Tuesday, 27 August 2013

Starting The Academic Year Well - How To Improve Student Performance

So ... the beginning of term, and indeed a new year, is looming. What can students do to make this year a more successful – and a more satisfying – one? Here are a few basic and very practical tips for students:

First, define success for yourself. It won’t help you if success is defined by your teachers, tutors, friends, parents or other relatives. People don’t, in general, work as hard for other people’s objectives as they do for their own. Consultation is sensible, and objectives are best set when there have been some good honest conversations before the setting takes place. Once success is defined, goals can be set, and targets agreed, or thought of. Too many people set the target first, and then define success and fulfilling the target. As far as possible, success should be defined in objective terms: a long-jumper should aim to jump the gold medal distance, not to win the gold medal, since the latter is dependent on the behaviour of others.

Secondly, remember that ‘this year is going to be different’ only if you make it so. The vast majority of students starting the new academic year in the next few weeks is saying ‘this time is going to be different’ to themselves. Most won’t manage it. Making this year different from last year is a completely different game from resolving to do so. The resolution doesn’t need a ‘how’, accomplishing it does. If you are tempted to resolve to make this year different, think hard about what is going to be different about it, and then make yourself accountable to someone for actually doing it.

Thirdly, think about what you have learned from the recent past. What is the lesson of your exam results about what works and what doesn’t? What did teachers write about you last year, in reports, or at the bottom of your work? What needs to change? What themes emerge from feedback you have received? What needs to change that you want to change? What are your strengths and weaknesses as a student? If you don’t know the answer to this question, make sure to start the academic year by having this conversation with a parent, teacher, tutor, or older sibling. Check your perception of yourself against that of others – and don’t forget that theirs is likely to be more accurate than yours. Most under-performance starts with poor self-awareness.

Fourthly, don’t do it next term, next week or tomorrow. Start it – whatever it is – today! A resolution delayed once is far less likely to be implemented at all. If you don’t do the first homework on time, you’re toast. Habits are most easily established with the first decision – subsequent ones get easier. Do all your prep on time for a month, and you may not even notice the effort it used to take at the start.

Fifth – and most important – persevere. It isn’t all going to be easy: it isn’t meant to be. Athletes don’t go to the gym to find lifting weights easy – they get stronger by lifting weights that are really hard. Similarly, our intellects don’t develop unless we test them by doing things that are really hard. It can be dangerous to try to lift a (physical) weight that is too strong for our bodies to bear, but there is no such danger with our intellectual exercise. Note that one of the best predictors of educational attainment found in academic studies in the USA was not the answers given to questions about study, but the number of questions attempted. (See http://www.uaedreform.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/Hitt_Trivitt_EDRE_2013_05.pdf for more details). Grit really changes things. Be encouraged: this means that people might actually get the outcomes they deserve in education: the trick is to make sure you deserve a good outcome.

Finally, if all this seems like common sense, that's because it is. Excellence is usually in simple things done well, and consistently. There's no magic wand.

Thursday, 22 August 2013

Grade Deflation Is As Pointless As Grade Inflation

One of the functions of money, according to economists, is to act as a unit of measurement. Countless hours of economists’ time is wasted by constant adjustments to measurement to take account of the changing value of money – as a result of inflation or deflation. On the other hand, endless hours of family amusement have been caused over the years by reflections that ‘I used to be able to buy a Mars Bar for less than 10p’, and so on. On balance, most would agree that an absence of inflation, and the consistency of measurement would be a good thing.

Similarly, in the UK at least, the examination of school pupils and the grading of their efforts, has been subject to a form of inflation. Are grades in this year’s exams consistent with the same grades in the same exams in previous years? This kind of longitudinal consistency is vital if exams are going to be meaningful – for example as a guide to the probability of success in other academic courses, or as a means of comparison of the ability of those who take their exams in different years.

It’s clearly been a mistake that a larger and larger percentage of pupils have been gaining higher grades since GCSEs were first taken in 1988. The change in the proportion has been greater than the rise in ‘standards’ in schools and so a B grade in English Language GCSE 2011 means something different from a B grade in the same exam twenty years earlier. Of course this has to be balanced against a greater accountability in schools, an inspection regime which has teeth, increased scrutiny of what teachers do in the classroom. It is possible that more pupils deserve their B grade in English Language – just because more people have climbed Everest in the last twenty years does not mean that doing so has got easier, or that Everest has got shorter.

It is even possible that what is meant by proficiency in English Language has changed over a twenty year period – for cultural, technological and practical reasons. But this is not the point – a B grade (or any other) should mark a basic level of proficiency which is intelligible to those who will interpret it – in education, or in the workplace.

So, the solution to two decades of grade inflation is not to reverse the trend, and gently reduce the percentage of pupils gaining higher grades. To do this introduces a second layer of complexity in interpreting the results. Two decades from now, who will remember in which year grade inflation was reversed, or by how much. These changes make the nature of the signal given by the grade even less clear – the measurement is even more ‘noisy’. It would have been much more helpful to freeze the value of the GCSE at the 2011 value, and insist that any deviation from that point could only be because there had been a significant change in the capability of the educational infrastructure. This would be the examining equivalent of joining the Euro – or for historians of joining the Gold Standard.

If one does this, how does one discriminate at the top level? By introducing – once and for all – a new grade. Perhaps an ‘S’ level at GCSE, for the top 2-3% of candidates would accomplish this, although this is only worthwhile if the examinations themselves reward the most able pupils, but that is a whole new can of worms. The only tenable alternative is to shift to a whole new grading system, as Ofqual proposes, on a numerical scale. On this score, Ofqual is absolutely right. If it is to have longitudinal integrity, however, there will have to be clear regulatory protection of the standard required for each grade, so that grade inflation – or its more recent cousin, grade deflation – becomes a topic in history, rather than in politics.

Tuesday, 13 August 2013

Book Review - The Pinch

Without a doubt the pick of my summer reading has to be The Pinch by David Willetts. Although I struggled to get enthused about it during the summer term, a good stretch of time spent on it proved extremely worthwhile, and my enthusiasm for the book increased the further I went through it.

The scope of the book is to look at the way that different generations have fared in the UK through the latter half of the 20th century, and the first few years of this. Counter-intuitively Willetts demonstrates that it is a great good fortune to be born in a ‘bulge’ – rather than creating extra competition for a static number of jobs, it creates extra wealth, much of which is shared, not least through taxation and public sector. Those born in lean years (for population growth) have particular problems if they follow a bulge – they end up paying for the retirement of more people, who live longer, and the cost of whose retirement is spread across fewer workers in the generation which follows them.

So far, so good – but we all knew the dependency ratio was heading in unfavourable direction, didn’t we? Well, yes, but the clever part of Willetts’ book is to trace so many different strands to the relative impoverishment of those born after the mid-1960s. Not only are they poorer in income terms, but in assets, and in quality of life.

Most fascinatingly, Willetts charts the changes in time spent by adults with their children. Despite working harder, and despite so many more two-earner households, the average primary age child now spends more time with their children than the boomers did. This is thanks, mainly, to the time gained from the use of technology in the home. Teenagers, on the other hand, spend less time with their parents than used to be the case, and they spend less time with adults compared to teenagers in other developed countries. Just as we trust other adults with our younger children too little, we also trust adult influence on teenagers insufficiently, with the result that they are more peer-influenced that the young people in other economically prosperous nations. It's all a result of a breakdown in trust between the generations - the old are suspicious of the young, and the young are suspicious of the old.

It’s not a tremendously encouraging book, but it is well worth reading – and it’s made me question how many of our problems with teenagers as a culture arise out of the suffocatingly intense adult contact very small children have, and the relative independence we afford teenagers. Perhaps received wisdom, or is it just evolved practice, on this front needs further consideration. So, it made me think, and I wholeheartedly endorse it to others.