The recent reduction of school examinations is a wonderful opportunity for teachers and students to enrich and enhance their learning. Now that we have fewer exams to contend with, what are the implications and opportunities for our students in terms of their learning and educational experiences? For guest editors and NIE assessment experts Dr Wong Hwei Ming and Associate Professor Kelvin Tan, this bold policy shift is a timely opportunity for both teachers and students to understand and use assessments for purposes far beyond just examinations and grades.
Building on efforts to steer away from an over-fixation with academic results, Education Minister Ong Ye Kung announced in September 2018 the ministry’s plans to reduce weighted examinations and assessments in schools.
“As we overemphasized assessment, we inadvertently reduced the time available for schools to focus on teaching and learning,” he said at the Schools Work Plan Seminar. With less weighted assessments to worry about, teachers are then able to shift towards a new paradigm of “teaching and learning” that does not place too much emphasis on examinations and grades.
A Love of Learning for Life
For many of us, weighted assessments are tried-and-tested ways to assess students’ understanding of a particular topic. But a fixation with grades could result in learning for the sake of assessments.
As such, this policy change aims to reduce the focus on the grading aspects of school assignments, and instead promote a love of and for learning in our students. But what exactly does love of learning, for life, means? And how can we instil that in schools while also ensuring appropriate student assessment?
“A love of learning for life requires students to be active learners who take charge of their own learning in ways that can be sustained and beneficial in the long-run,” explains Kelvin Tan, who is with the Curriculum, Teaching & Learning Academic Group at NIE. “The opposite of that is basically learning (something) for the sake of academic outcomes such as, in this case, grades.”
Now that there are fewer exams and grades to focus on or work towards to, how can teachers utilize the extra curriculum time that is usually spent on preparing for examinations to promote holistic learning and what other forms of assessment can teachers carry out?
Assessment Not All About Grades
Assessment of learning and assessment for learning are two completely different approaches to teaching and learning, and each serves a distinct purpose, shares Wong Hwei Ming, who is also a Research Scientist at the Office of Education Research.
“It is important to understand how the two forms of assessments play off one another and enhance teaching and learning,” she explains. “The former, typically administered at the end of a unit or period, is a kind of a benchmark that measures how well our students can perform by comparing them within a class or a cohort.” That is what the education ministry hopes to steer away from with the implementation of this new policy – by reducing the academic stress and re-focusing on the joy and love of learning.
On the other hand, the latter focuses on creating opportunities to understand and improve students’ learning. This simply means that Assessment for Learning (AfL) is more than just test scores as it involves assessing students’ comprehension and understanding of a skill or lesson during the learning and teaching process.
“It is crucial that in our bid to help our learners excel in school and later, in life, we do not over-emphasize grades based on standardized tests,” Kelvin adds. “Grades don’t provide us with the immediate opportunity to address the needs of individual learners unlike other forms of assessment that serve to enrich students’ learning.”
As such, both Kelvin and Hwei Ming feel that it is now a good time for teachers to explore and implement AfL approaches in their classrooms in tandem with the policy change.
“It is crucial that in our bid to help our learners excel in school and later, in life, we do not over-emphasize grades based on standardized tests. Grades don’t provide us with the immediate opportunity to address the needs of individual learners unlike other forms of assessment that serve to enrich students’ learning.”
– Kelvin explains why we should not be over-fixated on grades
Understanding Assessment for Learning
For Hwei Ming, being purposeful in the use of assessment is key. What am I trying to help my students achieve? How can I then help facilitate that process? By answering these questions, teachers can get a clearer picture of their students’ needs, thus creating a more engaging and effective student-centred classroom.
“In some cases, assessment can also come in the form of questions,” she says. “It could be asking students questions that can promote deeper thinking.” Based on their responses to these questions, teachers can then get an idea of their students’ understanding of a topic and address any misconceptions which will also benefit the entire class. Other forms of AfL approaches can include peer assessment and self-assessment, to name a few.
“Providing feedback to students about their learning is an important feature of AfL as it provides opportunities for students to reflect on how they can improve their learning,” adds Hwei Ming.
But for the success of such alternative assessments to occur, both Hwei Ming and Kelvin believe that first, there needs to be a change of mind-sets in teachers. “We need to shift our mind-sets away from unduly emphasizing ‘quantity’ to grappling with what ‘quality’ entails. Without this shift, what we do in the classrooms might be counter-productive to this new exam policy,” Kelvin stresses.
To this end, instead of preparing our youths to be just students who sit for examinations, it is crucial that educators prepare them to be active learners, for life. After all, it is today’s youths who will eventually take Singapore forward.
“Providing feedback to students about their learning is an important feature of AfL as it provides opportunities for students to reflect on how they can improve their learning.”
– Hwei Ming, on an important feature of AfL