How To Improve Student Performance in Science

To transform student performance, we must build a classroom culture and environment for students to actively engage in. Providing authentic learning opportunities and releasing responsibility to our students increases student engagement and performance. To build an environment where students are rewarded for risk-taking, teachers can model listening and critical thinking, while implementing frameworks that keep students on task and focused on their own discovery. 

Students engage in the type of critical thinking that builds mastery when they are making a personal connection to the subject at hand. Making their own observations, testing their own theories, and working together to learn more about the world around them promotes student inquiry and engagement in the classroom. When performance and engagement are key, educators must take the risk to release responsibility over to our students and support student-led inquiry with the practices, frameworks, and assessments that support an authentic learning environment.  

How to Encourage Risk Taking in the Classroom

What makes science fun and engaging? For students, taking the lead in the classroom helps increase engagement. When students go from asking “What does Mrs. Smith want me to say,” to “What do I think about this topic,” we’re giving them the chance to make personal connections to the study of science. However, this student-led inquiry requires a classroom culture where students are encouraged to take risks, make mistakes, ask questions, and work together to answer them. Giving over this type of responsibility to our students doesn’t happen all at once. Instead, it’s a process of building a culture of trust together and providing the tools students need to be successful when acting like scientists and engineers in the classroom. 

How do we begin building a classroom culture that promotes authentic learning opportunities? Well, risk taking in the classroom isn’t just for students. As educators, we can model intellectual curiosity, asking hard questions, and learning from our mistakes. When students understand that they will be rewarded and not judged for their own risk taking, they will become more comfortable taking the lead. By modeling curiosity, implementing frameworks, and working together to overcome obstacles, we can build a safe place where students can take the lead, practicing the critical thinking skills they need to better understand the world around them. 

Taking that risk – releasing responsibility to our students to ask their own questions, make their own connections, and steer the classroom discussion in their own way – can be uncomfortable at first. The discomfort that we feel as instructors releasing responsibility is very similar to what our students may be feeling when we first ask them to take the lead in their own study of science. 

Examples of Risk Taking in the Classroom for Students

Modeling Student-Led Inquiry in the Classroom

Modeling active listening, critical thinking, and making connections starts with asking students to explain their own thinking. One-on-one and within group discussions, we can ask students to better explain their reasoning with prompts like: 

  • Can you tell us more about that? 
  • How did you connect this and that?
  • I don't understand, what makes you say that? 

When teachers truly release responsibility over to our students, we become active learners ourselves in the classroom. Instead of correcting students if their answer doesn’t match our own thinking, we are building a community where students and teachers listen closely to one another, change their thinking, and learn from others’ experiences. That’s a remarkable shift from the more traditional model of instruction and a memorable experience for both students and teachers. As a teacher, it is so much fun to say to a student, "Whoa, I never thought of it this way!"

Opportunity, dignity, respect, and reward are four vital ingredients for student engagement. With authentic learning opportunities we engaging students in noticing and respond affirmatively to the questions:

  • Is there an opportunity for me to learn? 
  • Is there an opportunity for me to make a connection? 
  • Is there an opportunity for me to take a risk? 
  • Is it an authentic opportunity or am I playing a canned role?
  • Is what I contribute going to be valued/listened to? 
  • Are people going to try to understand, or are they just going to judge?

When students think questions are asked so students can be judged for not giving the ‘right’ answer, or the answer their teacher expects, the learning environment becomes high-stakes, reinforcing a lack of self-esteem or lack of feeling that the student can authentically contribute. But when teachers model active listening, providing good feedback, and incorporating others feedback themselves – we’re building an environment that promotes academic risk taking. When teachers prompt students to reflect by focusing on the thinking as a team and to respond to the feedback of their peers, we’re encouraging deeper learning to occur. 

In an authentic learning environment, the reward is active participation and validation as a capable learner. That participation is validating for students. The respect students feel from their peers as active participants and the opportunity to share their own connections gives students agency. They can contribute. They can learn. In this classroom, they’re on a level playing field where every student is trusted to be responsible for their own learning and held accountable in that process.

Modeling Critical Thinking with Good Questions

Student-led inquiry requires students to ask and answer complex questions about real-world phenomena. 

Instead of asking students to repeat definitions or facts from a powerpoint, book or video, they are challenged to connect classroom learning to phenomena, explain their thinking with data and reasoning, and respond to peer feedback. We’re not talking about students following task cards, we’re talking about students truly owning the scientific process. This authentic learning environment requires students to practice 21st century career skills like critical thinking and communication every day. 

Teachers can help students improve how they articulate what’s behind their own thinking by asking questions like: 

  • Would you connect this big idea to any other ideas we’ve explored? 
  • What other questions does this idea bring up for you?
  • Can anybody expand on this idea with a personal connection? 
  • Who in our community should be most concerned about this phenomenon?

Students must be brave to share their thoughts, explain their thinking, and incorporate feedback from their peers. Building a culture of respect and risk-taking is essential to ensuring our students feel comfortable doing so. As we get better at it together, speaking up is easier and students understand how knowledge evolves over time with the inclusion of new information, new perspectives, and hands-on experience. Teachers can model that process for our students with responses like, "I'm going to consider that" or “I never thought about it that way, thank you for sharing!” 

Active Listening and Developing a Culture of Learning

To shift our classroom into an authentic learning environment, teachers must model active listening. Creating an environment where students and teachers share responsibility for learning – and learn from one another – is key. Together, the class can learn from its mistakes and from making connections that don’t work out. Building on ideas and experiences, the group will create new knowledge and build strong personal connections together.  

By treating students as our intellectual apprentices, teachers are modeling good listening skills by authentically listening to figure out what they think. This happens when teachers are not asking questions to get specific known outcomes and check a box. Instead, they’re engaging students in a complex process of trying to understand, to question, and to connect as a team. That type of authentic learning through active listening, small group communication, and being open to learning from one another is a game changer for student engagement and performance. We’re giving students agency and an opportunity to engage in social emotional learning by communicating our respect and trust in them to learn and teach one another.  

This requires a major shift in focus from asking students to complete a task that is intended to get them to produce a particular definition for a word or a fact about a topic. Instead, the task is focused on thinking so they are engaged in thinking moves, connecting, and deepening their connections individually and as a group. This allows students of all levels, including English learners, to engage actively in valuable learning. When we develop a culture of thinking where every child can engage, then every student can bring their personal connections, their questions, and their ideas to the learning process.

Improving How We Assess Student-Led Performance

Once our classes are engaged in student-led discovery, we must also look at new ways to assess student performance. Our students are actively engaged in the topic at hand, but how do we know what they are taking away from their hands-on discovery and classroom discussions? With more traditional assessments, teachers often had to wait days or weeks until the end of a lesson or unit to test what their students had learned. If the answer to that question wasn’t what the teacher was looking for, they had to make a hard decision about whether to go back and repeat the lesson or move on. 

When students and teachers are actively engaged in authentic learning, we’re constantly assessing their progress and the connections they are making. One of the most exciting parts of NGSS-designed instruction is the ability to assess students in real-time and help them make connections, evaluate their thinking, and work together to decide what they want to discover next and find ways to honor that as part of mastering the science standards.

Implementing Formative Assessments to Improve Outcomes

Formative assessment helps to reinforce a culture of risk-taking in the classroom. For example, students who are planning for a science lab are truly engaged in the scientific process, but that requires accountability on their part. Implementing a framework like formative assessment “check-ins” can help keep students accountable and on task when they are working with a clear goal and process, prompted as: "You have 10 minutes. Get your partner and your lab notebook. Come check in with me once you have your question, research parameters, and hypothesis to share.” 

During a check-in like this, the teacher can engage with students in small groups at their own speed. The check-in provides a chance to assess student progress in real time, as they share their idea, explain the facts and reasoning it is based on, and connect their question to the lab they have planned. The teacher can probe their understanding, help them re-evaluate as needed, and model asking good questions, reflecting, and using clear language to explain complex ideas. 

By treating students as scientists and engineers in the classroom, we’re modeling active listening and critical thinking, and giving them the opportunity to get truly invested in what they’re learning. We’re also holding them clearly accountable for their own thinking. Students are required to explain, evaluate, incorporate feedback, and learn from their peers. Formative assessment also allows students to work at different paces while staying on task. Some groups may move on to the next step faster, and that’s okay. 

Frameworks for Improving Student Engagement and Critical Thinking

Classroom frameworks should support student-led inquiry by creating a shared language and culture that promotes learning. They function as a tool for students to develop a process of learning or a process of engaging. When we incorporate such frameworks into the classroom, we give students the tools they need to think critically and work together to lead their own scientific discovery. These simple tools help build a classroom environment where students work towards clear outcomes and feel comfortable taking risks and thinking outside the box. And that process becomes a classroom norm, something that can be used over and over in different contexts.

The Picture Thinking Routine

The Picture Thinking Routine is a simple framework to help engage students in making connections when responding to the images in their textbook. It can be used at any grade level. Before reading a chapter or section, we are asking students to project meaning onto the images in their books. One of the best parts of this framework is the engagement it allows students who are English learners to have in the process. Everyone can look at a picture and make connections to what they already know. 

Next, students read the text and reflect on the difference between what they thought when first looking at the pictures and what they have learned from the text. The students can share and discuss these differences, while actively clarifying their understanding of the text based on the connections they make. Group discussions like this spark creativity and engage students to buy-in to learning more about the topic by asking their own questions. It encourages them to look closer, question their knowledge, and learn from other’s experiences. Discussions like these create a classroom culture of authenticity and critical thinking that builds student engagement. 

This type of student-led discussion is a big move away from the more traditional knowledge transfer model that was based on reading, underlining, and highlighting key words and memorizing definitions. One of the secrets to transforming student performance is to move away from approaching science as a list of facts to know. Instead, authentic learning helps to develop student learners who understand and can better engage in the world around them using frameworks and critical thinking skills to solve problems and answer questions for themselves. In a testing environment, these students are improving outcomes because they have developed their own understanding of content in general and can then apply that understanding in a test environment.