As the Covid-19 pandemic descended upon the globe this past spring and moved our classrooms into online spaces, teachers of all subjects had to quickly redesign instructional delivery and assessment of student work. This challenge, coupled with the various ways school has been structured for pandemic teaching—fully remote, fully in person, or a hybrid system—has forced teachers to continually innovate and devise ways to make sure students have meaningful experiences that still allow them to engage in a learning process that sparks wonder.
Science teachers have challenges here, such as courses that require students to interact with content in a hands-on manner—think visual arts, music, or culinary arts. Like fine arts courses, science classes do involve a performative element in that lab work requires students to demonstrate some degree of skill mastery tied to content.
Bringing the Science Lab Home
For science teachers, whose classes typically include discovery learning, collaborative work, and lab investigations, the challenge became how do we replicate this in a home environment? We also had to find ways to ensure that what we were crafting for our students to do was equitable for everyone—we wanted to minimize the inequity that comes with teaching in a hybrid system such as ours as much as possible.
As I worked with my team at the beginning of the school year to tackle these problems, we asked ourselves the following four questions.
1. What is the goal of the task we want students to complete? When designing learning for students, regardless of where they are doing the learning, it’s critically important that expectations for learning be clear and concise. For us, this means aligning our instruction to the AP Biology learning objectives. Because our live instruction time with our remote learners is highly limited, we found that we had to be quite lean in designing the work we did with students and that the learning objectives helped us to focus specifically on what it was we needed our students to know.
Additionally, making sure that the instructions for the task are clear is also important. Students learning at home may have an adult helping them, so the clarity in your expectations needs to be impeccable to allow that adult helper to understand what the student is being asked to do as well. We accomplish this by having clearly stated directions, reviewing these directions with students in Zoom calls, and fielding questions about the directions during synchronous learning times as well as afterward via email.
2. What are the skills that students will need to master to complete this task? When we discovered that our time with students would be limited to 45 minutes of synchronous instruction, not only did we have to design instruction to be lean, but also we had to shift the focus from content delivery to skill introduction and reinforcement. The content we teach our students can be easily googled, but what students do with that content is more important. That’s where we as instructional guides get to shine—showing students how they can use the content to demonstrate mastery of a skill.
For example, my students are assigned brief content-heavy videos to watch as class prep. Then, while we are learning together, I show them through bellwork exercises, which are completed during the first five to 10 minutes of class, how to use that content to solve problems and to support claims about data and other evidence gathered from observation, and how to use the science they know to justify what they’ve observed. We spend a lot of time doing this as practice work so that students build their confidence and ability before being assessed on something more meaty.
3. How will students accomplish the task? Like nearly all other teachers, my team and I had to invest a great deal of time retooling the activities and labs that we normally do with students. Because nearly 80 percent of our students selected remote learning, we also had to create experiences that were as equitable as possible while preserving the essence of what we wanted students to learn. We accomplished this in two main ways:
- Most of our lab experiences were delivered through Pivot Interactives and various online simulations. Because students were assessed on science practices and not physical execution of the lab itself, we have found these two solutions to be successful for us so far in terms of skill reinforcement and assessment.
- For the wet lab we did this past semester, we assembled at-home lab kits for our remote learners to pick up from campus. We utilized alternative assignments for those students who either did not come to pick up the kits or elected not to, due to their families’ sheltering in place. In-person learners completed the lab in class, utilizing social distancing protocols. Both groups of students still learned the same basic concept underpinning the lab—interrupting signal transduction in cells—and still had the opportunity to demonstrate mastery of the science practices being assessed.
4. How can the task be assessed to measure learning? What assessment of student learning looks like now compared with last fall is quite different. As a team, my colleagues and I have tried to devise assessments that focus on mastery of skills with content as the vehicle. We chose this route because our course has a high-stakes test at the end of it—the AP exam. We had to think about how the assessments we designed for students would measure learning but also look like what they would see in May when sitting for the AP exam.
While the method of assessment has varied—student-designed lab investigations done at home, Flipgrid video submissions, Google Slides presentations, and model constructions with reflective writing—the underlying goal has remained the same: assess the skills that students must master to demonstrate learning in our content area.
To make science learning accessible for remote learners, engaging in intentional planning with a lens focused on equity and skill development is key.