Reflections on ASE Annual Conference 2014

Alistair mans the stand at ASE 2014

Alistair mans the stand at ASE 2014

If you attended the Association for Science Education Annual Conference in Birmingham last week, and if you’re anything like me, you probably spent Sunday in a state of zombie-like exhaustion. But hopefully you also – like me – feel that it was well worth the effort, you learned some things you didn’t know before, you made useful contacts, and you’re excited about putting some new ideas into practice.

The mostly dry and sunny weather in Birmingham was a pleasant change from the snow and howling winds of conferences past, and the beautiful University of Birmingham campus was a superb setting for a science education get-together. I joined the York Science project group in September 2013 after a number of years at OCR running the assessment and professional development programmes for GCSE Twenty First Century Science, so this was one of my first opportunities to talk about our resources with teachers.

What Would Your Students Say?

Practical 'Evidence of Learning Items' on the York Science stand

Practical ‘Evidence of Learning Items’ on the York Science stand

On our stand in the exhibition marquee we debuted our snazzy new York Science flier and challenged visitors to think about how their students would answer some of the York Science evidence of learning items (ELIs).

The bolt in the beaker provoked a lot of animated discussion, showing how a practical and very simple POE (predict-observe-explain) activity can be used to probe students’ (and teachers’!) knowledge – and misunderstandings – about forces. Play-Doh® cell models showed that formative assessment activities can be as fun for the students as they are informative for the teacher.

Many of the visitors to our stand on Friday were PGCE trainees. Although activities such as making cell models have been done in classrooms by many teachers for many years, to the trainees this was new and it was clear from their reactions that the power of using such an engaging activity as a way of testing knowledge was an exciting revelation. Dylan Wiliam (2011) wrote that “sharing high quality questions may be the most significant thing we can do to improve the quality of student learning”, and one of the aims of York Science is to share high-quality formative assessment items with teachers new and old alike.

Developing formative assessment in practice

'Evidence of Learning Items' created by teachers at our workshop

‘Evidence of Learning Items’ created by teachers at our workshop

While the stand enabled us to teach new dogs some old tricks, our workshop on Saturday was all about exploring the potential of effective formative assessment with some more experienced teachers. Run by Professor Robin Millar & Mary Whitehouse, the workshop – entitled ‘Developing formative assessment in practice’ – guided teachers through the principles of ‘backward design’ curriculum development, emphasising the benefits of starting by defining what you want students to be able to do and identifying how you will assess that before deciding what and how to teach to help them do it. During the workshop teachers worked in groups to create formative assessment items of their own using York Science materials as templates. The session was so well attended that we had to move to a larger room to accommodate everybody, and feedback from the attendees was positive and encouraging.

The introductory presentation from the workshop is now available to download, and keep an eye on the Inspired by York Science section of this website where we will publish some of the ‘Evidence of Learning Items’ created by participants.

If you visited our stand or any of our events during the conference please leave a comment below to let us know what you thought, or send us an email at You can also follow York Science, Mary Whitehouse and me on Twitter.

See you at ASE in Reading in 2015, if not before!

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