Assessment in primary science

In 1998, professors Paul Black and Dylan Wiliam carried out extensive research in which they quantified assessment methods used in classrooms. The objective of this survey was to evaluate methods used to assess learning; the aim was to locate the most successful evaluation methods in producing actual student learning and comprehension of the specific area of science. Black and Wiliam, (1998) coined the term ‘assessment’ “to include all activities that teachers and students undertake to get information that can be used diagnostically to alter teaching and learning.”

Black and Wiliam, (1998) compare the classroom environment to a black box, describing how specific inputs are fed into a box determining pupils achievement, however in order to understand how and why children learn at different levels one must closely examine what actually happens inside the box.

Science may be conceptualised as a search for truths, a means of discovering theories, laws, and principles associated with reality. The constructivist epistemology advocates that through the varying senses of sight, hearing, touch, smell and taste we learn about physical phenomena. With these messages from the senses the individual is able to build a picture of the world. (Lorsbach and Tobin, 1990)

Bruner, renowned for influencing psychological and educational thought, believed the constructivist theory was a general framework for instruction based upon Piaget’s theory of cognition. Bruner maintained the active process of learning allowing pupils to construct new ideas or concepts based upon their current or past knowledge. By selecting and transforming information, the learner is able to construct hypotheses, and makes decisions, relying on a cognitive structure to provide meaning and organization to experiences, allowing the individual to “go beyond the information given”. Bruner (1).

Bruner endorsed what is called ‘The Spiral Curriculum,’ enabling pupils to learn a subject and at various stages in their schooling the subject be re-visited with greater depth and emphasis, deepening the child’s knowledge and understanding. (Harnqvist and Burgen, 1997:28; Bickhard, 1998) cited in (Hudson, 2004)

A lesson covering electricity, which I observed was demonstrated during BSE2. The host class teacher relayed information in a didactic fashion, whereupon the children immediately began transcribing into their books, learning, ‘if at all’ by rote. Coburn, (1995:11) endorsed that rote memorisation is rarely meaningful, often as a result most of what students memorise is soon forgotten.

Black and Wiliam (1998) believe that if teachers assesses how a pupil is or is not progressing then the information can be used to make essential instructional adjustments, for example, by re-teaching the subject using alternative instructional approaches. While it is important that assessment, planning and recording should be systematic, it is equally important that strategies should be practicable in the classroom. Interrelated teaching, learning and assessment at the planning stage can lead to more effective assessment. (ibid)

The teacher explained how a circuit worked by drawing the image onto the board, I felt the questioning in the plenary appeared unsuccessful, many had little understanding of how a light was powered, how a radio produced sound, or how a kettle produced heat. It seemed the abstract concept remained abstract.

Following this assessment I was able to plan for the next lesson, which I had decided to teach from scratch. My lesson began with the orientation phase (Appendix 1) Constructivists recognise this as ‘setting the scene’ for the lesson by clearly introducing the aims and outcomes to engage pupils interest and encouraging a curiosity towards exploring new experiences. This allows them to see the intended goals to which would be aiming towards. My aim was to move away from verbal and written instruction and to encourage and develop objective minds this would allow the children to actively participate in the learning process using a variety of activities, involving problem solving, searching for truths and thinking critically.

Dyson and Gater (1987:7) suggest that the constructivist view of learning perceives pupils as active learners, already holding ideas regarding natural phenomena which they, use in their everyday lives in order to make sense of day-to-day experiences.

Parker (2004:829) expresses that although electricity is part of everyday life it is an abstract concept to children in that it cannot be seen but it’s effects are evident. Therefore teaching must incorporate the use of analogy to support learning at the qualitative level.

To stimulate curious minds a display table was made, consisting of candles, lamps, solar lights, torches, batteries, a picture of the sun, wires and switches. I asked them to think about the following abstract question, “where do you think electricity comes from?” Responses to this question were intriguing, including ‘God, lightening, the sun, gigantic batteries, wires, plugs, sockets’ and a ‘power station. ‘ Dyson and Gater (1987) advocate this style of teaching as it provides opportunities to arouse children’s interest and curiosity at the same time informing future planning. Assessment becomes formative assessment when the evidence is actually used to adapt the teaching to meet student needs. (Black & Wiliam, 1998)

Brookheart, (2001) stresses the value of formative assessment. Both qualitative and quantitative studies have provided convincing evidence of its effectiveness. The extensive analysis of research undertaken by Black and Wiliam (1998) provides as strong a confirmation of the effectiveness of formative assessment as is likely to be obtained from experimental studies in an arena in which control is always problematic. This form of assessment supports teaching and learning by providing feedback to learners and teachers, it is often referred to as ‘assessment for learning’.

In addition to the class-orientation task the children were also given a homework task. The objective was, to write down everything they could find at home, requiring battery power or electricity and to think of alternatives that may have been used before the discovery of electricity.

Following this I presented an elicitation task to assess the children’s concepts of electricity. (Appendix 2) The elicitation phase explained by Needham, (1987) may provide a stimulus provoking learners to modify and develop their thinking. On the interactive whiteboard I displayed a giant flashing light bulb and underneath labelled the word ‘ELECTRICITY,’ aiming towards reflective thinking. I asked the children to write on their whiteboards what came to their mind when I said ‘ELECTRICITY.’ The children produced some wonderful and vivid answers such as ‘electric eels, lightening, glow-worms, toasters, kettles, X-boxes, the sun, stars, moon, light and microwaves’ some even managed to write bulbs, wires, batteries, plugs and switches. This gave me an insight into their thinking, enabling me to make a clear and formative assessment. Some children were clearly a little more advanced in thought process and many related electricity purely to household appliances.

Ollerenshaw and Ritchie (2000:73) maintain that ‘children’s alternative ideas are rarely illogical – for this reason they should not be dismissed as ‘wrong’ or ‘immature’ where they differ from a conventional scientific view.’ Ofsted (2000) supports this, stating that pupils should be allowed to get things wrong using the opportunity to promote more rigorous scientific enquiry.

The ARG, (2002) recognise in one of ‘The Ten Key Principles of Assessment for Learning’ (AfL) (Appendix 3) that teacher’s comments, can seriously impact upon the learners’ confidence, performance, grades and enthusiasm, therefore feedback should be constructive as focused comments are more productive for learning and motivation. Hattie (1987) reinforces this stating that the most powerful single influence is constructive feedback. Yorke, (2005) supports this claim stating that there is a danger that some pupils will interpret criticism of their work as being criticism of them as a person.

The Assessment Reform Group (ARG) (2002) state; “a teacher’s planning should include strategies to ensure that learners understand the goals they are pursuing and the criteria that will be applied in assessing their work. How learners will receive feedback, how they will take part in assessing their learning and how they will be helped to make further progress should also be planned.” “What knowledge do I want them to acquire?” “What conceptual understandings do I want them to reach?” “What scientific skills do I want them to develop?” Black, and Wiliam. (1998)

The ARG, (2002) agree that a consistency in expectations implies continuity and progression in motivating children and in time will help determine their success level. Jarman et al (1994) support this claim pointing out that if teachers share aims and objectives on curriculum content, delivery and assessment then progression and motivation is maintained and consistent throughout the key stages, reducing repetition. However Galton, 2002; Nicholls and Gardner, 1999 would argue this claim, stating that some pupils do not progress as expected due to anxieties towards their new environment, differing teaching styles, teachers’ ignorance of each other’s curriculum content and approaches and teachers’ distrust of each other’s assessments of pupils

To allow metacognitive thinking teachers must encourage deeper, more reflective learning where the focus leans towards framing questions, making them explicit, allowing pupils to go beyond recall and encourage inferential and deductive reasoning. Teachers need to feel confident when making judgments, in order to understand and identify the criteria against which a child is being assessed. (Rowe, 1974; Herne et al 2000)

The SPACE research report included an account presenting children’s responses to explaining the phenomena associated with electricity. During the research, each child was asked to write a sentence about electricity, responses were similar to those from my own experience, for example the main feature was the association of electricity with the functioning of a piece of household machinery; ‘electricity gives us light,’ ‘a heater uses electricity,’ ‘electricity is used for kettles’ and electricity comes from the sun.’ (Osbourne et al, 1991:18)

By focussing on key scientific vocabulary we discussed circuits, conductors and insulators, to address any misconceptions we moved onto what is called the ‘intervention and restructuring stage.’ Each child was given a circuit pack and asked to test a variety of materials in order to sort and classify into a specific category, allowing children to use hands on practical learning through testing and discussion.

Vygotsky who was most often associated with the social constructivist theory, advocated that any such science activity must be practical not pragmatic

“I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand.”

Ofsted (2004) state that the overall quality of teaching in primary schools remains most effective when pupils are actively involved in reflective thinking and scientific enquiry. Coburn (1995) supports this claim expressing; practical activities and hands-on learning are not enough if the pupil is not allowed to engage in negotiation and interpretation of ideas. (Newman and Holzman, 1993)

My assessment was to see if pupils could successfully build their circuits, I quickly discovered some were unable to light the bulb. After gentle questioning in an attempt to draw the answer, I asked, “what would happen if: I removed the battery;” “one of the crocodile clips?” The children were eager to tell me that it wouldn’t work as the circuit would be broken and it had to be complete. As a result I asked them to check that all the components of the circuit were in place. This allowed the children to review and reflect upon what elements were required to allow the flow of electrons to travel around the circuit, hence the review stage in Dyson and Gater’s (1987) model (Appendix 1)

Many children were surprised to see that the lead in the pencil lit the bulb. Many were unable to look beyond the wood surrounding the pencil. I explained that lead was a type of metal and that if they looked in their bathrooms behind the sink they would see lead in a different form, as piping. The only way I could think of how to describe this further was to refer to sweets and the fact that sweets came in many different shapes, forms-textures and sizes but were still classified as sweets.

Throughout the lesson the children actively participated in critical discussion forming self-evaluative-assessment. Sadler, (1983) believes that self-assessment is essential for progress as a learner: for understanding of selves as learners, for an increasingly complex understanding of tasks and learning goals, and for strategic knowledge of how to go about improving

In order to self-assess, the pupils explained why certain situations occurred during their testing. However, The ARG, (1999:6) believe that self-assessment can often be a device to save the teacher’s time than a way of engaging pupils in their own learning. With this in mind if an answer was ambiguous I would continue asking probing questions, offering clues to help channel and discover the answer. The plenary was used, as a platform for formative assessment, asking for volunteers to share in their own words the concepts they had discovered from the experiment.

The aim during the ‘review and application’ stage of the lesson supported by Dyson and Gater (1987) is that eliminative testing restructures children’s ideas towards the tested scientific theory because they have physically taken part in the learning process. Heywood and Parker (1997) support this claim stating that learners will only find analogies useful when they resonate strongly with the experience. As a result my aim was that learning had been valuable offering far greater reward than if they had simply written from a teacher rote transmission.

Ausubel (1968) maintained, only personally meaningful learning is true learning and with this in mind it was anticipated that the children would be able to develop their ideas and apply what they had learnt to their everyday lives, armed with a more sophisticated knowledge of electricity.

Ollerenshaw and Ritchie (2000) claim that when children first meet new materials and experiences in the classroom their initial ideas can be quite random, and somewhat hazy. This is the point when it is time to unravel and make clear the path for their awaiting knowledge. During the elicitation/diagnostic process there are many assessment opportunities allowing the teacher to see and hear many things. The teacher has the ability to listen to the vocabulary the children are using, for instance are they engaging with the correct scientific language, the level of their questioning, the level of understanding whether basic or advanced, the amount of applicable knowledge displayed on their concept maps and in their written work.

Assessment must accommodate pupils’ needs at all levels, helping to shape and inform future planning, by maintaining the pace of learning, planning and teaching. Self-assessment should encourage pupils to reflect upon their work but more crucially be able to identify ways to move forward in order to improve their performance.

The DfES, (2002) sum up that “assessment, recording and reporting are important elements of teaching but they have to be manageable if the information they yield is to be useful.”

To conclude Continuity and Progression should sequence instructions involving pupil’s concepts of science at successively higher levels of abstraction throughout the key stages. Repeated experiences in different contexts help children to build and link relationships with concepts of increased complexity over time. This gradual progression of process and content helps children relate science to themselves and their everyday lives.