The concept of function is central to undergraduate mathematics, foundational to modern mathematics, and essential in related areas of the sciences. A strong understanding of the function concept is also essential for any student hoping to understand calculus — a critical course for the development of future scientists, engineers, and mathematicians.
Since 1888, there have been repeated calls for school curricula to place greater emphasis on functions (College Entrance Examination Board, 1959; Hamley, 1934; Hedrick, 1922; Klein, 1883; National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, 1934, 1989, 2000). Despite these and other calls, students continue to emerge from high school and freshman college courses with a weak understanding of this important concept (Carlson, 1998; Carlson, Jacobs, Coe, Larsen & Hsu, 2002; Cooney & Wilson, 1996; Monk, 1992; Monk & Nemirovsky, 1994; Thompson, 1994a). This impoverished understanding of a central concept of secondary and undergraduate mathematics likely results in many students discontinuing their study of mathematics. The primarily procedural orientation to using functions to solve specific problems is absent of meaning and coherence for students and has been observed to cause them frustration (Carlson, 1998). We advocate that instructional shifts that promote rich conceptions and powerful reasoning abilities may generate students' curiosity and interest in mathematics, and subsequently lead to increases in the number of students who continue their study of mathematics.
This article provides an overview of essential processes involved in knowing and learning the function concept.