Modeling in Science Instruction

With the shift toward three-dimensional teaching and learning that the Next Generation Science Standards requires, the Crosscutting Concept of Modeling has become a major focus of my instruction.  I use a process that involves revisiting the same model at least three times in a unit to support students’ growth in this area.

Each unit starts with a puzzling phenomenon that can be fully explained by the concepts covered in the unit. Students observe the phenomenon in a video clip or demonstration, then draw a concrete model of what they observed. For more complex, multi-step phenomena, I give them basic drawings of the areas to focus on; they can add details to these drawings.

Once they have a complete drawing, they label and describe what they think is happening and why. These initial models are often basic and full of misconceptions. I find this very informative because I see exactly what they know and understand at the start of the unit.

Students have an opportunity to give and receive feedback using sentence stems on their initial models.  Each student is given stickynotes and asked to provide at least one positive and one constructive comment for three different students. Examples of positive sentence stems are “I like how you…” and “When you did _____, I could really understand it.” Some constructive feedback stems are “The part about ____ is a bit unclear”  and “You could…” or “Have you thought about including …?”

Over time, the students learned how to use the feedback they gave to others to improve their own models. After the feedback round, students were able to add to their own models before turning them in.

At the halfway point of the unit (about 5–10 days of instruction), students revise their initial models using a writing tool in a different color. They are encouraged to cross out things they now think are incorrect and add new things they’ve learned. They must also add to their written description of what is happening at each step. I encourage them to work with partners/small groups to enhance their current understandings.

At the end of the unit, they are given a blank copy of the model and must repeat the whole process once again. At this point, they should be able to fully explain the phenomenon, clearly showing what they learned from the unit. 

With a range of students from Level 1 English language learners to Highly Capable students, differentiation is needed so all students will succeed with modeling. The primary modification I use is providing a word bank for all but the Honors-level classes. This helps students remember to include all of the necessary parts.  Directions with descriptions of all the steps help them as well. 

I allow students needing the most support to simply label the drawings using arrows and the word bank, rather than writing a paragraph. They are still able to show their understanding of the concepts without getting bogged down in the language.

With the multiple model iterations of the complex guiding phenomena, I am able to assess students’ understanding of the unit and how their understanding changes over time. The mid-unit revisit allows students to be more cognizant of how their own understandings have changed over time.

I also use other models throughout my units. The most common one is smaller phenomena related to the larger one. I often use these as warm-ups, and they all help build understanding of the guiding phenomena. Students will draw what they see and describe what is happening.

For the Electric and Magnetic Fields unit, the guiding phenomenon was a magnetic hourglass. To fully explain why the “sand” behaved the way it did, students needed to incorporate information from the previous units, as well as the current one. Throughout the unit, I played video clips centered around the Performance Expectations of MS-PS2-3 and MS-PS2-5. With these clips, I asked students to make a simple drawing with labels of what they observed, then briefly describe why the materials behaved the way they did.

For the Energy Unit, I taught students how to use Google Sheets to do energy calculations as they entered the data and how to use that data to create graphs modeling the relationships among mass/acceleration/force/energy. They were able to manipulate the data without obsessing about the calculations. This made seeing the relationships easier for them.

The most important part of Modeling for me is to make their use very explicit to the students. Usually students think models are things like 3-D scale models of cars or trains. By showing them that models can be drawings, graphs, or equations, they are able to use modeling as a powerful tool in their own inquiry.


Erinn Olson is a middle school science teacher in the Peninsula School District in Gig Harbor, Washington. She previously taught middle school math and science at Mountain View Middle School in Bremerton, Washington, where her activities included teaching Project Lead the Way, working on the regional science and math leadership teams for  10 years, and serving as the school lead for Common Core Math and implementation lead for the NGSS. She also serves as a leader for the Boy Scouts of America at Cub, Troop, and District Levels. Olson grew up in Salem, Oregon, and holds a Bachelor of Science degree in behavioral science and a Masters of Arts degree in education from Oregon State University.


This article was featured in the August issue of Next Gen Navigator, a monthly e-newsletter from NSTA delivering information, insights, resources, and professional learning opportunities for science educators by science educators on the Next Generation Science Standards and three-dimensional instruction.  Click here to sign up to receive the Navigator every month.

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1 Response to Modeling in Science Instruction

  1. Brenda Royce says:

    I wonder if we do students a disservice by referring to equations, diagrams, or graphs individually as models since all three may be describing important features of the same phenomena in order to be able to explain it. Do we have multiple explanations (models), or multiple representations of the model? In my teaching experience using models for teaching over the last 20 years (long before NGSS), it is often when the students see the shared information and explanation in 2-3 different representations that brings out the deepest understanding. I can see using fewer representations with younger students, but believe we should help students see how various representations can bring illumination to our understanding of the how and why behind a scientific phenomena.

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