Measurement is an area that requires practice and context for students to create understanding. It is a skill that continues to appear as one of the weaker domains for fourth and eighth grade students in the United States on the 2007 TIMSS data.
Providing opportunities for students to measure in the context of learning other material allows students to practice, become more fluent in the domain, and learn new material. The idea of chunking concepts together is not new, and it is a great way of helping students understand material more effectively. For example when middle grades students are encountering measures of central tendency, having them measure their own height, head circumference, or arm span provides a data set that is engaging, relevant, and contextual.
The processes involved in actually getting students moving around measuring objects reinforces what we know about kinesthetic learning as well, that novel movements (movements that are new, fine motor, and can be complex) involve the prefrontal cortex and the rear two-thirds of the frontal lobes, the areas of the brain involved in problem-solving, planning, and sequencing (Jensen, 1998). And simply involving more areas of the brain allows for stronger connections to be developed when learning new material, making the learning more flexible and easier for students to retrieve.
The skills involved in measuring go beyond identifying the length or width of an object. They, also, provide context for students to deal with rational numbers, ratios and proportions, geometric relationships, and important science concepts like precision and accuracy. Using our previous example; having students measure their own heights, can be altered to include both the metric system and the English systems of measure. Measuring in both systems reinforces the measuring skills and allows immediate conversations about relationships between the two measurements. The linear relationship between the two measures is easily explored from a variety of perspectives from grades 7-11, including representing data sets, linear functions, graphing, regression modeling, and accuracy/precision.
If we know that a content domain such as measurement is a weakness for our students then we need to develop a plan that allows the students to address those concerns while at the same time continuing to learn new material. Measuring is a great tool for creating opportunities for students to learn more effectively, so let them measure today!