Moving from 70 % to 90% – What we can learn from sport

For many students, moving from average to excellent academic performance can be tough. In sport, trainers and coaches use focused guidance and practice as a way to help their wards improve.  The same principles can be used to help students improve in academics.

The challenge

The teacher has just handed back the test to Rita. She looks at the front page, right at the top, it reads “70% – Could do better”. Rita sighs silently, she knows she could have.  At home that evening, she shares her test scores with her parents, “You need to study harder” they say, in chorus! Rita sighs silently once more.

The picture might seem familiar. Many of us have been urged to study harder during our schooldays, while others might recall a more recent conversation they had with their child. It’s not surprising.  It is important for students to learn and develop a strong work ethic, and they do need to be reminded to study harder, from time to time.  However, on many occasions the advice does not quite have the desired impact.  Why’s that?

One important reason is that the advice to study harder is commonplace and not particularly insightful. Most studies show that for students to act on feedback it needs to be specific, timely and tailored to their needs. When told to study harder to improve their performance, most students silently think – “Tell me something I don’t know”! Well, can we?

How it’s done in sports 

Advice aimed at improving performance is not restricted to academics. In sport, coaches and mentors regularly counsel their wards on how they could do better. While the players are expected to work hard, it doesn’t stop at that. For instance, a cricket coach doesn’t just teach the players how to bat and then ask them to practice batting every day. Instead, he observes how each player puts that learning into practice and then shares specific advice to help a player build skills where he or she may be deficient. The coach might ask one player to practice his back foot play on the off side and another to practice the front foot drive when the ball is overpitched.  The coach’s advice does not do away with the need for a player to put in the hard work, but it does give players a clear idea of what they need to focus on. Most players would readily admit that focused practice, where it is needed most helps them improve a lot faster.

How personalised advice can help in academics? An example

Say we teach students about fractions and then administer a test. Two students, Rita and Mary, both score 65% in the test. While the score does indicate that there is room for improvement, it does not shed much light on what each student’s specific issues are. Consequently, on most occasions, the advice to both students would be to simply study harder or at best to revise Fractions. As the sporting analogy illustrates, this is simply not good enough. Instead, if, we could tell Rita to work on representing fractions visually, while Mary is asked to practice adding fractions, they are more likely to be motivated and see the feedback as a way to overcome a particular performance challenge.  Their focused efforts would lead to better results, more quickly.

Don’t we already do this?

Well not quite, at least most of the time. The best teachers do try to guide every student, but there are some challenges. First, learning at schools covers a really wide canvas. There are a variety of subjects like Math, Science and English, each having many different skills that students need to develop. Add to this, the 20 or more students assigned to each teacher and the task can be quite daunting even for experienced and motivated teachers. Even though formal assessments are conducted periodically, all that they throw up are marks or grades and not personalised guidance for every student.

Does this mean that at school, students can’t hope to get the same kind of personalised and specific advice that most sports-people thrive on? Is the only option for students to work one on one with a capable personal tutor?  That might have been true in the past, but not today.

What we can do

Today there is widespread recognition that carefully designed assessments can generate a wealth of information to improve teaching and learning in schools. Moreover, the use of technology and modern analytical tools make it possible to systematically examine assessment data and identify specific problems facing every student in time to take corrective action. Progressive schools around the world are adopting these techniques to help their students do better.

Be it academics, sports or any other field, timely and personalised guidance has helped learners master the skills needed for success. Our school children deserve no less. I am sure you agree.

Report cards – What Do They Really Tell You?

Most of the communication between a school and parents revolves around report cards. Teachers put in a lot of effort to conduct exams, correct the papers, collate marks, assign grades and put together the report cards. Parents eagerly look forward to the report card, but looking at it, there often seem to be more questions than answers. So, do the report cards really tell them what they want to know?

Report cards don’t really tell you much.

What does the report card actually tell you? The short answer is, not much. The most noticeable thing about a traditional report card is how little information it conveys. A typical report card is a table of subjects, with multiple columns for marks and grades in a number of exams. But as all of us agree, marks in exams are only the beginning of the story.

What do parents actually want to know?

What do parent really want to know? That’s easy to answer. Just listen to the kind of questions that are asked in a typical parent-teacher meeting. The questions are mostly about the why and how of the performance indicated on the report card – what is my child doing in school? How well is she doing? Why is she not doing well in Math/Science/English? What exactly does she need to improve on? And how can I help her?

For anybody who has been in or around a parent-teacher meeting, it is very clear that almost every parent is trying to make sense of the report card and get some usable information from the discussion.

If they really want this information, why are they not getting it?

If these report cards convey such little information, why is it that schools, teachers and parents are still going on with them? Does everyone believe that marks give a complete picture of a student’s progress? Do the teachers know nothing about each student’s performance beyond the marks scored? All of us know this is not true.

There are actually a number of obstacles that stop everyone from changing over and creating reports that give the right information.

  • To start with, traditional assessments are often paper and pen tests and do not generate much meaningful information beyond marks
  • Teachers observe many nuances about a student’s learning but find it impossible to record and track these to create a meaningful picture of a student’s progress.

In this situation, marks become the predominant language for communication as that’s all that can be captured and reported using conventional systems. All other information is lost and we end up with a report card that is a collection of numbers.

An easy way to get informative and insightful reports

A lot of progressive schools have successfully overcome this challenge and started to deliver insightful reports to the parents. These schools capture different aspects of every student’s performance as reflected by paper and pen tests, participation in activities and other co-curricular activities and analyse this data to identify patterns and insights that can help students to better.

Contrary to expectation, this does not add to the teacher’s workload. Instead, the use of technology actually cuts down the effort involved. Many students and parents today get reports that tell them much more than the marks scored; reports that reveal the story behind the marks and provide specific actions to drive improvement. Its time you joined the club!

If you are interested in exploring how you can easily create meaningful reports at your school, please contact us.

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Get More Out of Your Assessments!

Analytical Thinking – Starting Them Young

You Serious?

Primary School Children Learning To Think Analytically! The question might sound strange. We associate primary school with a lot of different things and analytical thinking isn’t usually one of them. That’s for later in life, some would say. We beg to differ.

So, What Is Analytical Thinking?

The Webster’s dictionary defines analysis as “a careful study of something to learn about its parts, what they do, and how they are related to each other”. Viewed from this lens, our primary-schoolers have many opportunities to think analytically, if only we encourage them to.

How Can It Be Part Of The Primary School Curriculum?

Carefully chosen activities can encourage children to think analytically, even in Primary school. Let’s take some examples that make this clear.

Young children often work with jigsaw puzzles. They look carefully at a given picture and try to place each piece in its correct position. It’s a great way to build analytical skills. Innovative teachers are quick to adapt such activities to the subjects that they may be teaching. In language class, assembling jumbled up sentences to create a meaningful conversation is a great example.

While learning about different modes of transport in the environment science class, a well-designed activity could engage children in planning a long multi-part journey and choosing different modes of transport for each part of the journey. Not only do the children have more fun, but also, (you guessed it) they learn to think analytically too.

Okay, I Get It. But, Is It Really Necessary?

One of the most important reasons for getting young children started on analytical thinking is because it teaches them how to deal with unfamiliar questions or situations. For instance, we regularly come across young children, who remember the formula for the circumference of a circle, are even able to calculate circumference given radius but are unable to solve the following problem.

“A horse is tied to a pole with a rope of length 5 metres. The horse walks fully around the pole one time. What is the distance walked by the horse?”

While the circumference analogy, implicit in the question, is apparent to most of us, to a young learner solving this represents a series of interlinked steps, To start with, the child needs to:
a. Interpret the problem and understand what is being asked
b. Identify the concept that can be applied in this situation, i.e. that the distance the horse has walked is the circumference of the circle
c. Recollect the formula to calculate the circumference
d. Correctly apply the formula and come up with the answer

As we move from primary to middle school to high school and beyond, increasingly what matters is the ability to apply our learning even in unfamiliar situations. Starting early, can be a huge advantage.

Get More Out of Your Assessments!

Assessments, tests, quizzes – whatever be the name they go by in a school – are generally not positive experiences for anyone. Not for the teachers, not for the parents and certainly not for the students.

To start with, they are a lot of work. Teachers prepare the assessments, conduct them, evaluate them, tabulate the marks, make reports etc. Parents go hyperactive whenever an assessment is mentioned, helping their kids prepare – waking them up in the morning, helping them with lessons, restricting TV time – and generally fussing about, in their anxiety to make sure everything goes right. The students themselves become anxious, if not outright afraid, at the thought of assessments.

Very often, assessments are boring. They provide little scope for students to be creative or to demonstrate their different abilities. Students are expected to sit quietly and fill blank after blank or write page after page. Teachers read and mark and read and mark. More often than not, assessment time is quiet and quite dreadfully quiet.

For all the hard work they entail, assessments are generally not very useful. They generate precious little information. The student and the parent get one number for each test – the marks scored. The teacher may generate some more numbers – the class average and the range of marks for her class. If the class scores badly, the solution is fairly standard – ‘Let’s revise this lesson’. Similarly, the advice to a student who did not do well, has not changed much in the last century – ‘you need to study harder’.

End of the day, everyone puts in a lot of effort in to assessments but gets very little useful information out of them.

Do things really need to be this way? Over the last few years a lot has changed about the way progressive schools use assessments. From being looked at merely as tests of proficiency, assessments are now increasingly being used to generate valuable information that can be used to improve the teaching learning process.  So, how can we get more out of the assessment process?

Assessments can be focused and at the same time, be fun. While assessments should include paper and pen tests, these can be made interesting and engaging through real life situations, relatable examples and pictures.

Assessments can also go beyond traditional tests by including a variety of activities like poster making, presentation, group discussion. These activity based assessments can focus on subject specific learning outcomes as well as life skills and multiple intelligences.

Well-designed assessments can focus on specific learning goals and give much more specific and actionable information to teachers, parents and students. Rather than revising entire lessons, teachers could focus on the specific areas where most students need help. Similarly students can be told what each of them needs to focus on, rather than being told to “study harder”.

The availability of modern technology like tablets and data analysis platforms make it possible for us to realize the potential that well-designed assessments offer, while drastically reducing the paperwork associated with assessment.

Most progressive schools are rethinking how they use assessments. You should too.