Using Weighted Hinge Questions (WHQs) to Assess Students’ Causal Understanding

Introduction

Assessment in Singapore’s history classrooms has long reflected our teachers’ enduring focus on preparing students to meet examination requirements. The most common assessment practices revolve around assessing students’ proficiency in handling source-based case study questions and in using writing frames to answer essay questions asked in national examinations. Furthermore, many of these assessment tasks are typically assigned at the end of each topic or theme in the syllabus. There are, however, significant drawbacks to this assessment approach. First, this approach frequently offers delayed quantitative and qualitative descriptions of learner performance, thus preventing teachers from tracking their students’ learning during the instructional process and adjusting their pedagogical strategies accordingly to address students’ learning needs. Closing learning gaps only after analyzing students’ responses to these assessment tasks would likely require teachers to allocate a significant amount of time to revisit the topic, which may not always be possible within limited curriculum time. Second, such assessment tasks are oftentimes tedious to mark, and the resultant feedback may not accurately identify areas for improvement, especially with regard to the student’s apparent overlapping weaknesses. For instance, an inadequate Structured Essay Question (SEQ) response may be the result of several entrenched weaknesses, such as a lack of familiarity with the historical context, an inability to see relevance between content knowledge and the question requirements, or a specific linguistic difficulty in expressing relevant ideas. When faced with necessary and urgent feedback on numerous aspects of their responses, many history students (especially lower progress ones) are likely to be overwhelmed and demoralized.

To be sure, these assessment challenges are not unique to Singapore: Wineburg (2018) noted that in America, “assessment was history education’s weakest link”, as it “suffered from a poverty of imagination” (pp. 131-132). Any serious considerations towards improving assessment in Singapore’s history classrooms must begin with certain core beliefs we hold regarding assessment as encapsulated in the Singapore Curriculum Philosophy (SCP). The SCP states that assessment designed with “clarity of purpose” is “integral to the learning process” – that is, teachers must first decide “what” and “how” to assess and then use appropriate assessment tools that gather timely, relevant and specific information to “address learning gaps and improve teaching practices” (Ministry of Education, Singapore, 2017). Applying these guiding principles to the enactment of Singapore’s history syllabus and the associated teaching actions, we believe that assessment practices should offer students the opportunity to receive useful and targeted feedback that would help them build better understandings in history. In addressing potential learning gaps and the expectations of what students should have learnt at the respective age levels, it is imperative for teachers to consider developing students’ thinking in history and to assess their ability to make sense of historical knowledge.

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An Inspiring Quote

"[Open-mindedness] includes an active desire to listen to more sides than one; to give heed to facts from whatever source they come; to give full attention to alternative possibilities; to recognize the possibility of error even in the beliefs that are dearest to us."

~ John Dewey, How We Think

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