FORMATIVE Assessment – always!

The only assessment that should be accepted as summative is an obituary. And if it’s not about you there’s still scope for learning.

So how have I tried to help students put this philosophy into practice, when it comes to class tests and school exams? Probably I should give some examples (on the ‘show don’t tell’ principle).

GCSE class: In the middle of a topic (say electromagnetism) students expect that 15 minutes of the Friday afternoon class will be a test on what they’ve been doing. I choose (scan and save by topic, so I have a bank) past paper questions that they can answer from what we’ve done already. I mark them using the exam board mark scheme (but with ½ marks for nearly there). I do not correct them. Next lesson I give students coloured pens to write in corrections – and tell them to consult their neighbour to correct what they can. Then they move to a different neighbour and repeat. After about 3 moves, most have nearly all the corrections they need, and some are demanding I tell them how to get full marks on a question that has confused all the people they’ve talked to. At which point I’ll model ‘perfect’ answers for the questions they request. Back in their seats I ask students to record on the paper in the coloured pen 3 (more or less) things they’ve learned from going through the exercise. (‘Revise more’, ‘read the question’ are not permitted as responses, students must add a specific action, like underlining key terms, making/using Flash cards. I’m happy with specific subject content points). I often collect the papers back and skim the comments. I try (and too often forget) to remind students of the exam technique points they’ve recorded before they prepare and attempt the next test. If necessary some students are required to repeat the same test in an afterschool session a few days after the correction lesson.

A’level class: Again students expect that some of one lesson every week will be a test/review class. And again I try to use past paper questions (I have decades worth!) to make language and structure of the questions familiar. Test conditions, then I collect in work, students sit in pairs, I redistribute papers. No-one marks their own or their neighbour’s work. Nor does anyone mark the work of the person who is correcting their paper. I display the mark scheme bit by bit – lots of discussion between neighbours and in whole class as to interpretation. After grading completed and marks collected, students often want part of mark scheme re-displayed so they can correct their own work.

School exams: Feedback as the GCSE class above – as a teacher you need to do it as quickly as possible, because students will find places where they could have another mark, and it’s really nice if you can correct your records before they’ve passed right up the system and you have to confess your error to too many people. (But maybe that’s just me?) I have the rule that I shan’t discuss individual marks until the correction process is finished, so that momentum through the lesson is maintained. And I have a ‘what I’ve learned’ sheet for students to fill in; about exam and revision techniques, which can be referred to in the future. It’s a useful source for comments for report writing too.

I appreciate that these are subject specific examples, and that it is easier for students to see why a science or maths answer given by a fellow student is better than their attempt. But I do believe that students will remember/learn better when they really want to know. And although I do not go as far as to endorse Gardner’s extended list of multiple intelligences, I do know that most students have a burning need to correct injustice when they believe they have been defrauded. So this is a time when they may appreciate the need for key vocabulary, quoted evidence or correct sentence/paragraph/essay structure. And thus correcting an exam paper can be a real learning experience that engages students.

One last point – I have, in the last decade, rethought how I give explanations and corrections. I used to spend some time making animated powerpoints to explain key points in both interpreting the question and formulating answers. But I realised that using these slides did not engage the whole class. The most able did not need them, and I was losing their attention. And every student had to see everything, which nobody needed. When students explain to each other, those who understand clarify their understanding and rehearse their explanations, in the face of questions that I may not have anticipated, that arise from other students’ misunderstanding. I give the powerpoints to students to use in their own time, especially when they want to revise a topic.

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Flipping a Lesson – in two different ways

To me, a “flipped lesson” can be a valid form of the old-fashioned concept of ‘prep’. Something students can do to prepare for a class. Particularly if the planned lesson relies on familiarity with concepts that (should have) been studied some time ago, or is set in a context that is unfamiliar to the students. In the past this kind of preparation task would have involved reading; quite often a teacher prepared passage for comprehension with questions to check understanding (and motivate students to engage with the material).
So I have been experimenting with flipping in two ways. First the students were asked to watch a couple of short videos. Recently I asked upper sixth students to watch the Khan Academy introductory lessons on ‘Magnetism’ before we began an A level treatment f the subject. Rather than ask them to answer questions, I asked the students to record what questions they wanted answered having watched the videos.
I used Padlet (see below) as a notice board for the students to record their queries. I have two groups in parallel, so they could see each others’ thoughts. The students’ questions influenced what I included in the following lessons. At the end of the classes I displayed the Padlet board and students discussed what had been answered and what hadn’t. I added links to other videos that clarified some ideas that had been queried (most relevant from Veritasium, One Minute Physics).

padlet e.g.
I am happy that nearly all the students posted questions. After my lessons and the extra video links people either said their questions were answered, or asked more questions (hooray!). I think that seeing each others’ queries encouraged some of them to think more deeply – but that’s anecdotal from my knowledge of the individual students. I moved their sticky note questions around to group similar queries, then posted a relevant video link next to them. This also allowed for differentiation. I only posed one stimulus question (Are field lines really loops?) as a result of lesson discussion, another time I hope I’ll do more.
On the SAMR scale of use of digital techniques in education I think this is moving from ‘Modification’ to ‘Redefinition’ as students were responding both to ideas from other students in their class, and also to those in a parallel class. Another time I’ll ask them to suggest answers or resources that answer queries. As to the four Cs, certainly communication and collaboration went on. Some critical thinking in subsequent discussion. Not so much creativity. Using TPACK to analyse what happpened, certainly there was useful content, and the technology enabled access to the content resources and communication between students. I used pedagogical knowledge to choose suitable videos. I must confess I deliberately gave them the drier Khan Academy approach first, so that my lessons and the Veritasium videos reassured (hopefully) the students that they could follow the arguments in what is a difficult subject at A level.
On a technical note, I had been using Lino ( )for notice boards like this. I experimented with Padlet ( ) as I saw it recommended in several blogs. Padlet is extremely simple to use but I may go back to Lino as I like the colours (this may be a rather sad reason) and the different set up options so that I can monitor who is posting (essential with some classes). I’m also using student blogging so that students can read and comment on each others’ ideas – next post.

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Motivation 2 – Extrinsic Motivation

In my last post I wrote that students with intrinsic motivation were most likely to be successful learners. But in practice I know that I, and my students, sometimes need some extrinsic push to get a task done. So in this article I’m going to list techniques that I have found to be successful, with a little bit of analysis as to how and why I think they work.


It is a truth universally acknowledged, that urgent trumps important every time. I understand that I should take the long term view, but knowing I must have something ready tomorrow (or even later today, but I’m not admitting that) is a powerful factor in focussing my attention.

So how can we make deadlines work for students? First – ensure students are aware of due dates for work. Whether they record tasks on mobile devices or use ink in a paper notebook, all students need a one place reference list of what they must do and by when. We take care of this with young students, but as they get older we don’t always support them as much as they need.

Second – make those dates matter. I don’t mean that if students miss deadlines the work gets missed too. But if students get behind with their deadlines then they need to know when and where there will be support for them to catch up, and the absolute expectation that they will do this. Coursework is disappearing from the specifications; I have mixed feelings about this. But what I shan’t regret are the comments when I announce intermediate dates for different sections: “But, Miss, those are just your dates, right? When must it be in for the exam board?” and the subsequent discussions. The deadlines set by their teacher have to be valued by students.

Enforcing and following up the completion of tasks is frustratingly time consuming for teachers. However hard we try to convince students that we are supporting their learning, as we insist they come back and finish their work in a classroom where we are present to help them, most students regard such requirements as detention and punishment.  I try to remember the students who object furiously throughout the school year, and then send me ‘thank you’ s  at the end of the course. But the percentage is not very high.


‘Specific ‘and ‘prompt’ are my keywords here.

I’ve read criticism of feedback that is personal. Many authors seem to feel that teachers who begin with phrases such as, “Good effort, Tom,” continue to focus on congratulating a student for trying, rather than giving feedback that is specific to the task. I still try to do both.  Some authors criticise “Two stars and a wish,” but I think all of us respond better if progress that we’ve made is recognised. So the ‘stars and wish’ should be for actual attainment, for example:

“Well done, Susan, you’ve described what happened in the experiment accurately. You have used the correct names for all the equipment this time. To move up to a grade B you need to use scientific ideas to explain why it happened this way. For an A grade I should need to see you using the density equation, and explaining what happens to the air molecules.”

Achievement is recognised, progress commended (‘this time’), and requirements for improvement specified.

‘Prompt’ is a challenge for busy teachers, but we have to set an example! How can we expect improvement with the next assignment if students haven’t received feedback on the last one?

Rewards Celebrations

Quizzes and competitions with sweets and chocolates handed out to the winning teams leads to a happy classroom in the short term. But an expectation of a lollipop for a good mark benefits no-one in the long run, except dentists maybe.

So how do we strike a balance?

I liked an idea I saw a few years ago (sorry, can’t remember whom to credit). Treats are never earned, they can never be expected as the outcome of successful study or compliant behaviour. They are an occasional celebration when things are going well, to be enjoyed (by all, hopefully).

Most of the time recognition and praise (we all like praise!) will do the job. Exemplar work on display, stars, merits etc all augment the feedback process.


In an ideal world a look or a word would be enough to bring a miscreant round. And if we notice what’s going on in time (and developing strategies to keep an eye on the rest of the class while paying attention to one member is a valuable skill, even if it does force a teacher into the position adopted by the social climber who scans the party for someone more interesting while apparently paying attention to the stopgap they’re listening to) then naming or nodding to a someone off task often pre-empts anything requiring more intervention.

But we can’t prevent things happening to students in their life outside our classrooms. Sometimes for one reason or another, a student prevents other students learning. Sometimes sanctions are needed. And students need to see that expectations are enforced. But, personally, I could never say I use punishments consistently. Because each student is an individual, and a rigid tariff of repercussions for particular infringements is as inappropriate as forcing each member of a class to choose the most personally significant phrase/event from a novel.

Deadlines, feedback, celebrations and consequences of poor behaviour – four extrinsic motivators that can support both the development of intrinsic motivation, and supplement it. Which do you find most effective?

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Motivation 1 – Learning for its own sake

Every teacher longs for a class of students who are motivated to learn. But we need to do more than just yearn for such ideal students; we need to understand something about motivation, and how to build it in our students. Research shows that students with intrinsic rather than extrinsic motivation have more stamina, are prepared to think more deeply, are, in summary, more likely to succeed. But practice shows us that building intrinsic motivation is harder.

Let’s think about intrinsic motivation. (I’m basing this summary on an article by Kaplan, reference below, which has links to original sources). We can start with Maslow, and his higher order ‘needs’, self-actualisation needs which are only engaged when the basic physiological requirements have been met. Later researchers (e.g. Ryan and Deci) developed Self Determination Theory. This holds that after physiological needs there are psychological – for competence, relatedness and autonomy. Only when these three organistic aspects are fulfilled can a student develop intrinsic motivation for learning. At this point flow is possible, that state where engagement is so complete time passes without the students’ awareness, self-consciousness is absent and concentration on the topic is so complete that all external concerns are forgotten (flow is a term coined by Czikzentmihalyi). Flow is most likely when there is the best balance between the challenge of a task and the student’s abilities. In a positive spiral, the experience of flow is so rewarding that the student is motivated to repeat it, so grows in competency and understanding.

So what are the implications for teachers? First to ensure that those three psychological needs are met. Students need to trust that they will be able to achieve measurable, recognisable success with any task that is set to them. And our feedback must be genuine. If we give ‘two stars and a wish’, those praise stars must be recognition of real effort and achievement that shows progress. Students have to know that the target wish is an achievable challenge, and that further progress towards it will be mentored. Then creating an atmosphere which encourages risk taking, knowing getting things wrong is often a necessary step on the path to getting it right, creating a space where trying things out is encouraged. (Easier to achieve with younger students than when adolescent hormones are screaming that the student will never find a mate if they show any weakness. Overcoming the teenage belief that a blasé indifference to study, or any other effortful activity, appears more cool than being seen to try sometimes seems the hardest task for secondary teachers). And autonomy, handing over some control, giving the student some choice in method and presentation. Here is where being a 21st century teacher gives us an advantage – it has never been so easy for students to access help and information in different ways, or to produce and submit work in different formats.

So the first task is to prepare the ground. But then, like all real teachers, we have to face the specification that we are tasked to teach. Is what we have to teach intrinsically motivating? There is a temptation to seek a context that we think is attractive to our students: Understand the physics of motion to improve your football skills, learn about normal distribution and never be confused when meaningless statistics are used to back up a claim, study the requirements for plant growth and solve world hunger. Seeing the big picture, as we do, we can see links, more or less tenuous. But it is dangerous to try to twist the whole topic to fit a particular example. Initial engagement may turn to disillusionment when real contexts are too complex for the theory we can cover, or, conversely students need to learn techniques beyond that required in our examples.

Increasingly I believe that although it is important to give students a context for what we shall study, this should be almost more of an excuse for us to go ahead to have fun solving the problems we are going to learn about. Most of us can remember the satisfaction of solving a page of quadratic equations, or a set of grammar exercises, many of us continue to enjoy puzzles such as Sudoku or cryptic crosswords, or electronic games. If we accept that intrinsic motivation is the best kind of motivation, perhaps we should accept that that motivation should be contained within the subject, as well as in the student. In another words, learning is a good thing to do in itself – if there is a useful application so much the better.

Steve Wheeler has recently put an academically referenced post on Maslow on his Learning with e’s blog, “Going the extra mIle.”

And for a deeper look at the emotional side of motivation you might like:

Next blog – extrinsic motivation

Kaplan reference via

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First (Physics) lesson with a new sixth form class

I teach in a school with a sixth form which has an appreciable new intake to study for A levels, who join established students who already know each other well. I think the challenge for the first lesson is to have an engaging lesson, with some interesting material, and simultaneously to encourage students to collaborate and begin to reform as a united class who will work together. I appreciate the need to give a big picture of what we shall be studying, and the admin necessary for resources issue and explanations of expectations. However I also know that students have had a programme of introductory activities and that in every subject they will be hearing similar things. So my approach for many years is to have resources laid out ready, and to move on quickly from their listening to me, to the students working on an unfamiliar task.

What task? In different schools, over several decades, I have shared Physics teaching. And my section has often begun with materials, sensors or kinematics. So here are some ideas that I’ve used which may be adaptable for other subjects:

Materials (a sweet start) :

The way I teach materials was transformed when I taught the Salters Horners Advanced Physics course, when I learned that almost all material properties could be studied via confectionary. Students find it a difficult topic, as there is a great deal of technical descriptive vocabulary, whose meaning is precise within the context of material science, but which contains words that are used less precisely in ordinary life. For example ‘toughness’ refers to the energy required to break a sample, while ‘strength’ refers to the force, and a brittle material like glass may be strong but not tough.

So in the first lesson I give students a glossary sheet, with A Level standard definitions, examples and antonyms. I pair students together, trying to put new students with those who are old hands. This sets a pattern – that I sometimes tell them who is to work with whom, during the year I’d expect to ensure that each student collaborates with each of their classmates in different activities. Each pair is given a dish of mixed sweets (usual precautions about allergies, and cleanliness).

After 15 minutes or so each student must introduce their partner to the rest of the class (name, what they are studying, where they are from, why they are studying Physics), and then each pair describes compares and contrasts their sweets, using as many of the words from the glossary sheet as they can. The rest of the class are encouraged to ask questions for clarification.

This activity has collaboration, communication and critical thinking built in. Next year I plan to extend it with either Lino or Socrative. I’ll ask students to create sentences that show they understand the meaning of the words they have been using. If we use Lino, the sentences can be displayed anonymously, but I’ll have an email telling me who has posted what, in case the students have not quite reached the maturity we’d like in the sixth form.  I can also freeze the IWB display so I can check what’s posted on the computer screen, before showing it to the class. Then students can comment on the sentences to improve or correct them.

Resources: sweets – usually in a clean Petri dish. Contrasting examples might be – plain, milk and white chocolate squares, boiled and jelly sweets, caramels and boiled sweets, liquorice and strawberry laces, fruit and nut versus smooth milk chocolate, gums and boiled sweets… A couple of clean sheets of white paper, students can create a hardness comparison by seeing what sweet scratches what.

Glossary Material Words, follow up multiple choice test, Materials Properties Quick test

Sensors – an intro to useful electric circuits:

The lesson structure is the same as for ‘Materials’, but this time each pair moves to a different sensor device or circuit. The Physics task is to identify what the sensor responds to, and the output it produces. Students are then asked to consider how the sensor might work, and where it might be useful. A large class may have to work in threes – you need time for their presentations.

Examples: Thermocouple connected to digital voltmeter ( junctions labelled), thermistor connected to resistance meter, thermistor connected in potential divider (output to voltmeter), digital ‘tape measure’, dB meter, I use an old birthday card with sensors that enable the opener to ‘blow’ the candles out, pressure sensor, lux meter, light gate connected to timer, GM tube and counter (background count only!).

Follow up to the presentations and discussion could be a photo of each sensor and brief notes, written by the presenters. These could go on a class blog, and students could be required to write a minimum number of comments in a further activity, giving the chance to reinforce ideas of digital etiquette.

Kinematics –average speed:

Again, same lesson structure, but groups of three students each given the challenge to measure the average speed of a trolley down a runway by a different method. If each member of the group takes a separate set of results and then the students look at the spread, they can begin to think about uncertainty and what causes it. It is difficult to manage this in the first lesson, vital to have equipment set up beforehand.

Methods I used last year: In each case, one runway, jack to prop up one end, one dynamics trolley; hand held stop clocks and a metre rule, light gate positioned over centre of runway measuring time for card attached to trolley to pass through, light gates at beginning and end of runway measuring difference in times of interruption, ticker timer and tape, the last group had the linear air track, glider and a more precise timer connected to the light gates.  The aim was not to have a definitive answer between all the groups for the speed, but to appreciate effects such as the card moving through the gate at an angle, the trolley moving down the slope at an angle, decisions about where the distance began and ended i.e. to get a more sophisticated appreciation of causes of uncertainty than most students have during GCSE.

Last year as follow up to the presentations each group produced a poster, with a photograph of the equipment, explanations and results. Perhaps this year I’ll have a class blog space set up in time.

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Revisiting thinking frames

It is some years since I was introduced to a particular writing frame structure, developed by a group called the AstraZeneca Science Teaching Trust, supported I think by Hampshire CC and by the University of Southampton, (for details see It was specifically designed to help students (KS2 or KS3) write longer accounts of science observations, and to reach higher National Curriculum levels of comprehension, modelling and analysis. I have used it with older students too.

An example will make it easier to explain, and I should say, this is how I have modified the original model over the years. First activity is to show students an event with a surprising and/or dramatic outcome. My example today is the flying teabag experiment, there is a video for those who are not familiar with this simple demonstration. I think the method could be useful in subjects other than science, but I’ll stick with one I know well to begin with.

Students watch (or perform) the activity, and then draw three (cartoon) pictures to summarise the sequence of events. While they are drawing I collect vocabulary they might use to describe or explain what they have seen, and write it on the IWB. Usually every member of the class can be asked to contribute at least one word. Then the students use the words to label their diagrams (I usually set a minimum requirement). If students offer extra vocabulary I add it to the board. I ask the students to write sentences, first to describe what they saw happen, then to explain. I challenge individuals to add explanations at greater levels of complexity (in terms of the movement of particles/air molecules, explaining how the density equation is relevant, linking to ideas of forces and flotation). The final task is to change their sentences into a logical paragraph, this is often an out of lesson assignment. Assessment for learning is built into the activity, as teacher I can applaud what is achieved while specifying what is needed to improve.

As it is, this is an engaging lesson that results in real learning. How to develop it with the resources we now have in the classroom? First the vocabulary list on the IWB can be sent as a PDF to class members. I find that many ask permission to photograph it anyway. All our students now have iPads, so they can video experiments. As on the video I have posted on Vimeo (link below) students can use Explain Everything to add labels, still photographs and commentary. The commentary could replace the final paragraph or be an addition. My plan in the coming year is to have students collate all their digital work in an ebook. So they will be able to add the completed video, and the feedback it receives, as they build the ebook in CBB.

Differentiation is built into the process, whether we use NC levels as in the original scheme, or other criteria. Individuals can be challenged to more critical thinking, and employment of more sophisticated concepts during the ‘writing sentences’ stage and in afL. Whether students draw cartoons or edit their own videos their is plenty of scope for creativity. As the exercise stands the collaborative process is in the classroom. Communication skills are enhanced as students are encouraged to use correct technical vocabulary and to create complete sentences and longer passages.

Here is the Vimeo link: (here is the URL if the link fails

Other Physics activities that would be suitable: candle under balloon half-ful of water, sparkler on electric drill, bromine diffusion in air and into vacuum, candle floating at oil/water interface, raisins in sparkling water ‘lava lamp’.

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Revision in the twenty first century classroom

Revision lessons – how to ensure that it’s the students doing the work? How to ensure they are revising effectively? And, in this century, how to involve the four C’s (collaboration, communication, critical thinking and creativity)? Here is an activity that I adapted a few years ago  from a suggestion made by a colleague. It is probably more suitable for subjects with more fact content such as my specialism (Physics) but I leave that decision to you.

Take a topic, or unit of work and cut it up into statements. For older students the exam board specification or a list from the teaching scheme may be fine.. Younger or less academic students will need such statements to be chunked and/or rewritten. Set up a document with a three column table: Give the columns titles: statement, question, answer. You may wish to number the statements. Copy the statements into the first column. It is the students’ task to invent questions (and supply answers) for each statement. If it is a preparation task I usually set each student a different bank of statements to prepare questions for. If they meet the list at the start of a lesson, students collaborate in pairs for 10 minutes or so to devise, say, 3 questions each pair (again, I allocate these so that the list is covered). 

Then one of each pair stands and moves along to the neighbouring desk. My classes are used to (have become resigned to) these circulation patterns. The students take turns to ask their new partner their questions. If they meet a question they can’t answer the student must write down the question and answer, questioners learn to refine their questions as they pose them to other students. If students do not agree on an answer they ask me to arbitrate. Every 3 minutes or so, the same students move along again to a different partner, with different questions.

Plenary activities can be mini-whiteboard, Socrative, or other tests, votes (again can be with Socrative) for most difficult statement, or things that need explaining next lesson.

Students have worked collaboratively, they have criticised unclear questions and unsatisfactory answers, they have created Q and As, and a great deal of on task communication goes on. The task may be pencil and paper or completed digitally. Students are required to engage with the material when devising questions, not just parrot it. Students learn a revision technique to take and use elsewhere.

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