‘Just chunk it’ with your students

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A positive change in education over the last two decades, as far as high school students are concerned, is the move towards forms of assessment other than tests and exams. This, of course provides greater scope for the type of assessment task we use with students. More recently, project-based learning has emerged to accompany this trend in changing assessment.

A move away from tests and exams, or rather less significance being placed on tests and exams as a measure of student learning and performance, could be easily associated with the notion that high school students will feel less pressure with their studies; less pressure on the exam or test means less stress for students, right?

Definitely not. Many of the new forms of assessment are very demanding and they can be large in nature, taking weeks or months to complete. Many of the skills that a student often requires to complete these tasks are high order and, oftentimes, the task necessitates significant application  of skills in using information technology that even teachers themselves would struggle to come to terms with.

Furthermore, the size of the task is particularly challenging, with students needing to plan and manage their time, if they are to achieve a successful outcome. This becomes an even greater problem, if the students are not explicitly taught the skills to be able to complete projects successfully over a number of weeks. It is not just the skills, however, our students need expert facilitators to support them throughout the process from start to finish.

Too often, students are given the assessment task and are left to their own devices to complete it. The teacher may have gone through the subject content but this is not enough to assist students with. There needs to be greater focus on how students go about completing the task.

Both equipping students with the skills to be able to complete these significant assessment tasks along with effective facilitation must become the focus for schools and teachers. The issues of students struggling with deadlines and the root causes of procrastination and their damaging effects must be topics of regular discussion and teacher action.

One simple measure that teachers can apply almost immediately, if they are not doing this already, is to break up tasks for students; break them into smaller ‘chunks’. Too often, a draft or due date for an assessment task approaches and students not submit anything to their teacher. Furthermore, in asking the teacher about why a student did not submit their work, a reply along these lines may given: “Well I gave them everything they needed six weeks ago and was I clear with the due date.” This is not good enough, no students should get to a deadline, after a considerable length of time, with nothing to submit. It is the teacher’s responsibility to check-in with them along the way and see evidence of progress.

Regular check-ins allow the teacher to put in place interventions or help a student revise their plan or goals. If the teacher is not sure what to do at these check-in points, then support can be asked for. All too often, a student is given an extension when they miss a deadline in the hope that, in doing so, the teacher will be able to ‘save’ the student and the work will turn up. In a number of cases, the student’s work does not surface and then the teacher’s cry for help is too late, or the responsibility now falls on the student, in saying that “they chose to fail, they knew the rules.” We have to remember that we are the adults and that many of us struggle to plan and effectively meet all the deadlines that we are given, so how do we think it looks through our students’ eyes when their experience of school is markedly different to that of ours?

Worst case scenario, when we have not put the checks and balances in place to effectively facilitate students in completing large, significant assessment tasks, we end up with students fighting symptoms of depression, absenteeism around due dates or demonstrating learning that is well below that of which they are capable. When teachers give deadline extensions to students, it may not be helping them, in fact it may be making matters worse as more and more deadlines pile up.

We need teachers to ‘just chunk it’, by breaking up student tasks into small bite-size pieces that they can tick off as they complete them, giving them the confidence that progress being made towards the goal. Smaller goals with incremental gains in achieving a larger goal will significantly help students be successful. Teachers must give their students is a roadmap to completing these large assessment tasks, so that over time our students will be able ‘just chunk it’ on their own and realise their potential.

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