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Standards-based assessment and Instruction

Science 3-5

Learning About Magnetism, Part 1: What Do You Know About Magnets?

Using the materials provided and others you may find in the room, you and your partner will observe and investigate magnets and how they work. Use your observation sheet to write and make labeled drawings about what you learned and to record a testable question you have about magnets.

Grade Level

3 - 5

Big Ideas and Unifying Concepts

Cause and Effect

Physical Science Concepts

Properties of Matter
Motion and Forces
Transfer and Transformation of Energy

Time Required for Task

45 minutes


This task was developed as a means to pre-assess what students already know about magnets. This exploration was done at the beginning of a unit on magnetism in the 4th grade. Prior to this, students had investigated static electricity, and after the unit on magnetism, would be investigating electricity. This task also allowed the teacher to continually assess the students' ability to record through writing and drawing what they were learning. At this level, more sophistication in what and how students record their observations should be expected. Students have also had prior experience with testable questions and how to frame them. The questions they pose will help guide later investigations. (See Part 2 in this issue of Science Exemplars.)

What the Task Accomplishes

This task is used mainly for instructional purposes and to pre-assess students' prior knowledge and experience with magnets. It can, however, be used as part of the on-going assessment process to assess students' growth in their ability to record their observations using labels, words and pictures as well as the types of testable questions they frame.

In this context, it was used to introduce the idea of magnetism to students, draw out prior knowledge and misconceptions, and to give students the opportunity to "mess" around with magnets to investigate how they work.

How the Student Will Investigate

This investigation began with a whole group discussion about what students knew about magnets. Ideas were recorded on the board. This was a means to see what students already knew about the concepts of magnetism. Then, students worked in pairs to explore the materials and to record their observations and testable questions. Students were encouraged to use as much detail as possible in recording observations. Once students were finished observing and investigating, they came back together as a group to share their observations. These observations were then recorded on the board and expanded upon as the unit on magnetism progressed.

Interdisciplinary Links and Extensions


Students had many questions about magnetism. These student-generated questions can be investigated as time permits. It is important to let students try to find answers to the questions they have. It is also a good way to teach students how to plan and conduct simple investigations. I often use a planning sheet to help students that includes the following:

  • Our question.
  • Our prediction/hypothesis.
  • How we will test and the materials we need.
  • Our results (data collection).
  • Our conclusions.
  • New questions we have.

Investigations are more meaningful and relevant when the questions posed come from the students. Suggestions for guiding students through investigations are included in Part 2, in this issue of Science Exemplars.

History of Science/Social Studies

Students can research how magnetism was discovered and how it affected scientific thought. Students can also research how magnets are used today. Students can present what was learned to the class.


Once students are engaged in learning about magnets, they can use and practice a number of mathematical concepts - such as: measuring distance (how far away can I put a magnet so it still attracts something?); measuring weight (how much weight in paper clips does the magnet hold?); and measuring time (how long can these objects stay attracted to the magnet before they fall off?).

Teaching Tips and Guiding Questions

Some possible guiding questions to ask students before, during and after they investigate include:

  1. What ideas do you already have about magnets?
  2. What are some things you're not sure about yet?
  3. What things could you try with the materials we have?
  4. What materials look interesting to try?
  5. What did you observe?
  6. Did you try it several times to see if it always happens in the same way?
  7. What ideas do you have about what happened?
  8. How can you show through drawing and writing what you observed and what happened?
  9. How would you describe what happened?
  10. What did you learn from this observation?
  11. Did anything surprise you? Have you changed your mind about something as a result of these observations?
  12. What new question do you have after doing this observation?
  13. Is your new question a testable question? How can you make it a testable question? What would you test?

Concepts to be Assessed

(Unifying concepts (big ideas) and science concepts to be assessed using the Science Exemplars Rubric under the criterion: Science Concepts and Related Content.)

  • Physical Science: Observing physical properties and characteristics - Properties of magnetic and non-magnetic materials can be observed and used to make predictions and classify materials. Only some materials (actually, the iron in some materials) are attracted to magnets.
  • Physical Science: Motion and Forces - A magnet has an invisible force field which can "go through" some things or continue to attract an object depending on the distance between them. Magnets come in a variety of shapes and sizes (horseshoe, bar, round, etc.) and have a variety of uses, but work in similar ways. Unlike poles of magnets pull (attract) and like poles push (repel) each other.
  • Physical Science: Transfer and Transformation of Energy - Energy is a property of many substances and is associated with electricity and magnetism. Energy is transferred in many ways.
  • Observing and explaining cause-effect relationships, with some justification, using data and prior knowledge, when variables are controlled. (Cause-Effect)

Skills to be Developed

(Specific science process skills assessed using the Science Exemplars Rubric under the criteria: Scientific Procedures and Reasoning Strategies and Scientific Communication/Using Data.)

Observing, Predicting, Using prior knowledge, Collecting and recording data, Testing materials, Analyzing results, Drawing conclusions, Communicating findings, and Raising new questions.

Links to Science (and other) Standards

  • Scientific Theory: Students look for evidence that explains why things happen, and modify explanations when new observations are made.
  • Physical Science - Properties of Matter: Students describe and sort objects and materials according to observations of similarities and differences of physical properties.
  • Physical Science - Motion and Forces: Students observe and record the effects of a magnetic field on objects and how they react. Forces can act "at a distance" and can cause objects to be pushed or pulled.
  • Physical Science - Transfer and Transformation of Energy: Energy is a property of many substances and is associated with heat, light, electricity, mechanical motion, sound, nuclei, and the nature of a chemical. Students observe and record the effects of magnetic and non-magnetic materials and combinations of materials.
  • Communication: Students use verbal and nonverbal skills to express themselves effectively. Students interpret and communicate and use mathematical, scientific and technological notation and representation.
  • Problem Solving: Students use reasoning strategies, knowledge, and common sense to solve complex problems related to all fields of knowledge.

Suggested Materials

  • Recording sheet (for each student to complete)
  • Crayons, markers, colored pencils for recording and drawing diagrams
  • Variety of shapes and sizes of magnets (bar, horseshoe, wand, ball magnets,bingo chip magnets, etc.)
  • Paper clips and other metal items (screws, nails, keys, foil, coins, etc.)
  • Materials (such as wood, Styrofoam, plastic) that are not attracted to
  • Magnets
  • Measuring tapes and rulers

Possible Solutions

In this task, the teacher will be looking for how well the students recorded and communicated their observations, as well as the observations made. Because this is a pre-assessment, there are no incorrect observations; but misconceptions may be noted in what the students record that can be used for future instruction planning during this unit.

A correct solution will include a detailed drawing with labels, written observations about what they did and what they learned, and a new testable question about magnets.

Task Specific Rubric/Benchmark Descriptors
Click on a level for student example.
  • A drawing is included to show what the student observed; however the drawing lacks detail and labels.
  • The observation is confusing and not clearly explained or described.
  • No conceptual vocabulary is used to indicate any prior understanding.
  • A new question is given, but it is unclear and not a testable question as written.
  • A drawing is included to show one thing the student observed. The drawing has some detail and includes some labels.
  • An observation includes what the student observed and learned. Although no science vocabulary is used, there is some evidence of beginning understanding of the concept of a magnetic field.
  • A new question is given that could be tested; however, the student's observation could already answer this question.
  • A drawing is included to show what the student tested and observed. The drawing is detailed and includes labels and measurements.
  • Observations include what the student observed, measured, and learned.
  • Science vocabulary (opposites attract, north and south "sides" of magnets) is used, indicating some prior and/or conceptual understanding.
  • A new question is given that could be tested.
  • Several drawings are included to show many of the things that the student tested and observed. The drawings are very detailed and include labels.
  • Observations include what the student observed, the results of testing ideas, and what was learned.
  • Science vocabulary (north and north and south and south "push" away, attracts, electrical charge) is used appropriately, indicating use of prior and/or conceptual understanding.
  • A new question is given that extends the observations that the student made and links to prior knowledge.

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