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This blog is written by members of UYSEG for the UK school science education community.
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Evidence-informed curriculum development

posted 14 Jun 2016, 03:03 by Mary Whitehouse

Twenty First Century Science

Recently we have been working on the third edition of Twenty First Century Science a GCSE Science course that followed the work of Beyond 2000. In this most recent edition of the project we have drawn on ideas from the ‘backward design’ approach of Wiggins & McTighe (2005).

The backward design approach places assessment at the heart of the planning process. Thinking about assessment early in the planning process helps to clarify the intended outcomes, which in turn helps to determine the most appropriate learning activities; this has been described as curriculum planning by reverse engineering. To this end every assessable learning outcome (ALO) in the specification has at least one associated teaching and learning item, in the form of a question, task, activity, or practical.

We used these ideas in the way we present the resources in both the teacher handbook and in Kerboodle. Each resource is related to an ALO in the specification and is linked to one of four purposes:
  • introduction
  • explanation
  • application
  • evidence.
At the beginning of any new teaching sequence the teacher may need to assess the learners’ prior knowledge and also find ways of introducing the new concepts identified by the ALOs for this sequence. This introduction might be an intriguing demonstration of a phenomenon or perhaps a photograph of a context that prompts one or more questions; the phenomenon can be explained and the questions answered using ideas to be developed in the sequence.  
The middle phase of a teaching sequence will encompass teaching and learning activities that help students to develop their understanding of the scientific explanation behind the ALO that is the focus of the teaching. The application of the scientific ideas to new contexts challenges and develops students’ conceptual understanding.
An important part of any teaching sequence is to elicit evidence of student’s progress in understanding the key ideas of the sequence. This may occur during the sequence to inform the next steps in the teaching, as well as at the end of a particular sequence. 
We have used this model as the basis of the section organisers in this teacher handbook. For each sequence of teaching (which may be one or more lessons) we have identified teaching and learning activities and evidence of learning items that can be identified as serving one of these four purposes.
In using this approach we have drawn on ideas in the ‘5Es’ approach to curriculum design (Bybee et al., 2006).

Looking forward

UYSEG is at the beginning of a new project to develop a course for teaching science at 11-14. The Best Evidence Science Teaching project began by asking science teachers what for them were the key issues about teaching science 11-14.  We will be using the best research evidence available to address those issues. Mary Whitehouse spoke about this new project at researchED Maths and Science in Oxford on 11th June 2016. Download the presentation from the link below.


Bybee, R. W., Taylor, J. A., Gardner, A., Van Scotter, P., Carlson Powell, J., Westbrook, A., & Landes, N. (2006). The BSCS 5E instructional model: Origins and effectiveness. Colorado Springs, CO: BSCS. See also http://sites.nationalacademies.org/cs/groups/dbassesite/documents/webpage/dbasse_073327.pdf 
Whitehouse, M. (2014). Using a backward design approach to embed assessment in teaching. School Science Review, 95(352). 
Wiggins, G., & McTighe, J. (2005). Understanding by design. New Jersey: Pearson Education.

Indpendent practical research projects

posted 13 Jan 2016, 02:51 by Lynda Dunlop   [ updated 13 Jan 2016, 02:59 ]

Lynda Dunlop and Kerry Knox post on the latest UYSEG network meeting 

Recent changes in the assessment of practical work in schools have resulted in considerable interest in the role that independent research projects (IRPs) can play in school science. 
Introduction by Professor Sir John Holman
What benefits does undertaking such projects offer to pupils? What impact can participation have on pupils' interest in science?  These were some of the questions that were explored during the UYSEG network meeting on Friday 11th December.  The meeting was attended by a range of stakeholders representing several institutions from York and across the region, including teachers, curriculum developers, university teachers, educational researchers and providers of professional development.

Professor Sir John Holman introduced the meeting, identifying some of the purposes of practical work and reflecting on an international review of practical science that is currently being carried out for the Gatsby Foundation.  Following this stimulus, we shared our experiences of practical IRPs before Professor Judith Bennett (University of York) and Professor Michael Reiss (University College London Institute of Education) presented the findings of a recent research project funded by the Wellcome Trust (report to be published in 2016) which explored evidence and experiences relating to IRPs within the United Kingdom and beyond.   Key findings of the research include: 
  1. IRPs are variously undertaken either as a part of, or as a supplement to, the formal curriculum;
  2. students respond positively to IRP work;
  3. there is evidence of student learning gains associated with participation in IRPs; 
  4. there is evidence of improvements in the attitudes of learners towards science, for example the data suggest that students who have undertaken an IRP are more likely to consider careers in science;
  5. teachers, university partners and employers generally view IRPs positively; and
  6. organisational culture is important to the success of such projects.  
The meeting was concluded with a discussion of the implications of the findings for practice.  The next UYSEG network meeting is on 4th March 2016 at 5pm, on the theme of genomics education. Sign up for a ticket here here

Tim Peake live launch

posted 18 Dec 2015, 02:57 by Hannah Hughes

It’s not often you will find me saying this … but some moments really are best shared with 300 primary school children, such as the blast off of the UK ESA astronaut Tim Peake’s launch into space on 15 December.  The excitement, compassion, inquisitiveness and bouncing anticipation of the 9-11 year olds from York schools, who were packed into a lecture theatre at the University of York based National Science Learning Centre to watch the live launch, was contagious for all ages. 

The young people were on campus for a morning of learning about space flight through hands-on activities such as making rockets, investigating materials such as UV activated bracelets, marshmallow satellites, viewing the universe in the cosmodome,  experiencing bangs and flashes from York’s Department of Physics’ supremely talented outreach officer Katherine Leech … And if that wasn’t enough, next was a brief virtual tour of the International Space Station by Dr Gerhard Gritner from the European Astronaut Centre, who has spent the last couple of years training Tim and the rest of the crew to be ready for the space mission.


The afternoon saw 120 secondary school 11-14 year-old students arrive for more space-themed demos, practical experiments and a talk on the human body in space from Dr Paul Genever, an expert in bones from the University of York’s Department of Biology.  This was followed by an evening for the general public which included more try it yourself cosmic experiments, robotics, investigations, space quiz, a talk from Gerhard about the astronaut training process, including close up and personal photographs of the astronauts going through the process, then a screening of the live first press conference with Tim from the International Space Station. 

So why, other than the fact we have many space enthusiast amongst our colleagues, did the University of York Science Education Group (UYSEG), in partnership with the National STEM Centre with (ESERO-UK), organise this outreach event? Well, researchers in UYSEG are investigating if human spaceflight inspires 9-14 year-old school students to take science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) subjects. The team is led by Professor Judith Bennett and the three-year project is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and the National Space Agency. UYSEG wants to see what impact the mission has on young people's engagement with STEM subject,and the space event, part-funded by the ESRC Impact Acceleration Account, was a way of raising awareness of the research.

Did it succeed in getting people to think more about space and STEM study? From the queue that formed outside the video confessions booth on the evening, the early indications are that it at least did get people sharing their views. The event and research project have also been featured by BBC national news online, York Press and BBC York radio.  Thanks to everyone who supported the event. 

If you would like to know more about the space flight perceptions project, or if you are a school wanting to join the research, please contact Judith Bennett at judith.bennett@york.ac.uk.

If you are a teacher, did you know about our Science Education early evening meets on subjects such as how to get girls involved in physics? Our June 2016 event will focus on the findings of the Human Spaceflight research.  Free tickets and more information are available here. 

Hannah Hughes – University of York Department of Education External Relations Manager 

Physics is for girls – opening doors

posted 6 Nov 2015, 08:28 by Lynda Dunlop   [ updated 6 Nov 2015, 08:42 ]

Liz Swinbank posts about the latest UYSEG network meeting

On Friday 16 October, the latest in a series of Network meetings hosted by the University of York Science Education Group (UYSEG) took girls in physics as its theme, with a presentation and discussion led by Rachel Hartley, the Improving Gender Balance Project Officer at the Institute of Physics.   

I did wonder whether the event would attract an audience comprising mainly female physicists but was pleased to note that the 35 or so people present, only about half identified as physicists and over a third were male.  Diversity of occupation and professional background was apparent too: the audience included school teachers, education researchers, professional development providers, curriculum developers, and staff and students from the university Physics and Education departments.

Rather than focus on possible reasons why girls don't choose physics, Rachel took a much more constructive and practical approach, mixing various 'did you know? ' snippets with hints and tips for raising awareness of, and hence avoiding, gender discrimination.   

For example, did you know that, while A-level physics attracts lower entries overall than maths or any of the other sciences, it is one of the most popular choices for boys?  Girls, on the other hand, opt for A-level psychology in large numbers – but universities regards physics as a much better 'facilitating' subject so students choosing psychology are unwittingly limiting what they might be able to do post-A-level.  So one thing that is needed in schools is some well-informed advice about subject choices.  

A simple way to monitor your own unconscious gender bias, when teaching or presenting, is to prepare a set of lolly sticks painted in two colours e.g. yellow and green ones (not pink and blue) to represent male and female.  Place them in a cup, and each time you interact with a member of the class (or audience) take a stick of the appropriate gender colour out of the cup.   
I'm not going to give a blow-by-blow account of the entire meeting, but here are just a couple of things that might help break down some of the barriers and stereotyping that deter girls from doing physics, and positively encourage them to consider studying the subject:-
  • Train girls in lower secondary school (yr 8 and thereabouts) as 'physics ambassadors' to help promote the subject to younger pupils e.g. as part of the school's work with feeder primaries.  This has the double benefit of providing female role models for younger pupils and boosting the confidence of the ambassadors themselves.
  • Use case studies and examples - including personal experience -  to show that by no means everyone who studies physics finds it easy, and that persistence and hard work can yield rewards.  This is to counter the perception that, to do physics, you just need to have loads of natural ability, and if you meet difficulties then the subject is probably not for you.
A few days after the UYSEG meeting, the IOP launched its report 'Opening Doors: a guide to good practice in countering gender stereotyping in schools'. The report is based on visits to schools and aims to raise awareness and to share good practice.  While not specific to any subject, it is obviously highly relevant to  the issue of girls and physics. It's available from the IOP website: www.iop.org/genderbalance.

The next UYSEG network meeting will be on the 11th December at 5pm (with refreshments from 4.30pm), and the topic will be independent practical research projects in science.  This will be based on the recent research project based at York, and will be introduced by Professor Sir John Holman, Emeritus Professor in the Chemistry Department and Senior Advisor in Education at the Wellcome Trust.  Anyone who has an interest in science education is very welcome to come along.  

To register, please go to https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/university-of-york-science-education-group-network-tickets-17960395025.   

Thanks to the Institute of Physics for supporting this network meeting. 

Making best use of exam questions

posted 10 Oct 2015, 03:13 by Mary Whitehouse   [ updated 10 Oct 2015, 03:14 ]

first wrote this blog post in 2013 on the York Science blog. Unfortunately we lost that blog, but several people have asked about the resources that were there, so I have decided to revisit some of those posts.
I wrote earlier about Diagnostic Questions. A good diagnostic question can reveal a lot about a student’s thinking. When preparing diagnostic questions for GCSE classes there are two rich sources of alternative answers that have been given by students – the Mark Scheme and the Report to Centres. I have spent some time with science teachers developing diagnostic questions in this way.
Here is an example of how the Mark Scheme and Report to Centres can be used.
This question part of question 2 on the OCR GCSE Science Gateway B711/02  (higher tier paper) in June 2012.
In the Report to Centres the Principal Examiner for the paper wrote :
 “Just less than half the candidates gained the mark…...
The most common correct answer was dehydration. The most common incorrect responses were to describe ‘overheating’ or ‘organ failure’. 
A significant number of candidates thought that ‘enzymes were killed’ or that the ‘blood boils’.” 

 The guidance column in the mark scheme identifies some of the answers that candidates were writing and indicates markers whether or not to accept the answers.
So from the examiners’ report and the mark scheme we now know the sort of things that students were thinking in answer to the question ‘How can a very high temperature lead to death?’
We could put these into a ‘talking head’ presentation and ask students to choose which answers they think are good and which are wrong.

Or you could put the answers into a confidence grid:

Notice the headings for the columns. The question is looking for an explanation, so there may be statements that are correct, but are NOT a scientific explanation.

Diagnostic question or teaching activity?

This item could be used to check out students’ understanding after a sequence of lessons about homeostasis. Or it could be seen as a teaching activity to improve exam technique - a discussion of why some answers are not acceptable can help students to understand what makes a good answer.

Asking questions that make a difference

posted 17 Jul 2015, 02:51 by Lynda Dunlop   [ updated 20 Jul 2015, 07:33 ]

The UYSEG network is a termly meeting for teachers, researchers and those involved in science education to engage in discussion about the relationship between science education research and classroom practice.
At the latest meeting, Mary Whitehouse led us in thinking about assessment for learning, and in particular, how questions can be used in low-stakes situations to improve student learning in science. 
As in medicine, questions can be used to diagnostically, i.e. to identify problems on the basis of evidence. Mary explained that in science education, diagnostic questions can be used to give teachers information about what children have understood, so that informed decisions can be made about what to teach next.  Using examples from particle theory and drawing on work done by Phil Johnson and others, Mary demonstrated how carefully designed questions can help teachers get to the crux of what children understand about scientific ideas.  
Prompted to consider our students’ likely responses when asked what the bubbles are made of when presented with a video of boiling water and multiple options, Mary demonstrated that the design of diagnostic questions requires teachers to know not only the correct answer (and the reasons why it is correct), but likely incorrect answers and the reasoning that leads students to respond in this way.  Provided with different diagnostic question formats: PEOE (Predict Explain Observe Explain) focused cloze exercises and talking heads, we were charged with creating diagnostic questions that could be shared via a google group.
Teachers interested in creating and sharing examples of diagnostic assessment items under a creative commons are invited to join the group by contacting uyseg@york.ac.uk.
“Sharing high quality questions may be the most important thing we can do to improve the quality of student learning”
Wiliam, 2011, p.104
Look out for the next meeting on Friday 16th October (4.30 refreshments for 5pm start).
Wiliam, D. (2011).  Embedded formative assessment.  Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.

Invitation to take part in Tim Peake related research project RISES

posted 25 Jun 2015, 07:01 by Maria Turkenburg

Image: ESA
RISES, Research Into Students’ Engagement with STEM, will help further understanding of young people’s decisions to pursue a career in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics), space-related or otherwise.

In November 2015 the European Space Agency is sending its first British astronaut, Tim Peake, to the International Space Station for his six month Principia Mission. A host of educational programmes have been developed surrounding these events, in order to engage young people, and to inspire the next generation of UK scientists and engineers. Our team at York will be evaluating these educational efforts, investigating students’ attitudes to, and engagement with, STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), in particular in relation to human spaceflight. We invite you and your schools to take part in our project.

The research project is funded by the UK Space Agency and the Economic and Social Research Council, led by Professor Judith Bennett and conducted by a team of researchers of the Department of Education at the University of York. The team includes Dr Jeremy Airey, Dr Lynda Dunlop and Dr Maria Turkenburg. The research has been approved by the Department’s Research Ethics Committee.

Data collection involves a survey of a range of schools in a variety of contexts, before and after the launch of Tim Peake’s Principia mission. We will be using questionnaires and interviews with children, young people and their teachers. The purpose of the questionnaires is to gauge young people’s attitudes towards STEM subjects, while the interviews will explore the reasons and explanations for these attitudes. In addition, we are looking to make a connection between the information the interviewed students provide, and their background and attainment data from the National Pupil Database.

Taking part in the pilot phase

At the moment we are urgently looking for schools, both primary and secondary, to be part of our pilot study (although we would also be delighted to work with you in the full research project, if you prefer).

The pilot study would involve at least one group of year 5 or year 8 students (preferably all of them) to fill in our online questionnaire, which asks them about their attitudes to STEM subjects inside and outside the school context, specifically in relation to their learning about space. This should take no more than 45 minutes (and most likely considerably less), and will help us inform the design and use of the survey, in order to be ready to administer it to a larger sample for the full project.

Taking part in the full project

In case you would be more interested in joining the full research project, we would look to recruit your current year 4 or year 7 group.

What we would like from your school:

for a single year group of students to complete a 45-minute (maximum) online questionnaire three times (Autumn 2015, Summer 2016 and Summer 2017), following the same group of students as they move up the school, at a time convenient to you and your school. Paper copies would be available on request;

on a follow-up visit to a subset of the schools soon afterwards, for one of our researchers to have interviews with the year group’s teacher(s) and a group of the students who completed the questionnaire (around 30 minutes each). We would like the focus group students to be diverse across all categories of social difference, if possible, including gender, ethnicity and ability;

to make a link with focus group students’ data in the National Pupil Database, for which we will require their full name, date of birth, home postcode and, ideally, their UPN/ULN. Procedures are all in full compliance with Data Protection legislation.

Photo: ESA-M. Alexander
Photo: ESA-M. Alexander

Benefits to your students, you and your school

A summary of our final project report as presented to the UKSA and ESRC might be used by schools to inform practice. You will be recognised as a “University of York Science Education Group Research Partner School”.

For more information about the project or to sign up, please contact Maria Turkenburg, the project’s Research Officer, by email at spaceflight-project@york.ac.uk or by telephone at 01904 323444.

We are looking forward to hearing from you, and hopefully working with you in the near future.

Rainbow science!

posted 17 Jun 2015, 06:48 by Alistair Moore

It's York Pride on Saturday 20th June, and this year the theme is 'Raise your Rainbow'. The University of York Science Education Group (UYSEG) will be running some hands-on, rainbow-themed experiments on the University stall and explaining the science behind rainbows.

We'll also be giving away free pairs of diffraction glasses that turn light into rainbows, and activity sheets with rainbow experiments to try at home.

Our activities are aimed at children of all ages, they don't require any specialist equipment, and they're safe to do with adult supervision.

Click here to download a PDF version of our activity sheets.

Pride promotes diversity, acceptance and inclusiveness, and UYSEG is proud to promote the message that everybody is welcome in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM).

Supporting SHAP teachers with course materials and grants

posted 20 May 2015, 08:29 by Elizabeth Swinbank

Salters Horners Advanced Physics (SHAP) is a context-led, A level physics course developed by UYSEG. The course has been updated and relaunched for the new A levels in 2015.

The SHAP course provides a context-led approach to the Edexcel specification, and is now in its third edition. It has been revised and updated by writers able to draw on their own experience of teaching SHAP.

The move to terminal assessment means that we have been able to restore much of the original structure of SHAP (we are no longer constrained by modular assessment requirements), as well as updating the contextual aspects and revising the materials to match the new specification.

The new requirements for practical assessment fit in well with SHAP. The directors of SHAP and its sister project, Salters-Nuffield Advanced Biology (SNAB, also assessed by Edexcel), have devised a coherent framework for the development and assessment of practical skills, and all the new .core practicals. are an integral part of the SHAP course.

New course materials

Thanks to a splendid team of writers, the Salters Horners Advanced Physics (SHAP) course materials for the first year of the new A-level are now published. The second-year materials are going through the editing process and are on schedule for publication in the autumn. 

Click here to find out more about the SHAP course materials.

SHAP is fortunate in being sponsored by the Salters and Horners companies, and both offer grants to centres to help with the purchase of SHAP course materials. The deadline for Salters applications has now passed (sorry!), but Horners offer grants of up to £250 to centres moving to SHAP in September. The application deadline is 15 June 2015. Click here to begin the application process.

Research-informed curriculum development

posted 1 May 2015, 15:34 by Mary Whitehouse   [ updated 4 May 2015, 02:32 by Alistair Moore ]

I write this as I prepare for researchED New York, the latest in a line of conferences that provide a forum for teachers, education researchers, and others interested in evidence-informed practice to meet and exchange ideas.

My presentation at this conference is here.

Teachers who want to engage with research evidence will already be reflective practitioners; their reflections may lead to questions that they turn to research to answer. During their PGCE course trainee teachers use the research literature to help them reflect on their practice, but once they become classroom teachers it is difficult to continue this level of interaction with current research findings. Many teachers struggle to find time for reflection, as one class leaves the room another almost group almost immediately arrives and it can be difficult to access current research papers, although there are some routes which I have described on the researchED website.

All our projects are a collaboration between researchers, science writers, educators, and teachers in schools; the team draws on research carried out at York, but also, of course, research from the wider community.

Evidence-informed approach to development

In thinking about the approaches we will take to developing new resources we will consider where we can support teachers to make the most difference to their students' learning. There is a large body of research evidence to support the effectiveness of formative assessment, including the work of Paul Black and Dylan Wiliam (1998, 1998, 2003).

Black & Wiliam

These three publications together show how putting research evidence into practice can work. Following the publication of their original research paper in 1998, Black and Wiliam wrote Inside the Black Box, a booklet that summarised the key findings for teachers. Then, together with colleagues, they worked with science and mathematics teachers to show how formative assessment can lead to significant improvements in students learning. 

For formative assessment to be effective, there need to be high quality assessment items available to teachers; that was the motivation behind the York Science project – developing assessment items that would provide evidence of students’ understanding of key ideas in science.

Many of the assessment items that we are developing for York Science are ‘diagnostic’ questions of the kind described earlier. These kinds of questions can help focus the teacher’s thinking on the ideas and skills that really matter if students are to make progress in their studies.

Putting theory into practice

Even where research indicates an intervention is capable of leading to student improvement, it may not be implemented well enough to bring about any visible improvement, as Smith and Gorard (2005) showed in their case studies of the implementation of Assessment for Learning

For this reason one of the strands of work at UYSEG is to develop professional development materials which will support teachers in implementing the resources we publish. Currently we are offering training to teachers who will be teaching our revised A level courses from September 2015. See the Events page for details.

Working with scientists

Our A level Science courses, Salters Advanced Chemistry, Salters Horners Advanced Physics and Salters Nuffield Advanced Biology are context-led courses. Similarly Twenty First Century Science helps students how to think about the science they will meet in their everyday lives.

Clearly it is essential for these courses that that not only is the science we teach correct, but also up to date. So our collaborations go wider than the education research community, we also work with scientists and engineers not only here in the University of York, but also in other universities, in research institutes and in industry.

We will write more about these collaborations in future blogs.


Black, P., Harrison, C., Lee, C., Marshall, B., & William, D. (2003). Assessment for learning putting it into practice. Maidenhead: Open University Press.

Black, P., & Wiliam, D. (1998). Assessment and classroom learning. Assessment in Education: Principles, Policy & Practice, 5(1), 68.

Black, P., & Wiliam, D. (1998). Inside the black box : assessment for learning in the classroom. London: G L Assessment.

Smith, E., & Gorard, S. (2005). 'They don't give us our marks': the role of formative feedback in student progress. Assessment in Education: Principles, Policy & Practice, 12(1), 21-38.



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