CL Newsletter, April 2021 - Tune-ups

If you caught #DesmosLive back in January 21, you might remember hearing our colleague Michelle talk about a process called “tune-ups.” This month, we’re giving you a little insight into how the Desmos CL team tunes up activities before release. We’ll save you all of the tiny details, but hope to share with you a helpful overview of what goes on behind the scenes at Desmos.

The Tune-Up Process

About half of the process is what you might expect from a standard review. We clean up duplicates, arrange groups of code to match our internal house style, and add comments so that we or lesson developers can return to the activities for revisions later. The other half, however, is pretty unique to our work at Desmos and a whole lot of fun. We’ll highlight a few of them here:

Try to Break Everything

We start the process of checking for improvements by going through an activity as irresponsibly as possible. We try answers that we think might break interactions, we try to get Activity Builder to give us incorrect (or broken feedback), and we test out performance on slower machines to make sure that students with less powerful computers won’t have a bad time. What we end up with is a laundry list of tiny errors that we need to iron out. Error messaging, button behavior, and flashing (see below) are the most common things we fix, but we also bump into things like marking correctness accurately and making sure strings and numeric values are properly displayed.

Error Messaging

The last thing we want is for a student to submit an answer they thought was valid only to see that it isn’t valid because Desmos couldn’t interpret it (in context). To combat that, we could build safeguards into the animations themselves, but that could cause undue strain on the graph team and the graphs themselves, not to mention the potential awkwardness of giving specific feedback for completely unrelated answers. Instead, we use error messaging and submission blocking to nudge students in the right direction before they’re allowed to submit a response. Check out what happens in this screen from Balance the Scale without error messaging to see what we mean:

Well-Behaved Buttons

Sometimes animation is a good way to provide delayed feedback. When that’s the case, we want to make sure a student watches the entire animation before they can reset and try again. We make sure that these buttons are properly disabled during animation, that reset labels display at the right time, and if applicable, we hide the button. See what we mean by trying out a screen from [activity] with and without our house-style button behavior.

Try It!

As with many things, our tune-up process is constantly being refined (you could say “we tune up our tune-up”). If you look at activities we made as recently as last year, you’ll see a big difference in the way we reviewed and revised out work. Do you have a list of things you do to take your activities from draft to final? Hit us with a reply and let us know what they are! We’d love to hear about your processes and learn from your experiences. Don’t have a formal checklist but are keen on making one? We’d love to help you develop a plan for that as well.