Organizing for Motivationally Supportive Classrooms

Effectively supporting student motivation throughout the year requires a strong foundation in positive classroom relationships and overall learning climate that cuts across disciplines and the five motivation design principles. Below are recommendations for how teachers might organize their classrooms at the beginning of the year to create this foundation for motivationally supportive instruction that can then be revisited and reinforced throughout the year. Recommendations are provided in two categories: the physical set-up of the classroom and “first-weeks” activities that are best introduced to students early in the academic year and then revisited periodically. Ideas are tagged with color-coded dots showing the alignment with MDPs.

Toolkit Classroom Organization

Physical Organization and Set-Up of the Classroom

Facilitating Student Work
Create flexible seating arrangements so that students can work together in different configurations, on differentiated tasks to ensure appropriate challenge, and to have sufficient space and access to materials for carrying out investigations.
  • Individual desks allow students to focus on individual tasks
  • Partnered desks allow students to work closely with a partner or to check in with a partner for assistance/feedback during individual work
  • Clustered desks or group tables support partner and group work
  • A circle or “U” of desks can support class discussions
Set up a resource table so that students can gather supplies as needed during a lesson.
Create classroom systems for students to submit and pick up work (including late work) on their own (e.g., using Google Classroom or bins at the entryway to the classroom).
Create and post anchor charts1 with strategies or scaffolds to support students’ making sense of phenomena and/or solving design problems, including talk moves or sentence/question stems and help-seeking strategies. This can both help students feel more confident about tackling new tasks in these areas, and normalize the use of resources and supports in completing work. Add to the posters throughout the year as students use new strategies successfully.
Display images and examples of a diverse array of people in science, engineering, and related fields/careers with whom students in the class can identify, including local examples where possible.
  • For example, highlight a different scientist each week, taking student nominations and being sure to include diverse representations of gender, race/ethnicity, culture
Display photographs of or resources about targeted phenomena from many different communities and leave an open invitation for students to add to the class collection.
Many strategies from equitable teaching frameworks (e.g., culturally responsive pedagogy) address ways to integrate students’ cultural values and community history into the physical space of the science classroom. For example, in Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain, Zaretta Hammond provides some ideas about classroom design2.
For more information, see Motivation as a Tool for Equity
Make sure that all students in the class can have their work represented in public postings of student work and consider how any displays of student work can be focused on recognizing qualities like creativity, thoughtful revision, risk-taking (i.e., doing something outside your comfort zone), rather than grades, scores or social comparison.
Dedicate space on the board/wall to post learning targets/performance expectations/objectives and the lesson agenda each day so that this becomes a familiar part of the classroom where students can gain a clear idea of expectations.
Select or create posters that promote growth mindset and risk-taking (i.e., doing something that takes them out of their comfort zone) through positive messaging around challenge and risk-taking, effort/strategy attributions over innate characteristics, and historical examples of scientists/engineers learning from errors, iterating their designs, or advancing their understanding over time.
Post or otherwise make available extension/challenge prompts and tasks that push students to think more deeply about a phenomenon or design problem or that are available to all students at any time.
Reserve space for a Driving Question Board3, 4 or a “suggestion box” of topics students are interested in learning about. Ideas for introducing a Driving Question Board are included under “Foundational Activities,” below.
Keep a bulletin board in the classroom to post interesting science-related news clips, products, museum brochures, learning opportunities available in the community (e.g., events), etc. for students to browse and add to.

Foundational Activities for Classroom Climate

Use name tags/stands and play name games5 early in the year to ensure that students know each other’s names and use them when referring to each other.
Involve students in creating classroom norms and procedures, meaningful roles for effective cooperative learning in small groups, and ground rules for whole-class discussion and argumentation. Post these in the classroom and allow students to revisit and potentially revise these norms throughout the year.
  • Have students practice different small group roles in different configurations early in the year. Then, for subsequent group work, ask students to identify which roles are needed for the goal of the activity, and offer different combinations of structure and choice for students to select/assign roles (e.g., full choice, random draw, “you can pick your roles today, but think about a role you haven’t had much practice in”)
Establish long-term base groups6, 7 with stable group membership to support the development of belonging among students in the class.
Create a “welcome” packet to distribute to all students.
  • Compile a set of resources/documents that invites students into a community setting. Consider including:
    • Pictures of you doing science in different places
    • A list of scientists from diverse groups and fields that includes their pictures and accompanies a statement like, “Who do you see that inspires you?”
    • Cool local spots to observe or investigate interesting phenomena
    • A “get to know your teacher” diagram
    • A list of school resources
    • Specific ways/times students can seek your help academically and otherwise (e.g., seating assignment)
  • For new students who join the class later in the year, have extra packets handy to use as the basis for a one-on-one check-in
Use getting-to-know-you activities to give students the opportunity to share important information about themselves with the teacher (providing insights to the teacher about how to create relevance connections), and often to learn about the teacher in return.
  • Index card activity:
    • Side One: students write their first and last names and decorate cards with things that interest them (science and non-science)
    • Side Two: “If you really know me you would know that…” Students list 5 things that they want other people in the class to know about “me,” and then personal information that they only want the teacher to know
    • Teacher takes cards home, files them by class and studies them at home. Teacher alludes to 5 things that are on the cards when seeing students in passing
    • Teacher does the same task on a public poster in the classroom so that students can talk to the teacher and get to know him/her
  • Exchange getting-to-know-you surveys or introductory letters to build relationships and collect information for future classroom experiences. Possible prompts include, “What do you want me to know about you?” “How do you feel about science?” etc.
    • Variation: Ask students’ caregiver(s) to write a letter to provide insight into outside interests, life events, and family dynamics
  • These activities also work well for new students regardless of the time of enrollment
  • Continue building on this initial knowledge of students throughout the year (e.g., spend a few minutes each day talking to different students, or administer a mid-semester survey)
At the end of the year, have students write letters to the next year’s class so that new students on the first day of class can read a letter left behind from a previous student. Letters can be sealed or unsealed according to the teacher's preference. This creates a culture of honesty and transparency (especially with sealed letters) and demonstrates the teacher’s commitment to improving instruction and supporting students.
Use a familiar or high-interest topic as the basis for an early class discussion in which to introduce Accountable Talk8 practices or similar science discourse routines9, 10, 11 focused on active listening skills, evidence-based discussion, and acknowledging and building on each other’s ideas. These kinds of skills are most effective when introduced early in the year and continually practiced.
Learn about and adopt strategies from equitable teaching frameworks (e.g., culturally responsive pedagogy, anti-bias education) to help build a respectful, inclusive, and supportive classroom community that honors all student experiences, collectively agrees upon and upholds classroom norms, and establishes and promotes safety to share ideas and acknowledge personal values. For example, Learning for Justice offers a free, self-paced professional development module on using principles from culturally responsive pedagogy to develop classroom culture12.
For more information, see Motivation as a Tool for Equity
Create a consistent set of terms to convey standards/objectives/goals for the year and take time early in the year to explicitly define what these terms are, provide examples, and explain how students can use them to understand what they should be able to do by the end of class. As the year progresses, regularly remind students to reflect at the end of a lesson if they achieved the objective and why they think they did or did not.
Introduce routines or activities that will be used frequently throughout the year and provide explicit messaging to students about the purpose of the activities and how they promote science learning.
  • For example, if a nonverbal formative assessment will be used in class (e.g., fist-to-five13 or a thumbs up/down), students need to understand that this activity supplies important information about the class’s current level of understanding so that a teacher can recalibrate instruction as necessary. Early in the year, also thank students who raise low numbers/give a thumbs down for providing that information, so that students do not “inflate” their level of understanding to try to look smart or avoid looking less capable than their peers
  • Students also need to understand that classroom talk will focus on reasoning, deep scientific understanding, and students talking to each other, and that teacher talk moves during discussions are intended to further those goals. Otherwise, students might interpret a neutral teacher response (e.g., “Hmm,” or repeating the comment verbatim) as a sign that their answer was wrong and become discouraged or confused
Take the time to explicitly describe the purpose of any charts around the room and how to use them. For example, when the class is going to have its first discussion, go over the purpose of the discussion and how the sentence starters can be used to help them participate.
Create a standards-/competency-based grading system,14, 15 feedback system/policy, and/or descriptive rubrics that provide students with information about the skills they’ve demonstrated and the quality of thinking, rather than emphasizing the score/percent correct. This is important to do and explain to students early in the school year so that there is consistency throughout the year in referring back to these rubrics.
Plan assessment policies and routines in advance. Consider including:
  • When and how to provide interim feedback on drafts and early iterations to help students focus on progress and areas for improvement instead of a grade
  • Allowing students to revise and resubmit work
  • How to recognize students for personal improvement within the overall assessment/grading system
Include explicit instruction in growth mindset/learning orientation as an introductory/community-building activity at the beginning of the year16. Ideas include:
  • Provide students with a simple reading about growth mindset and discussing it, and inviting students to make connections between the reading and their own lives
  • Provide students with stories about scientists or engineers who overcame struggles through effort, strategy use, and a learning orientation
  • Invite students to share or write about a time when they learned from failure or a mistake, and/or improved at something by learning new strategies and working hard
Create a lab safety contract with students at the beginning of the year and have them sign it. Then remind students of that contract at the beginning of subsequent labs to encourage them to make good choices for the safety and productivity of the community.
Have students write a “science autobiography” in which they describe previous experiences with science and/or science-related interests or wonderings. In addition to helping students reflect on their own connections to science, this assignment can provide teachers with valuable personalized information early in the year to inform decisions about learning supports, equitable practices, and relevance connections that will best serve their particular students.
For more information, see Motivation as a Tool for Equity
Have students cut out from magazines or bring in science-related articles/images that are interesting or relevant to them and create a collage to display in the classroom and add onto throughout the year. Find opportunities to refer to the topics depicted in these collages during instruction.
Provide students an illustrated list of diverse professionals across science fields as an “explore as you wish” resource at the beginning of the year. Ask for 1 to 2 student volunteers each day to share out something they explored on their own.
Use a Driving Question Board (DQB)3, 4 where students are encouraged to generate their own questions. Writing down their own questions for the DQB helps students to direct their own learning and inquiry. The continued use of the DQB provides students with the ongoing opportunity to direct their own inquiry.
  • Tools like the Google Jamboard app,17 which store questions to the cloud, can provide helpful resources for creating a DQB
Learn about and adopt strategies from equitable teaching frameworks (e.g., culturally responsive pedagogy, anti-bias education) to help invite all students into science, including those who may not have a well-developed science identity or who may feel alienated from science. For example, Dr. Kathy Chen from Worcester Polytechnic Institute’s STEM Education Center has compiled a list of anti-racism resources and articles for science educators18
For more information, see Motivation as a Tool for Equity