What are some science skills students need to know how to do? I can sum it up in one statement: we want students to be able to think (and do) like a scientist. Therefore, science students need to know how to design and run experiments, collect and analyze data, draw conclusions and defend them. (Refer to curricular standards here) All the content we teach – KMT, cell division, continental drift, Newton’s laws – they are just avenues through which students practice science skills.
One problem I run into is not knowing what skills students need help with. Do they know what an independent or dependent variable is? How about the concept of a control with them? Do they know how to read a graph (and draw conclusions from it)? Typically, teachers analyze student lab reports for clues. Or, we can collect notebooks or assignments. But, students can plagiarize lab reports (or assignments). Or, students don’t hand them in. And, lab reports take time to mark – even if you are just marking one or two questions. Is there a way students can quickly demonstrate and practice science skills?
Not your ordinary quiz or test
We believe so. In fact, multiple choice tests like the science component of the ACT (American College Test) already test for science skills like analyzing graphs and drawing conclusions. However, the ACT is meant for Grade 12 students who are graduating and applying for college. What about students in Grade 8 and 9, who may need more help developing the science skills that will help them for the rest of their high school career? We developed a quick 10 minute activity that has students read a summary of a real lab experiment and then answer a set of multiple choice questions that require students to apply and practice science skills. It is inspired by ACT and MCAT (Medical College Admissions Test), which measure how students apply science skills. Our activity is meant to help students and teachers identify and practice science skills that may need attention. We outline how we did it below, but you can also download our activity (ie. an actual research study that studies whether water immersion after high-intensity exercise improves recovery) at the end of the post.
How we do it
1. Go online to find interesting science research articles.
Our two favourite websites right now are the Public Library of Science and Research Gate, both of which provide free full length research articles for the public to use and redistribute. Both sites allow you to search their database for articles too. EBSCO is great as well, but articles may require purchasing or licensing if you decide to distribute or post on a website. Newsela and other student news sites I avoid because of the lack of experimental design and results detail I am looking for. For our activity, we found our article on the Public Library of Science.
2. Filter for articles with simple graphs. Summarize those articles.
After I find an interesting research, I look for one thing: simple graphs and tables for students to analyze. Do the results of the article have bar graphs, line graphs, or regression curves? If so, then I tend to use the article. Does the research include data tables with easily understandable variables and measurements? If so, I tend to use those too.
3. Create questions with a focus on science skills.
For me, the most simple questions to come up with focus on data analysis and experimental design. For example…
- What is the independent variable and dependent variable in this experiment?
- By looking at a graph, what is the value of y if given a value of x? Or, what is the value of x given a value of y?
- What possible change could we see in the graph if we changed another variable?
- How can we increase/decrease a certain x or y value on the graph?
There are no limits to the way we ask questions. But, to make things easier, I try to stay focused on measuring the science skills I value.
- I like to use online bubble sheet programs (like Zipgrade). Besides being a quick and easy method to marking multiple choice questions, most of these programs including Zipgrade are able to track which which choices students selected for each question and also tally what percentage of students got certain questions right or wrong. This way, I get to know which questions and concepts were particularly challenging for the class so I can address those issues. I also potentially get to know which roadblocks an individual student is encountering by referring to the answers they selected.
Long after a student forgets the content we teach them (ie. the names of each stage of mitosis, Bohr and Lewis diagrams, evidence for continental drift), we hope students remember how to problem solve and think like a scientist. If science skills are what we value as educators, and I do, then I need to find a way to measure it and for students to practice it. Although a multiple choice assignment/quiz may have some drawbacks, I believe it’s quicker than reading lab reports when trying to assess a student’s science competencies.
If you want more of our samples, our REAL Science Challenge contests also have similar questions and passages. And, we also host the REAL Science Challenge contest series which feature passages and questions that measure and practice science skills and is written by students from around the world.
To get more information on our contest series, please visit our contest information page. To download our sample quiz, click the link below to join our email list. You will get our sample quiz on sent to your inbox.
Until next time, keep it REAL.