How to respond when students finish their work early is a classic teacher challenge.
Most of it boils down to lesson design–creating learning opportunities where students are naturally funneled toward extending, improving, and sharing their work so that ‘stopping points’ are more of a matter of scheduling than learning itself.
What Can You Recommend For Students Who Finish Their Work Early?
How to respond when students finish their work early is a classic teacher challenge.
Most of it boils down to lesson design–creating lesson opportunities where students are naturally funneled toward extending, improving, and sharing their work so that ‘stopping points’ are more of a matter of scheduling than learning itself. We’ve written previously about Mihály Csíkszentmihályi’s flow theory, where being ‘in flow’ is the ultimate form of focused, intrinsic motivation, and where students are so engrossed with what they’re doing that they lose track of time.
In a perfect world, students are so moved to tap into this creative stream throughout the day that, upon hearing the bell at the end of each class period, they will join in collective protest to beseech their teachers to let them continue their investigations…
That modern teachers are bound by an antiquated, time-bound teaching schedule is no fault of their own; however, until we get to the point where a lesson ends when a student’s ‘flow’ comes to a natural stopping point, it is useful to consider how to differentiate content for students who will inevitably take more or less time than others to complete assignments.
With that being said, we’ve drawn inspiration from Mia MacMeekin’s infographic: Early Finishers – What to Do? What to Do? and provided specific examples of activities for the ten suggestions we feel are the most likely to enhance learning and prompt higher-order thinking.
There are some suggestions we have purposefully left off of the list–while napping certainly has its benefits and texting can prevent a student from causing disruptions in the class, they don’t fit into the pedagogically sound types of activities that are designed to extend student thinking and learning. Also, if some students in the class are texting or napping, other students may see that as unfair and place their focus on those students, rather than their own development.
Most of our suggestions are compatible with in-person, hybrid, and remote learning environments, though there are a few that are exclusive to each mode. We’d love to hear about your suggestions for strategies that motivate students to stay in “flow” or willingly pursue further learning and investigation–let us know what works for you and your students!
The Best Ideas For Students Who Finish Their Work Early
1. Dig: Ask the student to go deeper into the topic. Scaffold.
TeachThought addendum: Given the right access to the right materials (a book, app, collaboration, audience, etc.), this could be a default/bare minimum ‘what to do if you finish early’ strategy.
When a student approaches a teacher to let them know they have finished a task, the teacher can use that opportunity to foster critical thinking and conversation. Ask questions like, “What was the most interesting thing you learned from this activity?” or “What’s something that you are curious about and want to continue researching?” or “How could what you learned today serve you in the near or distant future?”
Based on the student’s response, the teacher can guide them to dig deeper – to conduct independent research and report back to the teacher with their findings, to initiate a conversation with their family members or friends at a meal, or to propose a solution to a problem that they want to solve. This ‘digging’ could also take place within a journal, where the teacher and student can communicate back-and-forth with each other about the student’s inquiries and learning.
2. Level-Up: Prepare levels, like in a game. Students start at level 1 and can move on to harder levels if they finish early.
TeachThought addendum: In 10 Specific Ways To Gamify Your Classroom, we mention creating challenges or quests as a great strategy to engage students in learning. Educators can level up an activity by challenging the student to engage in higher-order thinking tasks.
For example, when the teacher shares the learning objective at the start of each lesson, they can display what level 1 mastery looks like, as well as what level 2 and level 3 might look like. Whereas level 1 might require students to summarize a concept, level 2 might prompt them to come up with an analogy and level 3 might challenge them to create their own project–like an infomercial, experiment, or campaign.
3. Self-Assess: Give students the rubric and let them score the work. If their work is lacking, let them revise.
TeachThought addendum: Self-assessment is never a bad concept, provided students understand how to do so. In this case, it can help to provide examples of what ‘good’ work looks like.
Let’s say that students are working on a writing assignment that will be scored using a rubric. Many students may appreciate the opportunity to view submissions that fall into these categories: does not meet the standard, approaches the standard, meets the standard, and exceeds the standard.
A teacher can provide 2-4 examples of previously submitted assignments, along with a rubric, and challenge each student to score the assignments. Once they’ve done so, they can either meet with a partner to discuss their findings or corroborate their analysis with the teacher.
Even if their self-assessment isn’t very ‘good,’ the ways that it isn’t good is also a kind of data to further inform their level of understanding–not to mention that it requires them to review their work, fix any obvious (to them) problems, and improve their retention of the learning.
4. PBL: Create a larger/ longer problem that the students are working on throughout the unit. If they finish early they can pick up solving the problem.
TeachThought addendum: This strategy works for any content area. The teacher can challenge students to solve a complex math equation or linguistic riddle. Perhaps there is a real-world problem that students can solve using the tools and skills they are in the process of building. In addition to making efforts to solve the problem, students can also provide feedback to their peers’ attempts to develop solutions.
See also 20 Simple Assessment Strategies You Can Use Every Day
5. Master: Encourage early finishers to master the skill as opposed to finishing the skill.
TeachThought addendum: This would be a challenge to implement–designed into the lesson itself, if not the entire curriculum. But it’s a fantastic idea if done well.
To start, teachers can ask the student to explain the difference between meeting a standard and exceeding a standard. From there, what would it take for the student to go from meeting the standard to exceeding it? The teacher can suggest a pathway for the student to take, or even better, the student can generate their own idea.
Let’s say that a student can identify the three branches of the U.S. government and explain how they work together to provide a system of checks and balances. If that level of comprehension constitutes meeting a standard, then the student can attempt to master that standard by identifying loopholes or applying that system to a different sociopolitical context.
Alternatively–might the student seek out the opportunity to interview someone who has experience working within the federal government? Could a student create their own system of checks and balances that improves upon the weaknesses of the current system? You can see here how mastery of a concept requires a student to engage their thinking skills beyond mere recall and recognition.
TeachThought addendum: Whether your game challenges students to build a physical structure, solve a hypothetical problem, or complete a scavenger hunt, team-building activities encourage students to listen to different perspectives, show cooperation, consider varying solutions, and experiment with group roles. We offer up several student-friendly suggestions in 10 Team-Building Games That Promote Critical Thinking.
7. Document learning via KWL chart
TeachThought addendum: If you’re unfamiliar with this type of graphic organizer, a KWL chart consists of three columns with the following headings from left to right: (1) What do I already know about a topic/concept? (2) What would I like to know about a topic/concept? and (3) What did I learn about a topic/concept?
Typically, the student will fill in their responses for the first two columns at the start of a lesson. Many students use the second column to write questions they hope to find answers to during the lesson. For example, if a class is learning about proteins, fats, and carbohydrates, they might include the following questions in the middle column:
How does a high carbohydrate diet affect the body, as compared to a high protein versus a high fat diet?
Why does it take longer to metabolize one type of nutrient over another?
Why are some fats considered good while others are considered bad?
How do vegetarians get adequate protein in their diet?
At the end of their lesson, students can complete the third column of the KWL chart by summarizing what they’ve learned. Ideally, they’ll be able to answer some of the questions from the middle column. Better yet, they will have learned more than what they were hoping to learn.
8. Partner: Create a partner system. When your partner is done, trade, assess, support, and/or critique.
TeachThought addendum: Choosing the right ‘fit’ in terms of readiness, reading level, ability, personality, etc., would be important for this to work. It may also be useful for students to purposefully seek out opposing perspectives.
We love an activity called Ongoing Conversations where students are required to converse with each student in their class for a minimum of two minutes and synthesize those comments with their own thinking before they can continue a conversation with someone they’ve previously spoken with. Many teachers get frustrated when students seek out the same partners to work with; this activity gamifies the process of collaborating with different people and can help more shy and reticent students move outside of their comfort zones.
9. Plan: Ask students to help plan the next level.
TeachThought addendum: This would do wonders to improve understanding and strengthen content knowledge if students were engaged enough to ‘care’ and do this well.
Let’s drop into a foreign language class where students are learning how to order different foods and beverages in a restaurant. By challenging students to plan for what comes next, teachers might find that they think of really creative ideas! For example, one student might propose a plan to turn the class into a food court, where students are divided into small groups of 4-5 students who are charged with developing a concept and menu. Students can then float from restaurant to restaurant and practice ordering the different items on the menu. Talk about food for thought!
Using Scattergories, students can time each other to generate related ideas to a learning objective that starts with a single letter. For example, one student might choose the letter S, and other students would have two minutes to jot down as many concepts as they can think of which are related to photosynthesis and start with the letter S.
10. Game: Allow students to create a game.
TeachThought addendum: Challenging students to create a game out of a new concept or skill is a great way to move them into a state of flow. You can either prompt them to design a new game from the ground up or provide them with board games to ‘re-invent’ for their own purposes.
For example, the game of LIFE could be used as a base for illustrating any kind of timeline or process across disciplines. Students learning about climate change could create a game, based on LIFE, that rewards players for environmentally-friendly behaviors while penalizing them for environmentally-harmful or unsustainable choices.
Early Finishers: Other Things Students Who Complete Their Work Can Do While Waiting
Here are a few other ideas though the fit for each can be narrow. A game of chess could actually dissuade some students, while others could hastily complete an assignment just to go play the game. As always, use your best judgment as a teacher.
11. Play a game of chess
12. Play Civilization VI
13. Meta-cognitive journaling (use a prompt to write a short journal entry about the assignment and their thinking/’doing’ during its completion).
14. Genius time (see here to read more about Genius Hour)