Questions 3: formative questions

15 12 2015

If you teach children for a year or more you know (educationally) where they’ve been, where they are and where you are trying to get them. As science presenters we have no idea. You can ask the adults in the room but I find the adults often understate what the children have already covered (to make the children look good) or overstate it (to make themselves look good). 

The best way is to ask the children and you can do that with the use of careful questioning- by asking formative questions at the start of a show. 

There are two types of assessment- formative and summative

Summative assessment sums up what people have learned. Exams, projects and essays are all examples. It is normally high stakes and occurs at the end of a block of teaching. 

Formative assessment exists to help form the teaching and learning. It is often informal, low stakes and designed to establish a benchmark of knowledge that can then be built on. 

At the start of most of my shows I include formative questions to assess what the children have already covered. All of my shows have been written to suit multiple age groups and there is normally a presentation half a Keystage up or down I can switch to. I will ask questions at the start of a show to assess if I need to take the presentation up or down one of these levels. After all there’s no point teaching stuff they’ve just covered or teaching stuff they need a bit more experience to cover. 

Care must be taken that to get an accurate idea of the whole group’s ability when asking formative questions. If you just take answers from one or two keen students you can’t then assume everyone knows what they do. Conversely if a group of 15 year olds stare blankly back at you (or more likely their shoes) when you ask they might just be feeling ‘too cool for school’ and not willing to answer rather than unable to answer. 

Formative questions can be used to find out how cooperative and enthusiastic a group is going to be. You can ask questions to help you as the presenter form an idea about the audience. Children scared to answer simple questions at the start of a show might indicate that you need to build up trust between you and them further before you start the show in earnest. Again conversley if your question is met with searing disdain and aggressive sniping then you know your audience needs a bit of managing if the session is to be a success. 

Questions are powerful tools in the science presenters armoury when used with thought and purpose. Asking formative questions, if you are able to adapt your material, will allow you to tailor your presentations and increase your effectiveness. 

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