In my sixth grade science class, I try to involve the students in fun activities. But they don’t take them seriously unless I require something in writing or give a quiz. And then the students don’t seem to be able to connect the activity with the content. What can I do?
—Nina from Idaho
I once worked with a teacher who used his own action research to investigate a similar situation. He surveyed his students to find out what class activities they enjoyed the most. He was not surprised when the students mentioned hands-on investigations, games, small group discussions, and simulations. He then asked what activities they thought were most important in learning science. Expecting to see the same activities, he was surprised (and puzzled) when the students identified worksheets as the most important.
He followed up on this response with the students. They noted that worksheets (often assigned as homework) are graded and if they were not completed the students were kept in at recess to finish them. To a fifth-grader, this consequence meant the task was very important. The worksheet grade was then factored into the course grade, which the students saw as the teacher’s evaluation of their learning. They considered the “fun” activities to be a diversion or a reward for doing the worksheets.
This finding troubled the teacher. He had chosen investigations and other activities related to the learning goals and assumed students would see the connection. His research showed this was not happening, so he began to introduce each activity with an explicit reference to the learning goals (which he kept posted on the board during the unit). For example: In this lab, we will investigate the relationship between…. The purpose of this word game is to check your understanding of the key vocabulary for this unit. As you use this online simulation, pay attention to….
I shared his research with another teacher, who added a short discussion at the end of an activity to debrief with the students on how it helped them achieve the learning goal(s). She also used an exit slip or a notebook entry in which students summarized what they learned.
If in previous years, your students were used to science as seatwork, they will need some extra help, guidance, and modeling to understand how learning can occur in a variety of situations.