Reflections on ASE Annual Conference 2014

Alistair mans the stand at ASE 2014

Alistair mans the stand at ASE 2014

If you attended the Association for Science Education Annual Conference in Birmingham last week, and if you’re anything like me, you probably spent Sunday in a state of zombie-like exhaustion. But hopefully you also – like me – feel that it was well worth the effort, you learned some things you didn’t know before, you made useful contacts, and you’re excited about putting some new ideas into practice.

The mostly dry and sunny weather in Birmingham was a pleasant change from the snow and howling winds of conferences past, and the beautiful University of Birmingham campus was a superb setting for a science education get-together. I joined the York Science project group in September 2013 after a number of years at OCR running the assessment and professional development programmes for GCSE Twenty First Century Science, so this was one of my first opportunities to talk about our resources with teachers.

What Would Your Students Say?

Practical 'Evidence of Learning Items' on the York Science stand

Practical ‘Evidence of Learning Items’ on the York Science stand

On our stand in the exhibition marquee we debuted our snazzy new York Science flier and challenged visitors to think about how their students would answer some of the York Science evidence of learning items (ELIs).

The bolt in the beaker provoked a lot of animated discussion, showing how a practical and very simple POE (predict-observe-explain) activity can be used to probe students’ (and teachers’!) knowledge – and misunderstandings – about forces. Play-Doh® cell models showed that formative assessment activities can be as fun for the students as they are informative for the teacher.

Many of the visitors to our stand on Friday were PGCE trainees. Although activities such as making cell models have been done in classrooms by many teachers for many years, to the trainees this was new and it was clear from their reactions that the power of using such an engaging activity as a way of testing knowledge was an exciting revelation. Dylan Wiliam (2011) wrote that “sharing high quality questions may be the most significant thing we can do to improve the quality of student learning”, and one of the aims of York Science is to share high-quality formative assessment items with teachers new and old alike.

Developing formative assessment in practice

'Evidence of Learning Items' created by teachers at our workshop

‘Evidence of Learning Items’ created by teachers at our workshop

While the stand enabled us to teach new dogs some old tricks, our workshop on Saturday was all about exploring the potential of effective formative assessment with some more experienced teachers. Run by Professor Robin Millar & Mary Whitehouse, the workshop – entitled ‘Developing formative assessment in practice’ – guided teachers through the principles of ‘backward design’ curriculum development, emphasising the benefits of starting by defining what you want students to be able to do and identifying how you will assess that before deciding what and how to teach to help them do it. During the workshop teachers worked in groups to create formative assessment items of their own using York Science materials as templates. The session was so well attended that we had to move to a larger room to accommodate everybody, and feedback from the attendees was positive and encouraging.

The introductory presentation from the workshop is now available to download, and keep an eye on the Inspired by York Science section of this website where we will publish some of the ‘Evidence of Learning Items’ created by participants.

If you visited our stand or any of our events during the conference please leave a comment below to let us know what you thought, or send us an email at You can also follow York Science, Mary Whitehouse and me on Twitter.

See you at ASE in Reading in 2015, if not before!

Great value professional development for science teachers

Discussion at a York Science workshop at the ASE Conference 2013

Discussion at a York Science workshop at the ASE Conference 2013

If you’d like to meet the York science team – and other members of the University of York Science Education Group (UYSEG) then come along to the University of Birmingham in the next few days.

It’s the ASE Annual Conference – an annual jamboree for science educators from across the world. Today (Wednesday) is the International Conference, which is followed by three more days of talks, workshops, and cutting edge science lectures.

I have written before about the ASE and this conference is its most visible manifestation, open to all, not just members, it is an opportunity for science teachers to meet with each other and also get some of the best value professional development possible. There is a wide range of talks and workshops to meet every need.

York Science will be presenting two sessions:

Thursday 9th January at 14.00  Getting to grips with lesson planning – we have been using our work in York Science to inform our PGCE Science programme at York. Anne Scott and Mary Whitehouse will be talking about how we have introduced the trainees to the backward design approach to lesson planning.  LR8 in the Arts Building

Saturday 11th January at 11.00  Developing formative assessment in practice – I have written about how teachers have been inspired by York Science to take some of the question types and ‘make another one like it’. In this workshop Robin Millar and Mary Whitehouse will provide a example of a range of questions styles with suggestions for how to adapt to other contexts. Participants will develop new assessment items which we plan to put on this website for everyone to share.  Room 12, Muirhead Tower.

UYSEG also has a stand in the exhibition marquee – stand BS18. Come along: Predict, Observe, Explain, collect a sticker for the prize draw, and chat to the team.

If you haven’t booked, it doesn’t matter, just come along for the day – see you there!

Inspired to write more

You know you are doing something right when teachers tell you that they used one of your resources and now they have adapted it for other purposes.

It all started with the cupboard under the stairs. cupboard_drawing

I wrote a blog post about  diagnostic questions and  confidence grids.  and soon after that @DoctorACook  tweeted about how she had used the PLC3.1 Dark room Evidence of Learning Item. And then she made some more confidence grids of her own and she wrote about them on this blog Using diagnostic questions.

As time went on I heard about other people who were using the Dark Room question and making  more confidence grids. And I began to think about how we might share the ones people had made.

Other people picked up on my post about Making the best use of examination questions, including  @NeedhamL56 , who developed it to use in training for the Science Learning Centres. @hrogerson  used the examiner reports for OCR Gateway Science to make some questions for her students and wrote about it on her blog.

So  people are picking up and running with our suggestions, which was exactly what we hoped would happen  when the project began two years ago,  and, even better, they are willing to share their items with everyone else.

Take a look at the new  Inspired by York Science tab at the top and dip into the resources these lovely people have shared. I hope you will be inspired to make some more and share them too. There are  even templates to download to get you on your way.





In praise of the ASE and School Science Review

The Association for Science Education (ASE) celebrated its 50th Anniversary in 2013. For as long as I have been working in science education the ASE has been part of my life – as a young teacher Education in Science  was my chief source of news about what was happening in science education and how I could get involved – of course there was no internet in those distant times.

Soon I was taking part in my first  curriculum development project, spending my weekends meeting with teachers from across the country to write and trial Science in Society, led by John Lewis of Malvern College. Later, some  of us from the  Science in Society team went on to work with John Holman and Andrew Hunt on the development of  SATIS . The SATIS project began in 1984 as the result of the report from an ASE working party which was convened to consider how the relationship between science, technology and society could be integrated into 11-16 school science. If you don’t know about SATIS take a look at the resources, which are now all available on the National Stem Centre elibrary. Although some may seem somewhat dated, there are many great ideas there for hooking students into science and developing ideas about how science works, and ‘thinking scientifically’.

ASE has been publishing resources for teachers over many years, and continues to do so. The ASE bookshop publishes and sells a whole range of books that should be in your department library.  There are also journals and magazines for science teachers, including School Science Reviewa peer-reviewed journal for secondary science teachers. I must declare an interest here as I edited SSR for a while, but it really is a great journal, arriving through the door four times a year, and specifically aimed at the classroom teacher, it contains an eclectic mix of ideas for new experiments, book reviews, and longer articles about science teaching and science education research.

And if you are not yet convinced this is an organisation you should join, I must mention the role ASE  has in representing all science teachers to the rest of the world. ASE is a key partner with the learned societies in SCORE, which enables the science community and the science education community to speak with one voice to government.

I could go on to list may other ways in which science teachers benefit from the work of the ASE, whether or not they are members – #ASEChat, #ASEteachmeets, the Annual Conference (which will be at the University of Birmingham in January – see the side panel to the right) and so on…… But ASE is a membership organisation that largely operates thorough the goodwill of its members, many of whom put in countless hours to ensure that the classroom voice is heard in discussions at the highest levels. So if you want to continue to benefit from its work, why not join now?

Oh, and the reason I started this paean to the ASE? There is an article about York Science, based on my presentation at the ASE Summer Celebration Conference in June this year,  in the latest edition of School Science Review.

You can download the article here Embedding assessment to improve learning. To read about other sessions at the conference you will need to become a member of the ASE.

Edited to add a link to SATIS Revisited mentioned by Nick Swift in the comments.

From the National Curriculum to a Scheme of Work

So you have downloaded the Programme of Study for key stage 3 Science and you are wondering where to start in making that into a scheme of work for early secondary school? You might start by reading about the principles behind backward design. This suggests that you begin by thinking about what you want learners to know, understand, and be able to do by the end of your teaching programme. That question might be better asked as ‘what do you want your students to know, understand and be able to do as they begin their examination programme, which might be GCSE Sciences (separate sciences or double award?) or BTEC Science or OCR Nationals, or ……

To help you with this you will want to know what the new GCSEs will look like. We don’t really know yet, but the (now closed) Consultation on the subject content for GCSE Sciences will give you some clues. It is clear from that document that there is an intention to make the content at GCSE more demanding. So you will want your students to come to those courses with a solid understanding of the sciences ideas you have taught in the early years of secondary school.

In fact it may be better to think of the first five years of secondary school as a continuum, with a diverse range of assessments at the end of year 11. So in the early years you will be teaching a fairly common curriculum, and at the same time thinking about what course will be most suitable for each student. At some point, probably during year 9, decisions will be made about the curriculum pathway most suitable for each student.

How can York Science help with your planning?

Let’s look at an example. In the Key stage 3 programme of study for Chemistry there is this:

Pupils should be taught about:
The particulate nature of matter

  • the properties of the different states of matter (solid, liquid and gas) in terms of the particle model, including gas pressure
  • changes of state in terms of the particle model

(DfE (2013) Science programmes of study: key stage 3. p. 8)

In the resources area of this website is a section about the particle model of matter, including a list of some of the things we think a student will be able to do if they understand a basic particle model of matter that can explain states of matter and changes of state, for instance we think they should be able to:

  • describe the main features of the particle model
  • identify limitations in representations of the particle model
  • explain how the particle model distinguishes between pure and impure samples of substances
  • use the model to explain characteristics of substances in the solid, liquid and gas states
  • use the model to explain changes of state

This is not an exclusive list, but if students could do all these things successfully they would be well prepared for starting a course in GCSE Chemistry – where the content includes this statement:

  • recall and explain the main features of the particle model in terms of the states of matter and change of state, distinguishing between physical and chemical changes

(DfE. (2013) Science: GCSE subject content and assessment objectives. p.17)

So, if you were writing a scheme of work for the early years of secondary school, you might use the list above as the intended learning outcomes for a section of work on the particle model.

And then of course you need a set of questions and tasks that will provide the evidence for each of those items – this is a crucial part of the planning – making sure you have items that you can use in the course of your teaching to provide evidence that learning has taken place. This is what York Science is doing developing questions and tasks for each of our stated learning intentions. (We call these Evidence of Learning Items, ELIs)
For instance, a student who understands the particle model should be able to use it to explain characteristics of substances in the solid state. Here is a question you might project on the whiteboard and ask students to think about in groups:

CSU2.4aP Particles and the solid state

This question is taken from a large bank of questions written for the
Evidence-based Practice in Science Education (EPSE) Research Network

The question will not tell you if they have learned the particle model statements – but learning by rote without understanding is not enough. Listening to the conversations of the students as they discuss their answer will help you find out whether they understand the particle model. So much of what follows in studying all the sciences depends on a good understanding of the particle model, so it is worth spending time in the early years to ensure students have a good grounding.
This question is one of a set that checking students’ understanding of the particle model of solids. You can download the set from the resources page.
And if you haven’t tried the confidence grid approach, here is an opportunity:

CSU2.4aP Particles and the solid state grid

So please download the frameworks that are currently available on the resources pages and use them in your planning. Let us know if you think they will be useful,  and whether you would like more of them to become available over the coming months.

researchED 2013

A few months ago there was a conversation on Twitter about researched informed practice in education. One thing led to another and on the first weekend in September 500 teachers, researchers and others with an interest in education gathered together at researchED 2013 to discuss how we could use research to improve learning in schools. I was invited to speak about how we use research evidence in curriculum development here at York.

There was a real buzz to the conference – after all these folk had all given up their Saturday to be there. Ben Goldacre started us off with an amusing, yet thought-provoking, talk about the connections between practitioners and researchers, drawing parallels with the ways in which medical researchers and practitioners share information, through formal and informal networks, such as databases of GPs willing to be involved in trials and in-house journal clubs. Of course we already have our own Science Teaching Journal Club , started by Alby Reid (@alby) and Alom Shaha (@alomshaha). The club meets periodically on Tuesday evenings on Twitter.

An education journal club is a place to discuss a published research paper on a topic of interest related to education, concluding with some thoughts about whether those in the group might try out the ideas in their teaching. A school where there is an interest in using evidence-based practice to develop teaching and learning might have a group of teachers interested in running such a club. King Edward VI Grammar School, Chelmsford is such a school. KEGS is a Leading Edge school where there are “teachers who are passionate about teaching, and leadership committed to research evidenced innovation to raise achievement and improve learning outcomes”. At researchED the headteacher, Tom Sherrington (@headguruteacher), spoke passionately about some of the many and varied ways he and his staff are carrying out research. Tom blogs regularly about his thinking about teaching, learning and school leadership. My take-home messages:

  • it is possible for teachers to engage in small scale action research in school
  • I’d love to be back teaching in a school like KEGS

Professor Robert Coe (@ProfCoe), Director of the Centre for Evaluation and Monitoring (CEM) at Durham University, is always an engaging speaker; he contributed two sessions: Practice & Research in Education: How can we make both better, & better aligned? (his PowerPoint is here) and Effect size in educational research (his PowerPoint is here). My take-home messages:

  • if you are looking for how to get best value for money from spare development cash in school, take a look at the Teacher Toolkit, developed by CEM with the Education Endowment Foundation
  • effective CPD is
    •  Intense: at least 15 contact hours, preferably 50
    • Sustained: over at least two terms
    • Content focused: on teachers’ knowledge of subject content & how students learn it
    • Active: opportunities to try it out & discuss
    • Supported: external feedback and networks to improve and sustain
    • Evidence-based: promotes strategies supported by robust evaluation evidence

(Coe, 2013 Practice and research in education Slide 22)

 I spoke about the way in which we are using research evidence to inform the development of York Science. Much of what I said has been covered in blog posts here – Evidence-based practice, Backward design and Diagnostic questions.  The session was videoed, you can watch it on the researchED YouTube channel.

My presentation YS Research-informed curriculum development ResearchED pdf

It was clear from many conversations at the conference that there is an appetite for greater engagement between researchers and practitioners and I hope that before we meet again in 2014 we will have made progress in building the networks.

Congratulations to all those who helped make the conference a great success, particularly Tom Bennett, @tombennett71 and Helene Galdin-O’Shea @hgaldinoshea


Assessment of practical work – part 2

My previous posting about assessment of practical work provided the stimulus for a discussion on #ASEChat.  #ASEChat is the hashtag used on Twitter for any comments that would be of interest to science teachers, but every Monday evening there is a focused discussion on a chosen topic.

On Monday 22nd July the questions raised in my blog post were discussed. There were interesting suggestions about ways that assessment could work and also some concern that if practical work is not assessed it will not be taught. A full summary of the discussion can be found on the ASE website here.

Twitter is not the only place for such conversations, members of the Institute of Physics  Education Forum met in August to discuss the draft GCSE Criteria. There was much lively discussion about practical work at the meetings – which was followed up in the forums later. The TalkPhysics forums can be found here. The Institute of Physics response to the draft GCSE Criteria forms part of the response from SCORE – you can download the responses from the SCORE website.

The Department  for Education consultation on the draft GCSE criteria has now closed. But is not too late to respond to the Ofqual consultation, which is about the regulatory aspects of the GCSE reform; the consultation includes questions about practical work assessment and tiering that will be of interest to science teachers. The consultation closes on 3rd September. So if you care about these matters make sure you respond to the consultation.

Assessment of practical work


It is clear that teachers, and others, think that it is important that practical work is an important part of science education. Recently #ASEChat discussed ‘The challenges and benefits of practical work in science teaching’. The discussion was led by Alom Shaha (@alomshaha), who has made a video for Nuffield about how to get the most out of practical work. There was much heated debate, and you can read a summary written by Richard Needham (@viciascience) here. At the end of the summary is a useful list of links for those interested in getting more out of their practical work. In particular for those who have not come across it, take a look at Getting Practical and also Robin Millar’s work. Stephen Taylor (@iBiologyStephen), an IB teacher in Japan has also responded to Alom’s video in this post on his i-Biology blog.

But this post isn’t about practical work in the classroom, in this post I want to raise the issue of assessment of practical work. Michael Reiss, Ian Abrahams, and Rachael Sharpe carried out a study for Gatsby of how practical work is assessed in other places. It makes interesting reading

Recently the DfE published a consultation document in which they lay down their proposals for the subject content and assessment objectives (AOs) (pp47-48) for GCSE Science for examinations from 2017. Teachers often don’t spend long looking at the AOs in a specification, more important to them is how they are exemplified in the assessment materials. However, in this consultation document the AOs contain many more statements and give far more detail than in previous subject criteria and these AOs will drive changes in the the assessment.

So, wearing my York Science hat, let’s take a look at the AOs that relate directly to teaching practical work:

AO1 Recognise, recall and show understanding of:

  • uses of scientific instrumentation and apparatus
  • scientific quantities and their determination
  • working safely in a scientific context.

AO3 The experimental skills and abilities to:

  • select or formulate propositions amenable to experimental test
  • devise procedures and select apparatus and materials suitable for synthesising substances or producing or checking the validity of data, conclusions, generalizations and hypotheses
  • recognise and explain variability and unreliability in experimental measurements
  • evaluate quantitative and qualitative data acquired through practical work, the design of experiments and experimental observations, draw conclusions and suggest improvements where appropriate.

AO4 The ability to:

  • follow instructions accurately
  • use scientific instrumentation, apparatus and materials appropriately
  • work with due regard for safety, managing risks
  • observe, measure and record accurately and systematically
  • carry out and report on investigations or parts of investigations.

The statements listed under AO1 are a subset of the full AO1 list, which all together are worth 30% of the marks. AO3 is worth 10% and AO4 is worth 10%. So more than 20% of the GCSE marks are related to practical work.

AO1 and AO3 are to be assessed through examination papers. AO4 is to be assessed ‘directly’ by the teacher.

So my first question:

Are the objectives in that list important things for students to show they can do at the end of KS4?

If we want to develop assessments that assess what we think is important and should be accredited as part of a GCSE qualification, (rather than assess what is easy to set (and mark)) we need to think what the questions and tasks should look like.

More questions:

What sort of questions could legitimately asked in an exam that would address AO1 and AO3?

What sort of evidence of performance would be acceptable for those things described by AO4?

Alongside the consultation from DfE, Ofqual are also consulting on the GCSE reforms, there is a discussion of assessment of science practical skills on page 42. They are inviting views on the tensions between authentic assessment of practical skills (such as the first 4 bullets under AO4) and the validity of the assessment when teachers are under such pressure to give students maximum marks.

There is a discussion about assessment of practical work amongst physics teachers and others in the TalkPhysics forum . Are there similar discussions amongst chemistry teachers and biology teachers anywhere?

Amongst the suggestions from the TalkPhysics group:

  • include in the specification a list of the competencies that are expected e.g. take readings from a circuit with a voltmeter and ammeter, use a thermometer, measure pH …..
  • include in the specification a requirement for candidates to complete a list of core practicals, evidence of the activity could be, for example a table of results, or photo evidence. Evidence is supported by a signature that the student has done the work themselves.
  • remove investigations from the AO4 list, all the components are in AO3 – so doing the investigations will build up the skills, which are assessed in an exam and teachers don’t have to mark investigations

What do you think?

Discuss on Twitter using #ASEChat, alternatively, add your comments below to get the discussion going.

Here are some starter questions for the discussion:

  • do you support the idea of a list of required practicals in the specification that could be form the context for questions in written papers? if you do what practicals would you include?
  • do you support the retention of investigations to be marked by teachers? If you do, what sort of investigation is worthwhile? If not why not?
  • how could the sort of practical competencies as listed in AO4 be assessed? would you include specific competencies in the list or keep it generic? would it matter if everyone scored full marks?


Making best use of exam questions

OCR documents

I have written before about Diagnostic Questions. A good diagnostic question can reveal a lot about a student’s thinking. Many of the questions we have written for the York Science Project have drawn on research evidence to provide the alternative answers that students might select.

When preparing diagnostic questions for GCSE classes there are two other rich sources of alternative answers that have been given by students – the Mark Scheme and the Report to Centres. Recently I spent some time with OCR GCSE Science teachers developing diagnostic questions in this way.

Here is an example.

This question part of question 2 on the OCR GCSE Science Gateway B711/02 (higher tier paper) in June 2012.

Malaria Q

In the Report to Centres the Principal Examiner for the paper wrote :

“Just less than half the candidates gained the mark……
The most common correct answer was dehydration. The most common incorrect responses were to describe ‘overheating’ or ‘organ failure’.
A significant number of candidates thought that ‘enzymes were killed’ or that the ‘blood boils’.”

The mark scheme for the question was this:

Malaria MS

The guidance column in the mark scheme identifies some of the answers that candidates were writing and indicates markers whether or not to accept the answers.

So from the examiners’ report and the marks scheme we now know the sort of things that students were thinking in answer to the question ‘How can a very high temperature lead to death?’

We could put these into a ‘talking head’ presentation and ask students to choose which answers they think are good and which are wrong.


Or you could put the answers into a confidence grid:

Malaria grid

Notice the headings for the columns. The question is looking for an explanation, so there may be statements that are correct, but are NOT a scientific explanation.

Diagnostic question or teaching activity?

This item could be used to check out students’ understanding after a sequence of lessons about homeostasis. Or it could be seen as a teaching activity to improve exam technique – a discussion of why some answers are not acceptable can help students to understand what makes a good answer.

If you would like to see more examples of how examiners’ reports can be used to inform the creation of resources for formative assessment, you can download the presentation here YS Embedding assessment OCR 2013

and sample questions from the support pages on the OUP website for Twenty First Century Science.

Using images as the stimulus for questions

Often a science teacher will begin the lesson with a ‘hook’ to draw the students in. This hook may be a ‘real world’ context related to the science ideas to be taught.

I often began my teaching with an image and a question. The question might be simply to stimulate interest. But how much more useful if the question not only stimulates interest, but also gives the teacher some information about what the students already know about the topic of the lesson.

York Science now has its own Pinterest pages. Here we are pinning images that can be used to find out about students learning. We will try to suggest a question to stimulate thinking for each science image we include.

So a simple image of a beaker of boiling water.
And a simple question:

What are the bubbles?

A   Air
B   Water in the gas state
C   Oxygen or hydrogen or both
D   Air and water

What do you think the answer is?

What proportion of middle school students gave the correct answer do you think?

Dr Phil Johnson at Durham University used this question as part of his research into students understanding of changes of state and the particle theory. Many of his questions will form part of the York Science resources. To find out more about this question and what it will tell you about students’ understanding, take a look at the resource CSU1.6b Boiling and Bubbling in the Chemistry resources.


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