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This paper looks at the work done in developing formative assessment methods for use in the classroom. It takes a detailed look at the academic research, focusing on the work of Professor Dylan William. There are four main areas identified for improvement - Questioning, marking, peer-assessment and the formative use of summative tests. A small study was conducted amongst the mathmatics teachers at two schools via a questionnaire on the use of questioning pupils in the classroom.. This showed that while most teachers agreed that questioning was important, there was no overall consensus on how questioning should be used as part of classroom dialogue.
Learning with understanding is an essential aim of teaching. Pupils need to be able to make sense of what they are learning about in context and how to apply it in a wider environment (Harlen & James, 1997). In order to evaluate if pupils are learning successfully there are two types of assessment that we can use within schools
(a) formative assessment
(b) summative assessment.
Summative assessment is the traditional use of tests, such as GCSE's, end of year exams and key stage tests, in order to produce a grade. This gives a measure of a pupils performance, most often on just one occasion, which can be used by schools, employers, parents to choose schools and others. This is also known as assessment of learning. By its very nature summative assessment takes place after learning has happened.
Formative assessment on the other hand is designed to give feedback to the pupils about their performance and help them improve their own learning and is an ongoing process that is carried out throughout the academic year. Assessment for learning is focused on formative methods, their improvement and how to integrate them into the daily lessons. By achieving the latter in such a manner that Formative Assessment is a seamless part of the lesson, it truly becomes assessment for learning rather than of learning.
I believe that any process which will open a two way dialogue between pupil and teacher must benefit pupils in the long run since they will more quickly appreciate their strengths and weaknesses in the lesson subject. In turn this will enable them to contribute more effectively in peer to peer group working. The purpose of this paper is to examine the use of questioning pupils during lesson time to determine if teachers use this in any regular way and what benefit or otherwise they find in this form of assessment.
The first Part of this paper gives an overview of formative assessment techniques that can be used within British secondary school classrooms. I will be reviewing existing literature concerning both the implementation of formative methods and their success in the classroom. I have focused my efforts around the pioneering work done by Professor Dylan William who is Emeritus Professor of Educational Assessment at the Institute of Education, University of London. He has spent the last 25 years conducting research focused on the use of formative assessment to support pupils learning in the classroom.
Part two of the paper then looks in depth at a small scale study that I conducted on the use teachers make of questioning pupils during the course of a lesson.. The study was conducted at two different county schools in Leicestershire ,one in a rural village and the other on the outskirts of Leicester. City . The questionnaires were completed anonymously so that the teachers could comment on the success or otherwise of their own classroom practice. The questionnaire was circulated to all teachers of mathematics in each school. The questionnaire was also circulated to other departments with the initial intent of producing a comparison across disciplines. Unfortunately there was insufficient data for any meaningful inter-departmental comparisons and the data from this part of the study has not been included in this paper The data was collated and then analysed with the aim of assessing if classroom practice matched the prevailing views of the literature.
Part One: Theoretical Background
Over the last thirteen years Paul Black and Dylan William have been working to promote their ideas on formative assessment within the classroom. They began with an article (Black & William, 1998) entitled "Inside the Black Box" where the black box of the title was a classroom, the article dealing with the goings on in the classroom. They argued that while legislation requires certain inputs (curriculum) and society expects certain outputs (better exam grades and more knowledgeable pupils ) it is impossible to actually bring this about without studying what happens in-between the two. Their analysis of the work from the previous decade found meaningful gains for students from the use of formative assessment. The also found that these changes in classroom practice were most helpful to low-achievers.
In 1999 the King's-Medway Oxfordshire Formative Assessment Project (KMOFAP) was formed. It initially involved 24 mathematics and science teachers across six schools in southern England (Black et al, 2004). At the beginning of the project these teachers produced their own action plans detailing where they wanted to target their own formative improvements. Over the next five years visits occurred at least once every half-term and were used to build up a body of quantitative data based on lesson observations and interviews with teachers. The project was extended to cover English teachers in the second year.
At the end of the project the data was analysed and it was found that there were four key areas for improving classroom practice. These were:
(b) Feedback through marking
(c) Peer-assessment and self-assessment by students
(d) Formative use of summative tests
Whilst they found many other changes that could be made the above four were seen as the most relevant, feasible and acceptable to the teachers involved.
One of the main issues with classroom questioning is the amount of time teachers give for students to respond. In a five year study (Row, 1974) the mean waiting time teachers left for students to answer a question before they themselves responded was observed to be only one second. They are also waiting less than one second after a pupil had finished talking before responding with another comment or question. This only allows enough time for pupils to respond with factual knowledge. By increasing these wait-times to between three and five seconds, the study found that pupils are able to think through their answer before responding. This helps to explore actual understanding of the topic at hand which increases the level of detail in their responses. The number of students failing to respond also decreased especially among the low-achievers in the class.
It was also found to be important to change the style of a question from a "Do you agree?" to "What do you think?". This means that rather than just giving a 'yes' or 'no' answer, pupils must articulate their views. and be prepared to support them with statements showing their understanding. Pupils also need to be comfortable with giving wrong answers, or just saying they do not know, without fear of being ridiculed or made to appear foolish.
In the recent television series (Classroom Experiment, 2010) educational expert Professor Dylan William introduced new methods of working to a year eight class at Hertswood School, a Hertfordshire comprehensive. The first was the use of mini-white boards for the pupils to write their answers on and then hold them up when the time was up. This meant all pupils were involved and that the teacher could see responses from all the class at once. This made it easy to spot those who were making mistakes.
Another innovation that had been successfully used elsewhere (Lightfoot, 2006) was the removal of a hands up approach to answering questions. Children that put their hands up to answer questions are getting involved with the class, whereas those that do not often switch off and are not listening. Rather than just letting the teacher select pupils to answer questions, a truly random method was used at Hertswood for picking students to answer questions. This was achieved by putting all the students names on lollipop sticks and picking the names out. The justification for this is that if any pupil could get picked to give an answer, then everyone in the class is more likely to be paying attention so that they can answer if called upon. There are also a number of pupils who do not put their hands up in class, either because they do not want to participate in the lesson or because they do not want to be seen as too clever by their peers.
Feedback through marking
Good marking can be a time consuming process. In order for such feedback to be useful it must be detailed and targeted at the individual (Brown, 2004). Teachers use three methods to provide feedback to pupils about their written work. These are grades, comments and a combination of the two. The usual practice within schools is to provide a grade, in line with a department marking policy, and some comments. Providing grades promotes a culture of comparison where students essentially compete with each other to see who gets the best mark. When grades and comments are combined, pupils will rarely look at the comments and instead focus on the grades (Black et al, 2002).
Pupils have different attitudes to learning and different perceptions of how much they can learn. Pupils can be grouped into two broad categories (Dweck, 2006). Those with a fixed mindset who believe their intelligence level is set and those with a growth mindset who believe that success is based on effort. With children who have a fixed mindset, the use of grades helps to reinforce their belief that they are performing as expected and that the grade is a ceiling that they can never rise above. Low achieving pupils who consistently get their 'expected' score are not motivated to improve themselves.
On the other hand providing comments without a grade means that pupils have to read the comments if they want to get an idea of their level of performance. .The problem with comment only marking is that the British education system is permeated with the need to provide levels and grades for students. From national league tables down to school reports, policy requires students to have grades. Grading has become part of our culture and students can become dissatisfied if they do not receive one. As part of the KMOFAP project, students were interviewed about what could be done to make them pay more attention to comments (Black et al, 2002). They gave a clear message that they would like to see teachers not write in red pen and to give legible statements that could be understood. Short comments about presentation of work rarely lead to an improvement. Comments need to focus on what has been achieved and what needs to be done next.
Peer-assessment and self-assessment by students
In order to reach the learning outcome for a lesson pupils need to be able to use self-assessment. This is not only to decide if they have met the required goal but also if they have failed to meet that goal what changes or improvements they need to make to reach the goal. Pupils need to be able to break a topic down into several smaller manageable goals. One of the teachers in the KMOFAP project (Black et al, 2003, p. 49) summarised what we are trying to get pupils to do:
Peer-assessment is a very useful tool to help pupils build up their own self-assessment skills. By marking each others work pupils are better able to judge their own progress and they should be motivated to participate since they know their own friends will be looking at their work. A discussion about the work can also be useful as pupils will use common language with each other and are often more accepting of criticism from their peers.
A typical method (Gardner, 2006) of pupil self-assessment is the use of traffic lights. Pupils mark each piece of work with either red (totally unsure), amber (unsure) or green (confident). Since this information is recorded in the pupils books, or on the worksheet, it is not obvious to the rest of the class. Hence pupils are less likely to face peer pressure to conform. However, from the data the teacher is able to determine how well the class has followed the current topics. This approach can be easily adapted to work with pupils writing smiley faces in their exercise books if coloured pens are not easily accessible.
Formative use of summative tests
High stake summative assessment, such as GCSE's and A-levels, are an essential part of schooling. Businesses and universities both need a recognised method of being able to judge if one candidate is better than another. Teachers are often accused of just teaching to the test and therefore formative methods need to co-exist with summative ones. This leads to the question of how best we can use these tests of learning to assist pupils for learning? Firstly mock tests can be very useful for peer-assessment techniques outlined above. While it may not be worth going through an entire question paper, pupils can work in small groups discussing key questions and producing model answers. The teacher can also use the results to feed back on common errors and focus learning to overcome misconceptions. Another useful tool is for pupils to use the results of their tests to fill out a table using the traffic light system to mark their performance against each of the topics tested. This is very useful for the pupils to use as a strategy for revision or for working out their own targets for improvement. The last aspect that was seen to improve pupils performance in formal testing was the practice of pupils creating their own questions for each other to answer. By making pupils think up the question they have to show an understanding of the topic as well as what needs to be assessed.
In order for teachers to implement these changes into the way they work it is necessary for them to reflect and review their own practice. The suggestion is that teachers should start with one aspect of formative assessment and work on building that into their lessons. Once this has been successfully implemented they can then move on to working on a different aspect. In order to succeed in making formative changes to their lessons teachers need to have a through understanding of their own subject knowledge. This will allow them to break topics down into the essential building blocks pupils will need to successfully learn.
Whole school systems
As governments put greater pressure on schools to use pupil data to improve educational performance there is a growing market for commercial packages that will collect and analyse data such that the school can use it in a formative way. An 18 month study (Militello et al, 2010) in North America looked at the implementation of commercial software packages in three different districts. Since all the schools in a single district were using the same software they studied one school in each of the districts. The study showed that in only one of the three schools was the data clearly fed back to teachers so they could use it to change their classroom behaviour. They concluded that there is a danger of too much time being spent testing pupils in order to gather the data as well as issues of the data not being available to teachers both quickly and in a meaningful manner. Schools need to focus on why they are putting a system into place and how the information is going to be used to improve classroom practice.
Part Two: Investigation
Having considered the four main formative assessment techniques I decided to conduct a small research study to look at how one of these techniques is currently being used within schools. As this was only a small study I decided to focus on the use of questioning techniques within the classroom. My decision was based on the fact that all teachers in the study literature came to see improved questioning as having a massive impact on pupil performance within the classroom. Black et al (2004, p. 59) states
I decided to use a quantitative questionnaire, the reason being that I wanted respondents to give me what they actually do in the classroom rather than give answers they thought they should give. I decided that the most expedient method of collecting the data was to use an anonymous survey. This way I would not be able to track back responses given by any individual teacher.
As time is precious for Teachers I designed the questionnaire so that it would not take a lot of time to complete. I decided that the questionnaire needed to fit onto a single side of A4 paper. This gave me space for twelve questions. The full questionnaire can be seen in appendix A. After checking that ethical approval was not required, I distributed the questionnaire to teachers at two secondary schools in Leicestershire. The first of these was a small high school in rural Leicestershire with around 500 pupils. The second school was on the outskirts of the city and is a large secondary school with around 1500 pupils.
The purpose of the questionnaire was to find out if there was a consistent approach between different teachers or if different styles of questioning were used successfully. The wording of the questions was designed so that the language used did not lead the recipient to any particular answer while still being clear what the question was asking.
Having received all the returned questionnaires I expressed the number of respondents for each of the five options as a percentage of the total number of respondents to the question. I also calculated the average response, or support index score, for each question. The aim of calculating a support index is to show if respondents support the use of questioning students in the manner described in the literature. In some of the questions a negative response ie. a disagreement with the question , would be support for theory.
To calculate this I gave each of the five possible responses a rating from 1 for Strongly Disagree up to 5 for Strongly Agree. I then multiplied the number of responses by its rating. I added these five numbers together and divided by the number of responses. The following table shows the collated results of the questionnaire.
1. Questioning is mainly used to promote pupils thinking about a topic and explore their understanding?
2. Questioning is mainly used to elicit factual knowledge from pupils?
3. Asking questions of the class makes students more attentive?
4. I ask more questions in top sets than lower set classes?
5. If a pupil answers a question wrong I tell them?
6. If a pupil answers a question wrong I ask others what they think the answer is and start a discussion?
7. Questions result in a more interactive lesson only for those willing to answer?
8. I expect pupils to think about a question before answering?
9. I often answer my own questions if pupils can not?
10. Pupils are encouraged to view incorrect answers as valuable learning opportunities?
11. I pick students to answer specific questions?
12. I give pupils time to discuss their thoughts with peers before asking them to answer questions?
Question 1 - Questioning is mainly used to promote pupils thinking about a topic and explore their understanding?
This was the only question were all respondents were in agreement. It got an average score of 4.6. This was my baseline question to check whether or not teachers were aware of the importance of questioning as a technique for assessment for learning. I took the positive response to mean that all the Teachers were in agreement with the reviewed literature and believed that questioning pupils is an important way to encourage them to take ownership of their education and to show an understanding of a topic.
Question 2 - Questioning is mainly used to elicit factual knowledge from pupils?
This question was intended to elicit whether teachers were looking for factual answers or as a means of getting pupils to think about their answer and show understanding of the topic.. Although the majority of replies disagreed ,suggesting that they are looking for pupils to expand their answers., 24% had no opinion and 18% agreed with this statement as well as the first statement. This could be put down to some respondents rushing and not reading the question properly or it could be that some teachers see factual knowledge as a way of exploring understanding. As stated by Black et al (2004) the point of questioning is to make pupils think about an issue or topic. By just gathering factual information teachers are missing out on this opportunity to enrich pupils with deeper understanding.
Question 3 - Asking questions of the class makes students more attentive?
With an overall average score of 4 this question had 76% of Teachers agreeing or strongly agreeing that questions hold pupils attention to the subject being taught. However 12% felt that questioning did not make the students more attentive. Making students moor attentive is in-line with the literature reviewed, only if hands up is disallowed. Having observed lessons taught by the majority of teachers involved in the study I know pupils raise hands most of the time. From my own experience in class I know that some pupils will not volunteer even if they do know the answer. The question should have said 'makes all students more attentive'. I believe the data collected here is perhaps misleading or maybe some teachers are not aware of the minority of pupils switching off during classroom dialogues.
Question 4 - I ask more questions in top sets than lower set classes?
This question was intended to see if teachers varied their use of questioning according to the ability of their class. The majority strongly disagreed and only 6% agreed. Of more concern is the fact that 35% had no opinion which may imply that they do not know if they change their approach for different ability classes. My personal experience is that top sets are more willing to respond to questioning techniques so I was surprised to find that the majority of teachers claim not to distinguish between pupils ability when asking questions. They will however most likely vary the type of questioning used.
Question 5 - If a pupil answers a question wrong I tell them?
This was agreed by 70% of the Teachers that they tell the pupil that they have answered incorrectly. Whereas 18% had no opinion and 12% disagreed. This was somewhat contradicted by question six where almost everyone said they would ask other pupils or start a discussion. We can only infer from this that teachers first tell the pupil their answer is incorrect before moving on to see what the rest of the class think the answer could be.
Question 6 - If a pupil answers a question wrong I ask others what they think the answer is and start a discussion?
Overwhelmingly 94% said that in their classrooms when a pupil answer's incorrectly they get their peers to correct them, and aim to get a discussion going. Row (1974) states that this method of teaching allows pupils not to be afraid of answering a question. It also creates a chance for other pupils to give more complex and detailed answers and explore possible misunderstanding that exist within the class. The other 6% had no opinion about this question.
Question 7 - Questions result in a more interactive lesson only for those willing to answer?
This was the only question where there was no clear majority either agreeing or disagreeing With 47% disagreeing with the statement and 41% agreeing. In the literature reviewed earlier, the perception was that pupils not involved in answering questions tend to switch off and thus not be learning. This was especially common amongst low-achieving pupils.
Question 8 - I expect pupils to think about a question before answering?
Overwhelming 94% agreed with this question. This is in line with the theoretical research which suggests that giving pupils longer to think about their answer helps them to produce a deeper and more details response during classroom dialogue.
Question 9 - I often answer my own questions if pupils can not?
Almost half, 46%, disagreed with this question, while 24% had no opinion and 30% agreed. Whilst the majority are in agreement with the prevailing literature, there is still a sizeable number of teachers that appear to fall into the bad habit of providing their own answers. Thus not empowering pupils to take control of their education. Teachers need to give pupils sufficient time to think about an answer and then begin talking before moving on to another pupil or a different question..
Question 10 - Pupils are encouraged to view incorrect answers as valuable learning opportunities?
A staggering 88% of teachers agreed with the question, and the remaining 12% had no opinion, giving this question an overall score of 4.1. Which implies that the majority of the teachers sampled are teaching as per the theoretical literature review. If pupils are confident that they can give wrong answers in the classroom then they have accepted that the classroom is a safe learning environment.
Question 11 - I pick students to answer specific questions?
This question was specifically picked to go against the ideas of Black et al (2006). However 88% of the teachers agreed with the statement giving it an overall score of 4.1. By selecting pupils to answer questions teachers are not giving the whole class a fair chance to participate. The knock on effect of which is not creating a learning atmosphere for those students likely to switch off or for those with little confidence in the subject.
Question 12 - I give pupils time to discuss their thoughts with peers before asking them to answer questions?
One of the largest flaws picked out in current classrooms was the lack of wait time given by many teachers before expecting a pupil to be able to give an answer to the question. It was therefore very good to see 82% agreed with this question. However, the question did not elicit how much wait time the teachers surveyed actually give before asking for answers.
It is clear that opinions are still divided on some aspects of questioning. The most controversial was question 7 "Questions result in a more interactive lesson only for those willing to answer?" We can see that almost the same amount of people agreed as disagreed. In contrast, Question 11 where 88% of teachers claimed they are selecting pupils to answer questions goes against professor William's recommendations. It is possible that by using his methods of not allowing pupils to put their hands up and using a more random method of selecting which pupil will answer questions would help to make lessons more interactive and have a positive effect pupils paying attention to classroom dialogue.
Due to the small size of the study it is difficult to draw meaningful conclusions. However it is clear that most teachers are aware of questioning pupils as part of assessment for learning. What is not clear is whether or not they are using it to elicit factual information rather than initiate discourse in the classroom. The response to question 8 indicates that many teachers give their own answers when pupils answer incorrectly. My conclusions are that whilst teachers are aware of the aims of assessment for learning, they lack the necessary training to apply the techniques in the manner described by the literature. It is unfortunate that the study was unable to collect data on how long teachers wait for pupils to respond before giving their own answers. It is quite possible that if a more detailed study was conducted in which observers could time teachers in their questioning process, we would have a better understanding of the way in which the technique is being applied in the classroom.
It is also unfortunate that in the study I was unable to identify how teachers choose pupils to answer questions. As some teachers thought that not all students pay attention even when questions are being asked, it was not clear whether this was due to the way in which the teachers selected pupils to answer questions. The study literature indicates that if students can be picked at random then all must pay attention, in case they are chosen, whereas if those with their hands up are the only group the teacher selects from, then many of the pupils can opt out of the exercise.
Originally I had intended to collect data from English, Mathematics and Science teachers so that I could perform a comparison of views across different subjects. Unfortunately my sample size was too small to be able to identify trends within one department. A worthwhile future investigation would be to collect data from a wider range of institutions so that such cross-department analysis could take place.
While it is clear from the analysis that no single view is completely dominant there are clear trends amongst the majority of teachers that responded. Teachers expect pupils to discuss their thoughts; think about their answer and to see incorrect answers as opportunities. These are all fine qualities that need to be encouraged within pupils to ensure that their learning comes with understanding.