Engaging Students through Formative Assessment in Science

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  • This article was downloaded by: [University of Florida]On: 05 October 2014, At: 03:31Publisher: RoutledgeInforma Ltd Registered in England and Wales Registered Number: 1072954 Registered office: Mortimer House, 37-41Mortimer Street, London W1T 3JH, UK

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    Engaging Students through Formative Assessment in SciencePamela B. Childers & Michael LowryPublished online: 03 Apr 2010.

    To cite this article: Pamela B. Childers & Michael Lowry (1997) Engaging Students through Formative Assessment in Science, TheClearing House: A Journal of Educational Strategies, Issues and Ideas, 71:2, 97-102

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  • Engaging Students through Formative Assessment in Science

    PAMELA B. CHILDERS and MICHAEL LOWRY

    t the beginning of the 1996-97 school year, we-two A teachers at The McCallie School in Chattanooga, Tennessee, a college preparatory school for boys-designed a series of year-long writing activities using portfolios to improve an eighth-grade science course. We are Pam, the director of the schools writing center and writing across the curriculum program, and Michael, teacher of the course, Conceptual Physical Science (CPS). Our intention was to develop formative assessments to encourage growth on the part of students and teacher and to expand content instruc- tion. Formative assessment best served our purpose because it is a form of process-oriented evaluation aimed at improvement of teaching and learning (Kiefer and Faust 1996; Patton 1990). We followed a constructivist portfolio model of contextualized and collaborative assessments (Murphy and Grant 1996) that was centered on having the students revise their writing in the context of the physical science class.

    The goals for our class assignment (see figure 1) were the following: to learn what impact the assignment would have on student understanding of course content; to have the portfolio act as a separate and authentic assessment tool, a means to explore students understanding; to develop activ- ities that challenged students to be self-reflective; to demonstrate how such assignments are rigorous by hav- ing students grapple with major course concepts; to assess course instruction; and to assess course content.

    We wanted to create portfolio assignments evaluated by both of us that would also be authentic assessment (Wiggins 1989; Wiggins 1993; Zessoules and Gardner 1991)-that is, that included the students in assessing the instruction, cur- riculum, and the learning process. The multiple portfolio submissions (Belanoff and Elbow 1986; Pearson and Valen-

    Pamela B . Childers is Caldwell Chair of Composition and Michael Lowry is on the Science Department faculty, both at The McCallie School, Chattanooga, Tennessee.

    cia 1987; Yancey 1992) helped us address individual stu- dent differences and improve student learning and instruc- tion (Herman, Aschbacher, and Winters 1992; Angelo and Cross 1993). By using student questionnaires and a feed- back process similar to small group diagnosis (Coffman 1991), we adapted the instructional input ideas of Weimer, Parrett, and Kerns (1988).

    The assignment balances required components and elec- tive submissions. It includes visual aspects in relation to writing and learning as part of the required submissions (Childers, Hobson, and Mullin 1998), a letter requiring stu- dents to explain a physics concept to real audiences (Wat- son 199 1 ), recommendations for course and instructional improvement, and a changing element to help students reflect on and apply knowledge learned since the last port- folio (Murphy and Grant 1996).

    During the year, we changed some requirements to paral- lel what was going on in the class. For instance, for the first two portfolio submissions, requirement five asked students to Submit a list of recommendations for learning activities for the class. For example, you may suggest that students role play the discovery of a new element. Because students undertake a research project during the second semester, we changed requirement five to Submit a list of recommenda- tions for an extended research project. Explain your ideas for this research activity that would demonstrate your knowl- edge of a particular aspect of science. You may choose to create the research assignment and evaluation criteria. By the last formative portfolio submission in March, require- ment five was changed to Submit recommendations for your final examination of this course. You have an opportu- nity to help design your own assessment of this course, so take it seriously. These changes empowered students to assess the teaching and learning in the course, to suggest new ways of learning, to participate in their own learning processes, and to design parts of their own final evaluations.

    As another second semester modification, we changed requirement two to allow for a new audience: three twelfth- grade tutors from the writing center (see pages 103-105 for

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  • 98 The Clearing House NovemberlDecember 1997

    FIGURE 1 Constructivist Portfolio Model

    CONCEPTUAL PHYSICAL SCIENCE PORTFOLIOS

    Portfolios can be important learning tools if they are used correctly. We will be using four portfolios as for- mative assessment tools to determine what and how you are learning, how I as your teacher may improve your learning, and how you as a student see yourself as a learner. The portfolios will also allow you time to reflect upon what you have learned between the time you start and finish each portfolio. The last portfolio will be used as a summative assessment tool to determine what and how you have learned during the entire course of the year, how you have grown as a learner, and how I have helped your learning process. Because visual and written communication are an important part of your learning process, you will be asked to submit many items, some required and some optional. If you have any suggestions for improving or revising this process, please let us know. We will consider all suggestions and make changes in the requirements as necessary.

    The portfolios will be due on the following dates: October 3, 1996 November 7, 1996 February 13, 1997 March 27, 1997 April 24, 1997 Your portfolios may be kept in the Caldwell Writing

    Center. You may check with Dr. Childers or Mr. Reno to find out exactly where they are and when you may work on them. You will be responsible for keeping all materials current and complete. On any given day, I may stop by the Caldwell Writing Center and spot check portfolios.

    Requirements-Submit all of the items listed below:

    1. A visual (picture, diagram, drawing, etc.) and writ- ten description of a conceptual physics process. The visuals should be pictures demonstrating physics in action. Some of them will be used for classroom lessons.

    2. A letter you have written to a classmate, a seventh grader, or one of your parents explaining a new CPS concept you have learned since your last portfolio.

    3. A copy of your favorite lab report. Include an expla- nation of why you chose it and what you learned from it.

    4. A journal entry or a reflective paper in which you

    reflect upon your own learning in this class. You may write the reflective paper in the form of a let- ter to me.

    5. A list of recommendations for learning activities for the class. For example, you may suggest that stu- dents role play the discovery of a new element.

    Student Opt ions40 at least one of the following:

    1. Submit your favorite writing assignment since the last portfolio. Include an explanation of why you chose it.

    2. Make a list of specific questions that relate to CPS that you have collected. They should be questions that you thought of during a class, a lab, a home- work assignment, or a reading or while you were doing just about anything. For instance, after a lab experiment, I might write, What if that experiment had been done without the element of heat? What if we had added ice? I may use the questions for classroom discussions, experiments, projects, or activities.

    3. Submit a creative activity (writing, art, music, etc.) that demonstrates a learning experience of yours in the area of CPS.

    4. Write a letter to me evaluating your learning since the last portfolio. Try to be as specific as possible. You may also give yourself a grade and justify it.

    5. Write an evaluation of the course since the last portfolio. Discuss the easiest and hardest exercis- es, what you liked and didnt like, and why. Be as specific as possible to help me revise the course, when necessary, for the remainder of this year and next year.

    Student Assessmenf-Each portfolio will count as a Special Project grade (15 percent of the overall grade). Because you are being assessed on the culti- vation of a habit (reflection and evaluation), your grade will include your mastery of this habit.

    Teacher Assessment4 will use your comments to revise the syllabus, create new and different learning activities, and learn from your thinking and learning processes, as needed. Your questions may help to determine what needs further explanation, what con- tent students already know, and what information may be helpful to learn. I will also keep a portfolio that I will share with a colleague for feedback (my grade).

    an article written by the three tutors). Because the students in the science class had been working with the tutors on several writing projects and those seniors would be evalu- ating their next portfolio submissions, we gave students the option of explaining a physics concept to the seniors via e- mail. Some were thrilled to have popular seniors as their new correspondents. One eighth grader commented, This [writing a letter to the seniors] helped me the most because I learned how to write a professional letter to people who

    werent teachers. I also learned how to express my thoughts in a brief but thorough manner.

    Although not unique, the portfolio assessment tool (fig- ure 2) addresses the range of student personalities, inter- ests, and abilities; it allowed each of us to make comments that would encourage formative growth between portfolio submissions. Although the physical science class was an honors group, the students maturity levels varied tremen- dously: some were still little boys who giggled, others were

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  • Vol. 71, No. 2 Formative Assessment in Science 99

    FIGURE 2 Evaluation Criteria

    Name Period

    Date

    1. Critical Thinking Skills-20 Points The assignment goes beyond the superficial and demonstrates critical thinking.

    2. Originality/Creativity-20 points The student has taken risks with learning and demonstrates originality and creativity.

    3. Knowledge of Subject Matter-20 points The writing demonstrates an understanding of the physics concepts studied.

    4. Focus-20 points The student follows the directions of the assignment in purpose, audience, development of thought.

    The student demonstrates that he has taken time and applied his knowledge to superior written and visual responses to the assignment.

    5. Quality of Portfolio-20 points

    Strong

    TOTAL points

    Comments:

    serious learners, and a few were so self-disciplined that they were able to enjoy the portfolios flexibility. We gave the students the evaluation criteria with the assignment, so they knew from the beginning how each portfolio submis- sion would be evaluated. In numerical terms, strong received 20- 18 points; okay, 17- 15; and weak, 14- 12.

    What the Students Learned During the year we made comments and gave students

    recommendations for improving their portfolios. The stu- dents also made recommendations to us. Pam pulled class recommendations from the students portfolios each time to examine them, while Michael tried to apply many recom- mendations to his own teaching. Even at the beginning of the school year, the students were honest with their sugges- tions. For instance, one said, Before explaining some- thing, let us try to figure it out. Another suggested that Michael model writing a lab report by giving us your lab report so that we could see how you would do it as com- pared to how we did it. Two other recommendations were to role play actual experiments in which common things were discovered such as light bulbs, and have debates over physics questions that we dont know the answers to and explain why the answer we give is correct. By the sec- ond portfolio, students were suggesting that Michael let students discuss and debate something more before we are told the answer, and allow them in groups [to] give pre- sentations using the board, overhead, and any other objects

    needed. All of these recommendations were used in the class later in the school year, including one from the fourth portfolio suggesting that each of us build a contraption that demonstrates a physics principle. As part of their final lab experimentation, students built solar ovens and, using a thermometer, demonstrated which ones were most success- ful. Without formative assessment, only future CPS stu- dents, not the ones in this class, would have benefited from the course revisions.

    The end-of-the-year student questionnaire (figure 3) pro- duced many interesting comments. When students were asked what part of the portfolio was most beneficial, they said they learned most from creating the visual and written description, making recommendations for the class, and writing letters to the seniors. Russ said the list of recom- mendations allowed him to put my thoughts into how the class should go, which is a good way for me to express myself,whereas David thought that the drawing/writing part was most beneficial because drawing things helped me to see it [a physics concept] and understand it. Also, having to explain it forced me to study and understand it. The visual and written explanation activity was also the most enjoyable part of the portfolio because I learn more from pictures, and I love hand-eye skills and I liked to find something and figure out how to draw it and explain it by using the drawing. Creating a list of recommendations was considered to be enjoyable because giving Mr. Lowry suggestions was my chance to give him a grade.

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  • 100 The Clearing House NovembedDecernber 1997

    FIGURE 3 Questionnaire about CPS Portfolio Submissions

    1. What part of the portfolio was the most beneficial

    2. What part of the portfolio did you enjoy the most?

    3. What impact has the portfolio project had on your

    4. How has the portfolio project influenced your writ-

    5. If you were to design the project for next year,

    6. What have you discovered about yourself as a

    7. Did you like the fact that senior tutors evaluated

    8. Did you like having Dr. Childers evaluate your

    to you? Why?

    Why?

    understanding of topics discussed in class? Explain.

    ing ability? Explain.

    what parts might you change? Explain.

    learner while working on your portfolios?

    your work? Why or why not?

    work? Why or why not? I

    When asked to consider what impact the portfolio pro- ject had on their understanding of the subject matter, Devon said that it tested my abilities to teach someone else using my knowledge; Neil thought it helped him to understand the topics in class by boiling them down to about one page; and Jon liked being creative by drawing because it stimulated my imagination. The portfolio project also influenced students writing ability. Ryan felt that he had sharpened [his] skills in writing to a specific audience, and David offered that writing a letter to people used to be hard for me, but now it is easier because of the suggestions and corrections that have been made on it [the formative assessments].

    The latter half of the questionnaire called for more reflective, critical responses. Most of the students liked the portfolio assignments; however, the three students with the consistently lowest grades considered them stupid busy work or something that should be eliminated (except for the class recommendations). One student who did like the project suggested that I would not have students write a reflective paper to the teacher every time.

    Perhaps the question that called for the most reflective response was the one that asked students what they had dis- covered about themselves as learners while working on their portfolios. Students discovered that visuals along with captions help me to learn the best; I learn easier when I write stuff out. I can learn by reading, looking at pictures, and thinking; and I know more than I give myself credit for.

    Having the three high school seniors as tutors was extremely beneficial for some students: They know what eighth grade is like and the work load, they were exciting and funny to listen to, they were fair and gave us more comments on our portfolios, and they provided another students point of view of my work.

    Finally, we asked the students how they liked having Pam evaluate their work. The least successful students

    again didnt like it, indicating that she gave us low grades [73-791. A few also were concerned the she was basing her grades on our writing and meeting the portfolio require- ments, not the course or what Mr. Lowry wanted. The majority, however, liked having another adult input, who was a different audience that was tougher. An extra pair of eyes on my work is always helpful, said one student. Another said, She is an experienced writer who gave us many helpful suggestions. One student said that it makes it more democratic with another giving their input on what they think it [the portfolio] should receive [as a grade] .

    What the Teachers Learned

    Michaels Comments

    As the year progressed, I was delighted by several events. First, as intended, my students were continuously reflecting on and reviewing material. They had to do so because the assignment asks them to clarify what they had learned in three ways: visual interpretations of information, letters to parents and peers explaining physics concepts, and evaluation of specific course content and instruction. Because students had an ongoing voice in creating and altering the course, I had a direct link into their thinking and comprehension. We discovered that learning was occumng in both directions: from students to teacher and from teacher to students. They challenged my thinking, and I promoted their thinking as well.

    Second, CPS students contemplated how they best learn by exploring which assignments resonated with them and why. They began to think about their own thinking, a remarkable activity for any level or age of student, much less for the eighth graders who commented as follows:

    Since I was interested in [circuits and resistors], I know I worked harder to gather information without much effort at all. it seemed to me.

    The reason I chose this lab report was not so much that I did very well on it, but more that I did learn a lot from what I did wrong on it.

    The one-page summary of someone elses research paper was the best writing assignment . . . . The reading was the part I liked most but writing the summary got the informa- tion through my head.

    The assignments ethos was lost on my more concrete thinkers, who saw the portfolio as required busy work, despite my best efforts to engage them. Was this assign- ment a failure for them? Did they miss the value of for- mative assessment by ignoring the suggestions that Pam and I offered on evaluation forms? Not necessarily. Stu- dents are all at different places in their learning, and the challenge of finding other ways to engage these students became mine to explore. Interestingly, the formative nature of the assignment brought this to my attention, and I was able to respond to their specific requests.

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  • Vol. 71, No. 2 Formative Assessment in Science 101

    Pams Comments At the beginning of the school year, these highly moti-

    vated, honors CPS students were anxious about grades, nervous about their performance in a competitive environ- ment, and fearful, as eighth graders, of going to the writing center, which was located in the building where only stu- dents in grades 9-12 had classes. During the first marking period, Michael invited me to the class and brought the stu- dents to the writing center (officially, the Caldwell Writing Center [CWC]) so they would feel comfortable working with me and Steve Reno, my assistant, during the school year. Because the better students had free time during assembly for the upper grades, several of them came into the CWC to do their work. We teased them by giving them positive nicknames, and we helped them get used to using the computers for writing. Pretty soon they began bringing in their friends and even started appearing during other times of the day. This comfort level in Michaels classroom and in the CWC freed them to take more risks, ask more questions, and see the connections among learning science, writing, thinking, and reading.

    Although I participdted a great deal during this year-long project, these activities would not have occurred without a teacher who was willing, even eager, to experiment with new learning activities based on articles he had read, infor- mation he had heard, or ideas others had suggested. That trust and desire to take risks to improve learning enabled the two of us to learn just as the students did. My role became one of consultant, collaborator, and evaluator.

    Michaels desire to improve his teaching, to become teacher-as-learner-what Boyer ( 1990) described as a fac- ulty scholar and also a learner-illustrates Murphy and Grants (1 996) belief that when teachers are involved directly in formative assessment, the assessment becomes a learning process. Because both of us assessed each portfo- lio submission, there was more collaboration on our part and more of a dialogue about learning than if only one teacher had read each submission (Guba and Lincoln 1989; Murphy and Grant 1996). Finally, we designed the due dates for each portfolio to fall between marking periods so that we could assess the portfolios in a more focused atmosphere. Thus we avoided the typical situation in which teachers get caught up with lots of last-minute papers when grades are due and students hurry to meet all the obliga- tions for all their courses. We wanted the students to see that the portfolios were a separate entity from course grades and that formative assessment would have an impact on them, their learning, and their teacher that was not depen- dent on the schools calendar or any other standardized assessment.

    We followed a standard pattern of assessing. We split the portfolios in half, assessed them, and then traded. We never looked at each others assessment until both evaluation forms had been completed, and Michael had averaged the grades. It is important that such assessments be indepen-

    dent, with a more subject-based response by one evaluator and a more writing-based response from the other. Because the portfolios were kept in a file cabinet in the CWC, stu- dents were free to come at any time and add materials to them, revise them, talk with me about comments on a pre- vious portfolio, or sign out their portfolios to take home overnight. They became more comfortable with this process during the year and frequently asked us for sugges- tions or our opinions on work they were doing. All but a few knew that my personal feelings about them had noth- ing to do with my evaluation of the portfolios. One little boy came up to me in March and asked, Why dont you like me? You always give me low grades. When I ex- plained that I would gladly sit down and go over my com- ments, explore why he received his grade, and help him improve that grade the next marking period, he seemed sur- prised. We spent the next two days talking about ways that he could improve his low grade in the 80s.

    I think maturity level and pressure for top grades had something to do with the students dissatisfaction; however, the majority of the class enjoyed making appropriate parts of their portfolios entertaining for themselves and the readers. Several even started making appointments to talk to me about papers for English and history classes. They valued my opinion and took advantage of my expertise. They learned valuable lessons that many of their peers will never learn: to question their own learning and to question the instruction and content of their courses. These boys are engaging in their own learning process, reflecting on what they learned, and sharing this knowledge with others. They are also becoming critical thinkers who evaluate their course, just as their teacher and I are helping them improve their learning through formative assessment of their portfolios.

    Conclusion Formative assessment leads to significant improvement

    in teaching only when the evaluation fulfills four condi- tions: the teacher gains new knowledge, the teacher believes that the information he or she receives has value, the evaluation leads to tinkering (Stevens 1988) with teaching practices, and the teachers motivation is intrinsic (Centra 1993). (Intrinsic motivation may consist of seeing the job as meaningful, feeling responsible for ones own work and performance, and receiving continual informal feedback about job performance [Hackman and Oldham 19801).

    The teacher, in this case, met the four conditions, and so did his students, with each portfolio submission and evalu- ation. During this year-long project, content was never sac- rificed in fact, more content may have been covered because of student responses on the portfolios. The skills and habits that the teacher wished to cultivate were encour- aged, and the teacher took on the role of student to model learning behaviors.

    We still have a lot to learn from the summative evalua- tions at the end of the year, but the formative assessments

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  • 102 The Clearing House NovemberlDecember 1997

    have given us the desire to try similar portfolio projects with more classes. We want to vary the assignments within each portfolio submission, make the process even more collaborative and interactive with the students, and experi- ment in new ways with the use of senior writing center tutors. Through continual evaluation of both students and teacher during the school year, one can better sense what is and isnt working in the classroom. When portfolios have a constructive approach, as Murphy and Grant (1996) reminded us, teachers must constantly invent and refine teacher practices and constantly respond to student needs and interests. . . . [Tlhe focus is on students as individuals and as authors who are writing to explore important issues, to create compelling imagined worlds, or to exercise judg- ment (299-300). Through the use of formative assessment by students and teacher, the CPS portfolios kept that focus on student learning and on the teachers constant invention and refinement of instruction.

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