Pupils don’t know what is expected of them

May 20, 2016 - 06:20

Ninth-graders are terribly worried about having their school performance assessed. But according to a recent doctoral thesis, the kids don’t understand how evaluations are made and what they could possibly do to improve their standings.

Pupils struggle with a complicated bureaucratic language and fail to grasp the expectations that their educational system is making. (Photo: Maskot, NTB/scanpix)

Jennie Sivenbring, who recently earned her PhD at the University of Gothenburg, was surprised by the findings she made in her doctoral dissertation research – particularly how uncomfortable pupils were about being assessed.

“I presumed that the frequent exams and tests they took would be important to the pupils.”

“But I was really surprised to see that in principle the assessments of their school performance impacted everything they thought about and did at school,” says Sivenbring to ScienceNordic’s Swedish partner forskning.se.

Pupils don’t understand demands

Another discovery she made in her study involving 28 pupils at three different schools was that these kids in their final year of compulsory education have real problems fathoming the language their schools use for setting educational goals.

The complicated lingo used by bureaucrats in the school system prevents kids from understanding the educational demands they are subjected to.

As pupils are in the dark about the assessment criteria they face, they try to find success strategies that do not necessarily mean learning more their schools’ curriculums.

They make use of whatever opportunities they can find which lead to optimal evaluations from teachers and the school. Sivenbring reports that one of these is simply to behave as nicely as they can.

Many pupils understand the seriousness

Swedish and other Nordic schools have, in the past couple of decades, started testing and grading pupils at an earlier age and more frequently. One of the notions behind this change is the idea that quantifiable results create more competition and clearer goals for teachers and pupils.

But Jennie Sivenbring says education researchers have been surprisingly little concerned about how pupils understand and tackle all the assessments they now encounter at school.

She also found that many of the pupils took these assessments at school very seriously.

Of course this is because the pupils know that the grades they get in the last year of junior high can decide which high schools they get accepted in as well as which courses they can take. So these grades will impact the rest of their lives.

Many pupils are immediately aware of this. But others don’t really clue into this harsh reality until later, asserts Sivenbring.

Too technical and bureaucratic

One part of the problem is that many pupils fail to understand the school system’s special bureaucratic terminology.

The pupils told the researcher that they wanted to understand what their teachers were trying to communicate to them. But the curricular goals and demands were cloaked in such an alien technical and bureaucratic jargon that they didn’t clearly see what these objectives were. 

“When the adolescents don’t understand what is expected of them on a daily basis because of unfathomable educational goals, the kids attempt to tap other resources. They try to be pleasant, pliant and appear to be model pupils,” says Sivenbring.

They become more disciplined and normalized in their behaviour.

Playing roles

The pupils see this as playing a game. It’s a game where their future lives and careers can balance on playing their cards as best they can.

The researcher’s advice to schools and educators is to make a greater effort at getting information across to the teenagers about what is expected of them at school. They should ensure that the kids really get the point.

The should be asking themselves: “What are the goals? What am I expected to achieve? How can I achieve such objectives?”

“The answers to these questions are what the teenagers are looking for,” says Jennie Sivenbring.

What’s a PowerPoint added value?

A recent blog by a Norwegian high school pupil illustrates the kinds of stumbling blocks that education department bureaucrats can strew along the path. When Arild Julius was about to take his final oral exam in Norwegian he was given a three-page document from Vestfold County school authorities. It was confusing.

Amongst other things it stated that the pupils could not bring any written manuscripts with them to the oral exam, at most a little note with a few key words and perhaps a USB stick with a PowerPoint slideshow of some images. Fair enough, but then it went on to describe the minimal of what kids had to do avoid a low grade. They had to demonstrate the ability to speak extemporaneously and free themselves from manuscripts (the ones which they couldn’t have with them anyway).

It also said to get a high grade the PowerPoint presentation in the oral Norwegian exam had to provide “merverdi”, which is Norwegian for added value. How was this Marxist concept of profit-making supposed to be applied by a high school senior to a slideshow that enhanced his responses to his examiners?

“ … the school is full of such almost impenetrable language, which might sound clear and precise for those who are attuned to it, but which is utterly nonsense for your average school kid? Everyone loses as a result,” he wrote in his blog. 

Learning little from grades and controls

In a Norwegian doctoral dissertation study covered by ScienceNordic’s Norwegian partner forskning.no in 2014, it was concluded that pupils in junior high school learn most from feedback given to them as they go along, not by grades or comments received after a paper or test is handed in.

Grades, points and controls give pupils little to draw advantage of later. The dialogue between the pupil and the teacher or between pupils themselves is found to be more useful.

What do all the controls do with school?

A current article in the Norwegian website Utdanningsforskning.no looks at the debate raging in Norway about all the assessments now being made in Norwegian schools.

One of the clearest developments in Norwegian schools in the 21st century is the enormous spike in control systems and standardised evaluations. Teachers are being made much more responsible for their pupils’ performances. As in other countries, this tends to make teachers spend more time preparing their classes for nation-wide or multinational tests.

Critics point out that getting primed to take such tests successfully does not necessarily reflect real learning. School rankings, salaries and promotions can also hinge on such assessments.

Emphasis in the classroom on such tests can detract from the more creative sides of educating which make school interesting for teachers and pupils or students.

The article also points out that many teachers regard such national tests act as important confirmations of whether they are doing what’s right for the pupils.

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Translated by
Glenn Ostling