When your students don’t know what to do …

At the beginning of the year, I covered measurement, basic equipment, and other fundamentals I thought my students (seventh graders) needed before we started our labs. Now they seem to have forgotten everything and need to be taught this information again whenever we do a lab. What can I do to help them remember?
—Diane, Las Cruces, New Mexico

The first textbook I used had a chapter devoted to the metric system, so I dutifully “covered” it at the beginning of the year, with its emphasis on converting units. Following the advice of a colleague, I also had the students memorize the names of equipment (flasks, graduated cylinders, forceps, and so on) before they had a chance to use them. What a disaster! When it was time to use these concepts, skills, and vocabulary in subsequent lab activities, my middle-school students remembered little of what they had supposedly learned.

As I reflected on this, I realized I had expected the students to master these concepts and vocabulary without any meaningful context. It seemed difficult for them to apply procedures that had been introduced at the beginning of the year to a lab weeks later. I was certainly teaching the material (with the lesson plans to prove it), and the students seemed to know the material at the time—but they weren’t learning it well enough to apply it to new activities.

So I changed my approach.

I introduced lab-related concepts, procedures, and vocabulary on an as-needed basis within the context of investigations, rather than in isolated units of instruction. For example, the students learned how to use microscopes in the context of a unit on microbiology. They practiced focusing microscopes while examining prepared slides of cells. They made their own wet mount slides of algae, yeasts, and molds. They examined pond water and recorded their observations and inferences.

This worked well, but we still want students to connect what they learn to their previous experience and to transfer what they learn to new situations. When students are learning new lab procedures, you could have them create their own frequently asked questions, or FAQs. They could designate a section of their science notebooks for FAQs such as How do I use a balance? How do I make a wet mount microscope slide? What should I use to measure the volume of a liquid? What is the difference between an observation and an inference? The question is followed by a brief, step-by-step response or definition, including diagrams or pictures. Each student would be responsible for adding questions to his or her notebook. If the notebooks have a “glossary” section, students could add descriptions and sketches of equipment as they use it. This becomes a reference to use during a lab.

A variation is to provide index cards on which students write the questions. Punch a hole in the card and add it to a ring with other cards or to a binder. Keep a set at each lab station, and allow students to add to the set as the year progresses. There could also be cards on which students write names and draw diagrams of the equipment and materials they use (e.g., a glassware card) for future reference. During a lab, students can flip through the cards if they have questions (you may need to model this strategy for the students to help them become more self-sufficient).

You could make the cards, but it would be more meaningful if the students make the cards themselves and use their own words in the responses. Perhaps creating the cards could be one of the roles you assign in cooperative groups or at the end of a unit as a review. Each class period could add to the set, and the students can learn from each other’s questions. At the end of the year, you could give the card sets to the eighth grade teacher for the students to continue to use.

Photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/jkfid/4333769080/in/photostream/

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