Sunday, December 20, 2015

Using CER to Deepen Thinking

When I started using the Claim, Evidence, Reasoning framework last year, little did I know the transformative power it would have in all aspects of student learning. Opportunities to incorporate scientific argumentation in the classroom continue to present themselves.

The last time I taught College Biology was pre-CER for me, so it's been exciting finding ways to incorporate it into the methods I've traditionally used with this class. One recent shift was a speciation activity from previous years. The original lesson asked students to plot data about the location of various sub-species of the California salamander, Ensatina. Students would then answer questions about the patterns that the sub-species created and eventually be "led" to the possibility that speciation had occurred. Here's a LINK to the original lesson from ENSI. I like that the activity is based on actual research on ring species, initiated by Robert Stebbins from UC Berkley in the 1940's. However students never really puzzled over the data as much as would have liked them to. So, I decided to apply the principles of CER to the activity, hoping to see more critical thinking.

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To start the activity, I shared the story of the Ensatina salamander species with the students. I showed them photos of what the sub-species look like and discussed the history of the research that has benn done on the species. Students then used the data and map from the original activity to plot the locations of the salamanders. At this point, instead of answering scripted questions, I tasked the student teams with (1) Writing a CER argument addressing the question, How did speciation of the Ensatina salamanders occur in California? (2) Diagramming a whiteboard model to support their argument. Remember, the students had no knowledge of the actual scientific result of this research.

The discussions teams had while developing their CER and whiteboard models were exactly the type of thinking I was hoping for. Students debated which sub-species was the most ancestral, why salamanders in different areas of California looked so different, and applied topics from class such as disruptive selection, habitat isolation, and hybridization. Each of their models and arguments ended up being a little different. Since we didn't have time to run an official white boarding "class conference," I asked every team to create a video describing their CER with the whiteboard model as a prop in the video.

This wasn't the end of the activity, however. I wanted the students to evaluate each others' arguments. Also, I no longer give points for group work, so I was searching for a way to assess my students individually on this topic. What I decided to do was this: Each student watched three CER videos from teams other than their own. After watching the videos, they critiqued the arguments discussed in the videos by responding to the prompts below.

1) Compare and contrast the speciation arguments in the three videos you watched.
2) In your opinion, which team developed the strongest argument? Why? (Discuss the qualities of all three arguments in your explanation.)
3) Describe two additional pieces of information that would have improved all the groups' arguments. In other words, if you could request that the original salamander scientists provide you with more data or information, what would have been helpful to know to support the arguments?

The results were outstanding. Students dug into the arguments of their peers and provided very insightful analyses of evidence.

Here are some excerpts of student work from the peer critique:

I was extremely happy with the outcome of this CER lesson. Not only was the content of the course reinforced, but students participated in powerful science practices. Double win!

Saturday, December 5, 2015

My Favorite Things

What follows is an article I wrote for the most recent MnSTA Newsletter. The online version can be found HERE for people who are members of MnSTA. 

A few weeks ago, I was searching online for something new to supplement the phylogenetics lessons the College Biology class had been working on. When I finally came across a great resource, one of my first instincts was to tweet it out, sharing it with my fellow teaching colleagues.

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It seems as though many teachers are pre-programmed to share. Put two or more science teachers in a room, and it’s my observation that it takes approximately 4.2 minutes (give or take) before they start talking about examples of their favorite lessons, websites, or labs.

So in the spirit of sharing, I’m beginning a series of articles themed, “My Favorite Things.” For each edition of the MnSTA newsletter, my goal is to share with you one website, one book, and one podcast that are “favorites.” Since I’m a Biology teacher, these will mostly concentrate in that discipline area, but I’m hoping as the articles get rolling, I will hear from many science teachers throughout the state of Minnesota, willing to share their favorite things. Yes, this means you! If you have a book, website, or podcast that inspires your teaching or is simply one of those resources you turn to regularly, please contact me (information at the end of this article). Your ideas will be shared here as part of the regular article.

With that said, onto the sharing!

Website: “NOVA Labs: Evolution Lab.”
Here is the phylogenetics website that had me so excited a few weeks ago. In this “game,” students are guided through a series of missions in which they initially build phylogenetic trees based on traits, fossil evidence, and then eventually DNA similarities. Part of each mission is a tutorial introducing new concepts and tools, with the following challenges getting progressively harder. There are questions at the end of each mission to check students’ new learning, and players can only move on to a new mission once they’ve successfully unlocked the previous one. I was pleased that NOVA covers a wide diversity of organisms in these missions, from bacteria to dinosaurs to hominids. One of the missions also challenges students to consider practical applications of phylogenetics in medicine. It took my students approximately an hour to go through all the missions, and afterwards I asked them to write a paragraph using what they learned in the NOVA Lab as evidence for questions they were exploring in class.

Book: Science Formative Assessment: 75 Practical Strategies for Linking Assessment, Instruction, and Learning by Paige Keeley.
Many of you may have seen or have been using the subject-specific formative assessment probes designed by Keeley, which are wildly popular among science teachers. While I do incorporate a couple of these probes here and there throughout my curriculum, the Keeley-inspired tools I use the most come from this book, Science Formative Assessment. Here, Keeley spells out a variety of generic strategies that can be used in any science class to get a better idea of student thinking. Just in the past quarter, I’ve used at least three ideas from this book. For a recent debate about energy in food chains, students participated in a “Four Corners” assessment. They were asked take a stand on a question by moving to the corner of the room that represented their answer and preparing a “position statement” defending that answer with the other like-minded students in the corner. In preparation for a quiz on classification, students worked in pairs to complete a “Justified True/False” and then rotated through other groups to defend and clarify their justifications. To show changing thinking about photosynthesis and expose misconceptions, I asked students to “Post-It Vote” on a question before exploring the topic in class, and then again afterwards. All three of these methods, and 72 others, are described in detail in Keeley’s book.  

Podcast: Horizontal Transfer by Paul Anderson and David Knuffke
If you teach high school Biology and don’t currently listen to podcasts, this podcast alone should be enough to get you on the bandwagon. Produced by Paul Anderson (of Bozeman Biology video fame) and fellow Biology/Chemistry teacher David Knuffke, Horizontal Transfer is a weekly discussion of ideas, tools, and resources pertinent to all Biology teachers. From topics as specific as “graphing” to broad, philosophical ideas such as, “the ideal high school,” each episode is engaging and entertaining. From the beginning, Paul and David encouraged the listening audience to contribute to the podcast with feedback and “teacher hacks,” which they feature as a regular part of the show. Because of this global collaboration, listening to the podcast makes you feel like a part of a greater community, not just a passive recipient of information. Catching up on past episodes is easy as well, since Paul and David also created a website (of the same name) to archive all the shows and resources.

On a side note, I get asked a lot, “Where do you find the time to listen to podcasts?” Think about all the mindless tasks you may have during the day, and these might be the perfect moments to put on a podcast: a long commute, doing the dishes, raking leaves. Once you get started, you’ll start recognizing all sorts of unclaimed minutes throughout your day. Give it a try!

If you have some “favorite things” you’d like to share with Minnesota science teachers, please send the name of the website, book, or podcast with a short review to Amanda Meyer via email ( or Twitter (@alynnmeyer). Looking forward to your contributions!