Activities with student teachers
Assessment is clearly critical within the confines of a short AS/A2 course. However, as I have said elsewhere, I think the way that assessment works at this level need not lead to a situation where the curriculum dog is being wagged by the examination tail. Effective teaching and learning strategies around the set texts, with a sharp awareness of the way that the assessment system works in terms of coursework and examination will empower students.
The principles underlying the work around assessment for learning hold good for A level, and the relating of lesson plans and activities to clear objectives relating to the wider perspectives of the course form part of this. Developing classroom activities that specifically develop students' critical skills in relation to context, or to other viewpoints, directly relates to assessment. In addition, the formative use of the assessment criteria coursework and examination seems to me to be an essential area in which student teachers need to develop their skills.
One obvious, though nonetheless useful way to start work like this is to engage students directly with the assessment criteria in the specification. Working in groups to rewrite, annotate and exemplify the four current AOs is an activity I've asked my student teachers to undertake (indeed they do this with the National Curriculum levels, too) and though it is time consuming and difficult, they also insist it is valuable work. The act of recasting the assessment criteria so that they are readily accessible to AS students themselves not only sharpens student teachers' own knowledge, it also leads into effective marking and target setting i.e. formative assessment in the classroom. Some student teachers will mirror the activity with AS classes, given the opportunity, others will use their rewritten criteria and share them with students during peer and self assessment activities over written work in the classroom.
Specifically in relation to terminal examinations, I've always found it useful to look at sample questions and mark schemes with my group, and to highlight keywords in questions and identify what the mark schemes cite as distinctive features of answers at different levels. Question papers and mark schemes are all downloadable, and it is useful to augment these with examples of A level students' written answers so that student teachers can engage in some shared assessment. Though this may well happen in placement schools, I think it is reassuring for student teachers to tackle this kind of marking amongst their peers, so that they have the chance to develop confidence before being expected to do so in school, when it can be an intimidating experience to show your marking before experienced teachers. Now that schools are entitled to ask for return of examination scripts, it is helpful to exploit a contact and get some photocopied examples of genuine exam work.
Perhaps as I am an A level examiner I overstress with my student teachers the importance of teaching effective examination writing. I don't apologise for this, and what I don't think is that it is about teaching students how to jump hurdles. Put simply, I have marked numerous papers written by students who obviously know their texts extraordinarily well, and who have interesting responses, but who have not been taught the effective ways in which to convey those responses. As part of a session with my student teachers I like to show them the kind of modelling of writing I do with A level students: taking an exam question, highlighting the key words, planning an answer, writing the opening two or three paragraphs, highlighting and annotating as I go to show how I am using my knowledge of the text effectively. This does lead to discussions about how far the actual process of exam writing is about learning tricks, but again I see this as something I would want student teachers to be able to empower the students they teach. A partial understanding of assessment systems leads to the kind of mechanistic hurdle jumping that in most cases is counterproductive, whilst a real internalising of the modes of assessment in place should be liberating.
In respect of activities like shared marking sessions, consideration of mark schemes and modelling exam writing, I think I'm comfortable to do this as a trained examiner, even allowing for the fact I am not currently marking. However, given that assessment procedures have recently changed I am now much more inclined to invite a current A level teacher in to cover these areas. This is particularly valuable when it comes to looking at new types of assessment the specific questions raised, for example, of the teaching and assessing of creative responses to text at post-16 level.
It could be argued that the kind of real familiarity with assessment criteria I am describing ought not to be the job of an English tutor. Clearly, I would take the opposite view I don't think student teachers are done any favours if they approach A level planning and teaching without the chance to come to terms with, and learn to exploit, the assessment system.