Write down everything you know … NOW

exam rooom

In the past few weeks the following things have happened that have annoyed me and made me reflect:

  • I completed an exam for my uni subject as part of my postgraduate studies
  • Year 10 students completed their School Certificate exams
  • Year 7 and 9 students completing yearly exams

For those who follow me on Twitter, they all know too well my opposition towards completing an exam for uni. The exam was for a subject called “Social networking and online communities”, and the exam consisted of multiple choice questions, short answer questions and one essay question. The subject was to teach us how to build and sustain a successful online community whose members share and collaboratively create knowledge. In my tweets and my uni forum posts, I complained how this end-of-semester test did nothing but assess our ability to memorise and regurgitate information. The test didn’t actually test my understanding of online communities or my ability to create and sustain online communities. For example I memorised that ethnography involved participant observation, but I have no idea what this means. However, I was able to memorise it and regurgitate it in the exam, so I got a mark for it. While the content of the uni course was actually quite interesting, studying for the exam ruined the learning experience.

Meanwhile, in my last lesson with my Year 10 class before the School Certificate exams, one student asked, “Do we have science after the School Certificate?” I said yes. This student replied “But what’s the point?”

That really upset me. This student saw the purpose of our science lessons as a way for her to pass a test. After the test, learning doesn’t matter. School is supposed to be a place where we nurture the curiosity of young people. School is supposed to be a place where students want to learn. School isn’t supposed to be somewhere you went to pass an exam and then somehow become “free”. What school has become though for many of our students is a place where they cram in as many facts as they can, spill it out in an exam and forget it as soon as they leave the exam room. And what for? So they can get a piece of paper at the end. As a uni student, I hated being treated this way. Besides educational institutions, where else would insist on someone writing answers as fast as they can in a set time frame as an accurate way of finding out what someone knows and can do? It’s not like you get the exam back either. All you get is a piece of paper with a grade and/or a number. You have no idea of which areas you are good at and which areas you can improve on (and how).

So why do schools do it? Why do we as teachers insist on exams?

I’m not saying that tests don’t have their place in education. Regular tests can give lots of useful information to students and teachers, but why can’t we have other assessments that hold the same value in the community as exams. Why can’t we use portfolios, interviews or collaborative assignments that are weighted the same as exams? There must be better alternatives than sitting our students in a hall and telling them “write down everything you know now … you have two hours”. With less emphasis on exams, students would probably enjoy learning at school a lot more. Isn’t that what school is for?

Enhancing formative assessment & personalised learning – add on benefits of gamification

It has been two weeks since the implementation of gamification in my Year 10 Science class. Five out of six teams have completed the first two quests and have been awarded the achievement badge of “Cool Scientist” and the password to level up to Quest 3. Engagement and motivation has definitely increased for 99% of the students. I now get nervous when I log onto Edmodo because I know there’ll be heaps of work uploaded by the students with comments such as “please mark asap”. At the end of every lesson, almost every student submits one or two pieces of work on Edmodo for me to mark. I have to be honest – marking their work every night has been hard work. However, because the students are handing in quality work so regularly, I can easily analyse their areas of strengths and areas for improvement.

Before I go into this further I want to emphasise that every teacher, including myself, knows the benefits of formative assessment (For non-education readers formative assessment is about finding out what students can and cannot do regularly in class tasks. Students are given detailed written feedback. In many ways it is more effective than making students sit an end-of-topic exam). However, many teachers know how difficult it is to gather student work regularly for assessment. Many classrooms involve students doing a task and then the teacher going through the answers together with the whole class. Students mark the answers themselves and many students do not know what they need to improve on and more importantly how they can improve.

So back to gamification …. Since the students are so keen to submit their work, I had an opportunity after every lesson to see whether they “get it”. And what I found is that the design of scientific experiments is much harder for this class than I expected. I also found out they cannot construct tables to present data in a way to show trends. While most students understood independent, dependent and controlled variables, a selected number of students still didn’t. From this I was able to provide detailed written feedback via Edmodo for each student after every lesson. I was also able to plan mini-lessons at the start of each lesson to go through the concepts they did need to improve on. This was followed by students working in teams on their quests.

I can see so much potential with using gamification to enhance formative assessment, which branches off into better personalised learning plans. When I implement gamification for the next topic, I want to use it to enhance personalised learning. Here’s my idea – When students complete quests in the game, there are multiple parallel levels (tasks) that I as the teacher can give the students depending on their need. For example, the next topic is chemical reactions. If a student is capable of completing word chemical equations, I can give them the next level of writing chemical equations with chemical symbols as their “level up”. However for a student who needs more time with word equations I will provide them with more levels of practicing chemical equations. Points and leveling up is tailored for each student. I know this is a very ambitious plan and I’m still ironing out some ideas, but I think using gamification to engage and motivate, enhance formative assessment and better inform personalised learning can reap great benefits for our students.