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Figure 1. Selection from the "Illustration" section of a student's BOSSO. Download the entire example.

What's a BOSSO? — Laura

I began teaching eighth grade science at Princeton Charter School seven years ago and inherited binders full of excellent ideas developed by previous teachers of the course. There were interesting and original lab activities, relevant readings, and assignments. I was encouraged to adopt and adapt anything useful, and to develop my own material as well. I also had the guidance of the previous teacher, Mr. Mark Schlawin, who was still at the school and now teaching other courses.

Incoming students often asked me, “Are we still going to do BOSSOs?” At first, I wasn’t sure what they were talking about, but quickly learned what BOSSOs are, and how valuable they are in helping students organize their ideas. BOSSOs are now both routine and legendary at my school. For 20 years, students have been completing them as individual homework assignments in seventh and eighth grade, and sometimes using simplified versions in fifth and sixth grade as well.

How BOSSOs began — Mark

I developed the BOSSO assignment structure when I discovered how difficult it was for students to organize their study of a new topic. Often, they would complete the “study” of a text section without any real understanding of the material and with minimal retention of what they had read. The BOSSO structure helped them focus on what was most important and to organize the rest of the material around that main idea. It is a poorly-kept secret that BOSSO stands for “Bunch of Science Stuff Outlined.”

To my surprise, students generally loved to do BOSSOs and would spend a significant amount of time completing them, especially when they learned they could draw cartoons, make models, invent historical dialogues, or otherwise use their creativity. While the assignment could be completed adequately in about 20 minutes, some students chose to go all-out and took pride in their pursuit of excellence. Students have reported back from high school and college that they still use something similar to the BOSSO study tool they learned to do at Princeton Charter School.

Ms. Celik enhanced my original version by making illustrations compulsory, compelling students to handwrite their assignments, and better enforcing the rules for “Big Picture” and “Cool Details” sections.

The rules for BOSSOs

BOSSOs must be handwritten to increase retention of the information. The article, “The Pen Is Mightier Than the Keyboard: Advantages of Longhand Over Laptop Note Taking,”1 summarizes several studies that highlight the great efficacy of handwritten notes over those taken on a computer. The handwritten requirement also helps to thwart thoughtless cutting and pasting from the web or from other students.

A BOSSO is comprised of seven sections:

1. Big Picture — What is the overall idea of the section, expressed in one sentence?

Students summarize the textbook section or article with one meaningful sentence. For example, students write “Matter is the ‘stuff’ that surrounds us, which has mass and takes up space,” instead of something like, “This section is about matter.”

2. Big Ideas — What are the specific important ideas?

Students list the important supporting ideas in the reading in the form of bullet points. Depending on the length and content of the reading material, the teacher provides a minimum and maximum allowable number of Big Ideas (usually from four to six). This section requires students to determine what is most important and separate that from supporting facts. The maximum limit is imposed so that they do not blindly replicate everything in the text.

3. Cool Details — What are interesting facts related to the Big Ideas?

Students list supporting details and unusual or entertaining facts that are related to the Big Ideas. They use bullet points, and list three to five interesting details. The Cool Details can come from the assigned reading, or be researched elsewhere. This section is valuable because it allows students to share highly engaging examples, while also realizing these are the details, and not the most important overall concepts.

4. Scientist — Who made the discoveries or applied the knowledge? Who works in this area today?

Students find one scientist whose work relates to the reading. They can find a scientist mentioned in the reading, or in another printed or online source. Students summarize the contributions this scientist made in their own words, and properly attribute the source. This section should be one short paragraph. It should focus on the scientist’s work, and not their personal life. Students should not print or copy directly from the Internet. They must provide a different scientist for each BOSSO they submit throughout the year. (Yes, we keep track! One way of doing so is to have student names as the first column in a spreadsheet and assignments name as column headings, with scientists’ names entered below. The amount of typing can be minimized by using the autofill feature available in most spreadsheet applications. Since a particular assignment will have a small number of obvious scientists, the number of unique entries will be modest.)

5. My Life — How does this material apply to students in their own lives?

Students describe a way the chemistry concept in this section personally relates to them. They may write a story of how they experienced one of the Big Ideas firsthand. They can also describe something they saw or read about the topic in the past. Students should be encouraged to be as specific and thoughtful as possible. They are discouraged from saying something empty like, “I’ll need to know this for high school.”

6. Terms — What are the important terms and their definitions?

Students list the vocabulary words in the section along with short, flash-card length definitions. If the reading material is a textbook section, the obvious terms are usually the bolded vocabulary words. For an article, the teacher can give a list of terms or tell the students that they have to find a certain number of important terms.

7. Illustration — How can one of the Big Ideas be best illustrated?

Students choose at least one of the Big Ideas and draw a picture or diagram that helps explain that concept. Students are encouraged to add labels to aid comprehension. Illustrations must be the student’s own drawings, and not copied from the Internet. Sometimes illustrations make more sense threaded throughout the assignment, instead of appearing in an isolated section, and this is encouraged.

Quality, handwritten BOSSOs generally fit onto two pages. They are not about length, but rather identifying what is important as concisely as possible. Diagrams, pictures, and equations are all appropriate for BOSSOs and can be used throughout. A student handout of the BOSSO guidelines is available for download and teacher use.

Figure 2. Selection from a student's BOSSO. Section 6, “Terms” and section 7, “Illustration,” are included in the example. Download the entire example.

How to implement BOSSOs

BOSSOs are assigned as homework roughly once a week. Students are required to read a relevant textbook section and to complete a BOSSO summarizing it. BOSSOs have also been assigned in conjunction with ChemMatters articles, online reading assignments, and newspaper articles. They can even be used with online videos.

The first introduction of BOSSOs may be overwhelming for your students. Providing them with printed guidelines and walking them through examples helps. After the first BOSSO is collected, we suggest projecting images of successful BOSSOs from your class for all students to see, and then praise what they have done correctly. Have students share what they think the difference is between a Big Idea and a Cool Detail, how to write about a scientist, and what makes for a good My Life section. Discuss the challenge of saying something meaningful in the one-sentence Big Picture statement.

One good approach for early BOSSOs is to have the students grade their own papers while discussing the criteria as a class, and then ask whether anyone would like to rewrite their assignment for the next day. Most students are very tough on themselves and are eager to improve their work.

After students have completed two or three BOSSOs, they will become comfortable and more efficient with the process. BOSSOs are an excellent assignment for last-minute substitute-teacher plans, since students only need their textbooks or online resource, and already know how to structure their work.

BOSSOs are generally graded as a homework assignment worth a small number of points. Because they follow the same structure every time, you can quickly become very efficient at grading them.

Modifications and MegaBOSSOs

BOSSOs are required to be handwritten by all students. However, depending on your student population, those with special needs may be given an alternative to this expectation, such as permitting them to be typed.

Some students will find the BOSSO format to be challenging. You can adapt the BOSSO by creating a template, with certain components already in filled in. Simply adding the section headings, bullet points, scientist name, and vocabulary words to the paper can make the BOSSO a lot more manageable for these students.

Once students are well-practiced at completing BOSSOs, they are introduced to the MegaBOSSO. These are assigned roughly every two months to accompany particularly rich reading assignments. MegaBOSSOs often have a higher minimum number of Big Ideas (and higher grade weighting) than an ordinary BOSSO. Students can turn in an amplified traditional paper BOSSO, but they are encouraged to do something more creative. Any format is welcome, as long as it includes all the sections and content. MegaBOSSOs can also be completed with a small group, if this facilitates a more complex project.

For MegaBOSSOs, students have created comics that cover all seven sections in a clever way. They have made slideshows and YouTube videos, created Kahoot quizzes, made crossword puzzles, and created written tests with answer keys. They have also made posters and models, written Python programs, designed web pages, and created TikTok videos. They have performed dances, songs, raps, and demonstrations for the class. One student even set BOSSOs as graphic-novel Shakespearean dramas. The main direction for the MegaBOSSO is to be creative while not leaving out any of the information. The day MegaBOSSOs are due, be sure to set aside class time for willing students to present their work. Frequent reminders about assignment deadlines are invaluable.

You will be surprised at the creativity, energy, and joy with which many students undertake BOSSOs. At Princeton Charter School, they have become a potent and frequently-used tool to help students organize their learning following a reading assignment. We know they can be useful in your classroom, and hope they become embedded in the culture of your science program.


  1. Mueller, P.; Oppenheimer, D. The Pen Is Mightier Than the Keyboard: Advantages of Longhand Over Laptop Note Taking. Psychological Science. 2014, 25(6), 1159–1168. Available online at https://linguistics.ucla.edu/people/hayes/Teaching/papers/MuellerAndOppenheimer2014OnTakingNotesByHand.pdf.

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