internal assessment

Letting Go: Allowing Students to be Independent

The illusive photosynthesis experiment.  This student has a good start but has a lot to figure out. 

“I want to do something with plants”

My heart sinks.

“How about the effect of acid on plant growth?”


“How does light intensity affect photosynthesis?”

Heavy Sigh.

What do these ideas for internal assessment ideas mean to me?  Often, failed experiments.

For whatever reason, students think setting up a plant experiment will be easy. They never factor in the time it takes to determine the best conditions to grow their plant or sprout the seeds. It often results in a neglected, unwatered project of withered specimens.

It's always a temptation to check: maybe this one will work. 

And I know this.  So why don’t I just say, “no plants”?  That approach would be notably simpler and it would spare me the pain of watching those pathetic seedlings atrophy and die at the back of my classroom.  However, it is my firm belief that students, especially 16-18 year old IB students should have their own choice. The choice fosters ownership in their work. And if they really want to do it, then they deserve a chance to try, right? So, after bequeathing warnings about how difficult plant experiments really are and that statistically there have been few true successes come from them, I allow my students to proceed. For some reason, they always think their situation will be different.

Though I noticed the deteriorated state days ago, a student came to me today and showed me his shrivelled seedlings as though they’d “just perished”.  He was running a pretrial to determine whether he would best conduct his experiment in cotton or soil and approached me with the observation, “ I think soil worked better than the cotton”.  He looked down at me with his big brown childish eyes hoping for confirmation and I’m thinking, “Seriously?  They’re ALL DEAD!”  but I just smile and ask him how many of the 5 seeds in each cup actually sprouted to which he responds, “One”.  “So what does that tell you?” Silence.  Thinking.  Wheels turning.   “That I need to plant ten in each cup?”

Exasperation is threatening to settle in but I patiently continue, “Well, that might be a choice you make, however, what is the actual observation?”  More silence.  Thinking.  Wheels turning. “Um, that not all the seeds sprouted?”  He receives the advice to consider these observations as he proceeds.  Of course I know he’s baffled in attempting to incorporate this information into subsequent planning.  He returns the blighted seedlings to the fluorescent lamps though I’m not sure why.  They should be tossed in the rubbish bin.

Then there's the photosynthesis experiment that's been sitting in my lab area for five days.  It's obvious to me that the set-up isn't optimized, however, the student keeps returning hoping to see a measurable amount of oxygen.  At what point will she realize that no more oxygen will appear in the tube?  Tomorrow I will tell her it's time to reconsider her design.

So, in the end, the students who were counting on an easy experiment with their plant idea often give up after the first attempted failure.  Others persist repeating over and over again until they get it to work.  They always spend so much more time than the students who design an experiment in which data can be collected within a day.

Regardless of the design choice, it’s the most difficult thing to resist telling them what to do. The path of “no choice” is decidedly more manageable!  But that would deny my students the purpose of this journey. 

Students work their way through the scientific process. They deal with frustration, glitches, and failed attempts but in the end, they all end up with two reasonably controlled experiments that they have designed and carried out. And they are always proud of their work.

To all of us out there struggling to let go of the control, just do it!  The students will be rewarded with a worthwhile journey that leaves them feeling accomplished and you will be profoundly happy for them.

Changes to the PSOW form

As I mentioned yesterday, I finished the grading of the internal assessments (IAs) for the biology students.  I still need to fill out the PSOW sheet for each candidate.  This sheet involved documenting every lab we did during the two year course including the hours spent on the lab, a brief description of the activity, and the assessments performed.

I keep a log of the labs in a sample PSOW form as we do them.  I simply add the data to the sheet and at the end of the two year course I just need to copy it for each student and fill out the final information (that student’s individual IA scores as well as the personal skills and manipulative skills assessments).  I usually do a quick look through my blog and double check that I haven’t missed anything.  I’ll need to especially go through my unit plans and make sure I have all of the ICT activities listed.  My system has worked quite well and usually saves me some time at this time of year.

However, this year there is a new form.  The thought of copying and pasting all that information over to the new form is overwhelming me.  I was going to do it tonight but, in the end, couldn’t face it.  I perused the IBO web site to see if there was any advice.  Nothing.   I did notice in the shared teachers resource site that someone has created an Excel file that, when filled in, will generate the new PSOW form for each candidate.  That took a lot of work!  I couldn’t determine if it will help me.

I recognize the need for progress and improvement.  However, because I don’t understand yet how these forms work (apparently they can be saved while you’re working on them but I couldn’t reopen and saved attempts) it is exceedingly frustrating.  Before expecting teachers to make changes I think trouble shooting should have taken place and clear instructions should be offered.  Is that too much to ask?

IA progress - Celebrate the gains

I just spent 5 hours on a Friday night finishing up the grading of the internal assessment (IA) lab reports for my IB biology students.   I feel like I’ll never master the art of grading IAs.  However, I try harder each year.  This year I had both the 2013 subject report and the IB guide open on my computer.  I also had my IB examiner material available.  I went back and forth between sample work and the descriptors to accurately determine “complete”, “partial”, or “not at all”.  I was as careful as I could possibly be, taking short breaks so I wouldn’t burn out or get tired on a specific paper. I documented, in a word document, the justification for each mark I gave.  I don’t think I could have been more thorough.

Part of me is relieved to be basically done.  Part of me is discouraged to realize major gaps persist in my students’ work. I wonder how graphs appear in their work that I never taught or modeled for them.  I wonder why despite my two-year effort to consistently teach, model and have them rework graphs until they consistently demonstrated proper data processing and presentation that when they wrote their final reports their graphs look nothing like what they’ve been producing for two years.  How can this be?  We spent so much time on uncertainties and yet several students didn’t even include them.  I spent so much time working with them to control variables in an experiment and then they don’t bother.  

One of my students wrote the following beneath a graph, “The error bars show the margin of error the data has, they show how accurate the data is and how much u can trust the data collected".  I wanted to scream.  Since when do scientist "trust" anything? And the use of "u" is priceless.  After two years in both IB English and IB Science, this was the product?  I cringed to think of submitting the work feeling it somehow is a reflection of my abilities as an IB biology teacher.

In the context of my IB examiner training agenda, I was reading through and assessing submitted papers from May of 2013 to compare my marks with those of a moderator.  Suddenly I was actually comforted.  Some of those reports make my "u" student appear a genius.  Furthermore, my "u" student has finally written a lab report that, indeed, in many ways has surpassed all his past attempts.  I realize my students do have a sound grasp of the scientific method relative to many others out there.  So, even though I see major omission and mistakes, I realize they have learned.  I realize they have progressed significantly in the last two years.  It’s time to recognize and celebrate the gains.

Assessing Internal Assessments

I have spent several hours this Crocus holiday grading internal assessments (IA) from both my Year 1 and my Year 2 students.  I am somewhat comforted in seeing that the Year 2 students do, indeed, have more depth in their reports than the Year 1 students.  So I know improvement is eminent with the first year students.  However, there is still so much lacking with the senior reports that I’m concerned whether they’ll pull it together by our final March 6th deadline.  Some of them simply need to redo an experiment or, at a minimum, rework their Data Collection and Processing (DCP) and Conclusions and Evaluations (CE). 

I spent some time on the site looking at the subject reports from last year, with a focus on IA.  This proved exceedingly valuable.  I recommend this practice to all new teachers.  There are some concrete suggestions for things teachers should be looking out for in the IAs their students are preparing.  I even copied the list of reasons why papers were marked down in 2013 and sent the list to my Year 2 students.  I advised them to look at each item on the list against their own write-ups before submitting it to me.  We’ll see if it helps.

With the year one students I completed essentially a joint construction with them on the Effect of hydrogen peroxide substrate concentration on leaf extract catalase activity.  Even with all the joint work, there are a lot of misconceptions and omissions.  I’ve used the IB rubric to assess their work.  They’ll have an opportunity to fix their mistakes, hopefully leading to stronger experimental process next time.

This is my 3rd year teaching IB.  The students are definitely becoming progressively more prepared as they experience the science program at our school from MS and HS that has IB standards as a goal.  Additionally, I am becoming a stronger teacher as I do more PD in the IB area and as I become more familiar, through experience, with the IB criteria.  I remain an advocate of the IB Science standards and am happy to see that with the changes in Group IV for 2016, these standards will be more clearly defined for new teachers.

The Biology Bus, Holiday Labs, and the Emergency Fire Blanket

It is the Crocus Vacation but several students have requested that we have a lab day so they can work on their internal assessments.  Two of the six students happen to be my own so, of course, I drive them in with me.  Another student is from our neighborhood and another lives on the way.  So, because we are part of a very small school with a family environment, we pick everyone up and I’m feeling very much like I’m driving “The Biology Bus” on the way to the school. Two other students meet us at the school.

We all enter the chilled classroom and within minutes there is a buzz of activity as everyone sets up his or her lab.  I am happy to be there with them and once again feed on their energy and enthusiasm.  The environment is considerably more relaxed considering that it’s a holiday week.  At one point the students whip out some marshmallows and roast them over a Bunsen burner while they are waiting on their experiments.  OK.  It’s a bit “on the edge” but I let it slide as they are so responsible and they’re working hard on their experiments.  I turn back to my work.

Suddenly, I hear an urgent, “Mom…..Mom…..Mom, what do we do about this fire” from behind me.   I swivel around in my chair to view my son with his outstretched hands motioning to a gigantic flame on the lab bench. The flame is spreading across the bench, enveloping the gas and electrical outlets.  I have the immediate thought, “This is a huge fire that we might not be able to contain”.  I push the thoughts of requiring the fire department aside as I do what initially needs to happen.  The students have, wisely, already turned off the gas.  It is an alcohol fire (spontaneous combustion of ethanol) and we opt for the fire blanket rather than the CO2 fire extinguisher.  Together we unfold the blanket and drape it over the monstrous flames.  We press down on the blanket and feel the heat beneath.  My son lifts a corner and observes flames licking at the blankets’ edge.  “Don’t lift it.  Don’t lift it,” he advises.  So, we let the blanket do its work of smothering the fire.  An awful stench fills the room, the result of the melted rubber tubing connecting the Bunsen burner to the gas outlet.  Near the blanket, a bottle of methylene blue sits strangely deformed from the heat it’s been exposed to.  It’s a surreal moment as I look at the aftermath of the event and the relief replacing the shocked looks on my students’ faces.

I learn that a student had taken his experiment from the fume hood (!-what !) to the Bunsen Burner, attempted to pour the alcohol into a larger beaker, experienced the spontaneous combustion of the alcohol as it was being poured, and proceeded to drop the beaker.  The result was the rapid spreading and growth of the flame.

Fortunately, all are safe, no major damage has occurred, and we are able to easily erupt into laughter as the students reenact the near disaster, my son’s persistent summoning of me, and my apparent slow-motion response. 

The students finish up their experiments and clean up the lab while I collect the turtle and his supplies to come home with me for the school break.  We work together to place the chairs on the tabletops with hopes that the cleaners will do a more thorough cleaning of the floor. The students perform a final check on ongoing experiments.  I turn off the lights and we exit the Biology room, the 3rd floor, and the school itself.  The magic school bus then begins its ride home, dropping students off at their destinations and wishing them a happy holiday.

IB Internal Assessment (IA) - The positive

“It’s rising!  It’s rising!”  The gleeful shouts come from the chemical room.  Students in my classroom start laughing as they realize that Carl’s experiment is finally working for him.  He’s been trouble shooting this for days.  He’s made catalase beads with cucumber, with the intent of measuring the effect of pH on cucumber catalase activity on hydrogen peroxide.  Gail has set up a unique gas collecting system to measure the effect of salt on CO2 production by yeast.  She also has been struggling for days with her experiment.  Shortly she exclaims with glee, “It’s working!  It’s working!”.  Then, a loud “Oh NO!” followed by a crash and the overflowing of liquid at another lab bench.  Students hustle to help clean up the mess.  Simultaneous to this action, Barb checks on the growth of her wheat, “This is perfect….look at this!” as she reaches for the ruler.  Another student has just put her Daphnia under the microscope to determine how to measure the heartbeat. She summons the other students over and exclamations of “That is SO COOL” echo as each student intently peers through the optical lens on the microscope.  The energy in the classroom is palpable.  Despite darkness pressing against the lab windows, within the classroom there is warmth, comradery, and excitement.  It is a Friday evening but students are finding pleasure in their work.  I, personally, am energized by their enthusiasm and their hope for reasonable results. They are working independently on self-designed experiments.  They all have five values for their independent variables.  They all have unique designs.  The first step is underway.  Let’s hope excellent data collection /processing and thorough conclusions/evaluations follow. This is internal assessment at its best.  

Valentine's Day

Roses by the dozens sit in buckets on my classroom tables.  The student counsel sold roses all week and I ended up buying a ridiculous amount.  Initially, I purchased for my family members, some close friends, and my fellow science colleagues.  However, the student counsel had so many roses left over that I ended up buying even more just to support “the cause”.   After all, I have two children on the counsel and all the remaining student counsel members are my students.  I just couldn’t resist them.  So now I can spread Valentine’s Day cheer to my neighbors when I go home tonight.

It’s 6:30 p.m. on Friday evening.  My classroom is finally emptying itself of students who have been here all afternoon working on their self-designed experiments, internal assessments (IAs), for their International Baccalaureate (IB) Diploma.  While many test tubes, Erlenmeyer flasks, the foaming yeast, the elodea and other supplies have been carefully cleaned or disposed of, other ongoing experiments remain.  There are two plant projects under the fluorescent lights, a sprout project on the lab bench, Daphnia awaiting their caffeine experiment, and a cucumber prepared for an osmosis experiment.

I check my email as I’m waiting for the students to finish up.  There is an email from the IB with the announcement that I have been appointed to be an IB examiner.  That’s a nice piece of news at the end of the day.

My students claim to be “almost done” so I water my plants and tend to my turtle and the fish.  I tidy up around my desk and pack up my bag.  I notify my husband and youngest son that we’re finally about ready to go.  We gather up our coats and bags and all those roses.  It takes three of us to lug the flowers downstairs.  We wave to the cleaners who are the last ones in the building and exit out into the dark and rainy night.

Today was an 11-hour day at the school.  IB Meetings, an Open House, Parent-Teacher Conferences, Basket Ball Games, and IA’s meant I spent between ten and fourteen hours each day at the school this week. Needless to say, it’s been a long week.  How will I celebrate Valentine’s Day?  With a quiet movie night at home.  However, tomorrow I’ll have a Sushi Dinner with my husband.