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This part of my microeconomics lesson plan has me baffled.

Consider for example the nonlinear continuous and differentiable function Y = f(X) = X 2 + 4. Suppose we want to know its slope at the point (X, Y) = (3, 13). The derivative of this function is f ’(X) = 2X, which takes on the value 6 when X = 3. Hence, the slope of this function is 6 at the point (3, 13).

pdf of Source

I've bold-faced the parts which I believe are disrupting my understanding, specifically. For one thing, I've always understood slope to be between two points. I can conceptualize the slope at a single point on a curve (a stick against a ball would accomplish the same - only one solution for each point) but not what it's purpose would be.

The other thing confusing me is where the derivative comes from. Each equation I've found (I did internet research on this) seems to pull a derivative from thin air, unrelated to the equation itself.

I've gotten as far as trigonometry in my schooling and each internet result I have found leads me into the realm of calculus. But that class wasn't a prerequisite for microeconomics! Can anyone shed some light on this for me? I know I'm supposed to be finding the tangent line on that point, but is there a more math-work way of accomplishing this than the visual method of plotting the graph and using a ruler?

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up vote 2 down vote accepted

You can cover derivatives, or gain some intuition about and skills to differentiate common functions, at the Khan Academy, which provides short videos motivating and introducing derivatives, and explains how to take the derivatives of various types of functions, linear and non-linear. (The link is to Calculus I.) Also, see Paul's Online Notes - Calculus I, for tutorials, exercises, solutions for practice. You might also want to check at your library for a Calculus targeted to students of economics and the social sciences.

Derivatives, as you mention, measure the slope of a tangent line at a point P of a function (curve). The derivative is a measure of how a function value changes as its input changes. Loosely speaking, a derivative can be thought of as how much one quantity is changing in response to changes in some other quantity; for example, the derivative of the position of a moving object with respect to time is the object's instantaneous velocity.

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+1 sweet! Thank you for the sites!!! – LitheOhm Jan 10 '13 at 22:12
You're very welcome, LitheOhm! – amWhy Jan 10 '13 at 22:15

The derivative measures the slope of a tangent at a point $P$ of the curve. That is approximately the slope of a line segment $PP'$ with $P'$ close to $P$. The closer $P'$ is chosen to $P$, the better the approximation. Thus the derivative measures the influence of changes - in principle only of very very small changes, but in practice also of reasonably sized changes (as long as the nonlinear shape of the curve does not kick in).

Finding the derivative of an elementary function (i.e. virtually anything you are able to write down in an expression) is possible using a handful of rules, such as $\frac d{dx} x^n=nx^{n-1}$, $\frac d{dx} (f+g)(x)=\frac d{dx} f(x) + \frac d{dx} g(x)$ and $\frac d{dx} (f\cdot g)(x) = f(x) \frac d{dx} g(x) + g(x) \frac d{dx} f(x)$. These should be covered in any introductory course on calculus ...

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+1 calculus isn't on my itinerary for a business management major, but my searching did show that it was basic calculus. Just beyond my understanding at the time. – LitheOhm Jan 10 '13 at 22:11

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