Published Online: September 2, 2009

Teaching Secrets: How to Maximize Hands-On Learning

Good teachers know that students learn a lot more when they get their hands on real materials, and get to do their own projects and experiments. But sometimes we get frustrated thinking about the students who won’t cooperate, don’t clean up, waste materials, or misbehave during our hands-on learning time. In my work as a science teacher and coach, I’ve seen teachers who decide to delay lab activities until behavior is rock-solid. Instead of starting off with a bang, they tiptoe toward inquiry learning.

My experience is in science, but many teachers of social studies, English, math, and other subjects also have great success with hands-on, minds-on activities. I’d bet some of my colleagues in these other content areas also feel the urge to keep kids in lockdown mode until full teacher authority has been established.

I think this is a big mistake. Here’s why:

You need to lead with your best foot. We want students to be excited and motivated to come to our classes, so get them started on the most engaging activities as quickly as possible. I have noticed that student behavior is often at its best the first few weeks of school. Students are a bit nervous—watching to see how we will react when things go sideways. We can take advantage of this window of opportunity to showcase the way we really want them to learn. This is our golden opportunity to share our highest expectations with them, and invite them to rise to meet the challenge.

When you introduce cool activities the first few weeks, you are setting the stage for an exciting year. You are showing students that you expect them to be able to handle this responsibility. But we cannot assume students know how to behave in a hands-on setting. Without drowning them in rules and regulations, we need to give them the basic information that they are going to need to succeed. If you know where things can go wrong, your students will have a much better chance of doing things right. Here are the things to check:

What’s the Big Idea? Make sure you start your activity by emphasizing a major question that yours results will answer. Post this on the wall. Connect it to the standards. Make sure the students know that they will be responsible for answering the question with evidence. Choose a relatively simple activity that allows students to reach some clear conclusions. This is not the time to launch a major inquiry—you will have a chance to do more ambitious projects later.

Have clearly written procedures. Students want and need to know what they are going to do, and what they are responsible for recording and learning. Make sure you communicate basic procedures so students have a great chance to succeed the first time. Have students work in smaller, cooperative groups. I’ve described my methods for laying out the basics in this blog post.

Here are the key points to consider:

• How will your cooperative groups be organized?

• How will students distribute materials?

• How will you get your students' attention during the activity?

• How will students know they are following directions?

• How will students be accountable for their work?

• How will they organize the cleanup?

Things will inevitably go haywire. If you’re doing a lab experiment, and there is actually anything happening that is truly unsafe, you should be prepared to halt the activity immediately. Make it clear this is not a punishment, but a chance to learn. Discuss what went wrong, and have students suggest procedures or rules that could make things go better. Give them a second chance the next day.

Reflect together. Begin by having groups share data or the results of their research or their collaborative products. Troubleshoot what they’ve come up with. Ask students to think critically about their results and those of their peers. In science or math class, see if they can find sources of error, and emphasize the importance of accuracy in measurement, and the value of multiple trials, if appropriate. Return to the big question, and see if students can write a conclusion in which they cite evidence to answer it.

The most powerful reflection comes when you ask what they thought about this hands-on activity compared to other things that they have done so far in your class. At the end of the first few weeks, they will have done a variety of things—some using the textbook, some taking notes from a teacher presentation, perhaps even some worksheets, as well as this hands-on activity. I want my students to understand the direct connection between their responsible behavior and the quality and number of engaging activities they are going to get to do in the coming months.

As I have surveyed students over the years, I’ve never found a class that would choose anything other than hands-on activities as their most enjoyable learning experience. That is motivation we can build on—right at the start of school—to create buy-in for procedures and behavior expectations.

Your next activity can be a bit more ambitious, and eventually your students can work their way up the ladder of responsibility to the point where they are designing their own experiments in science, or coming up with collaborative activities in other subjects. Just remember that we will do best when we build their skills step by step, and the sooner we get started, the sooner they’re ready for our most challenging and engaging work together.

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