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Arithmetic Sequences

Main Lesson Page | MATHguide.com Updated August 18th, 2008


Introduction
In this section, you will learn how to identify arithmetic sequences, calculate the nth
term in arithmetic sequences, find the number of terms in an arithmetic
sequenceand find the sum of arithmetic sequences. Soon, you will be invited to try
ourquizmasters at the end of the lesson.

Identifying an Arithmetic Sequence


Sequences of numbers that follow a pattern of adding a fixed number from one term
to the next are called arithmetic sequences. The following sequences are arithmetic
sequences:
Sequence A: 5 , 8 , 11 , 14 , 17 , ...
Sequence B: 26 , 31 , 36 , 41 , 46 , ...
Sequence C: 20 , 18 , 16 , 14 , 12 , ...
For sequence A, if we add 3 to the first number we will get the second number. This
works for any pair of consecutive numbers. The second number plus 3 is the third
number: 8 + 3 = 11, and so on.
For sequence B, if we add 5 to the first number we will get the second number. This
also works for any pair of consecutive numbers. The third number plus 5 is the fourth
number: 36 + 5 = 41, which will work throughout the entire sequence.
Sequence C is a little different because we need to add -2 to the first number to get
the second number. This too works for any pair of consecutive numbers. The fourth
number plus -2 is the fifth number: 14 + (-2) = 12.
Because these sequences behave according to this simple rule of addiing a constant
number to one term to get to another, they are called arithmetic sequences. So that
we can examine these sequences to greater depth, we must know that the fixed
numbers that bind each sequence together are called the common differences.
Sometimes mathematicians use the letter d when referring to these types of
sequences.
Mathematicians also refer to generic sequences using the letter a along with
subscripts that correspond to the term numbers as follows:
Generic Sequence: a1, a2, a3, a4, ...
This means that if we refer to the fifth term of a certain sequence, we will label it a5.
a17 is the 17th term. This notation is necessary for calculating nth terms, or an, of
sequences.
d can be calculated by subtracting any two consecutive terms in an arithmetic
sequence.
d = an - an - 1, where n is any positive integer greater than 1.
Calculating the nth Term
In order for us to know how to obtain terms that are far down these lists of numbers,
we need to develop a formula that can be used to calculate these terms. If we were to
try and find the 20th term, or worse to 2000th term, it would take a long time if we
were to simply add a number -- one at a time -- to find our terms.
If a 5-year-old was asked what the 301st number is in the set of counting numbers, we
would have to wait for the answer while the 5-year-old counted it out using
unnecessary detail. We already know the number is 301 because the set is extremely
simple; so, predicting terms is easy. Upon examining arithmetic sequences in greater
detail, we will find a formula for each sequence to find terms.
1. Let's examine sequence A so that we can find a formula to express its nth
term.
If we match each term with it's corresponding term number, we get:

n 1 2 3 4 5 ...
Term 5 8 11 14 17 . . .
The fixed number, called the common difference (d), is 3; so, the formula will
be an = dn + c or an = 3n + c, where c is some number that must be found.
For sequence A above, the rule an = 3n + c would give the values...
3×1 + c = 3 + c
3×2 + c = 6 + c
3×3 + c = 9 + c
3×4 + c = 12 + c
3×5 + c = 15 + c
If we compare these values with the ones in the actual sequence, it should be
clear that the value of c is 2. Therefore the formula for the nth term is...
an = 3n + 2.
Now if we were asked to find the 37th term in this sequence, we would
calculate for a37 or 3(37) + 2 which is equal to 111 + 2 = 113. So, a37 = 113, or the
37th term is 113. Likewise, the 435th term would be a435 = 3(435) + 2 = 1307.
2. Let's take a look at sequence B.

n 1 2 3 4 5 ...
Term 26 31 36 41 46 . . .
3. The fixed number, d, is 5. So the formula will be an = dn + c or an = 5n + c .
4. For the sequence above, the rule an = 5n + c would give the values...
5. 5×1 + c = 5 + c
5×2 + c = 10 + c
5×3 + c = 15 + c
5×4 + c = 20 + c
5×5 + c = 25 + c
6. If we compare these values with the numbers in the actual sequence, it should
be clear that the value of c is 21. Therefore, the formula for the nth term is...
7. an = 5n + 21.
8. If we wanted to calculate the 14th term, we would calculate for
9. a14 = 5(14) + 21 = 70 + 21 = 91. If we needed the 40th term, we would calculate
a40 = 5(40) + 21 = 200 + 21 = 221. The general formula is very handy.
10. Now let's do the third and final example....
n 1 2 3 4 5 ...
Term 20 18 16 14 12 . . .
11. The common difference is -2. So the formula will be -2n + c, where c is a
number that must be found.
12. For sequence C, the rule -2n + c would give the values...
13.-2×1 + c = -2 + c
-2×2 + c = -4 + c
-2×3 + c = -6 + c
-2×4 + c = -8 + c
-2×5 + c = -10 + c
14. If we compare these values with the numbers in the actual sequence, it should
be clear that the value of c is 22. Therefore, the formula for the nth term is...
15.an = -2n + 22.
16.If for some reason we needed the 42nd term, we would calculate for a42 = -2(42)
+ 22 = -84 + 22 = -62. Similarly, a90 = -2(90) + 22 = -180 + 22 = -158.
Finding the Number of Terms
It may be necessary to calculate the number of terms in a certain arithmetic
sequence. To do so, we would need to know two things.
We would need to know a few terms so that we could calculate the common
difference and ultimately the formula for the general term. We would also need to
know the last number in the sequence.
Once we know the formula for the general term in a sequence and the last term, the
procedure is relatively uncomplicated. Set them equal to each other. Since the
formula uses the variable n to calculate terms, we can also use it to determine the
term number for any given term.
i. If we again look at sequence A above, let's use the formula that was found to
calculate term values, an = 3n + 2. If we knew that 47 was a number in the
sequence -- 5, 8, 11, 14, 17, ..., 47 -- we would set the number 47 equal to the
formula an = 3n + 2, we would get 47 = 3n + 2. Solving this equation yields n =
15. This means that there are 15 terms in the sequence and that the 15th term,
a15, is equal to 47.
ii. Let's look at a portion of sequence C. If the sequence went from 20 to -26, we
would have: 20, 18, 16, 14, 12, ...,-26. We would use the formula for the general
term, an = -2n + 22, and set it equal to the last term, -26. We would get -26 = -2n
+ 22 and algebra would allow us to arrive at n = 24. This means that there are
24 terms in the sequence and that a24 = -26.
Finding the Sum of a Series
Given our generic arithmetic sequence a1, a2, a3, a4, ..., we can add the terms, called a
series, as follows: a1 + a2 + a3 + a4 + ... + an. Given the formula for the general term an =
dn + c, there exists a formula that can add such a finite list of these numbers. It
requires three pieces of information. The formula is...
Sn = ½n(a1 + an)
...where Sn is the sum of the first n numbers, a1 is the first number in the sequence
and an is the last number in the sequence.
Usually problems present themselves in either of two ways. Either the first number in
the sequence and the number of terms are known or the first number and the last
number of the sequence are known.
i. Let's take a finite portion of sequence B and experience our first case. If we
had 26, 31, 36, 41, 46, ... and knew that there were 50 terms in the sequence,
then we have a1 = 26 and n = 50. We would have to develop a formula for the
nth term so we could calculate a50, the last term in the sequence. Since we
already calculated the formula above, we can use it to calculate a50. It is an = 5n
+ 21 is the formula so a50 = 5(50) + 21 = 250 + 21 = 271. Now we can plug the
numbers into the formula and gain a solution. S50 = ½(50)(26 + 271) = 25(297) =
7425. This means that the sum of the first 50 terms is 7425.
ii. Next, let's take a portion of sequence A for our second possible situation. If we
were dealing with 5, 8, 11, 14, 17, ... , 128, then we would know that a1 = 5 and
an= 128. If we knew the number of terms in this sequence, we would be able to
use the formula. Finding n becomes our next task. Since we know the formula
for the general term, an = 3n + 2, we can use it to find the number of terms in
this sequence. We set the last term equal to the formula and solve for n. We
get 128 = 3n + 2, which means that n = 42 and a42 = 128. Now we can plug the
information into the sum formula and get S42 = ½(42)(5 + 128) = (21)(133) =
2793, which must be the sum of the first 42 terms in the sequence.

Quizmasters
After reading the lesson, try our quizmaster. MATHguide has developed numerous
testing and checking programs to solidify skills demonstrated in this lesson. The
following quizmasters are available:
• Quizmaster for Finding Formula for General Term
• Quizmaster for Finding the nth Term
• Quizmaster for Finding the Sum of a Series Given a1 and n
• Quizmaster for Finding the Sum of a Series Given a1 and an
Use the following arithmetic sequence for the problem below:

1, -2, -5, -8, ...


For the formula that represents the general term, an = dn + c, what are the correct
values for d and c ?
Check

an = n+

Use the following arithmetic sequence for the problem below:

14, 16, 18, 20, ..., 46

What is the term number for the last number in the sequence? [a? = 46]
Check

n=
Use the first 36 terms of the following arithmetic series for the problem below:

-12 - 10 - 8 - 6 - ...

What is the 36th term?a36 = What is the sum of the first 36 terms?S36 =
Check

Use the terms of the following arithmetic series for the problem below:

21 + 23 + 25 + 27 + ... + 97

How many terms are there?n = What is the sum of these n terms?Sn =
Check

Sequences
You can read a gentle introduction to Sequences in Common Number Patterns.

What is a Sequence?
A Sequence is a set of things (usually numbers) that are in order.
Infinite or Finite

If the sequence goes on forever it is called an infinite sequence,


otherwise it is a finite sequence

Examples:
{1, 2, 3, 4 ,...} is a very simple sequence (and it is an infinite sequence)
{20, 25, 30, 35, ...} is also an infinite sequence
{1, 3, 5, 7} is the sequence of the first 4 odd numbers (and is a finite sequence)
{4, 3, 2, 1} is 4 to 1 backwards
{1, 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, ...} is an infinite sequence where every term doubles
{a, b, c, d, e} is the sequence of the first 5 letters alphabetically
{f, r, e, d} is the sequence of letters in the name "fred"
{0, 1, 0, 1, 0, 1, ...} is the sequence of alternating 0s and 1s (yes they are in order, it is an
alternating order in this case)

In Order
When we say the terms are "in order", we are free to define what order that is! They
could go forwards, backwards ... or they could alternate ... or any type of order you want!

Like a Set
A Sequence is like a Set, except:

• the terms are in order (with Sets the order does not matter)
• the same value can appear many times (only once in Sets)
Example: {0, 1, 0, 1, 0, 1, ...} is the sequence of alternating 0s and 1s.
The set would be just {0,1}

Notation
Sequences also use the
same notation as sets:
list each element, separated by a
comma, {3, 5, 7, ..}
and then put curly brackets around the
whole thing.

The curly brackets { } are sometimes called "set brackets" or "braces".


A Rule
A Sequence usually has a Rule, which is a way to find the value of each term.

Example: the sequence {3, 5, 7, 9, ...} starts at 3 and jumps 2 every time:

As a Formula
Saying "starts at 3 and jumps 2 every time" is fine, but it doesn't help us calculate the:

• 10th term,
• 100th term, or
• nth term, where n could be any term number we want.

So, we want a formula with "n" in it (where n is any term number).

So, What Would A Rule For {3, 5, 7, 9, ...} Be?

Firstly, we can see the sequence goes up 2 every time, so we can guess that a Rule will be
something like "2 times n" (where "n" is the term number). Let's test it out:

Test Rule: 2n

n Term Test Rule

1 3 2n = 2×1 = 2

2 5 2n = 2×2 = 4

3 7 2n = 2×3 = 6

That nearly worked ... but it is too low by 1 every time, so let us try changing it to:

Test Rule: 2n+1

n Term Test Rule


1 3 2n+1 = 2×1 + 1 = 3

2 5 2n+1 = 2×2 + 1 = 5

3 7 2n+1 = 2×3 + 1 = 7

That Works!

So instead of saying "starts at 3 and jumps 2 every time" we write this:

2n+1

Now we can calculate, for example, the 100th term:


2 × 100 + 1 = 201

Many Rules
But mathematics is so powerful we can find more than one Rule that works for any
sequence.

Example: the sequence {3, 5, 7, 9, ...}


We have just shown a Rule for {3, 5, 7, 9, ...} is: 2n+1
And so we get: {3, 5, 7, 9, 11, 13, ...}
But can we find another rule?
How about "odd numbers without a 1 in them":
And we would get: {3, 5, 7, 9, 23, 25, ...}
A completely different sequence!
And we could find more rules that match {3, 5, 7, 9, ...}. Really we could.

So it is best to say "A Rule" rather then "The Rule" (unless you know it is the right Rule).

Notation
To make it easier to use rules, we often use this special style:

• xn is the term
• n is the term number
Example: to mention the "5th term" you just write: x5
So a rule for {3, 5, 7, 9, ...} can be written as an equation like this:

xn = 2n+1

And to calculate the 10th term we can write:

x10 = 2n+1 = 2×10+1 = 21

Can you calculate x50 (the 50th term) doing this?

Here is another example:

Example: Calculate the first 4 terms of this sequence:


{an} = { (-1/n)n }
Calculations:
• a1 = (-1/1)1 = -1
• a2 = (-1/2)2 = 1/4
• a3 = (-1/3)3 = -1/27
• a4 = (-1/4)4 = 1/256
Answer:
{an} = { -1, 1/4, -1/27, 1/256, ... }

Special Sequences
Now let's look at some special sequences, and their rules.

Arithmetic Sequences
In an Arithmetic Sequence the difference between one term and the next is a
constant.

In other words, you just add some value each time ... on to infinity.

Example:
1, 4, 7, 10, 13, 16, 19, 22, 25, ...

This sequence has a difference of 3 between each number.


Its Rule is xn = 3n-2
In General you could write an arithmetic sequence like this:

{a, a+d, a+2d, a+3d, ... }

where:

• a is the first term, and


• d is the difference between the terms (called the "common difference")

And you can make the rule by:

xn = a + d(n-1)

(We use "n-1" because d is not used in the 1st term).

Geometric Sequences
In a Geometric Sequence each term is found by multiplying the previous term by
a constant.

Example:
2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, 128,
256, ...

This sequence has a factor of 2 between each number.


Its Rule is xn = 2n

In General you could write an arithmetic sequence like this:

{a, ar, ar2, ar3, ... }

where:

• a is the first term, and


• r is the factor between the terms (called the "common ratio")

Note: r should not be 0 or 1.

• When r=0, you get the sequence {a,0,0,...} which is not geometric
• When r=1, you get the sequence {a,a,a,...} which is not geometric

And the rule is:


xn = ar(n-1)

(We use "n-1" because ar0 is the 1st term)

Triangular Numbers
1, 3, 6, 10, 15, 21, 28, 36,
45, ...

This sequence is generated from a pattern of dots which form a triangle.

By adding another row of dots and counting all the dots we can find the next number of the
sequence:

But it is easier to use this Rule:

xn = n(n+1)/2

Example:

• the 5th Triangular Number is x5 = 5(5+1)/2 = 15,


• and the sixth is x6 = 6(6+1)/2 = 21

Square Numbers
1, 4, 9, 16, 25, 36, 49, 64,
81, ...

The next number is made by squaring where it is in the pattern.


Rule is xn = n2

Cube Numbers
1, 8, 27, 64, 125, 216, 343,
512, 729, ...

The next number is made by cubing where it is in the pattern.

Rule is xn = n3

Fibonacci Sequence
This is the Fibonacci Sequence

0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21,
34, ...

The next number is found by adding the two numbers before it together:

• The 2 is found by adding the two numbers before it (1+1)


• The 21 is found by adding the two numbers before it (8+13)
• etc...

Rule is xn = xn-1 + xn-2

That rule is interesting because it depends on the values of the previous two terms.

Rules like that are called recursive formulas.

The Fibonacci Sequence is numbered from 0 onwards like this:

n= 0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 ...

xn = 0 1 1 2 3 5 8 13 21 34 55 89 144 233 377 ...


Example: term "6" would be calculated like this:
x6 = x6-1 + x6-2 = x5 + x4 = 5 + 3 = 8

Series and Partial Sums


Now you know about sequences, the next thing to learn about is how to sum them up. Read
our page on Partial Sums.

When you sum up just part of a sequence it is called a Partial Sum.

But when you sum up an infinite sequence it is called a "Series" (it sounds like another
name for sequence, but it is actually a sum).
Example: Odd numbers
Sequence: {1,3,5,7,...}
Series: 1+3+5+7+...
Partial Sum of first 3 terms: 1+3+5