By trying out in the classroom what has been recommended by others, I’ve come to see the power of multiple-choice quizzes to inform my teaching and provide me with rich data on my students’ progress.

There was a time when I would rarely have thought of using pure knowledge tests as a history teacher and would certainly have been highly sceptical of a multiple-choice quiz as an “easy” option.  I was aware of its use in the American education system as a tool for assessing historians, but inclined to be dismissive of its value.  I would not say that my position was well thought-through but, if asked, would have suggested that a substantial piece of writing was of considerably more value, testing both knowledge and deeper understanding.

In recent years I have come to question some long-held assumptions about the nature of knowledge acquisition.  One part of this journey has been the realisation that I can do more to break down the skills involved in becoming an historian and assess my students on different parts of the learning journey.  Thus an open-book essay (another tool I would never have used) can help them focus on building an effective argument with evidence appropriately deployed, whilst a multiple-choice test can help me to see the gaps in their knowledge that could be acting as a barrier to higher level thinking.

In experimenting with the use of such quizzes in class and for homework over the last few months I have discovered the following things about their use, all of which have surprised me and challenged my assumptions:

  • Multiple-choice quizzes can provide rich data, very, very quickly.

I was always sceptical about how much a multiple-choice quiz could tell me, especially as students had a decent chance of hitting upon the correct answer purely by accident.  However, I have discovered that well-designed quizzes can tell me a lot more than whether my students know a simple fact.  As with most assessments, the trick to getting good quality data out is careful planning.  As the old saying goes, “rubbish in, rubbish out.”  However, with a clear idea of what you want to achieve, a multiple choice quiz can yield a huge amount of information.  Take this question, as an example:

  Which were developments in policing after 1829?
Introduction of CID Turf scandal Police forces compulsory in all towns Introduction of Bow Street Runners

 

All of these answers had been discussed in class.  Nearly every student put introduction of CID correctly, which showed they had learned something.  Those who didn’t needed some support with the basic facts, which I was able to provide.  Those who put the turf scandal had generally remembered discussing it in lesson but were struggling with the concept of a “development”.  Those who didn’t put “compulsory in all towns” had missed a developmental step that I was worried I had run through too fast.  This was over half the class so after the assessment I retaught that part of the lesson going over it more carefully.  Those who put the “Bow Street Runners” might be clear on developments but uncertain on the chronology and key dates.

I was able to devise suitable follow-up activities for students which deepened their understanding and addressed misconceptions.  However, even more importantly, I was able to do so quickly.  Far from giving students a week or two to write an essay, aiming to turn it around within another week and then having to trek back to review the whole of policing, the multiple-choice quiz ran through the key concepts each lesson for 3 lessons whilst we deepened our understanding, addressed misconceptions and prepared for the essay.

  • The format of multiple-choice quizzes can be very flexible, allowing to test different categories of knowledge in different ways.

I have been delighted how easy it is to play with the format to test different types of knowledge.  At first I spent a lot of time trying to think of meaningful possible alternative answers to a 4-per-question format.  However, the more I thought about what I was trying to test, the more I realised there was no one, single, approach that was needed.

Thus to test chronology I could use a tick-box approach:

  Match the Event/Person with the Correct Period.  Tick the period with which they are associated.
Saxon Norman Late Middle Ages Early Modern Industrial
Matthew Hopkins          
Heresy Laws          
Metropolitan Police          
Harrying of the North          
Bloody Code          

Or a sorting activity:

  Number these key events in the history of crime and punishment 1-5, with 1 being the earliest.
Introduction of the Bloody Code  
Creation of the Metropolitan Police Force  
Creation of the Bow Street Runners  
Introduction of the Forest Laws  
Abolition of Trial by Ordeal  

Reformatting information in different ways helped me to overcome the “were they lucky” question by repeating demands in new questions, and thus ensuring that students really were confident with the information they were called upon to deploy.

  • It is possible to test higher-order thinking skills as well as pure knowledge.

Reading various blogs around this convinced me to have a go at pushing the boundaries for this format of assessment.  Some simple tasks in lesson started to beget high-level discussion of great value to the students.  For example, in one A-level lesson we considered possible introductions to the source essay they had just written:

 

Which introduction?  Select which introduction you think would best begin this essay.

 

There is a long-standing historical debate about who was to blame for the split in the Liberal Party in 1916.  Some historians think that it was Asquith’s fault because he was a weak leader, nicknamed “Wait-and-See” Asquith.  Others think that it was Lloyd George because he plotted to become Prime Minister and took advantage of the war situation in 1916 to push Asquith out.  In this essay I am going to look at the sources and draw inferences from them to evaluate who was to blame for the split in the Liberal Party.

 

The collapse of Asquith’s premiership in 1916 created a rift in the Liberal Party that contributed to their terminal decline.  However, there is considerable debate over who was responsible with Asquith’s supporters attributing responsibility to Lloyd George.  They saw him as an untrustworthy, self-aggrandising manipulator who exploited Britain’s needs to fuel his own ambition.  Source C and B both express such opinions.  On the other hand, Lloyd George’s supporters saw him a saviour who decisively stepped in to rescue the country from a vacillating Prime Minister.  Source D makes this case, and A similarly highlights weaknesses with Asquith’s leadership.

 

 

By late 1916 the war looked as if it was going badly for Britain.  The Battle of the Somme had been costly in terms both of lives and ordnance and had severely damaged Britain’s morale.  Asquith himself was devastated. Lloyd George proposed a solution in which he assumed responsibility for the management of the war through a small war cabinet with extensive powers.  However, when Asquith rejected this his government fell and Lloyd George became Prime Minister of the Coalition in December 1916.

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By giving a short amount of time at the start of each lesson to low-stakes tests, we are helping our students retain far more information from their lessons.

Each lesson I teach now starts with a simple “Recall to Retain” activity:  4-5 questions to engage students’ memories and help them build the neural pathways they will need to remember material later.  At the start of each of my PowerPoints I’ve added a slide with a very simple format.  Here is the one from my last GCSE history lesson:

recall to retain

Some of the questions come from the last lesson and others are spaced back through previous weeks and topics.

The format of the questions is not fixed, but I like ones that are easy for students to have a go at such as multiple choice or ordering tasks.  My hope is that this will encourage them to think about the answer and attempt to reason a solution.  It doesn’t matter if they’re wrong, but if they have had a go, and been encouraged to commit themselves, they may benefit from the hypercorrection effect.

The tests are low-stakes.  As it is early days, the questions are kept deliberately simple to encourage all students to try their best.  Marks are not shared and I do not enforce “expectations” that they should know or get these right or achieve a certain mark.  The only expectation that I am building is that they should have a go at every question and correct the answer if wrong.

The reason that I have introduced this is because my reading has caused me to challenge some fundamental flaws in my thinking about how students learn.  How much information students forget has been a recurring concern over some years and yet I have done very little to address the problem.  For many years, my fundamental approach was that students needed to know key information to deploy it and I strongly encouraged them to “revise” and to “review” class learning long before the exam.  Time and again those who did this, or those with naturally strong memories would excel, whilst those who relied upon the lessons would underachieve to varying degrees.  I know I am not alone in this: one colleague recently reflected that he realised he was planning his teaching as though students were destined to forget almost everything taught in Key Stage 3, rather begging the question of what those years were for!

I have increasingly realised how little time I have dedicated to working with students on the fundamental skill of memorising information.  Somewhere along the line, I had developed the misconception that remembering broadly related to effort and the value of different approaches was largely subjective – students simply had to pick techniques that worked for them and deploy them regularly.  It is remarkable how self-reinforcing such a cognitive bias can be.  For example, my default “test” of my ideas was to discuss with students how much work they had done and how regularly they reviewed their notes and flashcards.  Inevitably their record would be less than perfect (whose isn’t?) which would reinforce my perception that doubling down would solve the problem, and I’d emphasise once again the need to put effort into learning the facts and key information, without ever modelling this myself.

Thankfully reading around research has helped demonstrate the fallacies in my own thinking and I began to look at what colleagues were doing to develop new ways of approaching this and supporting students to learn the information needed on our courses.  The principles that particularly struck me as ones we could utilise far more effectively in the classroom are:

Spaced Repetition: by returning to information regularly and at increasingly spaced intervals we review the information which promotes long-term recall.  Visit information frequently until it is learned, and then begin spacing out return visits.

Hypercorrection:  when we correct our own work we fix errors.  We are more likely to remember the correction or improvement the more we confident we were of the original error.

Low-stakes testing:  students will get more out of regular knowledge tests if they are low-stakes.  We can promote this by emphasising that they are a learning opportunity, allowing students to correct their own work and not “taking marks” or surveying students’ “success”.

One of my colleagues, Ed Duckham, has been encouraging our faculty to start each lesson with a simple knowledge recall test about the work of the previous lesson and I have been trying this (admittedly somewhat more intermittently than he) in recent months.  He was absolutely right about its benefits: it helped to connect the two lessons and promote recall to students.  His classes showed excellent habits of recording and correcting their answers, and the tests were clearly low-stakes with students ready to participate.

My one question was whether we could make more use of the spaced repetition to consider material not just from the last lesson but from earlier topics, without creating something so convoluted or complex to deploy it became ineffective.  This summer I read “What Does this Look Like in the Classroom:  Bridging the Gap Between Research and Practice” by Carl Hendrick and Robin MacPherson.  This book is a highly accessible read and I recommend it to all teachers trying to turn abstract research or theories into practical examples in their day-to-day practice.  One area it particularly helped me think about was supporting students’ memory.  I began looking around Twitter for ideas and mentally noting those that seemed to have the most potential.  At some point I came across the very simple idea I have ended up stealing and adopting in my classes.  I really regret I did not note at the time who shared it as I would love to thank and credit them.  Whomever it was, you have my gratitude.

It is early days.  I’m not expecting it to revolutionise students’ recall on its own – I realise I need to put a lot more work into supporting them to learn and know the key information they need for my courses.  However initial feedback is hugely positive.  I can confirm that:

  • It makes a positive structured start to the lessons and does not create any excessive workload. The task does not take long to prepare, normally less than 5 minutes. Nor does it take long to deliver.
  • Students understand why they are doing this and how it might help them.
  • Students feel that it is helping. By repeating some questions they struggled with, they were able to have a second, low-stakes attempt.  Several spoke to me during or after the lessons to report that they had got it right the second time because they remembered getting it wrong and correcting it the first time.  One or two reacted like it was a magic trick of some sort.
  • As predicted in Hendrick and MacPherson they are already starting to adapt their behaviour to the new strategy; for example a number came into the lesson discussing what we did “last time” ready to see the “Recall to retain quiz” on the board.

Although I’m aware that this is not evidence of impact on its own, the earlier work of Ed Duckham and the research on which this is based, along with their reactions gives me strong grounds for optimism.  I am certainly going to continue with the method for future lessons and anticipate being able to see the impact in our other kinds of assessment in future lessons.

Questions that helped me to reflect on supporting students’ learning better:

  • Is there a pattern to the facets of learning that my students are struggling with?
  • What do I think I know about this area of learning? What are my beliefs and hunches about how this should or does work?
  • Does reading around support my beliefs or do I need to challenge my own conceptions and update my pedagogical understanding?
  • Where do I find examples of good practice in this area within my school and within the wider educational community? After all, why re-invent the wheel when there is so much good practice already freely shared!

Interested in further reading?

For practical application of ideas in the classroom I strongly recommend:

Hendrick, Carl and MacPherson, Robin, (2017), What Does This Look Like in the Classroom:  Bridging the Gap Between Research and Practice.

And for more on theories and research into memory:

Willingham, Daniel, (2009), Why Don’t Students Like School.

The great difficulty of teachers … is that they have to fight against the evil habits of speech contracted in the home and street.”  (Newbolt Report, 1921).

The Newbolt report predated the adoption of Received Pronunciation as Standard by the BBC by one year.  It reminds us of a time when linguistic discrimination was rampant and local dialects both frowned upon and judged.  The poem I most vividly remember learning at school is “Six O’Clock News” by Tom Leonard.  It simultaneously introduced me to two powerful ideas: that the dialect I heard spoken around me was not “normal” but sounded distinct and strange to the vast majority of British people, and that people received strong messages about the “right” and “wrong” way to speak that were far from culturally neutral.

In many ways, it is easy to think that we have moved beyond this era, with accents and dialogues being celebrated rather than shamed.  However a 2013 survey by ITV’s Tonight programme found that judgements about people’s speech patterns remained prevalent.  Famously, a Devonshire accent was judged as most friendly, a Liverpool accent as least trustworthy and the constructed voice of received pronunciation continued to be rated as the most intelligent-sounding accent of all British dialects.  The same survey found nearly a third of British people believed themselves to have been discriminated against because of their accent.  In an informal review of my students, sadly all of the students with a strong accent reported being teased or mocked for their way of speaking at some point in their school careers.  This is clearly unacceptable and needs to be fought.  However there is far more to speech than simple accent; patterns of sentence construction, choice of vocabulary and the role of slang all pose challenges to the speaker and listener.

The dilemma I find as a teacher is how to deal with students’ informal speech patterns and vocabulary that is not “standard English.”  I often reflect on whether, in correcting such speech, I am not falling into the old trap of forcing a dominant mode of speech upon people who are already struggling to express themselves, rather than celebrating their contribution.  What is the appropriate response to being told that a particular prime minister was “peng”? (This especially stumped me as I had not, at that point, tracked the change from the irrelevant concept of being physically attractive to the wider use of being ‘good’.)   I found one group of year 9s fiercely arguing about how to describe the Victorians’ reactions to modern policing methods and the catching of Dr Crippen by telegraph.  They knew what they wanted to say but could not agree whether “gassed” was the right word to use or would get them “into trouble”.

The dangers with policing vocabulary and speech are clear:

  • Over-correction of speech can demotivate students and make them uncomfortable sharing their ideas outside of a limited circle. Most teachers are aware of the potentially demoralising impact of tearing apart a piece of extended writing with red pen and spelling corrections, and most recognise a similar issue with verbal contributions. This is particularly likely to disempower vulnerable groups, many of whom already underachieve shamefully in our society.
  • The imposition of a particular vocabulary or pattern of speech may not even be academically justified. At some point many acceptable speech forms were considered to be disreputable slang.  Language grows and changes.  Who is to say that in a decade’s time historians will not happily talk about how “gassed” everyone was about Victoria’s diamond jubilee?
  • Focusing on how students express themselves can lead to a shift away from a focus on their academic ideas and conceptual understanding. If this acts as a distraction from core learning, then we have created a problem for ourselves and our students.

In this spirit, Barnes, Britton and Rosen suggest that all forms of talk should be equally valued in the classroom.  Instead of non-Standard English being corrected, and students’ home cultures being “suppressed” informal talk can be used to encourage pupil participation in discussion.  It certainly feels that this would be a much more empowering approach than that advocated in the Newbolt Report.

However, sometimes the dangers of not giving students feedback on their speech can be overlooked.  As a state school pupil at Oxford University I experienced discomfort at contributing to discussion for the first time in my life.  I found there was a wide range of concepts and ideas that I had encountered in books or articles but hadn’t previously discussed.  Sadly, too often, inaccurate pronunciation of such concepts distracted from the point I was making, and in a number of seminars I found myself reluctant to contribute due to the unsupportive atmosphere.  It would have found it much more helpful to be introduced to complex language in an appropriate way, and it was those tutors who offered appropriate corrections who did most to extend my vocabulary.  In less structured discussions, I frequently ended up remaining in my verbal comfort zone, rather than using appropriate academic language for fear I would get it wrong.  In this sense we have a responsibility as teachers to expose our students to academic language, to teach them how to say words and to offer correction and advice (in a supportive way) when they need it.  I would like our students to go out into the world confident in their speech and ready to engage in debate rather than holding back.

I have also prepared A-level students for interviews (university and apprenticeship) where the quality of their ideas may be hidden by their inability to target their language to their audience.  We could argue for a world in which they would be judged only on the quality of their ideas, rather than the way in which they explain them.  However that world does not seem to exist.  Thus, it is vital to give them the kind of feedback that helps them to select appropriate language and create the impression they want.  With the year 9s we agreed that “gassed” showed an important understanding that the Victorians were excited by policing developments and the work of detectives.  We were able to select alternative language that better expressed the concept in academic language for their feedback, although we did agree that “gassed” would work in an informal setting.

In the past I am conscious that I may have over-corrected students’ verbal contributions and written work, and risked demotivating them.  However, nor do I want to disempower my students by sending them into the world unprepared for the expectations of their audience.  Bordieau’s idea of cultural capital is important here.  If students can recognise, accept and celebrate different ways of speaking whilst having the flexibility to adapt their speech to their purpose, just as they do their writing, then they will have been empowered rather than disempowered by correction or feedback.  As with anything in teaching, there is no simple way to get this right, but on reflection, it feels like a worthwhile goal for which to aim.

Questions that help me to reflect on correcting students’ speech patterns:

  • Is this a technical term that they need help to accessing if they are to develop as an ‘expert’?
  • Is the meaning or purpose of their contribution unclear, in which case will it be helpful to ‘rephrase’ or offer advice?
  • Are my students exercising choice over how they present themselves orally, or are they limited in their choice of language? If the latter, what is the most supportive way I can extend their reach?

Interested in further reading?  I’ve reflected a lot on this one and found Coultas a helpful introduction to different viewpoints:

Coultas, Valerie. (2015). Revisiting Debates on Oracy: Classroom Talk–Moving towards a Democratic Pedagogy? Changing English: Studies in Culture and Education,22(1), 72-86.

Over the years I have met students who dislike all sorts of different lesson activities: those who hate writing, or don’t want to appear in photo stories, those who don’t wish to read aloud or act in role plays, those who hate homework or sitting down for 60 full minutes.  Most of us have things that we enjoy, others that  we will try under certain circumstances and other things that push us so far beyond our comfort zone we will resist them at all costs, so it is easy to sympathise with these feelings.

The dilemma we face as teachers is how far to ‘push’ students to develop skills that may, at first, fall outside their comfort zone.  Then, if we decide it is important, how do we scaffold support so that they can achieve the goal and expand their comfort zone along the way.  Talking in class seems to hold a particular place in people’s fears.  However this does not mean that it is good for students to ‘opt out’.

Why is Contributing in the Classroom Important?

Some of the activities  above are not vital for learning.  If a student doesn’t want to appear in front of camera (certainly in my subject) it is not fundamental to the learning and I have other strategies to allow them to access the learning in a different way.  It doesn’t really matter; the aim to is tell the story of an historic event in a narrative framework.  If all group members contribute to the planning and creation of an end product that does this, all will learn and develop as historians.

For other activities, this is not the case.  Writing is vital for success in history.  Students need to take notes, understand how to structure written pieces, present their answers in a written format and much more.  Of course some students may have extreme needs that need alternative provision in either the short-term (the broken arm) or the long-term (transcriber in the exam) but this is rare.

Verbal contributions fall into the same bracket.   The Bullock Report  suggested that language competence grows ‘in the course of using it’ (DES: 1975), and through the interaction of writing, talk, reading and experience.  Whether in small groups or to the whole class, research shows that discussion is a ‘powerful arena for learning’ (Fountain: 1994).  Outside of the specific subject arena students’  ability to communicate verbally to different audiences in varying forums will be a vital tool to most, if not all, of our students.  If we encourage anxiety, promote withdrawal from discussion and allow students to retreat there is a risk.  There is a risk that we will disempower them in life, perpetuating their anxieties that their contributions are less than others, their views less valuable, their voice not worth hearing.

Of course, some people are quieter than others.  Some want more time to think or feel less need to be immediately heard.  But this does not mean that they cannot and do not make incredibly valuable contributions at the time of their choosing.  However, if anyone has ever sat in a meeting or lecture unsure about raising their hand, wanting to ask a question but being too nervous to put themselves forward, worrying about what others will think then they will understand what our students are feeling.  They will understand why they are anxious and wish to retreat from the situation.  They will also surely want to help them break out of that pattern if at all possible.  Wilkinson (1965) argued that  “oracy is not a subject but a condition of learning … it is not a “frill” but a state of being in which the whole school must operate”.  I fully agree.

How Do We Help Them to Achieve This?

Any ‘talk’ is not equally valuable, although if trying to overcome anxiety and encourage participation our goal may need to take that into account.  However the most useful for our lessons is normally what Mercer (2000) called “exploratory talk” where pupils share their ideas, give reasons for these, listen to each other and explore the domain knowledge together.  It is this kind of discourse on which social constructionist theories of learning are predicated and it is, naturally enough, the hardest to achieve.  Some strategies that I have found helpful include:

  • Consider the format of talking tasks – Sutherland (2006) found that students, especially in secondary school, felt a lot more comfortable with small group discussion tasks than whole class. They can feel excluded from and frustrated with the latter.  Throwing students into whole class discussion or debates is often unhelpful, allowing some to hide and some who would participate to be excluded.  I find it better to scaffold towards this with small group discussion which can, sometimes, lead to whole class discussion or, at others, be sufficient in and of itself.
  • Managing groups – for students it matters a lot with whom they are being asked to talk. (As it does for adults.)  In group tasks, the ‘behaviour’ seating plan where students are sat with peers they are uncomfortable with to promote good behaviour is unlikely to work well.  Their discomfort will translate into their discussions.  In most cases I would advocate letting them work with those with whom they are most comfortable and describe my thinking behind that in this blog:  https://jmsreflect.blog/2017/10/29/reflecting-on-better-to-be-lazy-than-incapable-the-motivation-of-boys/
  • Plan discussion tasks carefully – sometimes it is tempting to think that having presenting students with ideas, texts or resources they will then be able to ‘discuss’ effectively. However, this is rarely the case unless students are highly skilled.  As with any task, a clear model helps.  The purpose of the activity needs to be clear and prompts and extensions points planned into the activity.
  • Managing “I don’t know” – ‘I don’t knows’ can be valuable feedback, suggesting that my lesson is going too fast or that I have not given sufficient thinking time. However, it can also be a strategy to avoid contributing.  From early on I try to break away from this as a habit.  I encourage students to problem-solve if they don’t know the answer, as for a written activity.  Seek help from a peer and feed the answer back to me.  Often  ‘chairing’ a sub-discussion and filtering the contributions back can be as valuable a way of contributing as putting forward an answer of their own.
  • Scaffolding to active participation – for some verbal contributions and discussions are beyond their skills at first. Like any other vital skill, I may need to differentiate for individuals or for a whole class to help them learn the strategies that become verbal contributions.  Silent debates, mini-whiteboards or socrative.com (long advocated by @JMS_Computing) all help students to respond to ideas, thinking of their own answers and share them with reduced anxiety.  And, in the case of Socrative, anonymously.  This allows me to model the classroom culture, my enthusiasm at their participation, my tools for developing or giving feedback on their answers in a way that celebrates their strengths and responding to others’ ideas and questions.  Obviously these tools do not yet mean that the students are making verbal contributions, but I have found them to act as invaluable stepping stones towards that goal.

Questions I have reflected on regarding students’ verbal contributions:

  1. How important is it that students contribute verbally in the classroom? How and why would the learning be different if they did not?
  2. What in this class / activity / topic is making it hard for students to contribute effectively? How can I help them to overcome that?  What obstacles can I remove to build their confidence?

 

Most of the quotes and references in this blog come from Valerie Coultas whose article below I found particularly helpful and thought-provoking:

Coultas, Valerie. (2015). Revisiting Debates on Oracy: Classroom Talk–Moving towards a Democratic Pedagogy? Changing English: Studies in Culture and Education,22(1), 72-86.

Hands-up questioning can make the classroom feel like an active, vibrant place where students keenly engage with the learning.  I’ve generally found this to be an illusion.

There can be few things worse, in the course of a normal lesson, than asking a question or opening a discussion only to be met with silence.  Anxiety can instantly take over and there is a strong temptation to turn to the student who always has something useful to say to “rescue” the moment and move the lesson forwards.

For a lot of reasons, it can therefore be very reassuring when trying to lead a discussion or a question-and-answer session to see students actively engaging waving their hands and keen to contribute.  And it can seem just plain unfair not to turn to the keen engaged student and involve them in the lesson at that point.

Outside of the moment, we know that the hands-up method doesn’t necessarily reflect the quantity of knowledge in the classroom, or engagement with the lesson.  30-50% of highly engaged students can hide a lot of gaps in my delivery and the students’ understanding, but it is tempting nonetheless.

Hands-up questioning can also feel more comfortable.  The flow of the lesson generally feels quicker as a fast pace of interaction between teacher and student can be maintained.  And it is tempting to think that those who do not have their hands up will learn from exposure to the answers and dialogue around them (and this may well be true in a number of cases).

Galton’s (2002) research in this area was significant in shifting my mental attitude.  He interviewed pupils about questioning in the classroom.  The reasons they gave for being reluctant to contribute are probably ones with which we are all familiar such as fear of being accused of being “boffins” (it was 2002).  Interestingly they also expressed concern about interacting with the teacher and meeting teachers’ expectations.  One described the experience of answering questions as being like “walking a tightrope” in terms of reaching for a particular goal that the teacher has in mind but which only they know.  Both of the above speak to the importance of creating a positive classroom culture where contributions are valued by all in the room, including the teacher.

Beyond this, though, what struck me from the research was the range of strategies students have for not contributing to lessons, especially with new teachers.  Hands-up questioning gives them the power to shape the nature and flow of discussion within the classroom.  Common strategies include:

  • Putting their hands up quickly knowing that it reduces the chance they will be called upon.
  • Using body language and facial expressions to give the impression that they are thinking really hard and just need a little more time.
  • Jumping in early on when they expect things to be “easy” making them “safe” from more challenging questions later.
  • Dropping their hands if they think the teacher is about to turn to them.
  • Using some version of “someone else has said my idea” as a substitute for contributing.

This is not to deny that there are very legitimate concerns with managing hands-down questioning.  Switching to hands-down questioning can feel nerve-wracking.  What if it makes students anxious?  Or leads to a constant loop of silent stares and “I don’t knows”? (Actually this would be tells me something important, but it still doesn’t feel comfortable.)  It is right to ‘force’ participation?

As ever, planning can help make this successful.  I find it helpful to think carefully about how I would call on people and how to distribute my questioning around the class.  With practise, certain routines can become ‘habit’ and so need less careful planning, but it is still something I think about a lot when planning a questioning sequence.  I find it particular important to think about how to manage anxiety, something which I do not always get right, especially with new classes.  Planning space for student discussion and thinking time can be important here.

The following are strategies I have found helpful at different times:

  • Random selection of students – when I started teaching this involved lollypop sticks. Now the computer can generate ‘random picks’ of students but the principle is the same.  An equal chance of being selected can encourage all students to pay full attention and be prepared to participate.  Pitfalls such as student anxiety can be reduced with the right atmosphere and thinking/discussion time before participation.  If a student is truly stuck inviting them to select someone to help them answer the question can throw them a ‘lifeline’ whilst still encouraging active participation.  I find this very helpful for new classes, occasional quizzes and when I anticipate students having a lot to say but I have time only for a few ideas or contributions.
  • Targeted selection of students – questioning can be differentiated as effectively as any other part of the lesson. By thinking about which students should be answering my questions, and what level of ‘thinking’ they involve, I can encourage maximum participation.  As with any differentiation, knowing the students is vital; I want to move them out of their comfort zone but not place them into a space of such anxiety that learning becomes impossible.  This is not always easy, especially with new classes.  With classes I know well, it is more about ensuring that I don’t ‘label’ students or limit their exposure to higher-level thinking and discussion but underestimating their contribution.  I have discussed this issue in my blog on ‘Equitable Questioning’ here:  https://jmsreflect.blog/2018/02/25/reflecting-on-equitable-questioning/
  • Allowing space for additional contributions – the strategies above leave me in control of questioning but sometimes students’ ideas and flashes of insight exceed expectations. In an extended or creative discussion I will often follow the initial hands-down questioning with an invitation for students to contribute if they have any new ideas or a different way of thinking about the issue than we have raised so far.
  • Let students know what to expect – building routines can be difficult, especially as hands-up participation may be the best tool at times. Even if this is not the case in my lessons, students may be used to it elsewhere.  I find it is helpful to scaffold towards full hands-down questioning by reminding them at the start of the task how I’ll be taking input and also giving them strategies to prepare.  I remind them that they have time to discuss so they can contribute with ideas from their group, or ask for help during the discussion time if really stuck.  When we move onto questioning and hand shoot up, I like to make this a positive and say something along the lines of “Thank you for offering, but I don’t need your help choosing people on this one, because I think everyone could offer something.”
  • Full display – sometimes questioning is an easy routine to slip into, bridging different parts of the lesson. However I find it important to remember that there are other tools, especially if I really want to see what all my students understand.  Answers on whiteboards, or stand-up/sit-down whole-class responses give me a much fuller picture of my students’ understanding of some issues.  Sometimes I have to fight the tendency to ‘drop into’ teacher-led questioning out of habit and remind myself that, even with hands-down questioning, I can still only interact with a very small number of students at any time using this method.

Reflecting on questioning…

  • Do my routines allow students to ‘hide’ in my classroom, perhaps encouraging me to think they have understood material or concepts that they have yet to master?
  • Do my students understand how they will be feeding back on a particular activity so that they can prepare for this if they need to?
  • Is a question-answer sequence the best tool for understanding what my students have learned in this activity?

Interested in further reading?  I recommend:

Coultas, V. (2012). Classroom talk: Are we listening to teachers’ voices? English in Education, 46(2), 175-189.

 

By doing some simple tracking of how my questioning was distributed in class, I have noticed that  my pupil premium students are at times getting more closed and less challenging questions to answer.  They are involved in the lessons; but not necessarily getting a fair deal.

The importance of good questioning in the classroom is well established and most teachers have clear routines for planning and delivering effective questioning sessions.  Whilst questioning plays a key role in checking what the students have taken from the last activity or presentation it also givesthem a chance to connect ideas and develop their thinking.  In my most recent post I explored how I have been using increased ‘wait time’ after initial student responses to draw more out of them and the positive impact this was having  https://jmsreflect.blog/2018/01/15/reflecting-on-powerful-pauses/

As a teacher, questioning is an area in which I’ve always felt confident.  This is not an entirely unfounded belief, as my questioning has frequently been tagged as an area of strength in lesson observations.  I balance closed ‘checking’ questions with  open questions that  do encourage students to think.  I have always been very conscious of circulating the classroom and ensuring that all students have the opportunity to participate and try to give thinking and discussion time for those who need it.   All students participate in my lessons, regardless of prior attainment, gender or other factors.

However, in reading Harris and Williams’ (2012) research into classroom interactions I was recently inspired to take a closer look at the patterns of my questioning and recognise that my questioning may not always have been equitable and that I need to think more carefully about how it is distributed within my classroom.  Harris and Williams found that in affluent schools questions tended to be more open, with longer wait times for students to think than in poorer schools.  Here the questions tend to be more closed, and of a lower order of thinking.  Essentially, children from more affluent background were getting higher quality interactions within the classroom.

Although their research was conducted in a primary setting, it made me reflect on my own practice.  At JMS we have a “FIRST” pledge for pupil premium students which includes going to them first to offer help, marking their books first and targeting them first in questioning and discussion sequences.  But I am also aware that the ‘first’ questions in a sequence tend to be less challenging and of a lower-order than the ideas we build towards.  How far was my targeted questioning perpetuating the pattern that Harris and Williams found and trapping certain students  in low quality interactions?

When thinking about questioning I often use a laminated seating plan to track what I am doing in class.  I’ve used this many times to focus on specific goals e.g. checking whether everyone is contributing, measuring hands-down versus hands-up questions, looking for areas in the classroom that I might be overlooking.  If a peer can come in and complete it for me that is great, but I can complete it whilst teaching.  Each time I asked a question I jotted on the laminated plan the ‘seat’ the question had gone to – a black dot for a relatively low-level (probably closed) question and a blue dot for a more challenging, thought-provoking question.  The outcome was  certainly revealing:  I believed that as I build my questioning to greater levels of challenge I was targeting students to ensure that their thinking was challenged for their current level of confidence in that subject.  Whilst that is certainly the plan, my one week review  of questioning in my mixed ability classes did also reveal that, overwhelmingly, my pupil premium students were getting easier questions to answers, earlier in the sequence and with less ‘meat’ for thought and discussion.    The questioning was carefully planned, but not equitable.

To help I have turned to some random answer generators with which I know many teachers are familiar.  We use MintClass which has this function but a free one can also be found at https://www.classtools.net/random-name-picker/.  I don’t think I’ve made enough use of these tools recently, perhaps seeing them as slightly ‘gimmicky’.  In fact, though, the potential for positive impact in equitable questioning should not be overlooked.

I have used these to supplement, rather than replace planned questioning sequences.  Harris and Williams also note that pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds may lack some of the social and communication skills to engage in questioning with the fluidity of those from more affluent backgrounds.  A sudden ‘randomising’ spotlight that starts targeting them with questions they are not prepared to answer would not help their confidence or engagement.  However there are well-established techniques to support students in accessing higher-level thinking including thinking time and paired discussion.  My priority at the moment  is consciously ensuring that as I move into more challenging areas with my questioning, I am circling back to some students who have already participated, or whom I might have targeted for lower-order questions to include them in the most challenging thinking in the classroom.

Dialogue in the classroom will always be tricky to manage with 30 individuals participating under any sort of structure.  However, I have recently been reminded of the value of checking, objectively, what I am doing and reviewing and reflecting on my practice even in areas I would consider to be strengths.  Sometimes little changes can make a big difference.

Reflecting on equitable questioning…

  • How do I know that my questioning is ‘fair’ and balanced between different genders, abilities, backgrounds of pupils?
  • How do I look beyond ‘number’ of or ‘distribution’ of questions to think about the quality of question and the level of challenge I offer to different groups of students?
  • What can I try differently this week to shake up established practice? Are there any overlooked tools that might help me reflect on what is happening in my classroom?

 

Research into inequality in questioning:

Harris, D. and Williams, J. (2012) The association of classroom interactions, year group and social class, British Educational Research Journal, 38, 3, 373-397

What happens in your classroom once a student has responded to your question?  Who speaks next?   “Wait time” or “Thinking time” AFTER the student has responded can be every bit as powerful as “wait time” after you have posed a question. 

Just before Christmas I attended the Cheney TeachMeet and heard Jenni Ingram talk about her work on ‘Wait Time’ and it led to a radical rethink of how I conduct questioning in the classroom.  Simply restraining myself from responding immediately to students’ answers has led to an important change in the nature of dialogue and questioning in my classroom.  Few changes have been so simple to implement, shown such obvious immediate impact and been so hard to turn into habit!

Ingram’s main message was that in normal conversation the “thread” can be taken up by anyone in the discussion.  After a question and answer anyone else might chip in, or someone might expand on their thoughts.   However, in many classic question-answer format interactions in the classroom (“IRF:  Initiation – Response – Feedback/Follow-up”) the teacher ‘controls’ the discussion, policing interventions.  When there is a pause silence creates anxiety.   Less than a second of silence starts to feel uncomfortable to both teacher and student.  Teachers  generally leave less than a second after asking a question before rephrasing  or moving on.  Extensive research has shown that extending this gives students more time to think about what they’re going to say, which can lead to learning improvements.

However, just as important can be what happens NEXT, irrespective of how long was left between initial question and student response.  As the controller of the discussion, it is now the teacher’s turn to talk again.   Discomfort grows in less than a second and so the teacher responds in some manner to what the student has said.  This might be to give feedback, to correct the answers, to rephrase it  or to repeat it to the class for emphasis.  All too often, the student’s answer bears relatively little relation to what the teacher says next, as they have not given themselves time to think and reflect, (let alone the students).  One way or another, though, it is clearly “our turn” to talk and we allow ourselves very little time to say nothing at that point.  The dialogue moves on, the stress dissipates and the lesson proceeds.  Perhaps there is another question … wait … student answer – teacher response sequence.  In a questioning sequence this can occur several times.  Even teachers well trained to give  students think time before they respond, typically “pounce” on the response when it is their ‘turn’.

But what happens if we overcome our instincts, ride out the discomfort and do not take our “turn” after the student response?  What happens if we pause beyond the (less than) one second’s discomfort and still say nothing?  What if we don’t affirm what the student has said, or rephrase it, or tell them whether it was correct?

At this point everyone is feeling uncomfortable.  (I know, I’ve been trying this, it’s really not pleasant!).  I feel uncomfortable as it is my ‘turn’ and my responsibility to ‘move’ next.  But, here is the key, so do the students!  They also feel uncomfortable.  And the amazing thing is that, when they feel uncomfortable, students do something that some of them don’t do nearly enough … they start to think.  At this point, Ingram reported a range of responses from students.  In the last few weeks I have seen each of the following:

  1. Probably most commonly, the student who spoke originally extends their answer. They add depth to what they’ve said, often given an example/evidence in my subject or turn a simple answer into more of an explanation.
  2. Another student offers an additional comment, example or adds to the answer.
  3. The student turns to his classmates for help … then see number 2.
  4. Another student hisses a prompt such as “Explain what you mean” or “give some evidence”.
  5. A question is asked by the students. Sometimes this is a request for affirmation “is that okay?”  which I can bounce back to them.  At others it represents a greater depth of thinking  “… but I’m not sure that would always happen.  Did the villagers always respect sanctuary?”

Much of Ingram’s research was in maths, but I was keen to try her techniques in humanities and have been somewhat amazed by the results.  The dialogue in my class has opened up and IRF sequences of questioning have led to some interesting dialogue and extended ideas.

Sadly, the effect does not last very long.  In her talk, Ingram estimated less than 30 days.  Why?  Because teachers fall back into their old habits!  I’ve seen this in myself and so have double-down to remind myself the crucial power of the pause.  Part of the reason I’m writing this is to bring my own attention back to the issue as I’ve returned to some of my old habits with the pressures of the January restart.  I’m determined to prove Ingram’s findings wrong in at least one regard; this is something I want to continue in my teaching for much longer than a month, even if it takes some effort and habit-retraining so to do.

Questions to help reflect on responding to students…

  • At this point, do I need to say anything?  What will happen if I don’t?
  • Can they pick up the dialogue here? Is there more to be said … if  so why must it be me who says it?
  • Is my body-language and facial expression encouraging ‘self-selection’ e.g. open to students picking up the ‘conversation’ rather than waiting for me?

 

Research into wait time can be found here:

Ingram, J. & Elliott, V. (2015) A critical analysis of the role of wait time in classroom interactions and the effects on student and teacher interactional behaviours. Cambridge Journal of Education http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/0305764X.2015.1009365