Desmos: Your Smart Graphing Calculator

“Do I have to buy a graphing calculator?”

This was the first question asked by a student in a grade 10 math class during my final practicum. A very honest question. I know when I start reading any course syllabus, the first question on my mind is, do I have to buy a textbook?

And so came the introduction of Desmos —a free online graphing calculator.  But far from the fact that it’s free and doesn’t need any fancy equipment to use in class (students can access it from any personal device), Desmos has a lot more to offer. Think of the smartphone you’re using now, and then think of what you were using before that. That’s Desmos. It’s a smart graphing calculator, and graphing is just one of its features.

What I found to be most helpful before using it; however, was observing an experienced teacher put it into action. This is definitely something I would recommend when it comes to integrating new technology in the classroom. Reading about it or watching tutorials online on how to use it is extremely helpful, but watching someone put it into action or even having the opportunity to engage with it offers you a full view of that desired outcome.

The big picture; what does Desmos offer you:

  1. Online graphing calculator —no account needed; if you have internet access, simply go to desmos.com and start graphing from any personal device. If you want to save your work; however, you need to be signed in under your account (free). You can also download it as an App on your device.
  2. Pre-made Classroom Activities that you can use as-is or adapt/edit to fit your own classroom needs —simply sign up for a free account to access them.
  3. Custom activities via Desmos Activity Builder —design and create your own digital math activity online to integrate into your lesson.

Classroom activities or custom activities are simply a series of interactive slides that students can work their way through either at their own pace, while still engaged with their peers (see below), or using teacher pacing (whole class working on the same slide).

Here is a screenshot of a classroom activity offered by Desmos that I tried with my students during practicum.digital-activites Some features you can add into your digital activities include; text, notes, hidden folders (from students), student input, multiple-choice questions, images, videos, and graphs. Students can also interact with their graphs, sketch their thoughts, type their response, or have their work carried forward from a previous slide to continue solving.

What does it offer your classroom:

  • Allows you to focus on the math in an engaging way
  • Allows students to see how their graph changes in real-time depending on their input
  • Supports social interaction in and out of the classroom
    • Students are able to see peer responses and provide them with instant feedback or critique their work
    • Teachers can build a strong PLN with other educators using Desmos to share/discuss ideas and/or collect feedback
  • Safe learning environment: you can choose to anonymize student names when sharing responses and have them take on famous mathematician’s names instead
  •  Teacher/student pacing: have the whole class working on the same slide together while facilitating a discussion or allow them to work at their own pace while still getting that feedback and support from their peers -students can also continue to work on the activity from home
  • Pause the class: grab your students’ attention at once by pausing their work to showcase a solution or start a discussion that can help them carry forward
  • Formative assessment: check-in on responses while your students are working to provide them with instant feedback or use it to guide your next move.

Here are some screenshots of what the teacher can see as students are working. These responses can also be shared with the class as a focus on discussions. Activity link.

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Breaking it down; how to use it:

Note: One of the best things I like about Desmos is that it’s not just designed with students in mind, but teachers as well. The instructions and support offered for this tool are unlike any I have seen; albeit I’m still starting off my career in teaching, but I’m sure experienced teachers who have used it would argue the same.

Team Desmos offers video tutorials on its graphing calculator features and classroom activities. A full PD package is also ready for download if you’re looking to share the learning with others. You can access them here or you can also check out their user guide loaded with visuals.

Classroom Example:

Here is an example of a lesson I adapted from my intermediate mathematics course at uOttawa that integrated Desmos into Pear Deck into hands-on.

Task: What is the maximum number of pieces you could get using 20 straight cuts?

pizza-problem

First, we experimented with this:

Then, after noting the quadratic relation, we used Desmos to find our solution:screen-shot-2017-01-29-at-3-24-16-pm

In this lesson, I integrated Desmos online graphing calculator into my original plan and provided a link on Pear Deck for students to easily access it. Overall, I think they enjoyed the activity in itself and going through that productive struggle in trying to figure out the solution really paved the way for Desmos as a math tool to help us solve problems. I think what students like most about using Desmos is that it’s easy to use; you don’t spend the majority of the time explaining how to use it, but in actually using it.

With time management in consideration, I think next time I try this lesson, I will use Desmos Activity Builder for the graphing portion. Linking it to Pear Deck for students to access on their own doesn’t allow you to see their work once finished to be able to assess/offer feedback.

I still have a lot of learning and experimenting to do in integrating Desmos into the classroom, but it’s definitely a tool I would recommend to try and introduce to your students.  

Technology in the Classroom: Defining its Purpose

Technology use in the classroom largely depends on how teachers choose to incorporate it, but that’s not all.  One of the biggest takeaways from my first two weeks of practicum was reflecting on the purpose behind integrating technology in the classroom. On thought, I came to ask myself, why is it possible that one could walk into two different classrooms using the same tech tools, but see different results in terms of student engagement?

Having the fortunate opportunity to be able to observe how an experienced teacher capitalizes on their benefits allowed me to highlight the difference and dig deeper into thought about what makes their success vary from one classroom to the other.

From my personal observation and reflection, the key factor that stood out for me was the reason behind choosing to integrate technology –the one beyond learning that “special” skill. It’s first and foremost about taking the time to define the purpose I want it to serve in my classroom. Asking myself as a designer/facilitator the most important question when lesson planning—why? Why is this important for my students? Is it just about being tech-savvy, or can I further define its purpose and allow it to help me create a more meaningful and enjoyable learning experience? If my goal is to improve student engagement in the learning process, then how will they be able to engage in conversations with their peers, showcase their thoughts, share different strategies, and collectively engage in group discussions as they use this technology?

Walking into my placement two weeks ago, I was already curious to learn how technology can be integrated into a Grade 10 Math class. From previous experiences, I still had the idea in my head that when it came to technology vs. group-based activities, student engagement wouldn’t be as high.

Having that expectation and the imbedded image of students sitting on separate devices totally disengaged from the environment around them (only talking to their peers or teacher when they have a question or answer) definitely paved the way for one of my favourite experiences so far. For the first time I had the chance to experience what it truly felt like to be a facilitator/designer in the classroom. Albeit I was just an observer and active participant, but having that opportunity to experience the deep meaning of the former mentioned terms was truly inspiring.

For the entire 75-minutes students were leaders of their own learning. From the design of different activities that triggered curiosity, to the use of Visibly Random Groups (VRGs) and Vertical Non-Permanent Surfaces (VNPS), and the idea of showcasing and extending the learning with Pear Deck and Desmos, students were engaged and stimulated throughout the entire process. What struck me the most was that at no point was the technology isolated from the hands-on activities students were working on. They both served the purpose of complimenting each other. More specifically, the tools selected:

  • Created a safe space for students to communicate their individual thoughts, collectively;
  • Provided an extension to the hands-on learning with the added feature of personal/group reflection;
  • Provided students with a platform to analyze and present their own learning;
  • Offered room for feedback vs. direct teaching
    • Instead of highlighting key ideas by writing them on the board or reading them off a slide developed by the teacher, key concepts were conveyed through feedback on student work/thoughts projected through Pear Deck or displayed across the room (VNPS). The content of the “teaching” material was derived directly from student work.

Overall, more than just a tool to help students learn a new skill, technology served a much bigger purpose of creating an interactive community of thoughts.