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  • Writer's pictureJames Kerr

Gizmos by Explorelearning: Online Lab Assessments

Updated: Sep 22, 2019


Explorelearning has developed a set of online gems for teachers who have limited lab equipment and lab space. The online lab genre is graced with online interactive simulations that mimic real life lab environments. Providing a wide range of lab activities, “Gizmos” have been designed based on state standards in specific science disciplines and organized by school year or class specialization. For example, in Physics or Physical Science instruction, an online pendulum lab can be used to observe and measure data for a simulated swinging pendulum.

How it works:

Students must have an account. A user code and password are provided to every student in a lab. The teacher selects the Gizmo that is appropriate to the instructional goals. Students need access to a WIFI or Ethernet signal. The assessments are not timed, so students can operate the Gizmo at their leisure. Each Gizmo comes with a form called “student exploration sheets,”where data and student reflections are recorded. A series of scaffolded learning events include a warm-up designed to tie the learning to former student knowledge or understanding, followed by two or three activities that are directly related to the gathering of data and description of measurable relationships.

The Gizmo can replace a live lab. Supplies are not required. No set up or take down time is necessary, and lab safety is not a concern. The labs simulate the process that a student would encounter in live lab situations. Students use tabs within the Gizmo to set variables to observe and record interactions. The simulations respond to the variables as though a live lab had been observed.

At the end of each Gimzo, a five question quiz is provided to inform the student and teacher of growth and understanding of learning goals. The quiz provides immediate feedback to the students and includes thorough explanations for the answers of each of the questions. Students may access all of the information gathered in the Gizmo to answer the quiz questions. Students may also return to re-consider the content of the Gizmo data after taking the quiz. The results of the student online quiz are also immediately available to the teacher, including the quiz score with a listing of correct and incorrect answers.


The "Period of a Pendulum" Gizmo provides an excellent example of UbD (Understanding by Design). The teacher guidelines include a clear set of goals. These goals are then employed to inform the backward design. There are usually two to three active learning activities in a Gizmo. An introductory activity is designed to allow students to share or apply what they may know in advance about the assessment based on personal context or prior knowledge. This introductory activity is useful to the teacher as it may reveal significant student misconceptions as well as prior knowledge. The activities that follow are designed to foster growth toward the assessment learning goals. As the first activity unfolds, the student is actively participating in an inquiry process designed to lead to eventual mastery of the learning goals. The teacher gathers evidence from the student responses, which suggest how to guide and assist the learner’s next steps toward mastery. This formulative asessment is consistent with research conducted concerning enhanced learning:"Teachers need to know about their pupil's progress and difficulties with learning so they can adapt their own work to meet pupil's needs - needs that are predict and that vary from one pupil to another" (Black and William,1998, pg.140). Each Gizmo activity builds on the successful completion of prior activity.

The backward design of this assessment demonstrates a clear progression toward the stated learning goals. The complexity of the activity increases from the introductory activity through the completion of the Gizmo. Students build one skill or understanding to support the next rung of understanding in a progression towards mastering the learning goals. Each step of the formative assessment provides essential questions and fields to record evidence of understanding of the learning goals. The sequence of learning is an essential component of learning in the Gizmo activities and is consistent with learning theory: "In order for assessment to play a more useful role in helping students learn it should be moved into the middle of the teaching and learning process instead of being postponed as only the end-point of instruction"(Shephard, 2000, pg.10). In designing the assessment, the Explorelearning designers also provide a supportive list of vocabulary words and definitions which may be provided to the students. The Gizmo computer-based assessments make many more question types possible. These questions can be more complex than most paper-based assessments. The formative assessment does not require students just to select an answer or a word definition.The format requires students to provide the evidence and reasoning needed to support their answers to those questions. (Larson, 2019)


Gizmos are recommended as a highly effective tool to develop greater in-depth student understanding. The online labs engage students in active inquiry. The online formative assessment meets many of the parameters of best practice for design described by Wiggins and McTighe (2005). The Gizmo online assessments: 1) clearly define what the learner needs to achieve, 2) set a pathway for what the students need to do to achieve the formative assessment goals (what the student should be able to know, do and share), and 3) suggest guidance for the teacher to assist students in reaching those goals.

A conceptual framework for making sense of facts and skills is provided in each Gizmo. Initial activities can be used by the teacher to assess both student misunderstanding and preexisting knowledge. The student exploration sheets contain a sequence of assessments that include essential questions and evidence of growing student understanding. Knowledge and skills can be demonstrated and recorded on these sheets. Gizmo designs afford built-in extended learning opportunities that may be selected to demonstrate transfer of understanding.

The design of the Gizmos affords the teacher an avenue to reach students who have difficulty interacting in small groups. The Gizmos do not require social skills to achieve the formative assessment goals. Additionally, the format allows for extended time and flexible time for students with special needs. The Gizmos do require students to be able to utilize a keyboard to support the learning experience.

Digital Context:

This online digital assessment genre is portable. A lab setting is not required to complete the assessment. The online lab genre affords significant support for learning goals. Teachers can use the Gizmo as a replacement or as a possible supplement to a live lab when supplies, lab space or equipment is unavailable.

The "Period of a Pendulum" lab experience should be part of a larger unit that includes an overall discussion of acceleration. In the provided sample, the development of kinematic equations to represent the motion of the pendulum would follow this assessment in a progression in a unit devoted to the concept of acceleration. The teacher guide provided by Explorelearning includes multiple resources that could be used to extend or transfer the learning from the Gizmo in a follow up activity. The use of the Gizmos does require internet accessibility. A "one to one" access to hardware is recommended. Gizmos are designed to be accessed via multiple platforms.


Black, P., and William, D., (1998), Inside the Box: Raising Standards Through Classroom Assessment, The Phi Delta Kappan, Vol. 80, No. 2, pp. 139 -144, 146-148.

Larson, P., (2019), Prepare for computer-based assessments with Gizmos. Retrieved from

Shepard, L.A., (2000). The Role of Assessment in a Learning Culture. Educational Researcher, Vol, 29, Issue 7, pp 4-14.

Wiggins,G and McTighe, J., 2005, Understanding by Design, Alexandria, VA. Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

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