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Lockdown lessons: What can schools and colleges learn from universities?

Peter Collison, Head of Formative Assessment and School Platforms at RM
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As the adage goes: “For a fair selection everybody has to take the same exam (because) if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”

If we apply that to assessment in schools, what should be prioritised above all else is consistency in how we test students.

And a consistent approach to assessment doesn’t have to mean testing all students in the same way, or even on the same day – it’s about making sure students are tested fairly. Schools, and education institutions alike, should carefully consider which methods of assessment – for instance, establishing the right questions, in the best context, delivered in an authentic way – best suit each individual learner. It’s also important to note that the “right questions” can be as much about understanding what a learner doesn’t know, as what they do. This is especially critical when the majority of learners in the UK have experienced some level of distribution to their learning over the last 18 months.

Learning gaps

The London School of Economics and the University of Exeter recently estimated that pupils lost nearly a third of their learning time between March 2020 and April 2021 because of school closures and coronavirus disruption.

What’s more, last year many schools were unable to complete the full curriculum during the pandemic for the second year running. That meant. A-Level students, for instance, were only assessed this summer on the topics they had covered. Now, questions of grade inflation linger as replacement results led to higher results than last year and a sharp rise in top grades as the proportion getting top A* and A grades rose almost 75% since the last conventional exams in 2019.

Yet education establishments must not only focus on the final grades. With disruption across all education establishments, learning gaps are undeniably present. These learning gaps – the difference between what a student is expected to have learned by a certain grade level versus what they have actually learned up to that point – could very well cause disruption for some years to come.

More assessments will help

…Now, you’re probably thinking why will more assessment help? But it can and will.

After nearly two years of turmoil, education needs to move learning forward and make an impact. Whether it’s primary or secondary school, colleges or universities, the use of digital assessment, to identify learning gaps, can be implemented. When we use technology to access people with all different learning gaps, misunderstanding and gaps of knowledge are much easier and quicker to address.

An advantage of digital assessment – that many institutions tap into – is the ability to highlight ‘common misunderstandings’ in subjects, rather than just “wrong” answers. Quite often, this can be done in real-time, allowing the teacher to make on-the-fly adjustments to their teaching. For the learner, this results in a far more personal and impactful learning experience – especially when intertwined with the additional time that teachers gain from the reduction in marking.

This is particularly important when we consider the complexities of learning gaps. These could come from a misunderstanding of a topic remotely taught or topics not taught at all, and this will completely vary from pupil to pupil. And for students making the jump from primary to secondary, for instance, that’s a lot of students with a very mixed bag of learning gaps for teachers to navigate.

Moving forward, education establishments must unleash the power of helpful technology and data to create learning environments that are more meaningful and impactful. Students’ learning gaps will be personal to them – so need a personalised approach – yet the right tools can identify the catch-up learning required. What’s more, it leaves teachers or lectures with more hands-on time to create purposeful lessons, lecturers or help individual students – a win-win.

Open book

And Universities make significant use of another assessment technique that other educational institutions can take inspiration from. When you imagine university exams, you might think of endless rows of students gathered in a large hall, heads down for multiple hours – in silence and no notes allowed. That clearly was not allowed across the last two years of examinations.

Due to lockdowns and social distancing rules – many university examinations took to open book exams; these assessments often took place over a 24–48-hour window. Open book exams are far from the traditional approach. These assessments differ to previous exam iterations and effectively test students’ problem-solving, creativity, and application of knowledge.

These are fundamental skills that matter the most. All education establishments should be encouraging these skills, rather than testing memory. Because in the real world, you wouldn’t work in an accountancy firm and complete balance sheets by hand. Nor would you work in an insurance firm and handwrite a policy document. So, why should we assess learners that way.

When it comes to many school examinations, we’re still, in a lot of cases, using outdated methods of assessment. No longer can we not address this, because for years, we have been living in a digital-first society, so it’s about time students were tested in the most authentic way, a way that matches the needs of employers and the job market.

And open book digital assessments don’t just test real-world and on-the-job skills, they also eliminating the dangers of Googling during an exam.

Skills for the real world

Since March 2020, universities have embraced technology – using it as a way to bridge disruption and further aid pupil learning and assessment. They have moved away from pumping students’ brains with knowledge to instead addressing how we can identify gaps of knowledge, as well as how to apply the knowledge learnt in an authentic, real-life manner.

To give students the most beneficial learning outcomes it should – and always should have been – not just about how much information they can attain but their skills. Universities have begun to understand and adopt that approach and it’s time others do too.

Peter Collison, Head of Formative Assessment at RM

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