Assessment at the expense of learning

‘If it’s not being assessed, is it being taught?’ asks respected science educator Azra Moeed.

Associate Professor, Azra Mooed

Since moving to New Zealand from India in 1975, Associate Professor Azra Moeed has become one of the country’s most experienced and respected science educators.

She has taught science at every level, from early childhood to tertiary, and in 2016 was awarded the prestigious national Tertiary Teaching Excellence Award administered by Ako Aotearoa.

Associate Professor Moeed teaches in Victoria University of Wellington’s School of Education and says she has never lost her connection with the classroom.

“I do my research in the classroom because I love the classroom,” she says.

“From research to policy and policy to practice is a long road. But if you go into a classroom and support teachers, then you’ll get results for the children.”

Research is about capacity building, believes Associate Professor Moeed. “Research is not just about you. You have to take people with you. There is some very good teaching in New Zealand and for me the purpose of educational research is to improve teaching and also learning. I’m a teacher and I want all kids to learn.”

Associate Professor Moeed joined Victoria University of Wellington from the Wellington College of Education in 2005. She was working at the University when she embarked on her PhD, which studied the phenomenon of science investigation and explored the connections between the motivation to learn, learning and assessment.

Her research revealed teaching in New Zealand is often driven by preparing students for assessment rather than teaching them the full curriculum.

“Assessment is fine, but you have to learn first. Anecdotal evidence suggests that if it’s not being assessed students feel they don’t need to learn it. If it’s not being assessed, is it being taught?”

She says research is needed on the impact of assessment on teaching and learning. “In the past, you learned for the whole year and then before the exams the teacher gave you last year’s exam papers. So only part of the year was based on preparing for assessments.”

Associate Professor Moeed has presented her PhD research at international conferences in the United States, the United Kingdom and Hong Kong.

In 2014, she and university colleagues Dr Dayle Anderson, Dr Craig Rofe and Rex Bartholomew received a two-year $200,000 Teaching and Learning Research Initiative grant for their study Beyond Play: Learning through Science Investigation.

The project saw Associate Professor Moeed and her colleagues returning to the classroom to investigate what children in primary, intermediate, secondary and wharekura (Māori immersion secondary) schools learn from practical work in science.

They found students were best able to learn from practical work when teachers had fewer specific learning outcomes they wanted to achieve and when they shared with the students at the start of the lessons what they wanted them to learn.

“Some people say children don’t learn from practical work and it’s a waste of time, but that is mostly because it is ill conceived. We found if teachers focus on the things they want students to learn they do learn,” says Associate Professor Moeed.

The project has been an exceptionally rich source of research material: its outputs will include journal papers, presentations and a book.

Associate Professor Moeed’s other recent research projects include studies exploring the connections visitors to Wellington’s Zealandia wildlife sanctuary make to wider socio-scientific issues; what students in wharekura schools learn about science; and how our most able student teachers address the needs of their high-ability students.

Teaching is Associate Professor Moeed’s passion and she says her students always come first.

She was once asked why she put tea and coffee out for students. The question made her think back to her own time as a student teacher, when she was one of just 70 students from more than 7,000 applicants to be accepted on to a Bachelor of Education course back in her home town of Lucknow.

“I said, ‘Imagine getting up at 5.30am to prepare food for the family, then getting on an overcrowded bus, then teaching in the morning, then walking 40 minutes to university, then getting the bus home, and you’ve had no money all day for a cup of tea. I’ve been there,’” she says.

“We can blame whoever we like but if we can support just one student to succeed, why wouldn’t we?”