COVID-19 has changed many things, including how students learn. Online classes have replaced physical classes in school. Teachers who were once hesitant to try any form of digital learning are now embracing it and even picking up new skills themselves. Parents are stepping up to ensure that their children are not missing out - whether by helping them attend online classes or by enrolling them in other online courses. In addition to regular classes, there are courses on coding, data analysis and other topics. Many of these courses use videos, interactives, one to one mentoring and specialised learning modules.
Many parents have started asking "How much are my children actually learning through these multiple modes of online instruction in these unusual circumstances? Boards and schools have reduced syllabi, but are there implications of this for their future learning?"
The Need for Good Assessments
Since children learn in different ways and at different paces, the only way to know what students have really learnt is through assessments. In 2001, Educational Initiatives (EI) created ASSET with a vision of a world where children everywhere are learning with understanding. The central principle is that effective learning cannot happen without periodic evaluation and feedback. A correct diagnosis is a key part of proper treatment; a doctor needs to properly understand the root problem to prescribe effective medication.
This is true in education as well - learning can be far more effective if learning gaps are accurately identified. While teachers benefit from knowing where the gaps are, for some students, seeing the gap itself is sufficient to trigger the process of learning. Over the past two decades ASSET has successfully created an ecosystem of learning where assessments are used not just to measure, but to improve learning as well.
“Learning can be far more effective if learning gaps are accurately identified.”
All assessments measure learning, but what 'learning' is the most important? Textbooks are filled with facts and tests like the Board Exams, college and professional course entrance exams, and international assessments measure very different things. Two factors determine what learning is important - 1. the skills that will be needed in the future and 2. the concept of core learning.
What does your child need to learn today to succeed in tomorrow's world?
We instinctively understand that learning is not merely about memorising facts. In all subjects, basic concepts serve as foundations for advanced concepts. This may be clearest in subjects like Mathematics but is true in all subjects. Studies also show that understanding concepts may be more important than merely recalling facts. An India Today cover story based on a large study conducted by EI, 'What's Wrong With Our Teaching?' showed that our children may be putting in a lot of effort but may not be learning well.
In recent years, it has been seen that the 'inflation of marks' in Board Exams creates an illusion of enhanced learning (and rising college admission cut-offs). Writing in his book '21 Lessons for the 21st Century', Yuval Noah Harari says that today's students must be prepared to learn and relearn new skills many times over during their working careers. So what are these skills that are becoming important?
Many fundamental changes and advances in the last few decades - ever-improving digital technologies, for example - have had a widespread impact on work and society. These changes are expected to accelerate in the coming decades, changing the very nature of work. The skills needed in the workplace changed fundamentally in the last 50 years as shown by the graph below:
The above graph is for the US but a 2018 study by ICRIER in India shows a similar trend in India too. Non-routine analytical and interpersonal tasks have steadily risen in importance while all manual and routine cognitive tasks have declined. This means that tasks which involve analysing and interpreting information and thinking creatively are becoming more important than routine or structured tasks. Students need to shift their focus from mere acquisition of knowledge to nurturing these '21st century' skills. Given the nature of unstructured and creative task demands, attaining degrees and certificates has become less important than acquiring the ability to learn and re-learn.
Meanwhile, our education and examination systems have continued to focus on the recall of facts though there are attempts to change this. Just as the advantage of a robust physique reduces when jobs change from manual / agricultural to clerical / managerial, rote learning which served clerical and routine jobs well in the past will actually be a handicap in a world that will reward creativity and innovation. In other words, students need to have strong conceptual foundations and learning with understanding to be able to build the very talents the world of the future is likely to reward.
Core, Supporting and Peripheral Learning
It is important to be able to recall important ideas and facts, and to be fluent in subject-specific procedures. But these have to be complimented with other important aspects of learning so that students have a 'real understanding' of what they are learning.
At EI, we use a framework for designing our learning and assessment offerings which places emphasis on real learning. While there are always multiple learning goals, every discipline has some big ideas which form the basis for learning other important ideas and skills. These fall under the category of 'core learning' which is the most important part of learning. The other important ideas and skills form what we call 'supporting learning'. And finally, there are facts that are part of a learning unit but may not be very important, which we call 'peripheral learning'.
In mathematics, knowing about numbers, decimals, percentages and their operations would be core learning. The procedure to calculate HCF or the roots of a quadratic equation are supporting learning and also important. But, details about Roman numerals or the textbook definition of a tangent to a circle would be examples of peripheral learning.
In science, understanding density and its relation to mass, volume and even other characteristics of matter would be core learning. Being able to solve numericals would be supporting learning. Knowing the word-to-word definition would be peripheral learning.
“It is okay in times like a pandemic for students to lose peripheral learning. However, we need to keep track that they are not losing core learning. That is where good assessments, conducted regularly, play a key role.”
Many times school tests which focus on definitions or dates tend to lay undue emphasis on peripheral learning. But the loss of peripheral learning is like a tree losing a few leaves. Not only does the tree rarely feel the loss, it happens in the regular course of events. The loss of a branch, while still not catastrophic, can be a significant loss. These may be skills that are not core and yet are important and need effort to be learnt. At the very heart of learning, is core learning. This is like the trunk of the tree. This is its lifeline, and as long as its trunk is intact, new branches can grow. Core learning constitutes the most important concepts, basic skills like reading and understanding and key aspects of any discipline.
It is okay in times like a pandemic for students to lose peripheral learning. However, we need to keep track that they are not losing core learning. That is where good assessments, conducted regularly, play a key role.
Characteristics of Good Assessments
All assessments are not created equal. A good assessment focuses significantly on core learning while also covering some aspects of supporting learning. Peripheral learning - in today's world - can be easily accessed or derived from other sources and is NOT important to test.
Typical assessments merely check for textbook information or rote learning. They are often tied to a particular textbook chapter. Such papers are easy to set and correct but do not provide useful information on what a student has really understood.
Tests understanding of key ideas (core learning)
Tests conceptual understanding, application and key skills
Tests only superficial / textbook-ish knowledge or standard procedures
Uses questions set in new and unfamiliar contexts
Uses questions set in contexts directly from the textbooks
Questions designed to identify misconceptions
Questions only focus on the 'correct answer'
Provides benchmarking data - reflecting relative performance with a large number of students
Provides only the score of the student making it difficult to tell if the performance is good or bad
Tends to be regular rather than one-time with the assessment as a starting point
Tends to be one-time with the assessment as the endpoint
Provides question-wise or skill-wise feedback which is actionable
Provides only a summative score in its report
The joke in India today is that if any question in an exam is not from the textbook, it triggers a protest by parents in the school! A good assessment, on the other hand, contains many questions in an unfamiliar context which look new to the student. Only such unfamiliar questions test if a child is able to apply what has been learnt to an unfamiliar context and prepare the child for the unfamiliar contexts which they will need to apply their learning in.
A good assessment is designed to catch the common misconceptions that are found in the topic. This is based on an area of research called misconception research. The next section provides many examples of such good questions and the related misconceptions.
Is scoring 80 on a 100-mark test good? We cannot say! If the test had challenging questions and the highest score was 81, then 80 is a good score. If the test was easy and 60% of the students scored more than 80, it is not a good score. This is an example of benchmarking or providing an indication of where the student stands in the larger population. Every good assessment provides such benchmarking - often in the form of a percentile score.
“A good assessment is designed to catch the common misconceptions that are found in the topic.”
Most good assessments tend to be regular and are designed to be the starting point for change and improvement. Tests that merely provide a score (without even detailed feedback) are less useful to students or parents.
Due to all the above reasons, good assessments are able to provide actionable feedback. This includes information that
- assesses the current strengths and weaknesses of the students
- provides clear information on their current level of learning
- suggests next steps they should take to improve their learning
Examples of Questions that Test Real Learning
If students have a real understanding of the content, then along with demonstrating recall of important ideas and fluency with procedures, they should also be able to:
(a) demonstrate conceptual understanding: Here is an example of a question that checks only for recall-based learning.
Compare this with the following question which tests for conceptual understanding.
(b) apply their understanding in unfamiliar contexts: Here is an example of a question that asks students to apply their understanding in a context which is different from what they might have seen in their textbooks.
79% of almost 10,000 class 4 students said the above pencil was 6cm long (probably because textbooks only show objects placed starting at the ruler's 0 cm mark.)
(c) demonstrate competence in academic process skills specific to different disciplines: Here is an example of a question that expects students to apply the skill of designing a scientific investigation.
(d) integrate their understanding from across different areas to make decisions in real-life contexts: One of the tests for real understanding is to see if one can identify the relevant knowledge and skills one has learnt and then correctly apply in real-life situations. For example, the following question tests the students' comprehension skills in the context of an actual infographic from a newspaper.
What is ASSET SUPERTEST?
The drill and practice provided by doing textbook questions has to be supplemented by questions that check for understanding. ASSET SUPERTEST includes both kinds of questions. It is a package of weekly tests for students of classes 3-10 currently covering English Maths and Science. Each test is scientifically designed with objective type questions and caters to Indian and international curricula. These tests assess students' level of proficiency in the core skills and key ideas underlying the school syllabi. The immediately generated test reports provide personalized feedback to the students about their strengths and weaknesses.
These tests have all the key characteristics of good assessment practices as discussed earlier here. These tests
- focus on real understanding
- focus on key process skills
- focus on common misconceptions
- use insights from educational research
- ensure high standards in the design of questions
- are based on EI's student performance data from its large scale assessments
Students can take these tests online from home. One ASSET SUPERTEST can be taken every week in English, Maths or Science. You can choose the test every week (on Friday, Saturday or Sunday) and change the schedule if needed. Topics can be picked from one class higher or lower as well.
You will receive the test report after the testing window closes every week. The test report would include the following:
- total score obtained by the child
- answer to all questions from the test
- percentile score if greater than 50 percentile
ASSET SUPERTEST at a glance
Grades: 3 to 10
Subjects: English, Maths, Science
Duration: 30-40 minutes per test
Frequency: Weekly (1 subject test every week)
Test type: Objective type test - only multiple choice questions
Number of questions: 20 - 25 per test
Total number of tests: Basic Package (4 tests) or Premium Package (52 tests)
Venue: Can be taken from home
To know more about ASSET SUPERTEST, visit https://assetsupertest.ei-india.com/.