This week, the 8th-grade Earth Science students at Arrowhead Middle School studied the Earth’s past. First, the class split into four groups to study different records of the Earth’s past, including fossils, original remains, and other natural evidence, such as tree rings and ice cores. Each group independently read a section from the textbook related to their topic, and identified and defined key terms from that section. Next, each group came up with two questions that could be answered from their reading. Finally, the students returned to their seats and each group took turns going to the front of the class to present to the class what they had learned from their section of the textbook.
The success of this activity varied significantly from group to group. While some of the groups took turns reading through the material and collaborated to come up with definitions and questions, other groups were quickly distracted and did not study their section of the textbook. During each class, I sat with one of the groups. I tried to get students to think analytically about the material that they were studying, although it was difficult to get them to ask questions that were not explicitly covered in the textbook.
When it came time to teach their material to the other students, some groups were much more prepared than others. Often this was because the students who wanted to talk for their group were not always the most prepared students, just the most outgoing ones. As the teacher asked each group questions about their section of the textbook, the well-prepared groups could easily explain the key terms and answer questions from the text. Other groups, however, did not have definitions or questions prepared, and ultimately just ended up reading their section aloud to the class. In this case, it was clear that the rest of the students were not getting much out of these student-taught “lessons”.
However, during subsequent review sessions, the students who had studied the material and presented it to the class remembered significantly more about what they had learned, especially when they had physical objects that they had shown and explained to the other students, such as the different types of fossils. While having students present material to the rest of the class certainly helped the prepared students who had done the presenting, it is difficult to say if it is an appropriate activity for this educational level. Ultimately, the success of this activity depended on whether or not the students wanted to participate, and those who did not unfortunately detracted from the rest of the class.