Cooperative learning strategies aim to promote feedback loops relating to assessment and reflective learning in the classroom at Fallibroome High School. Jane Gormally and Francis Power describe the developments.

This case study exemplifies how Fallibroome High School has completed an enquiry into the combination of cooperative learning strategies and assessment for learning with the aim of promoting feedback loops relating to assessment and reflective learning in the classroom.  

The school

Fallibroome High School is a successful, oversubscribed mixed comprehensive school situated in Macclesfield. It has 1,495 students, and the intake of the school reflects a wide socio-economic spectrum. Attainment on entry to the school is above average and this is maintained or improved, with very strong results at Key Stages 3, 4 and 5. Their A*-C percentage at GCSE rose to 79% in 2006, and their average points score per examination entry has placed them in the top 20% of schools nationally for the past two years.

The school has been a specialist college of performing arts since 2003 and is also the lead school in a networked learning community with five of its associated primary schools. Since 2004 Fallibroome has been a Leading Edge school, working closely with two other local secondary schools. Fallibroome is also a research school for the Campaign for Learning and a hub school for deep learning with the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust. The school has been involved in the Learning to Learn Phase 3 Evaluation for the past three years. This case study summarises the findings from the school’s final year of research.

Approaches under investigation

Under the umbrella of ‘Learning to Learn’, the school has consistently placed a strong emphasis upon ‘cooperative learning’ and ‘assessment for learning’ (AfL). This strategic decision was supported by the strong body of research evidence underpinning both approaches (Black et al, 2003; Kagan, 1994). Assessment for Learning emphasises the provision of opportunities for students to review their work and reflect upon their strengths and weaknesses and cooperative learning strategies provide the structure for these activities to take place.

The school policy for the implementation of AfL was based upon that suggested by Black et al (2003). This model suggests that schools would derive greatest benefit from focusing their work upon five strands:

  • a stronger emphasis upon learning intentions and success criteria in lessons and on assessed work
  • more effective questioning strategies
  • teacher assessment feedback that was dominated by formative advice rather than summative grading
  • greater student access to assessment criteria
  • more sparing use of summative assessments.

Each subject area was asked to interpret these strands in their own context. As a result, significant changes were made across the Year 7 curriculum. This included: developing assessment criteria in student-friendly language and making these available to parents; changing schemes of work to allow time for peer and self-assessment activities; giving students the opportunity to use each subject’s assessment structure to identify future learning priorities, reducing the frequency of summative assessments; allowing time to discuss test results and set targets; changing the way work was marked and feedback was provided; placing a stronger emphasis upon the use of cooperative learning techniques etc. In addition, whole-school changes were made to assessment reports, grading systems, comment banks and parents’ evenings. Opportunities were also scheduled to explain the rationale behind these changes to the parents of the Year 7 students.

Kagan’s (1994) approach to cooperative learning is based around a series of structures which place an emphasis on four key principles, known as PIES:

Positive Interdependence
Individual Accountability
Equal Participation
Simultaneous Interaction

Students are organised in heterogeneous teams of four and the teams are changed at regular intervals. Emphasis is placed on the social skills of team-building and class-building and this helps to establish a climate for learning in the classroom. The structures lend rigour and accountability to group work, preventing students either dominating or opting out.

During a more traditional whole-class question and answer session where ‘wait time’ after a question can be just a fraction of a second, the teacher asks a question and then students raise their hands and the teacher calls on one of them to answer. However, with the cooperative structures there is inbuilt time for individual and paired reflection before the teacher expects an answer. Using the four key PIES principles, many of the cooperative structures are ideal for creating and regulating the peer-assessment opportunities that are also crucial for AfL. Finally, the collaborative ethos encouraged by the cooperative structures helps to create a positive climate for learning in which the social skills of listening and turn-taking are developed and students can learn to accept and give constructive feedback.

This project hoped to address the following three objectives:

  1. To review if teachers felt their classroom practices between 2004 and 2006 had changed to include more formative assessment practices.
  2. To gauge Year 7 students ‘views of the prevalence of formative assessment practices in their lessons and to compare this to the views of their teachers.
  3. To investigate if Year 7 students perceived the quality of provision of formative assessment experiences was significantly different between subjects.

The five-strand AfL model was elaborated on and presented to the staff in the form of a self-review survey. This was administered twice so that a comparison of attitudes in 2004 and 2006 could be made. A student version of the survey was also developed following the same structure and administered in 2006. These surveys provided the comparative of the data on which the four objectives were explored.

Objective 1: Did teachers feel their classroom practices had changed between 2004 and 2006 to include more formative assessment strategies?

The results suggest teaching staff feel there has been a highly significant change in their practice with respect to four of the five AfL strands. Most change has occurred in the use of formative teacher feedback, while the use of summative assessments has remained largely unaltered.

Objective 2: Were Year 7 students’ views of the prevalence of formative assessment practices in their lessons different to the views of their teachers?

With two versions of the questionnaire, a comparison of staff and student results across the five strands was possible. There was clearly a highly significant difference between the views of the teachers and their students. The latter group were obviously less aware than their teachers of the techniques being used. It could be argued that there are two possible explanations for this result:

  • a. The students’ picture is the more accurate version and their teachers have been excessively positive.
  • b. The teachers’ version is more accurate and the students are simply not as aware of the processes being used.

It seems likely that both explanations are partially true, so it is important to consider the implications of both.

It is important to ask whether, if teachers were more positive than was justified, does this invalidate the findings described above? Is the progress that we believe has taken place since 2004 really a consequence of staff exaggeration? In our view, taking into account other data discussed later, this is unlikely.

While we have made great efforts to explain our formative assessment initiative to parents, we have taken less effort to enable students to recognise the strategies that are being used and the rationale behind them. The results highlight this issue. We hope to close the gap not just by ensuring consistency of delivery, but also by equipping students with the expertise to recognise what is happening and the benefit it has for their learning.

The data presented later from another year group supports the suggestions that the progress reported by our teachers is being delivered in classrooms. However, even if we conclude that significant progress has been made in many areas, these results still present an important challenge for the school monitoring systems. We need to ensure that formative assessment experiences are being consistently provided in all subject areas. Some of the data presented later allows us to identify where our efforts in this respect ought to be concentrated.

Objective 3: To investigate if the quality of provision of formative assessment experiences was significantly different between Year 7 subjects.

Our Year 7 students completed two surveys on subjects that were randomly assigned to them. This gave us a total sample of nearly 500 returns. When these were divided across the 13 subjects offered in Year 7, this gave approximately 35 returns per subject. We compared the results returned by different curriculum areas and tested this variation for significance and consequently identified where ‘in-school variation‘ was at its greatest. Those aspects of the questionnaire that returned significant results are summarised below.

We found highly significant in-school variation between subjects in the following areas:

a. Provision of improvement time after a piece of work had been marked. b. Frequency of peer assessment opportunities. c. The use of exemplar work to model the standards expected.

d. Explanation of results following a summative assessment.

We found significant in-school variation between subjects in the following areas:

a. Communication of learning intentions at the start of lessons. b. Provision of opportunities for student-to-student discussion. c. Use of higher-order questions.

d. The provision of improvement time following a summative assessment.

As a leadership team, this data allowed us to identify which issues need to be prioritised in the year ahead, and also to plan how to share expertise between departments. In this way, we may be able to close the gap between the views of the staff about what is happening in the classroom and what is reported by the students.

It is important to acknowledge here that some of our middle leadership team have been puzzled by their subject results. We suspect that the students found some of the questions difficult to interpret for some departments.

For this reason, we hope to work with our departments to develop subject-specific versions of the students’ questionnaire and we aim to change the phrasing to more closely match the processes used in different curriculum areas.

We will continue to use the expertise gained from the project to enhance our departmental monitoring processes, establishing clear expectations that such initiatives are now becoming part of normal practice. Our experience has shown us that it is essential to actively involve the middle leaders, because they are important in interpreting the initiatives for their own subject area, as well as playing a crucial role in monitoring that the developments are happening in the classroom. To facilitate this process, we have aligned self-evaluation and lesson observation processes to reflect our priorities and have found that this helps to maintain focus and momentum. In November 2006, Ofsted described Fallibroome as an outstandingly effective school and made particular reference to the research that has been completed into different aspects of learning and teaching.

As we move forward, we plan to increasingly expect departments to have evidence of contributions from student voice to their teaching and learning development agenda.

Glossary

Feedback loop – A feedback loop is a formative process where information is communicated from one individual and back, this commonly can be seen between teachers and pupils. However, with this latter example, it is important that the communication is not one way and that the teacher listens to feedback from pupils as well as giving it.

Black, P, Harrison, C, Lee, C, Marshall, B, and Wiliam, D (2003) Assessment for Learning: Putting it into Practice. Berkshire: Open University Press

Kagan, S (1994) Cooperative Learning. San Clemente, CA: Kagan

Jane Gormally is responsible for teaching and learning and Francis Power is responsible for monitoring and assessment at Fallibroome High School.

For further information about the Learning to Learn Phase 3 Evaluation see www.campaign-for-learning.org.uk

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