Assessments: helpful or a hindrance

Educational institutes around the world use assessment to measure student performance and learning outcomes, with international assessments such as PISA gaining increasing popularity. Much debate has taken place about the genuine value of assessment, from primary assessments to international tests like PISA. So, is testing really helpful to students? Or does it get in the way of learning? We decided to investigate.


What is assessment and why do we need it?

Often, assessment is confused with testing. Testing is just one form of assessment. Students can also be assessed by various methods such as project-based learning and phenomenon-based learning.


Assessment is an important part of education, helping policymakers and industry thought leaders determine whether curriculum goals are being met. Assessment is the baseline against which decisions about learning outcomes, educational policies, curriculum standards and, yes, even funding are made. In short, its importance hinges on the fact that it provides measurable results.


Is assessment helpful?

While assessment is invaluable to policymakers and educators, the real question stands: is it helpful to students and teachers? The answer is a resounding yes. Here’s why:

  • Assessment helps educators determine if learning goals are being met.
  • Assessment helps us understand the efficiency of the latest pedagogies and teaching methods.
  • Assessment identifies students who are struggling academically, allowing schools and educators to provide them with extra support.
  • Schools need support too. Assessment can help policymakers to identify schools that need extra funding for professional development or classroom supplies etc. For example, reports show that only 19% of low-income students met the ACT test benchmarks.
  • Assessment also helps teachers develop achievement goals when planning their lessons.


So when does assessment become a hindrance?

The biggest concern with assessment is the competitive pressure nations put on their schools and teachers to get better scores. When educators and nations begin to use test results as a source of competition rather than growth, they unwittingly skew the basic purpose of assessing students, which is to evaluate their progress and support them in overcoming their weaknesses.


Another trend stemming from international testing is the tendency to blame teachers for poor test outcomes. Teachers form the backbone of educational systems, often working long hours beyond their working days to help support students. The purpose of tests like PISA ought to be to ultimately support teachers and help them manage their workloads. However, parental and social expectations often lead to criticism of teaching styles or methods, casting doubt on teachers’ ability to do their jobs well. This, in turn, translates into teachers quitting their jobs and/or a drop in teacher recruitment.


Assessment can work incredibly well when it is used to evaluate learning goals and progression. It only becomes a hindrance when it is used to bring down teacher morale and put pressure on schools to compete with other others around the world.

To Do

Life of a teacher

A teacher can play many roles in their lifetime. The ancients used to rever their educators, with many historical societies sending their children off to live with teachers for years. Teachers thus played the role of parent, guide and educator, all in one. The modern student may not live with their teacher, but the modern teacher’s role isn’t vastly different to their predecessors – only the context has changed.


“If kids come to us from strong, healthy functioning families, it makes our job easier. If they do not come to us from strong, healthy, functioning families, it makes our job more important.” – Barbara Colorose


Much of a teacher’s job involves observing: recognising those who need a helping hand and those who need a patient ear. Colorose’s words resonate with many teachers who reach out to children with dysfunctional backgrounds. There are teachers in the world who work in war-torn countries, and those who teach in remote parts of the world where children struggle to eat. Some teachers manage classrooms bursting with boisterous children, and some spend hours and hours a week on lesson plans to stay ahead of schedule – only to have to start all over again when the format changes without notice. There are also teachers dedicated to working with children with learning difficulties. Each of them are equally important, and we’ve put together a list of 8 aspects of a teacher’s life to acknowledge their important contributions to education.


1. Parenting.

Most kids spend three-quarters of their waking hours in school with their teachers. Many teachers therefore take on several responsibilities associated with being a parent, whether it’s the simple things – such as teaching children good manners and respect – or the more complicated ones, such as looking out for their physical and mental well-being or keeping an eye out for hidden signs of distress.

Most kids spend three-quarters of their waking hours in school with their teachers. Many teachers therefore take on several responsibilities associated with being a parent, whether it’s the simple things – such as teaching children good manners and respect – or the more complicated ones, such as looking out for their physical and mental well-being or keeping an eye out for hidden signs of distress.


2. Managing patience.

Teachers tend to run a daily marathon in terms of patience. This doesn’t just apply to the students, though ‒ teachers have to deal with ever-changing state, educational and school policies; they have to cope with the possibility of sacrificing yet another weekend to lesson planning, they have to accept that there’s no space in the budget for the school trip they spent weeks planning; they have to deal with parental expectations… The list goes on.


3. Multitasking.

All teachers juggle multiple tasks every single day. Primary teachers, in particular, have to teach several subjects, which means extensive lesson planning along with huge amounts of marking and feedback. Often, this results in teachers covering subjects or areas that they have little to no experience in. Which takes us to the next point…


4. Learning on the go.

Teaching a subject requires you to learn first: no teacher is born with a knowledge bank that stretches from photosynthesis to classroom pedagogy. Researching the subjects to be taught involves a lot of study and continuing professional development (CPD) sessions.


5. Protector.

A role most people often don’t associate with teachers, and yet many teachers are natural protectors of their students: they not only take care of their students’ intellect and mental wellbeing, but also their safety. In the simplest scenarios, this involves making sure students cross the road safely on a class trip and wear appropriate safety equipment during science experiments. Unfortunately, sometimes this responsibility can stretch to safeguarding a student from school bullies or even from an abusive parent.


6. Low pay, high pressure.

Ask any teacher and you will learn that they work far more than their scheduled hours and way beyond their job descriptions – all without overtime. They bear the pressure from state policies, educational reforms, school policies, parental expectations and their own personal lives. Add this to the fact that most teaching jobs are notoriously poorly paid, and you can see that finding success as a teacher is often a labour of love and determination.


7. The power to change lives.

Katherine Johnson – the woman responsible for manually calculating the trajectory of the first spaceship launch, and many further NASA missions – was influenced by her school geometry teacher and her college professor. Both encouraged her and guided her towards success in life. Luckily, Johnson is just one example of many. Studies continue to show the profound influence teachers have on their students when it comes to choosing careers.

Katherine Johnson – the woman responsible for manually calculating the trajectory of the first spaceship launch, and many further NASA missions – was influenced by her school geometry teacher and her college professor. Both encouraged her and guided her towards success in life. Luckily, Johnson is just one example of many. Studies continue to show the profound influence teachers have on their students when it comes to choosing careers.


8. Little glory.

Let’s face it, there are no accolades to being a teacher. There are no songs sung, no trumpets blown, and the movies don’t even come close to what it’s really like to be a teacher. And yet it’s one of the most influential jobs in the world. The next time you question if it’s all worth it, though, do remember you have a whole office full of people at Twig Education who are always rooting for you!

Teaching students with learning difficulties

Over the past few years, there has been growing awareness in many countries towards people struggling with learning difficulties and learning disabilities. Around 1.5 million people in the UK struggle with a learning difficulty and statistics point to nearly 15% of Americans being affected. The terms “learning disability” and “learning difficulty” differ in meaning from country to country and are sometimes used interchangeably: for example, the terms “learning disability” or “learning disorder” are both used in the United States, while the UK displays a preference for the term “learning difficulty”.


It’s important to be clear about what we mean. In this post, we use the term “learning difficulty” as The Salvesen Mindroom Centre does: “any learning or emotional problem that affects, or substantially affects, a person’s ability to learn, get along with others and follow convention.” Examples include dyslexia, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and auditory processing disorder (APD).


How can educators and schools provide support to students with learning difficulties?

Over the years, steady efforts have been made by countries around the world towards inclusion – allowing students with learning difficulties to learn in regular schools. Inclusion is extremely important, benefiting students developmentally as well as socially. There are, of course, certain challenges for teachers. Each student is different, and there is a wide spectrum of learning difficulties that can make the situation even more delicate. A student with dyslexia needs a different support system to a student struggling with ADHD.


It, therefore, becomes the teacher’s responsibility to read up on individual symptoms and teaching strategies in order to understand student needs. To help, we’ve compiled a list of five teaching strategies designed to help students with learning difficulties.


Each of these can be easily adapted to suit individual needs. So whether you are a teacher looking to better support students with learning difficulties, or a parent looking for some guidance, we hope you find the following list helpful.


1. Break learning into small steps

Often also referred to as “chunking”, this strategy involves breaking down complex information into smaller and simpler parts that are easy for the brain to digest. Chunking is said to relieve the cognitive load on the brain and engage short-term memory in a more efficient manner. Chunking works with any text and subject. You can chunk information by ideas, paragraphs or keywords. You can even chunk your lesson into a list of learning objectives or goals, writing these on the whiteboard so that the students can follow your line of progress.


2. Visual aids

Visual aids are invaluable in teaching all students, especially those struggling with a learning difficulty. The human brain can process images faster and better than it can words. Words are abstract in nature, making them difficult to process, especially for children with learning difficulties. Using images, educational films and other visual aids such as diagrams and charts during lessons can help students build a direct correlation between words and their meanings – making learning much easier and faster.


3. Use multiple reinforcements tools

Repetition and revision are key to learning. But repetition can be boring, and focus is often a struggle for children with learning difficulties. That’s where multiple reinforcement tools can help – using different formats to teach the same concept. Generally, the more versatile the mediums are, the better: make them visual, aural and sensory, if possible. For example, for a lesson on how plants transport food, start with an attention-grabbing activity like changing the color of a flower. This will engage students and connect theory to practical knowledge. Follow this with a lesson on food and water transport in plants, supported with colorful images and engaging visuals. To reinforce the knowledge learned, set a quiz or revise the topic with a film.


4. Build on previous lessons

A simple but efficient way of revising or making it easier to learn a new topic. You can review the previous, related lesson, or you can teach something new by connecting it to a previously taught topic and building up the new activity around it. For example, if students already know what plants need to grow, you can work towards a new lesson on tropism.


5. Memory techniques

Revision reinforces lessons taught in class, but students may still benefit from learning certain memory techniques to help them remember how one chunk of information relates to another. Mnemonics, mind maps and even simple diagrams can go a long way towards helping children understand and remember information easily. Mnemonics or special phrases have long been used by teachers to help students remember difficult concepts. The mnemonic LAWN, for example, can help students remember that all plants need four things to survive: Light, Air, Water and Nutrients. Mind maps and pie charts represent written information in a more visual format, making information like statistics and proportions easier to remember.

Here comes the sun

Summer is here!


It’s that time of the year again: we can all give ourselves a little pat on the shoulder for having made it through another school year. It’s also time for poolside siestas, summer adventures, sipping ice-cold lemonade and just soaking up some sun.


However, the summer break can also translate to a break from learning. Studies have already documented how the summer learning gap can have long-term effects – in worst-case scenarios, it can even affect a student’s ability to graduate from school.


Don’t worry though – we’ve got you covered. There’s plenty of fun learning to be had through our topical science site, Reach Out Reporter!


Here, you’ll find dozens of topical films, learning activities, quizzes and plenty more. And don’t forget our latest blog post on five ways to keep kids learning during the holidays.


Have a happy summer!

Five ways to keep kids learning during the holidays

For years now, we’ve treated summer learning as an optional, not-so-important part of education. After all, summer is all about taking a break from school – except that a break from school often translates to a two-month break from learning important mathematics and science skills. This in itself can be bad enough, but for children from low-income families, the effects can be as long-lasting as to affect a student’s chances of being able to graduate from school and move on into higher education. Various studies going back nearly a hundred years have documented this phenomenon – known as summer slide – and the lasting consequences of the summer learning gap. So how can we keep children learning through the holidays? Summer is all about fun, and a good way to incorporate learning into the holidays is through summertime activities and play. This can involve introducing them to sources of interesting scientific facts and topical science stories that will be useful during outings to the beach, parks or even on a summer vacation. Another effective method is to give the kids ideas for some fun science activities at home. We’ve scoured far and wide to bring you five great activities that will have kids experimenting at home all summer, having plenty of laughs along the way! So whether you’re a teacher looking for inspiration for summer school, or a parent looking to keep their kids busy over summer, the following activities are a great and easy place to start!


1. Grow your own geode

Geodes are natural rock formations that have a cavity lined with crystals or other minerals. They’re typically formed in igneous rocks by cooling lava or magma – but you can encourage your children to grow their own geodes, helping them to learn how different minerals create crystals of different sizes and shapes based on saturation levels and cooling rates.


What you will need:

  • Alum powder
  • Epsom Salts
  • Borax
  • PVA glue
  • Empty, clean egg shells
  • Food colouring
  • Three cups
  • An empty egg carton


Procedure: Coat each egg shell half with glue. Sprinkle a couple of shells with Epsom Salts, a couple with Borax and a couple with alum powder. Let these dry overnight in the empty egg carton. In the morning, fill the three cups with boiling water, and add several drops of food colouring to each. Pour 250 grams of alum powder into the first cup. Add 350 grams of Borax to the second cup, and saturate the third with Epsom Salts. If necessary, adjust the quantities – it’s essential that in all three cases the mixtures are saturated. Pour each each mixture into its corresponding geode: the alum mixture should be poured into the eggshell coated with alum, the Borax mixture into the shell coated with Borax, and the Epsom Salts mixture into the shell coated with the Epsom Salts. Leave the shells to cool. Observe them after an interval of four hours and another of 10 hours, and then look again the following morning. What happens to the geodes? Do the crystals get bigger if they are left to cool longer? Which mixture causes the most beautiful crystals? See? Fun and scientific learning rolled into one. You now also have a number of beautiful paperweights!


2. Windmill garden ornaments

These beauties help kids learn how to measure the velocity and direction of the wind alongside providing you with beautiful decorations for your garden. (Midsummer’s party, anyone?) Why could it be important to measure the wind? This natural resource is a huge source of energy, and countries all over the world are using wind turbines or windmills to harness this energy. Pinwheels use the same principle as windmills or wind turbines, providing an excellent way to study how wind energy can be captured so that it can then be converted to electric energy.


What you will need (per windmill):

  • Square of coloured paper, 20cm × 20cm
  • Scissors
  • Pushpin
  • Length of thin dowelling.


Procedure: Fold the square in half diagonally, then open out before folding diagonally again perpendicular to the first fold. Open out flat. Use the scissors to cut along the folds, stopping each cut around 3cm from the centre. Pull down alternating corners to the centre of the square, taking care not to fold or crease them (if this is a little hard to visualise, check this out for some help). Hold each of the corners gently in place until you’ve pulled down all of them, then secure with the pushpin. Push the pushpin into the top of the dowelling, although leave just enough space that it allows the windmill to turn. Then, choose a windy day to take them out and ask your child to look at the the front of the pinwheel. How fast does it go? What way do they need to hold the pinwheel in order for it to spin the fastest?


3. Colour your flowers

This is a fun little activity *cough experiment cough* to get young children interested in botany by showing them how water is transported in plants.


What you will need:

  • Several white flowers (chrysanthemums or carnations work best)
  • Several different colours of food colouring.
  • Lukewarm water
  • Small vases


Procedure: Begin by cutting about a quarter from the bottom of a stem of each flower, making sure to cut at an angle. Line up the vases and fill each about halfway with lukewarm water. Ask the children to pour around four or five drops of food colouring in each vase. Alternately, you could vary the amount of one colour that you put in each vase: one drop of dye in the first vase, four in the second, eight in the third, and so on. Now place a single flower in each vase and leave them for a day. Over time, you’ll see the flowers take on the colour of the water. How did that happen? Which colour is the darkest and which is the lightest? Why is one flower a pink colour while the other a deep red when they all have red food colouring? You can also remove a flower to cut the stem halfway, showing your children how the inside of the stem is the same colour as the water. You can have a lot of fun with this experiment using different flowers – you could even split the stem of a flower vertically into two and put each half in a vase with a different colour!


4. Edible stained glass

Food science at its best! Adding food colouring to this experiment gives it that artistic touch that kids love. It does require constant adult supervision, but the results are stunning and delicious. You can find the full experiment here.

What you will need:

  • Saucepan
  • 350g granulated sugar
  • 120ml light corn syrup
  • Pinch cream of tartar
  • 240ml water
  • Food colouring (preferably in at least three different colours)
  • Cooking thermometer
  • Baking sheet or disposable baking tray
  • Nonstick cooking spray


Procedure: In the saucepan, combine the sugar, corn syrup and cream of tartar with the water and place over a very low heat. Stir constantly until the mixture is dissolved and becomes transparent. Check the temperature using the thermometer and let the mixture slowly come to the boil: for this mixture, 149°C. In the meantime, spray the baking tray with the nonstick cooking spray. When the sugar mixture comes to the boil, remove from the heat and pour the mixture very carefully into the baking tray, watching out for splatters. Allow the kids – still under supervision! – to sprinkle drops of food colouring over the mixture before spreading them in swirling patterns using a wooden spoon or butter knife. Leave the mixture to cool for a few hours. Once cool, remove the stunning glasslike sugar pane.


5. Grow a plant without a seed

Farmers and gardeners use botanical science all the time when it comes to growing fruit and vegetables. Asexual reproduction of plants is an important part of the curriculum, so why not give the kids a head start for next year while cultivating some homegrown herbs at the same time?


What you will need:

  • Old jam jars (cleaned thoroughly)
  • Shop-bought basil, mint and coriander
  • Room-temperature water


Procedure: Select a couple of healthy stalks and trim their ends. Let the children gently remove the lower leaves, but make sure to keep the top leaves intact. Half-fill each glass jar with the room-temperature water. Place the stalks in the water so that the nodes left from where you pulled the lower leaves off are submerged, but make sure the top leaves remain above the water line. Place jars in a well-lit area (although out of direct sunlight). In two weeks’ time the stalks should sprout roots and be ready to be potted up. Ask the kids if they thought that this would be possible. How did they do that without seeds?

Front View Of A Cute Boy Doing Yoga On A Bench

Five ways to help you (and your students!) remember things

The importance of formalised assessment tests in recent years has led to a competitive race between nations to get top marks. How does this affect students who are already struggling with examinations and the pressure to do well? There’s now evidence pointing to the rise in exam stress and mental problems among primary school students sitting exams.


A lot of examination stress stems from the sheer pressure to do well – and, as a result, many students experience temporary memory block during exams, where they struggle to remember what they have learnt. People also often have trouble remembering things because memory is related to concentration, which means that multitasking can actually lead to forgetfulness. With this in mind, it would hardly be surprising to learn that many teachers suffer a certain degree of forgetfulness: they deal with tremendous pressure, mounting workloads, student concerns and parental expectations, a host of administrative duties, lesson planning and preparation, and marking. Teachers are constantly juggling several things at once. While we can’t really reduce the amount we need to memorise on a day-to-day basis, we do have some control on how we choose to manage it. Here are five ways to ease the memory load and help your students to remember things too!


1. Visual learning

One study conducted by neuroscientists at MIT shows that the human brain can process entire images that the eye sees for as little as 13 milliseconds – the first evidence of such rapid processing speed. There’s also evidence that visuals are directly stored in the long-term memory, as opposed to words, which get stored in the short-term memory. This information, coupled with the fact that nearly 65% of the population are visual learners, means that integrating visuals can not only help us learn better but faster. There are several ways we can integrate visual learning, such as by using images or drawing pictures, but the easiest is through educational films. It makes a great revision tool too, as long as the visual content is in line with what you’re reading.

2. Memory tree

Here’s what we know: it’s easier to remember a lot of information when it is broken down into a number of much smaller pieces of information. It’s also easier for the brain to take in this information if it’s represented in the form of a diagram (just look at how successful Mindmaps are). Finally, building connections between existing knowledge and new knowledge helps us to learn more effectively. How can we compound this information into one great strategy to improve our memory recall? We use a memory tree! Start with the trunk: draw a basic line or two to mark out a concept, then move on to connect the branches – ideas that are linked to the main concept. Each new idea forms a new branch attached to the trunk. Eventually, as you learn more or read further, you can build on your ideas by attaching leaves to the corresponding branch.

3. Repeat, repeat, repeat

We are not fans of rote learning, nor do we recommend it. What we do believe in, however, is revision. If students learn information efficiently, a couple of revision sessions should be more than enough to retain that information for a long time. But it is important to choose the right method of revision – too often, educators are kept busy focusing on innovative teaching methods to pay much attention to revision. And if revision is a chore, students won’t do it – or worse, do it in an ineffective manner, wasting their own time. Fortunately, there are easy and fun ways to incorporate revision into the lesson that allows you to gauge how much students have learnt, and serve to reinforce concepts in students’ minds. Educational quizzes, games, classroom discussions and activities are all great examples of revision tools. You can even use educational films again to help the class revise!

4. Practical tasks

As the old Chinese proverb goes: “I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand.” Converting classroom lessons into hands-on, physical activities is a great way to learn. Educational experts call it kinesthetic learning: learning through physical activities. If your school doesn’t have a large lab to accommodate a myriad of experiments, don’t worry. There are lots of activities that can be done by a simple run around the school backyard or even local trips into the city.

5. Love what you learn

It might sound like a cliché, but we really do remember what we are truly interested in. Ever wonder why you forget phone numbers but can quote your favourite song word for word? It’s entirely down to how much it interests you. So the trick to getting your students to remember scientific facts? Get them to love science. It might not initially seem the easiest thing to do, but the rewards are well worth the effort!