Independent and Dependent Variables in an Experiment...Say what???

Do you ever teach a lesson, think it went awesomely, and then realize that not a single person in your room understands anything that was coming out of your mouth?  Yeah...that is how our first science lesson went this year.

Science is one of those subjects that is so very hit or miss with me.  Sometimes, I think I do a spectacular job teaching and other times....not so much.  The latter was the case with the first experiment we did this year.  Apparently, teaching controlled, independent, and dependent variables in experiments is just NOT my thing.  (raise your hand if I just lost you there?? hand is up too)

So, I went about my business, taught the lesson and gave the students a reflection sheet for their journals.  I was thinking, "This will be great!  They loved the experiment (which you can find here) and learned a lot, no doubt."

Then I read the reflections.

Apparently I was teaching them about soda cans.  I thought I was teaching variables.  Whomp, whomp.

So I turned to the trusted internet and scoured and scoured to try and actually UNDERSTAND what I was teaching.  I found video after video on youtube that were SO much help to me.  (Googling "independent and dependent variables in an experiment" yeilds a lot of helpful stuff)  After watching them and taking notes, I think I was ready to go.  Amazing how when I actually understand the concept things go much more smoothly......

So I decided to redo my lesson.  First, we defined what the three different types of variables actually are.  Writing it in kid-friendly language was THE BEST thing I could have done here.  Not only did my kids see it as much did I.

Then, I gave the student example after example of how independent and dependent variables occur in real life.  Looking at it from a language arts perspective, as a cause and effect relationship, really made it sink in for me.  I think it did for my students as well.

Next, they drew some real life examples of the variables themselves.  They thought about it this way:

If you sleep in, you will be late.
Independent variable (what you changed):  Hit the snooze and slept in.
Dependent variable (what occurred):  I was late.
Controlled variable (what stayed the same):  the bus came at the same time it always does

I realize this is a more simplistic way of looking at it but, honestly, it really helped.  The kids internalized the idea and are now more confident in what they mean.  Click here to access the sheet I used.

The next day, I gave them these really fun Simpson's Family Experiments sheets.  I found the sheets here. In groups, they had to decide what the different variables in the experiments were.  The kids had a blast doing this...and it validated for me that they understood the different parts of controlled experiments. 

And to make sure that the students understand these concepts as we go forth, I created this little slip that we are going to add to the end of each experiment in our journals.  My hope is that  the students will be able to identify the different variables and decide if it is a valid experiment or not.  Then, come science fair time, they will all end with fantastic projects.  (a teacher can dream!)

OK...Now that I shared my not so stellar teaching moment, you must share one with me.  I want to hear all about how I am not the only one who does this :)


  1. I totally feel the same way. I just had this conversation after school about the students not understanding the words that were coming out of my mouth. Thank you for your post. You have included some great materials. Thank you again.

  2. Sometimes our biggest failures turn into our best "recovery" lessons:)

  3. LOL!!! Oh my Gosh! This is so me, especially with this lesson. I find myself doing the same once I see the blank look on my students faces when I teach atomic numbers, the periodic table, and chemical/ physical changes. Okay, so maybe Science is not my strongest subject. But I will agree that reteaching once I have a better understanding is definitely the saving grace. Thanks for sharing and making feel like I'm not alone. Oh, and for the laugh : ) Tomorrow is our first day of school... yikes!

  4. Prepositions and prepositional phrases, a couple years ago. I had loads of pictures showing various items in different relationships to each other. Kids didn't see or couldn't describe the relationship: the cat is on the table, behind the door etc. Dreadful lesson. I'm not sure our current language arts program has us to teach that, though. I didn't find it last year, the first year with the new program. If I do find it, I know I won't repeat the first lesson!

  5. Glad I am not alone out here failing sometimes ;) At least I am in good company!

  6. Steph, how AWESOME that you went back and taught it in a way that totally made sense to the kids (love the alarm clock analogy - I've been so tired this week that I'm very worried about that independent variable). ;)
    I think prime and composite numbers would've totally gone over my grade 5 students' heads, but your hand signals have been awesome. We're shaking and shining every morning!

    Runde's Room

    1. Yay for hand motions! I fully expect that not only will your students be getting great math marks, but their dance scores should soar as well ;)

  7. Oh my goodness!! I used your materials today. On Tuesday I taught the same lesson with my 4th graders and I just knew they didn't get it. They LOVED today's lesson. Thank you so much!!!


    1. Oh my gosh! That is so awesome! Thank you so much for telling me :)

  8. You are awesome! I wish I could teach with you. Heck, I wish I was one of your students! :)

    I think I need to do more of the "easy" lessons/connections to help the kids understand the content when we are ready like you did with the alarm clock variable. Sometimes I just jump into the content without preparing them on how to learn it!

    AND I feel the same was as Jen-a little worried about the whole alarm clock thing!!!!


    1. Thanks Shannon! And you are right, sometimes it is so tempting to just skip over all of the background building and just go straight into it. I find myself needing to back off quite a bit sometimes!

  9. Story of my life! Sometimes an hour goes by and I have tried SO MANY DIFFERENT WAYS, yet they still haven't got it.

    Teaching science is so tough, but I love your ideas!!

    In the past I have done an experiment with lemonade to teach these variables. Here is the link:
    Clinical Trials

    It actually covers clinical trials but I adapted it for variables (super easy!) and the kids LOVE it because drinking is involved! Thanks so much for sharing your ideas!!

    YoungTeacherLove 5th Grade Blog

  10. I was hoping to find the original experiment you did...
    So, I went about my business, taught the lesson and gave the students a reflection sheet for their journals. I was thinking, "This will be great! They loved the experiment (which you can find here) and learned a lot, no doubt."

    Where it says "(which you can find here)", there is no link to the here...

    Also, this is soooo great---thank you for these great ideas!

    1. Sorry about that! I sometimes move so fast I forget to link everything. It is there now :)

  11. That is my life in a nutshell!!!! Thanks for the great graphic organizers!

  12. definitely had the same experience! Thanks for sharing!

  13. Thank you for some fantastic ideas - I really needed help with this, and you have pointed me in the right direction! Thanks again!

  14. I love this video for teaching variables:

    My 8th graders think it's corny, but they understand variables afterwards!

  15. Love the sheet and ideas for variables. My 5th graders struggle the same way. I also love the label grading that you did on the sheet. I am going to modify that for this upcoming year. Thanks for sharing.

    Renee at The Science School Yard

  16. The link to the simpsons variables does not work. Can someone send it to me asap? Thanks!

  17. I am a parent and from time to time I found that my sixth grader was mixing up these concepts so I went on a google hunt. I put it in as if it was to teach a first grader to make as simple as I can for my son. Your contribution was great and I hope my son will understand this, thanks again.

  18. This website is a life saver to me! I could never found a website that has everything in a nutshell like this one!

    Thank you again! :-)

  19. I'm so glad I ran across this post! I'm starting my variables FOSS unit next week and every year I feel like I am not really getting the differences between the types of variables across. I'm trying ALL of this. Thanks so much!


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