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Understanding Students’ Science Knowledge with Formative Assessments

Chris Lazzaro

Formative assessment can provide a powerful way to help science educators drive their instruction and, in turn, help students succeed. But, what exactly does this look like in today’s educational environment? How can educators leverage technology and incorporate hands-on science as part of the assessment process?

We had the opportunity to chat with Chris Lazzaro, Ph.D., Director of Science Programs at New Meridian where he helped develop the company’s Science Exchange assessment solution program.

What role does software play in hands-on science and formative assessment? 

Students who are engaged in more hands-on science activities are more likely to enjoy science, have more content knowledge, and go on to pursue STEM majors and careers. However, of course, students need direction for hands-on learning to be effective, so the traditional classroom teaching component is necessary as well.

Students who are engaged in more hands-on science activities are more likely to…go on to pursue STEM majors and careers.

For me, the best way to link back these instructional models to formative assessments is to tie them to the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) or other state standards. NGSS, for example, is centered on three components—disciplinary core ideas, science and engineering practices, and cross-cutting concepts. So, if educators are really going to align with NGSS, they need to engage students in hands-on learning experiences so students can show what they know. This lends itself to educators implementing formative assessment models that allow students to demonstrate their understanding of concepts learned and then putting the concepts into practice.

What does this look like? A physics teacher might demonstrate how gravity works by dropping a feather and coin at the same time and asking students which will hit the ground first. Most students, and even most adults, with a basic understanding of gravity will answer this by using their experience of the world around them. Heavier objects fall faster.

The traditional teaching model is to then take an evacuated tube and perform the experiment again showing that the feather and the coin will fall at the same rate in the absence of air friction. However, rather than showing students the “right” answer, the NGSS asks students to develop the tools required to discover if it is true that heavier objects fall faster. Substituting a piece of paper for the feather will produce the same result. However, crumbling up the paper, which doesn’t change the mass (or weight), will allow the paper and the coin to fall at nearly the same rate in air. 

Guiding students to discover this on their own, and then asking them to explain why this might happen, is engaging them in authentic science and in the practices of the NGSS. The NGSS outline the tools, the teacher takes on the role of facilitator, and the students play the essential role of the scientist. This is hands-on learning. 

Implementing formative assessments that measure students’ understanding—such as having students explain why the coin hit the ground first—is really the best in gauging where students are so teachers can tailor their instruction accordingly.      

How can educators best use tools like software and hands-on experiments to create formative assessment opportunities? 

The whole point of formative assessment is to provide educators with data that can help them adapt their instruction—if an educator just gives an assessment and then doesn’t look at or use the data, formative assessment is a useless tool. That said, it is important for educators to understand exactly what type of data they need to inform their instruction. Software and hands-on experiments can oftentimes allow educators to capture more precise data that measure students’ understanding of the NGSS or state standards. 

The whole point of formative assessment is to provide educators with data that can help them adapt their instruction.

Going back to the feather and coin example, it’s hard for educators to get any concrete data back from this activity. However, with the introduction of technology and software, students can now start to measure the two objects falling or take pictures of the process and start to understand—and show—their initial misconceptions. The software acts as another tool in the students’ toolbox and allows them to examine the world around them more precisely.

How has the COVID-19 pandemic changed the way educators assess students’ learning? Can software help educators assess how students are doing in remote or hybrid learning models? 

The pandemic has forced educators to change some of their assessment practices and the simple answer is that software has absolutely played a big part in the whole process—software has been heavily relied on to assess students’ understanding and it has overall helped educators and students alike. Software in some ways has helped level the playing field and provided a more equitable learning experience for all students. While definitely not perfect, it has been helpful.

Software in some ways has helped level the playing field and provided a more equitable learning experience for all students.

Think back to when we all had to dissect a rat or other animal in high school. During this past year, the vast majority of schools weren’t going to mail rodents off to students’ homes, and wouldn’t have the funds or bandwidth to even consider the idea. However, computer dissection simulations presented students—regardless of their school or where they are located—with the opportunity to participate in this memorable experience, as well as provided educators a view into their students’ learning.

The continual advancement of software over the years has also enabled students to learn more and take better measurements, and in turn provided educators another way to measure students’ understanding, regardless of the learning environment. With the coin and feather activity, today’s students can now use a photogate and actually measure acceleration rates and analyze data on their iPhones using apps from Vernier, for example, to understand what is actually happening. They don’t have to just believe what the educator tells them, they can collect their own accurate data and see for themselves.

How will formative assessment evolve in a post-pandemic world? 

The most important component of formative assessment is collecting data to inform instruction. And, hopefully moving forward, instruction will change with everyone returning to the classroom. When this happens, educators can use formative assessment as more of a diagnostic to see where students are academically. Students all had different at-home experiences during remote learning and are undoubtedly going to come back to the classroom in different places.

Students all had different at-home experiences during remote learning and are undoubtedly going to come back to the classroom in different places.

Ongoing professional development will be critical for educators to understand both how to capture student data and then how to use it to say ‘here’s where my students are, here’s where I want them to be, and here’s how we will get there.’ We can’t lower the bar or our expectations with students returning to the classroom, and having strong formative assessment models and strong PD will allow teachers to get students to where they need to be, so they will be successful moving forward.

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