This post originally appeared on the blog Feel-Good Teaching.
Everyone LOVES STEM Challenges, right? Well, teachers know that nothing in life is that simple! Good news, though: most students do love STEM Challenges, and the few who don’t might just learn to if you make a few small adjustments in your implementation!
In the video below, I’ve identified the three most common student types who don’t like STEM Challenges and give you some small adjustments you can make to bring them around to the charms of challenges! If you prefer reading over viewing, the video transcription is also provided below.
Hi, I’m Kerry from Feel Good Teaching. All students love STEM challenges, right? Would that life were that simple! For me, they are about the most universally beloved activity that I’ve ever done with my students, but there are usually a few students — and a few very specific reasons — why some students just don’t really enjoy STEM Challenges.
If you’re experiencing this in your class, it’s great to take just a little bit of time to unpack some of the most common reasons why some students don’t enjoy STEM Challenges. This way, you can make some adjustments so that most, if not all of your students will actually enjoy the process, because we know the problem-solving and collaboration that go on in STEM challenges is really hard to match with other activities!
Today let’s talk about three types of students who might need just a little bit of help finding the love! Some students have performance anxiety, so time-based tasks are really stressful for them. An adjustment you can make here is to actually increase the wait time between when you introduce a challenge and when students actually begin working on it. You can let students know a full day before, or if you have a self-contained class, perhaps you do that in the morning, when you’re building in the afternoon, or before lunch versus after lunch. You get the idea! And another great adjustment to make is to do multiple iterations. When students know that their first try isn’t going to be their only try, it helps ease some of the anxiety and lets them know this is more of a draft, and you’ll have more time to think about and tinker with your designs in a future iteration.
Next, we have students who simply don’t enjoy working with their peers, and this is something you definitely need to unpack a little bit further because there could be myriad reasons why. One issue that frequently pops up is students that have trouble advocating for their own ideas, and they do, in fact, get their feelings hurt when their ideas are not chosen. This is something for which, unfortunately, there’s not a very quick fix, but we do commonly come back to this issue again and again in classroom meetings and in our group discussions about how the challenges went and how to incorporate different ideas fairly among our group members. And I do read the students’ individual record & reflect handouts very, very carefully to see if there are any issues that we do need to revisit — either individually or small groups or even, in some cases, whole class.
And another thing you can do is to decrease the group sizes on future challenges, so that when students are working in, let’s say pairs rather than groups of four to six, their ideas are more likely to be heard, certainly, and implemented. But I’m sure you can agree, helping students learn how to advocate for their ideas is an important life skill that is worth taking the time to explore.
But some of your students are simply lone wolves. They don’t want to work with other people or implement others’ ideas. They really want to just hunker down and design based on what is in their minds, in their vision. And as a teacher, I know that rigidity can be extremely frustrating, because you have your idea of this sort of wonderland of collaboration and everyone’s going to have a lovely time, and we’re going to have great designs! But sometimes it’s just not the way things work.
I find it’s best not to meet rigidity with more rigidity. It usually just doesn’t work. Sometimes I do let students just go ahead to choose to work alone. Sometimes I’ll have them do that on a first iteration; sometimes I’ll have them do it on a second. And sometimes I don’t make it an option at all. But when I do, I ask the students always to reflect on the differences in working alone versus working collaboratively in a group, both in their experience of the process and in the end results of the designs. Most of the time, collaborative efforts tend to produce better designs, but that is not always the case, and it’s a good thing to explore and discuss, and don’t be afraid when things don’t turn out exactly the way you thought they would! You really can’t make students enjoy working with each other, but you can help them start to see the benefits of collaboration!
And finally we have our overachievers. The most common reason one of these students might not like STEM Challenges is that it’s not really laid out and clear for them the steps that they need to do to succeed. Even when you give them a criteria and constraints list, it can still be very hard for them to visualize exactly what they need to do in order to please you as the teacher or get their A. This one hits close to home because I was one of those students who was always very scared if I couldn’t visualize what success looked like.
A few things you can do for these students to help them on the path is to first just start with classic challenges: boats, towers, bridges. You know I’m always recommending that because students are able to understand what those things look like. But you don’t want to spend too long in that “classic” space because some of the most interesting challenges are outside of the classic box. You want to make sure you’re creating a culture of fearlessness in the face of potential failure, and the only way to do that is to keep trying ever challenging challenges and to help students learn to look at failure as just data points that can be analyzed and then tweaked on their next designs, which is another reason I recommend making multiple iterations part of your common practice for STEM Challenges! And as you may be aware, I’m also not a fan of assessing the designs themselves. I’ve covered that in a couple other videos, so I’ll link those for you rather than going over it again. [STEM Challenges: To Assess or Not to Assess and Stop Making 3 STEM Challenge Mistakes]
I hope that helps you out, because truly I believe that just about every student can and will love STEM challenges. We just have to sometimes make a few adjustments to help them on their way!
And to recap, the things you can do to make the most difference for these students are:
- Increasing the time between when you introduce a challenge and when students actually begin working
- Being flexible with your groupings, even allowing students to work with partners or alone at times
- Multiple iterations, multiple iterations, multiple iterations! They don’t always have to be whole class. You can do them in centers, for early finishers, extra credit, or homework
- And finally, be very, very careful what you choose to assess, if you assess at all!
If you have some students that you suspect those adjustments are just not going to make a difference for, please reach out and let me know! You can even join the Facebook group, Stellar STEM Teachers, and we can continue the conversation there. As always, I hope your week has been packed with feel-good teaching moments. I’ll see you next time.
Kerry has ten years of teaching experience in grades 2-7. Her masters degree is in Design-Based Learning (DBL) and she has devoted the last several years to creating engaging & adaptable STEM Challenge resources, including a STEM Challenge video library, to help teachers implement high-quality, brain-busting work (disguised as fun) in their own classrooms! Learn more using the links below: