Alaska Sea Grant

Is it Alive? Teacher Notes

Formative Assessment Probes
The brief, formative assessment resources included with these units are called "assessment probes." They are called "probes" because they are designed to probe and uncover student thinking. Teacher and researcher Page Keeley has written extensively about the probes as part of the Curriculum Topic Study approach to analyzing science and mathematics topics. See the Curriculum Topic Study website for more information. These probes are designed to be used diagnostically and formatively. They are intended to help you to tap into students' thinking about particular science topics -- topics that are identified by the National Science Education Standards as significant and developmentally appropriate for the target age level of the unit. While they are intended to sample students' thinking (and to probe for common misconceptions), they are NOT intended to measure what students have learned as a result of the unit content. We encourage you to use these tools--and to develop your own--to better understand each student's development as a learner, and to modify your teaching accordingly.

Ongoing assessment throughout the investigations is important for several reasons. It can reveal when students are confused or have misunderstandings, need more time to investigate, or need more explanation. You can tailor the investigations to meet the needs of your students, and change direction whenever necessary. Frequent assessment does not have to be time consuming or tedious. A quick assessment can give you a lot of information about student comprehension and understanding.

The purpose of this assessment is to uncover students' level of understanding of nonliving and living organisms, and the criteria they use to differentiate between the two.  

The best response would be for students to put an X through all the nonliving things: clock, boat, sun, mountain and fire. Their explanation should support the criterion that applies to their selections.  Personal criteria may differ between students, but need to be logical.The examples of  living things include the whale, sea star, tree, mushroom, and bird. Living things are constructed of one or more cells, and carry out basic life processes, including acquiring or making food, growing, respiring, reproducing, reacting to stimuli,  and eliminating waste. The key point to keep in mind is that not all living things show all of these characteristics all of the time.

Administering the Probe

When administering this probe it is essential that the instructor interview students to clarify their reasoning for their sorting. We suggest that this scenario probe be administered in small groups or one-on-one, to help with reading the probe. This setting will also ensure that the students' reasoning is clear, whether their responses are verbal or written. Teacher prompting may be needed for students to go beyond guessing, to explain and/or elaborate on their responses to clarify their level of understanding. Non-leading prompts in a neutral tone of voice might include: Tell me more… Why did you choose that response?

Pictures in this probe should contain objects that are familiar to your students, and should be modified as needed. When choosing pictures be sure to include plants, animals, and objects that move but are not alive (i.g. clock, car). Using real objects rather than pictures may be more appropriate for some students. Depending on the ability of the students, fewer pictures may be used.
Modifications can be made to this probe (ex. card sort, extension activities), but complexity could interfere with the purpose of this probe.
Is It Alive? Probe

Grade Level Curricular and Instructional Considerations
Young children's concepts of living organisms are often based on movement, which is why they may choose the boat, fire, clock or sun as living. Eventually students will develop other concepts/characteristics to define life.

Kindergarteners' limited vocabulary should be taken into consideration. Teacher prompting should be general without being informative (e.g. Tell me more...).

Exploration should begin with direct experiences, with familiar organisms in their personal environments. Students' understanding begins with macroscopic organisms before they can grasp the concept of microscopic organisms. At this age it is most appropriate to begin observations with hand lenses and speculate on possibilities with more magnification. Anthropomorphism (attributing human characteristics to nonliving objects) should not be discouraged when enriching lessons with literacy. Teachers can guide students in comparing stories that portray animals the way they really are and those that do not. Students can use reference books to research what is factual.

National Science Education Standards

  • Organisms have basic needs. For example, animals need air, water, and food; plants require air, water, nutrients, and light. Organisms can survive only in environments in which their needs can be met. The world has many different environments, and distinct environments support the life of different types of organisms.
  • Each plant or animal has different structures that serve different functions in growth, survival, and reproduction. For example, humans have distinct body structures for walking, holding, seeing, and talking.
  • The behavior of individual organisms is influenced by internal cues (such as hunger) and by external cues (such as a change in the environment). Humans and other organisms have senses that help them detect internal and external cues.

American Association for the Advancement of Science Benchmarks

  • Some animals and plants are alike in the way they look and in the things they do, and others are very different from one another.
  • Plants and animals have features that help them live in different environments.
  • Stories sometimes give plants and animals attributes they really do not have.

Related Topic Study in Science Curriculum Topic Study, by Page Keeley
CTS 119 Characteristics of Living Things

Related Probes in Uncovering Student Ideas in Science, by Page Keeley
Is It Living? V1, p.123
Functions of Living Things V1, p.147
Is It an Animal? V1, p.117

Alaska Sea Grant University of Alaska Fairbanks Alaska Department of Education and Early Development NOAA