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Making Progress in Mastering Measurement

When you begin teaching, the search for lessons and resources is an ongoing quest.   I stole, begged, and borrowed lesson ideas from my colleagues and mentors, who may or may not have been using any sort of research-based strategies.

One lesson I recall subjecting my students to involved measurement – measuring common objects in the classroom.  We measured the length and height of our desks, chairs, pencils and anything else that would stay still long enough.  The most interesting measurement was the height of the students, which was conducted with little accuracy until we located some meter sticks and tape measures.  Everything else was, well frankly, kind of boring.  Students tend to be compliant, so they measured and then recorded their data.  Thinking back, I have no idea how I assessed their skills with any level of validity until they were given a quiz.

My next step in moving toward better learning for my students was to set up measurement stations.  Each table had a task card and an object with a known size for the students to measure: pencils, toys, pictures with lines to measure specific dimensions, and just plain lines.  To add to our skills, I included stations for mass and volume.  Balances were not a management problem, but the graduated cylinders were.  On occasion, as students moved from one station to the next, an elbow would bump a table and colored water spread across the workstation.  A quick clean up solved this problem, as long as you kept a record of exactly how much water was in the cylinder to begin with.  I was making progress, but I was not pleased with my students’ progress.  Measurement skills were still lacking.

Then I met a teacher who had worked in a Montessori setting who opened my eyes as to how to help students really learn how to measure accurately.   She suggested that I create what she called “self-correcting stations.”  For each station, you place a folded card with the answer inside that the students can refer to after they complete each task.  At first all I could think was that students would all cheat to get the work done, but I tried it.  What an amazing result!

One subset of my students followed the directions to a tee.  They would measure the object, record their answer and then check to see if they were correct (or at least close).  At that point, they would move on to the next station if they were correct.  But the best part was what happened if they did not get the right answer. Students began teaching each other how to measure accurately, showing them the errors they made.  “You started at the edge of the ruler, not the zero.  See?”  “This little mark is a tenth, not a one.” A few students would call me over to help them.  With a few well-worded directions or questions, I could guide them to complete the task on their own without doing the work for them (which is what some of them try to get you to do).  Quiet students who did not want to let anyone else know they had gotten a wrong answer went back and measured again to correct their errors.  Failing was safe and fixable.

Another subset of my students approached the measurement tasks in what first appeared to be the cheating I feared.  Slyly, they peeked at the answer.  But then instead of just writing down the answer and moving on, they measured the object to see how to get the answer written on the card.  After completing a couple of stations using this strategy, they began measuring first and then checking for accuracy. 

Stepping back, I observed a class engaged in learning.  Students were teaching themselves and each other, moving at their own pace, and getting immediate feedback.  All of my work had come in the planning.  Setting up the stations takes a bit of time, but the reward in student learning was well worth it.  During each class, the students were all working much harder than I was, and learning more than they had in my previous attempts to teach measurement. My role truly became that of facilitator.  And my students learned how to measure successfully, as was evident in their assessment results.  


Anne Douglas is Dean of Instruction for Sam Houston Math, Science and Technology Center, a comprehensive high school in Houston, TX.

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