Science teacher motivates middle schoolers with state standards

iStock_000016869784XSmallTo motivate middle school students in science class, one teacher skipped the pizza parties and free homework passes, and instead gave each student a copy of the state California standards on science that they would be expected to meet by the end of the year.

Cheryl Frye reports in Science Scope that giving students the specific standards they had to meet and constantly relating what they did in class to the standards, motivated them to learn more and made them active participants in monitoring and assessing their progress. A focus on the standards also took the emphasis away from grades to mastering the subject, she writes.

“My goal was to convince students that our class would focus on learning and mastery of established standards, not just on grades, and [to] empower students to take charge of their own individual academic growth,” the teacher writes.

Most students found after a few assessments in class that they had mastered at least one of the standards, which is especially beneficial for low-performing students who have not experienced success in the academic environment, the author writes.

In the article in Science Scope, Frye outlines how meeting the state science standards was interwoven in the curriculum:

The state standards were presented to the students as a checklist at the beginning of the school year. Next to each standard was a check box to indicate mastery and a blank space for students to record their activities related to each standard.

The state standards were also posted on the school’s website. The goal was for students to achieve 70% mastery of the standards.

At the beginning of each chapter in their textbooks, students put a star next to the standards that would be addressed in the chapter. Each Friday, the class discussed how the week’s activities satisfied the standards.
At the end of each chapter, students took a common assessment designed by the professional learning community of science teachers at the school. Each question on the common assessment was aligned with a specific standard and designed to mimic state testing.

Each student received a detailed, half-page analysis of how they performed on the common assessment. Instead of focusing on the overall percentage on the test, each student looked at the percentage of questions they answered correctly for each standard, the teacher reports. Students were motivated to improve when they saw that they mastered at least one of the standards. High-performing students were motivated by how many standards they could meet.

Frye did her own data analysis of the assessments and specifically looked at questions that many students answered incorrectly. Common misconceptions were discussed in class and vocabulary clarified. Frye worked with students to consider how they could have answered questions with the other context clues they had. Students were given the opportunity to express their frustrations with the assessment questions in discussions, but only one student could speak at a time.

During these forums, our goals are revisited repeatedly: (1) Students are expanding their knowledge base, and (2) they are gaining information on how to take a test, which is currently how society determines success,” Frye writes.

When they received the results of their assessments, students asked each other which standards they passed, creating a more collegial class environment where students supported each other in the learning process, the author reports.

After the second common assessment, Frye offers a reteach module for students who have not yet met a standard. Students who have mastered the standard skip the reteach module and engage in an enrichment activity, conducting an experiment. Students take another assessment at the end of the reteach module. They must earn at least 70% on this assessment.

Students track progress on standards

Students keep track of what standards they have met by highlighting them on their checklist. Those who still haven’t met a standard after the reteach module, have one more opportunity before the state assessment, Frye reports. Students pick 2 standards that they have not met and teach the class a 10- to 15-minute lesson on those standards. Many students gain insight into why they did not learn the standard the first time and are motivated to teach the standard because their peers are depending on them to learn or review the standard, the author reports.

One concern about her approach is that dividing the class into those taking the reteach module and those in the enrichment activity creates tracking or groups students by performance. The author says she specifically emphasized that the reteach module was not a consequence but instead an opportunity to learn. She said she did not observe any frustration or low self-esteem issues in students in the reteach group.

As the year progressed, she said smaller percentages of students were in the reteach groups following the assessments. After the first assessment, the number of students being retaught was 83 out of 180; after the 4th assessment, only 28 out of 182 students were in the reteach group. She writes that either the students became more motivated to learn the first time around so they could participate in the enrichment activity or their study skills improved.

Frye said she was able to implement this process because of her school district’s data program. Some schools aremoving toward standards-based report cards, she says, and putting the standards in the students’ hands at the beginning of the year and making them active participants in meeting the standards reinforces this trend.

Motivating middle school students to monitor and assess their learning,” by Cheryl Frye, Science Scope, September 2010, Volume 34, Number 1, pps. 56-60.

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