Formative from Summative…

Yesterday brought us the results for A-levels, and next week sees GCSE results day accompanied by stage managed scenes in the press of students either, nervously opening their results envelopes or jumping for joy. These days can be hugely significant for students, as they discover whether their hard work has yielded the grades they were hoping for. Similarly, with the modern day high stakes accountability that exists, their teachers and schools often experience the same emotions.

Yet these end of key stage exams, whilst providing summative assessment for students, can provide really valuable formative assessment for their teachers, if properly exploited. This means going beyond the traditional analysis of the cohort and their grades, and instead focusing careful analysis on the students’ answers. To help with this, many of the exam boards provide online tools that give much more detail at this level and there are also opportunities for judicious selected purchases of students’ scripts as well. In this post I’ll deal with two potential areas for feedback that can be gained from those students who didn’t get 100%.

Don’t miss the misconceptions

The Sutton Trust Report published in October 2014 entitled ‘what makes great teaching?’ (Coe, Aloisi, Higgins & Major) has done teachers and school leaders a great service in bringing together a review of the underpinning research. In terms of determining great teaching, they identify high importance of teachers having deep subject knowledge as well as them understanding the ways students think about the content, (and being)… able to evaluate the thinking behind students’ own methods, and identify students’ common misconceptions. In other words, it isn’t enough for teachers to deeply understand their subject knowledge, they need also to understand how novices in the subject might mis-learn it. Knowing in advance the areas where confusion or where flawed thinking processes might develop, enables the great teacher to flag them up to their students. Indeed, students are more likely to navigate to success if their teacher has surveyed the waters, and placed markers where danger exists.

So why don’t all teachers fully exploit the power of misconceptions? In our book Teaching Backwards we highlighted the danger of the curse of the expert. Some teachers know their subject like they know the back of their hand. They’ve taught it so often that they think it’s simple. They’ve forgotten what it was like to struggle to understand and they fail to see the myriad ways that learners might find learning something difficult.

By examining where and how students have answered exam questions incorrectly, perhaps by misremembering knowledge, confusing processes, or failing to use the correct thinking steps, there are opportunities for teachers to make a note on their planning for those specific topics that these are areas to teach more carefully. After all, the aim of this process is to find many fewer students making those mistakes in future exams.

Identifying the bright spots

I recall a conversation with an RE teacher who marked for one of the exam boards. She talked about the set of scripts that she had just finished marking. They had come from two different schools. She said the scripts from the first school were uniformly dire. There was no structure to the students’ answers coupled with a real lack of subject knowledge. This was typified by many of the students referring to someone called Martha Lucy King in their answers! The scripts from the second school were contrastingly well structured and demonstrated deep subject knowledge. Clearly, one group had been taught much more effectively than the other.

This variance in quality of teaching exists just as much within a school as it does between schools. Consequently, external assessments also provide the opportunity to identify from analysis of students’ answers, those teachers who demonstrated real expertise in modelling and explaining particular topics. Where particular classes of students outperformed their peers taught by a different teacher there can be real value in exploring the following questions:-

How did those expert teachers explain and model the topic or skill so that their students did so well?

How could the rest of the teaching team adapt how they teach the topic or skill in order to imitate and therefore achieve similar results next time?

Both of these areas could prove valuable discussion points at a team meeting early in September. Who knows, this process might become a habit and take place after each internal end of unit assessment. In this way, the team can continue to learn from each other about how to have greater impact on students’ learning.

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