Teacher resources and professional development across the curriculum

Teacher professional development and classroom resources across the curriculum

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Case Studies in Science Education

Terez — Grade 4

Teacher Profile

Name Terez
Experience 31 years
Grade & Subject(s) Grade 4; all subjects
Classroom 22 students; 7% special needs; 5% ESL
Demographics Elementary school in a small college town
Science Teaching One hour sessions, three times per week
Curriculum Life, physical, and earth science; District specified
Other Holds a doctorate in science education; Presidential Award for Excellence in Science Teaching, 1993


Module 1 - Introducing the Case

The issue that Terez shares with us involves how to assess accurately what students understand as they progresses through a unit of study. Typically, Terez encourages her students to become active learners by emphasizing cooperative group work. She uses time with each group, along with full-class discussions, to find out what understandings students have from the activities they do.

Following the study of characteristics of rocks, which begins a larger unit on geology, Terez observes in group presentations and accompanying discussion that it is difficult to detect the depth of understanding that she had hoped for from each student. Terez is searching for another way to probe deeper and gain a better understanding of what each student knows.

Rock Classification Activity

Terez encourages her students to investigate and to think like scientists do by asking students to observe some of the characteristics of various rocks and minerals, and then record descriptions of those characteristics on a data sheet.

Discussion Questions

What are the strengths and weaknesses of the rock classification activity in providing opportunities for individual students to learn with understanding? To represent their learning?

What problems does group work present with regard to assessing what individual students learn?

What possibilities does a science folder containing student work offer in assessing individual learning?

Module 2 - Trying New Ideas

Terez meets with Tom Dana, a science educator from Pennsylvania State University, to discuss ways of accurately assessing what individual students know. Together, they strategize how to build upon her use of science folders so that they become more valuable assessment tools. Presently, the folders are collections of papers that represent the outcomes of tasks and exist as a sort of scrapbook.

Terez considers how the folders might include other critical components that suggest student reflection, connections among topics studied, and student ownership.

Sky and Light becomes the unit that will serve as the context of Terez and her students' embarking upon portfolio building. Initially, the science folder serves to help students collect and store their work - a sort of "working portfolio."

As the end of the unit approaches, students have a substantial collection of materials that can be used as resources to help students solve problems, as evidence of their progress in understanding from the beginning of a unit to its end, and as the source for reflection on what students think represents their learning about a topic. Terez wants her students to revisit their portfolios and use the work in them as a resource for extending and connecting their understandings.

Sky and Light Activities

Ongoing activities include weather calendars to track temperature, precipitation, and cloud cover; sunrise and sunset charts to track changes in the amount of daylight from mid- to late spring; and shadow circles to track daily and seasonal changes in the sun's position overhead as indicated by changes in a vertical stick's shadow relative to due North. The materials and representations that are the products of these activities are maintained in a portfolio as resources to be used as evidence of understanding.

Discussion Questions

What prior conceptions do you think Terez and her students have about the role of portfolios in science teaching and learning?

What do you understand to be the distinctions between a scrapbook and a portfolio?

How do you think portfolios can be used to assess what individuals learn? To promote learning?

Module 3 - Reflecting and Building on Change

Teams of students work together, using the work in their portfolios to formulate questions and then to answer one another's questions. Group conferences with Terez allow her the opportunity to encourage students to ponder some of the ways that the work in their portfolios might help students process the results of previous activities.

Recently, the students worked with prisms to learn more about refraction of light. Students also made diagrams and created a bulletin board showing their representation of atmospheric layers. Peers share what each has learned from evidence found in their portfolios. Finally, each group shares understandings in a portfolio presentation to the whole class.

Terez shares with us the newfound potential that portfolios offer her and her students. Student reflection becomes evident, as does individual student's learning over a period of time. The use of portfolios aids the learning process, engages students in creating the learning process, and allows for students' self-assessment. Students know what comes next; they revisit and continue to construct their own understandings when reviewing portfolios. Terez realizes that there is more to portfolios than assessment and she looks forward to using them to their full potential.

Portfolio Presentation

Groups of students use the work in their individual portfolios to create and then to answer challenging questions related to Sky and Light topics.

Discussion Questions

How has Terez' use of portfolios in science teaching and learning changed? In assessing individual learning

What do you consider to be the most promising uses of portfolios in science? The most problematic?

How would you go about building the use of portfolios into your science curriculum?


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