Unit Circle

The Unit Circle – Hand Trick

This is an Amazing Post I Came Across on Pinterest by a Ms. Smith.

Unit Circle Hand Trick

I first learned his nifty little trick to help remember the unit circle last year when I was observing in a classroom at a local high school as part of my degree requirement.  This wasn't something that the teacher taught, but actually something one of the students shared with her classmates (I am unsure where she learned it).  I have also seen it floating around Pinterest, but I wanted to share my version because it can easily be adapted for both left-handed and right-handed people.
Note: This trick was designed only to help remember the  first quadrant of the unit circle but I will show you my own little trick to applying it to all of the unit circle.
Unit Circle Hand Trick

 For this 'trick' to be most effective students should use their glove hand (you know, the hand your glove goes on in baseball/softball; the left for those who are right-handed, and the right for those who are left-handed).  The below pictures shows how to hold your hands.

The Unit Circle Hand Trick

Each one of your five fingers represents a  special points on the Unit Circle:
Thumb - 0° or 0π (2π)
Index Finger - 30° or π/6
Middle Finger - 45° or π/4
Ring Finger - 60° or π/3
Pinky Finger - 90° or π/2

The Unit Circle Hand Trick

Finding Sine and Cosine: First Quadrant

When finding sine and cosine remember your answer always looks like the square root of something over two (√?/2).

Step One:

To find the value for sine/cosine just fold down the respective finger.  For example, if we wanted to find sine/cosine values for 30° or π/6 we would fold down the index finger.

Unit Circle Hand Trick

Step Two:

Now we turn our hands into an ordered pair; parentheses on the outside and a comma where the folded down finger is.

Unit Circle Hand Trick Worksheet

So continuing with our example of 30° or π/6 we get (3,1).

Step Three:

We must now implement what was stated before step one (√?/2), which gives us (√3/2, √1/).  This simplifies to (√3/2, 1/2).

Step Four:

Since we know on the unit circle, the ordered pairs are presented (cosine, sine) we can conclude that the sin(30°) or sin(π/6) is equal to 1/2 and the cos(30°) or cos(π/6) is equal to √3/2.

Note:  This does work for 0° and 90°.  0/2=0 and √4/2=2/2=1.

Finding Sine and Cosine: Second Quadrant

This is almost as easy as the process for Quadrant I, but with a few small changes.  First things, first, we need to flip our hands (just like a reflection over the y-axis).  Now each finger represents a new point on the unit circle:
Pinky Finger: 90° or π/2
Ring Finger: 120° or 2π/3
Middle Finger: 135° or 3π/4
Index Finger: 150° or 5π/6
Thumb: 180° or π

Unit Circle Worksheet The Hand Trick

Now we follow steps one through three for  Finding Sine and Cosine: First Quadrant.
For example, if we were trying to find the sine/cosine values of 120° or 2π/3 we would get (√3/2, 1/2).

Step Four:

Since we flipped our hands over the y-axis, we now must switch our values in our ordered pair.
Thus we now have (1/2, √3/2).

Step Five:

Finally we must apply negative signs where appropriate for the second quadrant (the x-value of the order pair).
Therefore we end up with (-1/2, √3/2) and can conclude that sin(120°) or sin(2π/3) is equal to -1/2 and cos(120°) or cos(2π/3) is equal to √3/2.

Finding Sine and Cosine: Third Quadrant

This is exactly the same as Finding Sine and Cosine: Second Quadrant, except for step five, we now negate both value of the ordered pair.  (You also have to reflective your hand again, this time over the x-axis.  Or starting from the original position, rotate 180° counter clockwise.  This is an awkward position for the right handed people.  Fingers will also now represent new positions on the unit circle.)

Finding Sine and Cosine: Fourth Quadrant

Starting from the original position, flip your hand down (reflect over the x-axis).  Fingers will also now represent new positions on the unit circle. (This is an awkward position for the left handed people)

Follow steps one through three for  Finding Sine and Cosine: First Quadrant.

Step Four:

Apply negative signs where appropriate for the fourth quadrant (the y-value of the order pair).

Finding Tangent:

Follow step one and two for Finding Sine and Cosine: First Quadrant.   Going back to our example of 30° or π/6 we get (3,1).

Step Three:

Rotate your ordered pair 90° counter clockwise and turn into a fraction.

Unit Circle Hand Trick







Step Four:

Place fraction under radical sign and simplify.

Unit Circle Hand Trick

Step Five:

Now we can conclude that tan(30°) or tan(π/6) is equal to √3/3.
Congratulations if you made it to the bottom of this post.  I hope that this all made sense to you.  If not, please ask questions, I'm more than happy to help you understand.

If you use this in your classroom, please leave a comment below; I am curious as to how your students will react.

This is a blog post I came across on Pinterest. I wanted to share it with everyone! Absolutely amazing idea! I tried to reach out to Ms. Smith, the creator of the lesson, to interview her but there doesn't seem to be a contact form on her page. If anyone knows how to get a hold of her please let us know. Amazing Idea! Her blog post can be found at http://highschoolmathadventures.blogspot.com/2013/08/Unit-Circle-Hand-Trick.html

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Unit Circle Hand Trick - Geometry Worksheet

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  • Pre-Calculus teacher

    I promise if you teach the unit circle using special right triangles, it is MUCH easier and will help them out in Pre-Calculus and beyond.

    Also, it will help with the understanding of where these values come from.

  • Angie Ecton

    Have you ever heard of the waltzing method? I’ve used it for several years and it works every time. Of course, I introduce the unit circle with special right triangles, but then we waltz!