Two simple ideas for engineering classroom discussions and peer support during science investigations

Formative assessment is about using evidence of learning to adapt what happens in the classroom and better meet learners’ needs. It is beneficial to student achievement, but not as easy as it sounds.

Here are a couple of ideas for implementing the key strategies of formative assessment in science practical work, with a little help from coloured cups and diaries.

Nurture constructive conversations

Red, green and yellow cups

Source: Valerii__Dex /

Working in small groups for practical work encourages student discussion. However, students may need some prompting to get started. Also, when discussions do kick-off, they often die when a teacher approaches a group to see how they’re doing.

I have found coloured cups particularly useful to seed task-focused conversations that reveal students’ knowledge and misunderstandings. Provide each group with three cups: one red, one green and one yellow. When work is going well, students put the green cup on top of the tower. When they are confused, but can continue working, they choose yellow. However, if they are stuck they show the red cup to say, ‘please hurry up and help us!’ Students agree as a group which colour they display. This means they must discuss their choice together, as well as their progress and problems.

It doesn’t have to be the teacher who helps the group showing their red cup. Invite students from a group displaying a green cup to help their peers.

As a teacher, this makes it easier to take a step back and eavesdrop on discussions from a corner of the classroom without killing any chatter. You not only get an overview of what is going on, but also evidence of learning and ideas of topics for whole class discussion afterwards.

Peer-reviewed investigations

A diary can be useful to help students plan and record their investigative work. The diary template could be paper-based or digital (here’s an example as an MS Word or pdf file). Also, consider allowing students to make an audio recording of their plan, as they sometimes speak more freely than they write.

Individual students or groups write a first draft of their investigation plan on the template. They then swap documents and suggest improvements each other could make. After peer feedback, students refine their plan, adding text and drawings to describe the equipment they need. Only at this point do they show the plan to their teacher before starting their investigations.

After carrying out the experiments, students review their results. They self- and peer-assess how the investigation went and provide further suggestions on improvements for next time. You could also ask them to write instructions for older or younger students on how to conduct or repeat their investigation.

I’ve found both these techniques generate information I can use to adapt what happens in the classroom. However, before you start collecting information, it’s worth asking yourself what kind of information you need.

Eva Hartell is an experienced STEM teacher and currently conducts school-based research from the KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Sweden. Eva will provide more examples of how to embed formative assessment in her talk at the researchED conference in London on 9 September 2017.