Seedlings in A Jar-Uncovering Student Ideas in Science, Volume 1: 25 Formative Assessment Probes (PDF e-book)

Page Keeley, Francis Eberle, Joyce Tugel
Type Category
Instructional Materials Assessment Materials
Assessment Item
This resource, vetted by NSTA curators, is provided to teachers along with suggested modifications to make it more in line with the vision of the NGSS. While not considered to be “fully aligned,” the resources and expert recommendations provide teachers with concrete examples and expert guidance using the EQuIP rubric to adapted existing resources. Read more here.



In this probe, teachers are trying to elicit student ideas about conservation of matter in a closed system. Students read through the scenario and then choose the statement that best describes the matter in the jar and explain their thinking through evidence. The probe is an excellent opportunity for teachers to determine how well students are able to take what they know about matter in a traditionally physical science sense and transfer that understanding to a life science context.

Intended Audience

Educator and learner
Educational Level
  • Grade 5
Access Restrictions

Available for purchase - The right to view, keep, and/or download material upon payment of a one-time fee.

Performance Expectations

5-PS1-2 Measure and graph quantities to provide evidence that regardless of the type of change that occurs when heating, cooling, or mixing substances, the total weight of matter is conserved.

Clarification Statement: Examples of reactions or changes could include phase changes, dissolving, and mixing that form new substances.

Assessment Boundary: Assessment does not include distinguishing mass and weight.

This resource appears to be designed to build towards this performance expectation, though the resource developer has not explicitly stated so.

Comments about Including the Performance Expectation
This probe could be introduced through more directly observable phenomena by first having students put together plastic bags containing five seeds and a wet paper towel. Its suggested that teachers provide time for a "scientist meeting" around the topic of variables and conducting fair tests so that students recognize the value of using the same amount of water to wet the paper towel across investigations. Students could then weigh and record the weight (mass) of their bags. Responses to the probe would then have some relevance to students. It is suggested that after students have done this probe individually, students gather in a scientists’ meeting to discuss their thinking. The teacher would set the stage by having students do a partner share as to their choice of options. The teacher would also begin the meeting with the very focused question, “which of the options did you choose and explain your thinking so we might all understand your reasoning.' Listening to student to student discourse might give teacher additional insights into student thinking and therefore be helpful in creating meaningful instruction to follow.

Science and Engineering Practices

This resource is explicitly designed to build towards this science and engineering practice.

Comments about Including the Science and Engineering Practice
Students are explicitly instructed to explain their thinking around the weight of the seedlings in the jar during the formative assessment. After students have completed the formative assessment, the opportunity should be provided for students to go back to their plastic bags and weigh them again after the seeds have sprouted. Students should record their data so they can compare it to the first measurements taken. A scientist meeting could be organized where students can discuss their reactions to what they find out. A teacher might want to probe to discover if students were surprised by the outcomes in the seed example but not necessarily so in the "Cookie Crumbles" probe (also available through the eBook). That would let the teacher know more work needed to be done around this phenomenon. Another appropriate follow up would be to look for the similarities and differences between thinking in "Cookie Crumbles" and "Seedlings in A Jar" and the the reason for the discrepancy. Teachers could ask, "Now that you have completed the Cookie Crumbles activity, discuss how this activity can be compared/contrasted?" to evaluate student understanding. One possible form of communication could be students creating a group comparison chart, shared with other groups and discussed, providing a review for the first activity as well as motivation for making connections with the seedlings activity.

Disciplinary Core Ideas

This resource is explicitly designed to build towards this disciplinary core idea.

Comments about Including the Disciplinary Core Idea
The formative assessment probe was designed to assess students’ understanding of open vs. closed systems as well as the idea that conservation of matter doesn't happen only in physical science. This probe might be used as the beginning of some work around the concepts of ecosystems. There is an opportunity for students to understand that seeds contain food for the seedling and the seeds are changed into a new structures, until the plant leaves can make food for the plant. Using this probe can help students to move their understanding of conservation of matter beyond physical science .

Crosscutting Concepts

This resource was not designed to build towards this crosscutting concept, but can be used to build towards it using the suggestions provided below.

Comments about Including the Crosscutting Concept
If students are engaged in measuring weight of the seedlings as described previously the, then the crosscutting concepts are being used. This is also a perfect opportunity for discussions of systems.

Resource Quality

  • Alignment to the Dimensions of the NGSS: This formative assessment has the potential to address all dimensions of the NGSS if the suggestions made are followed. As is, it touched upons three dimensional learning but does not fully meet the requirements of three dimensional learning.

  • Instructional Supports: The instructional supports provided by this resource are considered to be superior and includes the following: Purpose, Related Concepts, Explanation, Curricular and Instructional Considerations, NRC standards, Benchmarks for Science literacy, related Research, Suggestions for Instruction and Assessment, as well as related NSTA Store Publications and NSTA Journal Articles.

  • Monitoring Student Progress: The resource is a formative assessment assessment that can be used to elicit students initial ideas about conservation of matter. Dependent on student choice the teacher is able to identify students’ naive or early conceptions about conservation of matter. This resource could be used both early in study and then as a post assessment. It would be permissible to give students the same probe as a summative assessment but now after instruction ask them to put their name on and answer individually. Students might also be asked to brainstorm other types of activities that could be used to reinforce ideas about conservation of matter. Students could present their ideas to the whole class, providing relevance for the concept, This could be used as an enrichment activity for advanced students.

  • Quality of Technological Interactivity: If students use scales and other electronic devices to explore weight and graphing of data the technology use could be enhanced. Technological interactivity is enhanced if students are reminded that any tool that is designed to help people in some way is a form of technology, including their paper and pencils.