Thumbs up if you understand me

9th December 2005 at 00:00
David Henderson reports on the evidence so far from research into Assessment is for Learning, Scotland's unique attempt to bring about cultural change in the classroom

Simple classroom techniques such as waiting longer for answers and encouraging pupils to give the thumbs up if they understand what they are doing are paying off handsomely in formative assessment projects, a study by Dundee University researchers has found.

Pupils in the final two years of primary not only improve their learning but also make "statistically significant" gains in self-esteem and self-confidence, both vital qualities as they make the transition to secondary.

David Miller and Fiona Lavin of the university's education faculty studied 370 primary 6 and primary 7 children and 16 teachers over four months in four east of Scotland authorities to find out if formative assessment techniques led to improved motivation and self-esteem. All previous British studies have shown attainment improves when assessment is more closely linked to actual learning in class.

Using a package of questionnaires and interviews directed at pupils and teachers, the researchers for the first time have shown small to large gains in self-esteem, self-worth and self-confidence. In interviews, teachers and children talked about changing attitudes towards work.

Boys improved more than girls because of the teaching strategies, while the gains were greatest for the most and least able groups.

Mr Miller, senior lecturer, said: "As well as improving children's learning, formative assessment also improves how they see themselves as learners. It's no good telling children they are succeeding. If you want to have an improvement in self-esteem, you have to give them opportunities to do better. Improved self-esteem comes through getting better at things and almost all the improvements in self-esteem come through self-competence."

Pupils, particularly boys, changed as they saw themselves differently as learners. One group identified by teachers as starting the year with a negative view of their abilities made at least twice the gains of another group. Their overall self-worth had improved.

Chalkface voice


* "I wasn't really interested in work . . . now it's cool."

* "I used to get confused more - but now I'm better at figuring it out."

* "I used to wait for the teacher (when I was not sure) but now I feel I want to give it a try."

* "I used to try to finish quickly but now I try to do my best."

* "Well, I suppose I used to think I was best . . . I was always first . .

. but now I think about it more, and make my best effort."


* "There is a huge training issue with a new class."

* "Even the more confident ones learn more about the bigger picture, and they realise they can improve too."


Formative assessment techniques can include waiting longer for answers, to allow time to think; traffic lighting (green, amber or red: pupils understand something, are reasonably confident about it, or not all); self and peer assessment (exchanging jotters); sharing learning outcomes with pupils (or WILF - what I'm looking for); and comment only marking. Open questioning is another dimension.

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