Finding out what students know and can do

I teach sixth grade science, and my students come from five district elementary schools and several private schools. Some schools emphasize science more than others, so it’s hard to know what knowledge and experience each student has. My principal suggested giving a pretest at the beginning of the year or for each unit, but that sounds time consuming, and I question how effective it would be. Do you have any suggestions to help me figure out what students know? —A., California

I worked on a project that required students to complete a multiple-choice pre– and posttest to assess the effectiveness of an instructional program. The students were upset during the pretest because they didn’t know many of the answers. Even though we explained that they weren’t expected to know everything and the pretest wouldn’t count as a grade, it was still a frustrating experience.

A pretest in your case at the beginning of the year would attempt to assess what students already know. Students would be asked to recall what they learned a year or more ago without a context or prompt or time to think. This isolated, once-and-done assessment could be stressful for students as well as time-consuming for you.

On the other hand, what students already know about a topic is just as important as the activities you plan or the materials you use. You could look at your school district’s curriculum guide for the elementary grades, but as you noted, some topics may have been emphasized more than others depending on the teacher and available resources.

Preliminary activities can help you and the students determine the knowledge, skills, and experiences they bring to the learning unit. I’d suggest using activities that stimulate student thinking about the concepts, provide a context for their thinking, and relate to the learning goals. For example,

  • KWL charts are three-column graphic organizers on which students note what they already (K)now about a topic, what they (W)ant to know, and finally what they (L)earn about a topic. The K and W columns can provide information prior to instruction on students’ knowledge and interests. The L column is a self-assessment during and at the end of the unit. This strategy has been around for a while and there are many variations. (see “KLEWS to Explanation Building” in the February 2015 Science and Children ). ).
  • Using a visual as a prompt, ask students to list in their notebooks what they know about a topic or to generate a list of related words. As with a KWL chart, students can include what they’ve learned about a topic from a variety of sources, including what they may have learned outside of school.
  • On a list of key vocabulary or concepts ask students to put a plus sign next to those they’re comfortable with, a check mark next to those they’ve heard of but are not sure about, and a question mark next to those with which they are completely unfamiliar. At the end of the unit, students can revisit the list.
  • Using letters in a term from the unit, ask students to think of a related word or idea that starts with each letter. Students enjoy working together or sharing their lists. It’s interesting to do this again at the end of the unit to see if students respond differently or in greater detail.

Assessing students’ prior knowledge can also identify misconceptions or incomplete understandings. Page Keeley has written a series of books on Uncovering Student Ideas in Science.  The “probes” in these books are brief activities that help teachers of all grade levels identify students’ preconceptions or misconceptions about a topic. If you would like to preview what these probes look like, NSTA’s Science & Children publishes one in each issue.

To assess more than content knowledge, at the beginning of the year have students complete an activity or investigation with minimal directions from you. As you observe them, you’ll have a chance to note their thinking and problem-solving skills, as well as their measuring, data-organizing, graphing, and writing abilities. In terms of interpersonal skills, you also can start to identify who are the leaders, bosses, followers, thinkers, creative minds, disrupters, class clowns, and bystanders.

Students may claim to be unfamiliar with a topic until they think about it. I found that some students had had teachers who used different terminology, which often confused those students. And I also learned that students knew more than they (and I) thought.

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