Cumulative Learning using Embedded Assessment Results

The CLEAR project takes advantage of new technologies and research findings to investigate ways that science assessments can both capture and contribute to cumulative, integrated learning of standards-based concepts in middle school courses.

Our research investigates how instructional activities can help middle school students develop a cumulative, integrated understanding of energy. Energy is a unifying scientific concept that has been shown to be difficult to learn due to its complexity and abstract nature.


CLEAR's three main goals are:

  1. Improve the cumulative learning of students in the topic area of energy

    What is cumulative learning?

    Today most students are tested on the topics they studied in the latest unit and often quite superficially. There is seldom the expectation of applying concepts learned in prior units to the next topic or course.

    To remedy this situation, we are exploring ways to ensure that science learning is cumulative. Certainly cumulative learning involves retaining instructed material and building on it. Delving into this question raises many issues such as: What sorts of ideas should be retained? What sort of understanding do we desire of students after several years of instruction? How do students use the knowledge gained in one day, topic, or course when they encounter the next day, topic, or course? How can instruction enable students to appreciate the ubiquitous role of fundamental science concepts like energy? How can we help students understand the dependencies and connections across science topics and disciplines?

    We are continuing to characterize cumulative learning. Questions include: What are key features of cumulative learning? What is the trajectory of a cumulative learner? Can all students become cumulative learners?

  2. Design and customize technology-enhanced instructional materials, consistent with California standards, to foster cumulative understanding of energy

    How can instruction support cumulative learning?

    From our prior work on knowledge integration we know that students come to science class with a repertoire of disconnected and often contradictory ideas. We want to spur students to develop more coherent ideas. We would like to enable students to integrate their ideas and promote the most fruitful, generative, and useful ideas. We hope to help students distinguish new ideas from existing ideas and reconcile discrepancies with scientific evidence. We expect that cumulative learners would test and refine their ideas by applying them in situations they encounter in their lives. Ideally cumulative learners would continue to expand, refine, and integrate their understanding all during their lives.

    Our curriculum materials and professional development implement the patterns and principles developed to support knowledge integration (Kali, 2005; Linn, 2006). Our curriculum is implemented in the Web-based Inquiry Science Environment (WISE), a technology-enhanced software system that both delivers instruction and keeps track of student responses (see Slotta & Linn, 2009). The WISE system of delivery ensures that teachers can track student progress in real time with embedded assessments. It supports numerous forms of teacher-student and peer-to-peer learning including interactions with probeware, visualizations, simulations, and virtual experiments. Summaries of CLEAR curriculum materials are available.

    We are in the process of developing criteria for effective instructional materials. Questions include: What sorts of learning activities and topic sequences contribute to cumulative learning? What role can inquiry with visualizations and virtual experiments and connections to everyday experiences play? How can teachers support cumulative learning? How can regular use of a technology-enhanced learning environment that tracks student progress support cumulative learning?

  3. Design and implement a suite of assessments that monitor progress of participants and also serve as learning event

    How can assessments serve as tests and learning events?

    To measure progress in cumulative learning we are building on our knowledge integration assessments (Lee & Liu, in press; Linn, Lee, Tinker, Husic, & Chiu, 2006). We are also seeking new ways to use our embedded assessments to measure cumulative learning (Casperson & Linn, 2006; Chiu & Linn, 2008; Kali, Linn, & Roseman, 2008).

    Knowledge integration assessments require generation of explanations. They have acceptable psychometric properties and can be distinguished from typical multiple-choice items used in international tests (Liu, Lee, Hofstetter, & Linn, 2008; Lee, Liu, & Linn, in press).

    Embedded assessments in WISE also serve as learning activities. Typically pairs of students perform these activities. They require generation of ideas, a valuable learning activity. Many embedded assessments follow the knowledge integration pattern. They elicit student ideas, often by asking for predictions. They introduce some new idea, often by enabling students to interact with a visualization or simulation. They develop criteria, often by asking students to critique alternative ideas. And they support reflection, often by asking students to reconcile their initial and new ideas. Typically we score the responses to the critique or reflection notes as assessments.

    To take advantage of recent technological advances we can now track student activities. For example, we can record the experiments that students conduct and reliably capture inquiry activities (McElhaney & Linn, 2008). And, we can determine the conditions under which students return to a visualization or evidence page (Chiu & Linn, in press).

    For CLEAR we proposed two new item types called Energy Stories and MySystem. These items are intended to capture longer sequences of reasoning than our typical knowledge integration items. Energy Stories overlap with some of the knowledge integration items we have used in the past. MySystem is intended to enable students to visually represent connections between energy sources, energy transfer, and energy transformations. It is inspired by modeling environments such as STELLA or Model-It but is much less sophisticated. See examples in the assessment section.