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Seeing Students Learn Science

By Cindy Workosky

Posted on 2017-08-24

It is truly an exciting time in science education. Science educators across the country are adapting to a new vision of how students learn science guided by the Framework for K–12 Science Education (Framework). As a result, science instruction is changing to better tap into students’ natural curiosity and deepen their understanding of the world around them.

As instruction changes, assessments need to change as well. Many science educators recognize that traditional assessments are not appropriate for capturing three-dimensional science learning. But they may not know what assessments of three-dimensional learning should look like, nor how they can be used effectively in science classrooms.

Seeing students learn scienceThe Board on Science Education (BOSE) at the National Academy of Sciences has a new resource that can help. BOSE is the group responsible for developing the Framework, and we have been working hard to continue to offer guidance to educators as they strive to make the new vision a reality in classrooms. In March 2017, BOSE released a new book on formative assessment for science, Seeing Students Learn Science. The book draws on research-based recommendations for assessment to explore how classroom teachers can use assessments as part of instruction to advance students’ three-dimensional learning.

Traditional science assessments do not allow teachers to fully understand students’ mastery of science and engineering practices, nor do they provide insight into students’ learning trajectories. In contrast, effective classroom assessments of 3-D science learning can help teachers collect information about students’ understanding of core ideas and crosscutting concepts, as well as students’ ability to engage in the scientific and engineering practices. Good assessments of 3-D science learning can help teachers make decisions about next steps for learning and identify the supports that individual students or groups of students may need. They can also help students take control of their own learning by helping them understand what they have mastered and where they may need more practice. A major goal is for assessment to become an integral part of science instruction, rather than an interruption

The new book is designed to help teachers create and implement classroom assessments that capture three-dimensional learning. While transitioning to a new assessment system will be a gradual process, change begins at the classroom level, and individual educators can begin to implement new approaches immediately. Seeing Students Learn Science is filled with examples of innovative assessment formats, strategies to embed assessments in classroom activities, and ideas for interpreting and using information from these assessments. It also provides ideas and questions educators can use to reflect on what they can adapt right away—and what they can work toward over time—to ensure that instruction drives assessment, not the other way around.

The book is organized around key questions educators may have about the new types of assessments.

What’s really different? Gives a quick overview of how ideas about science learning and instruction have changed and why different kinds of assessments are needed. 

What does this kind of assessment look like? Highlights a few examples to see how these ideas and principles work in practice. 

What can I learn from my students’ work? Examines more deeply the information educators can obtain from a variety of assessments—and how they provide evidence of students’ thinking. 

How can I build new kinds of assessments into the flow of my instruction? Describes ways to adapt assessments already in use and to design new assessments that support the changes science teachers are making in instruction. 

How can I work with others in my school, district, and state? Focuses on how teachers can connect with developments outside of the classroom, and explores assessment systems, ways of reporting assessment results, and assessment for monitoring purposes.                                      

A key message of the book is that educators can lead the way in transforming science assessment. We all know that new state and district assessments will be needed. The transition to new large-scale assessments may be a complicated one for states and districts, and will likely pose challenges that will take time to solve. Individual educators, though, can lead the way in adapting assessment practices to new approaches to science instruction. With adequate professional development support, and the resources provided in Seeing Students Learn Science, educators can begin to redesign assessments in their own classrooms and champion new approaches in their schools and districts.

Heidi Schweingruber is director of the Board on Science Education at the National Research Council (NRC). She co-directed the study that resulted in the report A Framework for K–12 Science Education (2011). She served as study director for a review of NASA’s pre-college education programs completed in 2008 and co-directed the study that produced the 2007 report Taking Science to School: Learning and Teaching Science in Grades K–8. Before joining the NRC, Schweingruber worked as a senior research associate at the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences . Schweingruber holds a Ph.D. in psychology and anthropology and a certificate in culture and cognition from the University of Michigan.


This article was featured in the August issue of Next Gen Navigator, a monthly e-newsletter from NSTA delivering information, insights, resources, and professional learning opportunities for science educators by science educators on the Next Generation Science Standards and three-dimensional instruction. Click here to access other articles from the August issue on assessing three-dimensional learning. Click here to sign up to receive the Navigator every month.


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