How to Improve the Effectiveness of NGSS Storylines with Formative Assessments

Diverse group of children sitting at table with male teacher in modern school classroom

In Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS)-based classrooms, students are required to learn more than facts. The standards are skills and performance-based, grounded on the understanding that students need to build their own skills and work with their own ideas, rather than the ideas of others. NGSS storylines promote this type of personal, hands-on learning through an investigation into real-world challenges.

New assessment methods are needed for this dynamic type of learning. When teachers and students are collaborating in the learning process, formative assessment offers a two-way assessment of both teacher and student. Formative assessments are more informal and more consistent, providing immediate feedback that students can incorporate immediately to improve their learning process. They also help teachers gain real-time insight into students’ thinking while there is still time to change direction. Formative assessments can be used in any environment, teaching any curriculum, on any subject. 

What Are Formative Assessments? 

Formative assessments are frequent low-stakes opportunities for teachers to gain insight into student’s learning and for students to gain insight into and feedback on their own learning. To form and assess science and engineering practices as skills, students must perform them. When they are leading the storyline, students can practice and improve how they question, gather and use data, make connections, test hypotheses, and make conclusions. Continuous feedback helps teachers maintain an understanding of student progress and the instructional environment, while helping students gain insight into how to improve their own learning process.

Implementing formative assessments and NGSS storyline pedagogy requires teachers to communicate their expectations clearly. The students must have clear guidance on what is expected of them throughout the hands-on learning process. Frameworks that students work within over and over throughout the year give them the freedom to tackle complex phenomena with creativity and higher-level thinking in a safe space. KnowAtom’s storyline lesson routine and science and engineering processes are examples of these frameworks. Formative assessments promote intellectual risk-taking and authentic discovery, with students improving how they use SEPs, DCIs, and CCCs to engage with NGSS phenomena.  

The Difference Between Formative and Summative Assessments

Summative assessments are what most of us remember from our own educational journey. They are infrequent and high-stakes assessments on what students have learned. The learning goal for students becomes producing the teacher’s desired answer to achieve a good grade, rather than showing an understanding of the subject matter by performing the expectations of a standard in different contexts. Summative assessments are disconnected from the learning process and often completed at the end of a unit. They don’t help students improve their thinking process because the opportunity to think and figure out is in the past. ‘What’ questions are an example of a summative assessment, i.e. What type of metal is the best conductor of electricity?

In contrast, formative assessments offer real-time suggestions to help students accomplish what they’re working on right now. In an NGSS Storyline, the students are working towards a goal they’ve set for themselves. Instead of pointing out an incorrect result, formative feedback challenges the students to react to an inquiry into their own work and to look critically at their processes and evaluate how they came to their conclusion. It provides an opportunity for reflection and actionable clarification of expectations to help in their learning process.

With formative assessment, teachers aren’t telling students how to gather evidence, analyze data, or plan their investigations to achieve a different result. Instead, engaging students in mini-inquiries gives them an opportunity to reflect and ask questions if they need clarification to respond to their teacher. By asking students why they have done what they have done, the teacher also gains insight into the student’s understanding.

Types of Formative Assessments to use with NGSS Storylines

Formative assessments can look a lot like a conversation between students and teachers. Both parties are active listeners, sharing ideas, and thinking critically. In an NGSS storyline, students are building on their knowledge from episode to episode, as they investigate a complex real-world phenomenon. Feedback on what they are working on right now can be incorporated immediately to improve their learning process.

One of the best results of using formative assessments is the creation of a culture where risk-taking and making mistakes is common, low-risk, and productive, resulting in a positive learning experience. When students receive constant, low-stakes feedback, students learn they can refine their own knowledge based on other’s ideas. Formative assessments can occur anywhere in a lesson. They can be verbal, written, electronic, or another form. However, they all share certain characteristics:

  • Occurs while students are engaged in thinking, so the feedback can be incorporated directly into students’ work and improve their discovery process.
  • Uses curiosity and listening skills, as teachers authentically engage with the students’ ideas or work to gain insight and encourage in-depth thinking about their evidence and reasoning.
  • Requires teachers to shift responsibility onto the students, as they explain their understanding of an investigation with facts, evidence, and reasoning. The students must respond to a formative assessment by authentically performing the expectations of the foundations of standards they’re mastering.

Eight types of formative assessment techniques include:

  • Reflective listening – actively listening to a student’s ideas and explanation with the goal of understanding their meaning and offering it back to them in your own words
  • Literal interpretation – taking a student’s words at face value and restating the literal meaning, to help them identify vagueness, inconsistencies, and misinterpretations
  • Analyzing consensus – students engage in scientific argumentation with their peers, using evidence to support or contradict claims
  • Fast forward – questioning the anticipated effect of something to get students to visualize possible outcomes
  • Rewind – Asking questions that get students to ‘rewind’ their thinking to a point that is conceptually sound and then use evidence to reconstruct their plan or thinking
  • Extend meaning – substituting one variable for another in a scenario to see if perceived principles are consistent
  • Connect-clarify – asking students to connect different ideas posed by the group to the big ideas
  • Speech to text – revisiting what students said before that was captured in writing to compare it to what they now know and think

How to Integrate Formative Assessments into NGSS Storyline Pedagogy Effectively

When the storyline’s anchor phenomenon is introduced, students working within a clear framework know that it’s their role as scientists and engineers to ask questions, wonder, and identify specific things they want to figure out. Formative assessment during this stage of the NGSS storyline lesson routine should help stimulate thinking and spark connections to what students already know. These connections may be to a student’s own knowledge or the most recent episode of the storyline.  

Socratic dialogue in a scientist circle helps students respond to new phenomena and narrow down their scope of inquiry. During this activity, students can use a peer evaluation form to provide a formative assessment of their partner’s contribution to the discussion. When saved, the peer feedback tool shows students how to improve and gives teachers and students insights into growth over time. Next, the students work together to answer a complex question or solve a real-world problem they have identified by planning an investigation. During the student-led investigation, formative assessment helps students identify whether they can provide sound reasoning and evidence to support their ideas. Asking whether there is a consensus and if each team member takes responsibility for it is one way to do this.

Checkpoints are a great way to keep students on track during planning, hands-on learning, and debriefs within an NGSS storyline routine. When students are required to check-in at specific parts of their investigation to discuss their ideas and thinking, students have ample opportunity to incorporate feedback and reflection. If needed, they can go back and revise their process and thinking early on. This is a great example of how formative assessment provides effective feedback that can be incorporated immediately.

When one episode in an NGSS storyline wraps up, the students present their findings, explain their reasoning, and use evidence to support their conclusion. Comparing their results with what others in the class found is a form of formative assessment. When we challenge them to connect what they’ve learned in the episode to the storyline’s big ideas, we’re promoting self-reflection and students taking ownership over both their learning and where their storyline goes next.

Formative Assessment Provides Deep Insights

“Growing up, I wanted to be an inventor, solving problems that would help people have better lives. Every day at KnowAtom is an opportunity to invent solutions that give thousands of students and teachers a better experience doing science, engineering, technology, and math (STEM). Providing educators with professional satisfaction and students with the opportunity to understand the world we live in is my way of helping people have better lives.”