Noticing and interpreting in chemistry classroom talk

Upon noticing the substance of their students' chemical thinking, a teacher may decide to either advance their students' thinking or to elicit further chemical thinking toward a curricular aim. Here we will consider the stances that teachers may take in their noticing and interpreting according to the formative assessment model of enactment. This model was derived from rigorous analysis of classroom videos of experienced science teachers (many of whom are chemistry teachers, most are teacher leaders in their school district) doing formative assessment activities with their students.1 Excellent science teachers have a broad repertoire and use all of these different kinds of teaching moves in different moments, depending on the in-the-moment purposes that teachers have which are shaped by knowing the specific students and the challenges they are facing at that moment, as well as in the context of the overall lesson purposes. 

A primary purpose of noticing and interpreting student thinking is to guide teachers’ actions in the classroom. Teachers may take one of two stances in their noticing and interpreting. They may be evaluative in their noticing and interpreting, meaning that they would attend to ideas about chemistry that students share with the main goal of diagnosing and correcting their misunderstandings. When teachers are being evaluative in their noticing and interpreting, they are looking for a specific explanation in a student’s written response and evaluating the response against correct chemistry, rather than trying to figure out the meaning behind what the student is actually trying to say. On the other hand, when teachers are interpretive in their noticing and interpreting, they are focusing instead on listening to and making sense of students' ideas in order to build upon them for future work in class.2 

Evaluative noticing and interpreting

When teachers take an evaluative stance to their noticing and interpreting, they are processing students’ responses in light of canonical science by taking an authoritative stance. There are several ways that teachers can notice and interpret from this particular stance.  One of these strategies includes judgment, in which the teacher categorizes students’ responses as correct or incorrect, matching to a baseline answer such as looking for specific usage of vocabulary. Another evaluative noticing and interpreting strategy is to look for misconceptions, when the teacher anticipates or recognizes particular common errors or misconceptions in students’ thinking. Evaluative teachers may also seek out gaps, in which the teacher identifies gaps in understanding that need to be filled. They may also engage in projection, where the teacher interprets what the student says through the lens of the science story.

Inferential noticing and interpreting

When teachers take an inferential approach towards what they notice and interpret in their students' work, they are taking a dialogic stance by focusing on the sensibility of students’ responses toward building on the students’ ideas. One strategy that teachers who are noticing and interpreting inferentailly is to look for assumptions, in which they identify underlying assumptions driving students’ thinking. Teachers who take the inferential stance to noticing and interpreting may also experience‐map by recognizing students’ mapping an individual experience to explanation, and vice versa. Teachers taking an inferential stance towards noticing and interpreting may look for inconsistency by seeking out inconsistency in a specific student’s reasoning. They may also seek out specific confusion amongst their students, or recognize cross‐purposes when two or more students are talking about different issues. Finally, teachers that are noticing and interpreting inferentially may focus on student affect by recognizing students’ emotions as an important factor to attend to.1

It is important to recognize that there is not one correct or incorrect stance to take when noticing and interpreting student responses. Each could result in productive discussion or follow up for enhancing our students’ thinking about and understanding of chemistry. A reason to be aware of these two unique stances is that they may lead to different actions and therefore alter the course of the lesson based upon what we notice and interpret. Thinking deeply about  intent in noticing and interpreting student work leads to more purposeful decisions as the many student ideas arise and we need to decide which to attend to and how to conceptualize them. What the teacher notices and interprets also leads to a continuum of potential actions on the part of the teacher, which are the other two parts of the ACCT model of formative assessment enactment. Based upon purposeful noticing and interpreting, the teacher may decide to further elicit their students' chemical thinking in order to find out more about what a student knows and thinks. This eliciting may be done in either a more authoritative narrowing fashion, or it may be done from an opening and therefore more dialogic stance. Alternatively, the teacher may choose to advance their students based upon what they notice and interpret in order to move their students' chemical thinking toward a curricular aim. These advancing actions may be authoritative and directive, or they may be dialogic and responsive in nature. Dini et. al. have written at length about the formative assessment practices of experienced chemistry teachers noticing, interpreting, and acting based upon student responses to the Volcano probe, a formative assessment developed by the ACCT leadership team. A paper about the process is hyperlinked in the references below.


1. Dini, V., Sevian, H., Caushi, K., & Orduña Picón, R. (2020). Characterizing the formative assessment enactment of experienced science teachers . Science Education, 104 (2), 290-325.

2. Murray, Stephanie; Huie, Robert; Lewis, Rebecca; Balicki, Scott; Clinchot, Michael; Banks, Gregory; Talanquer, Vicente; Sevian, Hannah, (2020).  Exploring Teacher Noticing, Interpreting, and Acting in Response to Written Student Work. Manuscript under revision for Journal of Chemical Education.