Challenge Creator & the Desmos Classroom


  • At Desmos, we’re now asking ourselves one question about everything we make: “Will this help teachers develop social and creative classrooms?” We’ve chosen those adjectives because they’re simultaneously qualities of effective learning and also interesting technology.
  • We’ve upgraded three activities (and many more to come) with our new Challenge Creator feature: Parabola Slalom, Laser Challenge, and Point Collector: Lines. Previously, students would only complete challenges we created. Now they’ll create challenges for each other.
  • The results from numerous classroom tests have been — I am not kidding you here — breathtaking. Near unanimous engagement. Interactions between students around mathematical ideas we haven’t seen in our activities before.

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One question in edtech bothers us more than nearly any other:

Why are students so engaged by their tablets, phones, and laptops outside of class and so bored by them inside of class?

It’s the same device. But in one context, students are generally enthusiastic and focused. In the other, they’re often apathetic and distracted.

At Desmos, we notice that, outside of class, students use their devices in ways that are social and creative. They create all kinds of media — text messages, videos, photos, etc. — and they share that media with their peers via social networks.

You might think that comparison is unfair — that school could never stack up next to Instagram or Snapchat — but before we write it off, let’s ask ourselves, “How social and creative is math edtech?” What do students create and whom do they share those creations with?

In typical math edtech, students create number responses and multiple choice answers. And they typically share those creations with an algorithm, a few lines of code. In rarer cases, their teacher will see those creations, but more often the teacher will only see the grade the algorithm gave them.

For those reasons, we think that math edtech is generally anti-social and uncreative, which explains some of the apathy and distraction we see when students use technology inside of class.

Rather than write off the comparison to Instagram and Snapchat as unreasonable, it has motivated us to ask two more questions:

  1. How can we help students create mathematically in more diverse ways?

So we invite students to create parking lots, scale giants, mathematical arguments, tilings, sketches of relationships, laser configurations, drawings of polygons, tables, stacks of cards, Marbleslides, informal descriptions of mathematical abstractions, sequences of transformations, graphs of the world around them, and many more.

  1. How can we help teachers and students interact socially around those creations?

So we collect all of those creations on a teacher dashboard and we give teachers a toolkit and strategies to help them create conversations around those creations. It’s easier to ask your students, “How are these two sketches the same? How are they different?” when both sketches are right in front of you and you’re able to pause your class to direct their focus to that conversation.

Today, we’re releasing a new tool to help teachers develop social and creative math classrooms.

Challenge Creator

Previously in our activities, students would only complete challenges we created and answer questions we asked. With Challenge Creator, they create challenges for each other and ask each other questions.

We tried this in one of our first activities, Waterline, where, first, we asked students to create a graph based on three vases we gave them.

And then we asked them to create a vase themselves. If they could successfully graph the vase, it went into a gallery where other students would try to graph it also.

We began to see reports online of students’ impressive creativity and perseverance on that particular challenge. We started to suspect the following: that students care somewhat when they share their creations with an algorithm, and care somewhat more when they share their creations with their teacher.

But they care enormously when they share their creations with each other.

So we’ve added “Challenge Creators” to three more activities, and we now have the ability to add them to any activity in a matter of hours where it first took us a month.

In Parabola Slalom, we ask students to find equations of parabolas that slip in between the gates on a slalom course. And now we invite them to create slalom courses for each other. Those challenges can be as difficult as the authors want, but unless they can solve it, no one else will see it.

In Laser Challenge, we ask students to solve reflection challenges that we created. And now we invite them to create reflection challenges for each other.

In Point Collector, we ask students to use linear inequalities to capture blue points in the middle of a field of points. And now we invite them to create a field of points for each other.

We’ve tested each of these extensively with students. In those tests we saw:

  • Students calling out their successes to each other from across the room. “Javi, I got a perfect score on yours!”
  • Students calling out their frustrations to each other from across the room. “Cassie, how do you even do that?”
  • Students introducing themselves to each other through their challenges. “Who is Oscar?”
  • Students differentiating their work. “Let’s find an easy one. Oo — Jared’s.”
  • Students looking at solutions to challenges they’d already completed, and learning new mathematical techniques. “You can do that?!”
  • Students marveling at each others’ ingenuity. “Damn, Oscar. You hella smart.”
  • Proud creation. One student said, “We’re going to make our challenge as hard as possible,” to which his partner responded, “But we have to be able to solve it!”
  • Screams and high fives so enthusiastic you’d think we were paying them.

At the end of one test of Point Collector, we asked students, “What was your favorite part of the activity?” 25 out of 27 students said some version of “Solving other people’s challenges.”

I’m not saying what we saw was on the same level of enthusiasm and focus as Instagram or Snapchat.

But it wasn’t that far off, either.

Questions We Can Answer

How much does it cost?

As with everything else we make that’s free for you to use now, we will never charge you for it.

Will we be able to create our own Challenge Creators?

Eventually, yes. Currently, the Triple C (Challenge Creator Creator, obv.) has too many rough edges to release widely. Once those edges are sanded down, we’ll release it. We don’t have a timeline for that work, but just as we think student work is at its best when it’s social and creative, we think teacher work is at its best under those exact same conditions. We want to give teachers the best toolkit possible and enable them to share their creations with each other.

Questions We Can’t Answer

What effect does asking a student to create a challenge have on her learning and her interest in learning?

What sorts of challenges are most effective? Is this approach just as effective for arithmetic expressions as laser challenges?

Does posing your own problem help you understand the limits of a concept better than if you only complete someone else’s problems?

Researchers, grad students, or any other parties interested in those same questions: please get in touch.

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. The new challenge creator is truly impressive. The few activities I use on desmos are welcomed by my sixth grade math students. I really wish I had more time to learn to make my own challenges be more like those in desmos. Congratulations!

  2. There it is.

    The activity my 8th grade Pre-Algebra students have loved the most over the last few years has been Waterline. The reason they liked it so much was that they were able to make and share their own containers.

    I am excited that this element has been added to other activities.

  3. Hi, I’m an Italian math teacher, teaching grades 9-12. I think your educational proposals are exciting! Right now I’m dealing with the parabola in my classes and your Slalom activity is great. I would like to translate it into Italian but it seems to me that it is not possible to create a copy on my account. Is that right?

  4. Elizabeth Ball

    November 2, 2017 - 6:09 pm -

    I am so excited about this!
    Challenge Creator will eliminate the constraints on student learning that were inherent in Activity Builder. I cannot wait to try this. Thank you!

  5. Why are students so engaged by their tablets, phones, and laptops outside of class and so bored by them inside of class?

    It’s the same device. But in one context, students are generally enthusiastic and focused. In the other, they’re often apathetic and distracted.

    I’ve been mulling this since you posted, and I don’t believe the device has anything at all to do with it. Students will only chat on their phone to people they would chat with in person. The phone is merely the medium.

    There’s a handful of students I have taught that are actually interested in their devices, as devices. They learn to code and to hack — and the other students think they are weird geeks. Far from being “digital natives”, most teenagers couldn’t write simple code to save themselves. They are constantly amazed that I hand code my own website and write my own graphing applications, and would never dream of doing that themselves.

    If Desmos is to engage them, then it won’t be because it is done on devices. It will be because it allows us to do something intrinsically interesting.


    The idea of writing a parabola to pass through specific gates is interesting and I’m strongly tempted to use it as an activity in class. It’s off-beat enough to be a nice change, but is still mathematically rigorous.

    If students do it on their own devices then they can guess and check their way to the result, and will likely enjoy doing so, but are not forced to use their knowledge. The competition aspect will raise interest, I’m sure of that, but will also encourage students to take shortcuts to ensure they win, which I absolutely don’t want.

    Whereas if I do it with them on the board they cannot just twiddle the parameters until they get one that fits, but will need to apply much more of what they have learned. You often stress the need for the delay in feedback Dan, and I am wary of any system that allows instant tweaking for that reason. And as importantly by doing it as a class I can correct any misunderstandings as they arise, and keep an eye on those that aren’t keeping up. The competition aspect and the social aspect aren’t lost by doing it as a class.

    So given the hassles of trooping down to the computer rooms — and keeping the easily distracted ones off social media once there — what gains will I see from doing it on individual screens, not as a class?

    • Sounds like you have the pros and cons pretty well accounted for, Chester. I trust you’ll make the right call.

      The only con I don’t see accounted for is that students will need different amounts of time to complete the one problem at the board. One advantage of a gallery of problems is that students can differentiate themselves not by time but by quantity.

    • Thanks Dan. Yes, the slower ones tend to drive the pace, which isn’t ideal.

      There is one Maths dedicated computer room in the school. Maybe I should work my way around to getting that room.