Friday, April 6, 2012

Claim Evidence Reasoning

By far, the biggest shift in my teaching from year 1 to year 7 has been how much emphasis I now place on evaluating evidence and making evidence-based claims.

I blame inquiry. Not inquiry in the generalized, overloaded, science teaching approach sense. Just the word. "Inquiry."

Even now, when I hear the word "inquiry" I still think mainly of asking questions and designing experiments. A bad side effect of thinking in this way was that I would spend far too long having students ask questions and design experiments and very little time evaluating evidence and generating claims. On good days, when we miraculously got cleaned up before the bell, I might have spent 10 minutes at the end of class telling students what they were supposed to have figured out and students would answer questions like, "Explain how you know mass is conserved in a chemical reaction." (Answer: Because you just told me by asking that question.)

We were very busy and very engaged and learned very little.

There are a few structures I've been using to help shift the focus on the class to analysis and argument. One of them is the claim-evidence-reasoning framework. I'm not sure who the originator was but most of what I do came from Katherine McNeill who has published a ton on it. She wrote a book too.1

Claim-Evidence-Reasoning (pdf and pdf) is a framework for writing scientific explanations. Occasionally I use it as a probe in the style of Paige Keeley. After most labs, students are asked to write about a paragraph worth in this format and a more extended version when we wrap up a unit.

 As part of their lab handout they get a prompt that looks like this:

As the year goes on I remove most of the scaffolds until ultimately the students just get a prompt or question.

I've been happy with it. There's a fourth step, Rebuttal, which I've never gotten off the ground. 

I like frameworks a lot. I like having specific language I can refer to over and over. In a typical initiate-respond exchange, I follow-up by ask students for their reasoning. When students want to whine or talk back to me, I get to ask them, "What is your evidence? How does that evidence support your claim that I'm the most annoying teacher in the world?" (Evidence #1: The fact that I ask that question.)

The key to implementation is that the structure of the class really has to be designed around C-E-R. Even if I'm just direct teaching something, I need to model how to think about the evidence that led to the claim.

I also give my students a whiteboard format now. It usually looks like this:

I used to structure it in Claim-Evidence-Reasoning order but I realized students would then write their claim before they got their evidence.

McNeill uses C-E-R for essentially everything. Any major idea can be written up in that format. I think the framework works best when students truly have something to argue about. Of course, I'd say that all learning works best when students have something to argue about.

I've had a lot of success with using it when students are constructing the kinetic molecular theory or deciding if mass is conserved in a reaction or not. Why things float or sink was fun. "Is Pluto a planet?" is a good one. A lot of Dr. McNeill's papers are written around a multi-week unit designed around the question, "Are soap and fat different substances?"

I've been happy with the results. We used to spend all of our time just generating data. Now that data is being put to use.


For more on writing, I show up in an interview in ASCD Education Update titled Improving Student Writing Through Formative Assessments. It's only for ASCD members but most of what I have to say is in Managing Feedback.

Addendum: Kirk shared a free NSTA article called Engaging Students in the Scientific Practices of Explanation and Argumentation. Berland and Reiser in particular have written a number of good articles on the topic.

1: I can't fully recommend the book. It's pretty basic and you can find most of the information from googling around for her various research papers. If you're not interested in dealing with that you might want to give it a go.


  1. Thank you so much for writing this! As a second year teacher, I tried to dive deeply into inquiry this year, but made the same mistake of not putting the focus on the evidence, claims, and reasoning, as well as scaffolding that for my students.

    It's so helpful to see a tangible example of how you've implemented the CER framework, and I've also added Dr. McNeill's books to my Amazon wish list.

    Have you also seen the work by Betsy Rupp Fulwiler on a science and writing approach? What are your thoughts?

    1. You know those satellites that just beam down huge amounts of data and scientists try to crowd source it because there nobody can look at it all? That's what my class was like. We were masters of generating unused data. So don't feel bad about it.

      I hadn't heard of Betsy Rupp Fulwiler but I did some googling. I didn't find any overviews, mainly book links. I saw science notebooks, dedicated writing time, sentence frames, and graphic organizers. Anything you think was particularly useful?

      There's also this thing called the Science Writing Heuristic if you're looking for a more in depth framework.

      One of the things I like about CER is its super simple. SWH has got like 10 parts or something. I'd rather just focus hard on a bare minimum and if my students don't learn how to "properly" write a procedure, I'll take that risk.

    2. Its now 2015, a few years after this original post, and I am a second year science teacher. debryc, your words could spill off my own fingertips verbatim and be true for me as well. We're in the middle of the school year, my students just planted beans as part of an experiment to design and analyze their data, and I've already given them their lab report template. The beans haven't sprouted yet. I'm about to write up a new format with C-E-R and have them ditch the old one. This has been frustrating me all year! I'm glad I'm not alone, and I'm SO glad for the internet and its endless wealth of many incredible resources. Thanks for this!!!

  2. Thanks Jason. I too am guilty of spending a huge amount of time in the experiment phase, but as the period is ending, rarely take the time to work on the evidence and reasoning. I really love your idea!

  3. Love this. Once again you have formalized and scaffolded something that was nebulously drifting around in my head. I've been working on the ideas of "argument" and "rebuttal" as well -- especially helping my students think of an argument as a reasoned claim rather than a shouting match (their usual experience with "arguments"). So far the main thing I've figured out is to call them "well-reasoned ideas" or "inferences," and avoid the word "argument" altogether.

    One thing I'm really struggling with is the concept of "logic" or a conclusion following from its premises. It's hard for my students to understand what I mean by this and it's hard for me to explain in other terms. So far, it appears that their definition of "logical" is something along the lines of "familiar" or "what I was expecting." Any suggestions? How do you handle reasoning that is preposterous or that makes leaps of faith?

    Oh yeah, and "what evidence from the model do you have in support of your claim that this is stupid?" is awesome fun. My students are on to it now too -- "what evidence from the model do you have that I am procrastinating?"

    1. Funny. I actually used basically the same terminology when discussing CER with another science teacher about a week ago. We were trying to figure out how to help students with deciding what were appropriate "logical leaps." I've got a few things I've been doing to help the edges of this but I don't have a good frontal assault down. I'll post a longer response in a couple of days.

  4. At the Queens School of Inquiry we do a lot of writing in all subject areas, so this type of writing has been a focus of mine for some time. Until last year I had used a format for writing arguments a lot like the one above for students from 6th to 11th grade and as you said it worked really well.
    Last year, with the introduction of the Common Core, our whole school got together and worked out a single argument writing format based on the Common Core. As soon as I started using the same language and templates as their English and History teachers light bulbs went off and I saw a huge improvement in the quality of their writing. For everyone who is reading this because you are moving toward more writing in your class, I strongly, strongly suggest getting together with your grade-level colleagues, especially the English teachers, and building on the work they are already doing.

    1. Nice Steven! Definitely that'd be ideal. I found your blog at if you (hint hint) want to write anything about that it'd be much appreciated.

      I've had what I'd call exploratory talks with the other departments about unifying our writing but we haven't gotten very far. I'm curious about how you unified the different disciplinary approaches to writing. We didn't get too much farther than "What you call a thesis, I call a claim."

    2. For us it all came together with the Common Core. It gave us a chance to go from thesis vs. claim and 5-paragraph vs. lab report conclusion to...

      •Introduce claim(s) about a topic or issue, acknowledge and distinguish the claim(s) from alternate or opposing claims, and organize the reasons and evidence logically.

      •Support claim(s) with logical reasoning and relevant, accurate data and evidence that demonstrate an understanding of the topic or text, using credible sources.

      • Provide a concluding statement or section that follows from and supports the argument presented. matter the subject. An argument is now an argument.

    3. I originally learned of this framework through the original work of Dr. Joe Krajcik from Michigan. Great research studies and I highly recommend that you read them. I taught this framework in my workshops for teachers for the past several years.

  5. Hi Jason, I'm getting ready to use some of these ideas and came back for inspiration. Do you have any student whiteboards that you can share, as examples? Also, the PDFs linked next to "Claim Evidence Reasoning" seem to be broken. Are there alternate sources that you know of? (I get error messages like "cannot display the embedded font," "not enough data for image," and other cryptic stuff).

    1. I just checked and the links seem to work for me. I don't have any pics on me of any whiteboards. If I can find my camera I'll snap some this week. Also - WHY DO I NOT HAVE YOUR EMAIL???

  6. This is so interesting

  7. Jason, I find your blog by linking from Shifting Phases. Your reflections and ideas are so clear and helpful. We're just implementing the Common Core State Standards in the US, and this post is especially helpful. I nominated your blog for the Edublogs Best Teacher Blog Award: Edublogs Nominations

    Thank your for this information and inspiration! Sheri

  8. I like how you are requiring students to defend their choices, their answers, and their thinking. Hugely important.

    I find "inquiry" a tricky word. One article I've found helpful in helping students develop good questions:

    The biggest shift you've made is that you require students to think critically - and to question others' thinking.

  9. The claims-evidence-reasoning is a pretty good basis for making an argument, but I don't think it's a logical process for figuring out an answer to a question.

    It seems to me that scientific inquiry and problem solving begin with posing a question, evidence is gathered, scientific reasoning using models of the phenomena being studied are applied to the question, and an explanation and answer to the question is obtained. Question-Evidence-Reasoning-Explanation is a better way for inquiry and problem solving.

    By the way, scientific inquiry for students needs to be "guided inquiry". The teacher must guide the students, and ask probing questions along the way to ensure that students are thinking rather than just going through the motions.

    The Question-Evidence-Reasoning-Explanation approach is an expository approach that proceeds in a logical progression to reach (or explain) a conclusion. The difference (between this and CER) is that it doesn't start with the conclusion, which is a backwards argument in my opinion. The argument should start from evidence and proceed with a coherent, well reasoned exposition culminating in the conclusion.