It all hinges on the timing...

October 23rd, 2013

Here at Reivo we live and breathe student response systems. They are a seriously useful tool in a teacher’s toolkit, and can make a dramatic impact on the amount and quality of formative feedback taking place during a lesson. But like all tools, they need using effectively to maximise their potential. That’s why we spend a lot of time thinking, researching and exploring the most effective use of student response systems in the classroom.

Dylan Wiliam is an expert on assessment and any school leader or teacher who is serious about improving teaching and learning would find time spent getting familiar with his ideas to be very valuable indeed. Wiliam has been a major advocate of the efficacy of formative assessment. He performed a review of the research literature and found a substantial effect reported in all major studies which he boiled down to the conclusion that formative assessment can increase learning by 8 months in a single year. This means students taught with formative assessment can be 8 months ahead of those who have been questioned about what they have understood about their lessons. Central to an effective formative assessment strategy is Wiliam’s concept of a ‘hinge point question’. This is a question which tests a central concept of the lesson, it must be answered by all students and the teacher needs to be able to gather the responses within 30 seconds and then act on the results. A very useful powerpoint presentation with examples of hinge point questions can be found here.

Wiliam explains that hinge point questions can be used at the start of an activity (for range finding), in the middle of an activity (mid-course correction), or at the end (exit/pass). But what might the best strategy be when using formative assessment within a specific lesson to check student understanding and give the teacher a real sense of how the lesson is going? The answer as to where best to place these questions is probably right in the middle of the lesson. This may seem surprising, but a logical analysis of how a lesson unfolds should lead to this conclusion.

Consider the situation where the questions are asked at the end of the lesson. End of lesson formative assessments can be a very useful indicator for the teacher of how that session went and can inform the planning and delivery of the next lesson (so much better than not doing any formative assessment at all). But what if the questions show that many students have not understood a key concept from that lesson? It’s too late at the end of the lesson to do anything about it there and then, the bell goes, the students stampede out and a golden teaching opportunity goes begging. If the teacher had that crucial information earlier in the lesson then she could do something about it right there and then; there is still time to take corrective action and rejig the lesson to explore the misunderstood concept in a different way.

Consider now the situation where the questions are asked at the beginning of the lesson (recapping material covered in previous lessons). This allows the teacher the entire lesson to act on the results of the feedback which is a good thing. But should we let students get into the flow of the lesson before asking them the difficult questions. A secondary student will go from lesson to lesson and subject to subject during the day, from Geography straight to Maths, then to PE maybe and then to an English lesson. So it’s perfectly reasonable, (in fact it’s a very good pedagogic strategy) to give them some time to transition their thought processes from the previous lesson to the current one. This is the reason so many teachers use interactive starter activities, they create pace and interest as the lesson starts but crucially they allow students to get used to the particular demands and discourse of the subject in hand. So perhaps asking questions about the core concepts of the lesson right at the start of the lesson is not the best strategy; allowing students to warm up is preferable.

So this really leaves the situation where the hinge questions are asked in the middle part of the lesson. Far enough into the lesson so that the students are well immersed in the conceptual demands of the subject, yet with enough time left on the clock for the skilled teacher to adapt the remainder of the lesson to take the feedback from the student responses and make it really count.

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