classroom management

Classroom Management: Lab Testing

Last November I reported on some classroom management issues I was having. I wrote about challenging my students with a lab that supposedly exceeded their capabilities (click here to read that post), hoping that the students would learn content and simultaneously become more engaged in the classroom. This approach required exceeding readiness on my part. Since the students’ lab skills were still lacking, everything needed to be prepared ahead of time so that their actual hands-on component would be relatively simple.  My efforts proved worthwhile because, in the end, the students stepped up to the task, learning content and become more serious minded.

However, basic science experiments were still required in order to develop student lab skills. A simple conservation of mass experiment could provide just such an opportunity along with an introduction to content. However, it would be difficult for them to complete it without being silly. They would play with the balloons and chatter and goof around because the lab would seem too easy to warrant their concentration. In the end, I feared they would neither gain the lab skills I was aiming for nor learn the content associated with the lab.

A last-minute stroke of inspiration came: make it an assessment of following directions. I sprang into action as this tactic would also necessitate significant set-up. I had to place students into a testing environment and ensure they could individually perform the experiment. Tables were arranged around the room in a circle so I could stand in the middle and students could work without knowing whether I was looking at them or not. Each seat was equipped with a balloon, a graduated cylinder, vinegar, baking soda and the lab instructions. They would only need to stand to use the measuring scales.

Before entering the room, students were warned that as soon as they crossed the threshold they were in a testing situation. Backpacks were set down at the front of the room and personal computers retrieved. Interest peaked by the unusual set-up, the pupils approached the tables with hushed respect.

First, an online quiz covering content from the previous days was completed. This settled them down right from the start.Then, as instructed, the students moved straight into the practical part of their quiz. Huge emphasis was placed on the fact that this practical portion was part of their assessment. This new approach instigated total silence among the group. Working at different paces from each other, no one needed the scales at the same time. Not a sound was heard when chairs were scooted away and towards the tables. No pushing, giggling, touching, or silliness. Complete silence. Total focus. If I had had a pin to drop, it we would have heard it.

The inherent nature of this set-up actually forced the students to read the instructions. Each person was required to conduct measurements with the graduated cylinder and weighing scale. Everyone was in a serious-minded setting gaining experience in how an experiment should be conducted.  And, unable to consult peers,  the students were coerced into studying and answering the questions connecting the activity to content in this arrangement of a testing situation.

As usual, I advocate thinking outside the box as we seek to meet our students’ needs in the classroom! In this case, both skills and content were attained as measured through later assessment. And, in a review session conducted last week (and months after this activity), formative assessment revealed that most of them had retained what they learned that day. Most importantly, a foundation was laid for how one conducts oneself in the lab, thwarting a tendency for silly behavior and creating an environment more conducive to learning.

Classroom Management: Challenge Them

I’ll admit, for the first time in my teaching career I have struggled with classroom management.  It has come as a complete shock to me. Granted my experience isn't happening in every classroom every day.

Here are a few of the issues I have dealt (or didn’t) with:

  1. Students breaking out in outbursts of strange guttural noises, sounding like wild animals. Seriously, I thought one of the boys had Turrets syndrome.
  2.  In the middle of a discussion a student gets up to borrow the hole puncher, a stapler, or get some hand sanitizer, completely oblivious to the fact that I am talking or the timing is just inappropriate
  3. Laughter, background talking, and side conversations
  4. Cross-communication, literally, in the middle of the class between students on opposite sides of the room (“Hey, are you trying out for basketball?”)
  5.  Students not showing up for class or, in particular, tests.
  6. Cheating and plagiarism.
  7. Students doing no work. I mean no work. Seriously, how can you earn 8% in a class?

It’s like the very last item on the agenda was about learning. And actually I don’t even think learning was on the agenda. Have you seen the movie “Dangerous Minds”? A few of those classroom scenes remind me of some of the experiences I have had with some of the students here. However, these students are pampered and spoiled as compared to those economically depraved individuals depicted in the film.

My instinct has been to turn to the literature and to reflect on inspiring movies like “Stand and Deliver.” But I’m no Jaime Escalante.

So, my inspiration was to challenge my students beyond what any of my colleagues thought the students “were ready for.” It was time for my apathetic, singing, distracted students to attempt a legitimate scientific experiment: “What is the effect on the temperature of lauric acid as it is immersed in warm and cold water baths?” (in other words, the heating and cooling curvesfor lauric acid) in the context of studying changes of state.

I’ve loaded my portable lab station with all the necessary supplies. My planning has to be meticulous, trouble-shooting all the pitfalls and challenges the students will face and setting up the experiment in such a way that students can focus on what is happening without being burdened by too much manipulation of equipment. Because these students have, unfortunately, not had much time in the lab. Thus, their skills are not developed.


The students are questioned as to what they think will happen to the temperature of the solid lauric acid when it is heated. With white boards and markers in front of them, they make predictions. None of them are even close.

“You all have an idea of what might happen. Now you get to do the experiment and discover the truth.” Their eyes widen. The silence is broken with, “Is this the right answer?” as a student points to his white board.

“You will determine that for yourselves.  Your challenge is to keep your mind open as you do your experiment. Be careful so that you obtain accurate data. If you do it correctly, I predict that all of you will be surprised with the results.”

With their enlarged eyes they smile and look around the room at the prepared experimental set-up they will be using. Anticipation settles in and it is clear they are eager to get started. They actually want discover the truth!

After reading through the purpose and procedure, it’s time to begin. The students approach the lab bench with hushed respect like small children who have just been handed a “grown-up” task. Pride exudes from their teenage frames. Serious business is underway as the students operate the temperature probes, record data and make observations.

“The temperature isn’t lowering!”

“Why isn’t the temperature falling?”

And thus the discovery begins.  “Is it the equipment?”  “How is my prediction wrong?” “What is going on?” “Does this have to do with energy?”

And thus they begin their discovery of the role of energy in changes of states of matter. Graphing their data is energizing and clearly they enjoy seeing the visual of their own work. The curves are perfect. Their results demonstrate they are making the connections.

And, I realize that they are learning and that we have had several classes without management problems. Others thought these students couldn’t do it. But I thought otherwise.

My thought for today? Take students to higher levels: they will rise to the challenge and classroom management issues will diminish.