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Time to reconsider school assessment

| September 5, 2017 | 0 Comments


There are many who contend that 21st century skills are not been effectively assessed in summative mid-term and end-of-year examinations.

Over the last decade, teachers around the world have been required to develop tasks and projects for 21st learning programmes.2 They have had to upskill themselves to implement strategies such as flipping the classroom, project-based learning (PBL) and using digital devices and apps.3

Twenty-first century skills have been explained in many ways.

In this article, I interpret 21st century skills as follows:
• critical thinking: real-world problem-solving, risk-taking, thinking skills and strategies
• creativity: divergent thinking, flexible thinking and innovation
• communication: written, verbal/non-verbal, creative and digital
• collaboration: knowledge-building, teamwork and the value of difference
• self-management: initiative, resilience, values-driven and self-regulation
• observation: using and developing all sensory abilities producing a product of excellence.

The South African Independent Examinations Board (IEB)4 requires that its summative examinations (written by many independent schools) comprise 60% of questions that target lower-order cognitive levels (knowledge, comprehension, application) and 40% of questions that target higher-order levels (analysis, synthesis, evaluation).

IEB examination instructions must be carefully worded to show the different cognitive levels. “Name”, “identify”, “compare” and “explain” typically target lower cognitive-level skills, while the higherlevel questions ask students to “predict”, “suggest” and “evaluate”. Is a target of 40% of higher-order questions in an examination enough to assess 21st century skills?

It could cover 40% of the skills of critical thinking, creativity and resilience, but it does not assess communication and collaboration. So how can the examination be shaped to assess these skills and enable the students to produce a product of excellence? I believe that examinations could be structured in a manner that appeals to students’ 21st century characteristics, which include, says academic Sarah Elaine Eaton, “demanding the freedom to show their wild creativity” and “thriving in an atmosphere of controlled challenge”.5 The examination could be divided into two parts. Part one would be the traditional examination, written individually by each student and handed in. Part two could be a collaborative presentation, based on one of the core sections of work covered in part one of the examination.

The task could be structured as follows:

• Students individually study the instructions of the task. They are allocated five minutes to do so.
• They are then put into their groups (grouping could be done in many ways: according to previous results, alphabetically or random selection).
• The group is then given five minutes to plan.
• Thirty minutes is allocated for the completion of the task.

We decided to try this method during recent geography examinations at St Cyprian’s School in Cape Town. The Grade 10 students were asked how they felt about the new examination structure before they completed it and postcompletion, but before they received their results. Here are some of their comments:

How do you feel about the traditional examination style?

• “Good for making sure the students know the basics of the subject but it is boring and does not make students interpret the things they learn effectively.”
• “The consistency of the layout of traditional examinations gives me confidence as I know what to expect.”
• “I do not enjoy it as much because it is based on parrot learning generally, but it is good to ensure learning and application.”
• “I enjoy the traditional style as I am used to it.”
• “I find it very stressful and believe it is an outdated method of testing.”
• “I like the structure of the paper as the topics are in sections.”

How do you feel about the group examination style?

• “The style is more creative and prepares us more for future situations, as group work is effective in showing interpretation of knowledge.”
• “I enjoy working with people and so if everybody contributes I feel there will be a better answer given collectively.”
• “It is a bit stressful because it is unexpected, but it is also different and unique.”
• “I enjoy working in a group as there are more knowledge and ideas.”
• “Something different; a progressive idea.”
• “I love this type of examination as we can share knowledge and ideas.”

What do you feel you can contribute to the group?

• “Calmness to the group, as I don’t get stressed easily; this will make the group think more effectively and clearly.”
• “I feel I work well with people and I know the content for the examination.”
• “I can contribute logical thinking and I have a passion for geography.”
• “Innovative thinking and hard work.” • “I like to share and listen to other people’s ideas.”

What are your strengths and weakness when working in groups?

• “I have a good understanding of the work to be covered in the examination and I work well with others.”
• “I like working in other media and with people.”
• “Thinking and application and knowledge of content.”
• “I like to develop people’s ideas further.”
• “Encouraging others.”
• “I have studied hard and so know the work and will bring spirit and motivation to the group.”

• “I tend to make careless mistakes, so it is very useful to work with others.”
• “I am not confident with this part of the syllabus, so perhaps cannot contribute knowledge to the group.”
• “I can become stressed when working in a group.”
• “Sometimes I doubt myself and don’t contribute.”
• “A lack of knowledge of the topic.”
• “I am not confident in some areas of the content.” The following are the reflections of the students after the collaborative examination was completed and before their moderated results were returned.

How did you find part two of the examination?

• “I found it interesting as group work includes opinions from different people, so everybody’s strengths and weaknesses are shown – I enjoyed it.”
• “I enjoyed this as I feel that working with others allows for overall representation of our knowledge and combined group work skills.”
• “I really enjoyed part two because it was creative and fun to do and required different skills from part ” • “I enjoyed it because we had the opportunity to work in groups and were able to share ideas and also to think more creatively.”
• “I thought it was an interesting method of testing.”
• “I enjoyed it because it allowed us to use collective knowledge as well as communicate thoughts.”

What were the positive aspects of part two of the examination?

• “If somebody is unsure about something, there is a chance that somebody else is stronger in that area so you learn from others.”
• “I enjoyed adding to the artistic aspects, working with others and the planning aspects.”
• “The positives were working in a group, thinking creatively, designing and planning, and hearing other people’s ideas.”
• “Being able to find one’s role in the group and that everybody was on the same page.”
• “It was less stressful than a normal examination and my group worked well.”
• “I was able to offer my knowledge, move around and talk and love working in a group.”

What were the negative aspects of part two of the examination?

• “People sometimes not listening to others.”
• “Needed more time for the task.”
• “Did not find any negatives, perhaps we could have been given more time.”
• “Sometimes it was difficult to voice your opinions in a group with individuals with different personalities.”
• “How well you do relies heavily on who else is in your group.”
• “There was too little time and everybody had lots of different ideas that were different from mine.”

Would you like to do this type of examination again?

• “Yes definitely, as this is preparing us to work with others and so is preparing us for the future.”
• “Yes, I would as this is a way to really put our knowledge and skills to the test.”
• “Yes, please, because I had a lot of fun doing it and whilst it was still an examination it didn’t feel like one.”
• “Yes, because you can work with others and get different views.”
• “Yes, as it was fun, however, I think some revision in the type of exercise done should be considered.” • “Yes, I would, because being able to work together and share knowledge made it much easier to process what we had learnt without being overstressed. I enjoyed moving around and communicating.” An analysis of the students’ reflections reveals the following:

Pre-examination analysis

The traditional examination format provides reassurance for many students; however, they prefer the challenge and freedom of the collaborative examination, as they deem it relevant to the development of skills they will need in the future. They feel that they can contribute positive attributes such as calmness, critical knowledge, planning and cognition, and they value the skills and opinions of others in the group. They appreciate the strengths of their group members, discussing different insights and access to a broader knowledge base.

Post-examination analysis

The students enjoyed the collaboration, learning from each other, being creative, using skills often associated with other subjects and producing the final product. It is interesting to note the comments about the freedom of movement, not being confined to a desk and communicating with others. In my role as examiner, I observed a “lightness” in the examination venue – laughter and fun, but also a determination to produce excellence.

Some of the difficulties experienced by the groups was the time element and the feeling that some people’s opinions were not been heard. All the students would like to continue with this style of examination, as they see it as “really testing” their knowledge and skills, they enjoyed the engagement of listening to other opinions, and found it to be enjoyable as it did not feel like an examination, because students “are allowed for move around and talk and discuss with each other”. The student analysis confirms Eaton’s findings.

Grade 9 geography students also gave group assessment a go

A similar sort of group work examination was also set for the Grade 9 St Cyprian’s geography students. The pre-examination analysis showed high levels of apprehension, based on who would be in each group and if the group would be able to work together. However, seven students from the sample of 21 students were up to the challenge. Asked which type of examination style they would prefer, 66% said the traditional examination, while three said that as they had not done the collaborative style, they would need to do so before they could assess both styles.

The post-examination analysis showed that 90% of the students enjoyed the collaborative examination, as it was fun and creative. The negative aspects were the shortage of time, the inability of some students to be productive as members of a group, and a desire on the part of some students to work independently. Seventy per cent would like to do write this style of examination again.

How should students be assessed for this style of examination?

This question arises from the analysis of the students’ reflections, and from observing them in action during the examination. It concurs with conclusions reached by international studies such as the Global Societies Education Network, which found in 2013 that “in addition to instructional and practical considerations, educators must pay attention to the overall technical quality of the measure”.6 Giving a group mark does not give feedback to each individual student for the meaningful development of skills. Shouldn’t we rather assess individual student participation, such as providing information, reflecting and accepting other students’ information, ability to problem-solve, taking initiative, completing tasks assigned to them and generating a positive atmosphere?

Many role players in education and business are calling for graduates who can use 21st century skills effectively. For example, authors Fabiola Lara, Kate Anderson, Martin Henry and Seamus Hegarty, in their 2016 report entitled “Examining breadth of learning opportunities in 21st century education systems”, state: “South Africa’s national curriculum statement indicates that, upon completing formal education, students should be able to identify and solve problems and make decisions using critical and creative thinking as well as work in collaborative environments.”7 For us to produce such graduates, our style of school examinations needs to change to match the content our teachers are now required to teach and assess.

Dave Carr is coordinator of extracurricular programmes and head of geography at St Cyprian’s School in Cape Town.

1. See, for example: Skills_Assessment_e-paper.pdf and skills-role-performance-assessment-achieving-21st-century-standardslearning. pdf and 21st-century-skills-and-competencies-around-world
2. See, for example: 21st-century-skills and and 3. Ibid.
4. See:
5. See, for example: learners/
6. See, for example:
7. See: 2016/10/31/examining-breadth-of-learning-opportunities-in- 21st-century-education-systems/










Category: Spring 2017

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