Using Assessment to Deepen Students Science Knowledge

Frederick Erickson, Laura Weishaupt, Sharon Sutton, Donna Elder, Raul Alarcón, and Lisa Rosenthal Schaeffer

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We don’t leave science learning to chance at Corinne A. Seeds University Elementary School (UES), the laboratory school of the University of California, Los Angeles. We don’t make our budding botanists, zoologists, and geologists wait until the end of the lesson or term to clarify any misconceptions they may have. Instead, our teachers use in-class assessment to make immediate adaptations in instruction, reteaching concepts for individual children or, when necessary, for the entire class. It’s an approach that is perhaps best illustrated through the following scenarios.

From Seeds to Flowers

In a K-1 classroom, students studied the life cycle of plants and insects by conducting experiments with seeds, taking field trips to gardens to witness pollination firsthand, and dissecting flowers and insects to learn about their parts and the function of each part.

The children were then asked to show what they learned about a plant’s life cycle (from seed to flower) by drawing the stages in a flipbook format. To do so, the children had to reflect on each stage, think about how to draw each one, focus on the details, and consider how they worked together as a whole.

In examining their students’ work, the teachers saw that an illustration of germination was missing from some of the flipbooks. Some of the children did not show the seed coat opening and the embryo beginning to develop. So the teachers decided to review the concept by looking at germination firsthand. With the children, they opened up seeds, examined the parts of a seed, and planted lima beans to watch how germination occurred.

After the lima beans had begun to sprout, the teachers asked the children to make a slide show to demonstrate their understanding of germination. These representations included a clear depiction of the opening of the seed coat and the root and shoot beginning to emerge—information that had been missing from the flipbooks.

Observing and Writing About Snails

To study animal behavior, a class of 3rd and 4th grade students collected about 80 snails, placed them in a large aquarium, and observed them closely, using a magnifying glass and a photographer’s loupe. They generated questions about the snails and grouped them into three broad categories—physical characteristics, behaviors, and reproductive habits—which they used to guide their research.

The teacher then asked the class to create detailed drawings of the snails. She reviewed the drawings to be sure students included four tentacles—two on the top and two on the bottom. Rather than simply tell students when their drawings didn’t depict the tentacles accurately, she asked them to further observe the snail and then make new drawings. This was important because it allowed students who needed extra time for observing to take that time.

Next, the students researched the reproductive characteristics of garden snails. They read books and searched for Internet articles; they also observed the snails’ mating habits. The students then wrote stories about snails using the information they had gathered. After reading the stories, the teacher determined that several, but not all, students had incorrect or missing information about the snails’ reproductive habits. One student wrote that snails are “asexual,” even though the teacher had used the correct term: hermaphrodite.

Because not everyone in the class misunderstood snail reproduction, the teacher decided to give the students who needed to bolster their understanding a chance to revise their work. She underlined any incorrect information in their stories, attached a note explaining the information they had missed or misunderstood, and gave them copies of a short article on snail reproduction. When the teacher was satisfied that these students had self-corrected their misconceptions, she had them revise their stories, adding new information and correcting inaccuracies.

Solidifying Students’ Knowledge of Earth Science

In their study of earth science, 2nd and 3rd graders explored the characteristics of igneous, sedimentary, and metamorphic rocks. They engaged in firsthand experiences, such as examining rock specimens and then characterizing and labeling the specimens by their different properties, including color, texture, and size. They also discussed their observations, watched educational videos and took notes on what they learned, and analyzed information from books and appropriate Web sites.

The teacher then asked the students to represent what they knew about the characteristics of the different types of rocks in a two-dimensional form and a three-dimensional form. He provided a variety of materials, including poster paper, pencils, markers, clay, sand, pebbles, paint, cardboard, and yarn. The students then worked in cooperative groups to develop their representations.

For the two-dimensional representations, the students chose to create Venn diagrams, concept maps, and charts. For the three-dimensional representations, most groups made models of rocks, two groups created models of the earth’s crust, and one group created a clay volcano and used it to show the relationship of rocks to volcanoes.

After analyzing the representations and discussions, the teacher realized his students didn’t have a clear understanding of the process by which rocks become metamorphic. Some of the students were not able to describe the process, saying only that igneous and sedimentary rocks “change into” or “become” metamorphic rocks.

He surmised that the gap in understanding might be because students engaged in multiple hands-on experiences with the igneous and sedimentary rocks, whereas their experiences with the metamorphic rocks were mostly through text or video. In addition, the process by which metamorphic rocks form takes place beneath the surface of the earth under tremendous heat and pressure. Thus, it is an abstract concept for young children because they cannot observe it.

To adapt his instruction, the teacher reviewed the concept of the changing states of matter and how heat and pressure may cause solids to change from one state to another. Then he and his students conducted an experiment using pancake batter and other food items—such as chocolate chips, raisins, coconut slices, marshmallows, and hard candy (some of which can melt)—to observe what happens to the batter after it is heated and pressed by a spatula. He and his students also discussed how, as the earth’s crust moves down, rocks in the crust may change because of the intense heat of the magma and the pressure of being forced downward.

The teacher integrated his reassessment of the students’ knowledge of metamorphic rocks with his preparation of their year-end final projects. To prepare, the students wrote outline notes, which the teacher collected and checked for evidence of understanding. He found that the students’ work included more detailed descriptions of the process by which metamorphic rocks form.

Helping Students Achieve Their Best

Just as students begin school at UES with different skills and background knowledge, they graduate with different levels of understanding about the concepts addressed in the curriculum. Some children do learn more than others. Still, by integrating assessment with teaching, by adapting instruction to immediately address misconceptions, and by offering students opportunities to demonstrate their learning in a variety of ways, teachers increase their opportunities to reach every student. Reaching students in this way increases the likelihood that each child will achieve at a personally high standard—in science and in other subjects, as well.

Source: From “Using Assessment to Deepen Students’ Science Knowledge,” by F. Erickson, L. Weishaupt, S. Sutton, D. Elder, R. Alarcón, and L. R. Schaeffer, 2005, ASCD Express, 1(4). Copyright © 2005 Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.