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Category Archives: Assessment

Fake News & Conspiracy Theories – Teaching Fact Checking!

The Cambridge Analytica story has foregrounded the imperative that we teach students to distinguish between fact and fiction online. All too often, however, the responsibility for this is left to librarians, who often lack sufficient contact time with students in which to do any meaningful work, or, even worse, left to no-one at all. Subject teachers have full syllabi in which detailed work on how to evaluate truth is hard to shoe-horn in. There needs to be some discussion over how this is taught explicitly and how it can then be used across the curriculum.

The standard approach to teaching students how to evaluate websites is to use fake websites which have been created for pedagogical purposes. Here are some examples:

Students are then asked to evaluate these websites, often in conjunction with legitimate websites, to detect which are hoaxes. Common evaluation techniques are usually based around a checklist of concerns: the CRAP Detection method, for example. CRAP stands for Currency, Reliability, Authority and Purpose (or Point of View). Students are asked to evaluate any website against these criteria and then give an evaluation. As an IT teacher, I have included this kind of thing in my curriculum for many years. At my school the headmistress felt I should not use a word like CRAP, so I had to invert the acronym, as in the poster shown here.

  • Currency: Is the information reasonably up to date? Does it matter in this case?
  • Authority: Can the author be trusted? Are they an expert in their field? Do they have a reputation? Authority can mean an individual writer or the website or publisher as a whole.
  • Reliability: Is the information factual or is it just an opinion? Does the author give sources so you can check up on what they are claiming?
  • Purpose: Can you detect any bias? Is the site trying to sell you something? Are they trying to persuade you about something?

There are some problems with this approach, however. Students find it very difficult to move from a checklist to an overall evaluation. Students tend to get bogged down in the detail and lose sight of the big picture. For example, a student may correctly identify the author as being suspect, but then rate the website as reliable because it is up to date. Or they may discount a website simply because it is anonymous. Because context means everything, and truth depends on a wide range of concerns, it is hard enough for adults to pick through the minefield of detecting fake news online, for a teenager it is doubly difficult. No single factor should usually be taken as definitive.

So much rests on possessing a robust general knowledge. I would argue that while checklists are useful, they need to be combined with a process-oriented approach which is better able to balance all the factors involved.

The use of fake websites (usually created entirely for the purpose of teaching website evaluation) is also somewhat problematic. More suitable for younger students, with older teenagers it is better to evaluate real world examples. Conspiracy Theory websites present a much more nuanced content base for honing evaluation skills. The problem, though, is that conspiracies are not necessarily fake, and even highly intelligent and critical thinkers can disagree over which should be taken seriously and which not. As recent court papers attest, drug companies do tell deliberate falsehoods and historians have exposed false flag operations such as the Gulf of Tonkin incident. And yet students need to be inoculated against undue trust in conspiracy theories. If you Google Climate Change on YouTube, most of the videos apparently question the reliability of scientific evidence. If you Google Vaccinations and Autism you might well be mislead into believing it is a real debate.

The only way to untangle fact from fiction is to have a world view which is based on a really good understanding of the Sciences and Humanities. Truth can be evaluated both on the basis of Coherence, that what is being claimed makes logical sense, and Correspondence with the real world, with data and evidence. Real facts can be totally misinterpreted, and logical claims can be based on shaky evidence. No checklist approach can really help untangle this, and yet evaluation needs to be based on a range of factors.

With this in mind I have, over the years, developed a model for teaching website evaluation which takes note of the factors, and tries to define an overarching process for evaluating coherence and correspondence. The poster gives some idea of the process, but I usually design worksheets customized for the particular task at hand with a space for answering the questions.

The first step is to complete an evaluation matrix. This can be calibrated in different ways, but produces an evaluation diamond which gives a graphic representation of the different factors. This allows the student to look into the Currency, Authority, Reliability and Purpose of the website, but to keep this information in the background. It does not immediately lead to an evaluation. The matrix, though, forms a visual reminder. The tighter the diamond the more likely the website is to be fake.

The student then answers four questions which are designed to get them to think about how the information presented corresponds with the real world and is coherent. It is only with the fourth question that students are asked to give an overall evaluation based on their gut feel. This is done to try and discourage making an evaluation until all other factors have been considered.

  1. Does the information fit with everything else you know about the world?
  2. Is the information confirmed in other sources?
  3. Does it make sense?
  4. What does your gut tell you? Give a rating from 1 (Fake) to 10 (Reliable)

Students seem to enjoy filling in the CARP diamond, and comparing the shapes they produce with others’ responses. Having a visual summary of the evaluation checklist really helps stimulate discussion. The four questions allow students to use a search engine to fact check the content and the author in greater detail. I would recommend that you scaffold this in any worksheet you provide. I always find it useful to get students to work in groups to evaluate a few websites, and then have a report back to the whole class where the group delivers its findings. You can use an online platform like flipgrid to facilitate feedback. By working in groups students are encouraged to voice their responses to the website and defend their points of view.

I believe it is also vital to correct poor findings – and yes, I have had groups make presentations that the tree octopus is real, or that dihydrogen monoxide (water) is a dangerous substance.

 

 

Five Apps that Support Group Work in the Classroom

Constructivist Learning Theory emphasises the value of Group Work in the Classroom. As Vygotsky has highlighted, learning is first social before it becomes internalised. In other words the more opportunities students have to discuss and work through any content, the greater the opportunity to internalise that content. And yet many students have a hatred of group work. Learning to work with other people is not easy. Those with a healthy work ethic often do not know how to handle interactions with those who have less of a motivation to finish a task. Those who are used to achieving high marks for their individual assignments often feel resentful towards those who who turn in work they consider drags them down. Should they just take over and do all the work themselves, or do they accept peer contributions which they consider sub-standard? Others in the group may be resentful of those who try to take over, or who come across as bossy or exacting. And yet, more than ever, learning to work together and think interdependently is considered a crucial and employable skill.

Are there any digital applications which can help quieten the choppy Group Work waters? Here are five suggestions.

1. Google Docs

Google Docs provide unparalleled functionality for facilitating collaborative text authoring. A document can be shared with all members of the group, and the teacher, and then all who have been given editing rights can simultaneously work on the document. All changes are saved automatically. There is an online chat facility, and authors can leave comments and suggest edits. One of the greatest limitations on collaboration has always been the difficulties around sharing a document and writing one up. One member of the group often had to volunteer to do the “write up”. Google docs allows for this workload to be shared.

Teachers can carefully scaffold tasks within a Google doc and then share the document with a group so that the steps to be taken are highlighted, and strategies which might be deployed to afford collaborative thinking are suggested. In the graphic, the teacher is suggesting that de Bono Thinking Hats might help the group explore explore the topic though parallel thinking. Teachers can comment at any stage during the authoring process much as teachers circulating in a classroom can eavesdrop and intervene where necessary to get a group back on track. This allows teachers to  continue scaffolding learning in class, and outside class while students are authoring their write up.

These affordances for collaborative authoring and scaffolding make Google docs one of the most valuable educational tools to emerge in recent years. Students are able to use Google docs both while in group discussion, and for after-school homework.

2. Bubbl.us

Bubbl.us is a web-based tool, with limited free and paid options. It allows users to set up a mind-map board which groups discussing a topic can use to create mind maps and save these as a jpeg, png or even html, which can be downloaded and shared. Upgrading to paid versions allows users to share a mind-map which can then be used for follow-up tasks.

One of the limitations of any paper based mind-map is how to share it, if the ideas are needed for follow-up action. To my mind, mind mapping tools offer the key affordance of guiding discussion around how ideas fit together. It forces students to address issues such as where does this idea fit? This helps sharpen an argument.

Bubbl.us allows grid, tree and bubble layouts. You can insert files only with an upgraded paid version, but the free version does allow links, so students can use the mind map to record useful links.

Some way of recording a discussion in a form which can later be shared is invaluable, but mind maps are especially valuable because they force students to simultaneously organise their thoughts.

3. Padlet

Padlet is a web-based tool which has free and paid options. The free version allows up to four walls. On a wall you can add files, voice and video recordings, links searched from within Google, text and doodles. You can share the wall with other users, each with authoring rights, or share a link, or wall saved as pdf or image.

The chief affordance to my mind is the facility for co-authors to add voice or video messages to the wall. This provides a superb tool for a group to collect resources and leave commentary both while planning a project, and when leaving a report back, with group members recording commentary on different aspects of a topic.

A teacher can set up a topic and invite students to co-author a document, thus setting up a group, and providing impetus sources if required, or groups can set up their own walls and share with each other informally, or with the teacher, formally. Walls have different themes and templates which can be applied. A wall can be deleted when it is no longer needed.

4. Kahoot!

Kahoot! is a tool which allows students to create quizzes or games or discussion boards which they can then share with the rest of the class. This is a great end product which encourages a group to research a topic, master the content and share with the class in the form of a quiz. Students find Kahoots engaging to create and to consume. This provides one means a teacher can use to ensure that the end product is itself engaging and encourages the group to take care in its creation.

Thinking of suitable questions to ask the rest of the class is a great way to get students to dig down deeper into a topic than they might otherwise have done so. The competitive nature of the quizzes also seems to encourage students to put in greater effort.

5. Lino

Lino is a sticky note web-based application which allows multiple users to post sticky notes on a topic. Users can post files, links to videos or images on an electronic cork-board. This allows for group-based brainstorming. It is a very versatile tool in that it can be used by a group or whole class and used for multiple purposes from group discussion through to presentation and feedback or reflection.

I like to use it as a reflection tool for students to post final comments on a topic after group-based feedback presentations have been made. It is quick and visual  and allows for a rapid round-up of reflections or comments and makes for a good way to sign off on a topic.

For a teacher it is a good way to spot any comments which reveal need for further action. Maybe some aspect of the topic needs to be picked up on at a later stage, or could do with further exploration.

This list of tools is by no means exhaustive. There may be better examples of applications with improved functionality. All of these tools, however, represent different ways in which collaborative group-based work can be usefully supported and enhanced. Please use the comments to suggest other tools, or share how you are using these tools.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mentoring – The Killer App? Using Game Mechanics to achieve Differentiated Learning Opportunities.

One of the great conundrums facing education is that while we as teachers know that students only learn effectively when they are in their proximal zones of development, ie. learning something just a little above their current competence, we sit with classes of twenty to forty students, each one with different learning needs! How to personalise learning when economics determines larger class sizes remains the burning issue of our times. In an ideal world all classes might be one-on-one, or relatively small group sessions when preferred. In that way all instruction could be tailored towards the precise needs of each individual student. Those promoting the use of computers have long touted the machine as an answer. BF Skinner’s teaching machines promised the panacea of an infinitely patient machine providing students with individualised content and appropriate feedback, using branching procedures to make sure that each student received exactly what they needed to maximise learning. These machines did not work, however, and were quickly labelled drill and kill!

Now it might be that advances in Artificial Intelligence will deliver machines more capable of the subtlety and empathy required for effective content delivery and feedback, but we are not there yet. In my experience computer driven instructional software tends to be rejected by students overwhelmingly. The classroom still sits with the problem of one teacher and multiple students, and no clear way to offer personalization efficiently and effectively. Dan Buckley’s Personalisation By Pieces approach offers perhaps the best solution yet. Students create pieces of work which demonstrate mastery of skills. This work is uploaded electronically and assessed by a peer mentor who has passed the skill level being demonstrated. This provides the student with accreditation at that level and enables them to mentor and assess others. There is more to the system than this, but in a nutshell this is what is used to establish a cycle of virtuous practice designed to create independent learners.

The model presented is of two possible routes for Personalisation, one teacher lead (T-Route) and the other student driven (P-Route). The uses of ICT are accordingly different, specifically being used to monitor and record progress, and link peer mentors and mentees and provide them with channels of communication rather than to prepare teacher resources and instructional materials. Crucially learning becomes student-directed, with multiple pathways available and students able to choose which direction they wish to pursue. The key difference between the Personalisation By Pieces approach and Skinner’s Teaching Machines lies in the key insight that mentorship works to the benefit of both parties! Students who have completed a level are more than capable and benefit from helping explain, mentor and assess the work of their peers.

As Vygotsky noted, learning is social in the first instance, and we need the assistance of a more experienced other to help us bridge the gap between what we already know or can do, and what it is that we are learning. A system which uses peer mentor assessment could be crucial in providing the kind of individualised feedback that promotes personalised learning pathways. In my view this does not down-play the role of the teacher, whose whole class instruction and oversight of progress remains crucial.

Now the PbyP approach obviously crosses the borders of individual classrooms and schools in linking mentors and mentees, but it would be interesting to see what could be done even within individual classrooms and without the benefit of a custom-built ICT platform like PbyP.

Computer Gaming is often seen as the enemy of education, but as James Paul Gee has pointed out in his book What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy, computer games demonstrate principles of learning in remarkably efficient ways! Players are kept in their proximal zones of development and learning is artfully scaffolded. Players do not feel daunted by failure, they simply try and try and try again. Ample time is given for these re-takes, and the rewards are epic! No player seems to resent someone who is a level or two ahead of them, they simply strive to get their themselves. Players are also generous in their assistance, mentoring newbies and sharing strategies and tactics. We could do a lot worse than getting our classrooms to emulate games.

I am not arguing that every lesson should be gamified, or that the syllabus should be rewritten as a game. There is a great deal of knowledge which cannot be gamified. But I am suggesting that game mechanics should be used as exemplars of classroom management practice. In a game, players take on urgent tasks, but not necessarily in any given order. They tend to tackle that task and keep working at it until a solution is found. They may suffer spectacular failure, but bounce back until they succeed. Players collaborate to help each other out. This is exactly what we would like to see in the classroom. But how do we get the same effects without trivializing the tasks involved?

As a teacher of English Second Language, I often found a great deal of differentiation in level amongst the students in my class. But with classes of 35 plus, addressing everyone’s specific needs was difficult without creating a variety of tasks graded for ability. This is not really very difficult to do. Take comprehension skills, for example. I still did whole class instruction when tackling skills, strategies and approaches to comprehension. But when it came to selecting practice tasks for students to tackle, it is easy enough to have a box full of differentiated tasks, colour-coded for reading ability. These can be used across age cohorts. When tackling language skills, I would direct those students struggling with concord, for example, towards exercises around this, and those needing more work with vocabulary towards these tasks. I kept a file with a page per student to record what tasks had been completed, and what needed further work. While not very game-like, this did mean that students were tackling mastery across parallel, overlapping, but differentiated paths. One can easily imagine overlaying game mechanics to create a more engaging experience. Students loved the individual attention they were getting. I was usually able to sit down with about a third of my class in any session and I used to assess work in front of them and give feedback and follow-up tasks at the same time. I have never believed in taking marking home with me!

As a Computer Skills teacher I have a gamified my syllabus completely in that all the tasks revolve around a narrative – see The Mobius Effect – Gamifying Your Classroom. But while these tasks allow for different speeds of progress they are not differentiated according to learning needs. This is partly because a computer skills syllabus does not really involve much work that is really complicated. There are only so many spreadsheet skills, for example. Something more complicated and nuanced, such as comprehension skills provides far more need for branching. Many students struggle with idiomatic expressions. There appears to be something of a generation gap between the authors of pieces used in comprehension passages, magazine or newspaper articles, and school-aged readers. But others may be misconstruing the connotations of words and therefore missing the purpose of the writing. Differentiated learning paths would greatly benefit students in this instance. But simply adding a games layer to your English classroom may seem forced and artificial. Simply awarding badges and posting leaderboards does not seem to me to be the answer either.

The idea of using peer mentorship and assessment using more experienced peers to be found in Personalisation By Pieces, however, seems to me to offer a real alternative. To take our example of Comprehension Skills, having a student who is struggling with idiomatic language usage receive help and have a task based on idioms assessed by someone who has recently “passed” a unit of work based on idioms would deliver a useful and authentic context for games-like level based achievement. This could be achieved across grades and ages using online piece submission platforms such as Google Classroom or Microsoft Teams for Education. Analog work could be scanned for submission purposes if need be. This would provide a paper trail and record of what was covered.

 

 

 

 

Why Fix the Classroom When Society is Broken?

Research shows that societal factors weigh far more heavily than school-based factors in determining outcomes in education. Our society is characterized by massive and growing inequality. We have a two-tiered education system in which the vast majority receive a schooling designed to keep them in their place, cannon fodder for the workplace, schooled enough to function in menial tasks, but not prepared with the problem-solving and critical thinking skills that characterize the education of the small elite. It is not that schools are broken, they are doing exactly what they are designed to do! They accurately reproduce the inequality in society and perpetuate it.

This leaves teachers with a dilemma. If we improve the classroom are we not merely making it more efficient at reproducing inequality? Many kinds of efficiencies clearly fall into this category. Efficient assessments create the kinds of perfect bell curves that separate people out into those who excel, those who pass and those who fail. If a teacher makes do with limited resources and creatively adapts to make the best of a bad situation, is she not simply keeping a rotten system afloat? Might she not serve humanity better by throwing in the towel and forcing society at large to see that the schooling is predicated on inequality by letting it fail more?

As seductive as this idea might seem, it is not a path most teachers will consciously take to. Teachers tend to see their primary responsibility as being the care and nurturing of their students. To deliberately fail their students by letting the contradictions inherent in the system bubble to the surface in the vague hopes of effecting change is not really an option I can see anyone adopting. We need to try to change the system from within so as to subvert its function in society. I believe this can be done. Or at any rate, it is surely worth the effort. Most of us will have read Teaching as a Subversive Activity (1969) by Neil Postman at some point, and while many of us fall short in the militancy department, I truly believe that the majority of teachers do a good job of eating away at the rotten idea that education is about closing doors rather than opening them up!

Nowhere is inequality more stark than in the whole question of assessment. Exam boards and final exit examinations ensure that teachers do the bidding of the system. I may disagree with the emphasis on marks, but I am not going to disadvantage any of my students by failing to prepare them for the exam! I can use my professional autonomy to teach in different and hopefully subversive ways, but the final assessment is a hurdle difficult to avoid. All the things that teachers hate about examinations as they are set, the insistence on breadth rather than depth, leading to impossibly long syllabi, the focus on recall rather than critical thinking, the inflexibility and finality of the result and its life-changing importance, create an unhealthy pressure on all concerned.

If you re-imagined educational assessment such that all students achieved mastery, something not outside our reach, we would clearly then be creating a different kind of school, one dysfunctional to the society around us. It seems to me axiomatic that if people are engaged in something that motivates them, they normally succeed at a very high level. A student who might be failing in school, might well be an expert in video gaming. By changing the curriculum so that it it reflects what people want to learn rather than what we think they ought to learn, we might find far more equality in educational outcomes.

The last thirty years has seen a steady advance down the road of Neo-Liberal, Taylorist efficiency. Schools have been urged to run more like businesses, and sacrifice broad liberal education for approaches designed to articulate with the needs of the work-place. Budgets have been tightened, teachers have been deskilled by a drive for greater uniformity and the power of educational publishers to impose syllabi and learning materials in the name of common standards. If it’s week three we should be doing fractions, regardless of the needs of the individual student or the professionalism of the teacher to address those needs. The Fourth Year Slump is an excellent example of a system gone mad. By the fourth year of schooling literacy skills are no longer explicitly taught. Any student who has missed the boat, whose reading or writing skills are not up to scratch, finds themselves condemned to learning coping skills to cover lack of adequate comprehension, rather than simply taking the time to continue teaching literacy, where needed, just that bit longer. The fourth year slump suits a system predicated on reproducing inequality, does it not?

The system is not going to change without quietly eating away at its innards. Subversion that is too overt will be crushed ruthlessly. Teachers are powerless to change the key elements that shape the system and make it functional to inequality, curriculum, syllabi and exams. But we do have one crucial advantage. We can control our own classrooms. We can use that space to push the boundaries of curriculum, syllabus and assessment and to try to foster the kinds of critical thinking and growth mindsets which will feed the humanity of our students and leave them, and us, in a better position to thrive.

 

 
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Posted by on May 4, 2018 in Assessment, Pedagogy, Teaching

 

My iPad Ate My Homework!

wordleAs ICTs increasingly become commonplace in our classrooms, it is often the case that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Certainly listening to the excuses for non-submission of homework I am often amazed at how little has changed. “I left my book at home” has now been replaced in the popularity stakes by “I couldn’t upload it.” The real reason for failure to hand in work is, of course, the same. I know that the student got home too late from hockey practice, that they had been overloaded with work by other teachers, and that, after the dog vomited on the bedspread, the whole evening got a bit too much, and my homework was relegated to the “heck it’s too much” pile! I know this because I have kids!

As a parent I seldom see my kids by sunlight, we live a vampire existence of dusk till dawn. So, as a teacher I am reluctant to give homework that I know will only pile on the misery at home and rob families of precious quality time. All too often I have burned the midnight oil with one of my sons who is conscientiously trying to figure out what some dumb question on a worksheet means. It’s amazing how little work that teachers give can stand a harsh analysis at 11 pm on a school night!

Don’t get me wrong. Some homework is necessary, and not all questions are dumb! But what I want to highlight is how the shift to increasingly digital output has changed homework. Kids are kept busy in schools so that they don’t hit the streets and get up to no good. I get that, and I am also grateful for the wonderful opportunities that extra-mural programmes offer! But it does mean that some days end well after dark, and even early days we are seldom home by five. Kids don’t really have those long afternoons where you could procrastinate over your homework by riding your bike or playing cricket in the street that I remember as a kid.

My sons are both conscientious and they try to fit their homework into the gaps between afternoon sport ending and choir practice beginning, or between drama rehearsal and the inter-house debate. If the work is on paper, you can manage to get a few questions done. But if it requires digital research and writing up, it gets more complicated. We can’t afford to give the kids laptops to carry around school, or iPads. The school computer room closes at a certain time, and then your child is left with no ways of completing the assignment till they get home at 9 pm.

I firmly believe that the digital flipped classroom model absolutely requires a firm commitment from teachers to refrain from setting digitally based homework. Work on devices should, as far as possible be done at school. Not just for reasons of equity – not all kids have access to adequate bandwidth or computing power – but also because as a teacher you should never assume that students will be home early enough to recharge their device, or complete the work. In South Africa the vagaries of our electricity infrastructure also often interferes.

Now clearly this cannot be a hard and fast rule. The sheer volume of what is done digitally now precludes never setting digital homework, but it should be a rule that anything that requires a device should be given several days or weeks in advance so that homework schedules can be adequately planned.

I know – it will still be done at 11 pm the night before it’s due. But as a parent in that situation I always ask my son, “How long have you known about this?” If he says he’s had the whole week, I side with his teacher. If he says they were given it that day, I tell him to go to bed, and I write a stern note!

 
 

Flipping Your Feedback!

memoThe Flipped Classroom is a model of classroom management which is gaining traction. Much of the focus has been on transforming instructional input – using “lecture” style videos, podcasts or documents which are posted online and viewed ahead of class so that classroom activities can be freed up to embrace more intensive and personalised interventions safe in the knowledge that the content has been explained.

A somewhat neglected aspect of any classroom routine has been the feedback part of the loop. Sometimes it is extremely useful to go over a test or assignment in class, unpacking the questions carefully. Sometimes, however, it is not necessary to do so. Where answers are either right or wrong, it is probably best to post a memo online rather than waste time in class poring over it.

I would argue, however, that online feedback can also be beneficial where more intensive analysis of an assignment is needed. Just as the ability to stop, rewind and replay a video “lecture” is valuable, so too with feedback. In my computer skills classes, for example I make a memo video using videopad and debut screencasting software to go over any test. I post this on my Moodle page and make access to it dependent upon completing the test. In other words it is available only after the student’s work has been assessed. This system seems to work well. As soon as a student’s test or assignment has been assessed on Moodle, the memo document or video for feedback discussion becomes visible to them. Feedback is thus as instantaneous as possible. It does not mean that student responses will not also be discussed in class, but it does mean I do not have to go over the assignment in detail, I can highlight key areas of concern, safe in the knowledge that students can access a complete break-down online.

In my English classes I usually hand out the printed memo when handing back assignments. This memo discusses not only model answers, but approaches to answering that type of question. For open-ended assignments I prefer to use student feedback in the form of questions and discussion after a presentation.

Flipping Feedback is not something I would do all the time, but it does add a useful string to my bow. It also adds variety, which as we know, is the spice of life!

 

 

 

Using Mailmerge for Feedback!

Over the years my handwriting has deteriorated to the point where even I cannot read it! This makes writing feedback for students a somewhat fraught experience for both of us! I wrote last week about the digital layer that sits above the physical layer in your classroom and a neat way to work around a poor handwriting is to use this digital layer to facilitate feedback. I have found that the mailmerge function, available in Word, for example, is very useful for painlessly providing students with feedback on their work which is both legible for the student, and useful to me.

mailmergeThe method I use is to create a spreadsheet with student names and email addresses at the start of the year. Because my Moodle uses LDAP authentication – in other words students log on with their school email account, this information is already sitting on Moodle in downloadable form in the Gradebook module. I can then use this spreadsheet as my mark-book for the year, even if I am not capturing grades on Moodle. A mailmerge document is a document, such as an ordinary Word document that can draw in fields from a database, such as a spreadsheet and display them in a letter, or email format. At the end of every term, for example I email students the marks I have recorded against their name, and this helps spot any errors, or jolt memories that a piece of work is outstanding, allowing any discussions about this to occur well before reports go out to parents! In its own right this is a powerful tool which has considerably lessened the load of classroom administration. Students respond well to this because it gives them a chance to see how they have done, sort out any issues, and because, as a process, it preserves privacy.

You can also type in feedback comments, however, and I believe it is this which elevates the humble mailmerge into a transformative tool in the classroom. Your mailmerge document can pull through student’s marks and comments and display these in a letter or email which can be given or sent to the student after an assessment.

This is especially useful for assessment on oral work, or other presentations where you cannot write comments on the script that has been handed in! As an English teacher, one of the more awkward moments is the need to give feedback on oral presentations. General comments can be made to the class as a whole, but one does not really want to give personal feedback to the whole class, as it is too personal. I always make notes and hand these to the student after their speech. But my handwriting renders these all but useless. What I do now is type my comments into the spreadsheet after the class, and then email the assessment and comments to the student as a mailmerge. A great benefit is that I then have a record of the comments in my spreadsheet, which helps me keep tabs on different aspects of a student’s performance, and spot improvement, or lack of it, more easily. I do the same with major pieces of writing, and end up with a tool of considerable diagnostic power when compared to a simple gradebook which only records marks achieved. The true power of the gradebook is the ability to record impressions and comments, and keep these on record painlessly!

If you use skills ladders, as I do when teaching computer skills, you can use similar techniques to record progress across a wide range of criteria, and provide feedback to students at the click of a mouse!

 

 
 
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