How To Make Remarkable Math Labs For Students

How To Make Remarkable Math Labs For Students By A Word On Third

Sometimes I feel like if I have to look at/copy/grade/distribute/think about another darn worksheet, I'm going to


Okay, while I do think that worksheets do hold some value sometimes... I don't think they are always the answer... not by a long shot! I will admit, I do like a VERY quick worksheet to use as an assessment tool. Otherwise, not really so much. I prefer to use math labs in my classroom as much as possible because they allow for choice and differentiation, and they are much more math manipulative-friendly. I have created a few math labs, and while they were painfully time-consuming at first, I've found the sweet spot that lets me create them quickly! Let me share how I do that with you.

How To Make Remarkable Math Labs For Students by A Word On Third

1. Start with your objective.
What is it that you want students to be able to do? How will you be able to measure it? Work backwards from there. It sounds simple, but I think it's easy for us to get caught up in a fun activity we saw on Pinterest that might not always be the best use of our students' time.

For example, maybe I want my students to be able to compare and order 4-, 5-, and 6- digit numbers. If that's my objective, now I need to think... how can I get my kids to practice that?

2. Create a problem that lets students meet your objective.
Sometimes simple is better. It's easy for us to get super ambitious and bite off more than we can chew, but every single math lab won't be theatrical. I love how the teachers at Ron Clark academy completely transform their classrooms for particular units of study... but they even say themselves that they can't do this ALL THE TIME. It's just not possible! If something jumps out at you, take advantage of it and get creative. But it's OK to start simple too.

Regardless, these are the things I like to think about when I plan a lab:

  • How can the kids get manipulatives into their hands?
  • How can I get the kids working with each other?
  • What opportunities can I give the kids for proving/explaining their thinking?
These 3 things will really allow for great problem solving skills to develop. With those things in mind and knowing how much time I wanted to spend on this skill, here's what I created for my class this year.
How To Make Remarkable Math Labs For Students by A Word On Third

WHOO HOO! Freebie for you right there if you're working on ordering and comparing numbers and/or place value right now!!! Seriously, go use it. I'm not selling it because it took me 5 minutes to make. I can't sell that in good conscience. FIVE! MINUTES!!! But my point is... if I can do it in five minutes, you can too.

This is what I would consider REMARKABLE because it's not a worksheet, it's a differentiated, hands-on lab with manipulatives, cooperative learning, and student choice involved. The more students think about how to "stump" their partner, the more math they need to understand.

The manipulatives in the above lab are the numbers that the kids cut out--they can be put on a broken number line that the kids make. You can also use base-ten blocks or digi-blocks to model each number if needed. It would be easy to adapt here for the different types of learners. It's differentiated because the kids get to decide how challenging they want to make this. They can make their numbers random or they can make their numbers 4,909 and 4,990, and 4,099, etc. (By the way, I did not suggest this, and a lot of kids tried it because they wanted to stump their partners later!).

The kids are explaining their thinking because they are trying to stump their partner, and they are going to check each other. This is something I teach into all of the time in my classroom. Because they're trying to stump each other, they're motivated. They love working together! 

Now bonus points if you can make your problem have a real-life application, but just giving them a problem like this to solve is OK! It's definitely more meaningful and useful than a problem about 34,506 watermelons. Don't you think?


I thought there would be more to this blog post, but I realized that this was all I do when I create my problems. Isn't that LOVELY?? Good math labs aren't ALWAYS complicated, though they can be if you feel like getting clever. I promise you that it took me 5 minutes to think up this lab and it can take you that long too. It took me another 5 minutes after that in Microsoft Word. THAT'S IT. 10 minutes of invested time gave me a lab I can use over and over again each year, and it's way easier to grade than a worksheet, and way more interesting and valuable than a worksheet. That's a win!!! Now, here's a lab that took me way more than 10 minutes to make...

 How To Make Remarkable Math Labs For Students by A Word On Third

For Halloween every year, I work on this math lab with my students. This simulation lasts 5 days. I'm going to start using it in just a few weeks. IT'S SO MUCH FUN!! I wanted students to have a meaningful math lab that kept them focused during Halloween time, so I told them they were going to be responsible for planning a party. The problem I wrote describes that students need to buy food, decor, etc. and fit those purchases into a budget. This lets them be creative (they have lots of items to choose from when purchasing!), but use their problem-solving skills for a problem that they might actually encounter in real life.

However,  to make this lab more exciting for my students (and to get in the spirit of Halloween),  I have "Teri Bull" and "Gob Lin" request my students' help. Teri Bull and Gob Lin leave notes for the class (which are included in my math lab). I put the notes in a spooky envelope that I decorate, and I leave it somewhere in the room for students to "find." When we open it together, I act like I'm not going to let the class help Teri Bull and Gob Lin since I have other math lessons planned already. In fact, I even leave fake math lesson plans on my desk since my students use my lesson plans to update our class schedule each day. I really ham this up and make it believable! Of course they beg me to abandon my plans and let them do this really cool project. I always "cave" and let them do it.

By third grade, a few students know that I'm playing with them, but I always over-hear kids whispering things like, "Do you think Teri Bull really exists? Do you think we'll be invited to the math party we're helping them plan???" while they smile. I love letting kids be kids. While many of them think this is fake, there's still that shred of possibility that these two crazy characters planning a party could exist.

How To Make Remarkable Math Labs For Students by A Word On Third

Adding in the theatrics really make the kids excited about this stuff. So, while some teachers are just about ready to pull out their hair since it's so hard to get kids to focus during Halloween time, I'm thanking my lucky stars I have this in my bag of tricks!! At the end of this 5 day project, our party plans disappear... Teri Bull and Gob Lin must have stolen them for their party!

If you love this idea and don't want to spend the time making this lab yourself, you can purchase it here in my TeachersPayTeachers store. AND HAPPY HALLOWEEN! It's on sale from today until Sunday! It won't be on sale forever, though.

This will be a difficult project for students. I suggest that you resist the urge to help them as much as you possibly can. They will learn a lot about problem solving if they complete this on their own. I recommend putting students in small groups and allowing them to work on this project for 3-5 days, depending on your students’ ability level and the problem you choose to use in your classroom.

Included in this product, you will find:

  • A teacher directions page to help you create your lesson plans quickly (with standards addressed included for quick copying and pasting into your personal lesson planning template)
  • 1 letter introducing the problem to students
  • 3 differentiated price list pages with different numbers to address different learners or grade levels
  • 2 planning pages for students to use to solve the problem
  • 2 pages for students to write their final decisions and keep track of/check calculations
  • 1 follow-up letter thanking students for helping to solve the problem
If you need more info, which I doubt you do, you can read more details about how I use this in my class here.

So where do YOU go for your favorite math labs when you don't want to create them? I love using Terc Explorations, Nimble With NumbersFront Row's IBL projects and browsing Howard County's math website (click on the standard you're teaching and then click on centers).

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