Friday, 9 October 2009

Student assessment - a necessary evil or a learning tool?

I seem to have embarked on a mission of explaining our rather peculiar high school system in Finland in English. The reason for this is that I haven't found any grassroots information about it in English, and many foreign colleagues often ask about 'the Finnish secret of success' based on our students' outstanding results in the OECD PISA assessments. The PISA tests involve 15-year-old students, so it doesn't really say anything about our senior high schools, where I teach, and which about 50 % of Finnish youngsters choose to attend, while the other half goes into various vocational institutions. If you are interested in the Finnish school system, you will find a lot of information on the University of Helsinki pages about Finland and Pisa, for example, or some of my explanations about senior high schools in particular in this post.

This time I will reflect on student assessment, an integral and passionately discussed part of all schooling. To tell you the truth, I sometimes wish I could forget about course assessment all together and concentrate on mere learning with my students. Pie in the sky, I know, as I'm sure assessment will always be performed in schools, in one form or another, but all the multiple purposes it can serve, is another story.

In my previous post I touched on one part of student assessment in Finnish high schools - regular exams that take place 5 times a year as part of the course-based, modular curriculum and the national final exams as the culmination of students' 12-year schooling, a kind of  'test of maturity' reflected in the often used English translation of the name of these exams 'matriculation examination'. At graduation, each Finnish student receives two diplomas - one given by the school and based on the GPA of all the exams and grades during the 3-4 high school years given by various teachers, and the national diploma based only on the results of the national exams. Both of these are taken into account when applying for university, for example.

In our system, the grade for each course is given based on the students' performance in the end exam together with their overall performance throughout the course, which may be a very subjective assessment by the teacher. In our curriculum there is a concept called 'continuous performance', which usually accounts for +/- 1 grades in the final course assessment. In reality this concept is rather vague and there appear to be as many interpretations of it as there are teachers.

Some say it means active participation in class - but how about students who may be very good learners, but are very shy and quiet by nature to share what they know in class? Should they be penalised for their personality? Moreover, what is considered active participation? Is it simply putting your hand up to answer the teacher's questions? Some students appear to be very active, but actually only want to answer the simplest questions, the answers for which they can read from an exercise book - which  they may have acquired from a sibling or friend who had taken the course earlier and filled in all the correct answers. How is a teacher to know all this in a group of 36 that you only meet for some 30 lessons? Others interpret 'continuous performance' to mean some proof of the student's learning during the course, maybe demonstrated in extra homework assignments, project work, a portfolio, spoken presentations, a learning journal  - there are countless options, and teachers have free hands to design their courses, as long as they make sure that each student knows exactly what is expected of them right at the beginning, and how each assignment and test is going to affect the final course grade.

About ten years ago, the situation was quite different - the structure of courses was more standardized and teachers didn't use to negotiate the learning goals, focuses or methods as much as now. Although I welcome this democratization and individualization of education, I must say I find the accompanying increased litigiousness of schools rather troublesome. For example, I have already started writing 'course contracts' with all the expectations clearly stated, which each student then signs to prove that they have been informed and that they understand it, too. Before I did this, there were always students who claimed that they hadn't been informed, and consequently weren't aware of certain extra assignments, for example, and so couldn't be expected to hand them in. I am inclined to interpret these claims as a game of avoiding learning, a total waste of valuable time, which the student could choose to spend productively. No doubt, the students may have a totally relevant justification for such behaviour. Maybe the assignment didn't challenge them enough, or was simply too boring. Why should they do it anyway just because the teacher says so?

In foreign languages, an extra assignment is most often writing an essay on a given topic at home. Cheating goes on, essays are copied from the net, friends' old essays are recycled, essays are written for others as a favour, you name it. Often none of this can be proved by the teacher, and so a cheat gets a claringly unfair benefit compared to a slacker who never bothered to write the essay, but still managed to do better in the end-of-the-course exam. I wonder if anybody else ever gets totally desperate with the challenges of school assessment? I strongly suspect that it is impossible to be 100 % fair to all students.

I have fairly clear goals of what I would ultimately like to achieve during my language courses. My most basic principles are: firstly, that students should not waste their time at school, but keep learning all the time and later be able to apply their learning outside school, and secondly, transparency and fairness of assessment. To achieve these goals I have mostly abandoned the only-for-the-sake-of-it homework writing assignments, and started doing process-based writing with peer reviews, several editing sessions and hopefully, improved end results that clearly attest what the student has learned.

students hard at work by Susan NYC on Flickr

Wednesday, 7 October 2009

Should there be a 21st-century hat code?

Oh, the lovely old days, when people used to dress like this and everyone knew the important hat etiquette. According to columnist Miss Manners (quoted in an article about Hat etiquette), the reason for the rule of women being allowed to wear their hats everywhere was the following:
Men's hats are easily removed, but women's hats with ribbons, bows, flowers and other decorations can be quite a production to remove, especially if they're anchored with hat pins.
According to my collegues, the same old etiquette still applies, ie. boys are not to wear any type of headgear in class or school canteen, whereas girls are exempt from this rule. Apart from prohibiting overcoats in class, this is the only dress code my school stipulates.

So, at my school this sign reads: "BOYS, no hats/caps."

In other words this boy must remove his hat at school, but the girls can keep theirs on. I really can't see why it would be any more difficult for the girls to remove theirs - hardly any ribbons or flowers here! I don't think this really makes any sense in these days of partly unisex fashion.

In actual fact, I don't even notice who is wearing a hat or a baseball cap and who isn't. I am more interested in what goes on inside the head underneath the headgear. My suggestion is to either accept that headgear is an essential part of teen fashion today, move on and abolish the archaic rules, or apply the hats off rule to everybody equally. But for saying this, I am considered a dissident trouble-maker, while colleagues continue wasting time talking about the horrible caps meeting after meeting.

Photo: Sissy and Bubba by Patrick Q on Flickr

Monday, 5 October 2009

The feared and much awaited exam week

Exam week is here again, the first this school year. Our Finnish high school system is quite unique compared to many others, as our school year consists of 5 grading periods, each with their own different timetable. Basically, each student chooses 6 academic subjects for each period, each of which will be studied for five 45-minute lessons per week for approximately 6-7 weeks. On top of that students can also have a varying number of optional subjects per week (eg. sports, music, ICT), for which there won't normally be any exam. Each 6-7-week period ends with an exam week, during which students take one 3-hour exam a day in one of their subjects of that period. .

From a selfish teacher's point of view the beginning of the exam week is a welcome change into the daily grind. There won't be any classes to teach, only exams to prepare and invigilate. Of course, it's stressful to see the pile of papers on your desk getting higher and higher as the week proceeds. But if you are disciplined enough you can beat it before the next grading period starts, especially since you can finish every working day at midday, and possibly even have a day or two completely off during the exam week.

Surprisingly perhaps, even most of our students like this system. They say it's better to be able to concentrate on one subject at a time, and not to have any other distracting lessons on the exam days. They do find the approaching exam week rather daunting, and many get almost burnt out during it, but still they wouldn't want it changed in any way.

From a pedagogical point of view, however, there is a serious downside to the whole system. For too many students it leads to a dangerous cycle of 'bulimic learning'. In the long run, it doesn't seem to lead to real understanding of what they are cramming a day or two before the exam, let alone any higher order critical thinking skills. We have a considerable number of students who happily sail through the lessons included in each course, only showing up physically in the classroom, but hardly doing any work. They believe it's only the exam that counts, and that studying and learning means a rushed job the night before, in a stupefied state after too many energy drinks and cups of coffee to keep awake. On the exam mornings, you would see pale and exhausted groups of students nervously waiting to get their papers in front of them to quickly regurgitate all the fragmented bits of knowledge they still manage to remember. We all know what kind of learning this represents. Can we even call it learning?

Something is badly wrong with this system. At times I feel that all our students do is sit for exams, while there is hardly any time for any learning in between. Students who fail a course, can retake the exam, but this is no more than a couple of weeks after the previous exam, during which time the students are left on their own to revise. In practice, a student - with usually rather lacking study skills anyway - cannot hope to patch up a lot for their almost non-existent knowledge in that short time. Of course, there are students who do understand the importance of consistent learning all through the course. But for a great number - boys in particular - the system allows for a happy-go-lucky, carefree attitude that unfortunately too often backfires as disappointing underachievement in the end.

Although we Finnish teachers are privileged to have the freedom the design our own course assessment,  few teachers dare to use new and innovative assessment methods. Most just repeat the same old routine, because everybody else does, possibly out of fear of protests from students, who also tend to be rather conservative and need their comfort zones. True, we do have a very clear end goal in mind - the national final exams, where students' overall knowledge in several subjects will be evaluated by the national examination board. This does have a big effect on what is taught, and how learning is assessed at the school level. Yet, nobody tells us to give a written exam after every course, but still we do. We could spend the hours set for the exam on something totally different with the group of students, if we so choose, but still we don't.

This year, I am gradually trying to move into a more balanced and continious learning process all through the period with more peer assessment and modeling of different learning strategies and what it means to really learn something. By doing project work in small groups, for example, all through the course, the dangerous bulimics will hopefully learn to plan and pace their learning to have some time for developing deeper insights into and possible connections between the subjects they have chosen. This usually means easing off the hectic rushing through all the overbloated contents of the course book. Some of that content will have to be skipped and more time to be devoted to stopping, thinking and reflecting. I honestly don't believe that I would jeopardize my students' chances to succeed in the national final exams by not covering every single page of the course book. Less with more focus, will be more, is my new mantra. I hope I won't be proved wrong!