Formative assessment to shift the attention

As a short follow up to my earlier blog trying to unpick Gateway Questions, I wanted to consider how multiple choice questions could be used in sequence across a text or unit of study in English Literature. Whilst the original line of enquiry was around how to use the predictions that we make about anticipated knowledge gap or misconception, I wanted to spend a little longer unpacking why this is problematic, yet in my belief, useful as part of our teaching delivery in the classroom.

Designing multiple choice questions in English is difficult, because there are aspects of English that we cannot place as definitive until we reach a place of high expertise. With declarative knowledge or comprehension, we are able to provide a set of plausible distractors where there is only one clear correct answer. Who shot Lennie? Who does Lady Macbeth call upon to give her courage? Who appears at the door as Birling is lecturing Eric and Gerald? In fact, it’s difficult for us to be plausible for the student who grasps the plot, because there are limited characters, and limited possibilities. Quite simply though, if you know, you know.

To consider how this is then used for more conceptual knowledge, where the emphasis is on interpretation and analytical understanding of character or idea across the text, then for English, perhaps plausible becomes a spectrum of plausibility as opposed to right, and layers of wrong. This is also greatly dependent upon the practice that the students has had in making their case when analysing. For example:

The first is most plausible, and what we infer from the quotation. It assesses that the students make the most plausible inference. However, a student could also infer that Sybil is implying that Sheila’s word isn’t trustworthy, so the third option could stand, as does the final second option, more loosely: Gerald has already presented as subtly unreliable. The point of note here is that there isn’t a misconception per se, as there isn’t a ‘wrong’ and instead, we work along a spectrum of plausibility to establish understanding. This is not always the case, but when inferences are being made, there are inferences that are stronger than others. Another example:

We infer from ‘insisted’ that consent was not given, but do we infer from ‘insisted’ that consent was implied? No, we assume that consent was given, but the ‘insisted’ shifts our attention to consider this further. And this is such a pivotal moment of the plot as any English teacher is aware, that it is crucial that we do not digress into debate or deliberation over the nature of the attack itself. By drawing students to this, we assess their understanding of this moment through the artefacts of the language, but admittedly, are the others implausible? Perhaps. Completely? Perhaps not. So does this follow our hard and fast rules of MCQs? Perhaps not. I would argue they’re not my best plausible work.

So what is the question trying to do instead? And more to the point, does it do it?

This is where perhaps Gateway questions drift from the definition of what we would like a multiple choice question to do- but that’s not to say it isn’t useful. The question does something else: it assesses the students’ attention to the subtle ways in which the concept of gender and power of/powerlessness presents itself. Did they notice that line? Did they see the shift of power? Did they grasp what was at play as Sheila’s opinion became lesser? Did Eric know he did not have consent to enter Eva’s lodgings? Did he mark that? Does it matter as to whether he did and carried on regardless, or did not and carried on regardless? Formative assessment of this nature might be useful to use in one or two question moments, so that we can really establish not what is not known, but what has been missed. What went unnoticed.

What do we then do with this information? Well, it helps us to narrow the focus of what students really need to know and reteach it. It enables the teacher to reteach with that specific focus to ensure that such subtleties don’t be unnoticed. If a student doesn’t fully grasp the dominant nature of Gerald’s character, both with his fiancé but also with a more vulnerable, younger woman, can they write eloquently about the theme of gender within the play? Maybe. If a student doesn’t move past the deliberation over consent, can they write eloquently about the character of Eric within the play? Possibly. Yet by predicting that they may not know it, because historically students have not known it, this provides us with a roadmap to teach the text where we focus on such subtleties: because whilst subtle, we know how crucial they are to having a deep understanding of the characters, language, even the social mechanisms at play within the text itself. This return to the main thing ensures that students are on track, and we know to what degree this is the case.

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