2. The Slope of a Tangent to a Curve (Numerical Approach)

by M. Bourne

Since we can model many physical problems using curves, it is important to obtain an understanding of the slopes of curves at various points and what a slope means in real applications.

Remember: We are trying to find the rate of change of one variable compared to another.


In this section, we show you one of the historical approaches for finding slopes of tangents, before differentiation was developed. This is to give you an idea of how it works.

If you want to see how to find slopes (gradients) of tangents directly using derivatives, go to Tangents and Normals in the Applications of Differentiation chapter.

Applications include:

Later, we will see how to find these rates of change by differentiating a function and substituting a value. For now, we are going to find rates of change numerically (that is, by substituting numbers in until we find an acceptable approximation.)

We look at the general case and write our functions involving the familiar x (independent) and y (dependent) variables.

Graph of tangent to curve

The slope of a curve y = f(x) at the point P means the slope of the tangent at the point P. We need to find this slope to solve many applications since it tells us the rate of change at a particular instant.

[We write y = f(x) on the curve since y is a function of x. That is, as x varies, y varies also.]

Delta Notation

In this work, we write

By definition, the slope is given by:

`m=(text(change in)\ y)/(text(change in)\ x)=(Deltay)/(Deltax)=(y_2-y_1)/(x_2-x_1)`

We use this to find a numerical solution to the slope of a curve.


Find the slope of the curve y = x2 at the point `(2,4)`, using a numerical method.

We will now extend this numerical approach so that we can find the slope of any continuous curve if we know the function. We will learn about an algebraic approach that can be used for most functions.

Online Algebra Solver

This algebra solver can solve a wide range of math problems. (Please be patient while it loads.)

Calculus Lessons on DVD


Easy to understand calculus lessons on DVD. See samples before you commit.

More info: Calculus videos

The IntMath Newsletter

Sign up for the free IntMath Newsletter. Get math study tips, information, news and updates each fortnight. Join thousands of satisfied students, teachers and parents!

Given name: * required

Family name:

email: * required

See the Interactive Mathematics spam guarantee.