Explanations are the foundation of every Humanities essay, yet constructing well-reasoned ones remains a struggle for many students. Believing more could be done to help them with this, five Senior Teachers have researched and designed a new assessment rubric that can improve students’ explanation skills.
Memorizing notes and then regurgitating information – this is common practice for many students in the Humanities classroom.
Through research conducted during the Teacher Leaders Programme they attended at NIE, Humanities teachers Dina Van Dijk, Khoo Kay Yong, Leung Wai Ching Juliane, Danny Tan and Lester Lim observed that this happens due to poor understanding of what constitutes a good explanation and how to write one.
Difficulty Connecting the Dots
“Sometimes when we ask questions, instead of providing a comprehensive answer, students throw facts at us and expect teachers to make the connection for them,” says Lester who is teaching at Pioneer Junior College.
But moving forward, students must have a firm grasp on how to effectively organize information to successfully make a point in an essay. This is especially so with the new Social Studies syllabus that has increased emphasis on questions that test the application of concepts.
“Such questions require students to get answers from all over the syllabus,” Danny, who teaches at Catholic High School, explains. “So they need to have a good understanding of how issues are linked.”
This means students cannot get by with memorizing and regurgitating facts or model answers during examinations. Deeper understanding of issues is needed, together with the ability to identify the general principle behind events and draw connections between them.
“A good explanation involves more than just stating different points.”
– Dina, Senior Teacher at Nanyang Girls’ High School
The Modified Assessment Descriptor (MAD)
To help students and teachers with this, the team designed the Modified Assessment Descriptor (MAD), a guide that highlights the key components that show good explanation in essay writing.
“A good explanation involves more than just stating different points,” says Dina. “Most of the essays students write are about cause and effect, so MAD is helpful in getting them to think about the nuances of their explanation.”
Through MAD, the teachers hope to move beyond the vague descriptors of some existing assessment rubrics and make explicit the requirements of a good explanation.
Addressing Uncertainty, Clarifying Doubts
One commonly used assessment rubric in schools today is the “Level of Response Marking Scheme” (LORMS) whose criteria the teachers feel is too broad to be helpful to students. Assessment based on LORMS may state that a student’s answers are “very well explained”, but fail to go into detail about what this means for the student.
In contrast, MAD breaks down these terms so that students are able to identify which part of their explanation they can improve on.
“MAD is useful because it goes into greater depth about what makes an explanation good or not,” says Kay Yong. The criteria give students an indication of where they are with respect to each component (Key Idea, Evidence and Explanation) so that they can differentiate where they are doing well and not so well.
Another key feature of MAD is its accessibility that makes for a great self-assessment tool. Once students are taught what an explanation requires, the rubric can be used for self-assessment independent of the teacher (see yellow box below).
“The words we use in MAD capture the experience of students,” shares Dina. “The lowest level might be “I don’t know what I’m writing, I’m just writing what I can remember.” In clear terms, the rubric gives them a sense of what they should be targeting.
The inclusion of examples is also helpful in getting students to think independently about the nuances of their answers. “For essays, you have to consider the precipitant, triggers, underlying factors, amplifiers and so on,” says Dina. “We want students to have this sensitivity so that when they go to Junior College (JC), they have more confidence to do a Humanities subject.”
By JC, students are expected to have mastered explanations and achieved a certain sophistication of thought. For those yet to master these building blocks of essays, the learning curve can be steep.
For current JC students however, MAD has been adapted as ACE (Answer, Connect, Evidence) to develop students’ evaluation skills. Like MAD, ACE helps students infer where they need to improve through gradations and examples.
The example below shows the Modified Assessment Descriptors for one of the three components (Key Idea) of an explanation.
MAD in the Classroom
After piloting MAD with their respective classes, the teachers observed significant improvements in students’ explanations.
Danny finds that the rubric helps students make sense of subjects like History by showing them how to organize what appears to be just a collection of facts, figures and dates into a coherent package that communicates a point.
“Once students have the key understandings, when scenarios and questions change, students will be able to change along with them,” shares Danny. “This is a long-term process and all part of the 21st century competencies teachers want to instil in students.”
Lester concurs, adding that “It would be good if a teacher is willing to sacrifice some time and wait for students to respond rather than just providing answers.” As it takes time for students to become accustomed to MAD, Juliane also advises teachers to go through the rubric in detail with students, directing them to verbalize their thinking until it becomes a habit of mind.
While this may seem like a lot of work, teachers can take heart that the principles behind MAD are not completely new. The team has simply taken what has effectively become a thinking routine for most teachers and systemized it, transforming it into a rubric that guides and empowers students to learn independently.
“Once students have the key understandings, when scenarios and questions change, students will be able to change along with them.”
– Danny, Senior Teacher at Catholic High School