5 Tips for Teaching the Metric System

School is back in full swing after a much needed and amazing summer with my family.  I always start the year off with some fundamental science skills the students need to know so we can apply them to the content during the year.  One of those skills is making accurate measurements with the metric system.

I remember as a student the teachers told us that soon we would all be using the metric system and the “Standard” system of inches, feet, yards, etc would be a thing of the past… I am still waiting for this.  This year I totally revamped my metric unit and learned so much about making it easier to teach and easier for the students to retain.    Here are 5 tips I learned about teaching the metric system.

Tip #1:  Make it Accessible to Your Students 

Determine what your students are cognitively ready for.  What is their math background?  Have they learned about decimals?  If you are teaching younger students, you can have them round off their measurements to the nearest whole number (centimeter).   I teach 6th graders and while they have been introduced to decimals, they don’t have a solid background working with them.  This year, I had them do all their measuring to the nearest tenth of a cm (or millimeter) but this year I scaled down the amount of time we spent on conversions.  We focused on mastering the conversions between mm to cm/ cm to mm since these were the ones we would be using in class.

Tip #2  Make it Useful

Why are they learning the metric system in your class?  How will they be using it?  In my science class students only use metric measurements since that is how scientists communicate their data.  So learning about the metric system is useful because they will be using it all year in their labs.  I also focused our time on metric measurements we will be using in class.  I introduced them to all the metric prefixes, but in class we really worked with centimeters, meters, millimeters, g, and mL since these were the ones we would be using.

Tip #3 Know What is Being Taught at the Grade Above and Below You

Knowing what the students have been introduced to gives you a great starting point.  You can reinforce and build on what was already taught.  Also, knowing what is going to be taught in upper grades will allow you to focus you time on what will be useful in your class and accessible to your students.  If you don’t communicate with teachers in the lower grades, a pretest is a great way to know what their incoming knowledge is.  Many of my students come into 6th grade knowing how to measure to the nearest cm, but don’t know how to measure to the nearest mm or tenth of a cm.  In 7th grade at my school, they spend a lot of time working on metric conversions so I do a brief introduction in 6th grade.

Tip #4 Make it Hands On

Give students a chance to use as many measuring tools as you have.  Worksheets are great for independent practice, but using the tools like a ruler, graduated cylinder, and triple beam balance provides a much more memorable experience for the students and a provide their own set of problem solving challenges.

Tip #5  Make it fun

Once the students have learned the basics of measuring, do something fun and engaging with it.  You could do a scavenger hunt, measure their own body parts, etc.  I have my students do a gummy bear lab that reinforces what they have learned and then they do a metric measurement escape room to review it all.

Here are links to some of the activities I use in my classroom.