Activities for creating challenging tasks

Upping the Challenge

The goal of this activity is to help students recognize how they’re learning the building blocks for even more challenging problems that surround them in the real world.

Ask students to generate ways to take a problem they’ve mastered and make it harder. For instance, students could change the question, "Measure the volume of a rectangular pool" to:

  • “How many marshmallows can you fit in this pool?”
  • “How long would it take to fill up the pool with a hose?”

If a student asks for step-by-step help, guide the student through the challenge:

Provide some examples of your own to help students get started (e.g., think about ways to connect or integrate concepts, not simply having students do larger calculations). Then get students to present their more challenging problems, and attempt to solve the underlying concepts as a class. Depending on your classroom, you may find this activity works best to have students brainstorm individually, and then come together in small groups before sharing with the class.

Opening Up a Classroom Task

Think of a topic that you will be teaching in the next week. Develop an open task to teach this topic or concept that encourages persistence and learning.

This website gives a lot of good examples of taking a textbook problem and turning it into a task that encourages deeper understanding and discussion:

To help you get started, here are some questions to think about:

  • What are different ways of approaching this problem? Can it be depicted visually?
  • How can I encourage class discussion so the class can work through a concept as a group and have ideas that feed off each other?
  • Can I think of a question that students can talk about in groups to get them interested in the ideas before they are taught? For example, in a Calculus lesson, a teacher could ask students to think about how you would calculate the volume of a lemon before learning the formal methods of Calculus.

When you introduce this activity, be sure to frame challenging problems as an opportunity to learn from mistakes. Remind students that they are growing their math brains by challenging themselves. Encourage students to make sense of the concept. When a student suggests an approach, ask students to think why it might or might not work.

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