Ask questions and learn from mistakes

23rd April 2004 at 01:00
Assessing children's understanding can be more beneficial if the results are used to improve their learning, writes primary teacher Lesley-Jayne McKean

What is formative assessment? This was the question my primary colleague and I asked ourselves when our headteacher approached us about participating in a pilot study to look at a variety of teaching strategies aimed at introducing formative assessment into our classes.

We soon discovered that what we had been doing was summative not formative assessment. In other words, we tested children to find out how much they had learned but rarely used the results to improve their learning. Formative assessment was to change our way of thinking and our teaching.

For example, it is reported that teachers give children on average only 0.3 seconds to answer a question, with the result that the same children respond all the time. By waiting up to 20 seconds you will find that other children put up their hands to answer. Initially the wait seems uncomfortable but the more you practise, the easier that silence becomes.

A great follow-up strategy to this is "Think, pair, share". This allows children to discuss the answer with a partner before replying to the question. It gives the less able pupils a feeling of achievement when they answer.

A further strategy in maths is using a child's wrong answer. How often do you ask a question and move from child to child until you are given the correct answer? Why not stop at the wrong answer and get that child to explain how he or she reached it. Chances are there are a few others in the class that have also got the sum wrong. What you may find is that as the child explains their answer, he or she will spot where they went wrong. If they don't, ask a child who has the correct answer to explain how they reached it.

I have created an environment where the children know that it is all right to be wrong and you can actually learn from mistakes.

These strategies do take up more class time but in the long term the children's learning is greatly enhanced. At my last parent's evening, I had a parent say that their child finds maths much easier this year, as we are always going over things and having to explain how to do it. That, to me, spoke volumes on the effectiveness of formative assessment.

Marking in class, with the children, also allows them to see where they went wrong without having to try to remember what they had done. This, too, takes time in class but they actually learn more as a result and you have less work to do at home.

I do, however, still take in their books to check weekly and have a "dialogue page" where they can highlight any difficulties privately.

A most effective and easy method of assessing children's understanding instantly is a traffic light system. Full understanding is a green light, shown by hands in the air; partial understanding is an amber light, hands on shoulders; little understanding is a red light, shown by folded arms. I am amazed how honest children are.

Another useful strategy, which is probably the most difficult to introduce, is questioning. "Open" and "closed" questions we call them in upper primary, requiring "fat" or "skinny" answers. I have looked at a variety of questions children ask at the start of a new topic and at developing the questions to get more detailed answers. This is an ongoing process but should have a positive outcome.

I also put up the learning outcomes for lessons as questions, the idea being that the children should be able to answer the questions by the end of the lesson.

My teaching is more focused and the children's learning enhanced due to the immediate feedback of formative assessment. The strategies are generally simple yet extremely effective: try them.

Lesley-Jayne McKean teaches at Longniddry Primary, East Lothian

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