Give Them a Test

I once had a conversation with a student teacher about a class they were about to start teaching. Unfortunately I can’t remember the particular topic we discussed but, like all other topics in maths, it supposed a lot of prior knowledge. The teacher hadn’t met the class before so didn’t know what they knew and what they didn’t. The solution, I suggested, was to give them a “prior knowledge” assessment so that they knew where to pitch their lessons and didn’t risk wasting time. A look of concern crossed their face; “I don’t want them to think I’m mean!” they said.

I’ve been giving my classes a lot more tests recently. I’m not overly concerned if that makes them think that I’m mean but happily that doesn’t seem to be the case. The reason for my lack of concern is because I believe firmly that the increase in the frequency of tests is good for their learning. I’ve found, with the various types of assessments I’ve used this year that if you explain the reasons behind the choices you make, highlighting how the pupils’ learning will benefit from what you’re doing, then they tend to be on board. Here I’m going to write about the type I think has had the most impact , Initial Assessments.

I give my classes these tests at the start of each topic I do with them. I project them on to the whiteboard and students complete them in their exercise books. They’re based on a rough draft of my medium term plan for that unit. They’re comprised of two sections. The first is “prior knowledge”. These are topics that I would expect the students to have a grasp of based on the schemes of learning that they’ve been following so far that are also essential to be able to access the skills and concepts I’m about to teach them. Many a lesson went wrong early in my career because I hadn’t checked prior knowledge thoroughly enough (or at all) and ploughed on regardless. The second section I call “topic scope”. These are basically the things that I’m planning to teach so I wouldn’t expect students to be able to answer much of this correctly (which I do explain to them at the outset so that they’re not put off). All of the questions are very straightforward, AO1 type questions because I want to know if students have a basic grasp of pure concepts, applying those concepts is something we’ll look at in lessons. I don’t want them to be tripped up by the wording/context of questions and therefore make my data misleading. Here’s an example of an initial assessment I gave to my top set year 10 class at the start of a “Quadratics and Rearranging” topic.


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These are Power Point slides. The columns overlap to allow for the fact that pupils work at different rates. I allow enough time for all of the students to attempt all of the questions, those that finished earlier get a consolidation task on a previous topic.

At the end of the assessment I display the answers and students mark them. I don’t talk through them unless a child asks me to, but they know that the point of the assessment is that I will teach them anything that it shows up they don’t know, so they don’t usually ask for this. Then I go through each of the questions and ask students to put their hands up if they got it right. I note down how the class has done (this process usually takes me up to the end of our 50 minute lessons) and use them to fully write my medium term plan. I don’t take individual feedback because I don’t feel I need it. Following this assessment, the first section of my medium term plan looked like this:

MTP example

The bullet points are written pre-assessment and highlighted post-assessment. I think some people would prefer to do this on paper but I like having all my files together electronically. As you can see not all of the class were secure on everything that they should, in theory have been. If I hadn’t taken the time to find this out either a) my lessons would have bombed because the students wouldn’t be able to understand what I was trying to teach them or b) I would realise in-lesson that there were gaps and have to address them on the fly. This is part of the skill of teaching but I find more learning happens when it’s properly planned for. This means that even though it might be tempting to miss this assessment out to spend more time learning content this is actually a false economy. In possession of all this knowledge I can plan to use lesson time most efficiently. This is the plan I wrote out for the sequence of lessons that then took place. The starters referred to are mixed skills starters from Maths Box.


As I write I haven’t finished teaching this sequence of lessons. The plan above already looks a little different to when I originally wrote it out though as it gets adapted as I teach and have even more information about the class’ capabilities. That’s one reason why I prefer to keep it electronic as then it doesn’t become a mass of crossings/rubbings out.

I find it hard to imagine teaching without doing an initial assessment first now. I feel like I’d be stabbing in the dark. Even now I’ve had my classes for a term and gotten to know them pretty well I’ll definitely keep doing them.


3 thoughts on “Give Them a Test

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