Friday, December 01, 2006

Effective Lab Management Strategies
Making the most of your time in the lab

It takes no more than a minute or two to take a well-prepared class into a well-prepared learning environment. So why does it feel like we lose so much time when we transition from one space to another? Why is it so hard to keep students focused in the computer labs? What’s the most effective way to incorporate lab and library into your project planning?

Today, some tricks and tips for effective lab management.

Time lost between the classroom and a shared resource space such as a lab or library is a real concern, but don't let it keep you from planning curricular units which incorporate resource spaces! These losses can be minimized, if not totally eradicated, if we remember to apply the same classroom management strategies to our use of shared resource spaces that we use so successfully in our own classrooms.

Just like in the classroom, making the most of your class time in the lab or library comes from planning ahead...considering the learning environment, and developing project units and instructional strategies which use this environment to its maximum potential...and taking advantage of all the resources available, from specialists and paraprofessionals to the hardware, software, and network access of the computers themselves.

With careful planning, the time it takes to shift a lesson from classroom to lab and back again can be reduced to the time it takes to walk down the stairs...or less!

Step 1: Prepare your curriculum with the learning environment in mind.

When considering a project which would benefit from lab or library use, consider meeting with the library paraprofessional or instructional specialist during the planning phase.

When you think of a lab or library as merely a space full of books and computers, “planning” for use may involve little more than reserving those resources and spaces for the time you expect to need them. But just as a classroom is much more than a room for learning in, the potential of a library or lab is a reflection of many factors.

For example, as discussed in a previous blog entry, the current layout of each space may make one better than the others for a given phase of your project. You may find that the best way to serve student needs in a multi-phase project is to reserve a different lab space for each phase.

More generally, our two computer labs are designed primarily for one-on-one work, not presentation, so you may want to consider using a data projector in your classroom to model lab activities, or to offer technology instruction with or without the assistance of the information specialist, before relocating your students to the lab for their individual research and project development.

In addition to helping you consider which particular learning space might best serve each phase of your project, library and lab staff also may have ideas about timing, resource availability, or new resources – from instructional sessions to books and computer tools – to better serve your needs, and the needs of your students, for this particular project.

Since we see every class that comes into these spaces, we will also be able to help you think about previous projects or instruction which your students received in another class…which may, in turn, affect your own sense of what they are capable of.

Step 2: Prepare the learning environment to best serve your students and your curriculum.

Consider the physical space, the available materials, and the virtual resources available for your use…but don’t forget that many of these things can be moved or modified to better serve your needs.

For example, you may be interested in using this particular project to help students learn how to search for relevant articles on a given subject, or to evaluate websites for bias and legitimacy – which may mean asking a resource specialist to offer a few minutes of instruction for students on how to locate such materials. On the other hand, if your goal is to have students be immersed in the resources right off the bat, asking library or lab staff to prepare a collection of books or a network folder of links for your particular class project beforehand means all the resources are ready when you arrive.

To speed up the transition from classroom to resource space, bring any needed materials to the library or lab before school, and we can put them out for you and your students before you arrive!

For computer-based projects, consider specifying an ideal computer configuration as well. Want the computers logged on but the monitors off when students arrive? Need speakers or scrap paper ready to go? You can even ask us to drop links or documents directly on computer desktops or screens, so that students can get right to work the moment they sit down.

Step 3: Prepare your class to make the most of their time in the lab.

Teachers who describe their lab use as efficient and successful tend to be those who spend time beforehand in the classroom going over everything from lab and project expectations to the specific tasks which they will be asked to accomplish that day.

One of the things that can slow down effective use of a lab or library is waiting until you arrive to give students a sense of purpose. The labs and libraries have distractions that classrooms do not; asking students to look over a computer monitor makes screenplay during instructional time that much more tempting. Waiting until you arrive to speak with them about task breakdowns and suggested work strategies for that day's activity leaves the deck stacked against you.

Don’t lecture in the lab! Instead, leave instruction, modeling, and presentation in the classroom wherever possible! Lab spaces are primarily designed to maximize effective one-on-one computer work; the classroom is often a much better (and less distracting) place to model or instruct with projection before taking students down to the lab. We are aware that the lab spaces need stronger multimedia projection capability, and are working with district staff and the PTO Technology Committee to address this need. In the meanwhile, we have several projectors which we'd be happy to set up in your classroom before the day begins.

Also, consider asking the resource room staff to meet you and your students in your classroom as you prepare to come to the lab or library for the first day of your project. As we walk down, we can answer questions about use policies; as we walk in together, we can help remind students to sign in as they sit down, which helps remind students about accountability.

For subsequent days in a lab or library, why meet in the classroom at all? Leaving a note on the door telling students to meet in the resource space allows students to begin right on time.

Step 4: Sustain an environment of accountability.

At home, students experience computers as playspaces, and tend to multitask; asking them to focus on a single task in a lab or library setting can be challenging. We see this in their lab behavior – for example, in student tendencies to play with screensavers in the middle of research periods – and in the difficulty we experience getting students to stay on task more generally in these settings.

Several strategies we are just starting to utilize will have a positive impact here. Asking students to sign in to their computer workstation every time they use a computer will have some impact on accountability. Reminding students about the stakes for the day’s activity before you bring them to the lab can help our most responsible learners stay focused.

But student habits are hard to break. Some additional lab management strategies teachers have found useful include:

Teach from the back of the classroom, so students know you can see their screens.

Consider worksheets, notecards, printouts, link lists, or other tangible product as part of your activity, both as a guide to students throughout the period and as an assessment tool in helping you and your students better track their progress throughout a project.

Plan for bite-sized tasks throughout the period, and check in with the whole class about their progress several times throughout the period. In my own classes, I stop all work every twenty minutes or so to answer questions and, more importantly, to ask a few students to share something they’ve learned since they have begun. Students are less likely to goof off with desktop backgrounds if they know they will be held accountable for every minute!

Step 5: Leave when you’re done (but accommodate students who need extra time)

It sounds like a no-brainer, but many of us lose valuable time in the research and development phase of long-term projects by keeping students in the lab for an entire period even after many of them have finished their work. Meanwhile, students, who often underestimate how long a computerized task will take, may play throughout the period, get distracted, and leave with their work unfinished.

One good way to keep fast workers from distracting others when they have finished their lab work is to have “extra” computer-based activities ready for those who finish early. Consider these activities in your planning stages – if you had extra time for each student, what additional lab or library components would you have included in the project?

If you are teaching with a partner, and can cover both spaces effectively, consider allowing students who have finished their task to go back to the classroom.

Of course, you can also plan ahead by asking students to bring their ELA or SSR book with them, just in case they finish early!

If some of your students need extra time in the labs to complete (or catch up on) a lab-based project, consider hosting your after school hours in the lab. Mr. F can also be available to help students on your after school day by arrangement.

Have a success story to share about your own use of lab spaces? Thinking about a new activity, but not sure how to make the most of your time and resources? Want to meet with an instructional specialist or library paraprofessional to explore ways to “tighten up” your existing lab or library project? Stop by anytime, or email us with your questions and ideas. We’re here to help!