September/October 2017 – Vol. 30 No. 1

Sorting Activities Reveal Student Thinking

Posted: Thursday, December 1st, 2011

by Lisa Hegdahl

When I was in grade school, I helped my older brother with a homework assignment.  Inside a shoebox were a variety of objects he told me to sort into two piles.  When finished, he asked me to sort the items a second time into two different piles.  The teacher gave the students the assignment to show that the same objects can be grouped in different ways depending on the perceptions of the person doing the sorting.  The sorting of items, terms, and ideas can be used in today’s classrooms to give teacher’s insight into how their students think.

Sorting real items or pictures of real items into two groups is a useful way to find out what students know about a concept prior to instruction.  Through the act of sorting, the teacher can observe students interacting and thinking about new material.  At the California Science Education Conference a year ago, a teacher shared a sorting activity that I now use as an introductory and closing lesson.   The instructor gives students 15 laminated photographs of various representations of elements, compounds, and mixtures.  Students put the pictures into either a “Yes” pile or a “No” pile, with the students deciding on the criteria for “Yes” and “No”.  While watching and listening to students as they sort the items, it becomes clear which students readily identify the pictures as elements, compounds, and mixtures, and which students view them as random photographs.  Used as an opening and closing lesson, this kind of sort can show student growth over the course of an instructional unit.

Using Venn diagrams to assess how firmly students have grasped concepts is another way to use the sorting strategy.  Teachers will see which students put items into the correct sections.  But, even more eye opening, is noticing which students have made enough connections to accurately place items into the overlapping Venn areas.   I use Venn diagram sorts for almost all the units I teach.  Students receive card stock paper with a pre-printed Venn diagram as well as a sheet of terms, pictures, and descriptions for them to cut out and paste into the diagram.   Middle school students enjoy the kinesthetics of cutting out the pieces and pasting them onto the Venn diagram, as well as the opportunity to discuss with their group members the placement of the items.

Sorting activities are a quick and easy way to visually and auditorily assess the knowledge of students.  The hands-on aspect, as well as the opportunities to have critical thinking conversations with classmates, makes these activities invaluable. Whether determining prior knowledge or mastery of concepts, sorting can reveal how students are processing science material. The nature of the sorting lesson is limited only by the imagination of the teacher.

Lisa Hegdahl is an 8th grade science teacher at McCaffrey Middle School in Galt, CA and CSTA’s middle school director.


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Written by Lisa Hegdahl

Lisa Hegdahl

Lisa Hegdahl is an 8th-grade science teacher at McCaffrey Middle School in Galt, CA and is Past-President of CSTA.

One Response

  1. I love this idea! I think I’ll try reinforcing concepts with my AP Environmental science students.

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State Schools Chief Tom Torlakson Announces 2017 Finalists for Presidential Awards for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching

Posted: Wednesday, September 20th, 2017

SACRAMENTO—State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson today nominated eight exceptional secondary mathematics and science teachers as California finalists for the 2017 Presidential Awards for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching (PAEMST).

“These teachers are dedicated and accomplished individuals whose innovative teaching styles prepare our students for 21st century careers and college and develop them into the designers and inventors of the future,” Torlakson said. “They rank among the finest in their profession and also serve as wonderful mentors and role models.”

The California Department of Education (CDE) partners annually with the California Science Teachers Association and the California Mathematics Council to recruit and select nominees for the PAEMST program—the highest recognition in the nation for a mathematics or science teacher. The Science Finalists will be recognized at the CSTA Awards Luncheon on Saturday, October 14, 2017. 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.

Thriving in a Time of Change

Posted: Wednesday, September 13th, 2017

by Jill Grace

By the time this message is posted online, most schools across California will have been in session for at least a month (if not longer, and hat tip to that bunch!). Long enough to get a good sense of who the kids in your classroom are and to get into that groove and momentum of the daily flow of teaching. It’s also very likely that for many of you who weren’t a part of a large grant initiative or in a district that set wheels in motion sooner, this is the first year you will really try to shift instruction to align to the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). I’m not going to lie to you, it’s a challenging year – change is hard. Change is even harder when there’s not a playbook to go by.  But as someone who has had the very great privilege of walking alongside teachers going through that change for the past two years and being able to glimpse at what this looks like for different demographics across that state, there are three things I hope you will hold on to. These are things I have come to learn will overshadow the challenge: a growth mindset will get you far, one is a very powerful number, and it’s about the kids. Learn More…

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Written by Jill Grace

Jill Grace

Jill Grace is a Regional Director for the K-12 Alliance and is President of CSTA.

If You Are Not Teaching Science Then You Are Not Teaching Common Core

Posted: Thursday, August 31st, 2017

by Peter A’Hearn 

“Science and Social Studies can be taught for the last half hour of the day on Fridays”

– Elementary school principal

Anyone concerned with the teaching of science in elementary school is keenly aware of the problem of time. Kids need to learn to read, and learning to read takes time, nobody disputes that. So Common Core ELA can seem like the enemy of science. This was a big concern to me as I started looking at the curriculum that my district had adopted for Common Core ELA. I’ve been through those years where teachers are learning a new curriculum, and know first-hand how a new curriculum can become the focus of attention- sucking all the air out of the room. Learn More…

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Written by Peter AHearn

Peter AHearn

Peter A’Hearn is the Region 4 Director for CSTA.

Tools for Creating NGSS Standards Based Lessons

Posted: Tuesday, August 29th, 2017

by Elizabeth Cooke

Think back on your own experiences with learning science in school. Were you required to memorize disjointed facts without understanding the concepts?

Science Education Background

In the past, science education focused on rote memorization and learning disjointed ideas. Elementary and secondary students in today’s science classes are fortunate now that science instruction has shifted from students demonstrating what they know to students demonstrating how they are able to apply their knowledge. Science education that reflects the Next Generation Science Standards challenges students to conduct investigations. As students explore phenomena and discrepant events they engage in academic discourse guided by focus questions from their teachers or student generated questions of that arise from analyzing data and creating and revising models that explain natural phenomena. Learn More…

Written by Elizabeth Cooke

Elizabeth Cooke

Elizabeth Cooke teaches TK-5 science at Markham Elementary in the Oakland Unified School District, is an NGSS Early Implementer, and is CSTA’s Secretary.

News and Happenings in CSTA’s Region 1 – Fall 2017

Posted: Tuesday, August 29th, 2017

by Marian Murphy-Shaw


This month I was fortunate enough to hear about some new topics to share with our entire region. Some of you may access the online or newsletter options, others may attend events in person that are nearer to you. Long time CSTA member and environmental science educator Mike Roa is well known to North Bay Area teachers for his volunteer work sharing events and resources. In this month’s Region 1 updates I am happy to make a few of the options Mike offers available to our region. Learn More…

Written by Marian Murphy-Shaw

Marian Murphy-Shaw

Marian Murphy-Shaw is the student services director at Siskiyou County Office of Education and is CSTA’s Region 1 Director and chair of CSTA’s Policy Committee.