A suite of GCSE science courses developed in partnership with the University of York

Relationship between teaching and assessment of Ideas about Science

There is general agreement that Ideas about Science are important. But there is much less certainty about how students’ understanding might be assessed, and much less experience of doing so.

As in all aspects of science learning, assessment is crucially important because it makes teaching and learning objectives clearer than anything else does. This is not simply the observation that ‘teachers teach to the test’. It is the deeper point that any statement about learning objectives has to be operationalised in order to pin it down. We have to say what observable action by the student, perhaps in response to a task we set them, will count as evidence that they have achieved the learning we want them to achieve.

So developing ways of assessing students’ learning is not something that can simply be done after the learning objectives have been settled; it is an essential part of the process of clarifying (both for ourselves and others) what our real learning objectives are. In GCSE Science, the Twenty First Century Science project team began this step of operationalising the learning outcomes for ‘Ideas about Science’. These learning outcomes are shown in Appendix F of the specification – see the right-hand column of the tables. They say what a student might do to provide evidence of understanding the idea in question.

Distinguishing between ‘Ideas about Science’ and ‘Skills’ in assessment

Understanding of Ideas about Science is summatively assessed in two ways:

  • through examination questions;
  • through coursework (the Case Study and Data Analysis tasks).

Examination questions may ask students to recall or apply specific Ideas about Science, such as “to describe in broad outline the ‘peer review’ process, in which new scientific claims are evaluated by other scientists” (IaS4.1 in the OCR specification).

Coursework asks students to demonstrate ‘skills’ that require an underlying knowledge and understanding of Ideas about Science, such as evaluating the quality of scientific evidence in supporting claims made. (Strand B, 8b in the OCR specification).

In order to evaluate sources of evidence critically, students need to draw on their knowledge and understanding of Ideas about Science. For instance, students may identify sources of evidence which have been peer-reviewed as more reliable than those which have not.

Distinguishing between Ideas about Science and the ‘skills’ that draw on this body of knowledge should encourage the explicit teaching of Ideas about Science. Students can then be helped to identify the Ideas about Science that they should draw on to complete their coursework assessments.