How to Teach Variables to Middle School Students

I hope this is one of the first posts you landed on in your search for how to teach variables to middle schoolers. Seriously. I really do.

If you’ve been following me for more than a minute, you’ll remember I walked into an empty classroom my first year teaching. No resources, supplies, or curriculum. When I started teaching scientific inquiry, I stopped pretty quickly! I was overwhelmed. None of what I Googled made any sense! 

Research… and more research

Teaching scientific inquiry is simple, yet complicated. As a new middle school teacher using Google and Pinterest to find content, I was struggling.  

Don’t get me wrong, I could find all of the worksheets and all of the resources where students had to identify variables in a specific scenario, but I could not find a definition simple enough to understand and communicate well.  

I swear I clicked on every link. I did my best to create a definition that mostly made sense and taught it. My students were SO confused. And like any good teacher, I researched more and retaught it. They were even more confused! To be honest, I confused myself too! 

And then it clicked!

Clearly I was doing something wrong. Until one day, it clicked! I totally got it. Not only that, I could turn it into language my middle school students understood. 

I remember my principal at the time calling me on a weeknight. It was dinnertime. Of course I answered, albeit nervously. The conversation went like this: 

“Kel. My son is in 7th grade, and I can’t figure out how to help him with his science homework… what is the difference between an independent and a dependent variable?!” 

“An independent variable is the one thing the scientist changes in the experiment. The dependent variable is what the scientist measures. It’s what happens because of the change.” 

“Are you kidding me?! I have been googling for 30 minutes. I even called the other science teacher first! You’re a lifesaver.” 

I will admit, I was pretty dang proud of myself! This concept is SO important to the inquiry process! To create any kind of investigation, students need to truly know the difference between the two. 

Over the course of several years, how I teach independent and dependent variables to my middle school science class has morphed a little bit. 

Here’s my real secret. 

Students are visual. They remember things better when they see them! Give them a visual clue that makes sense. 

Independent Variable

I use a picture of a wizard. Why? The independent variable is what the scientist changes. Nothing in a storyline with a wizard changes until the wizard casts a spell. Same with an experiment. The scientist has to start the change something. 

Dependent Variable

Think about a ruler. The dependent variable is what the scientist measures. Since rulers are a measuring tool, this visual helps students remember they have to identify what results they’re going to measure. 

Control Variables

Twins. So easy. Control variables are all the things in the experiment the scientist needs to keep the same between the control and experimental groups. Twins look the same. All of the variables in their experiment need to look the same too.

Teaching science inquiry doesn’t always have to be complex! These definitions are simple enough to resonate with your middle school students. Yet they’re also clear and applicable to almost every scenario or experiment you can give them. 

Are you struggling with how to teach this? I get it. I was there! My goal for writing this was to give you language to to teach something complicated to your middle school students (and hopefully save you hours of research!)

Looking for a resource that helps you teach and practice with your students? Check this out!

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Middle School, Notebooks, Scientific Inquiry
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