Say what you see to win the formative assessment prize

15th January 2016 at 00:00
Like the gameshow Catchphrase, questioning learners effectively is all about building a bigger picture

In the early 1990s, my Saturday evenings generally consisted of shouting catchphrases at the television to the beloved Roy Walker. My favourite part of Catchphrase, the show he presented, was the bonus round where contestants would, after guessing a saying correctly, press their button to reveal one of nine squares that were covering a cartoon depicting another catchphrase.

Unless they were extremely lucky, the contestants needed to remove majority of the squares in order to get enough information to guess the phrase correctly. This is akin to using formative assessment in the classroom – no, stay with me…

I’ve been fortunate enough to observe a lot of lessons, and one thing seems to be the weapon of choice for many teachers in their use of formative assessment to elicit evidence of learning. In my opinion, this weapon is relatively ineffective, yet so many draw comfort from using it. What is this weapon? It is the question that is thrown out to the group with little thought from the teacher. For learners, it is a case of survival of the fittest, with only the quickest and most confident answering. It is here that we have a problem.

Ask a question in this way and you will check the understanding of one, maybe even two individuals in the class. That’s comparable to revealing a single square from the Catchphrase board; you will have gleaned very little information to help you solve the puzzle. If you move on with the delivery of the class at this particular point, there may be learners in the class who still have misconceptions, and this could impact on their future learning.

As Paul Black and Dylan Wiliam put it in their 1998 paper (see box, opposite): “Teachers need to know about their pupils’ progress and difficulties with learning so that they can adapt their work to meet their needs.” Therefore, without conducting a broad assessment of learner understanding, we are at risk of not gathering enough evidence of learning, and thus not being able to meet learner needs.

So what methods might we use to conduct a broader assessment and create a bigger picture of learner understanding?

Pose, pause, pounce, pass

This questioning strategy sees the teacher pose a question to the whole group. They then pause for about 10 seconds, allowing all learners to formulate a response, before pouncing on someone to respond. Of course, this only gleans information from one learner, so without giving the correct answer away, the teacher must then pass to another learner to give their response and so on. This method can prove far more effective than the rather problematic questioning approach described earlier. However, it can also be quite timeconsuming and should be used with care.

Think, pair, share

This involves learners being given a key question or problem based on their learning. They are asked to think about the problem individually for a while, before discussing their thoughts with a partner. In this way, they can hone their response together to share with the rest of the group. The problem here is that we don’t know who contributed what to the answer within each pair. But once again, if we are trying to build a bigger picture, this goes someway towards doing that.

Hinge-point questioning

For this, you should prepare a number of multiple-choice questions that are pertinent to the topic, then use them at a transitional point in the session between activities. Learners must answer questions simultaneously, either on mini-whiteboards or by holding up a certain number of fingers that match the answer. This approach does give a broad assessment of learner understanding, but you need to plan questions with care so that the learner is only able to reach the correct answer by using the relevant thought process for that task.

As with the methods above, no matter how many squares are eventually removed from the Catchphrase board, there is always the challenge of being able to interpret what’s on the screen. Just because all learners respond, it doesn’t mean that we have accurate evidence of learner understanding. It does, however, provide us with more information that can support us in moving learners forward.

Dan Williams is an FE practitioner in the Midlands

Simple strategies

There is a wealth of research supporting the use of formative assessment to improve learner achievement, as synthesised by John Hattie’s 2009 book Visible Learning.

No research has been more pivotal in education circles than Inside the Black Box, released by Paul Black and Dylan Wiliam in 1998. The authors define formative assessment as “all those activities undertaken by teachers, and by their students in assessing themselves, which provide information to be used as feedback to modify the teaching and learning activities”.

Nine years on, Wiliam and Siobhán Leahy identified five pillars of successful formative assessment:

Clarifying, sharing and understanding learning intentions and criteria for success. In essence, sharing the direction of learning and how their success will be measured.

Engineering effective classroom discussions, activities, and learning tasks that elicit evidence of learning.

Providing feedback that moves learning forward.

Activating learners as instructional resources for one another.

Activating learners as owners of their own learning.

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