Support with large assessments one step at a time

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This is nothing new – the way in which teachers guide and facilitate student navigation through a range of tasks at school is pivotal to student success. So why post about something we already know?

In looking at a number of senior students over the past few months who are struggling to complete their programs of study, I have noticed that they are struggling to finish assessment tasks because they are not being given enough and quality guidance in how they go about doing so. Furthermore, and more importantly, this problem is impacting on the health and well being of our students under our care. I do indeed think we have become better at recognising students who are struggling but, in what I am observing, we are still finding out about this problem too late for anything to be done other than ‘damage control’ and even then that can be a stretch. This week I read an excellent post on the Edudemic website that gives some wonderful advice in terms of “Classroom Strategies for Helping Depressed Teen Students.”

This article resonated with me, as a secondary school leader, and in particular one strategy embedded deep in the article; “breaking up larger assignments.” I have taken the time to look at a lot of the tasks that are given to students for assessment in the International Baccalaureate Diploma and Middle Years Programmes and they have a wonderful level of challenge for students. I am sure this is the same for assessment tasks in many other school systems around the world. The problem for many students is that they really struggle to identify the steps they need to take to achieve success in these tasks.

A teacher can help a student with a science investigation by breaking the lab report down into sections: introduction, method, results, analysis / discussion and conclusion. This starts to break up the assessment task into ‘chunks’. The teacher may then provide a checklist for each section, further guiding the student to what is needed in each section, related to the assessment criteria. I know a lot of teachers that do this and still their students struggle. Why?

Great teachers do more than that. This question is best answered by pointing out three things that great teachers do:

  1. Great teachers recognise that, firstly, if they are going to break an assessment task up into smaller pieces, it is absolutely vital that they check-in with each student during and at the end of each step that they give them. Too often, the first time a teacher looks at a student’s work, or talks to them about, is at the draft stage, when it is too late. The formative assessment, which includes, verbal feedback, must occur constantly as they student goes through the task. Verbal feedback allows to check for understanding – does the student really understand what they are being asked to do? By checking at regular intervals, the teacher can respond to the student’s needs.
  2. Secondly, great teachers will get students to use peer and self-assessment along their journey to completion. This allows them to check their own work and that of fellow students in their class against the provided criteria. This, not only, allows them to see how others have approached the same task, but it is another way of checking for particular elements required in the assessment and providing feedback. The teacher also has the opportunity again to check that students fully understand the assessment criteria, as this is one way of students giving feedback to the teacher.
  3. Thirdly, perhaps most importantly, great teachers are able to personalise the task completion process for their students by differentiating effectively. If we think back to the science lab report, having the five sections of the report and checking in with the students at the end of each stage is a good start to ‘chunking’ an assessment task but it is a lock-step approach. Students of different abilities and needs may need to have parts of the task broken up even further. A very able student may be able to understand the criteria associated with the introduction and be able to write it in one go. Another student, however, may require the teacher to break up the writing of the introduction into two or three smaller steps, with the teacher regularly checking-in with the student and together setting the next step. Small incremental steps are far less daunting for the student and are a pro-active way for the teacher to see that the student is on-track with the task and not overwhelmed by it.

It is vital that students are challenged by assessment tasks, not overwhelmed and frustrated. Thinking back to the article that I read about depression. To begin to solve part of the problem, it is absolutely vital that we follow great teachers. We must facilitate learning through breaking down tasks into incremental steps and check for student understanding through being engaged with the student through all steps of an assessment task in order to exercise responsive teaching before a student digs a hole that it is too late to get out of.

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