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Independent vs Dependent Variables Card Sort Activity

Today I want to share a independent vs dependent variables card sort I created for my Algebra 1 classes to glue in their interactive notebooks.

Last year, some of my students really struggled with the difference between dependent and independent variables.  So, this year, I set out to teach this topic better.  I’m pretty sure I failed, but I’ll share with you what I did anyway.  

We took notes over the difference between independent vs dependent variables.  I filled out the arrows above three different ways for the three different sections of Algebra 1 that I teach.  None of the ways led to universal understanding.  When I look at a scenario, I can easily tell you which variable depends on the other.  This is the dependent variable.  Thus, the other variable is independent.  Easy.  

independent vs dependent variables card sort activity interactive notebooks math algebra

Many of my kids cannot do this.  I will think I have come up with the perfect example that will make all things clear to all students.  Ms. Hagan’s Outfit.  The Weather.  Which one is dependent?  Which one is independent?  They will tell me something like this: “The weather depends on Ms. Hagan’s outfit.”  This leads to me saying, “So, if I change my outfit, the weather will change?”  It sounds crazy.  But, they will answer yes to this and truly mean it.  I don’t think my kids understand the word “depend.”  Or, maybe they don’t understand cause and effect.  

There were basically two groups of students in each section where I taught this lesson.  The students who thought this was the most obvious thing we had ever done in Algebra 1.  Why in the world would we spend an entire 50-minute period on this lesson?  Then, there were the students who missed every single question.  They would flip the dependent and independent variable.  Every single time.  I was almost tempted to tell them to just write the opposite of what they thought the answer should be.  Okay, that’s terrible.  And, I would never actually do that.  But, why can’t my students get this?  

I created an independent vs dependent variables card sort that I thought would take 10 minutes tops.  We spent at least 35-40 minutes on it.  And, some students still didn’t finish.  

independent vs dependent variables card sort activity interactive notebooks math algebra

I accidentally glued one pair on backwards.  The number of songs performed should be independent, and the duration of the concert should be dependent.  Oops.  I was in a hurry, and it shows!  

I did a quick google search for sets of independent and dependent variable scenarios.  I found such a set on  I copied and pasted these scenarios and edited them to remove the names.  I thought this activity would be too easy for my students if I left the names in the scenarios.  I think I could have left the names in, and my students STILL would have struggled.

I passed out a sheet containing the 20 statements.  I gave students these instructions:

  1. Cut out the 20 rectangles.
  2. Recycle your trash.
  3. Pair up the statements.
  4. Have Ms. Hagan check to make sure your statements are paired up correctly.
  5. Classify each statement as dependent or independent.  Arrange these in two columns.  
  6. Have Ms. Hagan check your classifications.
  7. Glue these in your notebook on page 52 and 53.  
  8. Be sure to label the columns as dependent and independent.  

Students were okay with steps 1-2.  But, Step 3.  Oh my goodness.  “How am I supposed to know how to pair these up?”  “This is so hard.”  “What’s a potluck?”  “Is that where people get together and smoke pot together?”  “This is impossible.”  “What does the word duration mean?”  “You mean pickles come from cucumbers?!?”  

I would go around and check my students’ statements to make sure they were paired up correctly.  It was not out of the ordinary for students to only have 3/10 pairs made correctly.  They were pairing up statements that had NOTHING in common.  It was a nightmare.  

A few of my high-achieving students caught on early and were able to complete this activity with little assistance.  The rest of my students.  I just don’t know.  This isn’t supposed to be that hard.  They couldn’t get them paired up let alone classify them as dependent or independent.  I was frazzled.  My students were frazzled.  

If you have any insight on how to teach independent and dependent variables, please leave a comment.  I’m begging you.