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Eliciting Student Ideas in Science

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The information presented in this evidence-based practice resource is adapted from Core Practice Set #2, Ambitious Science Teaching.

“All you have to do is remove barriers that prevent students from showing what they can do.” –Ambitious Science Teaching


Attending to Equity

Even the youngest of learners possess a wide range of existing conceptions, prior experiences, and information that they use to make sense of any and all ideas introduced in the classroom. These resources have the potential to support learning. Students will rely heavily on them in the classroom, whether the teacher is aware of it or not.

  • Utilize talk moves to get students to say more about their thinking and reasoning.
  • Encourage participation of all students.
  • When selecting tasks, scenarios, or phenomenon, balance accessibility and challenge to ensure meaningful participation.
  • Avoid teacher moves that discourage participation when eliciting student ideas (the “shut down” list):
    • Initial use of scientific language that not all students have access to (e.g., starting off by referencing atmospheric pressure or transfers of energy).
    • Requests for definitions and vocabulary (e.g., “Who can tell me what kinetic molecular energy is?”)
    • Premature attempts to get students to talk about explanations rather than observations (e.g., “What’s going on that caused the tanker to crush this way?”)
    • Efforts to steer students toward saying a particular word or phrase (that’s funneling).

“Learning, however, is not a process of replacing your ideas with something a teacher tells you, or something you read in a book or experience in a lab. Learning is a process of actively reconstructing and reorganizing what you know using a variety of resources to compare your current understandings against those of peers and against evidence in the world.” –Ambitious Science Teaching


Eliciting Ideas and Activating Prior Knowledge


Reveals the resources students will use to make sense of the science in the upcoming lessons.

Plan the conversation with students

  • Select a rich phenomenon/design problem
  • Identify starter questions
  • Consider ideas to listen for

Frame the Lesson

  • Provide context, links to previous topic
  • Reasons for investigating these ideas
  • Expectations for participating in the intellectual work and how ideas will be treated

Introduce the phenomenon/design problem and elicit observations


Transition to talk about “Under what conditions would this happen?”

  • Elicit hypotheses about “what might be going on”
  • Press for possible explanations



Helping Students Represent their Thinking Publicly


Allows students to organize different explanatory ideas and assess their usefulness. Expands range of ideas, experiences, and puzzlements available to entire class for solving complex problems.

Help students make a record of their initial ideas

Option 1: Create and share small-group initial models

  • Students are encouraged to include:
    • What may be going on before, during, and after the phenomenon happens, including time scale.
    • Observable and unobservable features
  • Students make their models public (e.g., gallery walk, select and share out)

Option 2: Create a public list of 4-6 student hypotheses

  • Sentence frames for students
    • “We think (the phenomenon) has something to do with ______.”
    • "We think (the phenomenon) happens the way it does because _____.”
  • Questions to come to consensus
    • “Is this hypothesis different from the others? How?”
    • “Can we combine your hypothesis with theirs?”
    • “Do you mean…?”
    • “What are some things we are not sure of?”

“Hypotheses are student inferences about what might be happening at the unobservable level that causes an observable event or process. Students could also hypothesize about how observable conditions, unique to this anchoring event, might play a role in how it unfolded.” –Ambitious Science Teaching


Adapting Further Instruction


Builds on existing knowledge and experiences, addresses gaps, and prioritizes questions that interest students. Lessons more directly influence how students think.

After the lesson

  • Sketch out what students talked about
    • Take a few minutes to sketch out what students talked about in terms of partial understandings, alternative conceptions, everyday language, and even ways of arguing about the phenomenon or design problem.
    • Make note of the everyday experiences or events that your students used to talk about the phenomenon or design problem.
  • Modify future lessons based on student ideas
    • Add a lesson or activity
    • Cut out a lesson or activity
    • Rearrange the order of lessons or activities
    • Integrate new phenomena into the lessons

“Adapting instruction is a process that “requires judgment as well as knowledge of your students and your curriculum to make a principled choice about moving forward.” –Ambitious Science Teaching


Additional Resources