On Thursday this week, I knew I was going to be out for a couple of periods, so I needed an activity that my students could do with a substitute. We are working on a unit on Safety, and there are a number of routine safety procedures that I am holding the students responsible for. Among them are: obtaining chemicals safely, cleaning up at the end of lab and lighting and adjusting a Bunsen burner.

I made a list of all the steps for the procedures (21 in all) in random order on one sheet of paper. On another I placed instructions and space for each of the procedures. The students cut the steps apart, separate them by procedure and tape them to the paper in the correct order. Then I had them jot down a line or two next to each step explaining why they put that step there. For some steps, the order doesn’t matter, for others it is hugely important. The idea here is to get their brain juices flowing, because it is easier to remember the order of the steps if it has some meaning.

The students could work in groups of 1, 2, or 3. Sometimes, we force students to work in groups when it is not necessary. Many students are introverts (by which I mean they gain energy through reflection rather than through interaction as extroverts do), and prefer to work on their own. So sometimes I let them. This also avoids the whole “last one picked for a group – nobody likes me” problem. This took about 40 minutes.

I reviewed the exercise by calling on students randomly (I have their names written on wooden coffee stirrers, I’m too cheap for Popsicle sticks :), discussing the important points as we go through each procedure.

Students often don’t know good (efficient) ways to learning thin.gs, so this was a great opportunity to work on that. Many of the students I have are taking Chemistry because they need a second lab course. To make chemistry worthwhile to them, I’d like them to take away tools they can use in college to help them learn faster. Chemistry is a great place for that because the students who struggle with learning it will see the benefits of learning how to learn. All this is to explain why I asked the students to give suggestions on how they might try to remember all 21 steps. Repetition and rewriting the steps came up a lot, but each class came up with seven or eight ideas. I hope to show them on Monday how to use mental visualization to help them learn faster. I finished one class by memorizing 23 objects in order in about 6 minutes. Monday, I’ll show them how.