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.