Engaging Preservice Secondary Mathematics Teachers with Desmos Activity Builder

Engaging Preservice Secondary Mathematics Teachers with Desmos Activity Builder

Sharon Vestal, South Dakota State University, sharon.vestal@sdstate.edu


At South Dakota State University, I have the privilege of teaching a two-credit hour course called Technology for STEM Educators. While any future STEM teacher can take it, the audience is preservice secondary (grades 6 – 12) math teachers. For the past three years, I have had this class complete a Desmos Activity Builder project, where the students must create their own activity builder that has to meet certain requirements.

To make a more even playing field for these projects, I gave them an eighth-grade standard to use for the math content of the activity. The standard was 8.EE.B Cluster: Understand the connections between proportional relationships, lines, and linear equations. When I first decided to assign this project, I consulted with one of my favorite high school math teachers, Mark Kreie, and he helped provide guidance since he was a Desmos Fellow. Below are the directions given to the students.

In your Activity, you need to include the following Desmos components, but you could combine some of them on the same screen. For example, you could have students create a table and graph on the same screen.

  • 2 Different types of Starter screens (go to https://teacher.desmos.com/collection/5e715a2dc59e631cf6962db1 to see examples. You can use any of these or you could create your own.
  • At least one screen that asks a multiple-choice question.
  • At least one screen that asks a free response question.
  • At least one screen that includes a graph that you created.
  • At least one screen that asks the student to graph something (either as a sketch or as an equation).
  • At least one screen that has a table.
  • At least one screen that uses a Card Sort.
  • At least one screen that uses Computational Layer (programming). I want you to write a prompt to ask the students to complete a sentence. Mr. Kreie has made an example for you to look at, https://teacher.desmos.com/activitybuilder/custom/603dcd8a73bc6845982258d6

After they are done, they created a class code and shared it with everyone in the class. Then each student was assigned two other Desmos activities to complete. Once they had done that, they wrote “three paragraphs discussing the thought process for creating an activity, things they liked and disliked about their colleagues’ activities (include your colleagues’ names), and how they will use Desmos Activity Builder in their classroom.”

Why are projects like this important to preservice mathematics teachers? In the AMTE Standards for Preparing Teachers of Mathematics, they have listed standards and indicators for well-prepared beginning teachers of mathematics (AMTE, 2017). The Desmos Activity Builder project hits on several of these standards and indicators. One of them that it really focuses on is Indicator C.1.6. Use Mathematical Tools and Technology from Standard C.1. Knowledge of Mathematics for Teaching. This can be seen in the student comments that follow.

  • As I was reading through the standard, I thought of potential questions that I could use. For example, I knew we had to have a card sort for one of our screens and I thought it would be a good idea to have students match graphs to the correct equation. (Student 1)

Response from Student 2 regarding Student 1's card sort, “I did not like her card sort because you had to match pictures of the graph to the equation of the line. This would be great but the pictures are small, so it is hard to see them and some of the pictures did not have the grid lines, so it was very hard to determine the exact equation of the line.”

  • One thing that I struggled with was checking if students’ answers were correct or not in multiple choice questions. When you are creating a multiple-choice question, Desmos allows you to click on the correct answer. Then when you click on student view it shows that the students will see a checkmark or sometimes a black dot when they are correct and an x when they are wrong. Yet, when I published my activity these symbols did not show up for the students. On the teacher’s end, I could see if the students were correct or incorrect. So, this method works if you want to know who got it right, but if you want your students to know you must add a computational layer. I ended up adding a computational layer to a few of my slides so that the student could know what they got right. (Student 3)

Response from Student 2 regarding Student 3’s multiple-choice question: “I did not really like her slide that is a multiple-choice question because the answers are in check boxes, so you can choose multiple answers. I know as a student I hated questions like that because I always felt like I was missing an answer.”

Response from Student 4 regarding Student 3’s multiple-choice question: “Another thing that I liked was what Student 3 did giving immediate feedback on multiple choice questions, I did notice that on one of her questions that had the option to select multiple answers it would display that the answer was correct even if an incorrect answer was selected alongside the correct answer. I’m not really sure how to fix that though.”

Another indicator that students used when completing this project was Indicator C.2.2. Plan for Effective Instruction from Standard C.2. Pedagogical Knowledge and Practices for Teaching Mathematics. This indicator is evident in the following reflections from students.

  • When I was creating my activity, I thought a lot about how I wanted it to flow. I wanted to cover as much content as possible in as few slides as possible. I know that I personally do not like doing activities that have over 8-10 slides, so I wanted to keep mine short. I also knew I wanted to have a wide variety of questions so that the activity wasn’t repetitive. (Student 2)

Student 5’s comment about Student 2’s activity: “One thing that was different to mine with the matching that Student 2 did in her activity was have a couple extra matching squares that had no answer to them. I thought this was something I maybe should have done because it can make your students think a little more than just matching up the same number of tiles to one another.”

  • When starting out creating an expressions and equations Desmos activity, I wanted to have an activity that was fun, even for college students to complete, and one I would see myself using with students in the future. I watched a YouTube video to better explain step-by-step how to create an activity. The activity I recreated and added to was from LEGO Prices because it is interactive and involves LEGOs, which many kids play with growing up. The building of this activity required code and making Desmos graphs. I was able to implement all the requirements and more in the activity. (Student 6)

Student 3’s comments about Student 6’s activity: After looking at Student 6’s activity I feel very uncreative. Student 6’s activity does a great job keeping the students engaged and connects each slide to the next very well. I thought her slide that asked students to enter points into a chart that then showed up on the graph was great, I will have to ask her how she did that.

Figure 1

Slide from Student 6’s Activity Builder

Note. This slide followed a card sort slide and the points that need to be entered are the correct answers from the card sort.

The last indicator that can really be seen in this activity is Indicator C.2.5. Enhance Teaching through Collaboration with Colleagues, Families, and Community Members from Standard C.2. Pedagogical Knowledge and Practices for Teaching Mathematics.

  • I really liked being able to create my own activities. I liked adding graphs and how many options there were to be creative in your different slides. Most of all, I like the collaborative part of activity builder. You could look at other teachers’/peers’ activities and if you liked their slides you were able to use them on your own activity. … I am glad I have this resource in my back pocket for when I start to teach. (Student 7)
  • When I make future Desmos activities, I will definitely use parts from already existing activities because other people are much better at coding than I am. (Student 6)

The other big takeaway from this project is that students understand the importance of engagement. Some students did a much better job of this as seen below in a slide from Student 8’s activity builder.

Figure 2

Slide from Student 8’s Activity


Note. This slide sets up the scenario of the activity where students must remove the power of the “villains” by solving linear equations.

As mathematics teacher educators, we must give our preservice teachers every opportunity to think like a teacher. In our program, I often ask them to put on their “teacher hat.” While it is great to have our students participate in a Desmos activity, it is more important to have them create one so they are “well-prepared beginning teachers of mathematics” (AMTE, 2017, p. 6)


Association of Mathematics Teacher Educators. (2017). Standards for Preparing Teachers of Mathematics. Available online at amte.net/standards.