Friday, February 07, 2014

The Snape approach to exam success

The new J1s have arrived fresh and squeaky clean from the 'O's. This year's crop is overall the best scoring we've ever had to date. They are probably used to being straight A students, but there will be a few who would be celebrating unexpectedly good results. Yay for them all.

But, no, this will not do. The leap in standard that these kids are taking is quite a tremendous gulf to bridge between secondary school and college undergrad. Because they are undergoing a major skills upgrade, they must get used to failure. Repeated failure. It is only in failure that learning takes place. Fail once, change technique. Fail twice, change approach. Fail a third time, change something else. Trial and error until something clicks. When that happens, they would have learned something new and I would have finally been successful at teaching them something new.

Does it have to be that way? Can a straight A student continue maintaining straight As throughout the course? It's possible, but at least initially that's not recommended. Fresh off the success boat, and as horrible as I sound, they have to be humbled if they are going to become teachable again.

What of their morale and self-esteem as we modern educators seem bound to pander to? The 'A' Levels is a long-term goal. We reassure the kids that they are constantly failing, not because there is anything wrong with them per se, but because we are always raising the bar. But no matter how badly they fail -- as long as they don't give up, and as long as they help each other along -- they would have learned so much by the end of first year that they will barely scrape through their promotional exams. The promo, after all, is not a high-stakes exam but a formative one. The barest minimal pass is sufficient for advancement, hence there is no pressure to Ace it.

Our long-term goal only comes into sight around the prelim exam in the October of the following year, which is the summative exam as far as our local jurisdiction goes. By then, they are ready to gather their own resources and Ace that. Some kids need a good result on the prelim in order to apply for early enrollment in some universities. If they don't want early enrollment, then the summative is the 'A's in November. This is the only result that counts, hence this is our target for high scoring achievement.

Once we have a perspective on what is going on at the 'A's, we realize that not every test or exam or assessment requires every student to achieve an A grade. A failing or near-failing grade is more par for the course. It's only when we can convince the kids (and middle-management) not to expect high scores in every little assessment that we can take the pressure off the kids' education experience and focus them back on real learning. And we will see a stratospheric improvement in grades all round -- but only at the end of second year.

Wednesday, February 05, 2014

Building bridges

Important insight gained from the PE Dept's staff sharing on the low-elements team-building facilities today: although safety is the #1 priority in team-building activities, the participants also share in the responsibility of keeping themselves and their fellow participants safe. By personally experiencing some element of danger, as a group they develop a sense of concern and look out for each other, especially when it is made clear to them that success is team-dependent and cannot be accomplished solo.

A case in point is the 'river crossing' activity in which a series of blocks are set in a pattern on the ground between crossing points. A team uses the blocks as supports for a bridge they build with a limited number of planks to get from the starting point to the ending point on the opposite side. It would be so much safer if the play area was bulldozed flat, but the ground is left in its natural state with grass and soil, bumps and dips, making the traverse unsteady and the risk of falling off is quite real. So apart from just focusing on the goal of getting from point A to point B, the participants are also figuring out how to utilize their limited resources most effectively; how to stabilize the bridge while they are building it; and how to support each other to avoid falling into the 'river' until all are safely across to the other side.

This kind of affective learning the kids are getting from the PE Dept needs to continue in the classroom. We academics tend to focus on getting our kids from exam to exam and all the work we do is intended to bulldoze the way smooth for them. Content packages; skills packages; parent support network; remedial classes; personal consultations... with every need catered to, there is no incentive to reach out to their fellow learners and support each other through their journey. So instead of teaching three or four classes a year we each have effectively taken on the responsibility of teaching 70-90 individual students per year -- and we wonder why the burnout rate in the education industry is so high.

At this level of study, success is a team game. Individual effort is important, of course, but our job isn't just to groom a handful of brilliant scholars but to work on raising levels for the entire cohort. That means the kids themselves must bear the responsibility of helping one another because the individual teacher alone cannot possibly build the bridge AND carry the entire lot of kids kicking and screaming across from point A to point B.

Tuesday, February 04, 2014

Horrid hybrid

Of exams, there are two types: the formative and the summative.

The formative type functions as a student's learning tool. It allows the student to do a bit of self-learning and evaluation as to the progress made in learning so far. These exams are usually simple and occasionally even fun -- if you can call pop quizzes and essay writing fun. They may also take the form of 'alternative assessments' or self-directed projects that make use of the skills and content learnt and mashes them up in the crafting of a non-traditional artefact for assessment: a video, a poster, or something as creative and colourful. There is more flexibility in submission deadlines, consultation and advice from the assessor, and collaboration with peers. As such, they are low-stakes assessments because the objective is skewed more towards the learning process than the assessment results.

The summative type is the assessment of what the student has already learned, not what the student is in the process of learning. In order to gauge the student's learning fairly, the assessment would put the student in an unfamiliar position or situation  and see how the student is able to draw on the skills and knowledge already acquired and use them to effectively carry out the assessment requirements.

In our tribal past, a novice may be learning from a master how to make a drum or a canoe. During the instruction period, the novice may be called upon to assist in various parts of the process and observe others. There may be mini-tests along the way, but the results would have little serious consequence to the final product. The master would always be there to praise competent work or repair any damage done, but the learning experience would have served its purpose. These tests are formative in nature.

The summative assessment occurs when the novice has to build the whole item from scratch for the first time. With the learning scaffolds removed, the novice would encounter real life obstacles, difficulties, or unforseen circumstances that could not have been prepared for beforehand (the master made it look so easy!). The novice may have the knowledge and skill, but to do well must also be able to utilize some personal ingenuity, insight, quick critical thinking and improvise a solution on the spot. Here the assessment is high-stakes as the end-user (not the master!) depends on the quality of the work produced. Good work results in a satisfied customer, poor work results in a waste of time, resources and probably a reprimand and retraining for the goofball who screwed up.

Jumping back to the present age, assessments have become a source of unnecessary stress for the students of today. That's because assessments perform neither formative nor summative functions, but rather have become a horrid hybrid of both. What should be formative assessments are over-studied and over-prepared for as what should be low stakes have become high stakes. The actual high-stakes final exams (of which there aren't really that many) are taken as formative in nature as every student feels inadequate taking them without being hand-held all the way to the last full-stop.

If every assessment is taken as high stakes, and if every result is viewed as more important than the process, little real learning is taking place. If the assessment meant to be summative is prepared for like a formative one, there is little opportunity for practicing independent thought. What we get is a generation of students that don't know how to tackle questions unless they are told the answers beforehand. The problem is, we can't teach them all the answers because no one knows all the questions.

Our efforts to teach to the exam may bring results, but also undue stress to everyone involved and a very warped picture of what exams are and what they are meant to accomplish. Let's go back to when formative assessments were easy and the answers accessible to a diligent student; and summative assessments challenged a student with unfamiliar, off-the-wall questions that cannot be easily prepared for. Less stress, more learning, better results all round.