How To Teach A Science Lab: Like A Circus

Labs are the most difficult component to teaching science and it can feel like you are trying to conduct a circus performance on the fly. They are difficult primarily because they are not something you or your students do everyday. You do not have as much practice teaching labs, because most of your lessons are not a lab. Most of your lessons involve you teaching background knowledge and having students apply it in a theoretical sense. Whereas a lab involves applying knowledge in a practical sense.

Think of the circus. Before the performers can perform, they must practice each step many times so they can understand and know what to do and when/how to do it. Science labs are similar. Before most of your students can perform a lab, they must have enough subject background knowledge to effectively create and test a hypothesis (an outstanding few will come in with enough background knowledge) while also already possessing background knowledge of how to use the scientific method.

Then, you MUST require students to write some type of lab report. The entire purpose of the lab is to one, apply what students have been learning and two, further their knowledge in their testing of the hypothesis. Writing a lab report forces the student to reflect on what happened and why. The why has students looking back on what they have already learned in an effort to explain or justify what went right/wrong/as expected.

I have found that doing labs well requires spending an entire week on them (My students have 3 science classes per week). The amount of time you spend on a lab will vary depending on the level of students you teach (My students are 5th-6th grade).

Stage 1: Prep For The Lab

The first class involves preparing students for the lab. In this we review the background information, present the question, create a hypothesis (whole class, group, or individual depending on the lab), write the needed materials, and write the procedure. After you have done several labs in the same format, this stage can be done outside of class. You will need to have some sort of quality control for the procedure, otherwise chaos will reign when you teach the lab.

Stage 2: Perform The Lab

In the second class we perform the lab. This is the most difficult part of teaching a lab for obvious reasons. In order to reduce both difficulty and frustration, I have found the following to be extremely helpful. HAVE CLEAR RULES AND ENFORCE THEM!

  1. Hopefully you have fun. You must get work done.
  2. You must perform one step at a time (by following the teacher’s lead)
  3. You must communicate quietly, in whispers
  4. Record all you data and observations
  5. Cleanup quickly and quietly

That is it. Some may cringe when they read rule number one and two. But that is only because they are reading them draconian measures. Simply, they are not. Rule one works well because it rhymes and students remember it. I tell them that science is fun and I hope they enjoy labs and classes (I do!) but that they are here to learn first and foremost so I require them to work (I demand it!).

The second rule is also eminently necessary for a successful lab, especially for younger students who have less knowledge of both science content and the scientific method. By following step-by-step, standardized instructions you minimize off task behavior and guarantee that students are actually testing their hypothesis, making the lab successful.

That being said, there is a benefit and reason for allowing students to go at their own pace with their own procedure (often nearer the end of a term). When doing this, you are assessing how well the students can follow the scientific method in addition to their understanding of the current content and you will find that many students/groups will need more time to complete the lab.

Stage 3: The Report

The entire third class consists of writing a lab report. The report begins with students analyzing their data. Generally this will involve students creating and interpreting a graph. After this, students will accept or reject their hypothesis. This will then be followed by at least a paragraph explaining why they accept/reject their hypothesis with explicit references to their data.

Again, if you do not require your students to write a lab report, what is the point of doing the lab? It will hopefully be fun, but the purpose is to have students apply/learn the scientific method and to learn more about science. This is best done by requiring reflection in the form of lab reports. Do the lab reports!

After you have done several labs with students, the report can generally be done successfully outside of class (use your discernment).

Labs are a crazy circus. Embrace it. Teach them like the circus they are by training your students and they will wow you with their creative performances, just like the circus!


Teachers Should Read Research

Teachers should read research, on top of their teaching.
I know that teachers are always busy and the addition of reading academic research on top of the teaching/planning/grading load is unappealing. But hear me out. You will find that reading research saves your time, improves your teaching, and helps your students learn more. What’s not to like?

Through reading research on feedback, I found evidence that merely grading an assignment is not effective feedback. Now, I still must grade assignments, I am a teacher after all but I have been working on actually grading only summative type assignments. For formative assessments I have switched to completion based grading system with whole class feedback. When I apply this strategy, grading an entire class set of assignments takes 5-15 minutes depending on the type of assignment. And, better yet, my students are able to apply that feedback. I have more free-time and my students are learning more. It is great.

Through researching about cognitive science, I stumbled upon the Learning Scientists. From them I found out about spaced repetition and retrieval practice, among other strategies. I combined these findings with what I have learned about knowledge organizers, flashcards, and no-stakes quizzes.

Creating the knowledge organizers and flashcards was more work initially (Here is a how to blog I wrote on knowledge organizers and flashcards). But the payout for the effort has been tremendous. My students are using academic vocabulary to describe concepts instead of continuing to describe scientific concepts in everyday language.

For example:

Before After
When the convection current goes up it is because it weighs less when it is hot. It sinks when it is cold and heavier. A convection current rises because the heat lowers the mantle’s density. It sinks when the temperature is reduced and it becomes denser than the surrounding mantle.

Knowledge organizers, flashcards, and no-stakes quizzes are all great ways incorporate both spaced repetition and retrieval practice into your classroom. They are also a fantastically powerful tool to for vocabulary acquisition. Students with a better vocabulary will likely grasp the concepts you are teaching better and be able to more effectively think critically. This has opened new doors for my students as they can understand the concepts at a high level and now they have the vocabulary to not only answer questions properly (improving grades) but to ask much much better questions!

The Matthew effect is powerful. I try to teach my students as much as possible to leverage these effects for their benefit. It just so happens that I benefit too. 🙂

Gradual Release: I Do, We Do, You Do

I Do:

“If the skill you are teaching consists of steps to follow or actions to complete, the best way to begin instruction is to show students what to do.” (Explicit Instruction, p29). When you are modeling a skill, it is important to be clear and concise. Focus on the most important aspects. Also, here is not the time to give non-examples. Giving non-examples can be very useful, but they are not to be used here as they complicate the process.

Design the “I do” portion of your lesson with the idea that students will visualize your verbalization as they perform the skill. So it must be simple if it is to be useful. Once students demonstrate proficiency in the skill, it is the teacher’s responsibility to shift to guided practice. Make the students’ responsible for their own learning. Do this by involving them in the modelling. Ask questions that require students to apply the knowledge they learned in your demonstration/modeling. Note, this portion is still teacher-led. The students are participating, but the teacher is the one “doing” the work. The students are answering questions about the content but not performing the skill.

This step (involving students) is needed because students struggle to just sit and listen for long periods of time. This helps students to be engaged in the lesson by having them recall critical content. It also allows for the teacher to verify understanding.

We Do:

The primary purpose of this stage is to both build off of the teacher model and increase the likelihood of student success. Verbal prompts make up a key component of this stage. These prompts include

  1. Directives (the teacher says, “do this”)
  2. Questions (the teacher asks, “How do we do this?”)
  3. Reminders (the teacher says, “remember to do ‘this’ step)

Each ‘step’ of the verbal prompt involves less and less scaffolding. When a teacher says “do this” it is nearly impossible for a student to make a mistake because they are being told what to do at each step. When a teacher asks questions, they are having students recall the steps that make up the skill (practicing more independently). Finally, a reminder can simply be a verbal announcement to ‘remind’ students about critical parts of the skill.

As students gain proficiency, the teacher again removes supports. By removing support, the teacher is enabling students to gain confidence in using the skill. The teacher is also able to provide immediate feedback by walking around the room and observing/interacting with students.

You Do:

The purpose and focus of independent practice is to see if students can apply the skill without any prompts. It is important to note that the initial independent practice should be done in a whole class setting, not as homework. The reason for this is to allow for corrective feedback. Practice makes permanent, so you want perfect practice to make ‘perfect’ permanent. In order to prevent/reduce imperfect practice, have students only answer one problem at a time at first. In between each problem, you (the teacher) can go over the steps and the answer. This allows students to see and fix their mistakes, and it gives the teacher another opportunity to informally assess their students and provide feedback.

Once a majority of the students are able to consistently answer questions correctly, you can give students more leeway to take on the work at their own pace, focusing on the few students who still need verbal prompts (questions/reminders).


Note: “I do, We do, You do” is not a procedure to follow blindly. The appropriate time to spend on each step depends on the complexity of the skill and the background knowledge your students have.

Don’t Be Sexy: Just Teach!

Don’t be sexy, just teach!

Education is rather famous for its buzzwords/directives/policies that are here today gone tomorrow (STEM, STEAM, student-centered, sage on the stage, guide on the side, DI, di, montessori, discovery learning, inquiry-based instruction, explicit teaching, project-based learning, jigsaw, stations, lead learner, cloud classroom, Genius Hour, No Child Left Behind, Race To The Top, and many more). Some of these, I think are important approaches, and will prove themselves to be timeless. Others are neither inherently good or bad. Some, are harmful.

As teachers, we must be aware of this. Know that the latest craze is likely just a flash in the pan. If it fits and it helps students learn, do it. If not, don’t. Do not use things just because they are fun/sexy/new, use them because they are useful.

The fundamentals of education do not change, because the fundamentals of how humans learn don’t change. There have obviously been changes, but those changes have been cosmetic. Even the big ones. For example, computers are objectively a revolutionary technology. They have impacted us in a myriad of ways (education included). But even computers, with immense power both for and over us, (Is Google Making Us Stupid?) have not fundamentally changed how we learn.

Before electricity humans learned by observing, being told, and attempting. And now, we learn by observing, being told, and attempting. This is because we essentially have the same brains as our ancestors. Our knowledge is stored in our brains. Our neurons fire in a certain pattern, bringing the memory (information) to mind. The more we do this, the stronger the memory becomes (Learning Rewires the Brain).

Because how we learn has not changed, we can look at what time has tested to see what works.

So, no matter what your school is doing, apply time/research-tested approaches.

  1. Spaced repetition
  2. Retrieval Practice
  3. Elaboration
  4. Interleaving
  5. Concrete Examples
  6. Dual Coding

The best resources I have found are from the Learning Scientists and Retrieval Practice websites. Both have articles explaining the research base and resources for teachers to use.

You can apply any of the 6 strategies in your teaching no matter what your context is.

Ultimately, don’t blindly follow the sexy new thing (the sexy new thing can be BOTH inquiry-based learning and explicit teaching depending on your crowd). If you know how humans learn, know what works, and why it does, then you can apply that to whatever new, sexy education thing comes your way.

Don’t be sexy, just teach.

Using Flashcards in Class: A Reflection

As I have mentioned before, I am working on integrating flashcards into my classroom. I create physical flashcards by importing an excel file into Quizlet and printing them out (For a how-to, check out How To Make Knowledge Organizers And Flashcards). I make the physical copies for my students because I teach elementary school and want my students to have access. I can only guarantee they have access to the digital format in class.

While flashcards have shown themselves to be very useful for vocabulary development and key concept understanding, I do not know that I would increase there use in my classes. I think that I am at a sweet spot in the amount of use. I am just tinkering with the “how to” as opposed to the “how much”.

Part of this tinkering has led me to lean more towards physical flashcards over digital ones. The reason being that even though digital flashcards offer a spacing algorithm for improved learning they also offer increased distractions. My students seem magnetically drawn to the Gravity game on Quizlet. Even when given explicit instructions, a few students still manage to find their way into the game version instead of a study version. This can easily reduce Quizlet’s effectiveness and negate the advantage of spacing with algorithms.

So, due to my circumstances, I have used physical flashcards more than digital ones. I have trained my students in how to use them and will give students class time (generally during a “warm-up”) to practice about once per week. The flashcard sessions last between 5-10 minutes, which is enough time for students to go through the entire deck (1 chapter) at least once. I have also assigned flashcard homework about once per week (with no real way of checking to see if students completed the homework or not).

Currently, my task is in making the flashcards feel less clunky. Part of the solution is simple. I must get used to using them in class, and my students must get used to the new routine. The other part of the solution is more complex. I have already discovered that digital flashcards increase distractions. But getting students to effectively practice with physical flashcards is more difficult since it is manual.

I have found that I must model and explain the procedure every single time we use the flashcards. For example, I explain that they need to have a correct pile and an incorrect pile. Then, when finished, they must go through the incorrect pile until all cards are in the correct pile. This is tedious, but necessary because I want the flashcards to be truly useful, not simply an activity that takes time.

I am sure that I will refine my approach more with time. In spite of the difficulties that come with change, I have found flashcards to be extremely useful and would recommend that their use would be expanded.

How To Make Knowledge Organizers and Flashcards And Reduce Your Workload

Knowledge organizers are a great way to…organize knowledge. They are also versatile and can be used in any subject. They should be used for the “core” information in a unit. This is information that you want all students to master. It will obviously include key terms, but it is not limited to memorizing vocabulary. Knowledge organizers should include concept based questions as well.

How to make a Knowledge Organizer

I start all my knowledge Organizers (KOs) in Excel/Googel Sheets. I do this because I use a brilliant tool created by Adam Boxer, Retrieval Roulette (Click on the link to see how to use Retrieval Roulettes, click on this one to see completed Retrieval Roulettes). I start by inputting the terms from an entire chapter of my science textbook.

The terms are in one column and the definitions are in another.

Next, I highlight the terms and definitions and copy them into a Word document. My KO is started. (In this example, I have already added concept questions to this Excel sheet, so the vocabulary words are spread out. To split them, I just insert a row below the last definition for the lesson.)

The Start of a KO.

The next step is to add key concept questions. I begin this in the Excel Retrieval Roulette file as well. As mentioned above, I insert the questions under the last vocabulary word for that lesson. To do so, I add a row and click the repeat button to add rows as necessary.1I repeat this step for each of the lessons in the chapter. Next, I select the questions that I think are most important for my students to grasp and I insert those into the KO using the same method as above.

Below is an example of a finished, diagram heavy KO.

After I make a KO for the chapter, I then create a flashcard set. Again, this relies on the Excel program and, as a bonus is incredibly simple. I simply highlight everything for that chapter and import it into Quizlet.

  1. Click create study set 2
  2. Click on import from Excel 3.PNG
  3. Select and copy the content you want to include from the excel file 4.PNG
  4. Paste the info here 5.PNG
  5. Click import 6.PNG
  6. Give your flashcard set a title, and then create it!

Next, depending on your students and school, physical flashcards may be more practical. Luckily, Quizlet offers an exceedingly simple solution. You can print your set of flashcards out.

  1. Click on print
  2. Select the size of flashcards you want
  3. Select double-sided printing
  4. Open the pdf
  5. Print


I’ve included some sample cards so you can get an idea of their sizes.

Small Double-Sided Flashcards Large Double-Sided Flashcards

The last thing I want to mention is that this process has greatly reduced my prep time (Once I figured out how to use the various programs/systems). I basically have my tests prewritten in the excel file and just need to reformat them when I create a test. I can also easily use the excel file to AUTOMATICALLY generate quizzes (seriously check out the retrieval roulette links at the beginning of the article, they are an absolute gold mine!)

And, as always, you must teach your students how to use the KO and flashcards even if it seems intuitive. If you don’t then your students will not benefit.

Flashcards in the Classroom

In this brief article, I intend to explain how I will put my previous article (how and why flashcards are effective) into practice.

First, I started by teaching my students how to use flashcards. This is paramount! Do not assume they understand how to use them effectively. To model how to use flashcards I borrowed a student’s set and put it under the visualizer so the whole class could see.

First, I read the card.


Then I modeled my thought process.

“Hmm. Hydrosphere, well, I know that hydro means water and I know that sphere means ball. Hmm. Earth is round and has water. Hmm. Water on Earth? Wait. All the water on Earth!”

Next, I flip the card over and check my answer.

“Awesome! I got it right. Ok, so now I will put this card into the correct pile.”

I move on to the next card.

“What causes convection currents in the geosphere?”

I model my thinking again.

“Hmm. Geosphere, well that is the Earth. Hmm. The wind causes convection currents because the sun heats the Earth unevenly.”

I flip the card over.

“Oh. I was wrong. Convection currents in the geosphere means inside of the Earth. Convection currents are actually caused by heat from the Earth’s core heats the rock and which makes it less dense so it rises. Then it cools, gains density, and falls.”

I put the card in an incorrect pile.

I then tell the students to finish the deck. Next, students need to go through the “incorrect” pile until all the cards are in the “correct” pile.

I tell my students that they must read the card and say the answer in their head before flipping the card over. I also give them a small printout that includes the steps.

Introducing New Flashcards

I introduce new KOs and flashcards on the last day of a unit because I give some sort of assessment, and when students finish they can pick up their KO and flashcards to get a head start on the new unit.

When students finish the assessment, they will turn it in and pick up a knowledge organizer (KO) and a flashcard sheet (or several) that includes vocabulary and concept Q&As based on the KO (I will explore how I make them in a future post. For now, just note that this has helped reduce my workload).

In order to assure that students actually cut out and use the flashcards, I will begin the next class by having students practice using their flashcards either by themselves or with a partner for 5-10 minutes. This approach allows me to give a quick check to see if they actually did the work and serves to get the students familiar with the chapter’s terms/concepts. A study by Kelly Grillo in 2011 found that flashcards can have a positive impact in a short amount of time, at least in terms of test scores.

One benefit I have found in implementing flashcards is that all my students are more familiar with the terms, and my more motivated students learn the entire chapter’s terms by the end of the first week. This has helped my class to engage with key concepts and to apply what we are learning on a deeper level. I have also found, both with KOs and flashcards that it improves how I use class time in the margins. If we finish a lesson early and there are a few minutes left, I can have students practice their flashcards or review their KO which helps reinforce what we are learning. Before I would ask if there were any questions or would ramble about what we were learning. Both can be useful and helpful, but they are not the best ways to spend class time.

I am sure that I will refine my methods in the future, but I am quite happy with how integrating KOs and flashcards has been so far.