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Assessment for Learning II: Effective Questioning

This site designed and maintained by
Prof. Glenn Fulcher

@languagetesting.info

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This is the second in a series of features on Classroom Assessment. See also:
Assessment for Learning I: Introduction &
Assessment for Learning III: Effective Feedback

Principles and Practice
The ideas behind Assessment for Learning (AFL) seem very simple. The classroom teacher uses assessment to discover whether a learner has in fact learned or acquired the knowledge or skills that the teacher is trying to teach. In the first feature on assessment for learning we saw that the Assessment Reform Group had produced guidelines for best practice, and the research upon which these were based was popularised in publications by Black and Wiliam. In practice, however, it has been much more difficult for teachers to find ways in which to use AFL effectively. Why is this case? In the first video Wiliam claims it is because the techniques have not been used as intended. He draws attention to three aspects of AFL that are critical for success: effective questioning, using feedback that shows learners how to improve, not just what has gone wrong, and empowering learners to evaluate and critique their own work through self- and peer-evaluation.

Sometimes the principles are not well understood, and so teachers find it difficult to plan and implement the recommended AFL techniques. It has been suggested that the answer is for teachers to work together in 'teacher learning communities' or groups within schools, to discuss, try out, and evaluate techniques for themselves. Clearly, this is a form of professional development centred around innovating with assessment practices that researchers claim have a large impact on student learning and success.

AFL is only one way of looking at assessment in the classroom. Another approach is to evaluate each learner against a matrix of knowledge and skills, and level criteria, to produce a detailed learner profile. In the United Kingdom this is called Assessment of Pupil Progress (APP), and in the United States is is manifested in a variety of Standards-Based Assessment practices. One of the problems is that teachers have felt it necessary to get learners to understand the criteria so that they can evaluate their own learning against the standards. Much time in the classroom is therefore spent on explaining the very complex matrices and criteria, rather than learning. It seems that in some systems we have lost the distinction between criteria and systems designed for teachers, and tools that can be used by learners in the classroom. AFL practitioners also believe that APP and Standards-Based systems lead to ticking boxes on spread sheets rather than concentrating on the processes of learning in the classroom. The other problem is that checklist approaches can always become summative tools, even if this is not intentional. The practice of effective questioning can easily be forgotten in standards-based approaches to classroom assessment.

It looks as if there is a real tension between formative and summative assessment within many schools, with summative uses of tests tending to dominate decision making and practice. One of the tasks of teachers in the classroom is to see that different kinds of assessment fulfil different purposes that should not be confused. Summative assessment usually has serious consequences. It is therefore too important to do too often, or badly. Classroom assessment is totally different and should not be used in summative ways; otherwise it will become another tool for accountability, and stifle good classroom practice.

Effective Questioning
The different functions of formative and summative assessment is implicit in the debate surrounding effective questioning and discussion. Teacher questions elicit information on learner understanding, but also lead to learning, when they are open and challenging. When these lead to learners wanting to talk, to communicate and express their ideas, it is claimed that learning takes place much more quickly. In a language learning context this has a great deal of support from research, particularly in SLA studies inspired by the output hypothesis. Pair and Group work around open questions and tasks is therefore likely to lead to increased learning. Furthermore, the time allowed for learners to think about questions should be extended before any response is expected. Teachers have always been worried about remaining quiet in the classroom, but this is something that they must fight if learners are to be given the freedom to learn more effectively. The teacher is also constantly receiving information on learning so that changes to the teaching programme can be made when necessary.

Features of good questioning techniques:

  • Plan key questions around what you wish learners to acquire before the class.
  • Pitch the question at an appropriate level of difficulty for the ability of the learners.
  • Design questions that are challenging and will lead to discussion.
  • Avoid closed questions (cannot be answered with a simple "yes", "no", or a short statement).
  • Use "How" or "why" to start the question, or "What is your view/opinion of?"
  • Also use "What if?" and "What alternatives are there?" style questions
  • And "Can you think of other ways to do X?"
  • Give learners time to think/discuss before requesting a response.
  • Communication and improvement in thinking is more important than producing a correct response.
  • Don't always use "hands up" to select answers as this may exclude some learners.
  • Do use random selection techniques, group feedback to whole class, whiteboard response....
  • Clarify and check misunderstandings that emerge.
  • Use responses to plan the next lesson and help individuals through enhanced feedback.

Acknowledgements

The videos to which we provide links on this page were originally made by Teacher's TV, and are now distributed on the internet by the Ministry of Education in the United Kingdom.

Further Viewing

Teachers talk about effective questioning

References

Swain, M. (2000). The output hypothesis and beyond: Mediating acquisition through collaborative dialogue. In J. P. Lantolf (Ed.) Sociocultural Theory and Second Language Learning. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 97 - 114.

For references and links to documents on AFL please see the Introduction to Assessment for Learning.


Glenn Fulcher
February 2012 (Updated January 2016)