Notes on making good progress?: Chapter 7

In this series of posts I record my notes from Daisy Christodolou’s book “Making good progress? The future of Assessment for Learning” It is quite excellent. You can buy a copy here.

Improving formative assessments

Formative assessments should be:

  • Specific
  • Frequent
  • Repetitive
  • Recorded as raw marks

Specific questions allow teachers to diagnose exactly what a pupil’s strengths and weaknesses are, and they make it easy to work out what to do next, whereas open and complex questions like essays or real-world problems are not particularly well-suited to this. Short answer and MCQs can be very precise. MCQs, despite their reputation, are excellent for diagnosis and indicate what pupils might need to work on next. MCQs give a specific diagnosis of conceptual understanding and are labour saving.

Criticism of MCQs include that they are easy for pupils to answer, but the risk can be mitigated in several ways. You can increase the number of distractors, you can increase the number of questions, you can also include more than one right answer. Answers can be analysed at the level of the class. MCQs can target misconceptions very effectively. Misconceptions are an important part of a progression model often because they involve particularly tricky and fundamental concepts without which pupils cannot progress.

They are very easy to analyse. You can record not just whether the pupil got the question right or wrong but which distractors they chose. When the analysis is done on a topic that has been recently taught then it becomes much more helpful. We don’t necessarily need to re-teach topics but can ensure to highlight those misconceptions again if the curriculum is structured in a way to allow this. Explanatory paragraphs in the question bank for each MCQ make it very easy to give feedback. Once the feedback has been delivered the teacher can follow up with another set of similar questions to see if the pupil has understood this time around. MCQs with together with this kind of in-depth, specific and precise feedback, can form a vital part of a progression model in any subject.

Research shows that the act of recalling information from memory actually helps to strengthen the memory itself. That is, testing doesn’t just help measure understanding; it helps develop it. This is called the testing effect. This effect can certainly apply to summative tests too so long as they don’t force students away from retrieval and into problem-solving search. The power of the testing effect is that it introduces desirable diffficulties. self-testing is much more effective revision than re-reading. Re-reading makes pupils feel familiar with the content but doesn’t guarantee thought. Testing makes it clear if students have understood something.

Generally assessment should not take place too close to the period of study as we can’t make a valid inference about whether a pupil about whether students have learned the material. If a student gets the question right very soon after study we are not provided with a valid inference. Some of the questions set for recap at the start of the lesson or for homework or at the end of the lesson should cover previously learned material.

Recording grades frequently forces formative assessment into a summative model. We could simply stop recording formative assessment as this assessment aims to be responsive not reportive. If we do record marks these should not be converted to grades. When converting to grades you are asserting that the difficulty of the two assessments is the same and that you are trying to derive a shared meaning. Also, the aim of formative assessments is to set questions that are closely tied to what is being studied.

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