Differentiation in the Science Classroom #3: Alternate Assessments

Slide1In my last Differentiation in the Science Classroom post, I wrote about lab reports.  And now I’m going to write a post about NOT writing lab reports.  (Crazy, I know, but bear with me…)

Having students write a full lab report every time I did a lab would have pretty much burned me and my students out, really quickly.  If I started lab reports weekly in September, I’d be so done by October.  Having a lab report every week would be too difficult for them to complete so often and WAY too difficult for me to grade.  Writing a lab report is a really important science skill and I aim for assigning one a quarter or two for more advanced classes.  So how do I assess student understanding and keep them accountable for learning what they need to in lab?  What are some other ways to assess my students’ understanding of the science they learned while “labbing-it-up” as my students used to say?


I have a few different types of things I have my students do instead of writing a full lab report:


1.  Question and Answer Sheet: This is probably one of the most common things teachers use to assess lab knowledge.  But I actually hate doing this for 2 reasons.

A – SOOOOO Boring to grade.  I almost would rather grade an actual lab report.  (Well, maybe not, but I definitely would rather grade just a conclusion!)

B – Because of the nature of the question and answer sheet, if students do this at home, many of them will cheat by asking their friends what they wrote.  Giving this type of assignment doesn’t help most students learn science.  It does help them learn about networking!  If that’s your aim, then by all means, assign this kind of lab write-up.


2.  Have them write their data neatly in tables I provide them and have them just write a hypothesis and the conclusions:  In some schools, lab classes have a “double period” one day a week when the science teacher teaches students for 90 minutes instead of 45 minutes, or 120 instead of 60.  I find that often the labs that my students perform take about 70 out of the 90 or 100 out of the 120 minutes.  Most of my students had 15-20 minutes at the end of class and many of them used the time to chit chat.  I think a great use of this time would be to have them write a conclusion for their data.  You could collect them right then and there.  Then in the beginning of the next day’s class, return their conclusions to them with a rubric and ask them to grade themselves (using a different pen or pencil than they used before), while you go over together what would be a great conclusion based on a particular set of data.  You could tell them that you will regrade it later.  This way, you aren’t really grading a ton of them and your students can learn from doing and grading themselves.  Whenever I have students grade themselves, they are pretty honest and they very often give themselves a grade lower than I probably would.  It’s not really the grade I am aiming for but for learning.  I think this is a great way to help students learn without taking too much time and not overburdening them with a full lab report.


3.  Have them make a group poster!  This is a great way for students to show off what they learned and it can be fun.  I recommend doing this as an in-class project for groups of 2 or 3 students.  You could pick up some poster board on sale to use or you might be blessed to have those giant white boards that students can write on!  Here’s a free poster handout I use for my science fair students but the idea is very much the same!  


4.  Oral Questioning: Struggling writers and readers often have an easier time showing the teacher what they know if they are asked questions and are allowed to answer orally.  If you use this method of assessing lab knowledge, I recommend making sure you go over the background information and the method extensively before you do the lab.  As students complete their lab, as they near the end of the class, walk around with a clipboard and ask each student individually a question or 2 about the lab.  Let them know beforehand what you are doing.  Ask questions like the following:

Lab Procedure Reasoning: 

“Why are you using the pipette/buffer/chemical/coverslip in this step?  Why not in this step?”

A What-If Question:

“What color would this solution change if you added ___________?  How do you know?”

Future Experiment:

“If you did this experiment again and you had any materials to use, how would you do it differently?  Why?”

Data Explanation:

“What result did you get for this part of the experiment?  Does your data support your hypothesis?  How or why?”


On your clipboard, have a simple sheet of paper with all of your students names on the top with a rubric and your list of questions to ask on the bottom.  As you walk around and ask questions and check student understanding, you can check off students who you feel understand the material and come back to students who you feel need to discuss the lab more with you.


The important thing is to remember is this:  Just because your students may struggle with reading or writing doesn’t mean they can’t learn about science.  Give them a chance to show you what they know, in a way they can succeed.  My education night school teacher said something that really stuck with me through my years of teaching: “You always want to show your students that you know they can succeed and you have to help them develop the tools to succeed.  No one wants to fail.”


What alternate assessments do you use in your science classroom?  Write them in the comments below!


Check out my other Differentiation in the Science Classroom Posts!

In the Lab

Lab Report Writing


Post-it Note Clipart from Teachers Resource Force

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Differentiation in the Science Classroom #2: Lab Report Writing

Differentiation in the Science Classroom #2: Lab Report Writing

What Schools Should Do on Snow Days

What Schools Should Do On Snow Days