Project Quantum takes off

23 March 2018

A project which promises to cut teacher workload while simultaneously raising the quality of teaching and learning has reached a major milestone, a Cambridge Assessment Network seminar has heard.

Project Quantum gives teachers and students access to a vast bank of multiple choice questions to use in teaching computing, a subject that in England is now taught to every child, at every level from primary onwards. Already nearly 8,000 questions have been uploaded to the website and app – - which the developers promise will be free to use forever.

If it proves successful, the project - which is the brainchild of computer scientist Simon Peyton Jones and teacher trainer Miles Berry - could be extended to different subjects, from maths and English through to science and history.

Professor Peyton Jones told the event that at some point most teachers want to come to an opinion about their students’ understanding – to work out what they have learned or what they might need further help with. He said the beauty of the Project Quantum question bank is that it enables teachers to set their students a handful of questions and quickly get an understanding of how their class as a whole, and each individual pupil, is doing. This was particularly useful for computing teachers, he said, because the subject is such a new addition to the National Curriculum in England. As a result, teachers don’t have as many resources to draw on or as much experience of delivering or assessing the subject – indeed, many current teachers are not subject specialists with computer science degrees.

Professor Peyton Jones hit upon the idea of Project Quantum after a discussion with Tim Oates CBE, Group Director of Assessment Research and Development at Cambridge Assessment. Tim was responsible for overhauling the National Curriculum in England – part of which was the inclusion of computing – and suggested that formative assessment could help. Professor Rob Coe from the Centre for Evaluation and Monitoring at Durham University is also closely involved in the project, which is backed by Microsoft, Google and leading UK technology company ARM Holdings.

Professor Peyton Jones said: “If a teacher has six students, you can figure out roughly how well each is doing and where they are stuck, but if you have 600 you need a more systematic way of tracking which students are understanding things and which are not. And indeed it’s useful to the students themselves - the act of answering a question is an incredibly helpful way for students to figure out whether they understand something or not.”

He explained that the majority of questions in the bank are geared towards secondary education, with fewer questions for primary school teachers and their students – but the hope is that that will change as more teachers get to know about the service and donate questions to the database.

In his part of the presentation, Mr Berry explained why the data bank uses multiple choice questions.

“For the busy, hardworking teacher these are easy to mark and easy to analyse – in fact they’re so easy, a machine can do those things. Just ask your class to hold up a white board with the answer and you as a teacher can tell at a glance what they have understood,” he said.

He also explained that the databank had a further use: teacher professional development.

“For me, working in initial teacher training [at the University of Roehampton], we think there’s a huge gain here… not only coming to understand the idea of how to assess better, but just dealing with the subject matter better – you understand the subject really well when it comes to having to write a good question. Moreover, doing this in a group of teachers is really effective”.

Project Quantum has another unique feature: it uses Rasch Analysis on the data from millions of answers, given by thousands of students to thousands of questions, to derive evidence-based metrics of both quality and difficulty for each question. This will enable teachers to pick high-quality questions at an appropriate level of difficulty for their students.

Professor Peyton Jones and Mr Berry’s talk was followed by a lively question and answer session. You can watch the whole presentation back on the Cambridge Assessment website above.

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