Examining the effects of assessment

Researchers at the RAND Corporation have conducted a series of literature reviews that focus on topics such as high-stakes testing, performance assessment, and formative evaluation.

Their findings, published in a new report, suggest that there are a wide variety of effects that testing might have on teachers’ activities in the classroom, including changes in curriculum content and emphasis (eg, changes in the sequence of topics, reallocation of emphasis across and within topics); changes in how teachers allocate time and resources across different pedagogical activities (eg, focusing on test preparation); and changes in how teachers interact with individual pupils (eg, using test results to personalise teaching). The report, “New Assessments, Better Instruction? Designing Assessment Systems to Promote Instructional Improvement”, also identifies a number of factors (eg, pupil characteristics and regional policies) that mediate the relationship between assessment and teaching practices.

The authors suggest that the role of tests would be enhanced by policies that ensure tests mirror high-quality teaching, are part of a larger, systemic change effort, and are accompanied by specific supports for teachers.

Source: New Assessments, Better Instruction? Designing Assessment Systems to Promote Instructional Improvement (2013), RAND Corporation.

Evidence-based back-to-school teaching tips

Now that the schools are back, the What Works Clearinghouse (WWC) has compiled quick tips from their practice guides to help educators put research findings into action. Topics include:

  • How do I help pupils with mathematical problem solving? (Quick tip: Teach kids to use visuals such as number lines and graphs)
  • How do I decrease problem behaviour? (Quick tip: Rearrange the classroom and reinforce expectations)

Each tip links to a topic-related practice guide, where other recommendations and resources can be found. For each recommendation, the WWC summarises and rates the supporting evidence of effectiveness.

What works in the early years?

This synthesis of research from the US Institute of Education Sciences (IES) describes what has been learned from IES-funded research grants on early intervention and early childhood education. Their findings include the following:

  • There are critical associations between features of pre-kindergarten (Reception) classrooms – such as the quality of teacher–child interactions and the nature of teachers’ feedback to children – and children’s outcomes. For instance, the extent to which teachers are observed providing emotional support to children in their classroom is positively associated with children’s growth in social competence.
  • Parents’ and teachers’ support for children’s learning contributes to young children’s outcomes. As an example, one study showed that the extent to which parents were involved in their children’s schooling and their perceptions about their children’s teacher were related to their children’s academic and social competence.
  • Classroom teaching can be improved by providing professional development to teachers. Improvements may be seen in general measures of the teaching environment or in more specific ways, such as teachers’ use of assessment data to design individual teaching plans.

Additional findings are discussed in the full report.

Source: Synthesis of IES Research on Early Intervention and Early Childhood Education (2013), Institute of Education Sciences.

Simple ways to improve learning

A new article published by the Association for Psychological Science argues that educational outcomes can be improved by helping pupils to better regulate their own learning. The authors discuss ten techniques that might help them to do this. The techniques were selected on the grounds that they should be relatively easy to implement, and the article itself gives a clear review of each technique.

The authors gave two techniques an overall high rating. The first of these was “practice testing”, which is usually self-testing outside the classroom. The second was “distributed practice”, essentially the opposite of “cramming”, where study activities are spread over a single session or across multiple sessions. Some of the techniques with low- or moderate-utility ratings also showed promise, but there was insufficient evidence for a higher rating. The authors looked at all of the available evidence for each technique, and considered how easily the technique could be rolled out in different contexts, issues for implementation, and an overall assessment of its utility – low, moderate, or high.

Source: Improving students learning with effective learning techniques: Promising directions from cognitive and educational psychology (2013), Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 14(458)

Traditional teaching methods may be putting off maths pupils

Traditional teaching methods, where the teacher stands at the front and dictates to the class, may be affecting pupils’ attitudes toward maths, suggest researchers at the University of Manchester. The initial findings of the Economics and Social Research Council-funded study were presented at the British Educational Research Association’s annual conference.

More than 13,000 11- to 16-year-old pupils and 128 teachers at 40 secondary schools across England were asked to complete questionnaires detailing the kind of activities they experienced in maths lessons. Traditional activities such as copying the teacher’s notes from the board and being asked questions by the teacher were most frequently cited, ahead of alternative learning approaches such as using media, like magazines and videos, in class. Pupils who reported a more traditional teaching experience in their lessons also named maths as their least favourite subject.

The results of a 2009 review from the Institute for Effective Education,Effective programmes in secondary mathematics, found that the most successful programmes for teaching maths focus on changing daily teaching practices, particularly the use of co-operative learning methods, and encourage pupil interaction.

Sources: What works in teaching maths? (2009), Institute for Effective Education

Teaching and learning practices in secondary mathematics: measuring teaching from teachers’ and students perspectives (2012), Pampaka M, Wo L, Kalambouka A, Qasim S, and Swanson D, presentation at BERA Conference 2012

Should we be trying to reduce class sizes?

Class size is a hot topic again. A predicted population increase and funding decrease, mean that pressure on class sizes is likely to grow. A research review from the Department for Education considers a number of issues around class size in England, including the impact on educational outcomes. The authors found a number of benefits from smaller classes, such as individual pupils being the focus of the teacher’s attention for longer.

However, previous research has shown that reducing class size is beneficial when classes are small, around 15 pupils. With budgets stretched, schools should consider the financial benefits of allowing classes to grow slightly. This may allow them to preserve resources for more effective ways of improving attainment, such as increasing teacher effectiveness.

Source: Class size and education in England evidence report (2011), Department for Education