Formative Assessment in Science: Three Big Ideas

Author: Cynthia Holcomb, Education Specialist, Elementary Science

It’s a hot topic: Formative Assessment. Every resource will define it for you in basically the same way: formative assessment is for learning while summative assessment is of learning. But in plain language, formative assessment is an activity in which students share their developing ideas while the learning is still taking place. It’s a very active approach to learning.

So, how do we use formative assessment in science instruction? By nature, science is an active process that provides opportunities for students to discuss what they are learning as they practice what they are learning. Science instruction should provide experiences and types of thinking used by all scientists.

Consider these three Big Ideas about formative assessment in the science classroom.

 1.  A critical part of science teaching is having a dialogue, not a monologue, with students to clarify their existing ideas and to help them construct the scientifically accepted ideas (Scott, 1999). An activity to promote rich discussion is called the S.O.S Statement. The teacher presents a statement (S), asks each student to state an opinion (O) about the topic, and then support (S) his or her opinion with evidence. This activity can be used before or during a lesson to assess student attitudes, beliefs, and knowledge about a topic. It can be used at points throughout a unit or lesson to assess what students are beginning to understand about the topic. And it can be used at the end of a unit to see if ideas have been influenced or changed as a result of new learning.

2.  No matter how well-planned a lesson, the need to determine student understandings through unplanned formative assessments may arise. Clock Partners is a method of creating sets of partners for spot checks of content knowledge. In this activity, each student is given a copy of a Clock Partners sheet (a picture of an analog clock face) at the beginning of a grading period, unit of study, or other desired length of time. Each student meets with classmates to write their names by a corresponding hour of the clock so that the resulting partners have each other’s names on matching hours. To pair students for discussions, announce a time slot on the clock; partners meet to discuss, clarify, or summarize content ideas. Have partners report out their key ideas as a means of assessing their understandings of the topic and to determine if re-teaching is necessary. For more information on Clock Partners, see http://www.readingquest.org/strat/clock_buddies.html.  (This site includes a downloadable clock template.)

3.  For a quick but effective formative assessment activity, ask students to create an analogy about content. When students create metaphors and analogies, it can express a level of understanding that traditional questions and quizzes don’t address (Wormeli, 2009). A student-created analogy provides a map of how the learner links ideas together; it shows insight regarding connections from prior learning as well as highlighting misconceptions.  Periodically, present students with an analogy prompt: A ________ is like _________ because ______________. (Example: A cell’s plasma membrane is like a factory’s shipping and receiving department because it regulates everything that enters and leaves the cell.) This high level of application requires students to think deeply about content as well as to help guide instruction.

As an added benefit, while the formative assessment process provides information needed to adjust teaching and learning while they are still happening, the process also provides practice for the student and a self-check for understanding during the learning process.

 

Sources

Scott, P. (1999). An analysis of science classroom talk in terms of the authoritative and dialogic nature of the discourse. Paper presented to the 1999 NARST Annual Meeting. Boston, MA.

Wormeli, R. (2009). Metaphors & Analogies: Power Tools for Teaching Any Subject. Stenhouse.


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