Assessment Planning – Improving Extended Writing

If you have to teach a humanities or social sciences subject, you’ll be acutely aware that unless your students can answer the “long-answer” or essay-type questions well, they can’t get the higher grades. Extended writing is a skill in itself, but it’s a skill that’s attainable only once your students have built up a solid foundation of knowledge. Just having students practice extended writing by itself isn’t going to do much for their progress, but if you break the task down into its component parts and master those, it becomes a lot easier to bring the different elements together into one piece of high-quality writing. This article shows you how to plan an assessment schedule that builds towards mastery of your subject’s content, allowing your students to tackle the higher-order, more complex tasks that will get them the higher grades. I’ll be using Sociology as an example.

Breaking an essay question down into its component parts

Let’s take this question from a GCSE Sociology paper:

This is a very ‘busy’ question – there’s lots of things going on here. Faced with this question, which has so many parts to it, a student may well freeze up and get confused. Your students will need to know a lot of things in order to be able to answer this.

To answer this question, you need to to know:

  • What is a traditional nuclear family? What is it made up of?
  • Which sociological perspectives advocate for the nuclear family?
  • Within that sociological perspective, which particular sociologists have argued for the nuclear family? What is the function of the nuclear family? How does this benefit society?
  • Why have these sociological perspectives argued for the need of both parents, and their being opposite sexes? i.e. what do they see as the role of the man and the woman within the nuclear family? What function do they fulfil in the nuclear family and how does this benefit society?
  • Which sociological perspectives argue against the nuclear family – i.e. they argue that it causes harm? What do they advocate as the ills of the nuclear family and how do these impact society?
  • What arguments are made for same-sex families and how they can/can’t fulfil the functions of the traditional nuclear family?
  • What is your own opinion on this? Which sociological perspective do you most agree with and why? (Your conclusion).

I hope you can see from above that there is a LOT of prior knowledge required to answer this question.

To just give this assessment to a student and see how they get on would be unwise, because unless they’re proficient in all of the different elements required to answer it (and they’re able to bring them together into one coherent piece of writing), the whole thing breaks down. I know some of you might think that you could go through the different bits of this when you do your feedback to the class, but again, that is a lot of information to take in at once, and it’s also disjointed – meaning that if there isn’t a complete understanding of each element, the next time you give a question like this, you’ll still be faced with students that have incomplete knowledge, not being able to answer it. So, what do you do?

You plan out the assessments in such a way that you test each component individually.

Create An Assessment Schedule

In a football match, your aim is to score more goals than the other team. However, just putting 11 people out on a pitch and telling them to score more goals than the opposing 11 people is hardly efficient. First of all, what’s a ‘goal’? Even then, you might get a goal, but that would be more by accident than skill. Instead, you spend time honing the skills of your players, practising different elements of the game separately, long before you ask them to put it all together during a match. You’ll practice passing. You’ll practice shooting at the net. You’ll practice positioning. You’ll practice dribbling. Etc. Etc. You practice all of that before the match itself. The same analogy applies to preparing your students to answer essay-type questions, or long-answer questions like these.

What you’re aiming for is for your students to be secure in the content/skills of your subject. If they know all of the different ‘bits’ of a subject, they can answer any question you put in front of them. But there’s so much content there, what do you do?

Map out your assessments over a long period of time.

Let’s take one term, for example, of 12 weeks (or two six-week half terms). Sticking with the Sociology example, you know that over that 12 weeks, you’ll be covering two units – “Families” and “Education”. With that in mind, you might plan for students to complete two summative long-answer questions at the end, one on each topic, but prepare for them by using different types of formative assessment to secure students in the various elements they’ll need to bring together. It might look like this:

I’m giving students a key terms test to make sure they understand and can use the terminology of the subject.

I’m giving them multiple choice quizzes that become more difficult over time, to really test their understanding of sociological perspectives, which they will need for the longer task.

I’m making sure they’re knowledgeable of different case studies and key sociologists across the two topics.

Finally, I’m spending some time going over the structure of a 15-mark question, before giving them the two extended pieces of writing that I want them to answer.

You can see here that I’m not actually testing their ability to produce long pieces of writing, but instead, I’m trying to secure them in WHAT they’re going to write. If they have that down, it’s a short gap from that to being able to bring it all together in one piece of writing.

This assessment schedule will be complimented by homework (independent revision/study) and the work we do in class (aligning the curriculum to the assessments). Once I’m confident that my students are secure in their knowledge of the curriculum content, I’ll feel confident in giving them the longer, more detailed task.

This requires a lot of planning and thought beforehand.

It does. There’s a lot of preparation needed here (you can’t ‘wing’ mastery). It also asks a lot of your students as well, but I’ve always found that they rise to the challenge once you set it for them and can show that you’ve really thought about and are invested in their progress. Again, you can’t achieve mastery with low expectations.

Get in touch

If you would like further support on mapping out and planning assessments, or with designing assessments (e.g. multiple choice quizzes, short quizzes, or longer assessment schedules) do get in touch. I’m more than happy to help.

You can contact me via Twitter @theavaisqureshi or leave a comment below.

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