A major focus of my STEM certification program last year was structuring the classroom to increase student independence within a science or STEM course.
Why is student independence so important in a science class?
When you make the shift to a student-driven learning environment, the payoffs are huge. Here are a few reasons you should consider moving toward a student-led learning environment.
- When students are able to make decisions in the classroom, they are more engaged.
- Making decisions (for example, choosing lab equipment for investigations) requires higher level thinkings and promotes rigor in your classroom.
- When students are able to work more autonomously in your classroom, their comfort with science and self-esteem increases dramatically.
- Students that are able to work more autonomously in your classroom make your life easier. If they are doing more, it frees you up to do other tasks in the classroom. For example, this allows you to do small group instruction.
Seven Things You Can do to Increase Student Independence in Your Science Class
You can't expect that students will know how to work independently when they enter your classroom. As with all things, they must be taught how to work independently. Here are a few ideas to get you started.
1. Establish Clear Routines
Students need to be taught how to move, work, and collaborate in your classroom. Don't assume that they will know what you want them to do.
Here are just a few things to consider: How do you want them to enter and leave your classroom? What should they do when they arrive? How should they get materials? How do they clean up?
2. Have a Warm-Up Activity
I know. I already talked about routines. But they are HUGE.
A warm-up routine is a must. When I use my regular warm-up routine, it's so easy that students can set it up and do it completely on their own.
A warm-up that students can do gives you the first five minutes of class to take roll, check-in with students, or take a look at the exit tickets from a previous class.
3. Use and Share a Digital Agenda
I make an agenda like the one below using Google Presentations and share it with my students. I have them bookmark it so they can access it whenever they need it.
At the end of the day, I take all of the extra papers and put them into a file for that course. When students return from an absence, they can see what they missed and find it in the file.
I also post links to all of the documents. This helps students fill them out electronically (if they would prefer to do a digital notebook), and they can use accessibility features that are embedded in their Chromebooks like increasing font size and text to speech.
This process helps keep students informed and saves me a ton of time.
Notice I also include all three dimensions of the Next Generation Science Standards. This makes that connection clear for these students, but it also helps me make sure I am writing three-dimensional lessons. An editable version of this agenda is available on my TPT store. Click here to access it.
4. Establish Students Jobs
One of the things that I noticed when my daughter started going to school is that she always had a job in her class.
This started in kindergarten. Her teacher rotated student jobs every week. B got the opportunity to contribute to the classroom, and her teacher had the most well-organized, clean, and well-run classroom I have ever seen. The teacher wasn't running around frantically cleaning up after the students, the students took responsibility for the classroom.
This was a lightbulb moment for me. If she could take a class of 32 (yes 32!) kinders and get them to take care of the classroom, I could get my middle and high school students to do the same.
There is so much to be done in a science class and this is a great way to increase student independence. I have also included a list of the student jobs that I do in my newsletter sign-up freebie. I ask for volunteers at the start of each month.
5. Make Equipment Accessible
If students are expected to choose their own lab equipment (with help starting in 3rd grade) in order to Plan and Carry out Investigations, they need easy access to the lab equipment.
This means that the equipment must be well-labeled, organized, and accessible. It also means that students need to have a strong understanding of how the equipment works.
One of my student jobs is a lab monitor. They are responsible for making sure that all glassware is washed and the rest of the equipment is put away at the end of the period. This practice saves me a ton of time on lab setup and cleanup.
6. Teach Students How to Work in Teams and Resolve Conflict
When students collaborate in a middle school classroom, conflict is bound to happen. Since students collaborate often in a science class, it's important to help them be independent when resolving a conflict. This is not always possible, scaffolding students' interactions will help.
I have this sign posted in my class. When a minor conflict comes up in class I have students follow each part step-by-step. It is a bit tedious, but it works really well.
I mediate the first few times that there is a conflict in class, but students quickly get the hang of working out their minor problems on their own. This may be because they know that if I become involved, I will make them follow each step. (They may figure that they can resolve the conflict quicker on their own.)
Again, this procedure works well for MINOR conflicts. If a student is being made to feel uncomfortable in any way, I get involved immediately.
7. Use Peer and Self Assessment
This tip will need to be its own blog post because there is so much to say. I will try to keep it brief.
When students have the opportunity to assess each other and themselves, they learn so much. Also, if you properly scaffold this process, they can come away with valuable feedback.
One of the ways I do this is by having students review each other's work using the rubric that I will ultimately use to grade student work. Students can use the rubric to identify areas that need to be worked on and provide substantive feedback. This process is also valuable to the person providing the feedback. As they go through each component of the rubric, they can also reflect on their own practices and see another potential method for solving the same problem.
There are a few things to note about peer assessment:
- Students should not be evaluating each other for a grade. I like to do peer reviews in the “rough draft” phase of a project.
- You can anonymize the work by assigning numbers to students. Have students write their number rather than their name on their work.
- Students will likely provide poor feedback if they don't see the value in the task. Make sure you explain why it is important. You can also work in small groups with students who don't seem to be taking the task seriously.
Want to learn more?
- Super Simple Warm-Ups for Your Science Class
- How to Set Up Your Science Classroom
- Using Technology in Your NGSS Aligned Classroom
- Digital Notebooking
What are some ways that you help students increase their independence in a classroom?