Teaching to the test – another point of view

point-of-veiw-2A point of view is a programme on radio 4 that allows certain well-read, highly educated individuals, usually with large vocabularies to express an opinion. It lasts 10 minutes and is often thought provoking, concluding with a rhetorical question that has no answer.

This week Will Self the novelist and journalist gave his point of view on teaching to the test, as you might imagine it caught my attention. Self starts by telling a story about the life of a “good student,” and how it would unfold. He describes the way in which their concentration intensifies when the teacher states that what they are going to learn next is important and often examined. The story continues, as a result of their diligence and technique, the “good student” gets the necessary grades to go to University. They don’t however select the University on the basis of the course of study or on what they passionately wish to learn, no its based on the Universities credibility in league tables.

Upon successfully gaining a degree the student, now an employee gets a desk job that rewards a similar style of rubric mentality. As an employee, they are assessed against targets, performing well only on the ones that promise promotion and a pay rise. Eventually they retire and die.

Self concludes that this ordinary, dull, uninspiring life started back in the classroom all those years ago, when the teacher failed to educate and inspire, and simply taught to the test.

Over egging the pudding

There is a logic to this story, and it sounds ever the more inevitable as Self narrates it in his black and grey voice. But that’s all it is, a story. It avoids detail and colour, offering little regard as to the individual’s ability to reflect at some point in their life and ask searching and probing questions. It is as if somehow because the teacher highlighted the importance of one piece of knowledge it somehow stifled the student’s capacity to one day think for themselves.  Self is how they say, overegging the pudding, taking an interesting question as to the impact teaching to the test might have and serving up an omelette.

Teaching to the test is not bad

Brunel university asked a question as to what makes an unmissable lecture. In addition to many arguably more commendable answers, including the passion of the tutor and because they wanted to learn, the likelihood of the subject being taught having a high probability of being in the exam was key. Suggesting that a specific topic might be on the exam paper firstly, ensured a good attendance and secondly guaranteed the student listened intently.

Attention is important but even for the diligent student focus is vital. Learning everything is simply not possible, faced with 20 chapters, the student needs some clue as to where they need to direct their energy and time. Of course, the educationist will say that everything is important, but saying that will not make it so. Knowing that something is examinable at least gives a starting point and helps guide the student through the material quickly and efficiently. It’s also worth adding that It does not exclude the need to be inquisitive, in fact by making the student read a particular topic it may inspire them to find out more.

Exams and exam answers also provide examples of what is expected and the standard the student must reach if they are to be successful, no amount of narrative in the student handbook or curriculum guidance will do this as effectively.

The type of assessment matters

Of course, in Selfs world, teaching to the test removes the need to do anything more than learn about what will be in the exam. He suggests that students need to think outside the box rather than simply tick them. I have to admit I like that sentence.

But he does have a point, if the test is so narrow that it only assesses memory or a very small part of the syllabus then that is all the student will focus on. But that is just a bad test, this is of course where I am in danger of becoming idealistic and painting a picture that is not a true reflection as to what is happening. Not all tests are good, and undoubtedly some students will pass with limited thought and little more than good memory skills. Yet with changes in technology it becomes ever more possible to build tests and simulations that asses the student ability to perform in real world situations, and for that matter think outside the box.

Teaching to the test has become a term used to describe bad teaching and poor assessment and no one would agree that either of these are desirable. But it is not the process that’s problematic, it’s the application. Testing in its many forms is part of learning but it needs done well and thoughtfully.

In conclusion

Having now read the blog I would encourage you to listen to Will Self – click. It is of course not for me to say who presents the right point of view, you need to make up your own mind. For those however who were taught to the test no matter how long ago, you probably won’t understand even what I am asking because to the best of my knowledge this question has never been tested before……………?

 

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People are all the same but students are all different

ayam-titaniumThis month’s blog is coming from Malaysia, I have been presenting at the ICAEW learning conference in KL. The only relevance of this, is that as with any lecture/presentation or lesson you have to put yourself in the shoes of your audience and ask, what do they want to get out of this, why are they giving up their valuable time and in many instances money to listen to what you have to say?

The difference in presenting to a group of people from another country is that you start to question the way they think and perhaps learn, is it the same or could you be making a big mistake by assuming it is.

Neurologically we are all the same

What gave me confidence was that I was talking about how you learn and examinations. And although there will certainly be many differences in culture, language, opinion, even what is considered funny, our brains are all made exactly the same, and as a result the process of learning is the same.

Malaysian jokes

Q: What is Malaysians’ favourite dish? – A: Astro

Q: What is the strongest chicken in the world? – A: Ayam Titanium

So everything I said about memorising content using spaced repetition, the importance of having bite sized chunks of information, the need to present an overview at the start of each session etc was met with nods of approval.

Students are different

ctcnyapxyaamd0c

However just because we have the same neurological components does not mean they are all used in the same way. And so it would have been a mistake for me to have presented trends observed in the UK as to the attitude of students towards learning as if they were the typical attitudes of all students, in particular Malaysian ones. The reason being, I have little knowledge of the Malaysian education system, parenting skills, culture etc, these are what help shape the beliefs, values and attitudes of students in Malaysia and in turn give every student their own unique learning style.

Learning styles are unique

The generalisation about Malaysian learning styles was that there was a tendency to rank passing exams as being the most important aspect of education. This had resulted in a number of issues, one being a lack of leadership skills. Who did they blame, well they blamed the teachers for being uninspiring and measuring students by the grades they had historically achieved rather than the grades they might achieve. The point here is not in any way a criticism of the Malaysian system, there are equally many problems in the UK but to highlight why learning has to be personalised. It of course goes even deeper than nationalistic trends, clearly not all Malaysian students are focused only on passing exams and some will make great leaders, everyone is unique.

But are the teachers to blame?

If you agree with the research produced by John Hattie from the University of Auckland, the answer is yes, the teachers are to blame. His research which was built up over 15 years suggest that an individual students inherent qualities account for 50% of their ability to achieve, but on the basis this cannot be changed it would be better to look at the next biggest attribute that can be influenced. Interestingly this had little to do with who you went to school with, the so called peer effect, your home life, the school you went to, and certainly not the technology used. It was all about the teacher or type of teacher you had. It is what teachers do, know and care about that makes the difference, 30% of the difference in fact.

I am sure that advocates of on-line will suggest that this is not about the teacher but the type of instruction, but at this stage of the debate that will only cloud the issue. This simply highlights the importance teaching or instruction as being the most important aspect of learning wherever you are in the world. Of course your peers, classrooms, technology all contribute but if you want to make investment in learning, spend it on developing the teachers.

My time in Malaysia comes to an end this evening but even if my presentation did not achieve all I had expected, and I hope it did, I feel I have learned a little more, as the Malay saying goes….. Everyday a thread, soon a cloth.

And if you would like to read more about John Hatties research, read the Click the link.

 

 

Test obsession and Test Anxiety

Tests anxiety

“We live in a test conscious and test giving culture in which the lives of people are in part determined by their test performance”

Sarason, Davidson, & Lighthall

What’s interesting about this statement is, it was first published in 1960 and was based on students in the US, yet would not seem out of place in describing the situation in the UK.  The UK, as with so many other things has unfortunately caught up with the US and become a nation that tests and measures…everything.

Where a person’s worth is judged only by the tests they have passed it is perhaps not surprising that examination success has become so important and test anxiety increased.

But it’s not just the UK, this is a global obsession, take China for example where the pressure to succeed has become so intense that cheating in the Gaokao, the nation’s A-Chinese-invigilator-sca-010university entrance exam is a major problem. The government has not been slow to react and for the first time anyone found cheating will face a possible seven year jail sentence. In Ruijin, east China’s Jiangxi Province, invigilators use instruments to scan students’ shoes before they entered the exam hall, while devices to block wireless signals are also used to reduce the opportunity to cheat.

Test anxiety or stress

Stress is a broad term that is experienced when you find yourself in adverse or demanding circumstances, sitting an exam perhaps. Test anxiety is a situation specific type of stress, experienced by people who find examinations threatening. Recently, there has been an increased interest in exam stress and test anxiety in the UK and a need for it to be given closer academic scrutiny.

The research so far shows that test anxiety can actually impair learning and hurt test performance. And this is the issue, are students underperforming in examinations, which as stated above can have a significant impact on their lives not because of their lack of knowledge or even their ability to apply knowledge, but simply because the medium used to assess them is an exam.

In simple terms test anxiety effects exams results and exam results play a major part in people’s lives.

There are three components of test anxiety (Zeidner 1998)

  • Cognitive – the negative thoughts you can have during tests e.g. “if I fail this I will fail all my examinations” and the performance limiting difficulties experienced as a result of anxiety e.g. inability to read questions clearly or solve problems.
  • Affective – physical symptoms e.g. trembling, tension etc.
  • Behavioural – test anxiety creates an environment that encourages students to avoid studying or best delay it.

The reason people develop test anxiety is thought to be rooted in certain social issues e.g. how you are judged by others and the fear of failure in the public domain. It may also be related to the type of anxiety people experience when they have to make a best man’s speech, for example. Another aspect is that it is not always what others think, but what you think of yourself that is the issue and so the expectation of exam failure could impact on an individual’s ego and self-esteem.

Phase one is OK BUT

I think in the UK we are through the worst part of this, let’s call it phase one, and by that I mean we know that examinations and testing are not the answer, and that people are not their exam result. We have learned this the hard way by producing groups of exam qualified students, releasing them into the world of work, ill prepared to cope with the demands of the workplace. In addition, we have developed helpful techniques that enable people to better cope with test anxiety. Some of these I have discussed in previous blogs, Stress or Pressure – Don’t let the bridge collapse, Exam stress – Mindfulness and the “7/11” to name but two.

BUT………we still have some way to go with phase two, which involves answering the question, what do we replace exams with if they are so bad? And until we solve that, helping good people perform in the system we have just now is the best we can do.

 

Currywurst , apples and the £33,000 a year boarding school

currywurst

Currywurst fast becoming the most popular dish in Berlin

I have three relatively unrelated stories this month.

Berlin

The first follows a trip to Berlin this weekend and the obligatory city tour. Just of Unter den Linden you will find a sunken glass plate between the pavement that provides a view into a room full of empty bookshelves, sufficient to house the 20,000 books that were destroyed on this site on the 10th of May 1933. Some 70,000 people, many German university students gathered to burn books with “unGerman” ideas. Joseph Goebbels joined the students at the bonfire and declared: ” The future German man will not just be a man of books, but a man of character.” “It is to this end that we want to educate you.”

This was not only symbolic but practical. Without these books or to be precise only having the ones that remained, it might just be possible to create a nation of people who all think the same? Who all share the same ideals and live life by the same values. And yet of course this is not how you create an educated society, a society able to think for itself, the result will be compliance and idealism. Which was more likely what Goebbels had in mind.

Goodwill Hunting

When I got home one of my favourite movies had already started. Good Will Hunting tells the story of a maths genius, Will Hunting who struggles to come to terms with his past and as a result is unable to make a commitment for fear of being let down. But for me the best scene is where Will confronts a first year grad student who has been belittling his friend Chuckie.

Will: “Wood drastically underestimates the impact of social distinctions predicated upon wealth, especially inherited wealth…” You got that from Vickers. “Work in Essex County,” Page 98, right? Yeah I read that too. Were you gonna plagiarize the whole thing for us, you have any thoughts of your own on this matter? Or is that your thing, you come into a bar, you read some obscure passage and then you pretend, you pawn it off as your own, your own idea just to impress some girls? Embarrass my friend?

Will: See the sad thing about a guy like you, is in about 50 years you’re gonna start doin’ some thinkin’ on your own and you’re gonna come up with the fact that there are two certainties in life. One, don’t do that. And two, you dropped a hundred and fifty grand on a fxxxin’ education you coulda’ got for a dollar fifty in late charges at the Public Library.

Clark: Yeah, but I will have a degree, and you’ll be serving my kids fries at a drive-thru on our way to a skiing trip. Will: [smiles] Yeah, maybe. But at least I won’t be unoriginal.

This of course challenges the idea that knowledge is the same as thinking. Knowing something is not the same as having manipulated the information in your head, questioned and explored the arguments from many angles, the result should be an opinion, not someone else’s but your own.

Wellington college

And finally to bring my trilogy up to date. Only this week Wellington College who boast George Orwell and Sebastian Faulks as past students announced that have introduced a six-hour interview process to help teachers see beyond children’s over tutoring. They encourage families to spend more quality time instead of having their children tutored, Julian Thomas, Wellington’s head master, said: “When parents ask how should they prepare their children for our selection process, we tell them ‘have supper together and talk as a family; go to plays and good films and discuss them. Help them to think critically about the world around them; enjoy interesting conversations go out for walks and see the world”.

What Wellington are trying to do is encourage behaviours that will help children become thinking adults.

In conclusion

Knowledge like information is becoming increasingly accessible, unlike Germany in 1933 we have no restrictions, the internet has given us that power. But learning is more than knowledge you have to take the facts and make them your own, stitching them together carefully and thoughtfully, and that takes time and a considerable amount of effort. On the whole absorbing information will probably not come as easy to you as it did to Will Hunting, yet even with his genius he only knew what he had read. His learning had in fact only just begun as he went looking for the real life experiences that would test if he really understood anything at all.

Examinations are moving more towards tests that require you to think, asking that you provide an opinion or make recommendations given a set of circumstances, case studies are a good example. Of course you need knowledge as a foundation but the ability to sift quickly through the vast amount of information available may in time become more important than knowledge itself .

Ps apples is taken from Good Will Hunting – “How ya like those apples”

 

 

Why cramming works and making stuff up is okay

Will making stuff up

Will making stuff up

To a certain extent I have spent much of my career making things up. When I was a student that was not the case, I listened and learned and so when I spoke, I spoke with confidence that what I was saying was correct, because someone had just told me it was. Yet knowing is only the start, and in some ways a poor relative of the “figuring it out for yourself” technique.  I am reminded of quote from the film Good Will Hunting, which along with Dead Poets capture some really magical moments in learning.

Will Hunting – “See, the sad thing about a guy like you is in 50 years you’re gonna start doing some thinkin on your own and you’re gonna come up with the fact that there are two certainties in life.” “One, don’t do that.” “And Two, you dropped a hundred and fifty grand on a f***in education you coulda got for a dollah fifty in late charges at the public library.”

 Question practice – the secret to exam success

Having had no real formal educational training I have been exploring ideas as to why some techniques work and others don’t, why it is that student A passes yet student B who did exactly the same, failed. One clear observation from over twenty years in the high stakes exam world is that the most important activity that a student can engage in is, question practice. As a lecturer I would make statements, explain them using real world examples, get students to laugh, and maybe even enjoy the subject. But, the very best learning seemed to happen when the student was required to do a question. So it was with great interest that I read of some research that came out of the US in 2011, it’s called Retrieval Practice.

 Retrieval practice – the power of cramming

Retrieval practice is simply the process of retrieving something from memory.  So for example if I asked you, who was the Prime Minister that took us into the European Economic Community in 1973, you might say, on reflection Edward Heath. You already knew the answer but were forced to recall it. If however you were not sure who it was and were subsequently told (given feedback) it was Edward Heath and that Harold Wilson in 1975 held the first referendum, you are likely to remember both. But the most interesting and perhaps surprising aspect of this research is that not only can you recall the facts, it also leads to a deeper learning in so much that you can answer questions on related information. This in some ways gives credence to the idea that cramming information, maybe not at the last minute could be beneficial, not simply because you will remember it for a few hours’ but that it will lead to deeper learning.

Mark McDaniel is a psychology professor at Washington University in St. Louis

“We think of tests as a kind of dipstick that we insert into a student’s head, an indicator that tells us how high the level of knowledge has risen in there when in fact, every time a student calls up knowledge from memory, that memory changes.” “Its mental representation becomes stronger, more stable and more accessible.”

Jeffrey Karpicke, a professor of cognitive psychology at Purdue University

“Retrieving is the principal way learning happens.” “Recalling information we’ve already stored in memory is a more powerful learning event than storing that information in the first place,” he says. “Retrieval is ultimately the process that makes new memories stick.” “Not only does retrieval practice help students remember the specific information they retrieved, it also improves retention for related information that was not directly tested.”

Final thoughts

And so I am pleased to say that what I have observed in the classroom, that question practice improves exam results might be a little simplistic and that not only does it help students pass exams they might actually have been learning something at the same time 🙂

If you want to read more follow these links

To Really Learn, Quit Studying and Take a Test (New York Times)

Researchers Find That Frequent Tests Can Boost Learning (Scientific American)

Are exams fit for purpose (part two) – what are the alternatives?

You dont fatten pigs 2

Last month’s blog came to the conclusion that examinations* are fit for purpose or at least “a purpose.”

They provide the student with a clear objective to which they can direct their efforts and focus attention and are a transferable measure of competency that can be assessed at scale. The “at scale” point is important as there are many ways of assessing competence but few that can cope with the need to test thousands of students all at the same time.

The main problem with examinations is that they don’t always examine what is most valued; the method of assessment often has significant limitations as to what it actually tests and the results are presented in league tables that give a far too simplistic view of success.

I am not sure we can resolve all of these but it might be worth exploring other options, specifically alternative methods of assessment. For example If you change the method of assessment from a formal, often timed written exam to say a portfolio of work, not only do you change the method of assessment but you will change what is being examined, two birds with one stone perhaps.

Different methods of assessing competence

Open book exams

Open book assessment offers a way of testing application rather than memory. Students have access to a text book that contains information relevant to what they are being asked. It’s the use of knowledge that is important, not the knowledge itself. The idea of open book could easily be adapted, why not allow students access to the internet during the exam, they could look up anything they wanted. Is this not more representative of what happens in the real world?

Take out exams

Similar to the above the so called “take out exam” allows the student to take the exam away to work on at home using whatever resources they prefer, books, internet etc. They return the next day with a completed answer. This can work better than you might at first think so long as you have a robust mechanism to detect plagiarism. There are several very good software packages that can spot the most sophisticated types of copying.

Case studies/simulations

A case study provides an environment for the student to demonstrate they can use their knowledge to solve problems and or offer advice in a virtual world. Most case studies tend to be written but this is one area that we could see some clever and affordable use of technology to better simulate the real world.

Performance tests

In a performance test students are required to demonstrate a skill/process, create a product etc while being observed by the assessor who will evaluate the performance. A great example of testing ability to apply knowledge but suffers from the subjectivity of the assessor and has limited application at scale.

Portfolios

Portfolios are most often collections of the student’s work that demonstrate their ability to perform a specific task. These can be simulations of the real world or portfolios of work actually undertaken on the job. A portfolio can include written documents, emails, audio or video recordings, in fact anything that provides evidence as required by the assessor.   Portfolios are perfect for assessing application but the process of assessment is expensive and not without bias.

Viva Vocal – (living voice) Oral exam

Often used to test PhD students, an oral exam gives the assessor chance to question the student. This is a very effective method where you are looking for higher level skill and depth of understanding. As identified last month it’s probably one of the oldest forms of assessment.

Digital badges – capturing the learning path

Being awarded a badge as recognition of achievement is something many will be familiar with especially if you were a boy scout or girl guide. But digital badging is new and becoming increasingly popular because of the internet. A good example would be linkedin and the badges awarded to you by others as recognition of certain skills.  Many of the assessment methods above provide a first past the post type of assessment, you pass and that’s it. Digital badging on the other hand is a form of lifelong assessment that evolves along with your career.

Digital badging for me is one of the most exiting forms of assessment and I am not alone Nasa have been using digital badging since 2011. Read more about digital badging.

Assessment in the future

Scanning for competenceThe list above is far from comprehensive and many other equally valid types of assessment exist e.g.  Role plays, Slide presentations, Assignments etc but what might assessment look like 15 years from now. Well how about using MRI scans to identify which parts of the brain are being used?  Not sure it will catch on but it would provide some interesting evidence as to how the student is getting to the answer, simple memory or a genuine and deep understanding .

*Examinations defined as a written test administered to assess someone’s level of understanding, knowledge or skills

Are exams fit for purpose? (part one)

take-the-same-testI have written in the past about what passing an exam proves but have never questioned if exams achieve what they were originally designed to do, are they fit for purpose?

Firstly let me define what I mean by an exam. A written test administered to assess someone’s level of understanding, knowledge or skill that results in a qualification if successful. This is in contrast to a test which is a method of assessing someone’s level of understanding, knowledge or skill often as part of a course in order to provide feedback. A test does not have to be written. Although exams don’t have to be written either, many are and initially at least I would like to keep the definition as narrow as possible.

In order to answer the question, are exams fit for purpose we must first take a step back and look at how we got to where we are now.

 

A brief history of examinations

The first standardised test is believed to have been introduced by the Chinese in 606 AD to help select candidates for specific governmental positions. However most examinations around this time would have been oral, requiring the candidate to recite a dissertation or answer questions. Although there is evidence of written exams being used as early as 1560*, it was not until the 1820’s that many Universities began to adopt the practice. From 1850 onwards the written exam became the norm in most UK Universities. In 1854 under the Gladstone government selection of Civil servants was based on their ability to pass an exam, this time however it was written.

Bureaucracy – In 1917 to help bring some order to what had been described as chaotic the Certificate and the Higher School Certificate were introduced. Then in 1951 we had the General Certificate of Education (GCE) examinations, more commonly known as Ordinary ‘O’ level and Advanced ‘A’ level , these were normally taken at 16 and 18.

In the 1960’s the CSE (Certificate of Secondary Education) was born, opening up qualifications for all, not just those that went to Grammar school. However this two tier system was thought divisive and so in 1988 under the guidance of the then Education Secretary Sir Keith Joseph both sets of examinations were replaced by the GCSE. The GCSE was graded and contained credit for course work.  In 1991 the General National Vocational Qualifications, (GNVQS) were established intended to incorporate both academic and vocational elements, by 1995 these were accepted as ‘equivalent’ to GCSE.

In 2014 we find change again, gone is the course work and written examinations once again become the main method of assessment, although there will be grading, 1 to 9 with 9 being the higher mark. The exams will still be called GCSE’s, although officially they are known as GCSE (England). This is to avoid confusion with Wales and Northern Ireland, who are not changing.

Yes they are

Historically at least it would appear the purpose of the exam was to provide a recognised and transferable measure of competency in a given subject or discipline. The lack of transparency and consistency of the oral exam resulted in them being replaced with written ones and a more formal bureaucratic structure was developed to administer the process.

And in many ways there is very little wrong with this.

The problem is not with the exam itself, but with what is being examined. If as a society we value “thinking and creativity” for example, then should we not be examining these rather than subjects that require the candidate to do little more than rote learn facts.  Perhaps we should explore different methods of assessment, the written exam has its uses but hand written papers are looking increasingly outdated in a world that communicates electronically not only in short texts and tweets but with video and photos . In addition the way exam results are used in league tables to show winners and losers is divisive. It looks like a measure but has in fact become a target that schools and teachers must hit or be considered failures.

Please watch this it’s very funny…..and thought provoking

Not on the test

 

 

 

 

 

In the second blog about exams I want to look more closely at some of these points, in particular what other ways we can assess what people know.

*Assessment around this time was through debate between a number of learned people all at the same time and lasting for two hours or more.