George Lucas Educational Foundation
Student Engagement

Setting Up Choice Boards in Math and Science

Letting high school students choose how they take notes in math and science classes can get them to engage more deeply with the content.

February 22, 2024
Maskot Images / Shutterstock

Giving direct instruction to my math and science classes often felt like a game of whack-a-mole. No matter what style of note-taking I chose to give them—even with employing best practices like chunking information and formative assessment—some of my students struggled to connect with the concepts.

A while ago I became aware of the many different ways my students preferred to be introduced to new information. Some thrived with videos, while others struggled to make sense of new concepts unless I lectured. When I lectured, some students struggled to internalize the information even when they actively participated. Some preferred to read slides and articles and learn what they needed from text.

Since I use choice boards regularly as a way for students to demonstrate their understanding, this year I decided to see what would happen if I applied choice boards to note-taking. Would my students learn new information even if I was not the one giving the information?

Benefits of Choice Boards for Notes

The most immediate effect of using choice boards for notes was the reduction in classroom disruptions. I no longer have to stop instruction to redirect students, wake them up, or ask why they aren’t writing anything down. Students don’t have to wait for me to finish talking to ask a clarifying question. They can, if they choose, hold a continuing dialogue with each other as they process the new information. (They’re expected to keep their voices low, and the lab, where they work, has a wide enough area so they can move away from others, and others can move away from them.)

My students are more engaged with the material. They self-assess their understanding and stop to ask questions, something that many of them wouldn’t do during a traditional lecture. Overall, students take more steps on their own to make sure they’re understanding the new concepts.

I also observed growth in student achievement. My students are performing as well as or better than the previous year using the choice boards. Because of that, this is now my preferred method of giving notes. 

Building the Choice Boards

At the beginning of the year, I gave my students a survey asking about their learning preferences and what types of activities reached them the best. I used this data, and prior experience, to build the activities on the choice board. Overall, my students preferred either a direct lecture from me, a video, or reading slides/text. I sometimes include inquiry-based activities, such as Math Medic or PhET lab simulations, for students who like to learn by noticing trends.

I rely on edtech tools, like Quizizz and Edpuzzle, to build checks for understanding into each choice so that students have timely feedback on their level of understanding. For my math classes, I make use of Desmos Classroom activities to guide students through concepts of graphical relationships. For my science classes, the chemistry section of Positive Physics helps with scaffolding questions and concepts.

Using edtech tools also allows me to build accommodations for my students who need them. I can deploy subtitles, allow reattempts of the work, and make use of read-aloud features. This ensures that all of my students are able to make any choice, regardless of disability or language acquisition.

At the bottom of my choice board I include an exit ticket activity that all students take, so that I can see student progress and compare the effectiveness of each note-taking method.

During Class

When I introduce the choice boards to my students, I remind them to make the choice based on how they learn best, not what their friend is doing. Then, I set the following expectations:

  • Save any questions for me until I am done with the direct teach.
  • You may work together, but you must keep your volume down so that those listening to a video or to my direct teach can hear.
  • You must work the full time. If you do not achieve at least an 80 percent on the note-taking activity, you must reattempt it.
  • If you are disruptive, you are choosing to finish the note-taking activity with me up front.

I direct students to different areas of the room depending on their choice of activity to minimize noise interference, which also allows them to work together with others who chose the same activity. They’re free to switch between different methods during the period if they realize that their choice isn’t working for them, or to join me while I’m working examples on the board before returning to their original choice.

Once I’m finished with the direct teach, I circulate around the room to check progress and answer any questions the students couldn’t resolve on their own. If it’s a common question, I’ll answer it for the whole class. I remind students to complete the exit ticket in the last few minutes of class.

Following Up

After class, I look at exit ticket data to find the weak areas in student understanding. I take steps to reteach them, either through a brief whole group instruction, through an inquiry activity, or by selecting activities for another choice board. This makes the next day’s activities more cohesive and meaningful to my students, who engage more, knowing that I’m responding to their needs. I also use the data to determine if there were weak spots in the video or slide deck and take steps to revise them for the following year. 

The choice board remains posted in Google Classroom for students to refer back to, and I post a video of my direct teach and/or notes. This assists students who were absent that day and serves as a review resource on a later assessment.

I recommend trying this with a less difficult lesson first and keeping your choice board simple: three choices and an exit ticket. As your students get accustomed to doing this, you can branch into more difficult lessons or add more choices. 

Giving students choice in their note-taking will make the practice more meaningful to them, ultimately enriching their learning experience so they can achieve more.

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  • Student Engagement
  • Differentiated Instruction
  • Math
  • Science
  • 9-12 High School

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