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Tufts OpenCourseware
Author: Fulcrum Institute Development Team

The Case of Insulation (~ 2 hrs.)

A. Case Study

Begin by stepping into a classroom and putting your ideas about assessment to work. The Case of Insulation describes a lesson in which the teacher, Ms C., and her students continue a nine-week investigation of heat transfer. Where might Ms C be able to gather information that could guide her planning and instruction? Imagine your role is to help Ms. C identify opportunities for assessment.

  • Read the case with both the goals and assessment in mind.
  • Identify at least three opportunities for assessing student understanding.

In your journal

Make a list of the opportunities you found. For each one, jot down your ideas about:

(a) what the assessment might look like,
(b) what the purpose of the assessment might be,
(c) the nature of the information (evidence) you'd gather,
(d) how you think Ms. C or her students might make use of the information.

What questions does this case raise for you about assessment?

B. Read about assessment

As she teaches about heat transfer and insulation, Ms C continually asks two questions. Where’s the evidence that students are making progress towards the learning goals? Once I have the evidence, how can I use it to help them move their learning forward?

In Chapter 7 of Teaching, Learning, and Assessing Science 5-12, Wynne Harlen provides her view of assessment. Before you begin reading the chapter, take a careful look at her theoretical model (framework) for formative assessment (Figure 7.3). In this course, we will use a Framework for the Formative Assessment Cycle, a graphic derived from Harlen's model. This cycle identifies critical elements of the formative assessment process and indicates teacher actions throughout the process. We will use this diagram to discuss formative assessment just as we used the Inquiry Model to talk to each other about scientific investigations. This is a tool that we’ll use again and again. Print out a copy of the cycle and add it to your journal for quick reference. Before you go on, study all parts of the diagram to be sure you understand (a) why the learning goals are at the top of the diagram, (b) what's represented by the 3 ovals and how they relate to the learning goals, (c) what's in the boxes, (d) how steps the teacher takes relate to information in the boxes, (e) the role of students in formative assessment

Now read the Harlen, Teaching, Learning, and Assessing Science 5-12, Chapter 7. Look again at the opportunities you identified for assessment in the Case of Insulation. How would each opportunity give you information about students understanding? What makes these formative?

An annotated formative assessment cycle provides an example of how formative assessments might “map” onto the framework. Take time to study the example. We’ll soon be asking you to do something similar.

In Your Classroom (~ 2 hrs.)

A. Formative assessment in your classroom

On-the-Fly or Planned?

Teachers always keep their antennae tuned and eyes focused. Many, many times a day a student’s question, comment, drawing, or writing reveals a confusion that we clear up on the spot, a stumbling block we know how to remove, or a readiness to move on that we quickly enable.  One could make a case that in such instances the teacher has moved rapidly through a whole formative assessment cycle.


The formative assessments we refer to in this course differ from the on-the-fly interactions described at the right. In your reading this week, Harlen describes assessment as any activity that involves:

  • collecting evidence in a planned and systematic way;
  • interpreting the evidence to produce a judgment; and
  • communicating and using the judgment.

For example, you might plan to tape a class discussion as an investigation wraps up in order to take a close look at your students’ ideas and explanations, or look at a set of predictions to find out what students are thinking. Based on the evidence, you then proceed through the next steps in the cycle.

In Your Journal

Choose a formative assessment experience from your teaching (an assessment you used in the last couple weeks). Jot down answers to the following questions: What was the goal of the lesson? What did you want to find out about your students' understanding? What evidence (data) did you collect? How did you collect it? How did you make sense of (interpret) the evidence? How did it inform next steps in your teaching?

B. Connect your example to your reading and the formative assessment framework

In what ways does the personal experience you chose connect or map on to the formative assessment cycle described in your reading and represented in the Framework for the Formative Assessment Cycle?

In your journal

Map your formative assessment experience onto steps the teacher takes as she goes through a formative assessment cycle. To the extent you are able, craft annotations that describe the thoughts and actions you took at each step, 1-4. Use the annotated cycle you studied in section IB to guide your own annotations.

Based on your notes, write a report of the formative assessment experience you chose to analyze.

  • Briefly describe the context, including the learning goal and what science understanding or process skill you were assessing.
  • Share your annotations for each step, 1-4.
  • Add any comments or questions you have about using this framework to plan and make use of formative assessments in your classroom.

C. Rewind the clock

Imagine you could rewind the clock and change anything you want to improve the experience you described above. What changes, if any, would you make and why would you make them? Add these thoughts to your report.

Taking Stock (~0.5 hrs.)

You have just taken a close look at one of your own classroom assessments. We want you to continue to keep an eye on your assessment practices throughout the course using the Formative Assessment Framework to structure your reflections. At three points between now and Session 13, pick one of your assessments to analyze and annotate teacher steps in the cycle as you did this week. Use Taking Stock to organize your annotations. This process is designed to be an on-going kind of self-assessment as you document your formative assessment practice. You'll reference these annotations when you reflect on your ideas about formative assessment at the end of the course.