But What Are They Learning?

As educators, we experience the excitement that hands-on approaches generate and enthusiastically watch students become involved with science as they create products and solve problems. Yet we find ourselves in somewhat of a dilemma. We sense that these approaches significantly impact student learning but find it difficult to measure the full extent of student growth using traditional test approaches.

We have heard the terms "alternative assessment," "authentic assessment," and "performance assessment" to mention a few. No matter what name we give to these strategies, we find that they all focus on the need to assess learning within the framework of what students can do, perform, or create based on their experiences. At the Chicago Botanic Garden, we have developed practical examples of performance assessments to complement teaching the plant life cycle. Some examples follow:

Using Portfolios

A portfolio assessment can best be described as an assessment system. Within the system, be it a folder, envelope, or other container, are examples of student work performed over a specified period of time. Those examples are used as evidence on which to base judgments of individual student progress. The portfolio is most useful when the purpose is defined in advance and criteria for assessing learning are identified.

In our Leaves unit, we assess the student's ability to make observations of leaves and to communicate these observations through a written or verbal description. Criteria are established before the observations begin. At the third grade level, for instance, we might expect a student's description to include: vein pattern, color, texture, shape, and leaf measurements. As the unit unfolds, students begin by writing down or stating observations of a leaf they have collected. Teachers are instructed to save these observations and leaves in the students' portfolio. After many hands-on activities that focus upon leaf observations, students are asked to observe the same leaf and write a description, then compare their two observations. The second observation should include more detailed leaf attributes, measurements, and correct vocabulary. In this case, the portfolio provides the teacher with concrete examples of student gains and also reflects on their own progress.

Using Creative Drama

Teachers often find that as children act out a concept, the meanings they have constructed become quite evident. If misconceptions are apparent as the drama unfolds, the teacher can help to correct them immediately.

In our plant science curriculum, for example, we recommend using creative drama to assess the students' understanding of the plant life cycle. The criteria we use are Minimal Achievement (the student correctly acts out the stages of the plant life cycle); Moderate Achievement (the student correctly acts out the stages of the plant life cycle and indicates some understanding through action of how the plant moves from one stage to the next-e.g., acting out the bud opening into a flower); Excellent Achievement (the student acts out all the stages of the plant life cycle and shows a clear understanding of how the plant moves from one stage to the next -- e.g., the student acts out a flower being pollinated before the formation of a fruit). By establishing these criteria in advance, we can be far more consistent and unbiased in judging students' work.

Having Students Create a Product

Another means of assessing student learning is by having students produce an end product that requires the incorporation of learned concepts. Children's products can reveal a great deal about their thinking. A key to this approach is that the teacher clearly states the expectations of the project to the student in advance.

The culminating activity for our Flowers unit involves this concept. Students become actively involved in flower exploration by observing flowers, listing their attributes, dissecting flowers, and pollinating them with paintbrushes. At the end of the unit we ask students to design a flower and prepare a brief presentation. Guidelines are clearly stated at the beginning. For instance: Your flower should include sepals, petals, stamens, and a pistil. You should be able to tell us the name of your flower, where it lives, why a pollinator would be attracted to it, and how the flower makes seeds. Teachers can then use these guidelines to create a checklist to assess learning.

Using a KWL Chart

The KWL Chart is a group assessment technique that focuses on finding out what students know and using that information to inform our teaching decisions and strategies. The KWL Chart is used at the beginning of a unit to find out what students know (K) and what students want to know (W). Following hands-on activities what students have learned (L) is added. This approach enables us to identify and reconstruct students' misconceptions as they work through the unit. Throughout the unit teachers and students refer back to the KWL Chart assessing how ideas have changed, what questions they have answered, and what questions remain as a springboard for further inquiry. We suggest one addition to the KWL: what I want to learn next, so students view learning as an ongoing process.

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