Back in the 1980’s my A level History teacher gave away ‘the secret’ of examination success in the first five minutes of our introductory lesson. It was a ‘Golden ticket’ he said, that would guarantee us success in two years’ time. As you may imagine, my class of 12 or so were all ears. On a 16 Year old’s logic we could get the secret, do nothing for two years and then pass with a Grade A at the end of it. Great!!
But what could lead to this examination Eldorado? We all leaned a little closer to desk almost as if the secret could not leave the room lest it be lost.
“The secret is… ” the teacher paused looking at each one of us…
“The secret is reading. If you read you pass, and if you read and think at the same time you get a good pass.”
This was not ‘the secret that I had been waiting for and I could barely conceal my disappointment at the realisation that this would involve me doing some work over the next two years. However, on reflection this is probably the most beneficial advice that I ever received in my academic pursuits.
For teachers’ today ever more frequently the mantra for success, is not reading, but the alphabet spaghetti of assessment. Formative assessment, Summative assessments, Assessment Rubrics, legacy specifications, new specifications, Pre-Public Examinations etc. etc. etc… For several years now, when I train teachers, a frequent concern that they have is around the quality and regularity of student assessment expected from them, combined with their desire for an actual life outside of the classroom.
Recently, one able Year 8 student told me that he did not want to do three sciences because of all the examinations they would have to do in Year 11! If the students feel that way three years prior to the examinations we really are storing up problems for the future.
So here is my survival guide to assessment, born of experience and a million and one conversations with staff and students around what works and what does not.
Assessment – What is the point?
Firstly, keep the point of your assessment simple and clear in your own mind as well as those of the students.
Assessment has to give valid and measurable outcomes otherwise we may as well not bother. Once you establish this objective you can then use a variety of effective approaches to learning to get there. I once discussed a Pre Public Examination (Mock) paper that had been co-written by two individual staff in the same department. One set ‘nice’ GCSE questions because they had a ‘nice’ image at school and one set really ‘hard’ GCSE questions because that was their reputation at school. In addition, the students were still yet to study the ‘hard questions’ in lesson!! When I raised the issue of the accuracy of the question as it would relate to a genuine examination experience for the students this had not crossed their mind. Needless, to say the students did well on the easy questions which they had studied and did badly on the hard questions which they had never seen before. Amazing that!!
Assessment is fun!!
I am yet to meet the student who does not want to or like to do well. Encourage students to look forward to assessments in whatever their guise and reward success accordingly. Use small stepping stones to get to the big assessments so that all have that feeling of success prior to the ‘Big one ’. Assessments should engage students too and are not an opportunity for the teacher to get the class quiet and catch up on their emails. Likewise, avoid excessive assessment – you can only gauge knowledge once the content has been well taught and embedded.
Plan for and reward students for early success. By taking little steps such as collecting data one day a week, analyzing it, and using the results to group students for the next week. Develop a system to track learning that works for you. It is possible to build a positive culture around anything in the classroom if the teacher values the effort of students by turning around the marking and feedback in good time and by regularly rewarding success.
Do the students know how to succeed?
Take the assessment fear factor away from the students. Have the A’ grade students ever seen an A’ grade answer? Do they understand what the requirements of a top level response are? Give them the papers to mark and peer assess, make sure you familiarise them with the whole process in order to take away the mystery and perceived pressure around formal assessment. Ensure that students are clear about their expected outcomes and the criteria that they are required to meet in order to get there. Then simply track how students fill in the gaps in their knowledge and understanding over time. If the teaching is good enough the students will reach their goals but you have to communicate these high expectations, and your unwavering confidence in the final outcome, to them on a consistent basis.
Why not try ‘walking and talking’ students through assessments and allow them to see how papers can be mastered from an expert’s point of view. In the words of the late David Bowie, ‘They want to believe’, so give them the confidence and the tools to do so.
Paying the teacher back
Some of the most valued CPD time I have spent with teachers in when they are given time to understand their own specifications and the pull them apart. As each Secretary of State seems to have a Pavlov’s dog relationship between getting the job and then demanding changes to examinations so teachers and students are left to pick up the pieces. This leaves teachers with real challenges around mastering new assessment demands around what can be, in recent years, every year group that they teach. I have known some experienced teachers preparation for a new examination specification be a snatched conversation in a corridor. “Yes, I can teach that“. This is because they do not have the time to fully prepare in advance but know they will catch up with the demands of the specification when they get a chance.
Without a clear understanding of the specification, and the demands it makes of the student, the teacher will not be able to use assessment effectively to gauge and promote student progress in the future. So, pay some of that training time forwards and dedicate some of that CPD to the importance of understanding specifications. Enable teachers to work together to create common planning time for sharing their strategies, challenges, and eureka moments.
The secret is out!
So there it is, much though I cannot argue with my old teacher that reading would help me to pass examinations, nor can it be disputed that high quality use of assessment leads to high quality outcomes. Without doubt, the modern educational landscape is a challenging one to conquer, but I do recall once reading these words of General Patton during a history lesson – ‘you must accept the challenges in order to feel the exhilaration of victory’- and so it is with education today.