From soliciting answers to eliciting reasoning: Questioning our questions in digital math tasks

Heather Lynn Johnson, Gary Olson, Amber Gardner, Amy Smith

University of Colorado Denver


Students can interact with digital math tasks in different locations, on different devices, and for different purposes. What kinds of questions do students encounter when interacting with digital math tasks? And why might the kinds of questions matter?

We designed digital math tasks to provide opportunities for students to engage in math reasoning. Questions are a key component of the tasks. With our questions, our goal was to do more than solicit students’ answers. We intended to elicit students’ reasoning.

We share a digital math task and a question from the task. Then we provide three design principles guiding our questions.

The Toy Car Task

We developed the The Toy Car task in collaboration with Dan Meyer and the Desmos team. The task begins with a video of a toy car moving along a curved path (Figure 1). Then students investigate and graph relationships between a toy car’s distance from a shrub, and its total distance traveled.

CCTM1 copy.jpg

Figure 1. The toy car and the shrub

The Toy Car task is part of a group of tasks that we call Techtivities. The Techtivities include video animations and dynamically linked, interactive graphs. Students have opportunities to sketch different graphs to represent the same relationship between attributes. Then students reflect on what those graphs represent. To learn more about the Techtivities, see Johnson (2018).

In the Toy Car task, students sketch, then reflect on two different graphs, shown in Figure 2. Each graph represents the toy car’s total distance traveled as a function of the toy car’s distance from the shrub.


CCTM2 copy.jpg

Figure 2. Two different graphs in the Toy Car task

Students might wonder how it is possible for two different looking graphs to represent the same function relationship. Furthermore, students might notice that the graph shown at right in Figure 2 does not pass the vertical line test, meaning that a vertical line would intersect the graph at more than one point.

Students can apply the vertical line test based solely on the shape of a graph, and they may miss how graphs can represent relationships between attributes in a situation (Moore, Silverman, Paoletti, & LaForest, 2014). In the Toy Car task, and across the Techtivities, our goal was for students to focus on relationships between different attributes in the situations. We worked to design questions that could help us to achieve our goals.

A Question

We posed this question in the Toy Car task: Val says that both of these graphs represent the toy car’s total distance traveled as a function of the toy car’s distance from the shrub. Do you agree or disagree? Why or why not? (Graphs are shown in Figure 2.)

We purposefully posed this question as person’s (Val’s) claim, rather than as a claim devoid of human connection. Furthermore, we used precise language to clarify Val’s claim. In particular, we used the phrase as a function of, rather than the more general term, function. We did this so that Val’s claim focused on the function relationship that the graphs represented. Overall, we aimed to position Val as a capable doer of mathematics, who made a claim worthy of consideration.

Three Design Principles

1. Provide opportunities for students to consider other students’ claims. Mathematics is a human endeavor (Freudenthal, 1973). In our questions, we decided to have students respond to another student’s claim. We could have asked students: Do both graphs represent the toy car’s total distance traveled as a function of the toy car’s distance from the shrub? By framing our questions as a response to another student, we aimed to humanize students’ interactions with the digital math tasks.

2. Allow for gender ambiguity when incorporating student names into task questions. Students can think that gender identity plays a role in mathematical ability (Boaler, 2002; Leyva, 2017; Rubel, 2016). In our questions, we aimed to use gender ambiguous names, and names we selected were often informal. We could have used a pronoun to assign a gender identity to Val, or selected a more gendered name. Instead, we intended to open possibilities for students to use a variety of pronouns, or no pronouns at all, when responding to the student claims given in the tasks.

3. Elicit sense making, rather than soliciting judgments of correct/incorrect. To promote students’ reasoning, we posed questions to elicit sense making rather than solicit judgments. We could have asked students if Val was right or wrong. Instead of asking students to judge another student’s claim as correct/incorrect, we chose to ask students to explain why they agreed or disagreed. We intended to offer students opportunities to consider possibilities, rather than rushing to judgments.

Closing Remarks

Doing mathematics is so much more than finding answers. With our questions, we can work to create spaces for students to engage in reasoning and sense making. In designing questions for our digital math tasks, we are aiming to do just that.

Acknowledgments. This work was supported by a grant from the National Science Foundation (DUE-1709903). Opinions, findings and conclusions are those of the authors. We thank Dan Meyer and the team at Desmos for their work with us. We are grateful to our colleagues who provided feedback to help us to grow.


Boaler, J. (2002). Paying the price for “sugar and spice”: Shifting the analytical lens in equity research. Mathematical Thinking and Learning, 4(2-3), 127–144.

Freudenthal, H. (1973). Mathematics as an educational task. Dordrecht: D. Reidel Publishing.

Johnson, H. L. (2018). Helping students see how graphs work | Edutopia. Retrieved July 30, 2018, from

Leyva, L. A. (2017). Unpacking the male superiority myth and masculinization of mathematics at the intersections: A review of research on gender in mathematics education. Journal for Research in Mathematics Education, 48(4), 397–452.

Moore, K. C., Silverman, J., Paoletti, T., & LaForest, K. (2014). Breaking conventions to support quantitative reasoning. Mathematics Teacher Educator, 2(2), 141–157.

Rubel, L. H. (2016). Speaking up and speaking out about gender in mathematics. The Mathematics Teacher, 109(6), 434–439.

Share your expertise: Write for the Colorado Math Teacher

Heather Lynn Johnson, CMT Editor

I ask questions about writing. What are you writing today? Have you written that down? What are your writing goals? How are you nurturing your writing process?

With my questions, I intend to encourage others to grow their writing practice. Yet, writing can be difficult. Even intimidating.

I find getting started to be one of the most challenging aspects of writing. Have you thought about sharing your ideas in writing? Do you have research findings that you want to share with a broader audience? Have you given (or attended) a presentation that sparked conversation? Do you have fresh insights into mathematics teaching and learning? Then the time for getting started is now.

As the new editor for a new CMT journal, my goal is to cultivate a space for community, connection, and conversation. A space with synergy between research and practice. A space where people invested in mathematics education in Colorado (and even beyond) can share their expertise to learn and grow from each other.

Interested in writing for the CMT? Here’s how to get started.

What Kinds of Articles are Suitable for the CMT?

CMT articles should address relevant issues in mathematics education. Relevant issues can span research and practice. Share your stories, your insights, your struggles, your innovations, or your new findings. The CMT editorial team is particularly interested in articles that address one or more of these strands: Teaching and Learning, Access and Equity, Tools and Technology, Professionalism, and Assessment.

What is the Format for CMT Articles?

CMT articles should be between 800-1200 words, including titles, tables, figures, and references. Authors should write for a broad audience of people invested in mathematics education (in Colorado, and even beyond).

Wondering what a completed CMT article looks like? Here is an example:

From soliciting answers to eliciting reasoning: Questioning our questions in digital math tasks

What is the Submission Process?

Submitting an article to the CMT starts with a proposal.

Send proposals to this email address: cmt (at) cctmath (dot) org

In your proposal, include the following:

  1. Subject line: CMT: Title of Your Proposed Article

  2. A short paragraph summarizing the main points of your article.

  3. An outline of main sections of your article.

  4. A few sentences about your role in mathematics education.

  5. References (or links) for three recent publications (or presentations).

  6. A statement disclosing any commercial interests that you have in products described in the article proposal.

  7. A statement describing any portions of the planned article that appear elsewhere. (Or a statement indicating that no portions of the planned article appear elsewhere.)

What Happens after Submission?

The CMT editorial team will review your proposal. After your proposal is reviewed, a member of the CMT editorial team will contact you. The review process typically takes a few weeks, sometimes longer.

If your proposal is accepted, the CMT editorial team will ask for you to send a complete draft of your article. After submitting your draft, there likely will be one or more rounds of required revisions. If revisions are required, a member of the editorial team will work with you along the way.

If your proposal is rejected, know that the CMT editorial team carefully reviewed your proposal. The CMT editorial team cannot provide in depth feedback for all proposals received. If your proposal is not accepted, the CMT editorial team encourages you to send another proposal.

Inspiration for the CMT submission process came from

What Are Authors’ Ethical Responsibilities?

The CMT editorial team expects that authors uphold the integrity of the CMT journal. Authors should submit only new contributions, which have not been published elsewhere. If authors report data, they should not misrepresent, fabricate, or manipulate data for their own purposes. Authors should not plagiarize others’ work. When authors draw on others’ research or ideas, they should provide references and/or acknowledgments to give appropriate credit.