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SAY WHAT YOU MEAN!

STRATEGIES TO HELP STUDENTS BETTER


COMMUNICATE SCIENCE

Overview of this Session:


This session is intended to address some of the common “communication” issues we present to students
through written tasks and questioning. We all know that students struggle with short answer or essay
questions in science, and there are a variety of reasons for this. But, if we think about what we ask students
to do, we may find that some of the simple things we assume they can do are actually pretty complex
communication skills that we don’t ever give them the tools to address. Sometimes, the kids know the
science - they just have a hard time expressing it in a written format.

In this session, we are going to look at three such things that we ask students, and look at the problems that
usually arise with each, what we really should expect from each, and look at some strategies that we can
use in the classroom to help ensure that students can actually communicate their understanding of a topic to
others, including us. These three things are:

• Descriptions
• Definitions
• Explanations (or, more specifically, scientific explanations)

About the Presenters and Resources:


These resources are generated from the Michigan Mathematics and Science Teacher Leadership Collaborative
(MMSTLC), a statewide effort to support instructional leadership at many levels in local schools, regional
support agencies, and higher education. These resources are a part of the broader set of resources being
provided to project participants to help them support other teachers in their schools and region.

For more information about the project or any of these tools, visit the MMSTLC Web site: http://mmstlc.net

Stephen Best is one of the project directors of the MMSTLC, and has been directing professional
development, outreach, research, and teacher education efforts in the University of Michigan School of
Education for the past 15 years. He is a former middle and high school science and mathematics teacher,
and provides support and leadership in these areas, as well as educational technology and comprehensive
school reform.

Nancy Williams is a science outreach consultant with the University of Michigan School of Education working
specifically with the MMSTLC program. Prior to this role, she spent over a decade teaching at the Mecosta-
Osceola Mathematics and Science Center, and has been involved in science education efforts at Ferris State
University.

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Say What You Mean!
The title for this session comes from the following exchange in Alice in Wonderland, by Lewis Carroll. During
a tea party, Alice, the Mad Hatter, and the March Hare discuss what Alice chooses to say.

“Then you should say what you mean.” said


the March Hare.

“I do; at least - at least I mean what I say -


that’s the same thing, you know,” said Alice.

“Not the same thing a bit! Why, you might


just as well say that, ‘I see what I eat’ is the
same as ‘I eat what I see’!” exclaimed the
Hatter.

“You might just as well say, that ‘I like what


I get’ is the same thing as ‘I get what I
like’!” followed the March Hare.

This classic exchange presents a lesson in language and logic, and a common misconception that is one
among many that our students often make when writing to express their understandings about a particular
concept or topic in our science classes.

While we won’t explore this in our session, this excerpt presents the rule of the inverse in terms of logic. It
basically says that if a statement “If A then B” is true, that the converse, which is “If B then A” is not
necessarily true. This, along with the inverse arguments (if not A, then not B), are two common arguments
that students often make, incorrectly. More on this later in the “definition” section.

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Descriptions
• description |diˈskrip sh ən|

noun
1 a spoken or written representation or account of a person, object, or event : people who had
seen him were able to give a description.

We often ask students to describe things in science classes. When we ask students to observe something
from an experiment, our follow-up request is usually to have them describe it. “Describe” is probably one of
the most common verbs we use in our tasks for students to ask them to convey their knowledge or
observations of a particular concept. And yet, many students struggle with even this concept, usually
because they have heard others “describe” things in ways that really aren’t descriptions, or that use
vernacular or common language rather than a uniform statement that could accurately represent the object
or phenomena they are describing in scientific terms.

How do we get students to accurately describe an object or phenomenon in science? There are a few
specific things we can suggest to help students recognize the variation in their descriptions, including:

• Generally use adjectives to present observable characteristics of the object or phenomena being
described.
• Provide imagery or other sense-specific concepts to convey a reasonable representation of the topic
• Request that students both write and verbalize descriptions of objects and phenomena
• Model different quality descriptions of objects, processes, and representations in our daily instruction,
as well as in rubrics for assessing student work.

The following are some of the common problems that exist with “descriptions” in science.

• Students use examples of a particular object or concept, but don’t actually describe its
characteristics
• Descriptions are too vague to discern understanding of the concept
• Students may use analogies that are not appropriate to the topic or concept
• Description is appropriate, but does not then apply this to a more challenging task or problem
context to present understanding

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Definitions
• definition |ˌdefəˈni sh ən|

noun
1 a statement of the exact meaning of a word, esp. in a dictionary.
• an exact statement or description of the nature, scope, or meaning of something : our
definition of what constitutes poetry.

A definition is a type of description, but is far more specific, in that whatever description is given for that
object or concept you are trying to define needs to be so focused that the only thing that this description
could be is the object or concept you are defining. Generally, the following rules are true.

• A description that is so accurate as to uniquely describe that word or concept


• A description where the converse statement is true (i.e. Alice in Wonderland), as is the inverse
statement.

A useful tool for understanding the notion of definition is a Venn Diagram. You can use a Venn Diagram to
represent the sets of objects that might fit a particular category or description. For instance:

Suppose circle one is “Atoms”, and circle 2 is “very small


1 2
particles”. Needless to say, while “very small particles describes
atoms, it does not define it. There are lots of items in area B that
are very small particles that are not atoms (though there are not
C
B really any atoms that are not very small particles, so area A is
A empty). Our goal in defining atoms would be to come up with
some category for objects in circle 2 so that the circles essentially
overlap, with all items falling into category C (both atoms and whatever
the end description for objects in circle 2 would be). This visual approach is often used when helping
students understand the specific needs of a definition in scientific (or mathematical) terms.

Below are some of the typical problems that arise with students when they attempt to define a particular
concept or term in science.

• Students use examples of a particular object or concept, but don’t actually define it
• Definitions are too vague to pass the Inverse test (but may show the limits of the student’s actual
understanding)
• Students might be able to recite a definition for an object or concept, but do not understand what it
means and cannot apply it or restate it in their own language

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Explanation
• explanation |ˌekspləˈnā sh ən|

noun
a statement or account that makes something clear : the birth rate is central to any explanation
of population trends.

a reason or justification given for an action or belief : Freud tried to make sex the explanation for
everything | : my application was rejected without explanation.

This is one of the most challenging areas of written and verbal communication for students in science. We
often ask students to “explain” something, thinking that what we expect when we say that statement is
obvious: we want a statement or argument that uses reasoning (ideally, valid reasoning) to state why
something is the way it is, why something happened a certain way, etc. However, what kids have come to
provide when asked to explain is often anything but this.

An Example from Teachers


The introductory activity probably gives us a good picture of why this is the case, but just in case, here are
some samples of teacher work that can help us understand this challenge. On the next few pages are
responses to the following question:

Categorize all of the objects listed below into 2 or more categories based on their properties (of your own
choosing). Explain for EACH OBJECT why you placed it in that category.

Objects: Sun, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Neptune, Ida (an asteroid)

The following pages provide sample responses. We will discuss these in the presentation.

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Sample A

Sample B

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Sample C

Sample D

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Sample E

Sample F

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Sample G

Sample H

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Samples of Student Work – Explanation
Examine the following data table:

Density Color Mass Melting Point


Liquid 1 0.93 g/cm3 no color 38 g -98 °C

Liquid 2 0.79 g/cm3 no color 38 g 26 °C

Liquid 3 13.6 g/cm3 silver 21 g -39 °C

Liquid 4 0.93 g/cm3 no color 16 g -98 °C

Write a scientific explanation that states whether any of the liquids are the same substance.

Example 1:

Example 2:

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Another Problem:
Write a scientific explanation stating whether these are the same or different substances.

Properties
Color Hardness Solubility Melting Point Density

Off white Water – No


Soft 47° C
Fat or
Squishy
0.92 g/cm3
Slightly yellow Oil – Yes

Water – Yes
Higher than
Soap Milky white Hard 0.84 g/cm3
100° C
Oil – No

Quality Example:
Fat and soap are different substances (correct claim). Fat is off white and ivory is milky white.
Fat is soft squishy and soap is hard. Fat is soluble in oil, but soap is not soluble in oil. Soap is
soluble in water, but fat is not. Fat has a melting point of 47° C and soap has a melting point
above 100° C. Fat has a density of 0.92 g/cm3 and soap has a density of 0.84 g/cm3 (correct
evidence). These are all properties. Because fat and soap have different properties, I know they
are different substances. Different substances always have different properties (correct
reasoning).

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Research Findings on Explanation
There is significant research suggesting some of the problems that seem apparent in the examples on the
previous pages. Some summary statements are below:

• Students have difficulties using evidence and connecting evidence to a claim (Kuhn, 1993; Sandoval
and Reiser, 1997)
• Students discount data if the data contradicts their current theory (Chinn and Brewer, 2001)
• Students include little or no supporting reasons with a claim (Jimenez-Aleixandre et al, 2000; McNeill
and Krajcik, 2005)
• Students need instruction to guide the use of written explanation (Folsom et al, 2007)

The problems are not isolated to just what students can or can’t do - these are rooted in our instruction.
Below are some research findings about teachers use of explanation.

• Teachers frequently left explanation out of classroom practice (Kuhn, 1993; Newton, Driver & Osborne,
1999)
• Both teachers and students experience challenges with explanation skills (Reznitskaya and Anderson,
2002)
• Most curriculum materials were unlikely to result in students developing understandings of key learning
goals (Kesidou and Roseman, 2002)
• Students who were in classrooms that focused on oral and written explanation strategies significantly
improves reasoning and use of evidence (Folsom et al, 2007)

The following pages are excerpted from a paper by Kate McNeill and Joe Krajcik on student explanation, and
provide some insight into what we should look for, and some useful suggestions for classroom instruction.

What is a Scientific Explanation?


A scientific explanation is a written or oral response to a question that requires students to analyze data and
interpret that data with regard to scientific knowledge. Our explanation framework includes three
components: claim, evidence, and reasoning. While we break down explanations into these three
components for students, our ultimate goal is to help students to create a cohesive explanation in which all
three components are linked together. Yet we have found that first breaking explanations down into the
three components can ultimately help students create cohesive explanations. In the following section, we
describe the three components of a scientific explanation as well as provide an example of one student’s
explanation to illustrate the different components.

Student Example
Question: “Write a scientific explanation stating whether you think fat and soap are the same substance or
different substances.”

Student response: “Fat and soap are different substances. Hardness was different for fat and soap. Also, fat
dissolves in oil, soap does not dissolve in oil. The fat melts at 24° C and soap melts at way above 100° C. Fat
and soap are both white. Even though they are the same colors, they are different substances because they
have a lot of other different properties. Different substances have different properties.”

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Claim
The claim is a testable statement or conclusion that answers the original question. For instance, in the
student example above the claim is “Fat and soap are different substances.” The claim is the simplest part
of an explanation and often the part students’ find the easiest to include as well as to identify when they are
critiquing other peoples’ explanations. One of the purposes in focusing on scientific explanations is to help
students include more than a claim in their writing.

Evidence
The evidence is scientific data that supports the student’s claim. This data can come from an investigation
that students complete or from another source, such as observations, reading material, archived data, or
other sources of information. Depending on the claim being made, this data can be qualitative or
quantitative. In the student example above, the evidence comes from investigations the student conducted,
“Hardness was different for fat and soap. Also, fat dissolves in oil, soap does not dissolve in oil. The fat
melts at 24° C and soap melts at way above 100° C. Fat and soap are both white.”

The data needs to be both appropriate and sufficient to support the claim. When introducing evidence to
middle school students, we suggest discussing appropriate data in terms of whether the data supports the
claim. For this question, using the data that soap is used to wash clothes while fat is used to cook is not
appropriate data because students learn in the unit that properties are used to determine whether two
objects are the same or different substances. Consequently, it is also not appropriate to include “volume” or
“mass” as evidence, even though they are scientific data. This is because volume and mass are not
properties so they cannot be used to compare substances. A good explanation only uses data that supports
the claim in answer to the original question. In this example, students need to use properties, like melting
point or solubility, to support their claim.

Students should also consider whether or not they have sufficient data. When introducing this concept to
middle school students, we suggest discussing sufficient data in terms of whether they have enough data.
During the unit, students learn that using one property will not necessarily tell them if two objects are
different substances. For instance, two substances might be soluble in water. This is not enough evidence to
tell if the substances are the same or different. Instead, students need to include a number of properties to
support their claim.

When students are selecting their data to use as evidence, they should consider both whether it is
appropriate to support their claim and whether they have enough data to support their claim. We have found
that this can be difficult for students. While they realize that they should include data as evidence, they are
not necessarily sure which data to use or how much data to use.

Reasoning
Reasoning is a justification that shows why the data counts as evidence to support the claim and includes
appropriate scientific principles. The reasoning ties in the scientific background knowledge or scientific
theory that justifies making the claim and choosing the appropriate evidence. In the student example above,
the reasoning statement is “…they are different substances because they have a lot of other different
properties. Different substances have different properties.” This statement tells why the student used color,

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hardness, solubility and melting point as evidence (i.e. they are properties) and includes the scientific
theory that different substances have different properties to justify using the evidence to support the claim.

We have found that students have a difficult time including the entire reasoning component in scientific
explanations. Often students simply make a general link between the claim and evidence. For example,
students may say, “Since fat and soap have different densities and melting points, they are different
substances.” In this example, the reasoning supporting the link between claim and evidence is not explicit.
You want to help students learn to include the scientific background knowledge that allowed them to make
that connection between claim and evidence. They should include the scientific principles that different
substances have different properties.

How To Support Students’ Construction of Scientific Explanations


Many middle school children will find constructing scientific explanations as difficult. It is not an inquiry skill
that they can learn quickly. Students need support in terms of when, how, and why to use the claim/
evidence/reasoning framework. We suggest using a number of techniques during the unit to help students
with this new inquiry process. Some of these techniques are embedded in the curriculum materials. We also
encourage you to use them during classroom discussions in order to make explanation an important
component of everyday classroom practice.

Make the framework explicit. You want to help students understand the three components of explanations.
They should understand what these three components are as well as the definitions of the three
components.

Model the construction of explanations. After introducing explanations, you want to model how to
construct explanations through your own talking and writing. When it is appropriate, provide students with
examples of explanations. Furthermore, identify for students where the claim, evidence, and reasoning were
in your own example.

Encourage students to use explanations in their responses. During class discussions, if a student makes a
claim ask them to provide an explanation for that claim. Encourage students to provide evidence and
reasoning to support their claims.

Have students critique explanations. When students write explanations in class, you may want to have
them trade their explanations with a neighbor and critique each other’s explanations. Focus students’
attention on discussing both the strengths and weaknesses of their partners’ explanations and offering
concrete suggestions for improvement. Instead, you may want to show students an overhead of a generic
student’s response and as a class critique the explanation. Or you may want to provide students with an
example of a scientific explanation from a newspaper, magazine or website. Then you could have students
critique the explanation in terms of the claim, evidence, and reasoning.

Provide students with feedback. When students construct explanations, comment on their explanation as a
whole as well as the quality of the individual components. You may want to coach them on how to improve
their explanations by asking them leading questions or providing them with examples. For example, you may
want to ask students what the reasoning was in their explanation and how they might improve their
reasoning.

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While supporting students’ construction of scientific explanations can be a time-consuming process, there
are numerous benefits. Helping students understand and be able to construct explanations can result in a
greater understanding of science content and science as an inquiry process.

References
American Association for the Advancement of Science. (1993). Benchmarks for science literacy. New York: Oxford University
Press.
Barron, B., Schwartz, D., Vye, N., Moore, A., Petrosino, A., Zech, L., Bransford, J., & The Cognition and Technology Group at
Vanderbilt. (1998). Doing with understanding: lessons from research on problem- and project-based learning. The
Journal of the Learning Sciences. 7 (3&4), 271-311.
Bell, P., & Linn, M. (2000). Scientific arguments as learning artifacts: Designing for learning from the web with KIE. International
Journal of Science Education. 22 (8), 797-817.
Driver, R., Newton, P. & Osborne, J. (2000). Establishing the norms of scientific argumentation in classrooms. Science
Education. 84 (3), 287-312.
Herrenkohl, L. R., Palinscar, A. S., DeWater, L. S., & Kawasaki, K. (1999). Developing Scientific Communities in Classrooms: A
Sociocognitive Approach. The Journal of the Learning Sciences. 8(3&4), 451-493.
Kuhn, D. (1993) Science as argument: Implications for teaching and learning scientific thinking. Science Education, 77,
319-338.
National Research Council. (1996). National science education standards. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.
Newton, Paul. (1999). The place of argumentation in the pedagogy of school science. International Journal of Science
Education, 21 (5), 553-576
Toth, E. E., Klahr, D., Chen, Z. (2000). "Bridging research and practice: A cognitively based classroom intervention for teaching
experimentation skills to elementary school children." Cognition & Instruction 18(4): 423-4

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SAMPLE TASK

Answer the following question in the space below using complete sentences, appropriate
language, and include any necessary data or information to best answer the question.

1. Using the list of objects below, generate at least two different categories of objects
that these could be divided into. Define each category, and explain why each of the
objects would fit the categories you just defined.

Objects: Earth, Venus, Saturn, the Sun, the Moon, Io (one of Jupiter’s satellites), Uranus,
and Sirius (a star).

2. What if the following objects were added to your list? Expand your response to #1 with
the added items:

Pluto, Mars, Vega, Comet Hale-Bopp

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SAMPLE TASK

Answer the following question in the space below using complete sentences, appropriate
language, and include any necessary data or information to best answer the question.

a. Categorize all of the objects listed below into 2 or more categories based on their
properties. You should explain how you came up with the categories, and state for EACH
OBJECT why you placed it in that category:

Objects: Earth, Venus, Saturn, the Sun, the Moon, Io (one of Jupiter’s satellites), Uranus,
and Sirius (a star).

b. What if the following were added to your list? Expand your response to the question
above with the added items:

Pluto, Mars, Vega, Comet Hale-Bopp

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SAMPLE TASK

Answer the following question in the space below using complete sentences, appropriate
language, and include any necessary data or information to best answer the question.

A. Below are listed several objects – for each, describe at least two things about that
object based on what you know about it, and state what “category” each object might fit
into based on these.

Objects: Earth, Venus, Saturn, the Sun, the Moon, Io (one of Jupiter’s satellites), Uranus,
and Sirius (a star).

B. What if the following were added to your list? Expand your response to Problem A above
with the added items:

Pluto, Mars, Vega, Comet Hale-Bopp

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