Science journals are wonderful tools. They offer a glimpse into children’s science understandings, and they are both diagnostic and pedagogically informative to teachers. Examining and reflecting on children’s journal work lets teachers embed assessment in curriculum and instruction; however, effectively analyzing children’s journal writing and drawing takes practice.
Over the past few years, as teacher-educators involved in the Children’s Literacy and Science Project (CLASP), a research and professional development program funded by Toyota USA Foundation, we’ve taught teachers how to improve their understanding of children’s journal responses, what to look for in children’s responses and what these responses reveal about students’ levels of understandings, and how these responses can guide subsequent instruction.
Through our experience, we’ve identified several questions/components important in helping teachers better analyze student journal responses:
- Do I comfortably understand the science being taught? (Conceptualizing the Science);
- What are common misconceptions about the study topic? (Identifying Possible Misconceptions);
- Are the instructional goals conducive to inquiry? (Structuring the Instruction);
- Is the response developmentally in line with what children of this age are capable of? (Age-Appropriate Responses);
- What do I analyze and what shows understanding? (Deciding What to Look At and For);
- What does the response tell me about this child’s understanding? (Interpreting the Work); and
- How do I change my instruction to adjust to these findings? (Making Decisions).
With these seven considerations in mind, each of which is discussed in more detail below, teachers will be able to learn more about the children they are teaching and their own instruction.
Conceptualizing the Science
This one is quite simple—we must understand the concepts we are teaching in order to adequately analyze and appreciate our students’ work. For example, in a unit on sound, if teachers understand that pitch means how high or low a sound is (not its loudness) and that a higher pitch has a greater frequency of vibration, they might analyze children’s work for ideas about the cause of high-pitched sounds. Without that understanding, however, a teacher is more limited in helping children develop science knowledge of that concept and may miss opportunities to further advance student understanding.
As unexpected questions emerge during the investigation, teachers can seek out topic-oriented resources to fill in their background knowledge. For example, if children are not understanding that sound is a form of energy, teachers might augment their understanding by consulting resources, such as Friedl (1997) or Wenham (1995), that provide activities accompanied by scientific explanations.
We have also found it is useful for teachers to familiarize themselves with possible misconceptions children might have before beginning a topic of study.
For example, the research on children’s ideas and understandings about sound indicates that older children may understand that sound production involves vibration (context-specific) (Driver et al. 1994); however, younger children may conceptualize sound as an attribute of the object itself, not as something that is caused by vibration. Teachers might then examine children’s journal responses with an eye for these identified understandings.
Misconceptions abound, and many common ones are identified and described in research literature, a valuable resource. Rosalind Driver and her colleagues (1994) contributed some of the foundational work on children’s conceptions; this remains a central resource for teachers. Other resources provide information about misconceptions that relate to a variety of science topics (e.g., Black and Lucas 1993; Glynn and Duit 1995; Glynn, Yeany, and Britton 1991).
Structuring the Instruction
The level of inquiry experienced in the classroom can influence the ways that some children use their journals. In general, responses in structured inquiry activities are characterized by a reliance on listing procedures and labeling diagrams. Teachers in CLASP have observed that open-inquiry activities tend to elicit more detailed observation, student-generated questions based on evidence, and references to science concepts than do more structured inquiry activities.
CLASP teachers also noticed that highly teacher-structured journal pages tended to limit the ways in which children used their science journal to learn. Journal pages that were overly circumscribed by teacher-created headings or designated spaces for either writing or drawing affected the depth, detail, extensiveness, and range of purposes for which the children used visual and written elements on the journal page. For example, a child may respond only to the teacher’s questions without enlisting his or her own experience or knowledge base. The teacher-structured journal page can also limit the child conceptually by confining the response to certain teacher-indicated boundaries on the page (i.e., lines or boxes).
In an open-inquiry investigation about pendulums using an unstructured journal page, children are able to relate their own experience and ideas to the science topic. This space allows students to illustrate and link pendulums of different kinds with other ideas from past and current experiences.
To ensure the best responses, when teachers plan instruction they should consider how they structure journal pages and the ways in which this could impact children’s ways of using of the journal. Ask yourself, Does the structure of the page permit children to represent their ideas verbally but not visually? Does the page setup signal the importance of certain ideas to the exclusion of others?
Like other forms of assessment, children’s journals must also be evaluated in developmentally appropriate ways. It would be unrealistic, for example, to expect that very young children could understand the relationship between a sound’s volume (loudness) and the air movement caused by each sound wave. On the other hand, young children could understand that a guitar string plucked softly has a narrow width of movement or vibration (producing a soft sound), whereas the same string plucked harder has a greater width of vibration and thus a louder sound. These concepts may be seen (i.e., string vibration) and heard (i.e., soft/loud sound).
Deciding What to Look For
After the first four components have been considered, teachers should decide what to focus on in analyzing children’s journals. When deciding what to look for, teachers determine if students express understanding of a specific concept. For example, in the unit on sound, will the teacher examine the children’s journal entries for the understanding that the thickness and length of an object influence pitch? Or look for the understanding that a higher pitch means more vibration?
What the teacher decides to look at—i.e., illustrations that show movement—becomes the evidence for children’s science understandings and abilities. For example, in Figure 1 the child has extended lines outward from the girl’s mouth. This tells a teacher that the child understands that sound travels outward from its source.
Figure 1. A student's illustration about sound.
Interpreting the Work
Evidence found on the journal page can be interpreted in light of the scientific understanding, possible misconceptions, developmental level, and instructional context. Teachers can then draw conclusions about the child’s scientific understandings and abilities and plan for instruction.
The journal entry shown in Figure 1 reflects a child’s ideas prior to instruction. We can make the following interpretations: for this child, objects or people make sounds, different objects make different sounds, and people hear sounds.
Her ideas are similar to her classmates’ ideas and are not much different from those of other children as reported in the research literature: 1) sound is produced as a result of the physical attributes of the object, and 2) a force is needed to produce a sound (Driver et al. 1994).
Based on the teacher’s conceptual understanding, we see that the child understands sound in the following ways:
- Sound travels outward from the source, but not necessarily as a wave;
- Sound can move through air, but there is no indication that sound can move through liquids or solids.
We can also see that the child does not understand that:
- The vibration of the object produces the sound. Objects cannot produce sound unless they are vibrating;
- Pitch is caused by the frequency of vibration; the higher the pitch the greater the frequency of vibration; and
- An object’s thickness, length, and tightness influences its pitch by affecting its vibration.
Finally, based on the interpretation of the child’s work, teachers make decisions about the child’s performance, teaching, and learning. The analysis of the illustration in Figure 1 gives the teacher an idea of which concepts to address in instruction and how to teach them.
For example, the teacher might use a tuning fork to demonstrate that sound is produced when the tuning fork vibrates. The teacher could place the vibrating tuning fork in water or place it next to a suspended Ping-Pong ball (Friedl 1997) to show how sound is produced by vibration (i.e., water splashes, Ping-Pong ball moves).
The teacher might also ask children to investigate different rubberbands to see how pitch changes with length and thickness.
With the continuing popularity of science journals, it is in the teacher’s best interest to learn and practice how to best interpret these vital reflections of children’s understandings. By keeping these components of effective journal analysis in mind and having an organized approach, teachers can use journals to their best advantage as informative tools for teachers and students.
Daniel P. Shepardson (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a professor of science education at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana. Susan Jane Britsch (email@example.com) is an associate professor of Literacy and Language Education at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana. For more information on CLASP, please visit CLASP.SOE.Purdue.edu.
Connecting to the Standards
This article relates to the following National Science Education Standards (NRC 1996):
Teachers of science guide and facilitate learning.
Teachers of science engage in ongoing assessment of their own teaching and of student learning.
Black, P.J., and A.M. Lucas (Eds.) 1993. Children’s Informal Ideas in Science. London: Routledge.
Driver R., A. Squires, P. Rushworth, and V. Wood-Robinson. 1994. Making Sense of Secondary Science: Research into Children’s Ideas. London: Routledge.
Friedl, A.E. 1997. Teaching Science to Children: An Inquiry Approach. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Glynn, S.M., and R. Duit (Eds.). 1995. Learning Science in the Schools: Research Reforming Practice. Mahwah, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Glynn, S.M., R.H. Yeany, and B.K. Britton (Eds.) 1991. The Psychology of Learning Science. Mahwah, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
National Research Council (NRC). 1996. National Science Education Standards. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press.
Wenham, M. 1995. Understanding Primary Science Ideas, Concepts, and Explanations. London: Paul Chapman Publishing.