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How science teachers can use formative assessment to increase equitable participatioN

Updated: Feb 14, 2023

By Erin Furtak

How can science teachers use formative assessment to increase equitable participation for their international learners?

We know that all children are naturally curious about the natural world. In science classrooms, we want to help students build on these experiences and share their ideas as they are learning. This means that science involves a lot of talking, listening, and also learning new vocabulary to describe complex processes.

At international schools, students come from various cultural and linguistic backgrounds, which means that they may encounter barriers to participating in the language-rich learning environments of science lessons. How do we create spaces for them to share their ideas and to equitably participate in this kind of science learning? Formative assessment - the process of drawing out and responding to student ideas to support their learning - is a great way to help. I had the honor of visiting with science teachers, school leaders, parents and students while a visiting scholar with Linden Global Learning and Support during March 2022. They shared their experiences, which align with many research-based findings, to identify several ways to better support learners across linguistic and cultural differences through the ways we design and enact formative assessments in science. Here’s some ways you can do it:

Consider your own identity as a science teacher

A recent survey found that the majority of International School teachers come from the US, Canada, and the UK and half of them identify as White. This means that the majority of teachers in these schools are members of dominant cultures that are not necessarily the same as those of their students. Former students in international schools have reflected that these institutions and their curricula - like other efforts in education - reflect White, Western values.

Our own identities play out when we’re interacting with students to find out what they might know. The kinds of questions we ask, and the ways that we listen to students are all filtered through our own experiences. If students’ responses aren’t what we’re expecting, or what we’re familiar with, it can be easy to tell them they are wrong

Jennifer Randall, a professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, encourages teachers to reflect upon their personal values and experiences, and how those might play out in their interactions with students, particularly when it comes to formative assessment (Randall, 2021). Questions teachers might consider include How did I learn science in school? How is this similar or different to how I am teaching science now? What shifts do I need to make in my own teaching practice to make more space for students to share their ideas? How can I be aware of the ways I filter and respond to student ideas so that I can broaden participation for all learners in my science classroom?

Starting by reflecting on our own identities helps us to surface unidentified biases we might have when we are teaching students who come from different backgrounds, and can also help us to learn to identify and mitigate those biases when we’re leading science lessons. Biases can lead us to call on only some students to share their ideas - perhaps those we would anticipate might have easier to understand, or more accurate, responses. Instead, we want to be aware of these biases and open ourselves up to other ways of explaining and knowing, and inviting students to share these with each other.

Know the students and build on their interests

The next step is to dedicate time and energy to truly knowing who your students are, their interests, and their experiences, and to encourage them that these are all relevant to the science they are learning in school. They don’t need to leave these at the door, but actually learn more - and better - when they’re able to make active connections with what they already know, or what they’re curious about.

In science teaching, sometimes we save these kinds of connections for ‘extensions’ at the end of science lessons; however, the most recent research on how students learn tells us that starting with these interests and experiences, and weaving them throughout lessons, as well as using them in assessments, are important ways to help students learn.

It’s also important to recognize that students’ own process of learning and making sense in science might not be the same as our own. When it comes to formative assessment, we can easily privilege only the canonical ‘right’ answers that might leave out other ways of thinking and being. Instead, we want to use formative assessment as way to draw out what students already know, and to create bridges for them to build their understandings from there.

For example, a teacher starting a lesson about cellular respiration might ask students questions that encourage them to reflect on their own experiences with breathing hard during hard physical effort, like walking up several flights of stairs, rather than starting lessons with a chemical equation. This helps students start the lesson with their own experiences and questions, rather than prioritizing a particular set of answers that aligns with the goals of the lesson.

Even if you already have assessments for students to take, you might look at how adapting the context of the assessment, or the examples it includes, could make it more accessible to students from diverse backgrounds.

Embrace the process of science

Science practices such as modeling, argumentation, and developing explanations from evidence are natural places that allow students to show what they know. So rather than having formative assessment be a totally separate event, we can think about the representations and processes we already use in science as ways to figure out what students know. These kinds of representations can increase students’ ability to engage in science lessons when they have diverse linguistic abilities, or when we want to encourage them to share what they know. You can find some tips on designing formative assessments around science practices here.

  • Modeling. The science practice of modeling - creating representations that show relationships, both visible and invisible, beneath an observable phenomenon - is a perfect way to draw out student thinking. Students can draw models on paper, on computers, on whiteboards - any way that they can show what they know. Then students can share their models with each other and with their teachers, and the models can serve as a visual representation to support their explanations. It becomes a formative assessment event when we build on what they know to support their future learning, or provide follow-up opportunities for students to revise their models.

  • Argumentation. Allowing students to talk through their ideas with each other can hold them accountable to explaining their ideas not just to their teachers, but to their peers. We know that when students are able to talk with each other, they are able to support each other in clarifying their thinking. When students come from different linguistic backgrounds, they can support each other in small group discussions, and may feel more comfortable than in whole-class settings. This STEM Teaching Tool has some great ideas for how to encourage students to talk to each other.

  • Explanations. Scientists also build explanations for observable events as part of their everyday work. Rather than focusing on what some have called ‘answer-making’, we want to encourage students to make sense of their observations, and to develop explanations for scientific events in their own words. This allows them to use their own terms and resources and experiences to explain things, rather than memorizing what they might have learned (in ways that they are less likely to remember later!).

Use multiple modalities to support students with various linguistic backgrounds

Science learning involves a whole new vocabulary, beyond what students might need in everyday interactions. A key challenge for teaching science with multilingual learners is to help them draw on the different languages that they know and to support them as they engage with new terminology (Fine & Furtak, 2020). This includes using a variety of visual representations, allowing students to talk with each other (and not just in English), providing word banks, and inviting students to talk about science ideas using their own terms.

Inviting students to work with each other is key, as Chris Hennie, science teacher at Berlin-Brandenburg International School, explains. He provides students with checklists to make expectations clear, and provides examples of quality work so students can better understand what they are working toward.

Siân Kinnear, head of science at Berlin Metropolitan School, also uses several different kinds of supports, such as inviting students to share their own questions on sticky notes before displaying the words they had already learned in a previous lesson and using whiteboards to have students to organize terminology. Students are able to translanguage when they work in small groups, using their home languages in addition to English to make sense of the task at hand. Students can also gesture with their hands as they communicate.

Use ‘talk moves’ to push students in their thinking

Once you get students talking with each other, the next step is to shift the way we interact with them from evaluating their learning to drawing out and working with their ideas. One way of thinking about this is ‘talk moves,’ or strategic decisions made by the teacher to help to orchestrate discussions about student ideas. The Ambitious Science Teaching website has a great primer on leading classroom discourse in this way. The talk moves include:

  • Probing student thinking to find out more about what students are saying and what they might mean, such as asking them to ‘say more’ or to ‘tell me what you mean by that?’

  • Pressing students for evidence to support their assertions, such as ‘how do you know?’

  • Re-voicing what students have said to be sure you understand them, and to give them a chance to clarify their ideas (e.g. ‘So what I hear you saying is…’)

Taken together, these actions can add up to create science assessments as opportunities for multilingual and multicultural students to learn, rather than just evaluating what students know.

Want to learn more? Contact Linden Global Learning and Support.


About the author:

Erin Marie Furtak is Professor of STEM Education at the University of Colorado Boulder. A former high school science teacher, she studies the design and practice of classroom assessments; her recent research has sought to determine ways to design assessments that better support multilingual students in sharing what they know, as well as in supporting teachers in listening to and supporting students through formative assessment. Her partnership with Linden Global Learning and Support is supported by the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation.


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