The PISA 2012 study (Programme for International Student Assessment) indicated that almost 17% of 15-year olds in Ireland are low-achievers in mathematics and 11% of this group are low-achievers in science, while thousands more are struggling.

“That's just not acceptable,” says Majella Dempsey, lecturer in the Department of Education at Maynooth University, and course leader for the Bachelor of Science Education and the Bachelor of Mathematics Education programmes.

Now, as part of a €1.9m EU-funded project, Dempsey and other researchers at Maynooth University have teamed up with academics from eight other countries to investigative how standards in maths and science can be improved.

FaSMEd – Improving Progress through Formative Assessment in Science and Maths Education – is developing tools that allow teachers to keep track of how their students are learning, rather than focusing exclusively on “summative assessments” such as school and state examinations.

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“Across member states of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, there's a concern about young people's participation in science, maths, engineering and technology subjects,” says Dempsey, who is leading the Irish arm of this project.

“We have to put our hands up here and admit that we have a problem. There have been improvements in recent years, particularly with the introduction of Project Maths, but too many students continue to disengage with maths and science subjects at second level. FaSMEd – a project focusing on the use of technology in formative assessment in classrooms – will allow teachers to respond to the ongoing learning needs of maths and science students.”

FaSMEd is being led by a team at Newcastle University, with research teams in Ireland, France, Germany, Italy, The Netherlands, Norway and South Africa. In Ireland, the Project Administrator, full time Research Masters student Niamh Burke, is working closely with three post-primary schools to implement and test new ideas that aim to improve how students learn.

We are designing and using teaching and learning activities  for science and maths teachers to support the development of best practice” explains Burke. “The first of these will allow teachers build on their prior knowledge with their students and to offer feedback. We are using videos and mobile technology and we are providing professional development sessions with the teachers.” It is hoped to build these into a tool kit for all teachers to use.

Burke and Dempsey are joined by two other Maynooth University lecturers  on the project namely, Angela Rickard as the technology lead and Dr. Ann O'Shea, as the maths specialist.

As part of the FaSMeD project the research team and participating teachers are using an online platform for communication and resource sharing called 'Schoology'. This provides an interface where students can upload assignments, teachers can give them feedback, and where the team and the participating teachers can communicate about their teaching.

“Progress is tracked over time,” says Dempsey. “It's not about summative assessment – a single exam, one point in time on a student's learning curve – and it is certainly not about rote learning. Instead, we are looking at formative assessment, where teachers can modify how they teach and make informed decisions about what learning activities best support how their students’ learning. Formative assessment is not about testing students; it's about an approach to learning. Indeed, there is a large body of research which suggests that formative assessment enables the development of the communicative, critical thinking and interpersonal skills that students will need throughout life.”

Burke has already conducted a series of interviews with teachers exploring their classroom practice and their views on assessment. “They know what formative assessment is, but they want to be sure that they are doing it effectively when they are teaching in class. Are they implementing it successfully? Are they and their students engaged with it? Are both students and teachers using it?”

Formative assessment isn't just about teachers reviewing their students’ work and giving feedback; students have to be involved in the process, and for example students in the three pilot schools engage in peer assessment and self-assessment of their learning. This is a key aspect of the development of critical thinking skills.

“It's a far cry from a more traditional teaching model,” says Dempsey. “If a student didn't understand something, such as fractions, the teacher would often simply re-teach it. But that student might never understand fractions when taught that way. The FaSMEd activities set up an assessment at the start that clearly identifies, from the student's answer, what her or his misconceptions or difficulties are. With these assessment loops built in, teachers then know how to adapt. It is a move away from a traditional drill and practice teaching technique; teachers are now being asked to teach conceptually and students have to really think about what they are learning.”

“In a class of around 24 students, there may be about three or four big misconceptions about a particular concept”, says Dempsey. “The activities allow a teacher to see what those misconceptions are, while the 'Schoology' platform enables them to offer targeted feedback on an issue that is posing difficulty in the class. This is effective in terms of the teacher’s time as it allows for common misunderstandings to be addressed and frees up more time for the teacher to give individual feedback when this is needed.”

On a broader level, societal attitudes to maths and science must change. “It is still seen as acceptable to tell someone you are useless at maths or science, whereas that would never be said about English. The idea that someone has a ‘maths brain’ or a ‘languages brain’ is, frankly, nonsense. It is all about how it is taught.”

The project is still at an early stage of development. Due to the peculiarities of the Irish school year, the Irish team began their research a few months ahead of their international colleagues. There's another year and a half to go before the three-year FaSMEd project wraps up in December 2016, at this point, it's difficult to predict results.

“But we know that if it can work in these schools, that it also has the potential to be up-scaled,” says Dempsey. “We hope that the participating schools will learn from one another. Each country involved in the research will develop case studies around formative assessment in science and maths, showcasing the measures and processes that have particularly effective results. There are also learnings from this second-level research which will be relevant to primary education, where the maths syllabus is currently under review.”

It is a significant research milestone for Maynooth University, which is the only university in Ireland to offer the full suite of initial teacher education from preschool to adult and community levels. “This research will significantly inform our work in teacher education here at Maynooth, and I know that it will change how we educate our teachers in Ireland,” says Dempsey.

More research projects here.