Using Menus to Inspire Student-Guided Learning

April 9, 2021

an example of a menu overview from a class slide

While the structure of school hasn’t evolved much since its inception, anyone who’s been in a classroom for a second year or more can tell you that the structure of a classroom has evolved immensely, even from year to year.  And not just from when we were students to when we became educators. Over the course of my educational career, it has changed dynamically, creating a need for us to constantly evolve with it.  I have rarely been able to use the same lesson two years in a row without tweaking it ever so slightly for improvements or changes in my classroom. And that is what led me to adopt a menu option approach to use in my classroom.

sample planning guide for menu project

A menu option doesn’t give total control to the students, but it does allow them to have some control over their learning—a great way to get student buy in and lessen conflicts and boredom, especially in middle school, where my educational experience has been.  Plus, it creates an automatic differentiation in your classroom where every student can succeed, which is our desired income, right? This method isn’t something to be used every day or in every case, some days may still be predominately teacher led or everyone doing the same activity. But when you can make it happen, this is a great method to use. Here’s an overview of what I do.

Day 1—teacher led: New topic—introduce, give background, chunk concepts, model, check for understanding often—interactives can be fun.  Students are taking notes as they go (best options are fill in the blank, highlight, or Cornell style notes).  With some concepts, I recommend 3 to 5 7–10-minute sessions, each with an interactive check for understanding where they are up and doing something with the new knowledge. Conclude with a ticket out the door or 3-5 question check in to see if they have the foundation.

Days 2 & 3—student led/teacher guided:  Quick check for understanding with a review they can interact with each other on—some students will have retained longer or more knowledge about it since the last class and this let’s them help each other.  Something competitive can be a great motivator—a relay, matching game, or technology-based game can be great for these since they are “fun” and will inspire student engagement.  Once you know they have retained it, they can now go onto a small group activity to continue to build knowledge and apply it.  This also allows for creating a teacher led group for those that may still be struggling with the concept.  Have a few options they can choose from based on learning and personality styles. Build in chances to correct mistakes to 100% are a huge bonus on these days and allow you to check for understanding.

Days 4 & 5—independent menu day: Students will use these days to create a product to apply what they have learned.  This will take them to the mastery level and apply the knowledge to a new topic, subject or area of life and do something with it.  Having a list of options they can use will allow them flexibility to use a medium they are comfortable with to truly see what they learned about this concept and how they would use it.

I based this on a five-day concept model, but it could easily be stretched or adapted for a longer unit, even scaffolding as you go to a bigger menu project at the end of the unit. I’ve used it for a 6-week research unit that coincided with testing. It was a great stress relief for both myself and the students since they tested on different days and times for somethings and always new exactly what they needed to do upon return.  No make-up work, no keeping track—I just adjusted the number of days in the model if I knew everyone had testing.

By using this method of teaching, I found that I was able to respect the differences within my classroom for learning styles, backgrounds, where they were starting from on concepts, their personal interests, learning disabilities and their personal methods of working.  It automatically created differentiation within my classroom.  I worked hard to make sure that there wasn’t an “easier” option and I created rubrics for each mastery task (TIP: use the same menu style for each concept so you can reuse rubrics and only the content has to change) I also found that, while it was more work for me to create up front, it made assessing throughout the unit a lot easier and quicker, so my grading turnaround time was lower. I could sort by product and grade quickly by scoring and noting on the rubric and returning that with it.

This method works with a lot of different course curriculums and at a lot of different levels.  I’ve used this in Reading, Language Arts, Leadership, Critical Thinking and Technology, and have seen teachers use this in History, Math and Science.  We have even used it on a grade-level project where students were working in multiple subjects on the project. I love the flexibility and it makes plugging in my lesson plans faster and easier since it follows a modeled pattern—also a plus for your students that thrive on routine but still want to exert control!

I’d love to see pictures or hear about experiences where you have tried this, so be sure to share in the comments below or find me on social media and share!