Fresh insights from lockdown on classroom assessment

Assessing learning, while teaching remotely

Chemistry Teacher and Leader for Sixth Form Projects

Over the course of the last 10 weeks there has been a seismic shift within the domain of teaching, the backdrop of which is the Covid-19 Pandemic, and the move to distanced learning.

I teach chemistry to secondary and sixth form students, and have always had an interest in assessment.

Assessment is, I believe all teachers would agree, a fundamental, core aspect of good teaching and a necessary tool in promoting effective learning. However how we, as professionals, think about this  aspect has had to change to meet our current context, and I think this is a good thing for our profession.

Teachers are facing new challenges, they cannot scan a room to ascertain who has understood an idea, and who is struggling. They can no longer just look over a student’s shoulder and review their work, or throw a selection of questions out to a room or at targeted, or random, students. There is a sense that this has disempowered teachers, and made it harder to support learning for our students.

I disagree.

Although I fully support the use of these ‘in the moment practices’, I also believe that many teachers have lent on them as a crutch, using them as their primary process for providing ‘feedback’ through ‘formative assessment’. There may be many reasons for this: not having enough  time to plan more meaningful assessment tasks; a lack of expertise and competent CPD around the subject; the need to “be seen doing” during professional observations, which are meant to support professional development but more often are the basis for (low validity) judgement of a teacher’s ability.

Not having these tools means we really have to think about how we will assess our students now, in order to provide them the education they deserve. I believe that this can only be good for education, and the opportunity to develop this over-simplified aspect of our jobs should be viewed as one of the silver linings of this terrible time.

Here’s the approach I have taken:

1. Prepackaged assessments

There are some great platforms for quizzes and short tests, some which will automark and reduce workload for teachers. It is always worth checking through any of these to ensure that the questions support what you want to find out.

Read through the tasks and consider whether there are any reasons why a student may misunderstand the task (validity), or potentially perform better or worse than they maybe should (bias).

Collate, and collect the best of these tasks and build them into schemes of work at suitable times. Be explicit in your planning of how you intend to use the data

2. Designing assessments

Be clear about what you want to find out, and design tasks to forensically explore these outcomes.

Work more widely than just ‘knowledge recall’ and ‘application’. Students may look up facts and concepts, so design tasks which explore how they utilise knowledge and understanding, and how well they communicate their ideas. This cannot just be ‘looked up’ and these assessment tasks will continue to be useful for students in future years.

Ask “what are the behaviours/actions/habits/approaches of the best performers in my subject?” Then design activities to assess those behaviours.

3. Understand and embrace the opportunities, and respect the limitations, of working in a remote environment.

Steer away from trying to create data suitable for judging attainment or grades. It is impossible to create any shared contexts with any confidence, which means conclusions drawn from assessment responses to judge students against a national picture have very low validity. Rather gather information about students’ personal strengths, and needs, and provide meaningful, constructive feedback. This student-referenced model of assessment is purely focused on moving a student forward in relation to their own performance, rather than against any external comparison, and hopefully will have a positive impact on their learning and on your interpersonal relationships with your students.

Taken together these approaches may provide fresh insights that could change the way we do assessment after lockdown.

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