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March 26, 2021

Using Summary Charts to Press for Evidence and Science Instruction

To the average student, science class feels like a series of disjointed learning activities. They don’t really know why they are learning what they are learning, nor how what they’re learning connects to the real world.

There are two things teachers can do to address this lack of coherence:

  1. Plan each instructional unit around a specific science phenomenon (read more about how to plan science units around intriguing phenomena here).
  2. Use a summary chart to help students keep track of what they learn from their lesson activities and then use their learning to help them explain how and why that phenomenon occurs.

In this blog, I focus on summary charts as a high-leverage tool in science classrooms.

What is a summary chart?


A summary chart is a living anchor chart. After each sense-making activity in a unit, the teacher elicits the following information from students and records it in separate columns of the summary chart:

  1. OBSERVATIONS/FACTS: The most important data or information garnered from the activity/reading goes in this column.
  2. INFERENCES/GENERALIZATIONS: Interpretations about what those data/facts mean and why they’re important goes in this column.
  3. CONNECTIONS/CLUES: Ideas about how what was learned in the sense-making activity helps explain the identified phenomenon for the unit.

Note: Sense-making activities can be labs, demos, readings, videos, simulations, or hands-on activities.

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Why should I engage my students in creating a summary chart in each unit?

  • A summary chart is a record of how student thinking is changing and developing over time as new information is gathered and analyzed. This is precisely how science knowledge is developed in the real world, thus it is important that students use data from sense-making activities to explain, test, and revise their own ideas about science.
  • Keeping track of students learning and evidence from sense-making activities in a summary chart allows students to more effectively create an explanatory model for how and why the unit phenomenon occurs (you can read more about explanatory models here).
  • Summary charts helps students get into the habit of identifying VIPs (very important points), summarizing what they are learning, and using evidence to justify their claims.
  • In order to determine what to write in each column of the summary chart, students need to reach consensus. Engaging students in summary charts is, thus, a prime opportunity to engage them in argument from evidence (a key skill in both NGSS and CCSS).
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8 Tips for successfully incorporating a summary chart into your unit of instruction:

1. Timing: In order to do a successful summary chart or summary conversation, you need to make sure there are AT LEAST 15 minutes scheduled into your lesson. Everything takes more time than you anticipateespecially when it’s the first time you’re doing it.

2. Supporting students to complete each column:

  • Observations Column: Start the conversation by asking students: “What did you observe/measure in the activity?” or “What facts did you learn from the reading?” Note: Students must already know the difference between observations and inferences.To help students focus solely on the data (and not on sharing opinions and interpretations), provide them with stems, such as “ I saw….”, “I measured…”, and things to which they can physically point.
  • Inferences Column: Here, students interpret the facts. Make sure that students are making inferences/generalizations about the specific facts they listed in the “observations” column.Ask: “How do you know?” “Where can we find supporting information?” “What evidence supports your claim?”
  • Connections Column: Last, have students connect the recorded observations and inferences to a real world phenomenon (ideally the specific phenomenon you are using to ground your whole unit).  If you are not yet using an overarching unit phenomenon, start slow by asking them how their learning connects to other situations with which they’re familiar.  Ask students to be specific about the connections between their observations, inferences, and why the phenomenon/real world situation occurs. Avoid recording vague statements.

3. Complete the row of the summary chart as close to the time of the activity as possible.

4. Pre-plan what an ideal summary chart row would look like for each activity by writing out your own response for each column.

5. Prime students for the summary chart discussion: The more thinking that students do during the actual sense-making activity that is aligned with the summary chart, the more efficient the class will be at completing the summary chart row after they complete the sense-making activity.

  • Infuse questions right into the activity that require students to note observations, inferences, and connections. Or…
  • Have students fill out a rough draft of the chart before discussing as a class and coming to consensus about what to write in each column (Sample summary chart with spots for student and consensus answers).
  • Engage students in a think-pair-share as you support them to fill in each column of the summary chart.
  • Show students exemplar summary chart responses and have them make observations about why they are good.
  • Note: Each class period should have it’s own summary chart, so their ideas are the ones made public and not those of the teacher or another class. A summary chart is a record of THEIR developing understanding, not anyone else’s. Tip: Use butcher block paper to create your summary chart and switch it out at the start of each class, so students only see the one they’ve helped to develop.

6. Adapt your summary chart prompts to the particular activity. Readings require slightly different prompts than labs activities. For example:

  • For readings, you might use the heading “Most important facts” (instead of observations)
  • For readings, you might use the heading “What the facts mean” (instead of inferences)

Here are a couple of summary charts with alternative headings:

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7. You can also give students sentence stems to help them generate ideas:

For lab, hands-on, or data based activities:

Screen Shot 2016-02-03 at 12.12.37 PM

For reading activities:

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8. Elicit a few individual or group responses for each column and then have students vote on which is the best response, having justifying why.

For more support with summary charts, check out this MBI “How To” Guide, this reading from the University of Washington, and this TchAUSL video.

Special thanks to Deanna Digitale-Grider and Darrin Collins for co-writing the information in this blog.

Happy summary chart-ing!


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