Finding Learning beneath the Surface: Monitoring Student Progress with Science Practice Learning Progressions

Article excerpt

"We found worms and larvae!" my students call to me as they come running down the hill next to our local pond. Our class is conducting investigations in a local ecosystem as part of an ecology unit. The group of students digging for worms is investigating a question they generated after making observations during an earlier visit to the pond: If there are leaves and dirt at Jamaica Pond, why aren't there any worms? Students are participating in open inquiry--the type of inquiry in which students ask their own questions and figure out their own answers.

Although students digging for worms may appear to be a simple activity, we as science teachers know the high degree of preparation necessary in order to provide students with the opportunity to learn through open inquiry. As practitioners of inquiry-based science education, we create lessons that simultaneously develop students' understanding of content and enhance their ability to carry out scientific inquiry. We give our students opportunities to ask their own questions and gather and interpret their own data. We do this because we know that in order for students to learn to make their own discoveries beyond our classes, they need the opportunity to engage in science as part of the curriculum.

If we want our students to become capable practitioners of scientific inquiry, we should not stop at providing opportunities to do inquiry. We need to be intentional about assessing and teaching the competencies necessary for inquiry. Just as teaching a student to play the piano entails more than providing the opportunity to play, teaching a student to conduct scientific inquiry entails more than just providing the opportunity to practice it. Like the piano teacher, we need to pay attention to the abilities a student brings to the table, consider our goals for the student, and figure out a way to take the student from where he or she is to where we want the student to be.


Students are better able to learn through inquiry when they have developed the ability to employ science practices. This does not mean we should try to teach these practices in isolation before giving our students the opportunity to learn through inquiry. It does mean, however, that we should recognize where students are in their development and incorporate the teaching of these practices into our instruction. While the best instruction in science integrates the development of science practices with concept development, the most meaningful assessment in science measures these competencies separately. We need to do the work of uncovering student abilities in order to provide instruction that builds on prior knowledge.

I began monitoring the development of my students' abilities to employ science practices because I wanted to be able to see their growth as scientists over time. The ability to conduct scientific inquiry can be difficult to assess. There is a complex network of abilities that students develop over the course of several years. Because of the long-term nature of this learning process, I created a monitoring tool that lends itself to tracking progress over time. The Science Practice Learning Progressions (see Figure 1) describe progressions by which students develop the ability to employ science practices over a period of years. Advocacy for using learning progressions can be found in the National Research Council's (NRC) preliminary public draft of the new science education framework (see Resources). The terms "learning progressions" and "science practice" and the titles for the four levels used here come from the NRC's new document.

The science practices I elected to include in these learning progressions were selected for their ability to be taught in the classroom and for their importance across various fields of scientific study. To use the Science Practices Learning Progressions, the teacher selects a practice on which to focus, gathers information about students' abilities, uses this information to determine students' levels, and then plans instruction accordingly. …