Welcome to my Professional Learning blog.
My name is Matt Nicoll and I am a high school teacher in New Zealand, interested in improving the classroom experience for my students. I am open to trialing new approaches and hope to use this blog to reflect on my ideas and practices.

Tuesday, 19 January 2016

Practical Science Reflections

Last year was our first with a new Science course, utilising NCEA Internal Assessments to assess the learning of our students, based upon their own inherent (or developed) interests. It was a very interesting journey. I learned a lot of things that we will need to apply to how we run the course this year.


Our context for learning about Scientific Literacy was to look at conspiracy theories, asking students to either debunk them, confirm them, or come up with their own theory to explain their findings. This was not intended to be explicitly assessed at the time, as we had reservations about whether the quality of the work would be at the level required to earn Level 1 credits. Instead, students were given the option to revisit their work and present it towards the end of the year, and assessing it against AS90853, which is an English Achievement Standard.

This created three issues:
  1.  Student engagement in the unit lapsed quickly, as they did not see the value in the learning if it was not being assessed at the time. Despite being assured that they could submit it later in the year, when their writing and other scientific skills had developed, they wanted tangible reward (credits) or more meaningful immediate feedback (“What is needed to pass this?”).
  2.  By assessing the learning later in the year, many students did not submit any work. They had no interest in revisiting work from earlier in the year, and/or felt they had already earned enough credits via Science without it.
  3. The timeline for moderation, feedback and resubmission was difficult. Again, this issue was created by assessing the learning so late in the year. It was compounded by working with another Learning Area. Despite the wonderful assistance and guidance of our English Department, finding the time for cross-curricular collaboration in Term Four was nearly impossible.

Therefore, something needs to change in 2016. Fortunately, it looks as though the change is an easy one. When we teach the unit, we will assess the students’ learning at the time. If they do not meet the standard required for the Achievement Standard, it will be up to them whether they want to use their own time to prepare it for resubmission.

The other issue we had was ensuring the written language was at the correct level. This is an unspoken criterion in all English Achievement Standards, I was informed. Therefore, we should be more rigid with how the work should be submitted. We had tried to give absolute flexibility to cater for student individuality. However, expecting the finished product to be a speech (which we will record), and asking students to also submit a transcript of the speech should be another way to allow for our students to submit their work earlier in the year (many of the students enrolled in this course need more support and time to develop their writing to the required level for a written submission) and meet the required standard.

Team Teaching

Last year, I was delighted to hear that a colleague was being given one period per week to work with me and my class. This made a huge difference for managing the students’ individual inquiries and different learning needs. In 2016, we are looking to go a step further with this. It is planned that one member of the Learning Support Department will join the class for at least one period per week, as well as having the support from a Science Department colleague.

Not only will this allow for more support for the students, it will allow for more feedback and sharing of ideas for how to best cater for the learning and assessment. It should also provide more opportunities for in situ moderation of activities and tasks.

Personal Inquiries

Spending the second half the course on Personal Inquiries was a mixed bag. I was delighted with the learning going on most of the time. Some lessons were complete write-offs with some students. This was particularly true when we had class in the last lesson of the day and sometimes diabolical when this was the last period of the week.

I do believe that the increased support will help keep students focused on their inquiries and learning. It should allow for more conversations to press students about what they have learned and what their next steps are. It should allow for more opportunities to guide and direct students if they seem a little “rudderless”.

We have developed some very useful templates, checklists and activities to scaffold and direct the learning. Ensuring these are commonplace and used by all students should also help keep inquiries on-track, while also making the assessment expectations explicitly clear.

From the work done in 2015, it is clear that more regular targets, goals and checks are needed for all students, not primarily those who seem disengaged or to be struggling; many students have excellent avoidance strategies that can be hard to pick up on in a busy classroom where everyone is working on something different. There is a little bit of work to be done here, but this is more about routines than about resources etc.


Making/finding time for moderation was challenging in 2015, particularly with the variety of tasks being used to assess the learning. I do not believe for one minute that we have all tasks 100% correct. Moderation of the tasks was done with the Head of Department, prior to them being given to the students. However, it is unsustainable to persist with passing every task over his desk. We need to explore a better solution.

Fortunately, we now have a set of tasks for a variety of contexts utilising a range Achievement Standards. These are likely to need refinement, but this is less daunting than writing them “from scratch”. External moderation feedback will be very useful for this.

I was encouraged with the external moderation feedback we received for our Chemical Reactions internal assessment task. We volunteered this task, as it was co-written by the two 2015 Practical Science teachers. Our marking schedule was criticised for being too tough but, other than this, we had done a good job according to the moderator. It meant some of our students’ work had to be remarked, and their grades had to be raised. I would much prefer feedback saying this, than saying we had rewarded work that did not meet the required standard.

Nevertheless, this does reinforce the importance of collaboration and moderation with tasks designed to formally assess student learning. We need to work on better systems and routines to ensure the busyness of school life does not hamper the completion of these important tasks.

Course Content

While this course has been based upon the Nature of Science and student interests, we have included a few mandatory topics and their respective assessments. I have already mentioned Conspiracy‼, which helped develop students’ scientific literacy (and cynicism, hopefully). This had its issues but I think we have a way to make this unit more meaningful to the students.
Additionally, we have also had: 
  • Chemical Reactions
  • Practical Investigations


This was our first unit. It used different types of chemical reactions to develop some key scientific skills:
  • Making observations
  •  Classifying (reaction types)
  • Writing Equations (word and symbol)

The learning was assessed using a portfolio over a few weeks. Students collected evidence that they could carry out simple procedures and explain their observations using equations. They also had to use this information to classify the types of reactions occurring. This was assessed using AS90947.

The students enjoyed this topic and it was a great way to start the year. It built their confidence and “playing with chemicals” is always fun. The assessment task has been adjusted slightly in response to feedback from external moderation, but there will be few changes to this in 2016. This unit served its purpose well.

Keeping a blog to support the learning being done in class was also a worthwhile exercise and I will be doing this again, this year. It included videos of experiments and images of the whiteboard notes. These allowed students to revisit key parts of the unit when they needed them.


Trying to find contexts for practical investigations that resonate with the students is a potential challenge. I was fortunate enough to have a class of sports-mad boys and this unit was studied during the Rugby World Cup. This made it easy to choose a context for the learning.

In 2016, I have a co-educational class, so expect this to be more difficult. I will need to think of a context for an investigation the whole class can work on together, because this worked very well in 2015. Students fed off each other and learned from each other’s mistakes and successes. Collectively, the class did very well, and this was reflected in the final assessment task.

The final assessment task had nothing to do with our rugby investigation, by the way. It was a task common to all Year 11 students, regardless of which Science course they were enrolled in. Students’ results and engagement in 2015 suggest that teaching the skills and expectations via a common student-selected practical investigation, followed by a teacher-selected one is a winning formula, so I will go down this road again in 2016.

Using the assessment planning templates in the learning was also a good idea, and using colour-coding to help students plan their investigations was also very useful for assisting the students with organisation or learning difficulties in this class.


With 2016 about to start, I am really looking forward to a second year teaching Practical Science. There are some changes to implement for the teaching, learning and assessment. It will be interesting to see how successful this course is with a different cohort of students. Regardless of how this year plays out, I am really looking forward to what I am about to learn about teaching Science in this more flexible, student-centred way.