Science Assessment: A Growing Challenge

By Eve Pranis

Sure they're excited and having fun, but how does classroom gardening improve students' science and problem solving skills, content understanding, and attitudes toward learning? We're all facing increasing national and local pressures to identify what students are really gaining from different instructional efforts. Although standardized paper-and-pencil-type tests have been the norm, more and more educators are recognizing the limitations of these tools. They are particularly inadequate for measuring gains from active, inquiry-oriented learning programs.

We reviewed 120 teachers' survey responses (1992) to identify what teachers believe students were gaining from garden-based learning, and to find out what tools teachers are using to assess these changes.

Suggestions for Assessing Science Skills

Since GrowLab strongly focuses on using science process and problem solving skills, consider asking yourself some of the following questions about science skills when reviewing student journals, observing individuals and groups, and engaging in class discussions. Your questions will vary, of course, with grade level teaching objectives, individual students, teaching style, etc. You may want to design a checklist or card file to track each student's progress (via anecdotes, a continuum, or scoring procedure) in some of the areas that follow. Consider preceding each question with: Is this student increasingly...

...using a range of senses in observing/investigating phenomena?
...identifying similarities and differences and noticing patterns between events, objects, characteristics?
...showing attention to detail in all types of observations?
...recognizing sequences of events?

Raising Questions
...asking questions that could be researched or that could lead to investigations?
...showing interest in and following through on investigating his or her own questions?

...displaying results accurately, using graphs, tables, charts?
...recording the process and results in an organized fashion?

Planning Investigations
...understanding what materials are needed to carry out investigations?
...recognizing what variable will change and how, and which will stay constant for a fair test?
...understanding what he or she should measure and compare?
...applying previous understanding or knowledge to help form hypothesis for investigation?

Interpreting Information/Results
...correctly interpreting graphs, charts, etc., and using patterns to make predictions?
...using information gained through investigations to infer, draw conclusions, and develop new hypotheses?
...identifying factors that could have influenced results?
...identifying ways to improve investigations?
...avoiding overgeneralizations?

Taking Action
...applying classroom learning to outside challenges and problems?
...seeking resources beyond the classroom to extend learning?

Tools Gardening Teachers Use to Assess Students

Your feedback indicates that you use a range of tools to gather data for assessing students' progress from their plant- and garden-based experiences. They include the following:

  • Journals/notebooks/drawings
  • Observations of hands-on activities (sometimes including informal checklists)
  • Individual and class discussions
  • Students teaching/sharing with others (One fifth-grade classroom planned and later videotaped a lesson for first graders.)
  • Observations and reports of cooperative learning groups
  • Feedback from parents
  • Dramatizations
  • Participation in student-run businesses
  • Paper and pencil measures
  • Students' evaluations of their own plants and work

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