Assessment – a word much dreaded by pupils! But all is not lost if they can see its value for learning. Science practical assessments, in particular, provide opportunities to help pupils apply concepts they are tested on to the world around them.
The mere mention of assessments often elicits an array of negative responses. But they can also make learning refreshing and impactful, if carefully applied.
The typical aim of assessments in science is to test pupils’ acquisition of scientific knowledge and ability to transfer this knowledge to solve problems in the natural world.
This “test of transfer” is essential as it demonstrates that learners can comprehend their surroundings scientifically.
Extending Learning through Science Practical Work
Science practicals or laboratory work are a useful way of encouraging and assessing this transfer of learning.
Ms Tan Poh Hiang, a Teaching Fellow with NIE’s Natural Science and Science Education (NSSE) Academic Group, strongly supports this idea: “Building an activity around a science concept can contextualize the learning process.”
This is because practicals test a different domain of knowing science concepts.
“Although not tested in the PSLE, it is a feature that many schools are implementing for deep learning of science, which is very different from pen-and-paper formats,” says NSSE Assistant Professor Lee Yew Jin.
“Working an activity, or better yet a series of activities, around a science concept will result in long-term mastery of science,” adds Yew Jin.
Poh Hiang, who was recently attached to Temasek Primary School, found that pupils are more engaged in the learning process when carrying out practical activities.
These activities also make learning less abstract, especially for weaker pupils. “Lower ability pupils have difficulty handling text, but hands-on learning illuminates the whole learning process,” she says.
Extending Practical Learning through Extension Application Questions
Poh Hiang recommends that schools make use of practicals to help pupils understand and apply science concepts to their daily lives, rather than just to evaluate learning using written tests.
This also aligns with our Science curriculum, which aims to help pupils explore the surroundings they call home.
To make learning more meaningful, she proposes adding extension application questions to science practicals.
Such questions require pupils to apply what they have learned from the earlier experiment to a question relating to their lives. These create opportunities for pupils to learn a scientific concept in greater depth rather than just recalling knowledge.
Extending Thinking through Hands-on Inquiry
Poh Hiang’s method of adding extension questions to practical assessments adds a refreshing twist to science learning, which is often text-based.
“Nowadays, pen-and-paper assessments always have thinking questions, which the lower ability pupils struggle to handle,” notes Poh Hiang.
“These questions will help pupils to extend and apply what they learn in practicals to questions dealing with the real world.”
“Extended application questions not only provide time for pupils to explore scientific concepts in depth but also for them to propose their ideas and discuss them with their peers and teachers,” adds Yew Jin.
“Collaboration will benefit weaker pupils who find thinking questions cognitively challenging.”
Yew Jin believes that science practicals are valuable for learning as well as for assessment purposes, even at the primary level, as “the physical manipulation of abstract things such as science concepts is the bedrock of higher cognitive functions.”
With frequent use, extension questions not only help pupils tackle analytical questions found in their daily assessments and the PSLE, but also facilitate the “transfer” of learning to life.
Extending Assessments to Life Experiences
The fear of assessments can be greatly minimized if the process of science learning is made more enjoyable for pupils.
They will become enthusiastic about learning when they are able to relate their knowledge of science to real life.
The challenge is for teachers to show pupils that assessments are not hurdles in their student life but a means for them to apply their scientific knowledge in practical ways.
Developing this much needed habit of applying acquired knowledge beyond school assessments will help pupils become better exam-takers and better problem-solvers.