Theatre Lessons: a short-term fix that could become a yearly event…

A situation that left us teaching 60 students at a time in the theatre meant we had to re-think our approach to teaching but also re-consider the bridge between teaching and learning for these sessions. Furthermore, it left us wondering whether these sessions could be a successful strategy for exam preparation with cohorts to follow.

Whilst we had successfully recruited a new science teacher who could take the place of our Easter departure (who was a key player in our year 11 teaching team), we were worried that a new face might not go down too well with some of our more hard to please year 11s with only a few weeks before the exams. The decision was made to combine teaching groups and have them in a theatre with a familiar face where trust and security was already established.

Six 80 minute lessons in the theatre were timetabled for each side of the year group. We split them between biology, chemistry and physics and then chose key topics in each that we knew our students struggled with, and could do with an intensive review of. We just had the issue of how to make it work – with only one science teacher and 60 students, how could we make sure students got the most out of the sessions?

An opportunity to test run a new bridge

Assessment is the bridge between teaching and learning.

Dylan Wiliam

In the classroom, we tend to fall back on two key methods of assessment to monitor learning: questioning and live monitoring of written work. Questioning could be through verbal responses from students which obviously has its limitations or through mini-whiteboards. Monitoring written work allows us to give live and personalised feedback to students as they make sense of what has just been taught. In the theatre however, asking a question and only being able to get a verbal response from one student wasn’t going to be representative of 60 students’ knowledge or understanding. Mini-whiteboards was not going to be practical and monitoring the written work of each of the 60 students was also going to be impossible though we may be able to intervene with a few.

It was time to deploy a powerful assessment tool – the multiple choice question. I had been wanting to implement MCQs routinely into our lessons but there were other departmental priorities that we were addressing first; the theatre lessons were a great opportunity to give MCQs some limelight. MCQs were to be the hinge questions allowing us to know whether our 60 students were ready to progress through concepts but also at the end of sessions for more in-depth analysis of gaps in knowledge and understanding. Students would respond to the hinge question using ‘A/B/C/D’ cards we created for them and that would allow us to address any misunderstandings or misconceptions immediately. We then created 10 MCQs for the end of each session to be answered on response sheets and then scanned in and check the status if the students at the end of the sessions. From these, if there were questions with incorrectly answered by many, these could be addressed at the start of the next session. If only a few got them wrong, this would provide us with the opportunity to intervene with those individuals at another time, outside of the sessions. The power of this relies on well-written MCQs, something to be addressed in a future blog.

The overall session structure

Whilst each of the sessions did not follow the exact same format (we tweaked things to see how the students would respond, plus the structure sometimes depended on the nature of the content we were covering) it generally followed this structure:

  1. A quick quiz (10 recall questions). We do this at the start of all our lessons anyway, however, we had the questions printed on paper with space for their answers to take away and learn if they didn’t know them.
  2. Outline of what we will be covering.
  3. Re-visit the foundations of the topic.
  4. Hinge questions (MCQs).
  5. Advance the topic further.
  6. Hinge questions.
  7. Practice and/or application to exam questions. There was an opportunity here for live monitoring of student work with individual and personalised verbal feedback
  8. Repeat 2-7 with another concept / topic.
  9. 10 MCQs answered on answer sheets to be scanned.

Finer details on the logistics

Planning all the finer details are the teaching of the sessions was important. Making the sessions a success wasn’t just about how we were going to bridge teaching and learning, but also the logistics surrounding them:

  • The theatre was set out with exam desks. This allowed for students to be more focused and therefore positive behaviour.
  • A seating plan was established – this also allowed for a swift start to the sessions. Students that required closer monitoring were at the front.
  • All resources required were put on the desks before the session – no dead time during the session issuing resources.
  • Support from leadership* – a member of the leadership team was present for the sessions so that it wasn’t just one member of staff supervising 60, but also to be on hand to support with behaviour, if required. I believe it is important that it was a member of leadership and not any member of staff available in the school.
  • Arrangements had to be agreed with the admin team (for theatre booking and support with setting up before sessions), the site team (for setting up), the exams team (to work around use of the theatre for exams) and leadership team (for supervision and general support).

*I had one session where the senior leader was the ‘student representative’ – they asked questions from a non-specialist’s point of view to help clarify explanations where I may have made assumptions and therefore develop a more secure understanding among the students.

The final verdict

Whilst the sessions were put in place as a quick fix due to staff changes in the department, it was agreed that they had been successful and could have a purpose beyond the quick fix. It allowed for intensive a focused preparation towards exams with a mix of knowledge development, practice and exam technique. It is now being considered as a strategy by other subject areas.

As for the MCQs – I’m even more eager to get writing a bank of strong questions to be implemented as hinge questions in lessons and in progress assessments – they are likely to find themselves appearing on here in the coming months…

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