Controlled Assessment Strategies

The Passage of Time

Originally uploaded by ToniVC

How many teachers are spending at least some of their time planning schemes of work, resources and other bits and bobs for the next academic year?

How many of those teachers will sit in 1 hour chunks (or some other arbitrary time period), during which time they start, get stuff done, save and then (whether finished or not) put everything away and start a new task for another hour.

My Y10 computing students have just finished a 20 hour controlled assessment task. 2 or 3 times a week they’ve come into my classroom, logged in, grabbed their controlled assessment booklets and ploughed on with a task. 55 minutes later they get told to stop, save, put it away until the next time – worst case scenario due to their timetable, in 6 days time.

Don’t get me wrong. There are interventions, tips, hints, guidance and all sorts of other things going on – I’m not just leaving them to fend for themselves. What seems ludicrous, though, is that sometimes the students are just building up a head of steam, getting into the zone, getting themselves into the task, when they get the call to save, log off an pack up until next time. That process of getting yourself into the right frame of mind, and into the right headspace to be able to visualise the problems and challenges you’re dealing with, must sap the students’ productivity.

When I have a big job to do, I’ll sit down and do it. It might take me 90 minutes instead of an hour. It might take me 4 or 5 hours. It might take me a few days or even weeks, but it’s very unlikely that I’ll be using pre-defined, 1 hour chunks to get it done. It’s unnatural to do so.

I’m seriously considering booking my students off timetable in order to complete their controlled assessment in larger chunks. Initially I thought about 5 days, Monday to Friday. That would give me time to do some bits that don’t count towards the time and would give the students time to really get themselves into the task.

The downsides? There’s little time to reflect on the problem. A task that is completed over 3 or 4 weeks has time to permeate, and gives the students time to research and reflect. It may be that, with such a number of subjects (plus all that, not inconsiderable stuff going on outside the classroom), most students aren’t really doing this anyway (my homework tracking book would back that up), I’m not sure.

There’s the logistics of covering my timetable for a whole week, as well as the effect on other subjects of losing their students for a week. If every department did that then it might (MIGHT) be chaos. Or, it might work out really well. Certainly the Geography department take students out for 3 days of fieldwork around this time each year. Why not computing students as well?

Another issue is that time to help students identify issues and to spend some time away from controlled assessment working on them. The OCR programming tasks, for example, come in 3 parts – each progressively more difficult. I’ll usually stop and do a week or two of revision on a particular concept before starting each task, to make the students are fully prepared. So maybe I do 1 day for task 1, 1.5 days for task 2 and 2 days for taks 3, spread out over 3 weeks?

The issue raised here also raises the question of whether the model is flawed for the rest of the year. Carousels, where students learn about Subject A for a half term, Subject B for a half term and then Subject C for a half term, with longer lessons (perhaps a half-day at a time) might be more natural and would allow for longer project-based activities to be explored more effectively. But that might be a post for another day.

Has anyone tried the more intensive approach for longer controlled assessment tasks? Any feedback from those who’ve been there would be much appreciated.

TMNE10: Answering questions

Context: Teachmeet Northeast took place on Thursday 9th December. Each day I’m blogging about one thing I learned at the event.

One of the most inspiring and most interactive presentations was about encouraging students to ask and answer questions. Half the room stood in a circle, facing out, and the other half stood in a larger circle, facing in. Each person had one person opposite and we were each given a card with a simple question (with no right / wrong answers) and 3 prompts.

One person asked the question (we had Christmas themed questions, e.g. what kind of food do you eat at Christmas?) and the opposite person tried to answer the question as best they could. Those with confidence can talk at length. Those who are less confident can be helped out with the prompts.

After the first round we were asked to tell each other how we felt about our role – either answering the question or about listening to the answer. As a listener in the first round I found it quite a responsibility to show that I was listening – nodding, making appropriate noises, etc.

Next everyone on the outside moved one place around the circle. This meant I had a new partner and a new question – but my neighbour had my previous question. This meant that while I was answering a question all of my own, I could hear how my neighbour was answering the question I had just been looking at.

The aim of the procedure is to encourage the quiet and the shy to practice speaking. It also forces everyone to think about how it feels to have to answer. As a teacher we’re not often put in this position – but students are on a daily, if not hourly, basis. I can see this being a great pastoral tool to use with my mixed ability form that has a range of students from the very talkative to the terminally shy. I can also see it being a useful revision exercise.

Hopefully I’ve one the description justice. Suffice to say it’s a good enough idea (IMO) that I’m planning to use it in my PSHE observation in January.

Image attribution: Why Originally uploaded by Tintin44 – Sylvain Masson


I am still learning

Originally uploaded by mimax

NB: Although this post refers to a specific example of the GCSE Computing specification, it’s relevant to everyone in education. Trust me.

As a teacher there are few things I enjoy more than when a student tries to outfox me with something I don’t know – only to find that I’m quite happy to admit that I don’t know it, but I know where to look for the answer.

While I’m happy to admit that colleague x knows more than me about databases and colleague y knows more than me about graphic design, I’ve kind of carved a niche out for myself as a Computing expert. I’m one of (seemingly) very few ICT teachers who have a Computing degree, I’m the only teacher teaching GCSE Computing and one of only two prepared to tackle AS computing.

It worried me, therefore, when I was looking through part of the GCSE Computing specification and came across the phrase “Candidates should be able to … explain how the computer distinguishes between instructions and data”.

The reason this worried me is that in my understanding, the computer doesn’t distinguish between the two.

I don’t want to turn this into a detailed technical discussion, because as I said at the top of the post, I think the lessons here apply to all educators.

When faced with this problem I had a number of options.
1. Ignore it, tell the kids what I think is the right answer. No embarrassment.
2. Email the board for clarification. In private. No embarrassment.
3. Start a public discussion about it. Risk embarrassment.

You can hopefully tell which way I jumped. I started a public discussion – in fact more than one. First I tweeted about it, to say what some of the great people I connect with on Twitter had to say. Neil Adam, Matt Smart and Shalim Khan in particular had some interesting thoughts.

Not entirely satisfied I also posted to the Computing At School Google Group as well. Much discussion has passed back and forth over the day and, while the answer to the question isn’t simple, my initial understanding was, it seems, largely correct.

What’s the point? It’s easy to admit I don’t know the answer when it’s not something I’m that likely to know. It’s much harder to admit when it’s something within my specialism. But by taking a risk and having the discussion I hopefully help others to find similar answers, I make sure that I do get the right answer and I remind myself that I am a lifelong learner.