September 2016 – Vol. 29 No. 1

Continuous Assessment Through Questioning

Posted: Friday, April 8th, 2016

by Sue Campbell

At the beginning of my teaching career I believed that I could tell how well students understood the concepts I was teaching by their test scores. I equated tests with assessments and limited my view of assessments to tests or quizzes. Little did I know or understand how ineffective that view was! At some point I was introduced to formative assessments, which broadened my view of assessments considerably. Good formative assessments require that the students explain their thinking. Page Keeley’s Formative Assessment books published by NSTA are a good source. It was enlightening. It was also disconcerting to discover that some students could pass tests but when faced with a formative assessment, they could not explain their thinking or their reasoning was faulty.

Even though my view of assessments had been changing, it still focused on assessments happening at specific times. This notion changed when I took a class on questioning strategies to uncover student thinking. The following captures some of one student interview.



“What causes this ball to go up and down?” I asked a sixth grade student as I tossed a tennis ball up in the air and then caught it several times. I was conducting an interview with a student for the class I was taking. The topic for this questioning session was gravity but I wasn’t allowed to use the term unless the student used it. The session was also being recorded for later reference. The female student, who I will call Sarah for the purpose of this article, quickly replied, “Gravity.”

“So gravity makes the ball go up and down,” I replied. I kept my voice and face neutral as I made my response even though I was concerned about her answer.

She paused for a moment and then said, “No. Gravity makes the ball come down. The force of your arm makes it go up.”

At this point in the interview although I was relieved that she didn’t think that gravity makes things go up, I kept my face and voice neutral as I rephrased her response to me. “So gravity makes the ball come down.” She nodded in agreement.

I am going to pause the interview here for a moment to ask a question. Does Sarah understand gravity? Internally I was feeling a sense of relief at this point in the interview. The assignment, however, called for some follow up questions to probe a little more so I pressed on.

“Tell me more about this thing you call gravity,” I said.

Sarah took the ball from me and began to explain gravity to me. “First,” she said, “as soon as the ball is up in the air, gravity pushes the air out from underneath it so it can fall back down.” She held the ball in one hand up high and used her other hand to produce a sweeping motion under the ball with the other hand.

“Anything else?” I asked.

“Yes,” she replied. “Gravity also surrounds the ball,” she explained as she took one hand to cup the ball from the top, “and pushes down on it.”

The interview continued to explore Sarah’s many ideas about gravity and I learned some important lessons about questioning and assessment.

Lesson 1: Just because a student answers a question correctly doesn’t mean they understand the content or concept. When Sarah indicated that gravity causes things to come down, I could have, and probably would have, concluded that she had a simple, but correct understanding of gravity.

Lesson 2: Wait a moment and then ask students follow up questions after their responses. Asking a follow up question was a new idea to me then, but now it is routine. Simply asking the student to tell you a little more can reveal so much information. The idea behind waiting after a response and then asking a follow up question is explained in a small booklet, How to Ask the Right Questions by Patricia Blosser, and is downloadable as a PDF or for purchase as a hard copy or e-book from NSTA. Blosser refers to this as Wait Time 2.

Lesson 3: Push to have them express their understanding in their own words. I want students to use correct scientific and academic terms, but sometimes it can get in the way of knowing if they truly understand. Sometimes they have just memorized a correct answer, or we have been too quick to put a label on a concept before they completely understand. Recently when I visiting in another classroom, I asked a student to explain what had happened to the two balloons when they had been rubbed with another material. The student said, “They were attracted.” When I probed further to see if she knew what “attracted,” meant, she kept repeating herself. In a follow up conversation with the teacher who witnessed the conversation and described the lesson, we both concluded that the term at been introduced before the students had had the opportunity to simply describe what happened in their own words. It was a reminder to both of us to take the time for students to explain their thinking and then introduce the terminology.

Lesson 4: Craft some of your questions ahead of time. I know that we can’t plan all questions, but planning some of them beforehand will help ensure that they are open ended and not leading.

Lesson 5: Assessment should be continuous in your classroom and can be through questioning and listening. Continuous assessment through questioning will reveal student understanding and help you monitor and adjust your pace and sequence of a lesson.

It took time for me to build the habit of asking probing questions of my students but now I find that assessment through questioning is a continuous, daily learning process, which is a valuable tool for both my students and me.

Sue Campbell is the District STEM Coach for Livingston Union School District, and is CSTA’s Jr. High Director.

Written by Sue Campbell

Sue Campbell

Sue Campbell is the District STEM Coach for Livingston Union School District, and is CSTA’s Middle School/Jr. High Director.

4 Responses

  1. I so agree. Evaluation of whether or not they “get it” should be ongoing, every day. I would add using homework as a daily assessment. If it’s corrected in class, it can be passed in so that passing scores go into one in-box and not-passing scores go into the other. Then, asap, find out the reason behind the not-passing scores and figure out a fix. I personally don’t think homework should be part of the grade except to note that it was done. That way kids feel “safe” to fail because the homework will alert you to a problem so it can be rectified before the test – which does count – no ifs, ands, or buts.

    I’d also don’t recommend calling on students via the hand-raising method. When a question is asked, every student should be ready to answer. Call random students, Check off a student’s name when they’ve answered well, and try to get around to everyone as much as possible. If they clam up, WAIT. If a minute or two has gone by, coach them to figure out an appropriate response. But every student should know that they are responsible for demonstrating understanding 100% of the time, and if they can’t, you’re responsible for helping them.

  2. How do you do this kind of ongoing questioning with 32 students in a class? Diagnosing a student’s thinking and helping them to clarify their pre-conceptions takes concentrated time. Thinking aloud is a great way to learn but how can we focus on that many kids at once?

  3. Susan, good ideas. I use random calling using craft sticks with names on them, but names go back into the cup to be called again. I find that students tune out after their name is called if they know it won’t be again. Of course this can be manipulated a bit. After a student happens to be called upon a second time, I put it back in the cup with the name up and manage to not pull it again. Keeping all students accountable is important. If a student is stuck, you can give them some time as you suggest. I also allow them to confer with a partner or request assistance from someone, but they still have to answer.

  4. Lee, good questions. First I need to acknowledge that oral questioning can’t be the only means by which you can gather information about student thinking. Many of us have large classes of 32 or more and while it would be helpful to have individual conversations daily, it simply isn’t possible. I have ongoing questioning conversations in a couple of ways.

    The first is with the whole class. I usually do this through having partners discuss the original question before having students respond to the entire class. A frequently used strategy here is Think-Write-Pair-Share. Giving the students time to think about their ideas and writing them down before they start speaking increases participation and accountability. When students are sharing with each other, they write down their partner’s ideas. Often I have the students to come up with a shared answer based on their conversation and write that on their paper. While the students are sharing in groups I circulate around the room and listen in on their conversations. This provides me some indication of their thinking and can assist in planning some follow up questions. Following the time for partner sharing, I normally call on students randomly before I allow some volunteer responses. There are times that my random calling isn’t completely random because I overheard a conversation and for various reasons I want the idea shared in class or shared in a specific order. I don’t provide feedback which would indicate if their response was correct or not. I also ask them to tell us a bit more or explain their answer more. I collect their papers solely for the purpose of looking a little more closely to the individual responses.

    The second way is through small group conversations. This is not a structured as a whole class session. As I move around them room while students are working I stop and have conversations with them. My groups are usually three or four students. I have some questions in mind as I travel through the room, but I am also open to jumping off from whatever is happening at that moment in their group. This is especially true when they are involved in an investigation or engineering project.

    Over time my students have come to accept that I ask a lot of questions and that I will ask them to explain their thinking. They know that I am not going to give them the answers. They also know that when I ask them questions that I don’t want to know what a book or website said. I want to know what they think.

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California Science Assessment Update

Posted: Wednesday, October 12th, 2016

by Jessica Sawko

In June 2016 California submitted a waiver application to discontinue using the old CST (based on 1998 standards) and conduct two years of pilot and field tests (in spring 2017 and 2018, respectively) of the new science assessment designed to support our state’s current science standards (California Next Generation Science Standards (CA-NGSS) adopted in 2013). The waiver was requested because no student scores will be provided as a part of the pilot and field tests. The CDE received a response from the U.S. Department of Education (ED) on September 30, 2016, which provides the CDE the opportunity to resubmit a revised waiver request within 60 days. The CDE will be revising the waiver request and resubmitting as ED suggested.

At its October 2016 North/South Assessment meetings CDE confirmed that there will be no administration of the old CST in the spring of 2017. (An archive of the meeting is available at Learn More…

Written by California Science Teachers Association

California Science Teachers Association

CSTA represents science educators statewide—in every science discipline at every grade level, Kindergarten through University.

Some ways to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service in your classroom

Posted: Thursday, September 22nd, 2016

by Carol Peterson

1) To celebrate the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service, Google has put together a collection of virtual tours combining 360-degree video, panoramic photos and expert narration. It’s called “The Hidden Worlds of the National Parks” and is accessible right from the browser. You can choose from one of five different locales, including the Kenai Fjords in Alaska and Bryce Canyon in Utah, and get a guided “tour” from a local park ranger. Each one has a few virtual vistas to explore, with documentary-style voiceovers and extra media hidden behind clickable thumbnails. Ideas are included for use in classrooms. Learn More…

Written by California Science Teachers Association

California Science Teachers Association

CSTA represents science educators statewide—in every science discipline at every grade level, Kindergarten through University.

2016 Award Recipients – Join CSTA in Honoring Their Accomplishments

Posted: Thursday, September 22nd, 2016

CSTA is pleased to announce the winners of the 2016 CSTA Awards for Distinguished Contributions, Margaret Nicholson Distinguished Service Award, 2014 and 2015 PAEMST-Science recipients from California, and the 2016 California PAEMST Finalists. The following individuals and organizations will be honored during the 2016 California Science Education Conference  on October 21- 23 in Palm Springs. This year’s group of awardees are truly outstanding. Please join us in congratulating them!

Margaret Nicholson Distinguished Service Award

John Keller

John Keller

The Margaret Nicholson Distinguished Service Award honors an individual who has made a significant contribution to science education in the state and who, through years of leadership and service, has truly made a positive impact on the quality of science teaching. This year’s recipient is John Keller, Ph.D. Dr. Keller is Associate Professor, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and Co-Director, Center for Engineering, Science, and Mathematics Education, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. In her letter of recommendation, SDSU science education faculty and former CSTA board member Donna Ross wrote: “He brings people together who share the desire to make a difference in the development and implementation of programs for science teaching. Examples of these projects include the Math and Science Teaching Initiative (MSTI), Noyce Scholars Program, Western Regional Noyce Initiative, and the Science Teacher and Researcher (STAR) program.” Through his work, he has had a dramatic impact on science teacher education, both preservice and in-service, in California, the region, and the country. He developed and implemented the STEM Teacher and Researcher Program which aims to produce excellent K-12 STEM teachers by providing aspiring teachers with opportunities to do authentic research while helping them translate their research experience into classroom practice. SFSU faculty member Larry Horvath said it best in his letter:“John Keller exemplifies the best aspects of a scientist, science educator, and mentor. His contributions to science education in the state of California are varied, significant, and I am sure will continue well into the future.” Learn More…

Written by California Science Teachers Association

California Science Teachers Association

CSTA represents science educators statewide—in every science discipline at every grade level, Kindergarten through University.

NGSS: Making Your Life Easier

Posted: Tuesday, September 20th, 2016

by Peter A’hearn

Wait… What?

NGSS is a big shift. Teachers need to learn new content, figure out how this whole engineering thing relates to science, and develop new unit and lesson plans. How could NGSS possibly make life easier?

The idea that NGSS could make our lives easier came to me during the California State NGSS Rollout #1 Classroom Example lesson on chromatography. I have since done this lesson with high school chemistry students and it made me think back to having my own students do chromatography. I spent lots of time preparing to make sure the experiment went well and achieved the “correct” result. I pre-prepared the solutions and organized and prepped the materials. I re-wrote and re-wrote again the procedure so there was no way a kid could get it wrong. I spent 20 minutes before the lab modeling all of the steps in class, so there was no way to do it wrong. Except that it turns out there were many. Learn More…

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Written by Peter AHearn

Peter AHearn

Peter A’Hearn is the K-12 science specialist in the Palm Springs Unified School District and is Region 4 Director for CSTA.

Celestial Highlights, September 2016

Posted: Tuesday, September 20th, 2016

by Robert C. Victor. Twilight sky maps by Robert D. Miller. Graph of evening planet setting times by Dr. Jeffrey L. Hunt 

Our evening twilight chart for September, depicting the sky about 40 minutes after sunset from SoCal, shows brilliant Venus remaining low, creeping from W to WSW and gaining a little altitude as the month progresses. Its close encounter within 2.5° N of Spica on Sept. 18 is best seen with binoculars to catch the star low in bright twilight. The brightest stars in the evening sky are golden Arcturus descending in the west, and blue-white Vega passing just north of overhead. Look for Altair and Deneb completing the Summer Triangle with Vega. The triangle of Mars-Saturn-Antares expands as Mars seems to hold nearly stationary in SSW as the month progresses, while Saturn and Antares slink off to the SW. Learn More…

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Written by Robert Victor

Robert Victor

Robert C. Victor was Staff Astronomer at Abrams Planetarium, Michigan State University. He is now retired and enjoys providing skywatching opportunities for school children in and around Palm Springs, CA. Robert is a member of CSTA.