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formative assessment probes

What Can You Do with 77 Formative Assessment Probes Columns?

Science and Children—March/April 2023 (Volume 60, Issue 4)

By Page Keeley

This issue marks the 77th column I have written for NSTA’s Science and Children journal. Each of these short articles, starting with the first column published in 2010, “Doing Science,” can be used to support professional learning. This month I will share ways this column can be used to support professional learning with a partner, grade level team, or any configuration where two or more teachers come together for professional learning.

Any one of these short articles can be used to delve into a topic related to formative assessment. To use formative assessment effectively in the elementary classroom, the teacher must have access to a repertoire of formative assessment classroom techniques (FACTs) and specially designed probing questions that link research on commonly held ways of thinking about science to core science concepts and phenomena. But having access to these tools and resources is not enough. Teachers need to understand how probes and FACTs are used appropriately and what it looks like when they are used effectively in the classroom. That is the purpose of these columns—to build and support elementary teachers’ use of formative assessment to link assessment, instruction, and students’ thinking in the science classroom. This purpose can be met individually by reading these columns on your own. Or even better, through collaborative structures with two or more colleagues reading and discussing the articles to advance their professional learning. So, what can you do with these 77 articles?

Overall Use of the Columns

  1. Use the table provided online (see Supplemental Resource) to identify articles that match your own or the group’s professional learning goal(s). Read the article(s) and reflect on and discuss how it deepens your understanding of teaching and learning as well as what you will take away to inform your practice. What will you do more of or differently? How could you modify the approach in the article for your grade level? What are the implications for your students? What other suggestions do you have to add to the article?
  2. If you have not seen or used the probe before, answer it yourself before you read the article. By experiencing your own thinking and surfacing your prior knowledge and experiences, you may better understand how your students will think about the concept or phenomenon.
  3. Try out the probe or FACT with your own students and compare what you learned and experienced with your own students to the vignette or description in the article. Share findings across classrooms.
  4. Think about or discuss how to “go further.” What other ideas does your group have to learn more about the topic selected? What additional resources can you find to extend your learning? If you have a copy of one of the Uncovering Student Ideas books that the probe is in, how can the teacher notes provided with the probe give you additional useful information to consider?

Teacher Learning Outcomes

Whichever column(s) you choose to use for your professional learning, consider your own and your group’s learning outcome(s):

Do you want to learn more about the content you teach? The science content in an article might surface a long-held conception you had that might be flawed or not well-developed. Reading these articles can strengthen your knowledge of core disciplinary ideas. It can also help resolve misunderstandings you may have not realized you had until you read the article.

Do you want to learn more about your students’ thinking? Many of these articles describe a scenario of students in someone else’s classroom. It is quite likely your students will think and respond in a similar way. Furthermore, trying out the probe and technique with your own students and sharing your findings will give insight into your own students’ thinking and show how their ideas often mirror the research on commonly held ideas.

Do you want to learn new instructional strategies? The FACTs described in many of the columns inextricably link assessment and instruction. The columns can help you build a rich repertoire of effective teaching strategies that support student thinking about concepts and phenomena as well as help you understand how they use scientific and engineering practices and crosscutting concepts.

Structures and Suggestions for Professional Learning

There are a variety of structures you can use these columns with for engaging in professional learning with your colleagues. The following are a few suggestions for ways to embed the column into professional learning:

  • Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) can select columns for a series of discussions on building capacity to use formative assessment in science. For each meeting a facilitator can design discussion questions to go with the article.
  • Read and discuss an article together with a partner or group. Have a volunteer create a classroom video to show how the idea in the article was implemented in their classroom. Use the video to discuss student learning as well as feedback on how the probe or technique was used.
  • Teachers who mentor new teachers can select columns to read and discuss together. The new teacher can try out the probe and technique and meet with the mentor teacher for reflection and feedback.
  • Combine a column on using a probe with a protocol for looking at student work. Have colleagues bring examples of completed probes from their own students to share, examine, and discuss.
  • Lesson study groups can use a column to inform the design of a lesson they will use. Discussion during the debriefing of the lesson can be linked back to the probe and/or technique.
  • Select a column to share with all teachers at a faculty or grade level team meeting. Discuss how the formative assessment strategy used in the article could be used in all the disciplines, not just science.
  • Curriculum planning groups can use the columns to consider ways to embed formative assessment for the purpose of examining student thinking into the elementary curriculum. The column can be shared to provide implementation support to teachers.
  • Select columns that have probes that target specific concepts and disciplinary core ideas in the Next Generation Science Standards or your state standards and have discussions about the learning implications.

By sharing and discussing these columns with your colleagues, you bring new vitality and ideas to professional learning. The value in sharing the probes, formative assessment classroom techniques (FACTs), new ideas about teaching and learning, student data from the probes, and your own reflections is transformative learning at its best.

Supplemental Resource

Download the table listing all 77 articles and their topics at

Page Keeley ( is a science education consultant and the author of the Uncovering Student Ideas in Science series (

Assessment Instructional Materials Pedagogy Teaching Strategies Elementary

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