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Challenges for Science Teachers in Using Assessment Effectively With Their Students

By Jim McDonald

Posted on 2020-12-08

Science teachers need to know what their students know to make their instruction equitable and engaging. Using assessment effectively will require an instructor mindset that views assessment as being student-centered, is helpful to students to improve their own learning, and provides an opportunity for students to show current understanding.

Science teachers should consider some challenges as they formulate their use of assessments, as well as their assessment philosophy:

Challenge #1: Do you want to use assessment for learning or assessment of learning?

Assessment of learning involves looking at assessment information at the end of the teaching and learning process to rank students' achievement levels against a standard.

Assessment for learning (AFL) embeds assessment processes throughout the teaching and learning process to allow educators to constantly adjust instructional strategy.

One way of thinking about AFL is that it aims to "close the gap" between a learner’s current situation and where they want to be in their learning and achievement. Skilled teachers plan tasks that help learners do this. In AFL, students become more active in their learning and start to "think like a teacher." They think more actively about where they are now, where they are going, and how to get there.

Effective teachers integrate AFL in their lessons as a natural part of what they do, choosing how much or how little to use the method. AFL can be adapted to suit the age and ability of the learners involved. AFL strategies are directly linked to improvements in student performance in summative tests and examinations. Research shows that these strategies particularly help low-achieving students enhance their learning. This helps science assessment become equitable for all of your students.

Challenge #2: Engaging students in the assessment process

You can give students a voice in their assessment plan. Students understand that teachers and education leaders need different kinds of information about their academic performance. Believe it or not, in surveys, students see the need for multiple measures. When students share ownership of their learning—including their assessment—learning becomes more personal. You can support student-centric learning by

•    providing students with assessment options that are age appropriate;
•    bringing students into the planning conversations around classroom-based assessment;
•    exploring peer- and self-evaluation; and
•    training students to apply scoring rubrics to their work and the work of peers.

The more involved and engaged students are in their assessment plan, the more they will understand how to leverage the results and apply the information to learning.

You can boost engagement by helping students use their assessment data to set challenging, yet achievable, learning goals and targets. Teachers report that they are only able to provide an average of three minutes of feedback per student on assessments. By getting them involved on the front end with goal setting, students can find more relevance in their assessment results and use feedback from teachers in the context of their learning targets. Increasing students’ assessment literacy will engage them as collaborators in their learning and growth. To keep them invested, keep them informed and involved.

Challenge #3: Involving students in creating assessments

Working with your students to develop rubrics is a very powerful way to help students build understanding of what good work looks like. This does not mean each student creates his or her own rubric. Teachers play a major role in guiding students to identify the understandings they must develop.

Students can play a role in discussing and selecting the features of understanding on which their work will be assessed. However, this takes a lot of time, debate, discussion, and examination of appropriate examples from expert performances. When teachers lack the time for a careful development of features of understanding, it is better for teachers to identify them, then make sure students understand what is meant.

A second way to involve students in a very meaningful way in the construction of rubrics is to work with them as a class to identify what different levels of understanding actually look like. What do they think about the difference between powerful and weak work? What performance or product criteria do students think are important, and is the teacher sure that everyone understands what each of these levels of understanding mean? Again, this takes time—and teachers must be prepared to devote enough time to ensure that students' contributions are really strong. If teachers feel they do not have much time, it is better to populate the cells of the rubric themselves, then discuss them with students.

It can be very helpful to pre-populate some of the cells in the levels of mastery columns of the rubric before providing the rubric-in-progress to students. Specify what an exemplary performance looks like, or what it looks like if students missed something crucial. Leave lots of empty cells in between, and work with your class to tease out important differences. As you guide students through the work of populating all the cells, both you and they will achieve clearer understanding.

Jim McDonaldJim McDonald is professor of science education at Central Michigan University (CMU) in Mount Pleasant, Michigan. He is the faculty advisor for the NSTA student chapter at CMU; teaches elementary science methods to preservice teachers; teaches graduate courses in instruction, assessment, and educational psychology; and provides professional development to local schools in science education.

Assessment General Science Teaching Strategies Middle School Elementary High School

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