Guest Post by Kelly Burleson | My Science Toolbox on TPT
“I’m a bad test taker.” Throughout 16 years of teaching, at levels ranging from 5th to 12th grade, I have heard this from students who use it as a crutch to explain away poor grades on assessments. Occasionally I have a student who truly suffers from test anxiety, but many times, these students are just poor learners. This is not their fault!
Many of them have never been taught how to learn – they’ve just been thrown material to learn. As teachers, we are all so stressed with teaching the standards, getting them to pass the test, and covering all the required material that sometimes we forget to look at how we can show students how to learn (instead of only WHAT to learn). Focusing on this can change our classroom drastically.
When we teach and model new ways for students to learn new material, they can be more successful in and out of the classroom. Students that have truly mastered material should be able to answer any well-written question about it (this part took me some time to learn how to do well).
At all grade levels, students want to memorize “the right answer”. Unfortunately, most times, this does not lead to an authentic understanding of the material. For example, if the test question is worded in a slightly different way, the student who memorized the answer might miss it. This indicates a weak understanding of the concepts.
Here are some instructional strategies I use to improve retention and learning in the science classroom, rather than just memorize and spit back.
5 Instructional Strategies to Help Improve Learning and Retention in Science
Learning starts with how students take notes. Many students simply copy what the teacher displays on a PowerPoint or writes on the board. There is no actual thinking involved here. I have had students write for a solid hour and then have no knowledge of what they wrote down. Fill in the blank notes are faster and slightly more thought intensive, but still generally do not produce the required learning outcomes.
In my class, I give the students notes pages with questions about each topic/concept we are learning. While I’m talking, their pencils are down. They’re listening and engaging with the material.
I discuss examples, draw diagrams on the board, and explain what the notes are saying. We stand up and act things out. The students ask questions. We talk back and forth about the content. I ask questions to check for understanding.
THEN, they can pick up their pencils and answer the question about that topic in the notes packets IN THEIR OWN WORDS. I encourage them to work together on this. No one learns everything right away, but with several brains remembering what we just talked about, they can generally get a fairly good summary.
You can take this one step further. After they’ve written down an answer, have them get up and move around the room to find someone else. Have them compare answers and add to theirs if they can, change the wording if it was unclear. I do not want MY words in their notes, but THEIRS.
This takes quite a bit longer than traditional copy-from-the-board notes, but you earn that time back when you don’t have to re-teach the same concept quite as much.
We all know vocabulary is necessary in science. Students are thrown so many vocabulary words that they may have never heard, especially in the lower grade levels. It is important that they learn these words to fully understand the content.
Instead of making a list of words and definitions, have your students write them directly on flashcards. You don’t need fancy materials for this – you can just have them cut up a piece of paper to use. This way, when they’re studying the words, they can change the order. If they’re just staring at the paper with the words written on it, their brain is associating the word and definition with the location on the page. Then, when they get to the test, they freeze…because it’s in the wrong place!
When I was quizzing my son a few years ago, I asked him his vocabulary words out of order. He was in 2nd or 3rd grade and he told me, “Mom! That’s not the order!” He knew the order of the words, and was learning them that way. It was outside of his comfort zone to practice them in a different order.
3. Practice for Learning, Not for Grades
The large majority of students do not learn all the material you teach the moment it comes out of your mouth. I have had a few that do, but those are by far the minority. Most students need days to wrestle with the material, practice it, and learn from their mistakes.
I want my students to be free to learn without being penalized by a poor grade just because they didn’t learn it the moment I said it, or with the first example I gave.
For this reason, I do not grade practice. When students are practicing, I have the answer key available, and they can check their work after each problem. When I first started teaching, I had students who would do a 20 problem worksheet and make the same mistake on every problem. They hadn’t learned how to do the problem the first time I showed them (gasp!) and then they went home and spent an hour doing the wrong thing.
This is incredibly frustrating for them, and for me. It takes a lot of additional practice to undo the mistakes they learned how to make by making them repeatedly for homework. When they can check their work after every problem, they catch these mistakes early, fix them, and can do subsequent problems correctly (or at least not make that same mistake again).
If practice is for a grade, many students will give up if they don’t remember how to do a problem. Students need to feel free to make mistakes to learn from them and so they don’t repeat them. They need freedom and encouragement to make those mistakes as a part of the learning process without being penalized by a poor grade.
It is also important for students to have immediate feedback while learning. If you have the answer key available and students can check while they go, they will learn a lot faster than if they do an assignment and have to wait for you to grade it in order to learn what they did correctly and what they did incorrectly. This also takes the pressure off of you – trying to get practice graded quickly enough for students to be able to learn from their mistakes is very stressful! Give yourself a break – let students learn from their mistakes before you start grading.
A few days after the practice, when students have had time to learn the material, make mistakes, and learn from those mistakes, I give a quiz that is very similar in style to the practice. This is the grade I take, after the learning, not during the practice.
4. What if….
Science teachers focus so much on the facts, because that’s what students are tested on. I believe that in order to really understand the material, students need to think beyond the facts.
Ask students questions beyond just reciting back what you told them.
After you teach a few words, instead of asking them to recite the definitions back, ask them to compare and contrast those words. Ask them what those words remind them of. Ask them to act out those words.
In a lesson on energy and ecosystems, instead of asking “What is the sun’s role in the ecosystem?” ask students “What if the sun did not exist?” This forces them to relate everything they’ve learned about how they connect to each other.
Another benefit is that this can lead to interesting questions and extra learning – for example, maybe they’re ready to hear that there are entire ecosytems on the bottom of the ocean, away from the sun, powered by chemosynthesis. There’s no need to go into great detail about material outside of the curriculum, but giving students snapshots of the world around them leads to more curious budding scientists.
I do a project with fifth grade science during the Energy Flow in Ecosystems unit in which they are assigned one part of an ecosystem (sun, producers, consumers, decomposers, dirt, air, or water) and they have to make a poster and a persuasive speech that proves that THEY are the MOST IMPORTANT part of the ecosystem.
Doing research for this totally stresses them out, because sources will only tell them why everything is important and works together (because that’s the fact!). In this project, I make them take all those facts, and some creative energy, to answer an unanswerable question, and justify it. They’re learning the same information, but needing to wrap their minds around it in a different way.
Pre-tests are a valuable resource to teachers. It is important to know what students know, and what they think they know, before a unit starts.
Through life experiences, many students think they know, and are sure they know, facts about science, that are not really true. As a teacher, it’s valuable to know what they think they know, so that you can make sure to address those misconceptions head on. It takes a whole lot more time to fix a student’s misconception than to teach something he knows nothing about, so it’s important to directly address the misconceptions your students have.
Pre-tests can be quick and simple. Sometimes I find something online that I like, and sometimes I write my own, depending on my goals for the unit.
For the unit in which we determined air had mass, I gave my students this worksheet as a pre-test.
It was fascinating to me how many students will say that air decreases the mass of the ball. I then make sure to address that exact misconception as we do the lesson.
At the end of the unit, you can give the same assessment again as a post-test, in addition to your unit assessment. Giving the same questions again gives you an accurate depiction of what the students actually learned during the unit. Sometimes students will answer the test questions correctly, but when you return back to the original situation that they had a misconception about, they will answer the same way they did before the unit started.
If you have students who claim to be poor test takers, or if you have students who are not performing as well on assessments as you or they (or their parents!) would like, I challenge you to address how they learn, to see if that helps. Some of these strategies take more planning than traditional lectures and lessons, but the payback in terms of student learning and retention is worthwhile.
I encourage you to try some of these! Comment below if any of these techniques are useful!