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Using an Activities-based Approach to Teach Science to Students with Learning Exceptionalities

Updated: Nov 11, 2017

​I have learned that it is best if we refer to students with special learning needs as students with learning exceptionalities, and not use the term disabilities because our focus as educators are not disabilities, but on abilities; it is not what students are not capable of doing, but rather what they are capable of doing because each student is unique and has their own genius

1. Look at the student prior learning profile - possible IEP

2. Do a diagnostic assessment of your own and talk to the student and previous teachers or parents to find out how student learns best

3. Implement a universal design for learning - simple organizational and teaching steps that benefit everyone 

4. Talk to learning support

5. Special accommodations, extended deadlines, differentiated tasks, opportunities for differentiated assessment (oral vs. Written), instructional support technologies (Chromebook, Chrome Text-to-Speech, Siri App on iPads), 

6. Engage the student — appeal to multiple intelligences, vary instructional strategies, less writing and text, short clear instructions, big ideas, flipped classroom style videos student can use at home at their own pace, study guide, crash course one-to-one instruction, more visuals, animations, Simulations/Gizmos, ….

7. Chunking, planning support, table of contents, learning logs, self-diagnostic checklists (novice, learned, expert)

Content-oriented approach that focuses on learning vocabulary and factual text-based info through textbooks and teacher-directed presentations such as lectures/presentations requires the students have certain levels of reading, writing, and memory skills - hence students with learning challenges/disabilities may not benefit and get low grades.

Solution: Activity-based approach (hands-on, multi sensory experiences and materials)

Reduce reliance on textbooks, lectures, knowledge of vocabulary, and pencil-paper tests.

Lessen the language and literacy demands

Eg. If learning about electricity - have them build circuits

Eg. If learning about earth science - have them create models out of papier-mâché

Flexible groupings - peers disability/non-disability (peer-supported learning) - cooperative learning groups

Maintain a lab journal, disseminate a checklist

Engage by relating science to students’ personal experiences and to general societal problems: practical, civic, professional, recreational, culture events - relevant to students’ background and experiences

Students can investigate socially significant problems like water supply, weather, pollution, nutrition, solar energy

Conduct problem-solving activities that address community-based problems

Field-trips and ‘virtual field trips’ can offer direct experiences and authentic tasks

Videotaping field trips - subsequently viewed and discussed in class discussions with other students who were not able to make field trips

TALK/LISTEN - talking to students with learning disabilities — have them join after school clubs like the chess club, etc… give them voice, show/recognize that you notice them … can have huge effect (my personal firsthand experience from past 2 years of teaching)

Organize instruction around ‘Big Ideas’ and interdisciplinary/cross-curricular themes (discovery learning)

Instructional technologies - flipped, multimedia, texts, sound, animation, video, graphics


Instead of pencil-paper tests student performance employs authentic performance and student-centered assessments

Performance and student-centered assessments seek to connect assessment and instruction and involve students in examining the process and products of learning

- creating and making things

- developing projects

- solving problems

- producing written products

- responding to simulations

- giving presentations

- conducing investigations

- designing and performing experiments

Eg. Water Pollution

- use local water samples collected by students, do lab analysis, present findings to local community group, create webpage/blog summarizing results

- portfolios, journals, learning logs, think-alouds, self-evaluation questionnaires, interviews

Portfolios are archival in nature, they can have products selected by both students and teachers over the course of time

Portfolios are continuously examined by students, educators, families to reflect upon and document the students’ growth, effort, attitudes, and processes they use to learn science

Journals and learning logs offer students chances to react to and reflect on their learning and to develop their skills at communicating successfully

During or after learning activity, student writes entries in the journal/logs that address:

1. What they learned

2. How they learned it

3. What they do not understand

4. Why they do not understand it, and

5. What assistance they would like to receive 

Meta-cognition - thinking about learning 

The info collected from the above can be in turn used by us educators to devise instructional strategies that help students become better learners.

Below is a sample student learning log I like to use. I first came across this idea during my practicum at Medway High School in Arva Ontario in 2014.

Taken from my presentation on sharing best practices in September 2015 during the annual regional conference at Halmstad Sweden.


Ministry of Education. (2000). Individual Education Plans. Standard for Development, Program Planning, and Implementation. 

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