Designing Ranking Tasks

I think the Ranking Task has room in your science or math classroom. I’ve run across a few in texts, on concept inventories, and in Modeling Physics materials but never made any for myself. “Hold your horses, Megan,” I hear you saying. What?! You’ve never seen a ranking task?

Officially, “Ranking Tasks are an innovative type of conceptual exercise that asks students to make comparative judgments about a set of variations on a particular physical situation.” Let me give you an example from Kelly O’Shea:

Rank these situations from greatest to least based on which shows the greatest displacement during the timefrom 0 to 10 seconds. Use the > and = signs, but do not use the < sign.

Here’s the brilliance I see in the displacement question Kelly asks. Say you’re a freshman in my physics class and you just learned the distinction between displacement and distanceI ask you to rank A-F in the above image. I imagine this internal dialogue (monologue?):

  • A and B look the same but I’m guessing that 25 on the y-axis is important.
  • C and D are straightforward displacements, the “easy” ones.
  • Good gravy! What am I supposed to do with E?
  • Whoa Nelly, F is even worse than E. I need to check the definition of displacement.

There’s understanding a definition then there’s applying that definition. Do you love Ranking Tasks yet?

I tried writing my own, wasn’t happy with the results, so I went for a walk on the newish Atlanta Beltline. We saw some amazing art, a skatepark, and spent time with family. Yeah, winter break rocks.

That grown man on the bike? My brother.

But I digress…

When I got home I realized what I was doing wrong — I tried making the ranking task without a clear idea of exactly what I was testing knowledge of. Wait, what? You mean I hafta think this out before I start drawing graphs? Oh okay…

  1. Draw about 2 items that are straightforward applications of the definition/idea being ranked.
  2. List the learning goals and common misconceptions.
  3. For every item in #1, design a picture or graph to address it.

I’m a rank n00b at these Ranking Tasks, but the Amazon writeup had good-sounding advice I’ll include here, too.

The basic structure of a Ranking Task comprises four elements:

  • a description of the physical situation, including any constraints and the basis for ranking different arrangements
  • a set of figures showing the different arrangements of the situation to be compared
  • a place to record the ranking of each variation
  • a place to explain the reason for each ranking choice

I’ve seen a lot written about Ranking Tasks in physics. The book I referenced above is specifically for physics, but why couldn’t these work in math? Off the top of my head: rank these fractions, rank these irrational numbers, or rank these radical expressions without evaluating directly.


Global Math Department in 2013 is gonna be hot! Join us Jan 8 for an Ignite-style meeting. Teachers will take the stage for 5 minutes each, armed with 20 slides auto-advancing every 15 seconds. The topic? My Favorite classroom ideas.

Jan 8: Global Math Department: My Favorite Ignited

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6 thoughts on “Designing Ranking Tasks

  1. Those three ranking task books (Ranking tasks, NTIPERS and E&M TIPERS) are each outstanding, filled with very well designed tasks that lead to great thinking and discussion and well worth the money.

  2. Thanks for the link! I should note that I didn’t write the question. A lot of my current packets are the more the result of curating than creating on my end.

    I think the ranking tasks get more useful when they push past definitions. There are a couple of awesome projectile motion ones that students can (and do) solve in a variety of ways (including a really neat verbal reasoning way that pops up in one or two groups every year and that I love—they are really thinking about what is happening to an object and aren’t leaning on equations).

    • Thanks for the clarification on authorship. I’m excited about the arguments that are going to take place in my classes based on these ranking tasks.

      The more I think about these things, the more I realize about their genius. I was watching Sherlock Holmes tonight when I realized a single ranking task can also test several depths of knowledge AND kids must justify their choices to convince others.

      Of course, I can see that a strong ranking task probably is the result of many tweaks and lots of research — that is to say, they’re tough to write.

  3. This is great! I love returning to a task like this later in the year with minor variations. In this case, using the same graphs and tasks, but changing the positions to velocities. This allows students to connect old knowledge to new AND enhances that critical math and science skill: asking “what if”. Once a situation or concept is believed to be well-understood, playing with the boundaries or making changes in the assumptions can lead to fascinating new problems while testing just how deeply the idea had been understood in the first place.

    I’ve got an intro to calculus course this semester and will be using this task in January first as a connection back to freshman physics, and its velocity variation shortly thereafter to introduce derivatives and begin building the central connections between slope and area that constitute the Fundamental Theorem of Calculus. Thanks for sharing.

    • Thanks for the idea! My idea is similar to chrisharrow’s. I will be writing a question where students are asked to rank the graphs based on the derivative at a specific point. Easy way to check to see if my students understand and also a good chance to blow some misconceptions out of the water.

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