Lesson 13

Building a Volume Formula for a Pyramid

13.1: Cover Your Bases (5 minutes)


In this warm-up, students make connections between a pyramid or cone and a prism or cylinder with a congruent base and equal height. This will be helpful as students work with the volume formula for pyramids and cones in upcoming activities.

Monitor for students who draw an oblique cylinder and for those who draw a right cylinder.

Student Facing

Two solids are shown.


Rectangular pyramid. Base side lengths = 20 and 32 centimeters. Height = 25 centimeters.


 Cone with radius = 7 feet and height = 10 feet.

For each solid, draw and label a prism or cylinder that has a base congruent to the solid’s and a height equal to the solid’s.

Student Response

For access, consult one of our IM Certified Partners.

Anticipated Misconceptions

Students may not be sure if the cylinder must be oblique or right. Point out that the directions aren’t specific, and they can choose which they prefer to draw.

Activity Synthesis

Invite previously identified students to share their cylinder drawings. If no students drew an oblique cylinder, sketch one for them and ask whether it meets the requirements of the task. Ask students how the volumes of a right cylinder and an oblique cylinder from this activity would compare. As students previously saw with a stack of coins that was shifted to look like an oblique cylinder, the volumes of the two cylinders are the same.

13.2: Splitting a Prism into Pyramids (15 minutes)


In this task, students derive a formula for the volume of a triangular pyramid by visualizing the split of a triangular prism into 3 pyramids of equal volume. The arguments in this activity are meant to be informal. It’s not necessary, for example, that students formally prove that cutting a rectangle down its diagonal produces two congruent triangles.

As students compare pairs of pyramids, draw conclusions about their volumes, and extend the ideas to include all triangular pyramids, they are making sense of a problem and persevering to solve it (MP1).


Arrange students in groups of 3. Make sure they have their assembled pyramids from a previous activity.

Speaking, Reading: MLR5 Co-Craft Questions. Use this routine to increase awareness of the language used to talk about the features of the pyramids that form a triangular prism. Before revealing the questions in this activity, display the image of the triangular prism and the three pyramids. Ask students to write down possible mathematical questions that could be asked about the triangular prism and pyramids. Invite students to compare their questions before revealing the actual questions. Listen for and amplify any questions about the base areas, heights, and volumes of the pyramids. For example, “Do pyramids P1 and P3 have the same base area?”, “Do pyramids P1 and P3 have the same height?”, and “Do pyramids P1 and P3 have the same volume?”
Design Principle(s): Maximize meta-awareness; Support sense-making
Representation: Internalize Comprehension. Provide examples of actual three-dimensional models of the pyramids in the image for students to view or manipulate. Explain to students that the pyramids labeled P1, P2, and P3 in the image resemble the actual three-dimensional pyramids they built in the previous lesson. If necessary, encourage students to refer to the actual three-dimensional pyramids as they respond to the questions in this activity.
Supports accessibility for: Visual-spatial processing; Conceptual processing

Student Facing

Here is a triangular prism.

triangular prism. Triangular base, base=2, height =3. Prism height = 4.

Suppose we split the prism into pyramids like the ones you built earlier. The first pyramid is split off by slicing through points \(E\), \(D\), and \(C\). The remaining part of the prism is sliced through \(B\), \(C\), and \(D\).


Triangular based pyramid on \(x y z \text{ coordinate plane, origin }O.\)


Triangular based pyramid on x y z coordinate plane, origin O.


Triangular based pyramid on \(x y z \text{ coordinate plane, origin }O.\)
  1. Using the pyramids you built, compare pyramids P1 and P3.
    1. Think of the faces marked P1 and P3 as the bases of the pyramids. These triangles are the two bases of the original prism. How do the areas of these two bases compare?
    2. How do the heights of pyramids P1 and P3 compare? Explain your reasoning.
    3. How do the volumes of pyramids P1 and P3 compare? Explain your reasoning.
  2. Using the pyramids you built, compare pyramids P2 and P3.
    1. Think of the gray shaded triangles as the bases of the pyramids. These are formed by slicing one of the prism’s rectangular faces down its diagonal. How do the areas of these two bases compare?
    2. The heights of pyramids P2 and P3 are equal because when assembled into the prism, the height lines coincide along the length of the prism. How, then, do the volumes of these pyramids compare? Explain your reasoning.
  3. Based on your answers, how does the volume of each pyramid compare to the volume of the prism?
  4. How could you use this information to find the volume of one of the pyramids?

Student Response

For access, consult one of our IM Certified Partners.

Anticipated Misconceptions

Students may not be convinced that the pairs of pyramids have the same volumes. Remind them of the stack of coins activity, and the work they did in previous lessons with oblique figures. If many groups are struggling, consider coming together for a whole-class discussion.

Activity Synthesis

The goal of the discussion is to help students extend these ideas to all triangular pyramids, not just the specific ones used in the lesson. Here are some questions for discussion:

  • “Do any of these arguments depend on the specific triangular prism we used?” (No. If you sliced any triangular prism apart into three pyramids like this, you’d still have congruent bases and equal heights for pyramid pairs P2/P3 and P1/P3.)

Display this image for all to see.

A pyramid.
  • “This pyramid doesn’t look like the ones we used in the lesson. Is it possible to create 3 pyramids with the same volume as this one that could be assembled into a prism?” (The first step would be to shift the apex of the pyramid so that it’s directly over one vertex, resembling the P1 pyramid in earlier activities. This step does not change the volume of the pyramid. Then the pyramid can be duplicated, flipped upside down, and shifted to resemble the P3 pyramid. Finally, the pyramid could be duplicated and shifted to look like P2.)

Display this applet for all to see, moving the slider to show a similar process for a square prism.

  • “How, then, could we find the volume of this pyramid?” (Just like in the activity, we could find the volume of the prism with congruent base and equal height, then multiply by \(\frac13\).)
  • “Could we use a formula to find the volume? What would it look like?” (Yes. The formula could be written \(V=\frac13 Bh\) or \(V=\frac{Bh}{3}\).)

13.3: Comparing Cross Sections (15 minutes)


Students generalize the process for finding the volume of a triangular pyramid, concluding it applies to all pyramids. As they compare cross sections across different solids, they are looking for and making use of structure (MP7).


Tell students that in this activity, they’ll decide whether their method to find the volume of triangular pyramids extends to other kinds of pyramids and cones.

Engagement: Develop Effort and Persistence. Connect a new concept to one with which students have experienced success. For example, remind students how to calculate the area of a dilated triangle given the area of the original triangle and a scale factor. Ask students how they can use this method to calculate the area of each of the three cross sections.
Supports accessibility for: Social-emotional skills; Conceptual processing

Student Facing

Each solid in the image has height 6 units. The area of each solid’s base is 10 square units. A cross section has been created in each by dilating the base using the apex as a center with scale factor \(k=0.5\).

3 solids all with area of their base = 10. On left, base = triangle, in middle, base = rectangle, on right, base = circle. Each have base shaded and a cross section.
  1. Calculate the area of each of the 3 cross sections.
  2. Suppose a new cross section was created in each solid, all at the same height, using some scale factor \(k\). How would the areas of these 3 cross sections compare? Explain your reasoning.
  3. What does this information about cross sections tell you about the volumes of the 3 solids?
  4. Calculate the volume of each of the solids.

Student Response

For access, consult one of our IM Certified Partners.

Student Facing

Are you ready for more?

An octahedron is a solid whose faces consist of 8 equilateral triangles. Find the volume of an octahedron with edge length \(\ell\).



Student Response

For access, consult one of our IM Certified Partners.

Anticipated Misconceptions

Some students may believe the cross sections have area 5 square units rather than 2.5 square units. Remind them that if a two-dimensional figure is dilated by a factor of \(k\), the area is multiplied by \(k^2\). However, the exact value of the area isn’t as important as the concept that the areas are the same for all 3 cross sections.

Activity Synthesis

In the synthesis discussion, help students use the reasoning developed in the task to extend the formula \(V=\frac13Bh\) to all pyramids, not just triangular ones. Ask students:

  • “How did you calculate the volume of the triangular prism?” (Multiplied the area of the base, 10 square units, by the height, 6 units, then multiplied by \(\frac13\) to get 20 cubic units.)
  • “How did you find the volume of the remaining solids?” (The volumes of all the solids are the same.)
  • “Suppose we didn’t know the actual values of the height or the area of the base, but we knew all the bases had the same area \(B\) and the solids all had the same height \(h\). Would all 3 solids still have the same volume?” (Yes. Each set of cross sections would still have the same areas. Instead of \(10k^2\), each cross section would have area \(Bk^2\).)
  • “Does the expression \(\frac13 Bh\) give the volume for any pyramid or cone? Why or why not?” (Yes, it does. For any pyramid or cone, we can draw a triangular pyramid with identical volume, the same height, and a base with equal area. We know that \(\frac13 Bh\) works for this triangular pyramid, so it also works for the particular pyramid or cone we’re looking at, too.)
Reading, Writing, Speaking: MLR3 Clarify, Critique, Correct. Before students share their solutions to the last question, present an incorrect answer and explanation. For example, “The volume of the pyramid is 60 cubic units because the volume of a pyramid is the area of the base times the height. The area of the base is 10 square units and the height is 6 units, so the volume is 10 times 6, which is 60.” Ask students to identify the error, critique the reasoning, and write a correct explanation. As students discuss with a partner, listen for students who clarify that the volume of a pyramid is a third of the volume of a prism with a congruent base and equal height. Invite students to share their critiques and corrected explanations with the class. Listen for and amplify the language students use to justify why the volume of the pyramid is 20 cubic units. This will help students evaluate and improve on the written mathematical arguments of others.
Design Principle(s): Optimize output (for explanation); Maximize meta-awareness

Lesson Synthesis

Lesson Synthesis

Ask students to summarize the similarities and differences between prisms, cylinders, cones, and pyramids. For prisms and cylinders, if we take cross sections parallel to their bases, all the cross sections are congruent. For pyramids and cones, cross sections taken parallel to the base are similar to each other, not congruent. For a prism or cylinder whose base has area \(B\) and height \(h\), the volume is given by \(Bh\). For a pyramid or cone with the same height \(h\) and whose base also has an area of \(B\) square units, the volume is given by \(\frac13 Bh\).

Invite students to categorize cones and cylinders. Do students think they should be characterized as types of pyramids and prisms, or are they their own entities? There is no one correct answer to this question.

Ask students to add this theorem to their reference charts as you add it to the class reference chart:

A pyramid or cone whose base has area \(B\) square units and whose height is \(h\) units has volume \(\frac13 Bh\) cubic units, regardless of the shape of the base or whether the solid is oblique. (Theorem)

Rectangular pyramid 

13.4: Cool-down - Pyramid Strategies (5 minutes)


For access, consult one of our IM Certified Partners.

Student Lesson Summary

Student Facing

In an earlier activity, we conjectured that a triangular pyramid has one-third the volume of the prism that has the same height and a base congruent to the pyramid’s. This turns out to be true.

Suppose we have a pyramid that doesn’t have a triangular base. Call the area of its base \(B\) and its height \(h\). To understand how to find the volume of such a solid, think about a triangular pyramid that also has an area of \(B\) square units and a height of \(h\).

Now find a cross section of each solid by dilating the solid’s base using the apex as a center with some scale factor \(k\) between 0 and 1. The area of the cross section in both solids will be \(Bk^2\). This is true for any value of \(k\). Since the cross sections at all heights have equal area, the solids have the same volume. The same idea would apply to a cone. This means the expression \(\frac13 Bh\) gives the volume of any pyramid or cone.

Square pyramid on left, triangular pyramid on right. Both have base shaded, height drawn with dotted line, and a cross section drawn.

For example, this pyramid’s base has an area of 100 square units. The volume of the pyramid is about 233.3 cubic units, because \(\frac13 \boldcdot 100 \boldcdot 7 \approx 233.3\).

Square pyramid. Side length of base = 10. Height of pyramid = 7.