Increasing engagement with “free time”

It can be challenging getting junior Social Studies students to stay on task during class as they are often distracted by social media, video games and each other. This is especially true in a digital school. I find this distraction especially difficult after lunch or during double periods where students are tempted to go off task no matter how engaging I think the work may be. This “off task” behavior had become a significant barrier to work completion in my Year 9 class who I saw 3 times a week; Monday’s p3, Wednesday’s p5 and for a double period on Friday mornings. As I saw this class first thing on Friday mornings they were usually on task for the majority of the time however, towards the end of the double students started to lack focus.

However, this loss of focus on Friday was becoming problematic, while I understood the lack of focus after sitting in the same room for 2 hours (I have the same group of students for tutor time) I wanted to encourage work completion. Being a PB4L school I wanted to try and reward students for good time management rather than punish them by holding them in at interval if work wasn’t complete (a strategy that I had tried with the class earlier in the year). I informed the class of the expectations for the lesson (to finish their inquiry). However, I knew that some students were at different stages than others – generally the students that were on task for the most part were nearly finished while others had a fair bit of work to get through. I explained that this was all they had to do today and once they were finished, they could show me their work and then they could have free time.

This strategy worked a treat for a number of reasons;

  1. As mentioned, students that had worked hard over the last few weeks were motivated to finish and they were rewarded with free time.
  2. Student in the class that usually muck around and secretly play video games were also motivated to complete work. This meant I had a class of engaged students for the majority of the lesson.
  3. This approach gave me the opportunity to give feedback and feed-forward as students were required to get their work check before they could have free time. For some students who rarely completed work during class time this meant I was able to give feedback to begin with. For other students I could push them towards “merit and excellence” answers by asking them to include more detail and depth.
  4. For the most part students were working hard until the last 5 or 10 minutes of the lesson but all students completed the work during this lesson which may have otherwise been left unfinished.


Some reflections:

This is an approach I have used with junior fairly regularly since as a way to encourage work completion and limit off task behavior. While it may not be ideal to loss 10 minutes or potentially longer at the end of the lesson this I think is time that would be lost anyway as juniors especially tend to get distracted or stray from the task fairly regularly throughout a lesson (especially during doubles). However, this loss of time at the end is well worth it if students are working hard for the rest of the lesson rather than mucking around the whole time. As a teacher I feel more in control of the class and what they are doing and its great to have opportunities to feed back and push students to a higher level of thinking which may not happen if students are stuck on task one. Furthermore, this is a great way to teach students about time management – students are given more autonomy about how they choose to spend their time and therefore are choosing to complete their work – motivated by choice of how they spend their time once that is completed.

However, I am still working on balancing this approach so that students who take a bit more time on stuff are not missing out on the rewards. I have at times tapped students on the shoulder and given them differing expectations or simply commented “I have seen you have been working hard all lesson – you can have free time now.” I also think that taking this approach with group work in particular can be useful as it means students that need more help are often supported by their team mates working towards a shared goal or project.

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