Teaching Independent & Dependent Variables

Instructor: Josh Corbat

Josh has taught Earth Science and Physical Science at the High School level and holds a Master of Education degree from UNC-Chapel Hill.

Need some strategies for teaching independent and dependent variables in math? This article gives a few tried-and-true activities, and offers some fun suggestions that can be tailored to fit your students' needs.

Independent and Dependent Variables Across the Disciplines

Math class is not the only place students will encounter variables. Variables are also found in most science classes, and even some language arts and social studies classes. In the latter two, however, variables are often thought of in a very different way. Science classes approach variables in much the same way as math classes, and even use the terms independent and dependent. It might be helpful for you to make this connection for students in order to point out that this is not just a math topic! You can also draw from the other disciplines as you come up with examples to use in each of the activities below.


Although I've never heard of an agreed-upon name for this type of activity, I've always just called it 'Snake.' In pairs (or individually in advanced classes), have students come up with a unique example of a situation that contains independent and dependent variables. You can offer the following as a suggestion: Eva's grandfather agrees to pay her $15 for every hour that she helps run his small shop. One day, she works for 2 hours after school. How much will Eva be paid that day? In this example, the number of hours worked is the independent variable and the amount Eva will be paid is the dependent variable. Once students create their unique example, set a pattern around the room that the examples will move through. This usually can efficiently be done by snaking around the room from row to row. Thus, the name 'Snake!' Give students (or pairs) a few minutes with each example and ask them to keep a running list of their answers on a sheet of paper before they pass the examples on. The nice thing about this activity is that students will have their answers in the same order (although they won't all start with the same one), so it is easy to go over the answers as a class.

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