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Critical Thinking Activities for Fast Finishers and Beyond

By Genia Connell on April 11, 2013
  • Grades: 1–2, 3–5

As a teacher who feels as though I have more content to teach than I have minutes in the day, nothing makes me crazier than looking around the room and seeing students who have finished their work, contentedly sitting at their desks, doing absolutely nothing. Fortunately, however, all it takes is that raised eyebrow teacher look I’ve perfected over the years and they quickly put their brains to work with one of the several thinking activities available in our room to students who have a few extra minutes to fill.

When the school year begins and daily routines are introduced, I let my students know exactly what to do when they’re finished with their work. It’s my classroom mantra that no one is ever done: there is always something that is just waiting to be practiced, discovered, or learned. In order for students to embrace my philosophy, I provide several different opportunities for engaging enrichment activities that students can work on independently.


Think Math

Every three or four days I put a new “answer” on our class Think Math board.  As soon as a new question goes up, students are eager to write a question that matches the answer on a sticky note and place it on their class number. The boys and girls in my class love the open-endedness of this activity, perhaps because they know there are as many different correct answers as there are students. While this might seem like a relatively easy task for students, it takes several weeks of modeling and going over correct answers before the majority of students are able to correctly write number stories that match the answers.


Daily Reflections

For these, students write down something that they are taking away with them from the day. It might be a concept they have learned, something that finally makes sense to them, or a question they are still pondering. Some students add their daily reflection to the board during the school day when they are finished with their work; however, time is always given at the end of the day before clean-up time for all students to add their reflection.


Where Am I Geography Challenge

This board may be small and simple, but my students will definitely let me hear about it if I’ve forgotten to change the question at the beginning of each week. The concept behind this is simple — I give the students a hint as to where I am and they need to strategically use technology or a reference book to find the correct answer. Students write their answer and place it in the geography challenge pocket. When we are studying latitude and longitude in social studies, my students come up with daily challenges, giving the latitude and longitude of a well-known landmark for their classmates to find.


Daily Starters for Early Finishers

Scholastic has a wonderful resource on their homepage called Daily Starters. Of course, I decided to take the name lightly and integrate Daily Starters into the middle of my day! Students enjoy using the iPads to answer the daily questions. To keep it simple, they write their answers on their dry erase board then self-check using the key.  As an extension, students like to write their own daily starters based on something that they have recently read or learned. The student-written starters become part of our weekly centers.

2 students working on daily starter activity


Conduct Short Research Reports

Young children seem to have an unrelenting curiosity, and allowing your students to conduct short independent research projects is the perfect way to allow your students to quench their thirst for knowledge (and meet a Common Core requirement!). For these projects, students select and investigate any topic they wish to learn more about. Using a graphic organizer to help them, they pose three questions, then set out to find the answers. Some students are able to narrow a topic (taught through a mini-lesson) and formulate important questions very easily while others need extra support in this higher-level thinking skill. 

Once the students have collected their information, they are given the choice to share their information through a written or oral report, poster, on a web page, an iPad app such as Prezi, or any other way that they feel is best to get their newfound knowledge across to their classmates. 

research project graphic organizer


Great American Novel

The back of our writer’s notebook has space reserved for students to take part in free writing. While some students use this space to jot down random thoughts, many are working on a “chapter book.” Early in the year, when I presented my students with the idea that they were all authors capable of writing their own chapter books, several embraced the notion and began planning, then writing their very own books. Frequently, students share their latest chapter with me, which leads to some of the most authentic and worthwhile conversations we have about their writing. 


Monthly Packet of Enrichment Activities

This is the easiest go-to activity in our room. At the beginning of each month, each student gets a packet filled with activities to complement our curriculum that can be worked on when they have a few spare minutes. This is also the perfect place to put practice pages that you may not get to as much as you would like, which for me includes handwriting practice. Each month I try to incorporate enrichment material from the following areas:

  • Themed cover for open-ended writing or drawing
  • Logic and reasoning problems
  • Reading comprehension
  • Language application and foundational skills
  • Writing prompts for poetry, narrative, opinion, and expressive pieces
  • Map work
  • Science activities
  • Internet scavenger hunts
  • Vocabulary work   

Once you create this packet, it can easily be copied and saved for subsequent years. It is also a great resource for guest teachers to have in case they discover extra time on their hands. Below is a small sample of pages from Scholastic Printables that I have included in my monthly packets. The annual price for Printables has definitely been worth it for me to be able to find material that matches exactly what I’m teaching during that month.

Click on the images above to download pages from Scholastic Printables to start your own enrichment pack.


Finish Folder

The Finish Folder is exactly that: a folder where students keep work that is in progress. The monthly packet described above goes in here, as does any other work that needs to be finished. It’s important to check up on these folders so that they don’t become the place where old worksheets go to die. Every Thursday we do a check of Finish Folders and any incomplete work, except the monthly enrichment pack, is stapled together as homework that is due the following Monday.


Having a wide variety of different independent work available helps to ensure that my students are optimizing their learning opportunities through the day. Because not all students are fast finishers, I will periodically schedule time in my plans for all students to work on their independent research projects, think math, or their monthly packets. While my students enjoy these activities, they know that I expect regular work to be completed with quality, so rushing through other assignments to get to these has never been an issue in our room.

How do you keep your students challenged when they all work at different paces? Please share your thoughts and ideas in the comments section below. 

More Great Resources for Your Fast Finishers

Comments (21)

HI Genia,

I just stumbled across your blog and I love your ideas. I, too, am a 3rd grade teacher in Michigan! My question is: What do you do with the "Finish Folder" packets at the end of the month? Do you "grade" all of those worksheets? Thanks again, for providing so many great ideas...especially on guided reading! I need all the help I can get....

Hi Great ideas thanks.

Where did you get the number poster (think board)?

I have been teaching a long time. But love reading the way others do things in their room. That is what makes teaching so fun. It never gets old. Thank you and Scholastic for sharing so much!!

This post is very helpful and filled with tons of things to do with the 3rd graders! Thanks

I was wondering how many worksheets you put in your monthly packet. I love this idea.

Hi Pam,

The number of worksheets varies per month. I generally limit it to 25 sheets or less. Because we are out of school for vacations in December and April, those packets are normally shorter. Thanks for reading! Genia

EXCELLENT IDEAS!!! My gears are really turning to transform some of these ideas into my middle school math classes! :) Thanks for sharing your ideas.

Hi Again Genia--I love how you set up the Math Talk board. Where did you find such cute numbers to use as their class numbers?

Hi Meghan,

I did a Google image search for each individual number, chose one that I liked and copy and pasted to a Word document. Hope that helps! Genia

I love the idea of the quick, independent research assignment. Great idea! However, I can't access the graphic organizer. Is there a link where I can print it?


Hello! Thanks so much for taking the time to read and comment! Chris, I think a Think Math board would work well for any grade level. The "answers" you come up which can vary by grade level.

For those who would like to know where my questions come from, I honestly just make up the "answers" as I go! I don 't have a set or written list of statements that I pull from. Sometimes I will use different key words in my answers to get students to write a question with a particular operation, such as "...the sum is 13 grapes, the difference is 10 cupcakes or the product is 24 pencils..." Other times, I leave it very open ended to see what my students come up with on their own. I love doing this because it teaches my third graders that there can be more than one way to get the correct answer. In fact, with hunk math I tell them there could be 28 (or however many students I have) right answers! Take care, Genia

I teach first grade and would like to try the think math also.
Can you give me more details and ideas of how I could try it in first grade? DO you change the question daily? Would you be willing to share your questions? LOVE your ideas!
Thanks, Chris

I love the Think Math idea. Where do you find the questions for it?

Love your think math.... I teach 2nd grade.... where do you get your questions for it.. Thanks.

Hi Genia. I stumbled on your blog recently and I LOVE the activities and ideas that you share. I am a year 3 teacher in Australia and this this my third year of teaching. I especially like you writing ideas and classroom organisation help. Thanks so much!! It's practical and easy to understand and implement. Just Fabulous!! :)

Hi Miss Morgan,

So sorry I didn't see your comment earlier. Thank you so much for your kind, kind words. I'm so happy to be able to give you new ideas and help with organization. I know those first few years can often be the toughest. Thanks so much for reading and commenting, Genia

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I would like more information on the Think Math activity please. Thanks

Wow! Thank you for all these wonderful ideas. I appreciate your sharing!

I loved this and read it start to finish. There are so many ideas here that I am going to use!

This is great, just what I was looking for to have my early finishers work with more depth in a subject. Keep the ideas coming like this!

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