Age-Appropriate Goals and Assessment
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(1 of 4)
Author: SL

Dear Dr. Harlen,

I am concerned about evaluating the process and the children. How will I know if a science activity is successful? I give tests, but tests don't really let me know what the students understand. Do you recommend any other evaluation techniques for the unit of study? Often tests only show which child can remember the notes I distributed the week before. Can you recommend another way to evaluate what the children learned?


(2 of 4)
Author: Harlen, Wynne

Several participants have asked about assessment, so I’ve invited others to ‘eavesdrop’ on our discussion. As a start we need to be clear about why you want to assess the students. You ask ‘how will I know if a science activity has been successful?’ This suggests that you want to assess their learning for your own benefit, so that you can help the students to learn effectively (formative assessment). But teachers are also required to assess learning in order to report it to others, that is, summative assessment. I call the latter assessment of learning and the former, assessment for learning. In fact a great deal of what is discussed in relation to starting from students’ ideas is part of formative assessment.

Formative assessment helps the process of learning. The importance of formative assessment for learning follows from the constructivist view that the development of understanding starts from existing ideas and skills. Thus teachers need to know about how these skills and ideas are developing if they are to help students to construct scientific understanding in the way described in the inquiry learning model. There is, too, considerable evidence that improvement of formative assessment leads to considerable gains in levels of achievement.

However, improving formative assessment requires teachers to make considerable efforts including sharing learning goals with students, feeding back the teacher’s assessment to students in particular ways, involving students in self-assessment and using effective methods of helping students to take the next steps in their learning. Formative assessment has to take account of all the aspects of students which affect their learning - not only the progress being made in knowledge and skills, but the effort put in and the other aspects of learning which are unspecified in any curriculum. It must be positive, indicating what are the next steps to take, not pointing out what is missing.

The teacher will have in mind the progression which (s)he intends for the student, and this will be the basis of the action taken. The teacher will be looking across several instances in which a particular skills or idea is being used and will see variations and possibly patterns in behaviour. It is these variations that provide diagnostic information because they indicate what helps the student to use a skill.

Summative assessment has an important but different role in student’s education. Its purpose is to give a summary of achievement at various times, as required. It can be achieved by summing up (summarising evidence already used for formative purposes) or checking up (giving a test or special task) or a combination of these. Since its purpose is to report achievement to parents, other teachers, students, school boards, etc. then reliability of the judgements is important and criteria have to be used uniformly.

The difference between the two purposes of assessment should be kept very clearly in mind, especially when both are carried out by teachers. It is too often assumed that assessment that is carried out frequently is formative, or that all assessment by teachers is formative. When this happens the true value of formative assessment will not be realised.

An alternative to tests is to use evidence from observing students and from their regular work (their writing, drawings and notebooks) and to consider how it can be interpreted in terms of progress in various process skills. For this you need a list of criteria describing development (and there are such lists in a later chapter in the book I mentioned above).

For example, the list relating to making predictions is expressed in terms of questions to ask yourself about the evidence gathered about a particular student. The questions are roughly in a sequence of development of the skill: Does s/he:

  1. Attempt to make a prediction relating to a problem even if it is based on pre-conceived ideas?
  2. Make some use of evidence from experience in making a prediction?
  3. Make reasonable predictions based on a possible explanation (hypothesis) without necessarily being able to make the justification explicit?
  4. Explain how a prediction that is made relates to a pattern in observations?
  5. Use patterns in information or observations to make justified interpolations or extrapolations?
  6. Justify a prediction in terms of a pattern in the evidence or an idea might explain it?

A similar approach can be used to assess ideas, such as about materials: Can s/he use these ideas?

  1. That materials differ in properties and can be grouped according to their properties
  2. That materials are used for different purposes according to their properties
  3. That materials can be changed by heating (eg melting) and interaction with each other (eg dissolving)
  4. That their properties (including solid, liquid or gas) can be explained by their composition and structure
  5. That new materials can be formed from chemical reaction of other materials

Use the evidence you have to decide

  • which of the questions in the lists of process skills and attitudes can be answered by ‘yes’, and
  • which of the ideas in the relevant lists of ideas students have shown that they can use.

Finding where the positive answers to the questions turn into negative ones - or more realistically, where it becomes difficult to say yes or no - locates the student’s development within the map. Furthermore, and importantly, this process indicates the next step, which is to consolidate the skills and ideas around the area where ‘yes’ turns into ‘no’. In relation to using tests, I have yet to see a satisfactory test of inquiry skills, although I believe it is possible to construct such things. Assessment is a large subject and I have only skimmed it here, focusing mainly on the formative use of assessment since this is integral to helping students to learn through inquiry.


(3 of 4)
Author: MK

Dear Dr. Harlen--
I teach second grade and have been finding it difficult to translate the knowledge I have gained during this class to my classroom. Your ideas and descriptions of children's learning have helped me make a connection. Children need to build up understanding bit by bit. They must link new information to what they already know. At the second grade level I sometimes find this to be very difficult. If students have no background to draw from how do you make the necessary connections?

Am I right to assume that at the grade 2 level I should be working on improving or fostering the skills involved in the linking process? The skills in the checking process seem to be too difficult for my students to handle.

I would appreciate any help or advice you could give me.

(4 of 4)
Author: Wynne Harlen

I gather that you are working with young children some at least of whom don’t bring a particularly rich experience to the classroom.

It is certainly part of the role of the school to provide lots of experience for the young children – to allow them to explore freely and to talk to each other so that they articulate their ideas and hear about others’.

The grouping of the process skills into linking and checking processes was not intended to be hierarchical – one coming before the other. I think that all the processes are developmental and that even young children can be helped to make a start at the early stages of developing the ability to make predictions and to investigate.

For example, you can encourage children to say what they think might happen if they do something and gradually ask them to say why they think this and encourage them to use evidence rather than preconceived ideas. They can then think about what they would do to see if their prediction is really what happens.

The early stages of planning and conducting investigations are to start with a general approach even if details are lacking. And of course they can talk about what they are doing and the ideas they have about it and be encouraged to listen to others’ ideas and look at what others have found. So its important not to expect the ‘full blown’ skill to be shown all at once.

If you don’t start somewhere, however, the more sophisticated forms of the processes won’t develop. But you are right in thinking that there are activities that are particularly appropriate for young children whose characteristic ways of thinking are limited because they:

  • need to carry out actions to see their result rather than 'think through' them.
  • look at things from only one point of view, their own.
  • focus on one aspect of an object or situation at a time.
  • identify only parts of a sequence of events.

They are likely to remember the first and last stages in the sequence, but not the ones in between. These points have clear consequences for the sorts of activities the children will be able to learn from. The children's limitations are obvious. It will be no use expecting them to see patterns in events until they have begun to connect events in a sequence.

The notion of a cause being related to an effect is still developing, so the idea of separating two or more variables to test the effect of each separately is still a long way off. Their limited experience will mean that their ideas tend to be based on few very specific instances, selectively observed, having little explanatory power as far as new experience is concerned.

Equally clear are the indications for the kinds of experience that are appropriate at this age. Action and thinking are closely related to each other, reflecting their even closer identification at an earlier, preschool, stage. Thus they need to be able to act on things, to explore, manipulate, describe, sort and group them.

First-hand experience and exploration of objects in their immediate environment is the chief aim of teaching science to children at this early stage. The content of the activities is therefore found in what is around the children and suitable topics start from everyday events. When the children have had plenty of experience of acting on things and using the skills they already have with success, they will become able to replace some action by thought and they are then on the way to rational thinking and the development of higher-levels of process skills.

Appropriate activities include plenty of:

  • looking, handling, using other senses on material collected and displayed in the classroom
  • watching, standing and staring at things in their natural state in the immediate neighbourhood
  • collecting things and sorting them
  • trying things out
  • making things, particularly models, that in some way 'work'
  • taking things apart and reconstructing them
  • talking about what they have observed and sometimes recording it in pictures and models and in words when they can
  • discussing their ideas and trying to think of explanations for things they have noticed.

Hope this helps to confirm your own thinking, MK.

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