Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Assessment an Epiphany

Today I was writing the exam questions for one of the course that I teach on and I found it so much easier to write the questions for lectures I had not given yet. As then I can fit the teaching to the assessment. My  wife pointed out that isn't that how we always teach - decide what the students have to learn and then teach them. Well it is sort of true but not really.

Teaching is driven by curriculum

When I arrived there were no materials for the course I was about to teach and so I was given a list of the lectures from last year and ideas for the lectures this year which made up the curriculum. I then made up the lectures under these headings aligning them to the recommended textbook. So this is completely content and curriculum driven teaching. The students have to learn what is in the syllabus and then the exam has to test this syllabus.

What should have happened

I should have asked, what do the students need to learn? What are we trying to get them to do? What should they be able to do when they finish the course? This is different to what should they know at the end of the course in a subtle way. In this learning the knowledge is less important than the ways students interact with that knowledge and in particular in what they get wrong. What are their misconceptions? Where do they struggle? What are the blocks to their understanding? What will they need to use the skills they learn in the course for? Is there learning or coaching to pass an exam.

What can I do now?

Find out what they cannot do. Find out what they need to do. I am running a session with last years students who are now in their final year doing their projects and who are struggling with the statistics. I need to find out what skills they missing and make sure they get help with this as well as making sure these skills have been covered. I am setting a formative assessment to see how much my current students know and where they are making mistakes.
Confidence is a big issue and the current students are worried about the formative assessment and would prefer to do more practice problems in class where I show them how to solve them. I am reluctant because this does not teach them the skills for joining techniques together. The biggest problem they have is not being able to recognise what sort of problem they are dealing with. This requires a "holistic" approach but I am devising a structured formative assessment to make the process less intimidating.
Possibly I need to combine the techniques and do some as they want but also have the formative assessment as we have five hours of contact time to go over the material.

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