What's in the Water? Benchmarking Activity

Kelsey S. Bitting, Environmental Studies & Center for the Advancement of Teaching and Learning

Jessica Merricks, Biology

Elon University

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Summary

This short (15-25 min) writing activity asks students to respond to a series of prompts related to the content knowledge and societal issues explored in the "What's in the Water?" PFAS Contamination Unit". Students complete the activity twice- once before the start of the 7-lesson unit, and again at the end, to track their learning.

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Context

Audience

This activity has been used in an introductory-level university course in environmental science that enrolls both majors and non-majors, as well as a summer intensive science course for high school students, both in North Carolina where the unit is set. It could easily be adapted to other locations where PFAS contamination is present, as well as to geology or biology courses.

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered

N/A

How the activity is situated in the course

This activity is used twice, once at the beginning of the "What's in the Water?" PFAS Contamination Unit" and again at the end.

Goals

Content/concepts goals for this activity

N/A

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity

Students will be able to:

  • Identify and articulate relevant prior knowledge and ideas from a wide range of sources (previous classes in this or other disciplines, news media, conversations with friends and family, etc.)
  • Revise one's own understanding of concepts related to drinking water contamination and regulation, and articulate those revised ideas in one's own words
  • Recognize and describe the nature of one's own learning (knowledge, values, and attitudes) over the course of a single unit.

Other skills goals for this activity

N/A

Description and Teaching Materials

This short writing activity asks students to respond to a series of prompts related to the essential content knowledge and attitudes explored in the "What's in the Water?" PFAS Contamination Unit". Students complete the activity in 15-25 minutes before beginning the unit to activate their prior knowledge on the topics at hand and gain insight into important questions the unit will explore. Instructors can use this pre-unit benchmarking activity as a way to take stock of student questions and ideas, such as common misconceptions or nonscientific alternative conceptions, and use them to tailor the unit.

Students then complete the same benchmarking activity again at the end of the unit, and compare their answers from before and after the unit to take stock of their learning. This pre-post paring can also be used to assess the effectiveness of the unit from an instructional perspective by looking for student understanding of specific key concepts or changes in student attitudes fostered by the unit.

What's in the Water? Benchmarking Activity (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 15kB Sep29 21)

Teaching Notes and Tips

Depending on the culture at your school, students may be unfamiliar with the idea of taking stock of their knowledge at the start of the unit. It can be helpful to discuss the formative nature of this assignment with students, explain some of the research on how activating prior knowledge helps new knowledge stick and become integrated with our existing ideas (Ambrose et al., 2010), and reinforcing that students come in with meaningful prior knowledge about the world that this class can help them make sense of through a scientific lens. It can also be motivating to explain to the students that knowing what they know and what questions they have will allow you to tailor the unit to best help them learn. (Be sure to update the word file with instructions for how/where you'd like students to submit the assignment.)

After students complete the end-of-unit benchmarking process, it can be transformative for instructors to provide some structure to guide the comparison process and help students develop the metacognitive skill and language to describe their learning. For example, one might facilitate a think-pair-share activity that asks students to consider and then discuss specific ways in which their understanding has changed:

  • Has their amount of knowledge increased, and on which specific topics? Why do they think their knowledge has grown on those topics more than others in the unit?
  • How have their initial ideas become more nuanced or complicated? (Sometimes learning leaves you with more questions than you started with!)
  • Were there specific ideas or understandings that they started the unit with that they no longer believe, or that they have revised in substantial ways? Which ones, and how are they different now?
  • How, if at all, have their attitudes or values shifted as a result of the unit?

Assessment

The primary goal of this activity is for students to assess their own learning, which may take many forms (see prompts in the Teaching Notes section above).

The pre-post design of this activity can also be used to assess the effectiveness of the unit from an instructional perspective by looking for student understanding of specific key concepts or changes in student attitudes fostered by the unit.

References and Resources

Ambrose, S. A., Bridges, M. W., DiPietro, M., Lovett, M. C., & Norman, M. K. (2010). How learning works: Seven research-based principles for smart teaching. John Wiley & Sons.

  • Chapter 1: How Does Students' Prior Knowledge Affect Their Learning?
  • Chapter 7: How Do Students Become Self-Directed Learners?

Other materials in the "What's in the Water?" PFAS Contamination Unit":

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