When learning about the life cycle of any living thing, it helps to have real-life examples, or at least images, to guide you through each phase. Observing the entire life cycle of a plant can be a bit of a problem if you and your audience are bound to a classroom or a location void of plant life. How can you have engaging conversation about plant life cycles in these type of settings?
Elisabeth E. Schussler and Jeff Winslow have created a solution and have tested it in fourth-grade classrooms. Their solution is a drawing exercise that is both a hands-on activity and an assessment tool.
In Drawing on Students’ Knowledge, Schussler and Winslow explain how they created an activity for fourth-grade students that provides students with the opportunity to observe and document the life cycle of a plant.
Before Schussler and Winslow (2007) could engage students in learning about the stages of a plant’s life, they had to find out what students already knew about life cycles. They tapped into students’ prior knowledge of life cycles by reviewing the life cycle of frogs and butterflies. They then turned students’ attention to the plant they would study in class and asked them to draw a picture of what they thought the life cycle of their plant would look like. In their paper, Schussler and Winslow (2007) describe what they learned from the students. Through their botanical drawings, students demonstrated they understood that seeds became seedlings, that seedlings produced flowers, that plants produced seeds, that seeds were dispersed and that plants die. They also demonstrated a gap in their knowledge — specifically that they did not recognize that seeds came from fruit and that fruit came from flowers.
To conduct their 40-day study, Schussler and Winslow (2007) worked with students in nine 4th grade classrooms at two local elementary schools and collected pre- and post-assessment data from 81 of these students. Even though they designed the 40-day activity, Schussler and Winslow (2007) made only four visits to each classroom. Their involvement was limited to pre- and post-assessments of students’ knowledge about life cycles, instruction in how to plant and maintain Wisconsin Fast Plants (Brassica rapa), instruction in how to pollinate the plant specimens, and the collection of student data (Schussler and Winslow, 2007). The classroom teachers with whom they worked oversaw their students’ daily collection of data. Students collected data such as date of germination, plant height, leaf number, flower number, pollination, fertilization, number of seed pods and the number of seeds per pod.
Since student knowledge about plant life cycles was to be determined by the presence or absence of information in student drawings, Schussler and Winslow (2007) created a checklist to help them code information in each drawing. This checklist was used on pre-assessment drawings and on the post-assessment drawings students created on the last day of the project. The instructions for the post-assessment drawing were identical to the instructions given for the pre-assessment drawing (Schussler & Winslow, 2007).
Here is what Schussler and Winslow (2007) observed in students’ drawings after they had observed and documented the life cycle of Brassica rapa:
- 65% of students drew fruit and seed pods in their second drawing. Only 4% of students included fruit or seed pods in their first drawing.
- 33% of students drew cotyledons (seed leaves) in their second drawing. None of the students included seed leaves in their first drawing.
- 40% of students correctly placed fruit in locations where a flower was once located. In the pre-assessment drawing, only 4% of students drew fruit where a flower had been. This change suggests that students learned the relationship between flowers and fruit.
Schussler and Winslow (2007) found the drawing activity to be a fun learning tool and an effective assessment tool. The most revealing discovery to come out of their research was that much of what the students learned about plants was learned without receiving any planned instruction. Teachers from participating classrooms were not required to present specific information about plant growth. What students learned about plant life cycles was learned through direct observation and data collection (Schussler & Winslow, 2007). The knowledge and insight gained by students through direct observation was consistent from class to class, suggesting to Schussler and Winslow (2007) that their hands-on growing activity and drawing assessment tool was effective in all settings, whether or not teachers presented additional information about plant growth to their students.
View the materials and methods used by Schussler and Winslow (2007), a copy of the checklist they used to evaluate drawings, and sample pre- and post-assessment drawings in Drawing on Students’ Knowledge, available online for free, available at the store of the National Science Teachers Association for 99¢, or in the January 2007 issue of Science and Children. Look for this issue in the reference section of your local college library.
Schussler, Elisabeth and Jeff Winslow. 2007. Drawing on students’ knowledge. Science and Children. 44(5): 40-44.