Math Basketball

I was digging through the dy/dan mailbag today and found a note asking me to explain what I have often referenced on this blog but never clarified. I swear, there isn’t any activity my kids enjoy more than basketball review. Here’s how it works:


  1. You bring in a set of questions related to the previous two week’s instruction.
  2. You put up a question.
  3. A kid stands up with an answer, either correct or incorrect:
    • If it’s incorrect, the student sits down, reworks the problem, and you wait for another student to stand.
    • If it’s correct, the student takes two shots with a miniature basketball into a lined trashcan. You award points according to a) the student’s distance from the trash can, and b) the competitive mode you’ve selected below.
  4. Repeat.

Competitive Modes

I have used four, each with their own recommendations. Listed in descending order of popularity:

  1. Class v. Teacher. The students take two shots for every right answer. The teacher takes one shot for every wrong answer. Highest point total wins either extra credit (for the class) or bragging rights (for the teacher).
  2. Class v. Class. One side of the class versus the other. Seed them by mathematical and athletic ability. Highest point total wins extra credit for their team.
  3. Free Market Capitalism. Everyone for him- or herself. Good for the final minutes of class. A student receives as many extra credit points (or pieces of candy) as he or she can score.
  4. Class v. Arbitrary Point Total. If you’re averse to classroom competition, let the class play as one, studying and shooting to pass an arbitrary point total.

Other Release Notes

  • Have the students turn in a paper with all their work on it. I make a big deal about this so everyone works the math through even if they don’t all shoot. Toss these papers after the last student leaves.
  • Encourage shy students to answer math questions and pass off the ball to another student if they don’t want to shoot.
  • Once a student successfully answers a question, she can’t answer again until the rest of her team answers, though she must still work through the problems.
  • Student conference is way out of bounds. If the idea is that everyone works hard on the math, allowing one student to source all the answers would be counter-productive. If I catch anybody whispering answers, I give the other team a shot.
  • Introduce an extraordinarily difficult and extraordinarily valuable shot halfway through the term, a 20-point shot through an open window, for instance.
  • In between the math review, toss in some extraneous nonsense. Name that flag, for instance.

    You can find these slides anywhere “basketball” is listed in my Geometry supplement.

I'm Dan and this is my blog. I'm a former high school math teacher and current head of teaching at Desmos. He / him. More here.


  1. I like this a lot. As a pre-service teacher I’m just trying to fill up my toolbox with as many interesting things as possible. Consider this added.

  2. This is one of the many games I play with my students, and definitely one of the more popular. I use a nerf basketball hoop on my closet door and set up lines with tape on the floor for 1, 2, and 3 points.

  3. I believe I’m (at least partially) responsible for this explanation, seeing that I asked about Math basketball in a recent email. Woohoo.

    Thanks for explaining even more thoroughly in this post. I plan to try it out soon. I had a high school Spanish teacher who ran a similar review activity. I loved it as a student.

    A few questions:

    1. Are students allowed to speak to each other while they work?

    2. What happens when a few students of one team do all the work, and in turn just share their answers with their teammates? Do you have any preventative measures to counter this?

    3. Do students ever ridicule a particular student for getting it wrong for their team? If so, how do you regulate on this?

    Thanks so much.

  4. No particular modifications. I do middle school special ed, so for me instead of working on problems on paper, it’s drilling them on basic facts. I normally do two teams, each team taking one turn, and I rotate through each team member one after the other.

  5. Dan,

    Thanks for this and everything else. I really appreciate it. Do you allow players to confer with one another or keep things moving so fast they don’t have time to? Thanks again.


  6. A couple answers which I’ve added to the post itself.

    1) Student conference is way out of bounds. If the idea is that everyone works hard on the math, allowing one student to source all the answers would be counter-productive. If I catch anybody whispering answers, I give the other team a shot.

    2) Student ridicule has less to do with any expectations I set up for the game and more to do with expectations I have set up for the class, since day one. Stuff like “there are good wrong answers,” etc.

  7. Thanks Mr. Meyer, I will use this. I’m always looking for games. I started doing “gameday” every Friday last year but all my games started to look the same, with some sort of math puzzle that must be cut out then pasted properly arranged on to a piece of poster paper. Now I’ve got those individual sized white boards which work great for games and last minute stalling before the bell rings.

  8. So what do I do since I’m philosophically opposed to extra credit and promoting bad eating habits? Not a dig, by any means, but I don’t give out extra credit and I don’t want to give students candy to eat. This is a sincere question, here, as I face a day later this week that would be perfect for this kind of review.

    I’m thinking about doing this with sentence corrections, labeling sentences, paragraph “Find The Errors” type things, or identifying elements of plot. Other than bragging rights, though, I can’t figure out how to make it worthwhile for the kids. Of course, I did outlaw throwing things in class, so maybe being able to throw something will be its own reward…

  9. @Todd

    I hear you on the extra credit. Generally those who get it are the ones who don’t need it. Pride and bragging rights work well, I believe, along with some token prize. I go through my desk and find pencils and markers, doo dads and such and let them choose one for a prize. Actually, sometimes the goofier and more random the prize, the more satisfaction in winning.

  10. Love classroom basketball! Two other ideas I/we have created at our school…we love them because they involve EVERY kid at ALL times, and the kids love them because anytime you make anything a competition, they’re in.

    1)$20,000 Pyramid. Much like the old game show. Players work in teams of two, and complete against another team of 2. I create a power point of an average of 8 slides. At the top of each slide is a category (a mix of fun and biology-based slides). Example: Brands of Shoes, Products & Reactants of Photosynthesis, etc. Underneath each category are 8 words that fit within the category…Adidas, Nike, Puma, etc. I animate the slide to show only the category first. Kids see it and decide who is the talker, who is the guesser. On go, I click the slide again to reveal the words underneath. It is the talkers job to get the guesser to say the words on the slide by describing them. Rules: No rhyming (sounds like Madidas), do your best to actually describe the word (ex: don’t point to your pants if the word is gene). After about 30 seconds, I say stop. The winning partnership gets to stay at their desks, the other pair has to get up and challenge a new group for the next round. If there is a tie, we rock, paper, scissors. At the end of all rounds, we share our records. 8-0, 7-1, etc. Winners get candy, an air high-five, etc.

    2)Like Minds. We adapted this from an actual board game. Again, create a power point with a list of categories (again fun mixed with topical. Ex: States that start with S, Organelles of the cell, vegetables, characteristics of life) Click one down at a time. Students pair up. On go, they write down as many words fitting into the category as they can. After 20 seconds or so, you say stop, and they compare lists. Whichever words they have that match equal a point. We both have nucleus, etc. Keep a running tally of the rounds and reward the highest scoring duo.

    Hope this helps!

  11. @Cara S.

    I really like both of these and can see how they could be adapted to the social studies. Thanks for putting them out there.

  12. @Chris, wish you hadn’t asked. The shot went short. Very short.

    @Cara, thanks for sharing. Looks great.

    @Todd, absent candy and extra credit, how the hell else does anyone motivate students?! Okay, jk, I admire but don’t envy your high calling here. If I suffered the same insanity as you, I’d invest myself in all the intangible rewards of winning – pride, camaraderie, etc. I’d keep posterboards celebrating high scores, win streaks. I’d have a point-and-shoot camera on hand to record video of students looking to try challenge shots. I’d begin by celebrating past victories and mourning past losses. When referring to competition between teacher and student, I’d deliberately misremember my losses as wins, just to get their blood boiling a little hotter.


    Okay, maybe this isn’t impossible.

  13. I’m very interested in finding out if you have studied the change in effectiveness that takes place when change the type of liner in the trashcan, or remove the liner entirely. In our schools, the union is likely to protest if the classroom teacher replaces the liner themselves or empties the trash out of the can once it has been placed within. Do you tend to covertly remove the trash, and then replace it when you are done? Or try to discourage use of a particular trash can so that it can be kept available for this purpose? (It would be quite disruptive to my lesson plans to find trash in the same receptacle I wanted to use for this purpose, and the kids would probably have to spend the balance of the period with their heads down as I tried to figure out how to cope.)

    I just see so many difficulties in trying to implement these “basketball” type strategies that I’m not sure I could do it myself. Isn’t this type of activity best left to Phy Ed teachers who are trained for this?

  14. I played today in class. Class versus the teacher. When I told them I never lose, this was all the motivation they needed. They did the problems on individual whiteboards and showed their answer when finished. A great way for them to practice 18 – 20 different problems instead of just sitting there. If someone tells me how to attach a pdf or smartboard file, I’ll post it.

  15. Nicely played. Did you win?

    Not that it matters. Even if you lost, I’d walk in next time and introduce the same game the same way. Then, when they contradict you, insist dumbfoundedly that they have misremembered, that all of them have misremembered. Drives ’em nuts.

  16. dan, thanks for this. i was searching for a way to jazz up a review session today and went right to this post.

    the kids loved it – about the first time i’ve ever been able to get the whole class to not use cantonese in the lesson (just awarded a penalty shot to the other team when i heard it).

    game was won by the team that accidentally banked a shot into the five point basket off the ceiling. :)

    gotta think some more about how to use it with humanities. i let them have open notes, but it still ended up with the same five kids who study hard and take good notes answering 75% of the questions. don’t like the idea of an activity that just reinforces the idea that school is about memorizing stuff…

  17. Thanks for the great idea, Dan. I set up a “basketball lesson” today with two plastic pieces of fruit — a tomato and an orange. The two teams asked each other questions about Death of A Salesman and if they got it right, they had to shoot the fruit. These juniors and seniors were screaming! Great fun, and I was flattered when they told me I “had my game on” that day.
    ps.The “Tomatoes” won — and no one even asked “What’d we win?”

  18. Brilliant! I planned an algebra review lesson today, the day before Thanksgiving break. We have 86-minute blocks, and I was really worried about keeping the kids on track.

    At the end of the class, the kids said, “Wow, where did the time go?”

    Two adjustments: I started with the basket right next to the kid, and let them decide how many steps away to move. My steps = their number of points attempted. This gave the “jocks” the chance to miss 10-point shots, and the shy kids the chance to earn one easy point for their team.

    I had the kids confer in groups of four, but pulled names out of a pile of cards for answers, so everyone had to have the work completed.

    Thank you!