‘I want to learn how to see inside the heads of my students’ Dominique, Toamasina
Halfway through term, Mr Robert has been teaching great lessons to his class and expects them to do very well in school examinations. The class are enthusiastic about their studies, highly engaged and are his favourite class. And then in the exams, there is a shock! The class achieve terrible scores and are lacking in basic knowledge and understanding. Mr Robert is shocked and complains: ‘How could they not have the basic knowledge and understanding that they seemed to be learning so well?’
Does this problem sound familiar? Why do you think Mr Robert was so wrong?
What went wrong?
The main problem was simple:
- Mr Robert thought that because his class were enthusiastic and engaged, they were learning. He had not measured how much they were learning.
- Because the lessons were going so well and were fun, the students thought they were learning well and so didn’t need to revise much for the exam.
Students were learning, but not as much as they needed to.
- Assessment helps students to gain confidence because they can see they are learning new things.
- Students can self-assess their learning using a list of things they should be able to do. Students can then study things they don’t know.
- Assessments make students review learning, which strengthens their memories.
- The teacher uses assessment to ‘see inside the student’s heads’ to see what they have learnt, and what they haven’t. Using this information teachers can work to improve the teaching of difficult topics and provide extra assistance for struggling students.
- End of year and government assessments compare students with a nationally accepted standard.
Types of assessment
There are three main types of assessment:
- Assessment that gives you and students immediate feedback, called formative assessment.
- Assessment that is in the form of a test or practical work, set by the teacher or school.
- National or end of year examinations.
Assessment that gives you and students immediate feedback – formative assessment
Formative assessment is very valuable. In formative assessment, students quickly find out if they were successful in a task. And teachers quickly learn if their lesson was understood by students.
This knowledge is powerful. It helps students to reinforce correct memories and highlight incorrect ones. It helps teachers identify what students find hard, things to review or that they need to teach another way.
What are examples of formative assessment activities?
Think Pair Square Share:This was discussed in the Active learning chapter. During the part where the groups share their ideas with the whole class, you can assess what the groups are thinking and give feedback to the group about right and wrong answers and why.
Thumbs: This was discussed in the Active Learning chapter. The teacher can see how well the whole class understands and then explain the correct answer.
Admit Slips: When students enter the room, every student receives a slip of paper. There are questions written on the board that test knowledge from a previous lesson. Students write their name and answers on the paper.
Once most students have finished (don’t worry if the slowest students don’t finish), review answers and feedback by one of:
- Choose a few slips at random and check the answers. Tell the class the correct answers as you go along.
- Mark all the slips and store the marks in the grade book.
- Have students swap slips and mark them.
A large class could be split into groups with one slip per group. This reduces marking and gives students the chance to learn off each other.
Questioning one student: In this activity, you choose a student in class and ask them a question. Useful when you want to move quickly through the lesson as many other activities take longer. However only one student is involved at a time. When doing mathematical problems, I ask individual students to explain the solutions. Take care to ask students who are quiet as well as the enthusiastic ones who always put their hands up.
All shout out: Particularly useful when teaching languages or new words, ask the whole class to answer questions verbally at the same time. The question needs to be easy and with a one-word answer. The volume from the class will tell you if the students know it! It is also a useful exercise for practicing pronunciation – students need to be able to pronounce a word before they vsn learn the meaning.
Exit slips:The same as entry slips except students fill them in at the end of the lesson. Choose questions to help students review the lesson. For example, ask students to write: Name; What I learnt today; What I found interesting; A question I still have about the topic. Read the slips to assess what the students learnt.
Students assess other students (peer assessment): In a large class, marking can be challenging. However, there is good news: you don’t need to do all the work of assessing students. Students can mark each other’s work. Given clear instructions on how to mark, students will do a surprisingly accurate job. A couple of examples are:
1) Students sit a short test.
2) Students swap their test with another student. You clearly explain the answers and how to mark the paper. While you do this the students mark the test. Questions that are hard to mark such as essay questions can be marked by students and reviewed later by you.
1) Ask students to write a paragraph, describing the city of Toamasina in English.
2) Ask students to swap the paragraph with another student and correct any errors they see.
3) Students return the paragraph and discuss the marking in pairs. If there are any questions, they should ask their teacher.
Give students descriptive feedback: In order to improve, a student needs more than ‘3/10’. You need to write a little to help them, such as ‘3/10. Revise fractions’. The comment has to assist the student in knowing how to improve. Remember positive feedback is important e.g.: ‘8/10. Big improvement’.
Use Mini-whiteboards, or a slate: A great way to assess a whole class is by asking students to write an answer to a question on a slate. Once everyone has finished, ask them to hold up their slates. I often pick a slate and ask the class to tell me ‘what is good about the answer’ and then ‘what could be improved about the answer’. If you have a large class, you could do this activity in groups where each group has a slate. Students learn from each other and you’ll have many less answers to read.
Fist to five: In the active learning chapter, we discussed using fist to five for a whole class to answer questions. Use the results of this to assess how students are performing.
Self assessment: The same as peer assessment, except students mark their own work. Both self-assessment and peer assessment help students to engage with test review and shows them how an exam is marked. This helps them do better in future exams.
Watch body language of the students: The body language (how a student sits or looks) can tell you if the students are engaged and following the lesson, or are lost, daydreaming or asleep. Do the students look as if they are following your lesson?
Tests set by the teacher or school
While formative assessment should be carried out in almost every lesson, tests are things you do less often.
Carried out correctly, tests serve many purposes:
- A review of recent course material that strengthens memories.
- Gives students an incentive to review work they recently studied.
- Allows students and teachers to identify things they are good at and things they need to study more.
- Provides students the opportunity to complete questions like final exam questions.
- Makes teachers think about what they expect students to be able to do.
Teaching science with Mercy Ships I saw students for about four hours a week. I would carry out the following tests:
- A small test that takes 15 minutes on Thursday every week. Students like routine and remember to revise for tests that are on a regular day.
- At the end of each topic have a longer test that takes about 40 minutes.
- Have a practice exam a few weeks before any major examinations.
My tests would contain questions that cover the key points the students needed to know from the current topic. About half the marks came from questions asking students to recall facts or demonstrate simple understanding. The other half were harder questions requiring problem solving, short essay answers or skills from the upper levels of Bloom’s taxonomy.
I also performed occasional practical assessments where students would carry out an experiment, draw graphs of their results and analyse what the results meant and how to improve the experiment.
When giving a test, always give students a few days’ notice and details of the part of the course you will examine. Then students can go home and prepare for the test.
Discuss with a partner: What sort of tests do you carry out in your subject? Do you think you should change the tests you do? Why are tests important?
Common types of test
Written tests: In written tests students write down their answers. The test score is judged by what they have written. The questions are written on the board or printed on paper. Written assessments suit most subjects. However, for practical subjects like woodwork or cookery, they can be unhelpful. Someone can be an outstanding woodworker or chef yet be unable to read or write.
Listening and Spoken tests: These are mainly used when teaching foreign languages, though also suit practical subjects where students may not be able to read and write. In these tests students’ ability to understand what is said in a foreign language and speak the language is tested. This is very important as listening and speaking is key to effective interactions in a foreign language.
If the class size is small, a teacher can find time to talk to each student while the rest of the class are given written work. But how can spoken assessments be carried out with a huge class? Here are some ideas:
- Choose a text in the language being taught. Write some questions for students to answer that shows their understanding of the text. Then read the text to the students two or three times, and have the students write answers to the questions. Mark their answers.
- Students translate sentences you say. Mark their answers.
- Ask students to talk about a topic in groups. Each student should spend some time speaking. Ask students to grade each other’s speaking.
- Ask a few students a question and grade their answer. You could ask the class to discuss what was good about their answer and how they could improve. If you do this with different students every lesson, after many lessons you will have a grade for every student.
Reading tests: Students read a text written on the board or printed on paper. They then answer questions about that text.
Practical assessments: For many students, doing something physical is a wonderful way of connecting theory with real life. Practical work – science experiments, creating art or playing sport is important because much of what students will do throughout life is practical.
Art is more than copying pictures accurately. The best artists create new work that is different to what has been created before.
In science, there are lots of experiments you could do without specialist equipment, for example:
- Investigate what floats or sinks in water.
- Test for starch using iodine solution.
- Plant a fruit tree or other seed and measure its growth. Then plant the fruit tree somewhere and watch it grow until they can eat its fruit! Assess the students based on the quality of their observations of growth, drawings and any conclusions they draw.
- See my website http://www.mada-enseignants.org for more science teaching ideas.
Assess students based on their success in carrying out the experiments and the quality of the experimental writeup.
In sport, you could assess by watching one student for five minutes in a game. What do they do well? How could they improve?
Homework activities: Homework exercises are great review exercises for students. Remember that students can talk to other people and read their notes when completing homework. This means a student achieving 20/20 in homework might not understand the topic.
Marking student tests accurately and fairly and quickly is very important. There are some key things to note with marking:
- Return student work quickly. It is little benefit for students to receive marked work they completed months ago.
- Make sure you have a clear mark scheme that students can understand. That way both you and students know what is expected.
- It is possible students may give a different, correct answer that you have not thought of.
- If lots of students misunderstand the question you have asked, your question might be unclear, and you must award marks for the students’ understanding of the question.
- When you mark some work, try to include encouraging comments as well suggesting how to improve on a piece of work.
Reducing marking workload
A common mistake is for teachers to feel they must mark everything a student does. This is not true! However, for every activity students must know how well they have done and how to improve.
Some alternatives to teacher marking are:
- Students mark their own work. The teacher explains the mark scheme clearly.
- Students swap their work with other students. Each student marks another student’s work.
Having students mark the work has huge benefits:
- When discussing the answers to the test (which must be done), the students are actively engaged in checking to see if answers are correct.
- You don’t have to mark the work of the whole class.
- Students get to see how other students have answered questions, and if the answers are good they can learn from them.
- Students develop a better understanding of how tests in your subject are marked.
There are a few drawbacks:
- You must be prepared to enter into discussion with students about the mark scheme. Sometimes they may have a correct answer you didn’t think of, or they may need help deciding if an answer is correct.
- Some questions are very hard to mark. For example, essay questions. Teach students how to mark these, but it is good to mark them again yourself, so students have confidence that they received the right grade.
- It is essential you mark the most important tests yourself.
A few other thoughts
In my experience, cheating does occur but is uncommon. Deal firmly with any students that cheat, for example fail a cheating student and give them a resit exam
If students know that the purpose of a test isto show them their strengths and weaknesses, then they may be less inclined to cheat. Don’t get angry if students haven’t succeeded, unless they have not prepared for the exam. The important thing is what the students do with failure. After a test, students could write down the things they need to improve, and how they will improve their studies.
National or end of year examinations
It can be months before the results of this type of assessment are released to students. Therefore, these assessments do not assist students in the learning process, however they do allow a government to assess the ability of students and provide a certificate for suitably strong students.
You have little control over these examinations, so this section is short. It is essential for them to remain as corruption-free as possible, and you must do everything in your power to ensure that students cannot buy their way to success in government examinations. As soon as it is easy to buy an examination, the qualification loses its value.
If you mark, invigilate or set national examinations, be careful to work with integrity and encourage others to do likewise. Don’t use inside knowledge of the upcoming national exam to your student’s advantage or allow cheating.
Is 50% always a pass? Is 90% always a top grade? I don’t think so! If a paper is tough, 80% might result in a top grade, because there were many very challenging questions. Once you have been teaching a few years, you can use your experience and judgement to work out if a paper you have written was easy or hard. You could then increase the scores for all students if the paper was hard or reduce them if it was easy. If you give letter grades e.g. ‘A’ or ‘D’, you may wish to change the score required to get a grade depending on how hard the paper is. In class exams you should expect students to get grades a little below what they will achieve in a final exam, as they will have more practice before the final exams.
A few other thoughts about assessment
Students could write their grades down and track their performance to see if they are improving.
Your school team should design assessments carefully. Keep them safe and reuse them. You should not need to always be writing new assessments. Keep important examinations that you intend to reuse secure by not allowing students to take their papers home.
Assessment is a very important tool that helps teachers and students know how well they are doing. Used correctly it can make your teaching and students much more successful.
1) What new ideas has this chapter given you?
2) What will you change in your teaching because of this chapter?
3) Try out some new formative assessment techniques in your classes this week. Which techniques worked? Which ones didn’t?
4) Critical thinking: Think about your national examinations.
a) Write down five good things about them.
b) Write down five things you’d like to see improved.
5) Critical thinking: Do you think the current examinations system in your country works for all types of student?