nest intersect, the process starts over, and the average value will now start to decrease. Therefore, the intersection value is when the average value function change from increasing to decreasing and this is its (local) maximum value. See Figure 2.

Figure 2:The maximum value of A(x) is at the intersection of the two graphs

This continues until the graphs intersect again after the function starts to increase: a (local) minimum value of the average value function. The process continues with the extreme values of the average value function (blue graph) occurring at its intersections with the function. Figure 3

Figure 3: A(x) has its extreme values where it intersects the function.

This can be proved by finding the extreme values of the average value function by considering its derivative. Begin by finding its derivative using the product rule (or quotient rule) and the FTC.

\displaystyle {A}'\left( x \right)=\tfrac{1}{{x-a}}f\left( x \right)+\left( {-\tfrac{1}{{{{{\left( {x-a} \right)}}^{2}}}}} \right)\int_{a}^{x}{{f\left( t \right)dt}}

\displaystyle {A}'\left( x \right)=\tfrac{1}{{x-a}}f\left( x \right)-\tfrac{1}{{x-a}}\left( {\tfrac{1}{{x-a}}\int_{a}^{x}{{f\left( t \right)dt}}} \right)

\displaystyle {A}'\left( x \right)=\tfrac{1}{{x-a}}\left( {f\left( x \right)-A\left( x \right)} \right)

The critical points of a(x) occur when its derivative is equal to zero (or undefined). This is when f\left( x \right)=A\left( x \right) (or when x = a, the endpoint). This is where the graphs intersect.

How to use this in your class

This is not a concept that is likely to be tested on the AP Calculus Exams. Nevertheless, it is an easy enough idea to explore when teaching the average value of a function and at the same time reviewing some earlier concepts such as product (or quotient) rule, the FTC (differentiating an integral), and some non-ordinary simplification.

You could have your students use their own favorite function and show that the extreme values of its average value occur where the average value intersects the function. This is good practice in equation solving on a calculator since the points do not occur at “nice” numbers. Here’s an example.

If \displaystyle f\left( x \right)=\sin \left( x \right), then its average value on the interval \displaystyle [0,\infty ) is

\displaystyle  A\left( x \right)=\tfrac{1}{x}\int_{0}^{x}{{\sin \left( t \right)dt}}=\frac{{-\cos \left( x \right)+1}}{x}.

The intersections of f(x) and A(x) can be found by solving

\displaystyle\sin \left( x \right)=\frac{{-\cos \left( x \right)+1}}{x}

The extreme values of \displaystyle \frac{{-\cos \left( x \right)+1}}{x} may also be found using a calculator.

The points are the same. the first is approximately (2.331, 0.725) and the second is (6.283, 0) or (2π, 0). This second is reasonable since at 2π the sine function has completed one period and its average value zero. (See figure 3 again.).

Other questions you could ask (for my function anyway) are what is the absolute maximum and how can you be sure? Why are all the minimums zero?


The message on the AP Calculus discussion boards that inspired this post was started by Neema Salimi an AP Calculus teacher from Georgia. He made the original observation. You can read his original post and proof, and comments by others here.


The Rule of Four

Not much has been heard of the Rule of Four lately. The Rule of Four suggests that mathematical concepts should be looked at graphically, numerically, analytically, and verbally. It has not gone away. The Rule of Four has a new name: multiple representations. (In the latest Course and Exam Description, you will find it in Mathematical Practices (p. 14), specifically practices 2.B, 2.C, 2.D, 2.E, 3.E, 3.F, 4.A, and 4.C)

I have used the Rule of Four in this post. The post started with a verbal discussion of the concept and how the result can be seen graphically. That was followed by analytic proof. At the end is a numerical example.  

Other posts on the average value of a function:

Finding the average value of a function on an interval is Topic 8.1 in the Course and Exam Description (p. 149)

Average Value of a Function – or How do you average an infinite number of numbers?

Most Triangles Are Obtuse! An obvious observation, but here’s how to figure the exact proportion of obtuse to acute triangles.

Half-full or Half-empty Visualizing the average value of a function

What’s a Mean Old Average Anyway? Be sure to distinguish between the average rate of change, the average value of a function, and the mean value theorem.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.