Core Skills and Criteria

I spent some time at the start of the year trying to decide what kinds of core science skills I would like my students to have. So I brainstormed, compiled a list, tweaked the list, winnowed it down, and finally settled on the following:

Science Skills


  • Safety in the lab (ie Metre sticks are NOT LIGHTSABERS!!!)
  • SI Units and Prefixes, especially µ, n, m, c, k, M
  • Understanding units, and doing unit conversion (cm to m etc)
  • Using the correct tool for a job, including the computer.

Data Aquisition

  • Observing
  • Measuring – how to measure and what to measure, and in what units
  • Significant digits, and relationship to measurement
  • Scientific notation
  • Recording data
  • Identifying, planning for and minimizing error


  • Drawing and interpreting diagrams
  • Reading for content
  • Critical analysis – bullshit detection
  • Identifying causation
  • Tabulating
  • Graphing
  • Using tools (eg spreadsheet) to sort, calculate, and graph
  • Using specific tools – such as Tracker for video analysis

Problem solving

  • Estimating, ball-parking for problem solving
  • Problem solving – GAP Analysis
  • Elegance in problem solving
  • Recognizing the difference between a fundamental formula (eg a law) and a special use (“convenient”) formula.
  • Calculating, using the calculator (eg using E or EE instead of “X10^6” )
  • Algebra – solving for variables
  • Unit analysis


  • Writing for clarity
  • Identifying the different types of reports.
  • Formal report writing
  • Citing sources
  • Expectations – recognizing excellence – exemplars

Science as a process

  • Using scientific models – mathematical descriptors
  • Hypothesiszing/ Predicting
  • Identifying discrepancies in results, as an interesting effect, and a source of discovery –Find the flaws, the fun and excitement is where it *DOESN’T* work!

This is by no means an exhaustive list – it is intended to be a core set of skills. Of course, after creating this list, I had to establish criteria on which student performance in these areas could be assessed. In Ontario (the Canadian province, not the city in California…), the Ministry of Education has established a 4 level scale for assessment, where levels 4 – 1 roughly equate to more familiar A-D letter grades. The levels relate to the criteria, rubric fashion, using the terminology:

  • Level 4 – the student demonstrates the specified knowledge and skills with a high degree of effectiveness
  • Level 3 – the student demonstrates the specified knowledge and skills with considerable effectiveness
  • Level 2 – the student demonstrates the specified knowledge and skills with some effectiveness
  • Level 1 – the student demonstrates the specified knowledge and skills with limited effectiveness

In addition, a remedial level (0 or R) can be set as:

  • the student demonstrates the specified knowledge and skills with little or no effectiveness

All criteria assessment criteria are also categorized under headings of Knowledge/Understanding, Thinking/Inquiry, Communication, or Application. With that in mind, here is my master set of criteria:


  • Demonstrating knowledge and use of units, scales and Prefixes
  • Demonstrating knowledge of pertinent ideas and concepts
  • Demonstrating understanding of pertinent ideas and concepts


  • Inferring pertinent content from written, graphical, diagrammatic, audio or video sources.
  • Observing
  • Identifying, planning for and minimizing error
  • Measuring – how to measure and what to measure, and in what units
  • Recording data
  • Tabulating & Graphing
  • Drawing diagrams
  • Identifying causation
  • Analyzing critically
  • Hypothesizing/ Predicting
  • Problem solving – framing, estimating, analysis, efficiency
  • Calculating


  • Using units, Significant digits, scientific notation
  • Using appropriate terminology
  • Communicating with clarity
  • Demonstrating organization
  • Using appropriate communication style
  • Citing sources


  • Follows safety guidelines in the lab
  • Using appropriate tools and techniques effectively
  • Identifying discrepancies in results
  • Relating subject matter to technology, society and the environment

Feel free to beg, borrow or steal these for your own use. If these are at all of use to you, let me know in the comments section. Alternatively, if you have different or additional core skills or criteria you like to use or feel are most appropriate for your students, I would also love to hear from you.


2 thoughts on “Core Skills and Criteria

  1. Frank Noschese

    I have a collection of scientific reasoning skills I assess my students on via lab notebook checks and lab practials:

    I adapted these from a much larger collection of Scientific Abilities skills put together by the Rutgers Physics Education Research Group headed by Eugenia Etkina. You can find them here:

    Their website is a goldmine. In addition to the rubrics, there are many labs, activities, and problems they use to assess students on those skills. And there is a lot of research behind their work, too.

    As a time saver, I have compiled all of the scientific abilities rubrics (pdf) into a master rubric in Google Docs. Feel free to download and modify for yourself:

    My questions for you: Do you use a standards-based grading system? Do you assess students on all the skills you listed over the year? How does it factor into their grade, if it does at all? Thanks!

    1. ed Post author

      Those are great resources – thanks for sharing!
      To answer your question, the terminology we use here is a bit different (don’t you just love that?). We have overall expectations, and specific expectations. All specific expectations must be addressed, but how they are addressed is up to the teacher. Summative evaluations must address the overall expectations, though any combination of specific expectations can be used to address an overall expectation.
      With me so far?
      Assessment is criterion referenced, not norm referenced, but the criteria are not ministry mandated standards, so again we have the freedom to set our own criteria to assess the expectations. The list above is my attempt to generate a master pool of criteria that I can draw from at any time.
      If you want to have a look at how the expectations are structured, the curriculum document for 11 & 12 Sciences is here


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