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Using hinge questions for formative assessment
Image by flickr.com/photos/75001512@N00

I’m trying to get better at formative assessment. I work in a sixth form college and so pretty much everything I do in the classroom is about exam results. The students that come to our college arrive from a broad range of feeder schools and have a similarly broad range of skills and knowledge. It’s a constant challenge to make sure they are learning the content on the spec at the same time as developing the skills they need to reach their target grades. In the rush to get through the syllabus I find it’s all too easy to forget to check whether students have actually understood what I’m trying to teach them. I’m guilty of assuming that students have understood the content because they’ve scribbled down the 3 things they’ve learnt that lesson on a post-it note in a rushed plenary bolted on at the end. It’s with this in mind that I’ve turned to Dylan Wiliam’s, Embedded Formative Assessment, and started to implement some of his strategies in my teaching.

One of the first techniques I’ve been trying to master is hinge questions. These are diagnostic multiple choice questions used as a mini-plenary at a turning point in a lesson. It’s a pause in proceedings to check understanding before you move on to the next part. I used it last week with year 12 when we studied several theories about the relationship between population and resources: Malthus, Boserup and the Club of Rome. The students did a jigsaw learning activity to get down the main points and answered a set of questions as a group. I then gave them two hinge questions:

The principle behind Malthus’ theory is…

  1. There is a fundamental mismatch between population growth and resources.
  2. Fundamentally, humans have no way to increase food supply so food shortages will lead to population checks.
  3. People cannot control how many children they have.
  4. Food supply increases geometrically and population increases arithmetically.
  5. Positive checks increase birth rate while preventative checks reduce death rate.

Boserup’s theory states that…

  1. Malthus was wrong: there is enough food in the world.
  2. Population pressure doesn’t lead to food shortages.
  3. As population reaches carrying capacity, societies are forced to make agricultural changes to ensure there is enough food.
  4. Population checks are preventable through the use of technology, as seen in the Green Revolution.
  5. Optimum population can be reached through the inventive use of technology.

Each student wrote and held up their answers on a mini whiteboard for me to see. At a glance I could see whether they’d understood the two main theories or not. One class had, the other hadn’t. Satisfied, I moved the first class onto the second part of the lesson where they completed an evaluation of the two theories, culminating in an exam question. The second class had far more students who got both answers wrong so I explained the answer to each hinge question (and why the 4 other options were wrong) and then set a different task. They mind-mapped the theories using a different text and a set of key words I’d prepared and then answered some different questions as a plenary.

I’ve also used hinge questions as an end-of-unit test for A2 Geography and have also got students to write them themselves as part of team quizzes and revision activities. The trick is to make all 4 (or 5) answers sound plausible. This forces students to look (and think) beyond the obvious and become more precise and subtle in their writing. Hinge questions are hard to write and hard to answer if you’ve done it right but that’s the point.

There are some clever ways in which you can use a Quick Key app on your phone to do diagnostic tests using hinge questions as well. Simon Renshaw discusses this technique in his blog http://srenshaw.wordpress.com/ extensively. I haven’t ventured that far yet, but it’s something I plan to.

Hinge questions are a simple but very effective method of formative assessment which any teacher can use. I’m currently writing them about oxbow lakes and meanders: the true realm of a Geography teacher.


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