Category Archives: trigonometry

Trigonometry, another way

Trigonometry falls firmly into the camp of one of those areas which I don’t feel I have cracked yet.  If “cracked” means finding a bomb-proof way to introduce it to any class I encounter, then maybe I never will!  Either way, I am always interested in different approaches to teach this topic which many students seem to struggle with at first.

This approach builds on the presentation that Mike Ollerton gave at the recent Mixed Attainment Maths conference in Sheffield (keep an eye on the site for details of the next conference in November!)

I didn’t actually attend Mike’s presentation – I was too busy giving my own – but Mike has kindly shared his ideas and I have been thinking about how I might use Geogebra as a tool to aid learning.

As with most of my use of Geogebra, I am using it as an exposition tool to structure whole-class questioning and discussion around. In an ideal world, I might get students to do this themselves, but that is not practical in my classroom. I feel that starting Geogebra from a blank sheet can be nearly as powerful as them doing it themselves and is likely to be a much more efficient use of lesson time.

The basic principle used is that of rotating a fixed line segment, a “spinner” if you like, around a point.  We are aiming to explore the co-ordinates of the point at the end of the line as the angle increases from 0º to 90º (and beyond) in a table.

I must say that from this point onwards this post is not Mike’s recommended approach (which is here) – but my interpretation of it using Geogebra.

So, first step is to form the spinner by by plotting points at (0,0) and (1,0), zooming in and connecting the points with a line segment. There is something in observing what happens to the scale on the axes as we zoom in.

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Next, we create the angle by using the Angle with Given Size tool. As the prompt says when you hover, the tool: select leg point, then vertex.  Rather than fix the angle, I want to make a slider so I can easily change it. I set the angle “a” making sure to leave the degree symbol in place (otherwise you get radians).  The slider then needs tweaking by double-clicking to set the max, min and increment.

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Next, I need to make the line segment a bit bolder by right clicking on it…

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..and change the properties of the point so it shows the coordinates to 2 decimal places, also using right click.

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We now have a tool that can tell us the co-ordinates.  Before using this, however, I think I would want pupils to do some work on paper, using Mike’s handout to get a feel for the numbers and get their own results.  To fill in this table:

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I feel that it’s useful that they have the opportunity to correct any measurement inaccuracies before the next step and this is where the computer helps.

As per the worksheet, a series of questions can be posed before using the calculator’s Sin and Cos functions to complete the following:

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From there we can easily start exploring what happens when the side length is not 1 and use the ideas of scaling and similar triangles.

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And then, of course change the angle again.

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Once this is all set up, it’s easy to display / hide the coordinates and maybe so some miniwhiteboard work to assess how well the class has grasped the use of the Sin and Cos functions. And then keep the coordinates, but hide the angle to demonstrate inverse Sin and Cos.

With some practise and familiarity with Geogebra you are spending less than 3 minutes on the computer.  If you like the idea of “Geogebra from a blank sheet”, click on the Geogebra category link at the top to see posts on using the same idea for other topics.

Concentric Equilateral Triangles

The red equilateral triangle side length 4cm sits inside the larger pink equilateral triangle such that the “border” is 1cm wide.

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What is the ratio of the height of the red triangle to the height of the pink triangle?

Can you solve using trigonometry or only using Pythagoras?

The border is now 2cm, whilst the side length of the red triangle remains 4cm.  What is the ratio of heights now?

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Explore what happens for other border widths.  Can you generalise for any border width w?

Geogebra file here.

Spoiler here.

I got a few solutions posted on Twitter for this, but the most elegant (so far…) has to be this from @mathforge. As he said: no Trig, no Pythagoras, just ratio.




The angle defines the ratio of side lengths in a right angle triangle

This post shows how to use Geogebra to demonstrate this fundamental truth in geometry and hopefully demystify Trigonometry to a certain extent.

As with all things Geogebra, I always try to start with a blank sheet (see other posts on this here and here).  This time, I’m not using the Geogebra app itself but just launching it from within a Chrome browser window which works pretty well.


Once it is launched, I right click in the middle to remove the axes, but I am going to leave the grid on.

Then I create the triangle by constructing a line, a perpendicular line…


…and a third point which I then join to create a triangle using the polygon tool.


Next, measure the base angle of the triangle remembering the convention that angles are measured in an anti-clockwise direction.


The next bit is a tad fiddly. You need to right click on the line segment to change the label to “value”.  Then do the same for the other two sides of the triangle so that you now have one angle and all three side labelled.


So far, this has taken about 2 minutes to create from a blank screen.  You could do it in advance of the lesson, but I think it is worth doing it in front of the class, maybe having practiced it a couple of times.  Using “something I created earlier” is less powerful – it looks like some sort of trick, somehow.

Now you have everything set up you can start moving the points as shown here.


I start by moving point B, thus keeping the angle fixed.  I would ensure students have calculators in front of them and ask them to calculate opposite divided by adjacent. Then move the triangle to get different values for side lengths. Then do the calculation again. The answer is the same, of course.  I might ask them how they could get that directly from the angle (tan angle).  Depending on where the discussion goes with that, I might then move on to look at sin and cos.

Finally, I always like to talk about how things were done in the old days, being careful to point out that I’m not that old and that I didn’t actually use these…crc_trig_tables.jpg

I explain that the sin button on your calculator is basically just looking up the values in the sin column of a table like this – not actually true, I know, but it helps understand what’s going on so that’s OK for me!



The paper napkin trigonometry trick with a smattering of Pythagorean triples. 

Take a piece of paper and do the following:

  1. Make it into a square (interesting discussion on best way to do this).
  2. Fold in half then unfold so you have created crease along a vertical line of symmetry
  3. Then take any corner and fold to the midpoint of the opposite edge. Press down to make a crease along the fold line
  4. Unfold and now investigate all the triangles you have created, i.e. can you work out their lengths?

Here are some pictures, which also give some hints, although not a complete solution.  The result is very satisfying although I would love to find a way to show this that doesn’t require reams of algebra.  Any takers??


Pythagoras and Trigonometry Revision

I used these cards for revision of Pythag and Trig recently.


They are really nice and there are lots of them so you can decide how far you want to go. I just have the file and I’m not sure who created them, so if you know, let me know so I can credit them / link directly.

This sort of activity works really well with a class that will have productive and supportive conversations about the maths and enjoy challenging each other.  It gets them out of their seats and they start to get a sense of which questions are straightforward and which will present more of a challenge. I’m on the look out for similar things for other topics.

I’ll be setting this for homework as it has explanations as well as examples all in one place:Capture