Pedagogy Postcard #12: Blending content with assessment

A series of short posts about specific elements of teaching practice that I think are effective and make life interesting. Some are based on my own lessons and others are borrowed from lessons I’ve observed.



The idea of teaching to the test is often referred to as a being a limiting, narrowing aspect of teaching. Even though secondary teachers and Y6 teachers are routinely pre-occupied by the need to prepare students as well as possible for the exams they will sit, the exams themselves obviously can’t and don’t define our subjects or our students’ achievements entirely.   When the exams are high stakes and a whole course is determined by an exam specification, it’s natural enough for the formal assessment processes to have a high profile.  At the same time, we all want students to engage with our subjects because of their intrinsic value, ideally taking exams in their stride whilst exploring much further.

There is a balance to strike between teaching students the technical requirements of formal assessments that really matter for them and teaching them so that they enjoy and learn the subject for its own sake.  It can be soul-destroying for all concerned if the message is ‘we’re only learning this because it’s on the exam’. The trick is to blend these aspects together so that they are mutually reinforcing rather than competing priorities.

Where I see this work really well at my school, teachers manage this balance skilfully.  In fact, when I first arrived at KEGS, it was one of the things that struck me immediately: there is no messing about with the exams requirements – the expectations are crystal clear and given due weight.  BUT the main thrust is all about the subject content.

The key to making this work, as far as I can see, is to do the following:

  1. adopt the big picture approach without reference to assessment at all in the exposition phase. Students need to learn about subjects in context in all their complexity in order to develop the deepest level of thinking and this is where the engagement is secured: the whole poem, the whole story of the war, a full exploration of the scientific phenomenon; the piece of music as a work of art (as opposed to the subject of a test.)
  2. devote time to exploring the assessment criteria explicitly in detail but with a focus on the most disaggregated form; the scores that are the most ‘raw’ (see below)
  3. use exemplar material extensively to illustrate how any abstract concepts in the assessment criteria manifest themselves in real pieces of work.
  4. communicate the incremental degrees of improvement through the specificity of the work in hand rather than using the formalised code of assessment (eg.. by describing what a better sentence might sound like rather than using level descriptor codes)
  5. ensure that the words used to describe the assessment are explained in the context of the content, not just the assessment.  (eg knowing the meaning of ‘structure’ and ‘language’ as applied to a passage from a literary text; these should not be terms you only meet in relation to awarding NC levels. )

The ‘most raw’ approach means using the dominant structures of the assessment to convey standards, rather than aggregated grades or levels.   In GCSE and A level exams, there’s a great range of these. Recently, I’ve encountered excellent blending in RE, Science, German AS, History and Economics.  Unsurprisingly, each subject is different and students need to know them all.   My Year 10 RE students are getting quite experienced in writing to the structure of a 6-mark answer.

Here are some other examples:

History GCSE:  10 mark source analysis question:

To score ‘Level 4’ and gain 9/10 marks, they need to blend analysis of the information conveyed by the source; the provenance of the source and their own knowledge of the subject not reflected directly in the source. The Level 2 and 3 responses don’t have the balance of content + provenance + own knowledge but the structure allows students to see how to secure improvement.  Handled well, this assessment structure can be blended with any content.  Look at source A; what does it tell us? do we trust it? what other information is relevant to the issue?  If this line of questioning is routine, the assessment and content are mutually reinforcing.  The  10 mark answers are just the way we do things.

Economics AS:  The 18 mark essay question.

Students need to answer a question so that they show their understanding of the key points of analysis (AO3) and their ability to evaluate each of these against competing perspectives (AO4).  A good 18 mark essay will need a good blend and rule-of-thumb structure would be this:  Intro: three core analysis points with graphs where relevant ; an evaluation of each point (ie AO3 x3; AO4 x 3); a conclusion weighing things up.   This structure can help to get to grips with the subject because in economics, there are so many variables, students can be overwhelmed.  By using the AO3-AO4 pairing, they can learn to appreciate that there is almost always a ‘but on the other hand’ argument; it’s not a case of listing as many factors as you can think of; you need to evaluate a few factors in depth and that’s ok.  The hard bit is establishing the key factors.

Science: Exam questions as depth gauges. 

As I’ve described in Great Lessons 6: Explaining, assessment structures can be used to establish expectations in relation to the depth of answers students give.  How does a seat-belt work? (2 marks, 4 marks, 6 marks…..) Why do plants wilt in the sun? (2 marks, 4 marks, 6 marks…..).  Here, using assessment structures can be a useful tool during class discussions about these questions.   There is also the nature of the questions themselves.  In my experience, exam-style questions are often really very good; they use different contexts within which students need to apply the general concepts.  Through exposure to exam questions, students can explore the subject itself.  In fact, it’s a piece of advice I always give to new teachers is to familiarise themselves with the past papers.  This isn’t purely a matter of accountability-driven exam-prep; it’s because the questions give them a good guide to how the concepts can manifest themselves in different settings.

Art and DT: Visual references

For Art and DT, setting the standards is relatively straightforward looking at exemplars.  If you line up A*, A and B grade final pieces and portfolios, it’s usually obvious what the factors are that link the work to the grade.  Here the overall grade is actually easier to work with than any marks.  The trick is to focus on the tipping points. Why did this set of work get the A* and not this set? Students can normally see for themselves and use those factors to reference their own work against.   If only it was this straightforward with essays!

In finding the right blend of teaching the content and the assessment, I think it’s really important to be aware of criteria overload.  At KS3 this is especially true where levels are still used.  I’ve never been persuaded that students can use level criteria to secure improvement.  It’s just too complicated.

Screen shot 2014-04-08 at 16.37.01

Grids like this are very common; I found this on the TES resources site.  At Level 6 – my writing is fluent and it engages and sustains the reader’s interest; at Level 7 – I am a confident writer and adapt my work appropriately and imaginatively to suit purpose and audience.  I’d wager that if we deleted all grids like this overnight, no fairies would die – so to speak. In other words, ….oh you know what I mean.   I’ve seen a teacher trying to get students to level a sample passage when they couldn’t understand the nuances of the text or the language of the criteria. What they wanted to do was talk about Piggy and Ralph and to do it better. They needed to know a lot more about what ‘structural features’ meant.  The level ladder got in the way – it didn’t help.   For them assessment at sentence and paragraph level was what they needed; not macro levelling.

If there are lots of marks available for an assessment, the same problem arises.  Here is the mark scheme for an English literature question out of 30 marks:

Screen shot 2014-04-08 at 22.51.37


For students to really understand the tipping point from Band 5 to Band 6 requires some serious work. Recognition of ‘Considered/qualified’ vs ‘sustained’ isn’t going to come easily. Here some work with exemplars is needed – as featured in a forthcoming post.  However the danger is to lose the wood for the trees.  You could spend a lot of time on teaching students how the criteria work and, as a result, allow them to lose focus on the text in hand.  In a more effective blended approach the high-scoring sentence and paragraph elements are modelled at every stage while discussing the text at big picture level.  If ‘good writing’ is modelled and reinforced continually then it doesn’t emerge as a disconnected set of tricks needed to pass the exams.

In History, I’ve seen an excellent discussion-to-essay method used to good effect:  The class is divided into groups with each one tasked with approaching the subject matter in a different directed way, leading to a short presentation.  The issue in this example was Nazi appeasement prior to September 1939.  Group 1- prepare an overview of the appeasement policy issue in a punchy paragraph; Group 2 – look at sources A-D and explain what they suggest about Chamberlain and Britain; Group 3- look at sources E-H and explain what is implied regarding the French position;  Group 4 – give the main case to justify appeasement; Group 5 – give the main case to suggest it was a mistake. Group 6 – listen to everyone else make their presentations and sum everything up, justifying which case is stronger based on the evidence. 

The resulting series of presentations were interesting in terms of summing up the content.  But, at the end the teacher pointed out that what they’d done was effectively produce a high-scoring spoken essay.  This was her way of illustrating the assessment criteria, blending with the content in great style.

Related Post: Defining the Butterfly: Knowing the standards to set the standards 



    • Have you thought about linking this to the experiential model by KOLB? it doesn’t cover the main expoition big picture at the start, but it gets the idea what students have a go at writing first, then intereact with the assessment criteria MID_WAY – giving them time THEN and THERE to look at other models, peer assess and improve their own work, DURING the writing. I think there are some connections.


  1. I would love to know how you’re going to square this with The Commission on Assessment without Levels July 2015’s draft if isn’t Chilcotted by Morgan? As a teacher for 26 years and Head of English I find this so, so depressing.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s