Focus on learning activities

My fourth-grade students like doing hands-on science activities. How can I get them to focus on the activity rather than socializing? —C., West Virginia

You want students to enjoy the activity and talk with each other, but students need to understand the activity is purposeful and not “free” time. Your preparation and routines will make the difference.

Teachers often assume students know how to work cooperatively. Model and practice the routines for each role and appropriate conversations.

To save time accessing materials, I used numbered trays for each group with necessary materials and a list of the items to help students inventory and return them.

Introduce the activity’s purpose and describe the expected result (e.g., report, table or graph, drawing, model, list of questions, summary, or new ideas to share). Remind students of safety issues and their roles in cooperative learning (e.g., data recorder, equipment manager, clean-up, question-asker).

As you monitor the activity, ask students about what they’re doing and reinforce appropriate behaviors. This is also a time for formative assessments of students’ skills in lab and safety procedures, measurement, and data recording. Deal immediately with individuals or groups who are off-task or engaging in unsafe or distracting behaviors. If things get out of hand, stop the activity and refocus the students back on the activity.

Allow time to summarize the activity and clean up before the end of the class. This gives students time to settle down, focus on what they did, and transition to the next subject or class.

It’s important that students understand a science activity is as much of a learning event as a worksheet or teacher-led discussion—and probably more so.



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