Jim Allison: Breakthrough

Uncovering Representations of the Water Cycle

Contributor: Page Keeley- Science and Children (NSTA)

Type Category: Assessment Materials

Types: Assessment Item, Article

Note: This resource, vetted by NSTA curators, is provided to teachers along with suggested modifications to make it more in line with the vision of the NGSS. While not considered to be “fully aligned,” the resources and expert recommendations provide teachers with concrete examples and expert guidance using the EQuIP rubric to adapted existing resources. Read more here.


This article discusses how to use a formative assessment probe designed to reveal how typical representations of the water cycle have impacted student thinking about the water cycle. For instance, typical representations imply that a surface water body needs to be part of the diagram when it actually does not. The source of evaporated water does not always have to be a body of water.

Intended Audience

Educational Level
Upper Elementary


Access Restrictions
Available for purchase - The right to view, keep, and/or download material upon payment of a one-time fee.

Performance Expectation

5-ESS2-1  Develop a model using an example to describe ways the geosphere, biosphere, hydrosphere, and/or atmosphere interact.

Clarification Statement:

Examples could include the influence of the ocean on ecosystems, landform shape, and climate; the influence of the atmosphere on landforms and ecosystems through weather and climate; and the influence of mountain ranges on winds and clouds in the atmosphere. The geosphere, hydrosphere, atmosphere, and biosphere are each a system.

Assessment Boundary:

Assessment is limited to the interactions of two systems at a time.

This resource appears to be designed to build towards this performance expectation, though the resource developer has not explicitly stated so.

Comments about Including the Performance Expectation

The formative assessment probe described in this article can be used to elicit student knowledge about the interactions between the geosphere, biosphere, hydrosphere, and/or atmosphere and the models used to represent these interactions. This information can be used to assess prior knowledge, and discover possible student misconceptions. Following use of the probe, students could research pictures of the water cycle that do not contain water sources. Subsequent discussion of the sources of evaporated water should take place before students develop their own models. These models could take the form of diagrams, posters or hands-on models such as a soda bottle terrarium.

Science and Engineering Practice

This resource appears to be designed to build towards this science and engineering practice, though the resource developer has not explicitly stated so.

Comments about Including the Science and Engineering Practice

Through the use of the formative assessment probe discussed in this article, students evaluate the components and limitations of water cycle models. They are asked to explain their reasoning for the answer they chose. It would also be helpful if students explained why they did not choose the other two answers, in order to determine any additional misconceptions. The use of this probe could also lead to a general discussion about the limitations of models. How are water cycle models similar to the real thing? How are they different?

Disciplinary Core Idea

This resource appears to be designed to build towards this disciplinary core idea, though the resource developer has not explicitly stated so.

Comments about Including the Disciplinary Core Idea

The formative assessment probe targets models of the water cycle (a process that interacts in multiple ways with the Earth's major systems). The focus of the probe is mainly on evaporation, which involves interaction of the geosphere, hydrosphere, atmosphere, and biosphere. Its purpose is to reveal student misconceptions about often overlooked sources of water for evaporation (the plant process of transpiration, animal respiration, animal wastes, and damp soil). Students can show through drawn models how the water cycle interacts with only one system at a time. The discussion about models and their limitations could be extended by asking students to evaluate these models for what information is shared in each model as well as what is not.

Crosscutting Concept

This resource is explicitly designed to build towards this crosscutting concept.

Comments about Including the Crosscutting Concept

This resource addresses the crosscutting concept of Systems and System Models because students are evaluating the parts of the water cycle system model. Teachers should guide a discussion about the concept of a system to review what students know about systems and system models. Their explanations will lead to ideas and discussions about how the parts of the model interact. Students could create a diagram to compare a system with water present to a system with no water present.

Resource Quality

  • Alignment to the Dimensions of the NGSS: The formative assessment probe allows students to evaluate models that target the disciplinary core idea of interactions between Earth's systems. Their explanations and ideas focus on the components of the water cycle system and the interactions between these components. The three dimensions are implicitly addressed. To improve this resource, teachers might make the disciplinary core idea, practice and crosscutting concept more explicit for students. Students should be encouraged to develop and revise their models with their new knowledge in order to engage more fully in Three Dimensional Learning.
  • Instructional Supports: This formative assessment probe is intended to elicit student content knowledge and potential misconceptions about the components and interactions of the water cycle. It does not provide suggestions for use with diverse student populations. Vocabulary may be unfamiliar to students, so teacher/student read-aloud of probe, or student pairing for reading may be appropriate. The probe is presented in worksheet form, but may be adapted to be completed as a modeling activity.
  • Monitoring Student Progress: The formative assessment probe provides the teacher with an excellent option for determining student understanding pertaining to sources of evaporation in the water cycle and the limitations of models. Students can be asked to revisit the probe (after discussion and further instruction) and then could then create a models to support their revised ideas.
  • Quality of Technological Interactivity: This resource does not include a technologically interactive component.