Are students off-task and unruly during labs and activities?

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Hands-on learning is an important part of science education, but it can be miserable for you and for many of the students if your class lacks lab behavioral expectations that are taught and enforced.

At the beginning of the school year I take the time to explicitly teach and model behavioral expectations for working in a group and/or lab activity. Why this is essential:

  • students begin the year with an expectation of an orderly and safe classroom
  • students begin the year thinking that my class might be better than what they usually experience
  • students cannot claim that they do not know what I expect when they are unruly and off-task
  • I will be much happier and more motivated to engage students in hands-on learning

Better Science Teaching Task 1: Teach My Expectations

  1. No interrupting members of other groups – no talking to or bothering anyone in a different group. This disrupts the lab and gets lots of people off task quickly.
  2.  Stay on topic – fooling around and talking about other things results in delays in work being accomplished and diminishes the learning opportunity for everyone involved.
  3.  Use lab supplies appropriately only – any lab supply, including the Slinkies and toy cars, are for scientific use as allowed in the lab. Students will not respect the science supplies if this expectation is not fully expressed and enforced!
  4.  Stay at your station unless otherwise directed. Students cannot just wander around at their leisure. Doing so leads to misbehavior so be clear about this and enforce it!
  5.  Follow clean up procedures (as directed). As we often do in life, I had to learn the hard way about this important procedure. Students need clear instructions on what they are expected to do for clean up.

Teach, demonstrate and practice lab rules and procedures. Believe in their power to promote learning (they do NOT diminish fun, they stop chaos!). Rules are meaningless without (emotion-free) enforcement.

Better Science Teaching Task 2: Enforce My Expectations

There are two parts to me enforcing lab behavioral expectations:

  1. All rules are enforced for all students at all times. The is the only system that is fair and that is effective. Much of my success with lab/classroom management comes from the wonderful work of Check them out if you have a hard time believing in the educational power of enforcing your rules.

  2. Students earn a Lab Performance grade for any substantial group activities that promotes following rules and collaboration.

My Lab Performance Rubric

  • each student begins with 10 points – 2 points per category

  • categories are:rubric cover image
    • Disrupt – lose points for disrupting other groups
    • Teamwork – lose points for poor collaboration
    • Supplies – lose points for misuse
    • Effort/focus – lose points for being off-task
    • Completion – lose points if did not complete the activity as expected

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Students are told that they are being graded and each category is explained. They understand that they begin with 10 points and lose a point (or sometimes 1/2 a point) when they break a lab rule or are showing lack of effort and teamwork.

Should I give a warning first? My recommendation is to not give a warning before taking off a point. I have found that the best way for students to take me seriously regarding my expectations is to for me to be serious about my behavior rubric. As soon as I see an off-task behavior I quickly (but respectfully) point it out and take away a point. This usually results in the particular student staying on-task the rest of the time and everyone else getting the message.

So, my recommendation for Better Science Teaching – Set Expectations – Teach Expectations – Enforce Expectations