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How To Use A Timer In The Classroom

How To Use A Timer In The Classroom

Most instructors want to get better at using technology in the classroom. However, sometimes the best technologies are the simplest ones. One example of a technology that has many uses in the classroom is a simple timer.

When I was a beginning instructor, I used to bring a small kitchen timer into class to help me with time management. The timer helped me stay on track with each part of my lesson plan and to make sure that we had enough time for our practical exercise at the end of the lesson. Later, I used the timer in my kids classes to play the game “hot potato.” Over time, however, I’ve developed many more uses for a timer that I think are pretty amazing.

So what are these uses? Here’s a breakdown of some of the best.


Simple Activities Become Immediate and Competitive with a Timer

As a warm up activity, I used to have groups brainstorm ideas and make lists. For example, I might ask students to work in pairs and come up with questions a doctor would ask during a general check-up. With a timer, you can turn this simple activity into a competitive one. For example, you can ask students to work in teams to write these questions on a piece of paper. The team that comes up with the most question in two minutes wins!


Many, Many More Games

As I mentioned before, hot potato is a game that can easily be played with a timer. In this game, the students have some task that they do in a circle as they pass a ball, bean bag, or another object. This task can be as simple as thinking of a word in a category or as complex as continuing a story from the last point a person left off. The instructor sets the timer to a random time (without letting the students see how much time they have) and each student hurries to complete the task so that they can pass the ball or object to the next person. When the timer goes off, the person still holding the ball or object  “loses” and leaves the circle. Eventually, the last person who hasn’t been eliminated wins.

The instructor can also do a quiz game where teams compete to answer as many questions within a set time period (for example, two minutes) as they can.  The instructor can also make charades and other games more interesting with a timer by either assigning time limits or timing individual teams to see who gets the best time.

The instructor can also create regular class challenges that involve time limits. For example, I once did a version of “shiri-tori” or the chain spelling game where each person in the class had to think of a word that began with the last letter of the word given by the student before. Each student would go around the room saying a word and I would keep track of how many words they could do in two minutes. For the first two weeks of class, I kept a record of how many words they could do in the first two minutes of class and tracked their progress. If the students could get over a certain number of words (40 words in two minutes) then I would give the class a small reward (for example, candy or stickers).


A Timer Helps to Improve Speaking Fluency and Conciseness

A timer can also be used to make speaking tasks more difficult or to help students make choices about conciseness. Let’s imagine you have a business student who is pretty good at making a business presentation. You could give this person the challenge of doing the same presentation as a one-minute “elevator” speech. For students who already have strong confidence in their speaking abilities, knowing the timer will go off gives them a little bit of an adrenaline rush and forces them to make tough choices about what to say. Be careful, though! For weaker students who lack confidence, the timer might just add unneeded anxiety.

For beginner students, you can give them the challenge of answering as my introductory question as possible in one minute. In this kind of activity, the instructor wants to make sure that the student is already familiar with the structures and can minimize errors. The goal, after all, is fluency — not accuracy.


Class Management

A timer can also allow you to do some interesting things with class management. For example, let’s pretend you have a class of thirty students. You’ve noticed that each student in your class hasn’t been getting a lot of monitored speaking time. You could set up your class with six stations with activities that take ten minutes to complete. Each station could focus on a particular skill (reading, writing, grammar, vocabulary, collocations, and speaking).

First, you divide the class into six groups of five. You give the class clear instructions for each of the six stations and tell the students that for each of the stations they will have to turn something in at the end of the class. You have each of the groups start at a station and set the timer for ten minutes. Every ten minutes the students rotate stations.

The instructor now has the option to work at the speaking station the entire one-hour class period and to engage with five students at a time for ten-minute periods. This should allow the instructor to get a sense of how the students are progressing with their speaking.

Of course, the instructor can also design the speaking station as an independent activity (with something to be turned in) and simply monitor the progress of students at each station. The instructor can also modify how many stations are available and how much time the students spend at each.


Timed Reading

Perhaps my favorite activity to do with a timer is timed readings. One textbook series I used had a timed reading activity where the students had to read a short passage in one minute, and then turn to a completely different page and answer questions without referring back to the reading. I discovered that students who normally found reading boring got excited about this “challenge” to their reading skills (and memory).

Since this experience, I have adapted other reading activities to make use of the added excitement of a “time crunch.” For example, if there is a two-paragraph passage in a textbook I might set a timer for one minute. I would then ask the students to read as much as they can in one minute. When the timer goes off, I would ask them to close their books and answer comprehension questions.

Of course, a timer can also be used to strengthen skimming and scanning skills. You can give the students specific time limits to find information in large readings or record best times for students when finding information in large texts. Either way, the presence of the timer helps to strengthen student motivation.


Time’s Up!

A timer can also be a great way to help you concentrate on a single task at the office work. As I wrote the first draft of this article, I set a timer for twenty minutes and challenged myself to get as many ideas on paper as possible. The added pressure of the time constraint forced me to get words down on paper without second guessing myself.

Just because my time is up doesn’t mean there aren’t more uses for a timer in class.

What activities can you think of that use a timer?

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