Monday, 23 May 2016

Assessment for Learning

I recently completed a free online course on Assessment for Learning (AfL) in STEM teaching. The course was put together by the UK's National STEM Centre, and was hosted by Future LearnI'm hoping to try out a few of the techniques I learned about this coming semester.

                Image source: Flickr user Ken Whytock                                     
AfL is essentially a type of formative assessment, designed to give teachers a rapid picture of how many learners in their class have understood a particular topic or concept. A draft version of a paper co-authored by one of the course co-ordinators, Dylan Wiliam, can be found here

The main thrust of this course was aimed at helping teachers of STEM subjects to gauge whether or not their students have understood a particular scientific concept. It highlighted common misconceptions students have when learning science, and provided ways to diagnose these misconceptions in real-time in the classroom. 

One handy technique that was advocated was the use of hinge point questions (HPQs). These are questions, often multiple choice, that relate to specific misconceptions in order to identify which students have understood a particular concept, and those students who may need additional teaching in order to fully grasp the concept or to address the misconception. The HPQ is given to the whole class. Various ways may be used to collect responses - students could hold up numbered cards, or enter their responses into an app such as Google Forms, for example. 

The options for these multiple choice questions should be considered very carefully, and be set up in such a way that it is unlikely that a student could guess the correct answer. They should also provide the teacher with a snapshot of their students' understanding that is quick and easy to interpret. 

To give an example, a common misconception that arises when students are talking how evolution and natural selection operate is that organisms 'adapt themselves' to suit their environment. A hinge point question that could be used to tease out this misconception might be as follows:

  • Which of the following statements are true about convergent evolution, for example the similar body forms seen in both sharks and dolphins? (You may choose one or more from the following options):

  1. The ancestors of dolphins and sharks adapted themselves to life underwater during their lifetimes, and passed these adaptations on to their offspring.
  2. Dolphins and sharks have similar body shapes because they both evolved from the same common ancestor.
  3. Some ancestors of dolphins and sharks had similar traits that enabled them to successfully survive and reproduce underwater, and therefore these traits were passed on to their offspring.
  4. The ancestors of dolphins lived near water and therefore adapted themselves to life underwater.

The correct answer, #3, could in theory be guessed by students, and there is no fool-proof way to prevent this. One possible solution would be to provide more than one correct answer. However, this would make interpretation of the results more difficult and time-consuming. During the AfL course, participants were encouraged to develop and submit HPQs of their own, which were then compiled and may be accessed here

AfL can provide benefits to both learners and teachers. Learners can benefit since HPQs can help them to focus on their own learning - what they know, and what they need to know, thus helping them to develop their metacognitive skills. Teachers benefit since they can get an idea of the level of understanding in a classroom, gain insights into differentiation strategies that may be required, and what scaffolding may be necessary in order to develop learners' understanding and begin moving it to a deeper level. 

Tuesday, 17 May 2016

Hiking in Mexico - a photoblog

In order to ease back in to regular blogging (and because my new school year hasn't quite started), I've decided to do a photoblog based on my recent hiking trip in Mexico. 

My wife Lisa and myself first visited Mexico City where we caught up with our friend Natalia, who lives there, and were lucky enough to catch an open-air performance of some Mexican folklore ballet at Chapultepec Castle.

Mexican folklore ballet

We also enjoyed spending a few hours being punted around the floating gardens of Xochimilco, sampling quesadillas and pulque, and listening to the many mariachi bands hopping from boat to boat.

After a few days exploring Mexico City we travelled to Oaxaca City, the jumping off point for our trek in the Sierra Norte de Oaxaca. Whilst in Oaxaca we were able to take in a visit to the historical ruins of Monte Alban. 

The pre-Hispanic Zapotec pyramid complex at Monte Alban

The next day we set off on our four-day hiking trip through the beautiful Sierra Norte. This was organised by a local ecotourism initiative, Expediciones Sierra Norte, consisting of a community collaboration between villages of the local indigenous Zapotec people. 

The first day was an easy 11km loop from the eco-lodge at the tiny but picturesque village of Llano Grande, aimed at acclimatising us to the altitude (about 3000m). Around the lodge itself we were excited to see hummingbirds feeding on the many flowering plants. In the evening dinner included home-made tlayudas, cooked in the traditional way over a wood fire. 

Natalia and Lisa in matching headgear!

Lisa and me taking care not to step too close to the edge!

Next came the toughest day - a 22km trek across varied, and sometimes challenging, terrain. The estimated time for this section of the hike was five hours - we took eight! Along the way we spotted flowering cacti, orchids, and a snake!

Fortunately, the views, and the food, were worth the effort when we arrived at our second eco-lodge of the trip, at San Miguel Amatlan (although we had noticed some vultures circling above us!)

San Miguel Amatlan

Lisa was very happy to find a hammock waiting at the end of Day 2

Day 3 began with a steep climb out of San Miguel Amatlan, but the reward was a magical hike along the ancient Camino Real trail, including long stretches surrounded by trees festooned first with air plants, then later bromeliads. 

Juan, our guide for the 3rd leg of the hike

We arrived at Latuvi, 16km and another very steep climb later, where we spent our final night. Again, we were treated to excellent home cooked food, and another eco-lodge with fantastic views out over the valley. 

However, by now our legs were really starting to complain, and we decided that rather than do the final stretch, which looked extremely challenging if the contour map of the route was anything to go by, we would return to Oaxaca for a final day of relaxation and restaurants. 

Oaxaca by night