Subject-Matter Goals

Effective formative assessment must be informed by theories to ensure that it elicits the important goals of science, including a student 's current understanding and procedural capability. The elements of curriculum goals and methods of instruction come together, for part of the instructor's task is to frame subgoals that are effective in guiding progress towards curriculum goals. However, this can only be done in light of the teacher's beliefs about how best to help students to learn. This introduces learning theory in addition to assessment, but in formative assessment these are very closely intertwined. Thus there has to be a conceptual analysis of the subject goals, which also is complemented by analysis of the cognitive capacities of the learners. Examples of issues that might arise are the choice between concrete but limited instances of an idea and abstract but universal presentations, the decision about whether to use daily experience or second-hand evidence, the complexity of the patterns of reasoning required in any particular approach, and research evidence about common misconceptions that hinder the progress of students in understanding particular concepts. (For additional information on these theoretical underpinnings, see NRC, 1999a.)

Here again, depth in a teacher's subject-matter knowledge is essential. When teaching the concept of force in his high school class, Jim Minstrell is aware that although students use terms like “push” and “pull” to describe “force,” the understandings they have for these terms and for the concept of force differs from those shared by scientists (Minstrell, 1992). Specifically, students often believe that a push or a pull—or a force—must be due to an active, or causal, agent. With this in mind, Minstrell carefully designs his instruction, including his questions and student experiences, to help them challenge their notions as they move towards a better understanding of the scientific phenomena and explanations involved with force. After spending time discussing and drawing the forces involved as an object is dropped to the floor, he plans questions and activities to help cultivate student understandings of more passive actions of forces so they understand that the conceptual notion of force applies to both active and passive actions and objects. His class discusses the forces involved with an object resting on a table, including the reasonableness of a table exerting an upward force. They go over other situations that would help them decide what is happening in terms of force,

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