Reaction Time 1: How Fast Are You?

What You Need


  • Rulers, meter sticks, or yard sticks
Reaction Time 1: How Fast Are You?


To identify ways in which experience and practice allow humans to learn new skills, using activities that test reaction time as examples.


This lesson is the first of a two-part series that encourages students to think about their own learning and the strategies that best help them learn new skills and ideas. Research suggests that students' ideas about learning are resistant to change, and that students should have many opportunities to think about what they have learned, how they have learned it, and to document their learning. (Benchmarks for Science Literacy, p. 345.)

In Reaction Time 1: How Fast Are You?, students engage in two online reaction-time tests. They track their progress, taking note of any strategies that help them improve their performance. This lesson takes a small step toward the broader learning goal described above; it encourages students to think about their learning and illustrates that skills, when practiced, can become automatic.

In Reaction Time 2: Zap!, students build upon what they have already learned by participating in another online reaction-time activity—this one testing their visual and auditory abilities (both separately and together). As they play the game and record their reaction times, they quickly learn that there are very different skills and strategies involved in reacting to something when seeing and listening are required. Nevertheless, they also learn that greater self-awareness, strategy development, and ongoing practice of these skills can improve their visual and auditory reaction times—and, ultimately, their survival and success in life. 

Planning Ahead

Preview the two computer-based reaction time activities used in this lesson:


The goal of the Motivation is to get students to think about an instance in which they have had to react quickly. One way to do this is by actually eliciting a quick reaction from students and then discussing it. For example, you could throw an object (e.g., ball, beanbag) into a group of students, catching them off-guard, or you could drop a book or make a loud noise.

Lead a general discussion of reaction time, asking students the following questions:

  • When else have you had to react quickly in a situation?
  • How did you handle it?
  • How did you feel?

Tell students that in this lesson they will test their reaction time by playing two games on the computer. The goal is to improve reaction time, recording any strategies used to help improve speed.


In this section of the lesson, students will work in groups to play two reaction-time games on the computer. It would be ideal for students to work in pairs, but you should divide students into groups according to how many computers are available.

As instructed on the Reaction Time student esheet, have students go to the Exploratorium's Fastball Reaction Time activity. Have students work in groups to play the game. One student should bat, while the other records the batter's response times on the batter's Reaction Time Data Sheet. Each student should bat ten times in a row.

After all students finish batting, have them analyze their results to see how their reaction times changed over the course of the ten trials, including answering the analysis question on the student sheet.

If appropriate for your students, they could make a line graph (reaction time vs. trial) to notice patterns over time.

Ask students these questions:

  • Were you able to react in time to hit the fastball?
  • How did your response time change as you progressed through the ten trials?
  • What strategies did you use to improve your response time? (For example, students might notice that they positioned themselves differently; tried using a counting strategy; used a different hand; positioned their hand differently on the mouse; were more alert; eliminated a distraction; or watched someone else do the activity.)

Be sure that students understand the role of practice, or repeated trials in this case. Keep in mind the benchmark idea for this lesson: "Many skills can be practiced until they become automatic."

When you are confident that students are beginning to recognize that practice as well as various strategies allowed them to (hopefully) become quicker over time, move on to the next computer-based activity. As outlined on the Reaction Time student esheet, have students go to the How Fast are You? activity on the Neuroscience for Kids website.

After students read the instructions on the page, ask these questions:

  • What will you do to test reaction time?
  • How will this be like the baseball activity you just completed?
  • How will it be different?

Next, following instructions on the website, have students work in groups to complete the activity. Be sure students use units with which they are familiar (e.g., inches or centimeters). As you'll see, there is a table for converting distance on the ruler to reaction time. Have students use that table, ignoring the more advanced calculations provided underneath it.

Note: Although the site instructs each student to catch the ruler only three to five times, we recommend that they catch the ruler ten times in a row, just like they did in the baseball activity.

Again, have students record their reaction time data on the Reaction Time Data Sheet, as well as answer the accompanying analysis question.

After all students have tested their reaction time by catching the ruler, ask these questions:

  • Was this activity easier or harder than the previous one? Why?
  • Did your experience with the baseball game help you with this new game? How?
  • Did your reaction time improve over time?
  • What strategies did you use to perform well in this game?
  • Were your strategies for this game different than for the baseball game?

Something students should realize is how the involvement of another human being impacted his/her reaction time. To get at this point, ask students this question:

  • Did your partner give you any cues (intentionally or unintentionally) that helped you decide when to get ready to grab the ruler or respond more quickly?

Again, students should realize the importance of practice, and understand that practicing this activity over and over would most likely lead to even better reaction times.


Have students answer these questions, either in writing or in a class discussion:

  • If you had to teach a younger student how to improve his/her reaction time, how would you do it? What strategies would you give him/her?

Ask students to elaborate on the value of practice, including asking them this question:

  • What other skills has practicing helped you learn and master? (Examples could include doing math problems, typing, reading music, and various sports activities.)


Follow this lesson with the second lesson in the reaction time series: Reaction Time 2: Zap!

Students could revisit the Exploratorium's Fastball Reaction Time and design and conduct their own tests of human response time. For example, do students have a faster response time using the hand that they write with, or the opposite hand? Are students' times the same when they listen to music?

Students could try the Colorful Reaction Time Tester at the Neuroscience for Kids website. This activity tests how fast students respond to different colors, and allows students to explore how their reaction times vary with different colors.

Students could go to Explorescience.com for a Sight vs. Sound Reflexes, where they'll respond to visual and auditory cues to determine when response time is quicker.

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Lesson Details

Grades Themes Type Project 2061 Benchmarks

Other Lessons in This Series

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