Neil Goalby investigates hinge-point questions and formative assessment to develop pupil learning

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Assessment for Learning (AfL) has become a mainstay of science education in schools over the past 15 years. Its central premise is in using formative assessment to develop pupil learning. Earlier this year, several thousand teachers signed up to Assessment for Learning in STEM teaching – a six week online course delivered by two of the main architects of AfL, Dylan Wiliam and Christine Harrison, in collaboration with the University of Leeds.

I am sure AfL was not a new concept for many of the teachers on the course, but over the years various initiatives have piggy-backed the original ideas. This course therefore focused on the central reasons for using AfL techniques in a classroom.

Christine Harrison initially highlighted the importance of intentional dialogue in the classroom. This is considered to be the most crucial component of AfL. The key to this is to create an environment where, through the teacher asking carefully chosen questions, pupils are given the opportunity to think and express their understanding. Time should be allowed for the misconceptions that pupils have about science to surface and teachers should not shut down discussions with the search for the ‘right’ answer.

Teachers need to carefully plan these questions in advance. This not an easy task and requires the teacher to have both the required subject knowledge and know the sorts of misunderstandings that pupils often have.

At the hinge

So when do we use the questions for assessment? It might be at the start of the lesson to find out what the students already know about a topic. It may also be part way through a lesson to check how their understanding is progressing. The course spent a lot of time studying the latter case.

A question used midway through a lesson is referred to as a hinge-point question. The hinge is defined as a point in a lesson where the teacher should check if students are ready to move on. The purpose of the hinge-point question is to encourage pupils to think deeply. An example would be a multiple choice question where common misconceptions are included as options.

The greatest challenge in using AfL arises when the hinge-point question identifies a portion of the class that doesn’t understand the topic. It’s very difficult to plan for this situation. The temptation (and a situation I have observed in the past) is to just carry on with your lesson plan and not use the results in a meaningful way. The course did not attempt to give concrete strategies for tackling this, which is understandable, but I suspect this is the stage that teachers struggle with most.

The best approach?

Studying Assessment for Learning in STEM teaching has made me reconsider what I am doing in the classroom. Intentional dialogue is crucial in the classroom. I am not, however, entirely convinced by the primacy of hinge-point questions as an assessment tool.

There are many ways a teacher can assess a pupil’s understanding in a lesson. In my typical classes, I am going around reading what the pupils are writing, listening to their conversations and responding to their questions and requests for help. It is more of a continuous process of feedback and diagnosis of their understanding. Interventions happen when they are needed rather than waiting for a pre-planned hinge. But then, I could be missing the point!

I would like to thank Christine Harrison and Dylan Wiliam for creating an interesting, well organised and thought-provoking course.

Neil Goalby is head of chemistry at Bancroft's School, UK

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