Effective assessment to close the gap…

It is inevitable that there will always be a gap between what we teach the students and what they actually learn.  All of the evidence from cognitive science shows that students forget the vast majority of what they learn because as they travel from lesson to lesson, what has been learned in one class is ejected from the working memory to make sufficient space to process the next lot of information that is coming their way.

This is why effective assessment strategies are absolutely essential to effective teaching and learning.  It is the only way that we can know which specific bits, from the vast amounts of knowledge children encounter, are being stored in long term memories and which bits need to be retaught or revisited.  And as with so much of teaching and learning, effective assessment practices will yield greater gains for disadvantaged learners who are more likely to fall behind their peers.

Thankfully, it is no longer ok for teachers just to accept that some children will learn less than others during a lesson – we start with the premise that all children should be able to learn the planned content: some of them might need additional support to do so; some might take a little longer- but teachers have a duty to ensure we do everything we can to help children to learn the knowledge that we have identified in our curriculum models.  The only way we can know what the knowledge gaps are is through effective assessment.

Assessment is of course a tricky thing to get right…  As teachers, we have to balance doing what we believe is best for the learning of the students, complying with whole College policy and meeting the expectations of parents.

There are several reasons why assessment can become ineffective:

  • Teachers rely too heavily on collective responses and generalised sense of student success rate
  • Teachers allow volunteers to dominate feedback, giving us a skewed perspective of what children know
  • Teachers spot learning gaps but don’t act to close them because we are focused on getting through content
  • Teachers can be too quick to accept that only ‘some’ students will learn all of the content of the lesson
  • The least confident students get caught in the flow and gaps in knowledge can grow
  • Learning gaps can go undetected for too long

But happily there are several approaches that can give teachers really useful data about students’ learning, allowing us to act incisively.

Assessment can be separated into three categories:

  • Within lessons
  • Between lessons
  • End of a sequence of lessons

Assessment within lessons

Perhaps the most difficult but most important aspect of assessment is checking for understanding when lessons are in progress.  There is so much going in a classroom at any one time and the demands on teachers are undoubtedly huge.  We need to explain, model, motivate and manage all at the same time -and then on top of all that, we need to create opportunities to check that all children are actually taking on board what we are teaching.

Retrieval tasks

A large number of teachers at Torpoint are now routinely using retrieval activities at the beginning of lessons in order to activate prior learning and ensure students remember things we have previously taught them.  These short retrieval sessions represent an excellent assessment opportunity, but it is easy to miss the chance to gather data about learning gaps and reteach problem areas.  After students have fed back their answers to the retrieval tasks and self assessed, simply asking the students to raise their hand if they scored 3/5 is a great way to identify the gaps.  Once the students have raised their hand, the teacher can choose a student to ask them which question they got wrong; this can then be followed by asking the class “who else got this wrong?” and based on the number of children who raise their hand, the teacher can make a quick decision about whether to reteach this specific point.  It is important to remember that simply hearing other children feedback the correct answer is unlikely to do much to address misconceptions, and moving on regardless of the fact that some children don’t know something, perpetuates the achievement gap.  Although it may feel like we need to get on with the lesson content, filling gaps as we go is far more manageable in the long term than waiting until further down the line and realising that some children simply don’t know enough to succeed.

Asking questions

In his Principles of Instruction, Rosenshine found that “The most successful teachers spent more time in guided practice, more time asking questions, more time checking for understanding, and more time correcting errors”.  But he also found that a common error that teachers make when checking for understanding is “as­suming everybody understands because there are no student questions”. Just as misleading is what Rosenshine describes as asking the cleverest students questions and then assuming “that all the class either understands or has now learned from hearing the volunteers”.

It is important to remember that it does not matter how well you explain something, some children will not fully understand, but when we ask: “Everyone understand?” “Anyone got any questions?” we are unlikely to get any response from students.  Simply changing the question to: “XXX what have you understood?” or  “ZZZ summarise what I have just told you?” is a far more effective way to assess student understanding.

Multiple choice questions are also an excellent way to assess students’ understanding of a key concept or idea because they allow us to get an answer from every single student in the class.  You simply display a question on the board and offer students four potential answers to choose from: ideally 1 answer should be clearly correct; 2 should be clearly wrong; 1 should be wrong but plausible if they have misunderstood what has been taught.  Students can then be asked to display a number (either on a mini whiteboard or by holding up their fingers) and the teacher can scan the whole class in seconds to assess understanding.

Big questions instead of learning objectives/ progress targets

A big question is an effective way of setting out what you want children to learn in a lesson- i.e. we would want all children to be able to answer the question by the end of the lesson – and again in the future.  I think the great thing about starting a lesson with a big question is that it makes assessing how many children can answer it really easy.  It also makes future retrieval quizzes really easy as at the end of a sequence of 5 lessons, all of the big questions can be displayed as a retrieval quiz to assess how much has been understood and retained.

Live feedback

Feedback at the point of task completion is probably the most impactful.  During silent working time, the teacher can circulate the room and give specific advice to students.  Teachers can display work under a visualiser and narrate what makes a piece of work good or what needs improving. Doug Lemov refers to this process as Show Call and argues that an environment in which student work is routinely displayed creates a strong incentive for all students to produce high quality outcomes.  The great thing about Show Call is that it enables the teacher to guide ‘actionable analysis’ – i.e. to feedback to the students specifically what makes this a successful piece of work.  The key to success here is to explain one thing at a time and then allow the students to apply that one thing to their work before moving on.  It is easy to display a piece of student work, talk through half a dozen aspects that make it good and then tell the students to try and apply these to their writing.  The likelihood of success here is low as students have far too much to remember and process.  Acting on one piece of feedback at a time is far more likely to be managed successfully.

Assessment between lessons

Looking at the work that children produce in their books is absolutely essential to effective teaching.  We cannot gather data about learning and what needs to be taught next without regularly checking work in books.  However, in recent years written marking has become something of a Sisyphean task.  I have regularly carted home piles of exercise books and spent hours writing very specific advice to students about how to progress.  I have then set tasks for students to do (linked to my feedback), allowed them lesson time to read my feedback and complete the task- and then the next day marked the books all over again to check if they have done the task I set.  Add to this, filling in tracking sheets and progress checklists and the whole process becomes hideous.  And to make it worse, there is very little evidence to suggest that extensive written feedback has any positive impact upon student learning.  The fact that written marking can take a huge amount of time and not be very useful has led me to seek out ways to better use my time.

I think two of the best bits of advice I have read are:

‘The secret of effective feedback is that saying what’s wrong isn’t enough; to be effective, feedback must provide a recipe for future action.’   Dylan William

“Done well, whole-class feedback is much better at providing this recipe than traditional written comments.”    Daisy Christodoulou

The reason I spent so many hours writing on students’ books was because I was trying to give my students the recipe for future success – the problem was that all of my students were novice learners and most of them couldn’t process the advice in a written form- they need to be guided by an expert.  Whole class feedback has therefore been a revelation to me and I have written before about my beloved little assessment and feedback book in which I make clear notes about the learning needs of my students.

I am not suggesting that WCF is a magic wand – and there is no more evidence to suggest it in itself raises attainment more than writing on books, but I am certain that it has allowed me to communicate the recipe much more effectively.  As with Show Call, through WCF, I can lead actionable analysis – specifically explain to students exactly what to do to improve a piece of work.  Again this is most effective if delivered step by step rather than expecting children to act on half a dozen pieces of feedback.  Whole class feedback also allows me to design instructional sequences and learning episodes; I can spot a gap in understanding, reteach that concept or idea and present children with a task to do to practise applying what I have taught.

The other great thing about WCF is that the time I save writing on individual books, allows me to carry out comparative judgement.  This simply involves looking at two pieces of work and making inferences about learning by comparing them.  In particular, it is highly effective to look at a student who has been very successful and one who has been less successful and draw out the difference between what one knows compared to the other- spot the knowledge gaps.  These areas can then be prioritised to be retaught to stop the attainment gap getting so big that it becomes difficult to close in the future.  It can be tempting to move on regardless because we don’t want to waste time for children who do ‘get it’, but I think it is worth remembering that there is a great deal of evidence from cognitive science to suggest that overlearning is positive; even if some students in the class have already grasped a concept, repeated exposure/ practice will increase long term retention.

To be clear, I do still write on student books because I have spoken to my students and they like it- but the bit they like are the praise comments – when I identify for them what they have done well.  The point is that I now write a lot less.  My general rule is: “will what I intend to write here be understood and acted upon by the student?”  “Is this student going to benefit (either in regards learning or motivation) by what I am about to write?”.  If the answer to either of these questions is ‘yes’ then I will write in books; often I conclude that what the student needs is for me to design an instructional sequence to reteach them something.

Assessment at the end of a sequence

Once students have completed a unit of lessons, we need to complete a more formal assessment to ascertain how much has been learned.  At this point effective test design is imperative to effective assessment.  There are several reasons why end of unit tests can be ineffective:

  • Unnecessarily seek to replicate exams
  •  Use language that hinders student  understanding
  •  Expect students to produce vast amounts of   writing
  •  Create so much for the teacher to read that it is hard to draw inferences about what the misconceptions are that prevent success
  •  Allow too much subjectivity and variation

All subjects are different: an all through subject like maths is likely to have assessments that are very similar to exam questions, but in a subject like English, asking KS3 students to complete exam responses is unnecessary and can hinder the inferences we can draw about learning and knowledge gaps. Knowledge quizzes are a great way to create assessments that get to the heart of what students know and and allow teachers to see exactly what students can do.

In the English department, our knowledge quizzes are divided into 4 sections:

  1. Knowledge recall – questions are designed to test understanding of key concepts (e.g. what is a tragic flaw)
  2. Vocabulary recall – questions are designed to test students understanding of what words mean and how to use them in context
  3. Reading – questions require students to read an unseen text independently and demonstrate understanding.  Questions are sequenced to represent increasing challenge (e.g. question 1 will assess ability to summarise content whereas others will assess ability to comment on word choice etc)
  4. Writing – students are asked to complete a 200 word writing challenge, linked to the text types they have studied and use linguistic features they have learned.

We are still refining these assessments, but they already make it so much easier for me to not only see what my students have got wrong, but also unpick the underlying misconceptions that I need to address.

When designing tests for students it is also important to remember that learning is not the same as performance:

“Learning refers to relatively permanent changes in knowledge or behavior. It is — or at least should be — the goal of education. Performance, on the other hand, refers to temporary fluctuations in knowledge or behavior that can be measured or observed during (or shortly after) instruction.”    Nick Sorderstrom

A test that only assesses students on the content they have recently learned is less effective than one that also tests their recall of content taught earlier in the year. If we focus too much on assessing what we have just taught we get a skewed perception of learning/ attainment/ progress. We therefore need to create assessments that are cumulative and return to previously taught content.

Cohort referenced feedback

There is evidence to suggest that providing feedback to students that allows them to easily compare their performance with that of their peers is more motivational than if they compare their performance against a future target grade.  For example, a school in Spain reported a 5% increase in grades when students were given the class average alongside their own grade, and when 1,000 children in Sweden were  given relative gradings – student performance was significantly higher. https://rebeccaallen.co.uk/2019/04/24/grading-game-part-i/

There are potential problems with cohort referenced feedback:

  • Some studies have found that it motivates students with below average performance but can create apathy in students with above average attainment
  • Students have to believe that increased effort will improve performance in the future or else they will become demotivated by being below the class average
  • This can lead to ‘Self-handicapping’ in which students deliberately withdraw effort to protect their self-image

I therefore think that publicly sharing student attainment with the class is risky because it threatens to undermine student motivation; however, I have also found that students really enjoying knowing the class average (as a mean) so that they can compare their own performance.  I have also found that displaying the top 5 attainers on the board is an effective way to prevent apathy in students of above average attainment as they love doing well enough to get their name on the board.

It is clear that highly effective assessment is tricky, but hugely worthwhile because it allows us to narrow the gaps at every stage of teaching and decrease the attainment gap between those who excel and those who struggle.

2 thoughts on “Effective assessment to close the gap…

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