Saturday, March 10, 2012

Reflections — Fossils 3

In 2010, I was nominated for the Presidential Award for Excellence in Math and Science Teaching—a prestigious honor for math and science teachers in the United States. The rigorous application process provided me with an excellent opportunity to reflect deeply on my classroom practice. Although I was not selected as a finalist, I value my experience in the process. Over the next three blog posts, I would like to share some of what I wrote for my application, which centered around a geologic unit on fossils.

The PAEMST application requires a written narrative on several dimensions of outstanding teaching, including the following areas:

  • Dimension 1: Mastery of Science Content
  • Dimension 2: Instructional Methods and Strategies
  • Dimension 3: Effective Use of Student Assessments

In this entry, I would like to share Dimension 3, Effective Use of Student Assessments...

I effectively use student assessments to evaluate, monitor, and improve student learning... 

Image courtesy of MorgueFile
Recall the essential learning questions for this project: 
  • What are fossils? 
  • How do fossils form? 
  • What can fossils tell us about past life? 

For this project, students are assessed on the quality and depth of information communicated on their individual fossil ID cards. Specifically, each student is assessed on the following essential learning skills: 
  • collecting detailed information from fossil “interviews;” 
  • inferring geologic, environmental, and biological change through time based on fossil evidence; 
  • interpreting rocks and their fossil content to determine past conditions; 
  • describing how fossil evidence can be linked to environmental conditions and biological adaptations of the past.

Over the years, I have refined the “interview” questions to help students maximize their interpretation of clues. The questions have gotten more detailed and specific to better help students uncover the fossil’s life story. What originally began as an exercise in basic fossil identification many years ago has become a quest to understand the life story of a fossil through careful interpretation of evidence—asking essential questions to gain enduring understandings.

I routinely assess and guide student learning... 

One-on-one discussions: These are individual conversations with students where I ask clarifying questions, ask students to explain their thinking to me, or have students show me a particular science skill. Emphasis is placed on meaningful responses that answer “how” and “why” rather than simply “who, what, when, where.” Example: “Tell me your thinking about… or, Show me how you did… or, What did you observe when…? or, What is your evidence for…?”

Table discussions: Usually conducted at the beginning of class, I ask students to discuss a particular topic or question among their table peers while I walk around listening to (or sometimes joining in with) their conversations. The purpose is to promote peer collaboration as well as check for understanding and/or misconceptions. Example: “With your table group, have a two-minute discussion: What do you think are some physical characteristics that all minerals have in common?”

Lab table talk: As students are working on a lab investigation, I circulate throughout the room and visit each table regularly. I ask clarifying questions as needed and ask students to share what they are doing and thinking. I listen and look for evidence of the science process: 

  • setting up safe, controlled laboratory experiments; 
  • recording detailed observations; making precise measurements; 
  • collecting high quality data; discussing observations and evidence; 
  • and analyzing results. 

Lab investigations: At the end of a lab investigation, I will often collect and grade my students’ lab reports to assess their learning. Many of my investigations use an Experiment Planning Guide, which helps students organize and formalize the process of science. I evaluate these planning guides according to the quality and completeness of scientific writing and thinking, particularly whether students can connect their observations, data, and written conclusions to the original learning goal or research question. Example: “An excellent conclusion restates the original purpose (the research question) and summarizes the results of the experiment in a logical, concise manner. An excellent conclusion also includes supporting details and evidence from the data. An excellent conclusion does not speculate on the unknown...”

Quizzes: During each major unit of study, I give one or two quizzes to further evaluate student mastery of science concepts and learning goals. These quizzes ask students to apply what they have learned during the course of a few interconnected lessons and usually involve short written response, data analysis and interpretation, and/or short performance task. Students may use their lab notes and resources during these quizzes, as I feel that using resources is an essential aspect of the scientific process. Example: “Identify two of the minerals from the mineral collection on the front lab table and fully describe the three convincing properties that led you to your identification.”

Projects: Students engage in longer lab investigations (e.g., fossil identification lab) or projects (e.g., physical oceanography research project) once or twice a trimester. I evaluate these projects against holistic “standards of excellence” that clearly define the criteria necessary for excellent learning.


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