“Practise Teaching, Teaching Practice” is a series of tips and observations about fundamentals for great teaching based on my experience as a teacher for over twenty years and also as a trainer of teachers for much of that time.
Too many exams make Jack and Jill very dull. Examined to within an inch of their lives the joy is taken out of learning. However, if Jack and Jill have their minds sparked with interesting thoughts and ideas they will be far from dull. What to do? As the famous old saying goes: ‘Weighing the pig doesn’t make it any fatter…’ No, maybe not, the weighing doesn’t help on its own but who does that? I can’t imagine any pig farmer weighing a pig and not feeding it, in fact the likelihood is that the farmer would adjust the pig’s feeding based on the information provided by the scales. The one thing that wouldn’t do much good is to weigh the pig once every year and put a lot of pressure on said pig a few weeks before the weighing was to take place that if it didn’t reach the required weight its future would be… well, this is where the analogy breaks down because fattening the pig is clearly to turn it into chops. Whereas fattening a child with knowledge is feeding their mind with useful and interesting thoughts and ideas. One would hope so anyway.
Oh well, after being lost in the world of analogy, back to the world of the classroom. Should we test children? Yes. The question to ask though is ‘why should we test children’? The answer should be: ‘to help them learn’. If this is our focus then all can share in the joy of testing! Instead of focusing on high stakes exams, mock exams and end of term high stakes ‘tests’ how about testing a little, more often? Some teachers even dismiss the word test and replace it with the more user friendly title of ‘quiz’. Anything to make children feel less threatened. I don’t think it matters whether you call it a test or a quiz, I do think it matters that you share with the children the purpose of the test. The test should be there to help them memorise important knowledge in the subject area. If they know the test is there to help them memorise through the process of trying to retrieve knowledge then they will worry less about getting the highest score. If you make it clear you are not going to expose their scores to everyone else in the class or run a league table, all you will do with the information is adjust your teaching accordingly and, maybe, where necessary, have short small group or individual tutorials where problems arise to help explain areas that are causing confusion then so much the better.
I would recommend more testing, in fact a test every lesson consisting of ten short answer questions. This could make an ideal ‘starter’ activity for a lesson. The first three questions could focus on material from the previous lesson. The next two questions could be from the two weeks before. Questions six and seven could be drawn from what was studied 5 weeks ago whilst questions eight and nine could be taken from the previous half term, term, or even before. Question ten could be about making a connection with what they are currently looking at with something previously studied, which will help serve as an introduction to the lesson. Questions could be informed by the need to revisit previous areas of difficulty but should also have some ‘easy’ questions that you know are pretty much understood. The knowledge you want them to retain might be informed by the exam and by things that you think are also important for whole subject understanding. Whatever you are testing it is the frequency of having to recall knowledge and also having to reach back in their minds for half forgotten knowledge that will help your students memorise important material.
You could also add the mysterious blank ‘question 11’ where they could write about any area they are having difficulty with or perhaps devise their own question for future tests.
How about marking? You should be able to glance over the answers reasonably quickly to get a handle on who is doing okay and who might need help. However, if you’d prefer, at the end of the lesson, distribute answers from the week before and go over the answers getting the pupils to mark their own (or each other’s) work, correcting mistakes if there are any. This will also help them retain knowledge. It doesn’t even matter if they cheat, because by cheating they will be acknowledging the ‘right’ answer.
Although only a small part of what a teacher does, testing can help children learn.
Once you have fattened your class by feeding them tiny morsels and weighing them often, they will be suitably fattened with knowledge in order to go to slaughter…
I really need to work on this analogy…