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Acta Didactica Universitatis Comenianae Mathematics, Issue 5, 2005



Abstract. This article is discussing the answer to two basic questions: Are radians better then degrees? Why? and At what time of the learning cycle should be radians introduced? Views expressed in textbooks and online texts, teachers and students views are presented and compared. Rsum. Dans cet article nous recherchons des rponses aux questions fondamentales suivantes: " Est-ce que l`usage des radians est plus prfrable que l'usage des degrs? Et pourquoi? " Au quel niveau d'enseignement scolaire devrait-on introduire l'usage des radians? L`article prsente et compare diffrents points de vue exprims soit par des tudiants et enseignants, soit par des auteurs des manuels de mathmatiques ou des textes sur l'internet. Zusammenfassung. Dieser Artikel sucht Antworten auf folgenden fundamentalen Fragen: "Sind Radianten besser als Grade? Warum?" Und "Welche Etape des Unterrichtszyklus ist zur Einfuhrung der Radianten geeignet?" Wir vergleichen verschiedene Informationen, Konzeptionen und Ansichte die bei Studenten, Lehrer, oder in Lehrbucher und im Internet presentiert waren. Riassunto. Questo articolo discute circa la risposta a due fondamentali quesiti: I radianti sono meglio dei gradi? Perch? e In quale momento, nel corso degli studi, i radianti possono essere introdotti? Verranno presentate e confrontate i diversi punti di vista nei libri di testo e nei testi online oltre a quelli degli insegnanti e studenti. Abstrakt. lnok sa zaober hadanm odpoved na zkladn otzky: S radiny lepie ako stupne? Preo? a V ktorej etape vuky je vhodn zavies radiny? Porovnvame rzne informcie, prstupy a nzory prezentovan v uebniciach, internetovch lekcich a frach, nzory uiteov aj tudentov. Key words: trigonometric functions, learning cycle, radians, degrees, unit circle, chord, history of trigonometry, introduction of radians, definition of radians, ratio, trigonometric tables



Trigonometric functions are taught in two learning cycles. In the first cycle, they are defined in a right triangle and degrees are used as a unit of measure. In the second phase, the definition of trigonometric functions is based on the unit circle and radians are used as a unit of measure. In these second phase, the following question arises: Why should one use radians instead of degrees? What is wrong with degrees if we cant use them any more? To get a satisfactory answer, one has to study the history of trigonometric functions, look up how radians are introduced in different textbooks and online lessons. Moreover, the question of the proper timing of introducing the concept of radians arises. This article is discussing the answer to two basic questions: Are radians better then degrees? Why? and At what time of the learning cycle should be radians introduced?


Both in textbooks and online lessons two basic approaches were used: 1. Radians are introduced in relation to degrees, thats 180 degrees equals radians 2. Radians are introduced as a ratio between the arc length and the radius in a circle. We have found an online lesson Modeling with the sine function (http:// //people.hofstra.edu/faculty/Stefan_Waner/trig/trig1.html), where angles were not used at all, so both the degrees and radians were omitted in the very informal definition of the sine function: The sine of a real number t is given by the ycoordinate (height) of the point P in the following diagram, in which t is the distance of the arc shown.




The reason for introducing radians was sometimes as simple as For mathematics and physics, we rarely use degrees as arguments of the trigonometric functions but radians (http://dept.physics.upenn.edu/courses/glaney/math-phys/subsubsection1_1_4_2.html) or Many of the modern applications of trigonometry follow from the uses of trig to calculus, especially those applications which deal directly with trigonometric functions. So, we should use radian measure when thinking of trig in terms of trig functions. (http://aleph0.clarku.edu/~djoyce/ /java/trig/functions.html). In (Hecht, 1997) we can read: The advantage of the radian measure is that the size of an angle in radians is as well the length of an arc belonging to this angle in the unit circle. This fact has far-reaching consequences as we shall see later and this is the reason for switching to this weird measure. However, in the rest of the chapter, no far-reaching consequences can be found. In (Zedovi, 1973) the following argument is used: The only measure of an angle used in Calculus and Analysis is the radian measure and its unit one radian. When discussing with a mathematician from a department of Calculus and Analysis, weve got the following answer: The only reason for using radians instead of degrees is the fact, that the derivative of the trigonometric functions such as

sin x = cos x dx does not require the insertion of multiplicative constants such as /180. Another argument was: Mathematicians like Gregory, de Moivre, Euler were using the circular definition of trigonometric functions where the argument was a real number corresponding to the ratio between the length of the arc and the length of the circle radius. When searching for a confirmation of this view, finally we found two sources. In chapter on Angles from E.W. Weisstein (http://mathworld.wolfram.com/ Angle.html ) we have: The use of degrees to measure angles harks back to the Babylonians, whose sexagesimal number system was based on the number 60. 360 likely arises from the Babylonian year, which was composed of 360 days (12 months of 30 days each). The degree is further divided into 60 arc minutes, and an arc minute into 60 arc seconds. A more natural measure of an angle is the radian. It has the property that the arc length around a circle is simply given by the radian angle measure times the circle radius. The radian is also the most useful angle measure in calculus because the derivative of the trigonometric functions such as



sin x = cos x dx does not require the insertion of multiplicative constants such as /180. Gradians are sometimes used in surveying (they have the nice property that a right angle is exactly 100 gradians), but are encountered infrequently, if at all, in mathematics. The second source was the Lesson on Angle Measure and Circular Functions (http://peabody.vanderbilt.edu/depts/tandl/mted/Thompson/2360f99/TrigFuncs/ RadeanMeas.html): The motivation for using radian measure in mathematics is this: The value of a trig function can be thought of as being a fractional part of a circles radius. By having trig functions arguments be in units of the circles radius, a functions arguments and the functions values are in the same unit. (This is why the theorem sin x lim =1 x 0 x is true only when x is in radians. When x is in degrees, this limit is /180)


In accordance with the concept of the Parallel between the phylogeny and ontogenesis of mathematical thinking (Hejn, 1990) we were looking for the information about introducing the radians in the history of mathematics. In (imr, 2000) we have: The radian measure was introduced in 1873 by James Thomson (lord Kelvin). So, it was a physicist who introduced radians! When mathematicians like Euler, Gregory, de Moivre or Taylor were giving their famous trigonometric formulas and infinite series, the radians were not there. Now, we can better understand the approach of the lesson mentioned above (http://people.hofstra.edu/faculty/Stefan_Waner/trig/trig1.html) where neither degrees nor radians are used. Browsing through the history, we came to another interesting fact (http://wwwgroups.dcs.st and ac.uk/~history/HistTopics/Trigonometric_functions.html): The use of trigonometric functions arises from the early connection between mathematics and astronomy. Early work with spherical triangles was as important as plane triangles. The first work on trigonometric functions related to chords of a circle. Given a circle of fixed radius, 60 units were often used in early calculations and then the problem was to find the length of the chord subtended by a given angle. For a circle of unit radius the length of the chord subtended by the angle x was 2sin (x/2). The Greek mathematician Hipparchus produced the first known table of chords in about 140 BC. Although these tables have not survived, it is claimed



that Hipparchus wrote twelve books of tables of chords. This makes Hipparchus the founder of trigonometry. Ptolemy was the next author of a book of chords, showing the same Babylonian influence as Hipparchus, dividing the circle into 360 and the diameter into 120 parts. The suggestion here is that he was following earlier practice when the approximation 3 for was used. The following conclusion follows from the suggestion above: In the work of Ptolemy, the radius of the circle is equivalent to 60 parts and the perimeter of the circle divided into 360 parts. So equivalent length units measure both the arc length and the radius length, which is the idea of radians.


One interesting thing about the trigonometric functions is that both the arguments and the values of a trigonometric function are ratios. Zeldovi (Zeldovi, 1973) explains: Trigonometric functions are defined as a ratio of line segments, so they have no dimension. They depend on quantity with no dimension an angle. Trigonometric functions for an angle from 0 to 90 are defined as a ratio of line segments in a right triangle. However, we need to define functions for any angles, thats the ones bigger then 90 and the negative ones. So we shall define the trigonometric functions by mean of a circle. And later... Its not so handy to speak all the time about the sine as a ratio between the line segment and the cirle radius or about the angle as a ratio between the arc length and the circle radius. Therefore we shall consider a circle with a radius equal to one, so called unit circle. Then we can simply claim sine is equal to the length of a line segment in circle, where the angle is equal to the length of an arc. We have to remember, that both the trigonometric functions and the angles have no dimension and are not measured by units of length (cm, dm, m). Sine is equal to the length of the sine line segment (cm) divided by the length of the radius (cm). If the length of the radius is 1 cm, the numeric value of the sine is same as the length of the sine line segment.


Degrees and gradians are fractions of a circle. A circle is divided into 360 degrees or into 400 gradians. Both 360 and 400 are integers, so both one degree and one gradian are fractions, namely 1/360 and 1/400. If we wish to define them as a ratio, a numerical value in degrees is a ratio between the arc length



and the circumference of the circle multiplied by 360. A numerical value in gradians is a ratio between the arc length and the circumference of the circle multiplied by 400. And what are radians? Considering the standardized /2, , 3 /2, 2 used as the arguments of the sine function, one would say that they are the fractions of the circumference of the unit circle. However, one radian cant be expressed as a nice fractional part of a circle or its circumference. What is difficult with radians, since they are expressing the ratio between an arc and the radius of a circle, irrational numbers are corresponding to basic situations the length of a period of the sine function is an irrational number. So, instead of using numerical values as 6,2831.... the exact value 2 is used. However, for students this 2 is becoming an equivalent of 360 degrees, and very soon has nothing to do with the number 6,2831...


In the math syllabus of Slovakia and many other countries, trigonometric functions are introduced as follows: In the first phase, they are defined as a ratio in a right triangle. Pupils are using sine, cosine and tangent to calculate the missing data in a right triangle. In this phase, sine and the other trigonometric functions are not perceived as functions but as formulas. In the second phase comes the definition for the angles beyond 90 and the concept of sine (and the others) as a function. This is done using the unit circle and teaching the correspondence between the degrees and radians. Following the syllabus, teachers have to force students to use radians while studying these functions. In this phase, the trigonometric functions are lacking in application. No examples of modeling by trigonometric functions are demonstrated. Neither can be demonstrated the application in calculus, since the students are not acquainted with the basic concepts of calculus by this time. In the third phase, trigonometric formulas for oblique triangles are introduced and the students are back once more to degrees and to triangles. The first and the third phase are welcomed both by teachers and students, since everyone can see, what is the use of trigonometric functions. The second stage comes with more obstacles. The concept of sine as a function is quite new one. It would be hard enough without radians too. So why to use them? The mathematicians say: Since in calculus, the only measure used for trigonometric functions are radians. In our opinion, if one attends the university and is taking Calculus, this would be the appropriate time for introducing radians. For students, who already grasped the idea of trigonometric functions with degrees as arguments, one can explain



the reason for introducing radians. Moreover, at this time, students are already familiarized with the notion of derivatives, so they can appreciate the fact that the derivative of sine is cosine and thanks to radians does not require the insertion of multiplicative constant such as /180.


When we opened a discussion about this topic on the Math Goodies Teacher Forum, the following insights were posted: I agree that the need for radians is difficult to explain, and I'm not sure I could tell you why one measure or the other is superior. However, I'm pretty sure that this is not (solely) caused by this learning cycle. Degrees are introduced as a unit of measure when children are much younger (6-8) and are used in a variety of sources which one would probably happen across before trig functions (I'm thinking latitude and longitude, grades of degradation, angle of incline, etc). Radian measure of angle needs to be discussed before starting circle geometry where the relationship between the angle, arc length and the radius becomes important. Degrees are used in surveying one of the earliest practical use of geometry gift of Sumerian civilization. I suppose the reason that degrees are taught when children are young is because they come out to nice easy whole numbers (e.g. 90) whereas can not even be expressed exactly as a decimal (180 is much easier to comprehend than ). I became interested in math when I sort of accidentally stumbled upon the number when I was 12 years old. To see how do students grasp the concept of radians, we gave the following test to future math teachers, which are on their way to get a diploma: 1. 2. 3. 4. 5. Graph the sine function Graph the sine function again and mark the number 1 both along the x and yaxis How would you explain the meaning of used with trigonometric functions? Does the used with trigonometric functions have something common with the Ludolphian number ? How would you answer the following question of a student: Why should I use instead of 180?

In our experiment, there were students who, sketching the graph of sine in the first step, marked on the x-axis the values for /2, , 3/2 and 2 at correct positions.



Then, in step 2, they did not mark the value of 1 along the x-axis at all, or they marked it quite close to 0 the position one should imagine for 1.In step 3 they explain that in trigonometry, states for 180. In step 4 they claim, that the used in trigonometric functions has nothing to do with the Ludolphian number . Then there was the second, much bigger group of students, who positioned the number 1 to the correct place along the x-axis and in step 3 talked about the arc length and radians. For us, the most interesting part of test was the answer to question 5. The variety of answers was quite wide: Some students answered simply I do not know, the others tried to find some reasonable argument: Its because we can exactly say where we should position along the xaxis, thats at 3,14. But where should I position 1? When using , you can easily detect the length of the period. 2 is nicer then 360. On the other hand, you should as well use an icon of a flower instead of . Since in solutions in the textbooks, the values with are used. Since with radians, we are using the same units for measuring the angle as for measuring the sine. There was no single answer where derivative or circle geometry would be mentioned.

In our conclusion, we are speaking about two groups of students: The first one are high school students in their second learning cycle of trigonometric functions. The second are future teachers of mathematics, students who are in preparation for their profession. While searching the answer to the question Why are radians better then degrees? we came to many interesting observations. 1. The value of the trigonometric function is a ratio of line segments, so it has no dimension. The argument of a trigonometric function can be thought as being an angle or a ratio of the arc length and the circle radius. Again, both the angle and the ratio are quantities with no dimension. Here, for students (future teachers) an interesting didactical situation arises. We can discuss with them why one degree has no dimension while for example one centimeter does have a dimension.





Examining the early history, we can see that the first work on trigonometric functions related to chords of a circle. Given a circle of fixed radius, the problem was to find the length of the chord subtended by the given angle. In the work of Ptolemy (85 165), the radius of the circle is equivalent to 60 parts and the perimeter of the circle divided into 360 parts. In this way both the radius and the perimeter have approximately equivalent units measure. So, it seems, that, for some reason, the need for equivalent units measure is a quite strong one. In the 18th Century, Bernoulli, Cotes and Euler were using the ratio of the arc length and the circle radius as arguments of trigonometric functions. They were using equivalent units measure for the arguments and values of trigonometric functions. However, we cant illustrate to students in their second learning cycle the usefulness of equivalent units measure using the famous formulas of these mathematicians. Since the students are not familiarized with the notions of the complex numbers, logarithmic and exponential functions, infinite series or derivatives. As physicists are using modern calculus, the need for defining radians as measure unit in physics is quite understandable. Again, this can be a topic for discussion with future teachers. For the needs of calculus, taking the proper ratio (the ratio of the arc length and of the circle radius) is enough. For physics, there is the need to define the measure unit, so, it is a physicist who does this. For the needs of mathematical astronomy, Rheticus (1514 1576) produced substantial tables of trigonometric functions, which were published after his death. The angles were measured in degrees. In surveying, degrees are used up to now. Pitiscus extensively corrected the defective tangents and secants in the original edition of Rheticus' posthumously-published Opus palatinum de triangulis (Heidelburg, 1596). Piticus discovered the formulas for sin 2x, sin 3x, cos 2x, cos 3x (http://www.bl.uk/collections/galileo.html). These formulas are part of the syllabus of the second learning cycle in trigonometry teaching. Here, one can illustrate the utilization of these formulas the way they were used by Pitiscus to count the values of trigonometric functions with precision to 15 decimal places. Lets note, that in this situation, we are working steadily with degrees.

To appreciate the concept of radians one needs to know what they are for. Introduction of a new notion while there is no real need for it may be sometimes very confusing and may result in building up a faulty comprehension of this conception. In our opinion radians should not been introduced at high school. The



proper time to introduce them is when we really need them. If one knows what radians are for, radians turn out to be a very interesting concept.
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ERIKA KUPKOV, Department of Algebra, Geometry and Didactics of Mathematics, Faculty of Mathematics, Physics and Informatics, Comenius University, 842 48 Bratislava, Slovakia E-mail: kupkova@fmph.uniba.sk