Monday, October 7, 2013

The Friday Four

I've been meaning to post this for ages. Better late than never. I've no idea how transferable the idea is to subjects other than maths, but it might be worth a bash.

I've been teaching for long enough that I can see for myself how things come back in to fashion, providing you are prepared to wait. And so I find myself writing a blog post putting forward the perhaps not so revolutionary idea that, in maths at least, it's a good idea to give your classes a short test every Friday (other days are of course also available).

Bear with me and I'll provide the back story to my deciding to try this, and I'll also do my best to show how this idea is not entirely unsupported by research either.

It started by accident. On the last lesson of a Thursday, a junior class of mine were doing a test, which meant that the room had to be set out accordingly (desks separated etc). I should explain that for some teachers in some rooms this would be a trifling matter, but space in my classroom is at a premium so this can take a wee while to do well. The test was a little on the long side so I didn't get the class to return the desks to their normal position at the end, thinking I would do this myself instead. (Yes, I"m that kind of a guy.) But then I realised that another class of mine had another test the following day, lesson two - at which point I decided that having the room set out as it was, would save me a lot of hassle. The only problem was that I had a senior class due the lesson before, with no test scheduled. Och, what the heck, I decided, they can just sit at individual desks for once and put up with it. It's hardly the end of the world.

And then I thought, what the heck, they can have.a test as well. Not a long one, mind - maybe just ten minutes - but (a) it seemed a shame to waste the chance offered by the desks being test-ready and (b) partly I just wanted to enjoy the look of sheer horror on the senior class students' faces when they realised they had a test. (It's a guilty pleasure I"m sure other teachers enjoy too, when a less-than well-organised student turns up to see desks in test position and asks worriedly, "do we have a test today?", and you wait a beat before reassuring them that no, it was the class before who had the test. How much more enjoyable then to do a double bluff?)
You're giving us a TEST????
So, now all I needed was a test, and quick. Fortunately here in Scotland, all the recent exam papers are available for free on the website of our (single) examining body, the SQA.  We'd recently been studying vectors so I hunted through recent questions and a few cuts and pastes later and hey presto, I had a double-sided sheet of A4 containing four questions, with room for workings and answers. My first Friday Four was born.

A quick trip to the photocopier later, and before you could say Evil Swine I had the test papers laid out on the desks, ready for the class to arrive. Which they duly did. Now yes, they were Not Happy to have a test sprung upon them, but they took it damn seriously. I explained that they had ten minutes to do the questions, after which I'd collect them in and we'd move on to the content of the lesson proper.

Now that could have been it - I certainly had no Grand Plan in mind - but as the wee dears worked away I began to think about the potential presented by this on the hoof idea. A number of things struck me, to wit:

- this wasn't really costing us much in time: ten minutes out of 55 or 60 doesn't have to be that big a deal. Oftentimes we'll happily spend that long on a warm-up activity. If you plan in advance then surely you can adjust lesson content over the week to ensure that Friday's lesson can accommodate a Friday Four? (In this I have to admit that this does rely on your seeing the class in question a number of times over the school week, but that is likely to be the case with a certificate subject.)

- this was giving my class a brief spell of practice for the exam room. I think we do proper "tests" with our senior kids about three times a year, and that's about the only time they really experience exam conditions, and time pressure. The rest of the time they are working in class under less pressurised conditions - maybe working on their own, or with others. Now OK, given how long exams are, it's not easy to give them the full blown experience within normal class time, but a ten minute burst has to be better than nothing. A good deal better, in fact. Put it this way: someone in training for a marathon may not run the full 26 miles until the day in question, but they sure as hell do some running every week!

- maybe I could select a different topic each week, and give the class a heads-up the day before, so that they can do a bit of revision the night before? Or the topics could be mixed up, maybe a better idea the nearer to the exam you get. Either way this seems a chance to get in some deliberate practice - spaced repetition, even. (OK, I'll fess up, that's my "backed up by research" bit. I hope you're not too disappointed.)

And so on. A scant ten minutes later and as I was collecting in the papers I was already telling the class that this was going to be a regular occurrence.  They didn't seem to mind, I have to say. (In fact, in later feedback, they complained that they should have had Friday Fours all year!)

The rest of the lesson continued as usual. As I suspected, there wasn't much of a cost in terms of getting through the work. Let's face it, if you can survive kids arriving late because of an overrunning assembly, you can survive this. All the more so if you plan for it. And if you find that students are getting too stressed out at having a weekly test, just go all American on them and call it a "quiz" instead.

Oh, and one final benefit: if you stick to multiple choice questions, you can get those suckers marked in minutes. In fact, you can even mark them, return them at the end, and go over any problems. In some ways I suppose this is similar to the idea of an "exit pass" proposed by Dylan Wiliam and others, only it's more like an entrance ticket. The kids get very useful exam practice, and I get pretty instant feedback on the areas where they need to improve. What's not to like?

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