Red alert

11th June 2004 at 01:00
Rebecca Hewlitt tries out a group activity that helps pupils identify their revision needs

Anyone who has ever been an assistant examiner will tell you that it is hard work, and that with every paper you mark (especially after the 300th mention of Starling's foreign policy) your grip on sanity becomes weaker.

It is also, however, one of the most useful things you could do as a teacher of GCSE history, as it gives unsurpassable insight into what we are actually meant to be teaching and how this will be assessed.

Once allowed into the inner sanctum of examining bodies, you can appreciate that the chief examiner is not an evil tyrant seeking to find that obscure clause of the Treaty of Trianon you forgot to teach on a wet afternoon in April, but rather she is looking to give your students every opportunity to express what they know. The process of reading, understanding and using mark schemes truly gives you a new grasp of "what they are looking for".

Peer assessment allows pupils to share in this process.

As part of the Government's Standards site, Lynn Davies of Millthorpe School in York writes that pupils often seem to regard assessment "broadly as an experience whose purpose is fundamentally summative. The process of assessment (is) perceived as a means by which they could be informed of how well or badly they had managed to carry out the tasks set by the teachers".

She goes on to comment that pupils see assessment as something done by experts (the teachers) and that they have little part in it. Pupils also tend to disregard formative comments and focus on the grade given. I have noticed this in my own teaching. Pupils can become fixated with grades and be more interested in how many merit stickers they can collect than with how they can potentially improve.

Both Lindsay Von Elbing, in the teacher's guide to the recent Think History! key stage 3 series (Heinemann), and Lynn Davies exhort the use of "traffic lighting". This involves pupils being given a partner's piece of work to mark along with a mark scheme. They grade sections red, yellow or green depending on how well they feel their partner has completed that part of the task. This forms the framework for a discussion between them on how well they can improve and enables them to pinpoint their own strengths and weaknesses.

I tried traffic lighting for the first time with my Year 10 group. We were using last year's Modern World paper to revise for a practice examination.

The question we were studying asked pupils to discuss the relative importance of the Bosnian and the Moroccan crises in causing the the First World War. We used the traffic light concept in two ways. First, I asked the class to get into small groups and brainstorm all of the causes that they could think of. Then I asked them to colour-code the causes according to how comfortable they felt with their subject knowledge on that topic.

Immediately it became clear that many knew their dreadnoughts but had underlined the Moroccan crisis with red pen - the place to do extra revision. We also revised topics that had been marked "amber", but not in as much depth, and brushed over our "greens". This instantly provided me with an excellent way to tailor our revision programme to the specific needs of the class.

Once we had done this they tackled the question under exam conditions. The following lesson, I distributed the answers and they swapped papers around within their groups. I put the mark scheme on an OHT and distributed a simplified version to aid the less able. They then used the traffic light idea to mark which parts of the question were done well and which parts needed to be looked at again. We decided that overall we were good at narrative accounts of what had happened but that we sometimes failed to reach a conclusion that assessed the relative importance of causes.

It was remarkable how beneficial this process was. Pupils were able to talk critically but constructively about their own work and the work of others using phrases such as "You did this well but need to do this to improve next time". They grew in confidence as the session progressed and were able to explain assessment criteria and look at an examination question and pinpoint how they felt it should be answered.

This exercise showed pupils that grades are not just plucked out of thin air but that there are skills that the examiners are looking for. It enabled me to see where my students felt their strengths and weaknesses lay. Perhaps most importantly, as Lynn Davies notes, "pupils felt that pupils of all abilities could improve". Traffic lighting gave them the confidence to look at their work with a critical eye and pinpoint for themselves just how they could do better next time.

* For more information see Lynn Davies' article at: .uk ntrplibword893255 Inside the Black Box: Raising Standards Through Classroom Assessment by Paul Black and Dylan William of King's College London School of Education

Rebecca Hewlitt is head of history, Windsor High School, Halesowen

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