Welcome to Mr. Patterson’s science classroom. Each day, Mr. Patterson establishes clear learning intentions and success criteria, and aligns a challenging science task that actively engages his learners in rigorous and relevant science content and process skills. As part of the science teaching and learning in his classroom, he has also created many opportunities for learners to make their thinking visible through checks for understanding. Formative evaluation is one of the critical components to teaching science in the Visible Learning classroom. In addition to formative evaluation and evaluating whether his learners are getting it, Mr. Patterson is also interested in determining students’ learning over the long-haul – not are they getting it (formative evaluations), but did they get it (summative evaluation)? Summative evaluation is also one of the critical components to teaching science in the Visible Learning classroom. Knowing our impact on student learning in science involves more than just formative evaluation of learning. Knowing thy impact also involves recognizing student mastery in their science learning. Let’s start with are they getting it and then close with did they get it.
Formative Evaluation: Are They Getting It?
Formative evaluations that promote visible science learning make student thinking visible. There is a time and place for true/false and multiple-choice questions, but they often do not provide insight into student thinking that allow us to make just-in-time decisions in our science classrooms. In most cases, we know only that the student selected the correct (or incorrect) response, without gaining any information about the thinking process utilized to choose that answer. Formatively evaluating student learning is just as possible with tasks such as investigative laboratories, think-pair-shares, and student discussions. However, this approach requires us to use our learning intention and success criteria to have clarity about what evidence we are looking for in those formative evaluations and to make the learner’s thinking visible. This ensures that the formative evaluation of learning provides the insight necessary to make the best decisions about where to go next in the science teaching and learning. Formative evaluations of learning should:
- Provide opportunities for learners to describe and observe what they see, not simply give definitions. Examples: following a demonstration, have 8th grade learners engage in a three-minute write summarizing the scientific phenomena present in the demonstration; provide 5th grade learners with an image of a habitat and have them describe what they see.
- Create learning tasks that ask students to build explanations and interpretations of scientific phenomena. Examples: offer high school chemistry learners data on atomic radii and ionization energies and allow them to interpret the data and build explanations of periodic trends; provide kindergarteners with a basket of objects and have them test whether they sink or float – then have them interpret and explain their findings.
- Encourage students to not just answer questions but also to reason and justify their responses with evidence. Examples: have high school physics students mathematically support their assertions about potential energy and kinetic energy in a roller coaster; have 3rd graders provide evidence of plant respiration and photosynthesis.
- Engage learners in tasks that require them to take different perspectives or viewpoints. Examples: engage high school biology learners in a debate about off-shore drilling; provide opportunities for 7th grade learners the opportunity to discuss natural selection, the human impact on the environment, and human population.
- Ask learners to explicitly make connections. Examples: regardless of the grade level of the learner, use thinking maps, concept maps, analogies, and metaphors to support meaning making of abstract concepts (i.e., the Kreb’s Cycle, Resistance and Voltage, and Life Cycles).
- Provide a space for learners to pose additional questions or wonders about the world around them. Examples: allow high school learners to place questions on a “parking lot” and respond to those questions for homework; use questions generated by younger learners to drive the book selection in the reading center or corner of the room.
- Conclude learning experiences by asking learners to articulate the big idea behind their learning. Examples: provide high school learners breaks throughout the lesson and allow them to process their learning – ask them to summarize the key points from the previous segment, share those points with a neighbor, and then open this up for the whole class; for 2nd grader learners, have them draw a picture of their science learning and write a paragraph in their interactive writing notebook or journal. (adapted from Ritchhart, Church, & Morrison, 2011)
When we have clarity about what evidence we are looking for in formative evaluations and make learner’s thinking visible, teachers and learners can extract the necessary evidence and monitor the learning progress.
Summative Evaluation: Did They Get It?
Mastery learning is the expectation that learners will grasp specific content and process skills in science. Again, this requires that we establish clarity about the learning in our science classrooms and then organize the learning experiences, noticing which students do and don’t progress along the way. When students experience lesson clarity, they progress towards mastery in their science learning. In addition, the claim underlying mastery learning is that all children can learn when provided with clear explanations of what it means to “master” the material being taught. Although mastery learning does not speak to the time learners need to reach mastery, all students continuously receive evaluative feedback on the performance. Learners know where they are at in their learning, where they are going, and what they can do to bridge the gap. However, we must design tasks that allow learners to show us what they know in the science classroom. Thus, summative evaluation is needed.
In true mastery learning, students do not progress to the next science unit until they have mastered the previous one. But “moving on” could mean that learners move forward in the science learning progression or that they are provided additional learning experiences at the surface, deep, or transfer level to address gaps in their science learning if they are not yet able to demonstrate mastery. To evaluate mastery learning in science, we must develop a summative task that requires student to utilize learning with a standard or standards. This summative task must also be accompanied by a rubric that allows both the teacher and the learner to evaluate his or her level of proficiency.
The summative evaluation of learning is an essential part in teaching science in the Visible Learning classroom. Frey, Hattie, and Fisher (2018) identify this as part of building assessment-capable visible learners in the classroom. The science classroom is no exception. If learners are to know where they are going next in their learning, select the right learning tools to support the next steps tools (e.g., problem-solving approaches, and/or meta-cognitive strategies), and know what feedback to seek about their own learning, they must have opportunities to assess their own mastery with science content. This, of course, comes after learners have engaged in multiple science tasks replete with formative evaluations of their learning that allow teachers and students to adjust learning in the moment. Once that has occurred, it is time to determine students’ level of mastery in the science learning.
To develop a summative evaluation in the science classroom, teachers should:
- Return to the learning intentions and success criteria associated with content for which we are summatively evaluating. What is it that students were supposed to learn?
- Create or select a science task (or a set of tasks) that requires learners to demonstrate their proficiency for each specific learning intention and success criteria. In other words, can students do what each of the learning intentions says they should be able to do?
- Identify criteria for mastery and levels of progress toward mastery (i.e., a rubric).
Teaching and learning science is more than just approaches to teaching science (e.g., direct instruction, inquiry, or problem-solving teaching) or strategies (e.g., discussion, two-column notes, or concept maps). As science teachers, we have to answer two very important questions during the teaching and learning of science: are they getting it and did they get it? This is what John Hattie (2012) refers to as knowing thy impact. What I hope to have conveyed here is that knowing our impact on student learning in science involves more than just formative evaluation of learning. Knowing thy impact also involves recognizing student mastery in their science learning through the summative evaluation of learning. Together, these two critical components to teaching science in the Visible Learning classroom will allow us to ask ourselves an even bigger question: Did I have an impact on my students’ science learning?
This blog provides an overview of the work of John Almarode and his colleagues on Visible Learning for Science, Grades K-12.
Frey, N., Hattie, J., & Fisher, D. (2018). Developing assessment-capable visible learners.
Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.
Hattie, J. (2012). Visible learning for teachers: Maximizing impact on learning. New York, NY: