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26 January 2021
By Zoe Enser

Remote Assessment in English

How to Get the Best out of Remote Learning Practices

Being a responsive teacher is one of the real joys of working in the classroom. The interactions, the light-bulb moments, the immediate support we can offer and the laughter we often share, are without a doubt important elements of what we do. As part of this, we are continually assessing and responding to the needs of our students and adapting our approaches to reflect the constant stream of feedback we receive from them. We not only continually question, check, monitor, and pick up on a range of non-verbal cues (did someone just slump onto their desk in frustration?), but we plan tasks which can give us feedback on what students know and can do immediately and in the longer term.

It is therefore perhaps unsurprising that remote learning feels even more challenging without this. Even in the best live lessons, the technology and the, well remoteness, of talking to students in their homes, makes getting feedback on exactly where they are learning much more difficult. As much as we can try to ‘dissolve the screen’ (a term I am borrowing from Doug Lemov’s new book on effective online learning), there are still going to be issues in getting that quick feedback to allow us to respond in the ways we are used to.

However, this still continues to be a key aspect of what we need to do and we need to find ways to gather as much data as possible on what students know, the depth of their understanding and what they can do with it. Without this they will struggle to make the progress we want them to make.

So here are some of the top tips I have gathered from a range of teachers as to how you might approach achieving this in a remote English classroom.

1. Take Time to Plan the Assessment Points

Sometimes as we interact with students in the class we seem to intuitively know where to probe for understanding and challenge their thinking to ensure something has really been embedded. The more expertise you have, and the more you know your students, the easier this becomes. With classes I had taught for a number of years, I knew exactly which areas they needed to focus on and how best to get them to do this.

Whilst it has always been good practice to have planned for key assessment points in the class, focusing on misconceptions or threshold concepts, remote learning has really highlighted the need to reflect on this all the more prior to the lesson. The purpose of our assessments are as important as the approach we take to them, so think carefully about what it is the students really need to be able to take away from the lessons and the steps they need to go through to get there. Once this is clear, consider the methods you will use to assess them at each of these points to ensure that they have grasped each key before they move on. For example, if you are teaching a poem you need to ensure they have an understanding of the overall meaning perhaps before they can begin to understand how or why the writer has created this, so think about how you will check this, before building up those next steps.

One of the key difficulties with remote lessons is that although we can be really effective in teaching remotely, we can’t transfer all of those formative assessment skills outlined above directly, so this makes planning even more important. It might be you need to strip back in terms of the number of questions you ask or the number of tasks students complete to ensure that you, and your students, are focusing on the most important information.

2. Consider Your Approach

If assessment is one of the trickiest elements of remote learning, we have to consider carefully how we can best use the technology in the best way to enable us to do this. There are many really exciting approaches emerging, but we are still learning and that this will need to be explored carefully, based on your platform and your students.

Using chat functions on Teams and Zoom are one way you can get students to share their thinking and check can be done quickly with things like multiple choice or true/ false responses. These types of questions, when carefully planned can provide a wealth of information quickly and show you where any issue have arisen. Have it set up so only you can see their answers (reply to you not all) and this takes away the possibility of them following the crowd if they see other pupils’ answers. You can follow up their responses with questions like ‘how did you come to that answer?’ or ‘why do you think this answer is wrong’ and then unmute to get students to explain in more depth. This can be a good way to get quick feedback and some camera-shy students are happier to contribute in this way.

Another, less technological way to do this is by asking students to hold up a piece of paper or white board to the camera, which will give you a quick visual check of their answers, much as we would in class. This can also allow for some longer, more open responses to be explored, as can screen sharing of their documents. Applications like Padlet, Jam Board and whiteboard tools (either on Teams or Zoom or as an extension on Google Docs) can also be really useful for students to share their answers and their thinking. Again these can give you immediate feedback in a live lesson to show you where you may need to adapt your next steps.

Equally, using Google or Microsoft forms which can be posted in chat, will give you quick feedback as to what students know. This can be a good way to start the lesson, allowing students to get quickly onto task, retrieve some information from previous lessons in order to access prior knowledge and prepare them for the new learning to take place. This would also allow you to spend some time going through admin, checking registers and interacting with anyone who might need a bit of a prompt to get started.

On recorded lessons, still continue to pose students questions, using things like forms or get them to upload work so you can check what they do and don’t know. Or where you use a mix of live and recorded, make assessment or feedback the key focus of the live session so you can focus on checking their learning and guiding them through the next steps.

For longer responses to check understanding you can either set students to task, with scaffolds and check their work later, which they can either upload or photograph to share with you, or you can set up a shared document. This would enable you to see what students are writing in real time and offers an opportunity for intervention where needed. Some teachers have had real success with getting students to collaborate on a shared document, building on the ideas of others and reflecting on what has been written. One approach I saw shared recently was where students were provided with a grid which had questions in each square and a number. Students were allocated a different number and then wrote their response simultaneously in the squares. This would allow then to respond to different ideas and the document was then discussed as a whole with the class, who could then add to the points already made to build a whole class response.

3. Think about Feedback

The best responsive teaching, as I said at the start, relies on the constant dialogue between teacher and student. Not only is the assessment there to enable us to know what students know and can do, but to tell us and students what their next steps are. We can use self and peer assessment as part of remote learning as well as giving our own feedback to students.

Think carefully as to where the best opportunities for feedback are and provide time for students to act upon this and consider how it will inform their next pieces of work. Providing models and examples following a series of questions, still works well on a recorded lesson, as long as you give time for students to respond. It can be good to give wait time on the recording, not just asking students to pause, as some will just skip to the answers. We can’t completely stop them from doing this, but if they don’t know the answer is definitely coming, we can mitigate for this. Once answers are provided, give them the time to consider which of their answers were correct and you can direct them to consider why they may have got some answers wrong.

Longer answers can be self-assessed against models or checklists and students can feedback what has gone well and what areas they struggled with, either via email or via chat or verbal responses if you are working with them live. Whole class feedback methods can still have a place amongst the lessons you are delivering and I would still use this when classes had completed longer pieces of work, celebrating good work and guiding them towards their improvements. Good practices continue to be good practices regardless of where we are doing them.

Feedback is also important in motivating students and knowing their work has been seen, valued and what to do next, will help to keep them on track in these difficult times. To speed up individualised feedback you can use extensions like Mote on google docs, or power points (a free Chrome extension) to record your verbal feedback to students. Equally you can use this to record over documents you are using to scaffold their learning in order to provide prompts and further instruction as they need them.

This has been a steep learning curve for all and regardless of where you are in terms of you teaching career or you use of technology, we have all become novices in many ways. We are still very much learning about the different ways we can approach remote learning and new ideas and technology is emerging all the time. It can be both exciting to find out about these new ways, but daunting as it can feel impossible to keep up sometimes. Take things one step at a time and remember you won’t be able to learn everything at once. Just as when you are in the classroom, new practices don’t become embedded overnight. Students need time to learn how to engage with and respond to these new approaches too. Ultimately though, what always matters is the quality of teaching, and good teaching remains good teaching, regardless of the medium through which it is delivered.

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