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Active Assessment for Active Science
A Guide for Elementary School Teachers
(Reprinted by permission of George E. Hein and Sabra Price. Published by Heinemann, A
division of Reed Elsevier Inc., Portsmouth, NH, 1994. Following are excerpts from Chapter
3, "Managing Assessments."
Students have to learn how to keep notebooks as well as how to write about scientific
investigations. At first they may do an inadequate job on both tasks. They may skip
entries, they may not write completely about their observations, they may forget to date
their pages or title their graphs. However, they will be practicing the skills they need
to improve in order to keep good notebooks in the future. These notebooks may not be
accurate reflections of what they know, but they are not a waste of time. All of this
practice is a part of developing scientific literacy.
If you ask your students to keep science notebooks, the following guidelines may be
- Ask students to date everything.
- Have them place the pages in looseleaf notebooks in chronological order.
- Limit entries to one per page; the notebooks will be easier to read.
- Provide adequate time for writing. Younger children write slowly; older children may
have a great deal they want to include.
- If some or all of your students are emerging writers, consider dictation; some teachers
arrange for less skilled students to dictate to a classmate.
- Give students time to organize their notebooks. Just a few minutes each science period
may be adequate.
- Be clear about what papers you expect to go into the notebook.
- Establish clear procedures for where students should leave notebooks and when you will
look at them.
- If you give students questions to respond to as they write, ask them to copy the
questions into their notebooks. Otherwise the notebooks may contain incomplete thoughts
and yes/no responses and will be more difficult to analyze. When asking students to give
reasons or explanations for events, ask them to give two or three; this seems to encourage
deeper thinking. (In Great Britain, the Assessment of Performance Unit routinely asked
students to provide three reasons.)
- Ask students to include drawings, plans, predictions, maps, graphs, tables, and charts
in addition to written narrative.
- Ask students to write conclusions to experiments explaining the meaning of their data.
Too often students only report findings, leaving you to wonder if and how they interpreted
them. (This is a difficult task and takes a lot of practice. You may need to model it for
- If you use lab sheets (which do help students organize data), leave plenty of room for
large script and large drawings.
- Think of juicy questions that invite reflection and speculation: What surprised you
about your investigations today? Why do you think your results are different from your
partner's? What might be contaminating your results?
- Challenge your students to write up lab procedures so that someone else could follow
- If you use a curriculum that contains checklists on which to record work completed or
reaming goals attained, staple a copy of the checklist in each student notebook. That way
they can participate in the checking-off process.
- Help students understand the purpose for keeping notebooks: What should they put down,
and why? for whom? Are students' notebooks the same as scientists'? Find opportunities to
ask students to use their notebooks. Ask them to look back over observations and
investigations in order to answer specific questions. Tell them at the beginning of the
unit that they will be using their notes at the end (to write a report, answer questions,
or prepare a presentation). This may encourage them to keep more complete records. Also
remember that incomplete and unreadable notebooks do not mean that students have not done
the work or do not understand what they have done.
- For your students who have difficulty writing (they are too young, their language arts
skills are inadequate or undeveloped, English is their second language), rely on other
forms of assessment.
- Model writing up a lab report. Show your students the process of making corrections and
additions. Indicate when it is appropriate and useful to include a graph and explain what
supporting information should accompany it. Remember that scientific writing is different
from other writing they may have done.
- Make a point of reading your students' notebooks, even if infrequently. Add written
comments if you possibly can; this shows you value the notebooks. It helps to establish a
regular schedule. Some teachers read and comment on a few notebooks each week, thus
covering the entire class over a period of time. (Figures 1 and 2 are notebook pages on
which the students' teachers have shared their evaluation criteria.)
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Many teachers find that checklists make them feel secure they are reassured that
they are 'covering all the bases" and observing everything they intend. If you feel
overwhelmed sorting through the wealth of observational data you collect, checklists can
help you organize this information.
Design your checklists to reflect what you consider to be the important skills,
processes, attitudes, and content in any science unit. (Some teachers ask their students
to help identify the important learning areas.) You may want to itemize the different
products, worksheets, and other materials you expect your students to complete; you will
then be able to make sure you observe each of your students in each area you have defined.
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Assessing individuals in paired or
In most, if not all, of the new science curriculums, students are expected to work in
pairs or small groups. It can be a challenge to assess individual students. The following
approaches may help:
- Occasionally ask students within the group to work independently, either in making
something or planning and carrying out an experiment.
- Ask students to assess themselves. (A teacher we know asks her students what they would
do differently tomorrow: "It gives me food for thought for my observation notes and I
can say, 'I am glad you are carrying through on your goals.' I also ask them what they
would want me to do differently tomorrow. They are very honest, and it helps me plan my
- Ask individual team members to be responsible for specific segments of the group
assignment. This will work only in certain situations. In STC's Electric Circuits unit,
teams of students are directed to wire 'houses' made from cardboard cartons. One teacher
who used the unit asked each student to wire a separate room. Once the project was
complete, students individually diagrammed their wiring schemes.
- Ask each student to write up the process he or she went through as a team member in
making an object or carrying out an investigation.
- Hold individual conferences or interviews to assess each student's understanding and
knowledge. These do not need to be long- five minutes can give you plenty of
information-and you can pull children out for interviews while other science activities
are going on. Some teachers enlist the help of parents, aides, or student teachers. Some
teachers interview students during recess; others interview students throughout the day,
not just during science period. Students generally look forward to these interviews and
don't mind missing recess or anything else for this opportunity. Although the logistics
may be difficult, teachers with class sizes over thirty have successfully interviewed all
their students. Bear in mind that individual interviews may be something you carry out
only two or three times a year.
- If your students are not comfortable in a one-to~one situation, or if you need to save
time, interview two students together. You will still be able to assess each child
adequately. Respond to your students' levels of comfort.
- Hold group interviews. One teacher we know calls them science clubs, and describes them
as discussion groups. Either the teacher or a student posts a discussion topic for which
students sign up. Listening to the group discuss an idea can be a very useful form of
assessment. If discussion groups appeal to you, be aware that students will need to learn
how to do this, and you may need to model questions and responses.
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Teacher observation is central to assessing hands-on science but is often hard to
manage systematically. It is important to establish procedures for carrying out and
recording observations that ensure that important content, attitudes, skills, and
procedures are observed for each student. Remember three basic rules:
1. Keep it short and simple.
2. Record only what you see; don't interpret.
3. Don't trust your memory; write it down.
Here are some approaches that have worked for others:
- Keep a folder for each child into which you put observations and anecdotal information.
- Write observations on computer labels that have been printed with individual student
names. Later stick them in a notebook in which you've designated separate pages for each
child. (Regular blank peel-off labels are an alternative.) As a variation, print science
topics about which you want to collect observational data on the labels and write in
students' names and your observations.
- Record observations on index cards and then file them.
- Make up a checklist with each child's name and the areas/lessons you plan to observe,
leaving space to record as extensively as you wish (a check mark, comments, longer
- Observe and take notes on only one or two groups or three or four individual students
per class period, gradually getting around to everyone.
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material was developed by the National Center to Improve Practice
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