Initial Assessment – Start as you mean to go

It wasn’t until well into my teaching career that I realised I needed to do something more than read the objectives to my learners at the start of lessons. I used to plan my lessons in the way that I wanted to teach it and I would stick to the plan rigidly. In fact, one of my first PGCE observations commented on my ‘uncanny ability to stick to the scheduled timings of activities’. These days, I’m not so convinced that this is a strength…

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Sure, I’d get through my lessons and learners would probably make some progress with their understanding, but it wasn’t as effective as it might have been. After a few years of teaching, I had somewhat of a ‘light-bulb’ moment – it was only when I initially assessed that I could redress misconceptions quickly and truly appreciate where I needed to spend more time instructing/guiding learners. I felt so stupid…

 

I have been guilty of and witnessed, many poor attempts at initial assessment over the years. The open question to the whole group, where only the confident answer; the quizzes with easy questions, or with implausible incorrect answers. Neither of which provide the teacher with anything useful. There really is little point doing initial assessment unless the assessment is broad enough to include most of the learners and challenging enough to provide valid and reliable results (but not too challenging).

 

A few simple methods that I have found useful include:

  1. Multiple Choice Quiz (MCQ): A quick MCQ to recap previous learning and assess understanding of intended learning can be a really useful way to build a picture of what the class know and where any misconceptions lie. Sure, it has its draw backs and it can be difficult to design good questions (see previous blog), but a small number of well thought through questions, along with answers that make it difficult to discern the correct response, can be very useful. A little tip – make sure all learners respond at the same time. Give them the opportunity to think about the answers and countdown from 3 to reveal, using either mini white boards, fingers, or hold-up cards. 
  2. Teacher Questioning: As mentioned above. It is too easy to throw out questions and only a minority of learners answer. This tells us very little. A really useful way to check all learners and rectify misconceptions as you go is the ‘think, pair, square, share’ approach. Pose a question and ask everyone in the room to think about a response. Learners then pair to discuss and reach a consensus, before partnering with another pair to reach a final consensus. The teacher randomly targets learners to share their answers with the whole class. All participate and therefore, a few answers to the question can reveal a lot about the group.
  3. Self-Assessment Know: Want, Learn (KWL) – This is something I came across a few years ago and as a tool to monitor progress throughout the session and I find it really useful. At the start of the session, the teacher introduces the learning intentions. Learners then write down everything they know (K) about a topic in the first column and put any questions they want (W) answering in the second column. As this is happening, the teacher circulates the room, checking answers and questions. It provides learners with plenty of time to think about their current knowledge around the topic and also allows the teacher to probe and cajole learners to explore their understanding.
  4. Self-Assessment Audit: For me, this trumps the KWL in a sense that explicit success criteria is given and learners rate themselves against it. For example: I can name 5 long bones – yes or no? The teacher then gains a much quicker idea as to what learners know/can do, in order to determine where more of their instruction/guidance should be directed. 
  5. Visual Mapping Activities: Providing learners with advanced organisers with gaps to fill, can reveal alot. It can show whether they have an understanding of how concepts relate to one another and whether they know key facts about a subject. Get the learners to work independently or in pairs to complete a visual map of the topic and use this as a discussion point to explore understanding further. 

      All of these methods have limitations, but what I’m getting at with this post, is the fact that we need to find out what learners already know about something, rather than teaching blind. All methods provide the opportunity for retrieval practice (crucial for long term retention), moreover, activating learners’ prior knowledge is pivotal to learning anything new (Marzano). Any activities that do this, provides learners with a great starting point for improving long term memory. As I continue to state, it also means that the teacher has a clear idea as to where extra instruction/guidance is required. Therefore, start lessons as you mean to go on, through well planned and effective initial assessment.

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