What can creating final exam papers teach us?
...and its importance for the next year.
Hello! Welcome to the 6th edition of Things in Education, the fortnightly newsletter through whichwe hope to share the latest in education research and developments in the form of accessible summaries and stories to help you in the classroom and at home.
It is that time of the year again! The final examinations are upon us in most schools in India and they will soon begin in the rest of the world, as well. Creating final examination papers is an important process. One, it can assess the students' progress in the year. A subtle but more powerful aspect of creating final examinations is to allow teachers to reflect on the year of teaching and learning. The process of reflection helps teachers understand what they got right and what they should try to do differently in the next year. We hope that this edition helps you with the reflection process.
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It is March 2022 – summer is setting in across the country, while teachers prepare for school final exams, winding up two of the most gruelling and uncertain years that the education community has faced in a long time.
The principal of Vidya Academy wants to make sure that her teachers get the chance to reflect on the past year in an authentic manner. She asks all her teachers to spend 2 hours every day for a week, creating their final exam papers together in the staff room.
Mr Das, Chemistry teacher: This is my first 3-mark question: Explain the term ‘valency’. State, along with reasons, the valency of chlorine and magnesium.
I know that at least 11 students will get the answer completely correct, word for word from the textbook. But the remaining 24 students… I’m not sure they’ve understood what valency is, exactly.
Ms Saha, Principal: What makes you say so, Mr Das?
Mr Das: I’ve seen them revising – they try to memorise the entire valency table from the textbook. But that isn’t necessary at all. The valency of an atom is a logical concept – all they have to do is understand the logic.
Ms Saha: What could you have done differently to make sure that your students understood this logic well?
Mr Das [reading through the reflection list]: I guess I could have planned more rigorously. You see, I enjoy talking about atoms and molecules and all-things-Chemistry so much that I forget my students don’t have the same level of understanding as I do. What’s exciting for me is probably very confusing for my students. I never planned my lessons because my subject knowledge is vast, but lesson planning is not about what I know but what my students need to know.
Ms Shaikh: That’s a great way of putting it, Mr Das!
To create rigorous lesson plans, teachers must first understand how the mind learns. Next, they must have absolute clarity on what the goal of the lesson is and also know how students will display that they have arrived at their learning goal. Very importantly, the lesson must begin at the learning levels of the students and support them in reaching the goal.
Ms Shaikh, English teacher: I’m at the ‘Composition’ section of my paper. I think I might just give them composition topics that we’ve already revised in class – maybe one on ‘A Vacation with my Family’ and another on ‘My Dream for the Future’.
Ms Saha: Why not some new topics, Ms Shaikh?
Ms Shaikh: Most of my students absolutely detest compositions. For them, writing them is just a tedious chore, which makes correcting their compositions an even more tedious chore for me! If I give them topics they’ve already practised, they might write more willingly and most of them will score decently well.
Ms Saha: What makes your students detest compositions? Is there anything in the reflection list that might help you think about this?
Ms Shaikh [reading through the reflection list]: Hmm… Maybe they don’t have enough internal motivation to write? They know compositions carry high marks in exams, and if they write well, they will score well… but that external motivation doesn’t seem to be enough.
Ms Saha: What could you have done differently to increase their internal motivation?
Ms Shaikh [thinking deeply]: Writing is so much more than just 3-paragraph compositions – that’s what I should have shown them. Writing is about expressing your thoughts, it’s about creating your own style and tone. Just like art, just like music, writing is a way of showing yourself to the world in creative, passionate ways. My students write every day – text messages, social media posts – and if they can see that by writing better they can connect with others better, that writing is about them and not about exams – that’s how I could have built internal motivation.
Ms Chakraborty: Well put! All education is, after all, about students!
Motivation to learn can be external (praise, certificates, prizes) or internal (curiosity, identity, mastery). Students will not always be internally motivated, and at the same time, external motivation is short-lived and detrimental to performance and learning in the long run. Lessons and classroom management strategies can be planned in a manner to build a culture of curiosity and learning in the classroom, so that students are internally motivated to learn.
Ms Chakraborty, Maths teacher: Here’s an interesting word problem I’ve come up with: Our school library has 6510 books. One bookshelf can hold 80 books, and one cabinet can hold 15 books. How many bookshelves and cabinets should we purchase for our library? [pausing to think] My classroom is one of those rare classrooms where most students love Maths. They see how they can use Maths in their real life… and yet, they struggle with basic operations. Their love for the subject is never reflected in their marks!
Ms Saha: Maths is a tricky subject, I agree. Does any point on the reflection checklist strike a chord with you?
Ms Chakraborty: Ah, yes, yes. My classroom is always full of laughter and energy, and when students are happy, I tell myself that they are learning well. But I think if I had planned formative assessments within my lesson plans, I would have known that for sure! I once thought of a game: I solve a long-division sum on the board, and all students must clap out each digit I must write, together. Just a quick glance around the class would have told me which students were struggling and at what stage! Simple checks-for-understanding, quizzes and even games that don’t take away the fun from the classroom but give me the data to understand how much they’ve learnt and remember…
Ms Saha: Absolutely! Formative assessments don’t need to be scary or complicated at all. They just need to give us data so we can plan to reteach or revise topics that students haven’t completely understood.
Formative assessments are extremely important to monitor student learning progress. Teachers can use a variety of tools, games and question types to gain insights into students’ misconceptions and struggles. When supported by well-made rubrics, teachers can get information quickly from assessments and create actionable solutions for the future.
Ms Saha: You seem to be far away, Mr Rodrigues. How is your Geography paper progressing?
Mr Rodrigues, Geography teacher: These discussions have made me think… So many good ideas and so many shared problems, yet teachers of different subjects rarely plan together. My students learnt about global warming and climate change this year, and even with that understanding, they don’t care much about the environment. But if I had collaborated with Mr Das, they could have understood the chemistry of carbon dioxide and other harmful CFCs. They could have written compositions and poems about the harm to the environment with Ms Shaikh… and applied their love for Maths with Ms Chakraborty to understand the damage to our Earth in real numbers. So many opportunities for multi-disciplinary approaches that we’ve missed out on!
Planning a multi-disciplinary unit takes time, effort and communication between subject teachers. This approach leads to deeper understanding, as it enables students to build more connections to each topic in their mind – and learning is, after all, the building of connections in long-term memory. To plan a multi-disciplinary unit, teachers must know what a good learning objective is, what broad learning objectives for a multi-disciplinary unit must focus on, and how these can be broken down into sub-objectives, keeping in mind the broad learning objective and the requirements of different subjects.
At the end of the day, the teachers leave the staffroom feeling curious and energised. Their reflections have helped them identify areas of improvement, given them ideas to implement in the next academic year, and has also given the principal important data to plan teacher professional development programmes to support teachers in their growth. When school leaders and teachers see themselves not just as educators but as lifelong learners, a culture of curiosity and learning is created, leading to happier and more motivated teachers and high-performing and engaged students.
The Reflective Teacher: This article by Edutopia gives teachers quick tips on how to reflect on their teaching practices throughout the year.
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