A Pocketful of Proxies

Measuring progress within a course.
Measuring progress within a course.

Progress is in the air. If we could measure progress before it was too late, we could be far clearer about what works in the classroom. I’ve been reading (again) Daniel T WIllingham’s book Why Children Don’t Like Schools: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Why-Dont-Students-Like-School/dp/047059196X which has a great final chapter on improving teaching. He describes how difficult it is to measure the effects different teaching strategies have. Daisy Christodoulou’s summary of the recent Sutton Trust review on teaching:  https://thewingtoheaven.wordpress.com/2014/10/31/new-report-by-the-sutton-trust-what-makes-great-teaching/ also refers to the importance of proxies for measuring progress.

So I thought I could start the ball rolling with my proxies for progress.

KIRF Quizes

KIRFs (Key instant recall facts) are the facts that make comprehension possible. If they come rapidly to mind, your learners will perform well in an exam. I split the KIRF quizz progress proxy into short term and long term recall. Short term can be at the end of a lesson, the start of the next lesson, the end of the week etc. It only tests the KIRFs covered in that period. The long-term KIRFs are a mixture of everything covered so far. How often you assess these will depend on your subject, but fortnightly/monthly seems reasonable.

Reading Comprehension

In August, I wrote a blog about assessing reading comprehension (what part don’t you get?) Reading comprehension is well correlated to exam performance, so an improvement of reading comprehension should be a good proxy for progress.  The reading assessment I adapted was designed to be diagnostic. If used several times across a year it will show development across skills affecting a reader’s ability to interpret texts. The teacher can explicitly teach any of these skills and check for progress.

Past Paper Questions

Surely the gold standard of showing progress is performance in past papers? Well, I would have thought so too, but experience suggests they are not perfect predictors. Given how time consuming mock tests are both in terms of marking and then, just when you have no time or energy left, for gaps analysis, I suggest using selected past paper questions more frequently as a more useful proxy. They show immediate progress within a lesson and careful selection of questions can also demonstrate progress over time if students are able to answer questions months after studying a topic.

Written Explanations

Writing is a great way to record understanding. Unlike a conversation, it is permanent and can be examined in detail. The difficulty is showing progress when two writing topics are different; the quality of writing can be compared (effective use of vocabulary, structure and connectives such as ‘therefore’ and ‘because’), but comparing the understanding of two separate topics, for example food webs and terminal velocity is not straightforward. However, if you are happy to repeat the same written task several times over the duration of the course, or a very similar task, progress can easily be monitored. For example, there is a common GCSE physics question on terminal velocity. Spreading these written tasks out over the course will give a clear indicator of the progress in understanding.

In summary, measuring progress demands a little bit of planning: you need to show before and after. Quick tests show whether your students have really learnt what you believe they have and spaced tests show whether they have retained it. Quizzes are great for key recall facts, but other assessments are useful for understanding. All of these proxies are achievable, but might not be relevant for your class or subject. This blog is intended to give a few ideas. Measuring progress might be the silver bullet we need to improve the quality of teaching and learning. It’s worth a try.



  1. Although is is hard to compare writing on two different topics it is possible to compare writing in the same genre at two different times. So if you set pupils a task of writing a causal explanation of a phenomenon say…then when you teach the next topic also ask them to write a causal explanation and show them some good models and identify the key features and ask them to rehearse by talking in ‘scientific sentences’ …and see if they can write a better one next time.


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