The GIF(t) of Curiosity

Recently I played around with Snagit on one of the class Chromebooks and discovered how easy it was to create a GIF. I then tried to figure out how to leverage this in the classroom. What I came up with was a prompt based on the GIF below.

Secant Tangent Line gif

The prompt essentially asked students to recreate the GIF. To accomplish this they had to “get under the hood” of the mathematics. This required them to generalize (they’re used to finding secant lines at concrete points) and that was very difficult for them. We rarely ask students to generalize and when we do, it’s usually is in context of a “critical thinking” book problem that gets skipped. Worse than that, often the teacher ends up doing the problem for them at the beginning of the next class. And even if a student does try it, unless it’s an odd problem, they usually can’t see if their generalization was correct until the next day.

The GIF activity addresses some of those issues. Also, unlike many instances of technology in education, this activity wouldn’t have been nearly as effective without certain technologies.

With Desmos students didn’t fear making a mistake nearly as much as with a graphing calculator. If a mistake is made, it is easily changed with an undo command. Another upside to using Desmos is that students can immediately tell when they’re getting close. They don’t have to change screens, press enter, and wait for the graphs to load.

In addition to Desmos, feedback is instantaneous as they immediately know when they are correct. Their animation will match the GIF. This is much different than a textbook problem. In a textbook the graph wouldn’t be animated and the answer in the back would give the “guts” of the generalization. The student would get no chance to play and discover the solution for themselves.

The GIF sparks curiosity. This makes it engaging as long as the teacher can balance their frustration with their curiosity. One of my fundamental beliefs is that the key to motivation is in sparking the curiosity of our students.

Don’t get me wrong, this activity was tough for students (even AP students) but the learning through the frustration was so valuable. On multiple occasions students cheered and high-fived when their graph matched the animation.

High fives in math class!

I really think that GIFs used in connection with Desmos can be a valuable tool in learning. I’m just starting to implement these in class but I think there’s great potential.

What are your thoughts? How would you leverage GIFs in your classroom?

Update: I realized that I didn’t post any of the student blog posts in response to the prompt. You can see all the blogs here. Here are a few of the better responses: Student 1     Student 2      Student 3 

Here is the rubric I use to grade them.

Calc class today.Calc class today.Calc class today.Calc class today.

Calc class today.

Calc class today.

Calc class today.


  • Mary Bourassa Reply

    What a great idea! I will be trying this next semester when I teach calculus. Thanks for sharing.

    • cresswellzach Reply

      Cool! I’d love to hear how it goes!

  • Brian Bennett Reply

    This is *fantastic*. Very little information (just the GIF) as well as the immediate feedback from Desmos does exactly what tech should do: help kids focus on the principle. Great, great example of how to take advantage of what you have available.

    Remind me to high five you next time we see each other.

    • cresswellzach Reply

      Thanks! We had a blast working through it in class. I agree with your point about tech. Without it this activity just isn’t as effective.

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