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