This next post focuses on the research that I conducted at my academy and the findings of that research. The research itself was conducted on a small scale; only focusing on Yr12 Humanities lessons, which at the time had a small uptake due to being a new 6th Form.
For my research itself I used two methods; observation data and questionnaires for both staff and students. The limitations of my research will be discussed later on.
Approach to data analysis
It is most prudent to conduct a thematic analysis of the data collected rather than discussing each method individually; this is especially so in light of my use of two questionnaires, which ultimately produced significant amounts of both qualitative and quantitative data. Additionally, the observational data provided information which links to both questionnaires, whilst also itself raising some intriguing questions.
Defining and understanding AfL- staff responses
The responses to Question 2 on the teacher questionnaire indicated that generally the Year 12 teachers in Humanities are aware that AfL is designed to check the progress of students, and monitor their current learning, with all respondents including this concept in their written response in some way. All respondents make reference to the idea of checking students learning, with Respondent A describing it as “Assessment for learning- checking progress throughout the lesson”; similarly Respondents B, D and E also accurately identify the phrase ‘assessment for learning’ in their responses. Only Respondent C fails to state what the term ‘AfL’ actually means; this may be due to ambiguity in the question, with the respondent believing that a description of what AfL means to them is sufficient. This does however imply that the phrase is recognised by teachers, and that KS5 Humanities teachers have at minimum a basic grasp of the underlying function of AfL. As the Humanities department as a whole have all experienced the same whole academy initiatives this year, as well as on site INSET training, we can assume that for the most past they have received the same information about AfL from the academy itself.
Interestingly however, only Respondents A and B identify that AfL also involves an adaptation of teaching pedagogy in direct response to the information received from students. Respondent A shows awareness of “making adjustments as necessary” after checking progress, whilst Respondent B crucially states that AfL is “real time which enable[s] a teacher to ‘read’ the level of progress/understanding.” When considering why Respondents A and B show a better understanding of the function of AfL it is plausible that they have received different experiences in training in addition to whole academy INSET, as the academy runs weekly voluntary training sessions (VT), at which attendance is not compulsory. They may therefore have attended more /different VT sessions than other Respondents. Nevertheless, in spite of the small sample size, what the responses do indicate is that the process of AfL is what is not understood by many, and the crucial need to change ones teaching, to be reactive to student feedback is often missed. Assessment cannot truly be formative without this change. This is reflective of Wiliams’ (2009; 13) perception, as he argues that “adapt[ing] teaching and learning activities in order to meet student needs. This sounds straightforward but it is far from common even in the best classrooms.”
The fundamental purpose of AfL is to further students progress by accurately diagnosing where they currently are, and what needs to be done to move them forwards; without the adaptation of teaching, or indeed of student action, there can be no progression, and AfL becomes merely another classroom activity.
Students and AfL
What is more is that it is very clear that students are in no way familiar with the expression ‘AfL’, and one might ask why they should be. It is however surprising, seeing as student engagement with and involvement in formative assessment is crucial for its success, that we as teachers do not share its purpose with them. The same could not be said of summative assessment however, with the importance of GCSE and A Level exams instilled into students as soon as they begin their programme of study. Why do we as teachers therefore seem to value formative assessment less, or perhaps, we value it secretly?
Surely, by sharing the purpose of formative assessment with our students, and emphasising its value to learning, this would have the cumulative effect of increasing both the effective use of formative assessment in the classroom, and of raising attainment in summative assessments.
Based on students responses to the questionnaire, 43 respondents out of 44 were unaware of what the term ‘AfL’ means, nor had their teacher ever explained it to them. Yet, when asked specifically about a range of AfL activities in their Humanities lessons, students were able to recognise their use, thus suggesting that AfL had been occurring often. Interestingly, Respondent 29, who was able to recognise the term, defined AfL as “assessment for learning is where the teacher assesses what you learn through answering questions,” accurately naming the term, and correctly identifying that learning is being assessed. However, Respondent 29 harbours the misconception that AfL only takes place through questioning; this may be due to questioning being the most common strategy used in this respondent’s lesson, according to their responses, and also the respondent rating questioning as the most effective strategy for a teacher to assess progress
Observations and AfL strategies used in lessons
In July 2013 73% of lessons observed were judged as ‘good or outstanding’ for the use and effectiveness of AfL during the lesson. This implies that those staff observed had a sufficient grasp of AfL to be able to ensure at least ‘good’ progress for their students according to the Ofsted criteria. However, this figure does not narrow down the difference between ‘outstanding’ and ‘good’ AfL, but presents a generic picture. This difference is crucial as the ‘good’ criteria stated at the time that “teachers assess pupils’ learning and progress regularly and accurately,” whereas the ‘outstanding’ criteria posited that “teachers systematically and effectively check pupils’ understanding” (Ofsted; 2012).
In relation to the use of AfL strategies across Year 12 Humanities, there was some correlation between teacher and student responses. For instance, 30 out of 44 student respondents identified questioning as being used often or regularly in lessons, with 27 respondents identifying questioning as being effective or very effective to understand student progress. Comparing this to the teacher questionnaire, all 5 respondents stated that they use questioning in their lessons, and all ranking the use of questioning as being very effective in order to understand student progress in lessons. It is evident then, that the perceived value of questioning is shared by both students and teachers. Questioning is an integral part of any lesson, and can be used to clarify, stimulate, engage and consolidate.
Intriguingly, despite teachers and students placing immense value in verbal feedback, with all 5 staff claiming to use it, and ranking it very effective, as well as 34 out of 44 students claiming it to be effective or very effective, only 22 students reported its use often or regularly in lessons. Feedback itself can be defined as “as information provided by an agent (e.g. teacher, peer, book, self) regarding aspects of one’s performance or understanding” (Hattie and Timperley; 2007; 81), expounded in an array of formats, verbal being one. Within a lesson, verbal feedback could be in the form of a response to a question, comments on a piece of written work, or even questioning designed to elicit reflective thinking. Overwhelmingly students considered verbal feedback most vital. The Sutton Trust (2011) echoes the view of students at the academy, reporting that effective feedback adds an additional 9 months onto the learning of students.
Why therefore it verbal feedback not used more commonly in lessons? With regards to targets set during teacher observations, 3 observees were targeted to improve either written or verbal feedback, with verbal not necessarily to come from the teacher. For example, the target for Observee 8 suggested that they “allow them [students] to explain how they reached the correct answer to ensure that they fully understand.” It is the reference to how students reached their answer which is crucial here; the process of student learning should be under analysis by both students themselves and teachers, rather than solely a focus on the ‘right answer.’
When asked to suggest how teachers could better understand students’ progress and understanding in lessons, 9 out of 44 student respondents proposed ideas. Their suggestions can be categorised as follows: verbal feedback (3 respondents), one-to-one sessions (4 respondents) and marking (2 respondents). What is obvious here is that it is direct contact with the teacher, with interaction individually targeted to each student, which students seek the most.
All 3 categories involve providing feedback to the student, either verbally or in a written form. Whilst the Sutton Trust (2011) argues that effective feedback can add 9+ months onto a students learning, it reports that one-to-one sessions only add 5+ months, for a cost which is considerably higher. Yet students feel this is what they need. Is this because they feel they do not receive sufficient feedback during lessons? Or is it because in a one-to-one setting they are more willing to ask questions they would not in front of their peers?
Quite accurately, Minton (2005; 115) argues that “the feedback must be as close as possible to the learning for it to have any useful effect” and quite rightly that “it is not much use knowing that we need to do something differently once the point of need has passed.” What use is it to assess what students have learned long after they have left your classroom? By then, the opportunity to address misconceptions and advance learning is missed.
Answering my research questions
From examining teacher responses it is evident that Humanities teachers were aware of the term AfL, and recognised its purpose to ascertain students’ progress and understanding. However, there evidently was a lack of understanding that the teacher must adapt their pedagogy in response to information obtained from students- those staff who responded indicate that this fundamental aspect of AfL is missing for several teachers. On behalf of students, there was no widespread comprehension of the purpose or form of AfL.
Most commonly the strategies of questioning and model answers are seen in Year 12 lessons, with mini whiteboards used the least. Interestingly all 3 of these strategies have been promoted in voluntary training sessions since 2011, yet only 2 of them have been consistently adopted by teachers at KS5. There seems to exist the perception that some strategies are more valuable than others, with mini boards deemed the least valuable. Yet I would argue that teachers are under-estimating the impact they can have in lessons by providing a quick, whole class assessment method (if used effectively).
Reviewing the data obtained from students and teachers, the trend appears that the more frequently a strategy is used in lessons, the more value it is afforded by both parties.
The question is, does this value result from usage, or is usage a direct result of attributable value?