Backup Use of C-E-R in Teaching of

Science(Science to be back in title). Claim-Evidence-Reason


Teachers find that students have difficulty in explaining scientific phenomenon. Thus, the Claim-Evidence-Reasoning (C-E-R) approach is implemented. Science teachers leverage the use of an ICT mindtool (Popplet) in their C-E-R approach to develop students’ scientific explanation. In this approach, students make a claim and gather appropriate evidence to support it. They then articulate the scientific principles that connect the claim and evidence. This study shows that students have improved the completeness of their scientific explanation by implementing the ICT-enabled C-E-R approach.

Wednesday, Jan. 28th, 2pm

41 Clementi Avenue 1



A primary purpose for science inquiry in learning is for students to learn fundamental science concepts and theories as well as to develop the necessary skills and attitudes that allow them to explain phenomena (MOE, 2013). An effective way to display the students’ scientific knowledge is to construct explanation but the comprehension of what constitutes a good explanation proves difficult for primary school students (Berland & Reiser, 2009).

When a group of science teachers in Gongshang Primary School came together to discuss the difficulties faced by students in the learning of Science, they saw that the construction of explanations using scientific terms was something the students struggled with in science written assessments. Students were unable to convince peers of their explanations as it lacked evidence. Preliminary results from a pre-test provided quantitative data which showed that most students were unable to provide complete explanations. Their explanations did not consider the evidence provided or lacked scientific principles to substantiate their claim. Hence, there was a need to teach the students a structure to guide them in thinking and reasoning when constructing a scientific explanation.

In spite of a growing research overseas that demonstrates that primary school students are capable of engaging in practices of construction of scientific explanation (McNeill, 2011; Songer, Shah, & Fick, 2013; Zangori & Forbes, 2014), little is known of the effectiveness of these strategies to support the process in the scientific explanation building by our primary school students in Singapore. As such, our school embarked on an action research on this topic.

Literature Review

Students often merely acquire a collection of facts about natural phenomena when learning science, which may not be sufficient to construct complete evidence-based explanations of phenomena encountered. As such, they are also unable to identify gaps in their own explanations or those of others, a view echoed by Reiser, Berland and Kenyon (2012).

We identified three main areas of obstacles that may hinder our students’ ability to produce complete scientific explanations. Firstly, students with language barrier[PT1] in scientific terms may have problems understanding scientific language. When they cannot understand the meanings of scientific words (e.g. definitions of explanation and evidence) in different contexts, they will not be able to use these words in the relevant context (McNeill, 2011). If they are unable to express an explanation that progresses from the use of every day’s knowledge to the use of scientific knowledge, they will also not be able to evaluate their own perspective of a science explanation against that of their peer’s. Without such critical reflection in place, the students will not be able to develop a deeper understanding of a science concept (Kyza, Constantinou, & Spanoudis, 2011).

Secondly, some of our students may have a lack of understanding at the conceptual level. A number of factors contribute to this phenomenon. One could be due to the students’ cognitive ability to understand concepts and the relationships of the concepts involved, and to apply them to solve problems. Another could be the lack of concrete learning experiences for the students in applying inquiry learning to understand a particular science concept. The lack of conceptual understanding by these students becomes a hindrance in their expression of reasoning scientifically (Hamza and Wickman, 2009).

Thirdly, there are insufficient opportunities for student collaboration in the construction of scientific arguments in our current teaching approach. Constructing explanations and arguments in a social learning context provides a meaningful platform for students’ interactions in defending their claims and persuading one another of their explanations (Berland and Reiser, 2009). The complexity of this knowledge building process also involves the students in the critical reflection of their peers’ explanations (Reiser, 2012) – a social process, whereby the students have to consider and reconcile differing ideas from various members of their community, in order to construct a most robust explanation for a scientific phenomenon- one with which the community agrees and values (Scardamalia & Bereiter, 1994). As such, a lack of learning in a social context may be why our students are not able to critique one another’s ideas in a meaningful manner.

Although scientific explanation frames the goal of inquiry to help students understand natural phenomena and be able to articulate and convince others of that understanding (Sandoval & Reiser, 2004; Schwarz, Schur, Pensso, & Tayer, 2010), engaging in a scientifc explanation of a phenomenon is often an arduous process for most primary school students. Students need to be able to make use of the elements of argumentation to support and challenge their explanations. Yet, many of them are not able to identify these elements, which several research groups (Sandoval & Reiser, 2004; McNeill, Lizotte, Krajcik, & Marx, 2006; Bybee, 2011), having adapted from Toulmin’s work (1958), have defined the elements to be as reflected in Figure 1 below:

  1. A claim is a proposition that answers the scientific question,

  2. A piece of evidence that refers to data that support the claim and that address the scientific question.
  3. A reasoning is the logic based on scientific definitions or principles that fits the evidence and leads to the claim.

However, crafting good quality scientific arguments is not easy. It also requires the students to recognise the connection in terms of the relationship between questions, claims and evidence, the quality of evidence used and the accuracy of the concept of their claim (McNeill, 2006).

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Figure 1. The Claim-Reasoning-Evidence approach was adapted from Toulmin’s model of argumentation.

Thus, our adapted instructional strategy is to provide our students with an explicit structure of a scientific argument – the C-E-R approach where the claim can be defended with evidence – to scaffold our students’ construction of scientific explanations, a similar intervention that was undertaken by some researchers (Sandoval & Reiser, 2004; McNeill et. al., 2006).

However, crafting good quality scientific arguments is not easy. Prior to the start of the intervention, the teachers went through 2 micro teaching sessions to familiarize and seek clarification on the C-E-R approach. It also requires the students to recognise the connection in terms of the relationship between questions, claims and evidence, the quality of evidence used and the accuracy of the concept of their claim (McNeill, 2006).

Our design of the instructional practice is also built upon a social process where students can collectively understand and evaluate, discuss and build on each other’s ideas to arrive at an agreed level of common understanding would help to promote such cognitive activities. This social process will require opportunities for students to work on a platform collaboratively that promote the production of multiple ideas. On such a platform, students will be able to find out about others’ perspectives which encourages individual students to question their own perspectives. This promotes metacognition and evaluation.

Mindtools such as Popplet and Google docs are possible platforms that can make the process of constructing explanations using the C-E-R scaffold visible to teachers and students. These tools are free and easily accessible online. The use of these tools capture our students’ comments and articulations thus allowing the teachers to document and analyse their responses in order to engage our students on the misconceptions that they may have anytime anywhere.

Research Question

Our research question is How does the use of the C-E-R structure support students in constructing ideas scientifically in an online environment?

Research Method

All Primary 4 students (6 classes, 238 students) went through a lesson package designed using the C-E-R approach. Teachers designed 3 lesson plans on the topic ‘Heat’. The lesson package consists of 15 teaching periods (30 mins per period) which included the introduction of the principles of C-E-R to the pupils. Seven teachers were involved in the teaching of the C-E-R approach.

The pre and post tests were conducted for this action research to determine the students’ ability to construct complete scientific explanations before and after the intervention. Each test consists of questions that each presents a phenomena that requires the students to state a claim and support their claims with evidence provided in the context. The pre-test was conducted on the topic 'Light' after the teachers have finished teaching the topic . Thereafter a post test on topic ‘Heat’ was conducted. A sample of a question designed in the pre-test is in Figure 2 below.

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Figure 2. A sample of a question designed in the pre-test on the topic of Light.

The pre and post tests were conducted on two different topics as the team of teacher researchers was constrained by time and did not want to disrupt the science curriculum schedule. The topic on ‘Light’ was chosen as a pre-test topic as it had just been taught prior to the introduction of the intervention design through the lesson package on Heat. In addition, with careful calibration of the pre and post test questions, questions of similar difficulty levels were designed for the two tests.

Out of the 238 pupils who sat for the pre-test, a sample of 76 scripts for pre-test and 80 scripts for the post-test with 12 or 13 scripts from each class were randomly chosen. Coding was done based on answers given by the students:

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Result of Pre-test

From the result (Table 2), only 22.4% of our pupils were able to give both Evidence and Reason (E/R) after stating their claim. 38.2% of our pupils did not even state a claim (C0)in their answer.

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Result of Post Test

From the result (Table 3), after the intervention process there was an increase in the percentage of pupils who were able to state a claim (C1) (from 61.8% to 92.5%). As for the completeness of the explanation, 61.3% of our pupils were able to give Evidence and Reason (E/R) after stating their claim. This is about 1.7 times more than the percentage of pupils who stated both components in the pre-test. Another improvement can be seen in that the percentage of pupils who were not able to state either evidence or a reason (E/R0)dropped from 22.4% to 13.7%.

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Teachers ascertained that students often found it difficult to form scientific explanations as the students lacked an explicit scaffold to help them. The results of the post-intervention showed that teaching the students a scaffold helped them to build a more complete explanation.

However, the results also revealed that some students were still unable to construct an explanation. One reason is probably due to the students’ lack of conceptual understanding of the topic of Heat. Hamza and Wickman (2009) pointed out that student’s difficulties with learning science might also be a conceptual problem due to the conceptualisation of scientific knowledge, demonstrated in their explanations of what they observed. As such, the students involved in our study might not have internalised their concepts in order to understand the questions and to give a scientific explanation. Another reason is that this group of students might have problem understanding the C-E-R scaffold and hence, they were unable to use the structure to aid them in the construction process. This is an area for consideration for the next phase of our study.


The construction of scientific explanation for primary school students is a difficult learning task which requires teachers to use effective teaching strategies to scaffold the process. Thus it is important to teach the students to use an explicit scaffold to assist in the representation of their ideas and understanding of scientific concepts in a structured manner.

In this study, teachers strived to leverage the use of ICT tools to facilitate collaborative learning in understanding the concept of explanation so that they were able to construct scientific ideas through their discussions effectively.

Preliminary results from a structural analysis of the students’ pre- and post- intervention test shows promising results in that the teaching of an explicit scaffold, C-E-R structure, as an aid to students’ building of a scientific explanation.

As such it is the belief of the teachers involved in this intervention that, given time , the students will be able to internalise this structure as a script for them to build a good quality scientific explanation.


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