3 The Graphical Behavior of Functions

3.2 The Mean Value Theorem

We motivate this section with the following question: Suppose you leave your house and drive to your friend’s house in a city 100 miles away, completing the trip in two hours. Is there necessarily a moment during the trip when you are going 50 miles per hour?

In answering this question, it is clear that the average speed for the entire trip is 50 mph (i.e. 100 miles in 2 hours), but the question is whether or not your instantaneous speed is ever exactly 50 mph. More simply, does your speedometer ever read exactly 50 mph? Figure 3.2.1 shows a graphical interpretation of this question. The answer, under some very reasonable assumptions, is “yes.”

margin: 00.511.52020406080100Time (hours)Distance (miles) Figure 3.2.1: Distance traveled as a function of time. Must there be a tangent line parallel to the average slope? Λ

Let’s now see why this situation is in a calculus text by translating it into mathematical symbols.

First assume that the function y=f(t) gives the distance (in miles) traveled from your home at time t (in hours) where 0t2. In particular, this gives f(0)=0 and f(2)=100. The slope of the secant line (average velocity) connecting the starting and ending points (0,f(0)) and (2,f(2)) is therefore


The slope at any point on the graph itself (instantaneous velocity) is given by the derivative f(t). So, since the answer to the question above is “yes,” this means that at some time during the trip, the derivative takes on the value of 50 mph. Symbolically,


for some time 0c2.

How about more generally? Given any function y=f(x) and a range axb does the value of the derivative at some point between a and b have to match the slope of the secant line connecting the points (a,f(a)) and (b,f(b))? Or equivalently, does the equation f(c)=f(b)-f(a)b-a have to hold for some a<c<b?

Let’s look at two functions in an example.

margin: -112xy (a)-110.51xy (b) Figure 3.2.2: A graph of f1(x)=1/x2 and f2(x)=|x| in Example 3.2.1. Λ
Example 3.2.1 Comparing average and instantaneous rates of change

Consider functions


with a=-1 and b=1 as shown in Figure 3.2.2(a) and (b), respectively. Both functions have a value of 1 at a and b. Therefore the slope of the secant line connecting the end points is 0 in each case. But if you look at the plots of each, you can see that there are no points on either graph where the tangent lines have slope zero. Therefore we have found that there is no c in [-1,1] such that


So what went “wrong”? It may not be surprising to find that the discontinuity of f1 and the corner of f2 play a role. If our functions had been continuous and differentiable, would we have been able to find that special value c? This is our motivation for the following theorem.

margin: acbf(a)f(b)secant linetangent linexy Figure 3.2.3: A graph of illustrating the Mean Value Theorem of Differentiation Λ
Theorem 3.2.1 The Mean Value Theorem of Differentiation

Let y=f(x) be a continuous function on the closed interval [a,b] and differentiable on the open interval (a,b). There exists a value c, a<c<b, such that


That is, there is a value c in (a,b) where the instantaneous rate of change of f at c is equal to the average rate of change of f on [a,b].

Note that the reasons that the functions in Example 3.2.1 fail are indeed that f1 has a discontinuity on the interval [-1,1] and f2 is not differentiable at the origin.

We will give a proof of the Mean Value Theorem below. To do so, we use Rolle’s Theorem, stated here.

Theorem 3.2.2 Rolle’s Theorem

Let f be continuous on [a,b] and differentiable on (a,b), where f(a)=f(b). There is some c in (a,b) such that f(c)=0.

margin: -112-55abcxy Figure 3.2.4: A graph of f(x)=x3-5x2+3x+5, where f(a)=f(b). Note the existence of c, where a<c<b, where f(c)=0. Λ

Consider Figure 3.2.4 where the graph of a function f is given, where f(a)=f(b). It should make intuitive sense that if f is differentiable (and hence, continuous) that there would be a value c in (a,b) where f(c)=0; that is, there would be a relative maximum or minimum of f in (a,b). Rolle’s Theorem guarantees at least one; there may be more.

Rolle’s Theorem is really just a special case of the Mean Value Theorem. If f(a)=f(b), then the average rate of change on (a,b) is 0, and the theorem guarantees some c where f(c)=0. We will prove Rolle’s Theorem, then use it to prove the Mean Value Theorem.

  • Proof of Rolle’s Theorem

    Let f be differentiable on (a,b) where f(a)=f(b). We consider two cases.

    Case 1:

    Consider the case when f is constant on [a,b]; that is, f(x)=f(a)=f(b) for all x in [a,b]. Then f(x)=0 for all x in [a,b], showing there is at least one value c in (a,b) where f(c)=0.

    Case 2:

    Now assume that f is not constant on [a,b]. The Extreme Value Theorem guarantees that f has a maximal and minimal value on [a,b], found either at the endpoints or at a critical point in (a,b). Since f(a)=f(b) and f is not constant, it is clear that the maximum and minimum cannot both be found at the endpoints. Assume, without loss of generality, that the maximum of f is not found at the endpoints. Therefore there is a c in (a,b) such that f(c) is the maximum value of f. By Theorem 3.1.2, c must be a critical point of f; since f is differentiable, we have that f(c)=0, completing the proof of the theorem.∎

Example 3.2.2 Exactly One Root

Show that f(x)=8x7+x3+3x+2 has exactly one real root.

SolutionWe’ll do this in two steps. The first step is to use the Intermediate Value Theorem to show that there is at least one root. The second step is to use Rolle’s Theorem to show that there is at most one root. (Because f is a polynomial, it is continuous and differentiable, so both of these theorems apply.)

We can apply the Intermediate Value Theorem on the interval [-1,0]. Since f(-1)=-10<0<f(0)=2, the Intermediate Value Theorem tells us that there is at least one place in [-1,0] where f(x)=0. This means that there is at least one root, but there may be more in the interval (and there may be more outside the interval where we haven’t even looked).

We will now use Rolle’s Theorem to show that f has at most one root. Suppose for this paragraph that f had two (or more) roots. Then by Rolle’s Theorem, there is some c in between the roots so that 0=f(c)=56x6+3x2+3. But this cannot happen, since f is always at least 3.

Therefore, f has at most one root. Combining this with “there is at least one root”, we see that f has exactly one root. (Notice that because both the Intermediate Value Theorem and Rolle’s Theorem are existential theorems, we don’t know what the root is, only that it must exist.)

We will now use Rolle’s Theorem to prove the Mean Value Theorem.

  • Proof of the Mean Value Theorem

    Define the function


    We know g is differentiable on (a,b) and continuous on [a,b] since f is. We also see that

    g(b)-g(a) =f(b)-f(b)-f(a)b-ab-f(a)+f(b)-f(a)b-aa

    which shows that g(a)=g(b). We can then apply Rolle’s theorem to guarantee the existence of c(a,b) such that g(c)=0. But note that




    which is what we sought to prove. ∎

Going back to the very beginning of the section, we see that the only assumption we would need about our distance function f(t) is that it be continuous and differentiable for t from 0 to 2 hours (both reasonable assumptions). By the Mean Value Theorem, we are guaranteed a time during the trip where our instantaneous speed is 50 mph. This fact is used in practice. Some law enforcement agencies monitor traffic speeds while in aircraft. They do not measure speed with radar, but rather by timing individual cars as they pass over lines painted on the highway whose distances apart are known. The officer is able to measure the average speed of a car between the painted lines; if that average speed is greater than the posted speed limit, the officer is assured that the driver exceeded the speed limit at some time.

Note that the Mean Value Theorem is an existence theorem. It states that a special value c exists, but it does not give any indication about how to find it. It turns out that when we need the Mean Value Theorem, existence is all we need.

Example 3.2.3 Using the Mean Value Theorem

Consider f(x)=x3+5x+5 on [-3,3]. Find c in [-3,3] that satisfies the Mean Value Theorem.

SolutionThe average rate of change of f on [-3,3] is:


We want to find c such that f(c)=14. We find f(x)=3x2+5. We set this equal to 14 and solve for x.

f(x) =14
3x2+5 =14
x2 =3
x =±3±1.732
margin: -3-2-1123-40-202040xy Figure 3.2.5: Demonstrating the Mean Value Theorem in Example 3.2.3. Λ

We have found 2 values c in [-3,3] where the instantaneous rate of change is equal to the average rate of change; the Mean Value Theorem guaranteed at least one. In Figure 3.2.5 f is graphed with a dashed line representing the average rate of change; the lines tangent to f at x=±3 are also given. Note how these lines are parallel (i.e., have the same slope) as the dashed line.

While the Mean Value Theorem has practical use (for instance, the speed monitoring application mentioned before), it is mostly used to advance other theory. We will use it in the next section to relate the shape of a graph to its derivative.

Exercises 3.2


Terms and Concepts

  1. 1.

    Explain in your own words what the Mean Value Theorem states.

  2. 2.

    Explain in your own words what Rolle’s Theorem states.


In Exercises 3–10., a function f(x) and interval [a,b] are given. Check if Rolle’s Theorem can be applied to f on [a,b]; if so, find c in (a,b) such that f(c)=0.

  1. 3.

    f(x)=6 on [-1,1].

  2. 4.

    f(x)=6x on [-1,1].

  3. 5.

    f(x)=x2+x-6 on [-3,2].

  4. 6.

    f(x)=x2+x-2 on [-3,2].

  5. 7.

    f(x)=x2+x on [-2,2].

  6. 8.

    f(x)=sinx on [π/6,5π/6].

  7. 9.

    f(x)=cosx on [0,π].

  8. 10.

    f(x)=1x2-2x+1 on [0,2].

In Exercises 11–18., a function f(x) and interval [a,b] are given. Check if the Mean Value Theorem can be applied to f on [a,b]; if so, find a value c in [a,b] guaranteed by the Mean Value Theorem.

  1. 11.

    f(x)=x2+3x-1 on [-2,2].

  2. 12.

    f(x)=5x2-6x+8 on [0,5].

  3. 13.

    f(x)=9-x2 on [0,3].

  4. 14.

    f(x)=25-x on [0,9].

  5. 15.

    f(x)=x2-9x2-1 on [0,2].

  6. 16.

    f(x)=tanx on [-π/4,π/4].

  7. 17.

    f(x)=x3-2x2+x+1 on [-2,2].

  8. 18.

    f(x)=2x3-5x2+6x+1 on [-5,2].

  1. 19.

    Suppose that f is continuous on [1,4] and differentiable on (1,4). If f(1)=10 and f(x)2 for 1x4, how small can f(4) possibly be?

  2. 20.

    Does there exist a function f such that f(0)=-1, f(2)=4, and f(x)2 for all x?

  3. 21.

    Show that the equation 1+2x+x3+4x5=0 has exactly one real root.

  4. 22.

    Show that a polynomial of degree 3 has at most 3 real roots.

  5. 23.
    (a) Suppose that f is differentiable everywhere and has 2 roots. Show that f has at least one real root. (b) Suppose that f is twice differentiable everywhere and has 3 roots. Show that f′′ has at least one real root.
  6. 24.

    Let p, q, and r be constants, and define f(x)=px2+qx+r. Show that the Mean Value Theorem applied to f for the interval [a,b] is always satisfied at the midpoint of the interval.


  1. 25.

    Find the extreme values of f(x)=x2-3x+9 on [-2,5].

  2. 26.

    Describe the critical points of f(x)=cosx.

  3. 27.

    Describe the critical points of f(x)=tanx.

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