A question was posed recently that I find intriguing and important. The question was, “what is the difference between slope, constant of proportionality, unit rate, and rate of change?” I researched the answer to this to evaluate my own understanding of these terms. Here is what I found (and am open to feedback as my understanding evolves).

First, I found a credible website that provides a glossary of math terms, the Connected Math Program page on the Michigan State University website.

In this glossary I found the definitions of the terms in question, along with the term rate.

I then found examples from a Google search that provided more of a visual image of each term.

Note that when we identify slope in an equation, we are identifying the slope of a line from the equation of the line. Slope is a measure of steepness of a line so the number likely should be thought of in that context.

The constant of proportionality can be found in different representations, but it is a constant while the slope is a measure of steepness – a special type of constant. (See definitions from MSU).

A rate, as seen in the definition above, involves units. A rate of change is the change of input and output variables so this is a little different than a simple rate as units may not be cited but could be cited (see last two images below).

The confusion for many of us is that there is overlap between these terms, depending on context. This is similar to the man on the right who can be referred as father or son, depending on the context. Slope is a rate of change for a line. A constant of proportionality is the slope for a linear representation of a proportional relationship.

The constant of proportionality is a constant but can be interpreted in a given context.

Slope is a ratio that can be interpreted in a given context. In the example below, slope = 100/1 and is interpreted as a rate of change of $100 per month.

I previously related elementary school word problems with math topics in secondary schools. The photo below shows a method to help elementary school students unpack the multiplication problem, to help middle school students identify the unit rate, and to help algebra students identify slope (you can focus on simple problems like this as an entry point to the linear function type problems).

In advance of this method, a review is conducted on the representation of multiplication using the groups of items model (below). By drawing a picture for the two parts of the problem that have a number, the students are guided to break the problem into parts and then to unpack the parts. The “5 boxes of candies” is represented by squares (or circles if you prefer) with no items inside. The “each box holds 6 candies” is represented by a single square with 6 items (dots) inside.

In turn, the drawing of the group of items leads to the multiplication statement, “6 candies x number of boxes.” I prompt students to include the items with the number as sometimes they will write this statement as “6 x number of candies”. I point out that 6 and candies go together. As seen in the previous blog post, the next step in this problem would be to replace “number of boxes” with the quantity given and then compute.

Here are excerpts from two handouts I use to help students understand how to write multiplication and rate word problems as math expressions. The image, below at top, shows a problem from the first handout I present. The students draw a single group represented by the rate expression (for elementary school word problems the term rate is not used). The image at the bottom is the same problem with scaffolding to write the multiplication problem. I find that students working on rates and slope in middle school, high school, and even in college struggle with this topic. I use this approach as part of a review of prerequisite skills before getting into rate and slope.