EEF Blog: Tackling Misconceptions in Science by Using Good Diagnostic Assessment

Could planning a science curriculum around students’ misconceptions help to accelerate their progress? Our Science specialist, Dr Niki Kaiser - a chemistry teacher at Notre Dame High School in Norwich - highlights the role that assessment will play in ensuring pupils catch up...

As we return to school, teachers are thinking about how best to support our students over the next year: keeping them safe and healthy, making sure they learn and thrive. 

But the science classroom is likely to look rather different, at least for a while. 'Bubble' arrangements mean that science lessons won’t necessarily take place in labs, and we’re still unsure of exactly how learning and assessment will be affected.

Assessment in science comes in a variety of forms, from national exams and standardised tests to low stakes quizzes and conversations with students.

As we begin the next term, we’ll need to consider how best to use a range of assessment approaches to help address any gaps in knowledge and understanding that may have developed during lockdown (just as we always have done, whenever we teach anything).

Assessment has always been an integral aspect of high-quality teaching. Prior knowledge determines how new ideas will be embedded, and how easily students will make connections between concepts. Preconceptions can influence how students understand (or misunderstand) something, before they even enter the classroom.

Following recent events, it will be tempting to prioritise collecting evidence via formal tests or use GCSE science exam questions, rather than focusing on continuous, low-stakes assessment approaches. But it’s important to remember that these tools are not designed to be diagnostic and won’t give a granular picture of students’ strengths and weaknesses.

Before carrying out any assessment activity, we need to consider if it will actually tell us something we didn’t already know. Perhaps it’s something we’re already fairly certain students will find difficult, and we can just teach accordingly.

In his recent EEF blogs on assessment, Prof. Rob Coe stated that assessment should either directly promote learning (for example, by strengthening prior knowledge via retrieval practice) or provide information that you can and will act on. 

But we are inevitably going to feel even more pushed for time than we normally would, so it’ll be important to focus particularly on those key concepts that link a range of topics.

Improving Secondary Science

Improving Secondary Science

Seven practical evidence-based recommendations—that are relevant to all pupils, but particularly to those struggling with science.

An effective approach is to plan lessons around known scientific misconceptions. You might be particularly careful about the language you use, to avoid reinforcing common misunderstandings. Or you might plan diagnostic questions to help uncover likely misconceptions, and address these during the lesson.

For example, when teaching chemical bonding, I’m really careful not to talk about atoms transferring electrons to another atom because they “want” a full outer shell, because this can make it more difficult to understand later ideas about random processes.

Or, within the same topic, I might use diagnostic questions to check my students understand that ions are attracted to any oppositely charged ion, rather than the common misapprehension that ions are only attracted to those ions they exchanged electrons with. This is going to be especially important for concepts introduced when we weren’t with students every day.

But, whatever the situation, it takes time for students to fully understand trickier concepts. In the midst of a busy school year, they can forget what we told them last month, or even just a few days ago.

Keeping your RADAAR on assessment 

The EEF’s Improving Secondary Science guidance report suggests that we re-visit key scientific concepts, like the properties and behaviour of ions, at a later date and in different contexts, before then re-assessing understanding.

This initiates a three-stage approach to planning around misconceptions (RADAAR):

  • Research and Anticipate – we need to think about likely misconceptions before we enter the classroom. You could research these using sources such as Best Evidence Science Teaching or draw on the experience of colleagues.
  • Diagnose and Address – this might be as simple as using a refutation text, or you might use a more detailed approach, such as the response activities in Best Evidence Science Teaching.
  • Assess and Review – this stage is easily overlooked, but we need to check (and re-check) that our students still understand ideas, both in their original topic, and within the context of later topics.

We cannot be sure what will happen over the next school year, but we know it will probably include lots of changes and unfamiliar routines. There is no exacting evidence that directly matches the situation we find ourselves in, but we do know that high-quality teaching is the best thing we can offer our students. Good diagnostic assessment is a key part of this, especially when we build it around the key misconceptions in science.