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How to Keep Students On Task When Working Independently

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Let’s face it… there is no better feeling than when you look around your classroom and every single student is engaged and on task, doing exactly what they were assigned to do during their independent work time!  As a teacher, this enables you to confer with students, pull students for small group instruction, conduct an assessment, or even just walk around and monitor and assist when needed. I’m going to fill you in with my favorite tips to keep students on task when working independently so that you can experience this wonderful teacher bliss!

In my opinion, there are two main reasons why students are off task when working independently.  

Reason #1: They don’t know what they are actually supposed to be doing. 

Reason #2: They are bored. 

Today, I’m going to focus more specifically on reason #1 and provide you with a few steps to make sure your students know EXACTLY what they’re supposed to be doing before and during their independent work time.  

Step 1: Clearly state the directions and expectations to students after the mini-lesson to keep students on task.

This sounds obvious, but it’s important to note. Whenever I finish a mini-lesson, I make sure the last thing I say is, “When you head back to your seats, you will _____.” This is where I explicitly verbalize exactly what students should be doing on their own.  

How to Keep Students On Task When Working Independently Blog Header

Step 2: Call on at least three different students to repeat the directions back to the class in their own words.

This step is super important.  If students are able to state something in their own words, it shows they truly understand the expectation. 

It should be noted that I don’t ask for volunteers here because the expectation is that EVERYONE should know what they are supposed to do, so everyone should be able to answer.  If you do this every day, students will be used to the routine and be ready to potentially be called on to answer.  

If a student is not able to repeat the directions, call on a different student but let that student know you will be coming back to them again to repeat the directions next.  This holds them accountable for listening and figuring out what is expected of them. 

Once students have listened to the directions and expectations several times, send them back to their seats to work independently.

Not only do students need to pay attention to directions because they don’t know if they’ll need to repeat them, but hearing the directions stated several times over really drills it into their heads so they won’t forget.

students on task ideas

Step 3: Keep students on task by posting a visual reminder of the expectations and directions on the board.

It’s important to vary the mode of delivery when providing directions because not all students learn or take in information in the same way.  Some students are visual learners and need to be able to see the directions in addition to just hearing them stated.  

I use assignment slides for each of my classes.  I post anything that is required of them during their independent work time on the slide.  My students know that if they ever forget what to do, or were not in the room when directions were given, they can just look at the assignment slide displayed on the board.

assignment slides to keep students on task

Step 4: Use the “Ask 3 Before Me” Strategy

I try to discourage my students from raising their hand or running up to me the moment they have a question.  I am encouraging them to be problem solvers and critical thinkers.  They know if they are confused or do not know what to do, they can look at the board to figure it out.  If they are still confused, I ask that they use the “Ask 3 Before Me” strategy.  This isn’t because I don’t want to help them, but most of the time when students are working independently, teachers are working with small groups or assessing other students and cannot be interrupted constantly.   

This is a very simple strategy that is exactly as it sounds. Students must ask three peers their question before coming to you for directions.  During this time, they can likely figure out what to do while you can continue with your small group, conference, or assessments.

Implementing these strategies has significantly kept my students on task while working independently.  I hope they are helpful for you as well!

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