CSTA Classroom Science

Making Choices and Making Messes: What student agency looks like in science classrooms

By Jacklyn Powers,  Jodi Davenport,  Ashley Iveland, and Katherine Nilsen 

The Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) encourage students to not just “know about science,” but to actively engage in “doing science.” Rather than carrying out pre-designed investigations, students should have “epistemic agency,” or ownership and responsibility over their own learning. In student-led classrooms, students ask their own questions, design and conduct investigations, and engage in argumentation to explain real-world phenomena (Berland et al., 2016). What do successful teachers do behind-the-scenes to cultivate a student-led science class?

An ongoing study of NGSS enactment in California middle schools offers a glimpse into the challenges of creating an environment where students are actively involved in making decisions and directing their own learning. Through classroom observation and teacher interviews, we found lessons that successfully gave students ownership over their learning had common  themes of student-led science, interactive labs and activities, and opportunities for discussion. We highlight these themes in the following vignette:

Mrs. E introduced her 6th graders to heat transfer through the phenomenon of Arctic sea ice melting. To prepare for their investigation, she showed students a short video and asked them to write down questions they wondered about. Students then shared at their table groups one thing they were wondering, and then shared these questions with the class. She added each question to the list (Image A). From the list, Mrs. E. focused on a few well-connected questions to frame the investigation they would do next. She told the students which materials they would use for their investigation, and gave them time to make predictions and draw a data table in their notebooks. Each group was testing one of three conditions while Mrs. E circulated around the room recording group data in her notebook, asking and answering groups’ questions and calling out when students should record temperatures in their data tables. When the experiment wrapped up, she projected a completed class data table (Image B) and had the class discuss questions they had and observations on trends in the data.

Give Students Authentic Choices
Student-led science requires the teacher to step back and allow space for students to take the lead (Stroupe, Moon, & Michaels, 2019). Given the constraints placed on teachers, students cannot completely dictate the direction of a lesson, but a balance can be struck between the teacher and student driving the learning. Mrs. E ensures the lesson meets learning objectives while also giving students the space to be active and engaged “doers of science.” Her lesson plans map learning objectives, teacher actions, and expected student actions (Table A). She uses an outline to be prepared, and she links to sample student work and responses to cover a range of where each topic might end up based on varying classroom experiences. She also updates her lesson plans to inform the next teaching.


Messy can Be Good!
When students own their learning, it may appear “messy” and that’s a good thing! During Mrs. E’s lesson, students are given opportunities to actively direct their own learning and engage in interactive labs and activities. Students are able to ask their own questions, and the teacher is able to focus on the questions best aligned with the learning objectives. Rather than having a pre-made worksheet to fill out, students make their own predictions and use their lab notebooks to design their own data collection plan and table. 

In contrast, in classrooms where students are not engaged or directing their own learning, the material is often eye-catching but not interactive or deep. Colorful slide-shows, detailed worksheets, and fun activities grab students’ attention, but engagement is mostly topical. In these instances, students aren’t given authentic opportunities to discuss their ideas or direct their own learning. Students can appear talkative and excited by the activity, but if the activity is already predetermined, there is no room for the student to ask his/her own questions or to think through how to solve a problem. 

Enable Students to Drive the Discussion, and Vary Participation Structures
One key aspect of allowing students agency in the classroom is allowing them to drive discussions about the science happening. Striking a balance between students and the teacher is important. Mrs. E expedites the investigation by having each table test one given condition, synthesizes their data for them, and keeps the discussion moving among both small groups and the whole class. The teacher creates opportunities for discussion by distributing data collection across the work groups where each group is able to share out the results from their own test condition. 

Moving from small-group to classroom discussion provides students with opportunities to share out and test their ideas. Participation structured in small groups allows students to discuss with their peers and figure things out without immediate corrections. When reflecting on parts of the lesson where students were directing their own learning, the teacher said of the group discussions “there were a few tables that were really trying to figure out what was going on in the tubs and they were having a conversation at the table and actually, really thinking about it.” By then discussing as a class, students can see patterns across all the conditions tested and make meaningful conclusions based on what they and their peers found during the investigation.

Considering Student Agency in the Science Classroom
As you plan your lessons, we offer questions to decide whether and how students are encouraged to own their learning:

  • Is there a balance between students leading the science and the teacher guiding and structuring the work?
  • Is the student engagement meaningful, or are they just distracted by or interacting with interesting but irrelevant visuals?
  • Do students have opportunities to discuss and think through an investigation, or are they impeded by the motions and details of the activity?
  • Are students acquiring and generating knowledge through questioning and discussion, or are they receiving facts and confirming existing ideas?

Berland, L. K., Schwarz, C. V., Krist, C., Kenyon, L., Lo, A. S., & Reiser, B. J. (2016). Epistemologies
in practice: Making scientific practices meaningful for students. Journal of Research in
Science Teaching, 53(7), 1082–1112. doi:10.1002/tea.21257
Stroupe, D., Moon, J., & Michaels, S. (2019). Introduction to special issue: Epistemic tools in    science education. Science Education, 103(4), 948–951. doi:10.1002/sce.21512

~Jacklyn Powers is a WestEd STEM Program Researcher and can be contacted at jpowers@wested.org.
 is a WestEd STEM Program Researcher and can be contacted at jdavenp@wested.org.
~Ashley IveJodi Davenportland is a WestEd STEM Program Researcher and can be contacted at aivelan@wested.org.
~Katherine Nilsen is a WestEd STEM Program Researcher and a member of CSTA. Katherine can be contacted at knilsen@wested.org.




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