Four Good Science Teaching Strategies & How to Use Them (Opinion)

(This is the last post in a two-part series. You can see Part One here.)

The new question-of-the-week is:

What is the single most effective instructional strategy you have used to teach science?

In Part One, Frank Dill, Cheryl Matas, and Fred Chapel shared their science favorites.

Today, John Almarode, Ph.D., Paul Lennihan, and Anthony Nesbit contribute their recommendations.

‘Student Talk’

John Almarode, Ph.D., is an associate professor and executive director of teaching and learning in the College of Education at James Madison University in Virginia. He can be reached out www.johnalmarode.com:

The answer is student talk. Getting my learners to talk through concepts, practices, and understandings had the greatest impact on their science learning. Not laboratories, demonstrations, worksheets, or movies. Fostering and nurturing opportunities for learners to talk about the different types of chemical reactions and the role of a catalyst in those reactions allowed my high school chemistry students to make their thinking visible and get immediate feedback from their peers.

In high school physics, critical conversations allowed my learners to deeply think about the physical principles involved in a problem, the different approaches to solving that problem, and then making meaning of the solution within the context of scientific phenomena. This is not simply a hunch. Year after year, my learners and I documented the greatest gains in their learning as a result of student talk. At James Madison University, this is still a key component of my teaching in the College of Education.

The impact I experience with student talk is consistent with the research on what works best in teaching and learning. John Hattie (2020) found that classroom discussion has an average effect size of 0.82, nearly doubling the rate of learning. There are three elements of student talk that make this instructional strategy so powerful:

  • The science of how we learn. Student talk blends key elements of the science of how we learn. From elaborate encoding, retrieval practice, and feedback, students’ talking about their learning increases the acquisition, consolidation, and transfer of learning.
  • Versatility. Student talk can be embedded in so many different approaches to teaching and learning science. From summarizing to think-pair-share to Jigsaws, we can integrate student talk into any other instructional strategy. Yes, some may identify a Jigsaw as their single most effect instructional strategy. However, student talk is what makes the strategy so effective.
  • Finally, engagement. To effectively and efficiently talk about concepts, practices, and understandings, learners must activate prior knowledge, articulate connections between concepts, and apply their thinking to understand their peers’ thinking. This serve and receive aspect of student talk increases learners’ engagement.

There is one aspect to the effectiveness of student talk that cannot be left unsaid: implementation. As with any instructional strategy, implementation drives the effectiveness. A better way to put this is, student talk has the potential to be the most effective instructional strategy.

How student talk is implemented in my classroom ultimately determines the effectiveness on student learning. Over the years, trial and error has been the theme for my teaching. I am purposeful about the use of student talk, but there are times when the evidence of learning suggests that the implementation needed adjusting (e.g., learners sat in silence, conversations were superficial or off topic, dialogue focused on irrelevant details).

This evidence suggested that additional scaffolding or support was needed for learners to engage in talking, dialoguing, or critical conversations around scientific phenomena. Maybe learners needed additional support in academic vocabulary, the tools needed for student talk. Some learners needed question stems or sentence starters to activate their background knowledge and structure their dialogue. And, quite possibly, additional instruction was needed to build enough background knowledge to engage in critical conversations.

Over the years, I have found that the principle of gradual release (see Fisher & Frey, 2013) builds the capacity and confidence in learners to step out; talk about science concepts, practices, and understandings; and give and receive feedback from their peers. Having clear expectations, teacher modeling, and structures for supporting student talk provides the scaffolding and support early on. Over time, these scaffolds and supports can be removed as learners integrate talk, dialogue, and critical conversations into their science learning.

References

Fisher, D., & Frey, N. (2013). Better learning through structured teaching. A framework for the gradual release of responsibility (2nd ed.). Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Visible Learning Meta X. (2020, July). Retrieved from https://www.visiblelearningmetax.com/.

Motivation

Paul Lennihan has been a teacher at The Windward School for seven years. He discovered his passion for science at a young age and he enjoys bringing that enthusiasm to his students. An avid scuba diver, Lennihan loves to introduce his students to the wonders of the natural world:

Have you ever had trouble getting motivated?

At The Windward School, all of our students have dyslexia or language-based learning disabilities. Multisensory instruction is critically important for teaching this population. In the science classroom, this approach allows my middle school students to grasp and internalize complex and abstract ideas in science. It involves several different instructional strategies, all of which are effectively applied to a mainstream classroom, but if I had to choose one as the single most effective strategy for teaching science, it would be the use of high-interest motivators.

A high-interest motivator, be it a model, a specimen, teacher demonstration, video, or image, is a great way to introduce or reinforce concepts. This is a critical step in multisensory instruction, and it is one of the most enjoyable aspects of science teaching, as the content is often naturally highly engaging for students! Bringing out a specimen or sample, showcasing a quick reaction, or displaying a new contraption are excellent ways to pique student interest. This can even be done at the doorway before the students enter your classroom, which works especially well for younger students who visit your lab. The purpose is threefold: It activates prior knowledge and initiates conversation of the relevant topic. It hones students’ observation and communication skills. And of course, it gets them pumped for the awesome lesson you’re about to deliver!

For example, let’s say you are teaching 3rd graders about butterflies. Meet them at the door to your lab with a preserved specimen. Have students make observations of the patterns and make inferences of why it is so colorful. Then invite them in to start your lesson!

Teaching about volcanoes? Have a large chunk of pumice on your desk for students to observe at the start of class. There are so many questions to be asked. Why is it so light? How did it form? Why are there holes in it? If you have reluctant students, model your thinking and questioning process. Use it to springboard your lesson on volcanic eruptions.

High-interest motivators need not be physical objects. An interesting picture on the smartboard, a quick video clip outlining a science process, or a provocative question can all be utilized to hook the students.

After this step, your students will have bought into your direct instruction, inquiry-based learning, or laboratory experiments. But don’t just relegate this technique to the science classroom. Think of all the applications it could have in language arts, social studies, and may other content areas. Motivate your students at the start, and they’ll be with you through the end!

motivateyourstudentspaul

‘Inquiry-Based Learning’

Anthony Nesbit began his teaching career in Seville, Spain, teaching English. He has taught Spanish and English to speakers of other languages for more than 20 years. He holds a B.A. in Spanish and an M.A. in TESOL. Currently, he teaches English-learners in grades K-12:

I really had a difficult time narrowing it down to one single effective strategy, so I chose two. Inquiry-based learning and project-based learning are two of the most effective instructional strategies that I have used to teach science to my English-learners.

Inquiry-based learning has given my English-learners the opportunity to participate in science skills and practices such as observing, classifying, predicting, and recording. At the same time, I have seen them use meaningful language in all domains (speaking, listening, reading, and writing) to communicate about science, from nature walks outside around the school to experimenting about how different materials float in water. I have seen that when my students are able to communicate scientific concepts and explain scientific processes using the patterns of discourse and terminology of science, that is when they fully understand these concepts.

I think the experiences that my students have taken away from … growing a vegetable from seed to fruit or answering a question by discovering the results of an experiment are much more meaningful to their understanding of science than reading about these concepts in a textbook or hearing them explained by me.

In addition, I have found that inquiry-based and project-based learning are naturally differentiated, and both of these can be scaffolded very easily. As a teacher, I can provide certain students with models, visuals (such as charts and diagrams), as well as peer support to help with tasks that require more language skills than what they might possess at the time. Many of the inquiry-based and project-based tasks are easily scaffolded just by changing the language domain. For example, a task that is heavily dependent on reading can be changed to one that relies on listening instead without sacrificing the science content or rigor.

One specific inquiry-based learning strategy that I have used is “citizen science” or crowdsourced science to teach scientific concepts to my students. Citizen science is an approach that uses science projects that ordinary, nonprofessional “citizens” can participate in by gathering and analyzing data about real-world actual science-investigation projects that are run by professional scientists.

My students participated in one called, “Tomatosphere.” Scientists are studying the effects of tomato seeds that spent time on the International Space Station. For the project, my students received two sets of tomato seeds. One was the control (regular tomato seeds from Earth) and the other, the variable (seeds that were flown to the ISS). This was a double-blind experiment, in which they planted and grew the two sets of seeds in the exact same conditions (equal amounts of water, sun, soil, etc.), recorded data from each set, and hypothesized which seeds were the “space seeds.” They communicated their data and hypothesis in writing and orally and sent their data to the NASA scientists. At the end, each student received a very nice certificate showing that they had participated and also learned that their work is contributing to actual research about the future of farming onboard the International Space Station.

onespecificanthony

Thanks to John, Paul, and Anthony for their contributions!

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