Activity Builder Reflections

The super-awesome Desmos folks set Activity Builder into the wild this past summer, and it’s been exciting to see the creativity gushing from my math teaching colleagues as they build activities.  So far, I have used Activities with 2 of my classes, with mixed success.

In my 9th grade Prob/Stat class, I built an Activity to assess student understanding of scatterplots and lines of best fit.  You can play along with the activity if you like: go to student.desmos.com, and enter the code T7TP.  I am most excitied by the formative assessment opportunities an activity can provide – here are 3 places where I was able to assess class understanding.

In one slide, students were shown a scatterplot, and asked to slide a point along a number line to a “reasonable” value for the correlation coefficeient, r.  The overlay feature on the teacher dashboard allowed me to review responses with the class and consider the collective class wisdom.

r overlay

In another slide, students were again given a scatterplot and asked to set sliders for slope and y-intercept to build a best-fit line.  Again, the overlay feature was helpful, though it was also great to look at individual responses.  This led to a discussion of that pesky outlier on the right – just how much could it influence the line?

LSRL overlay

Finally, question slides were perfect for allowing students to communicate their ideas, and focus on vocabulary. In our class debrief, we discussed the meaning of slope in a best-fit line, and its role in making predictions about the overall pattern.

 question roll

But all has not been totally sunny with Activity Builder.  In my Algebra 1 class, I built an Activity to use as a station during class.  Splitting the class in half, one group worked with me on problems, while the rest worked through the activity, then flipping roles halfway through class.  You can try this activity at student.desmos.com, code 3FGM.

Storm clouds approached early, when a student complained that they didn’t know what to do – even though the first slide offered instructions to “Drag the points…”.  Quickly my “I’m an awesome teacher who uses stations” fuzziness turned into saltiness as students clearly were not following the activity faithfully.  Here’s what I learned:

Leading class through an activity beforehand would have been helpful. In the future, I’m going to make a vanilla lesson which walks students through simple tasks – dragging points, answering questions, entering equations, adjusting sliders – and let them see how I can view and use their responses.  Just setting a class into the wild, especially a class which often struggles with instructions, didn’t work so hot.


Last Saturday, I led a group of about 20 teachers in an Activity Builder workshp at the ATMOPAV Fall Conference at Ursinus. I had 3 goals for the assembled teachers for the hour:

  • Experience activities through a student perspective.
  • Experience the teacher dashboard.
  • Start building their own activities.

Some have asked for my materials, and I can’t say I have too much to share.  Check out my Slides and feel free to contact me with questions about the hour. Some highlights of the group discussions:

  • When is the best time in a unit to use an Activity?  So far, I have used it as an intro to a unit, and also as a summary of a unit.  The difference is in the approach to task.  An intro activity should invite students to explore and play, and think about generalizations – include lots of “what do you think?” opportunities.  In my summary activity, I asked specific questions to see if students could communicate ideas based on what we had learned.
  • Think about how you will leverage to teacher dashboard to collect and view ideas.  How does the overlay feature let all students contribute and build class generalizations in a new way?  How will you highlight individual student responses to generate class conversation?
  • Ask efficient questions.  There’s really not a lot of room in the text for long-ish tasks.  Keep things short, sweet, and focused.
  • Many teachers wanted to know more about building draggable points.  The way I do this is to create a table, enter some points, and use the Edit feature to make the points draggable.  Your best bet may be to take an already existing activity and pore through its engine, which reminds me….

Desmos is now assembling an searchable archive of vetted activities.  Go to teacher.desmos.com, and use the search bar at the top-left.  I highly recommend any creations by Jon Orr, Michael Fenton and Christopher Danielson.

copyAnd finally, an exciting new feature to Activity Builder just appeared today – you can now copy slides within an Activity.  Click the 3 dots to duplicate a slide and use it again, or edit a graph to use later.

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5 responses to “Activity Builder Reflections

  1. What do you mean by “edit a graph to use later”?

    • For example, say you build a parabola with a draggable point tracing its path. If you wanted to use that same graph you built later in the Activity, you could, rather than having to start from scratch.

  2. With the Desmos “use the sliders to move the line” activity the scales need to have comparable ranges, as in the example of height and temp a small change in m from -0.01 to -0.03 caused a dramatic jump in the position of the line. Standardizing (dirty word these days) the variables is best, but maybe too soon. putting height in units of 100ft would help a lot.

    I also think that assessment of (guessing) correlation coefficients is much easier with standardized data.

  3. I, also, found that explaining the purpose of my activity in advance and giving them some examples of what to look for made my exploration activity much more effective. They were having such fun making sinusoidal slinkys with the sliders that they totally missed the transformations they were supposed to be observing!

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