Using On-line Assessments and Activities to Foster Independent Learning and Improve Teaching

Chesterfield College

This project explored using to assess students’ maths skills, set assessments and homework tasks.

You can download a PDF of this report on the Excellence Gateway.


Chesterfield College is a further education college in Chesterfield, North Derbyshire. The aim of the project, which involved the whole maths department was to see if online assessment and activities could improve our lesson planning, foster independent learning and improve learner progression.


In an FE environment, teaching GCSE resit is difficult. Time is limited and for most learners, much of the content is being re-taught. It is important that time is used efficiently by identifying what students do and don’t know and adapting accordingly. We hoped that an online maths self-assessment tool – Dr Frost Maths (DFM) – would help us to achieve this aim.

Wiliam (2016) states

‘When students are the owners of their own learning all other strategies fall into place. Students play a part in deciding what they will learn, so classroom questions are designed not to ‘catch them out’ but diagnose and support what needs to happen next’.

We hoped that using DFM as an assessment tool would aid learners in owning their learning and encourage them to be more independent.


For some-time there had been departmental discussion about using online resources to encourage our learners to do more independent-study and to help us identify the ‘gaps’. Example of learner A’s work

We discussed various subscription websites such as MyMaths and Mathswatch but decided on DFM. It was free and could do the same things: assess; track learners’ progression; videos; past exam questions; and paper resources. The department attended an on-line training with DFM.

Because we had no experience with DFM colleagues were given freedom to implement it as they wished. We hoped this would mean everyone in the department would contribute to the project. I decided to use DFM more heavily with my learners on the Kickstart programme. This is a course with no vocational element designed to reintegrate learners into education. Colleagues used it with: GCSE, Functional Skills learners, A-Level and adult learners.

After exploring the use of DFM for a number of weeks in our individual classrooms and online environments, we decided to create an online formative assessment for our learners. With learners and members of staff isolating in October 2020, we thought this was perfect opportunity to try out an online assessment

We saw the benefit of feedback grids (figure one below) which made it very easy to identify which topics a class was weaker on, and plan feedback lessons accordingly.

We then moved on to experimenting with using DFM in lessons.

I created some diagnostic questions that covered most of the foundation skills for that topic. Learners completed the questions online and the feedback grids populated instantly. I could see how questions were being answered

Figure 1: Feedback grids

Figure 1: Feedback grids

live and was able to pause a class to model answers using the on-line whiteboard or direct individuals there while others continued answering questions.

We then focused on monitoring and encouraging engagement.

January 2021 lockdown meant all teaching was moved online. DFM exercises proved an excellent way to check if learners were engaged as you could see if they were answering questions. You could then direct learners to the DFM whiteboard to model answers whilst not disrupting the PowerPoint presentation on Microsoft Teams.

Part of our aim of using online assessment was to try and promote independent learning. A major advantage of DFM was that every question answered was put into a bank attached to the learner by topic. It was easy for staff to identify learners’ gaps in knowledge.

The next step was to empower learners to identify their own gaps so that they could engage in directed self-study. I made a video to help learners identify their weaker topics based on all the questions they had answered so far. I then encouraged my learners to work on those topics by watching videos on DFM and completing the relevant topic tests during February half term.

To further encourage self-study we decided to recognise the work learners were doing on DFM for our Kickstart learners in their monthly Kickstart awards ceremony.

Professional Learning: Evidence of changes in teaching, learning and assessment practices

Example of learner A’s knowledge gaps

Example of learner A’s knowledge gaps

Online assessment has given us the capacity to mix online work and class work. Learners in the classroom can use their devices or college computers to complete online tasks in college as well as at home. This is useful for working on individual targets and targeted extension activities in a lesson. We are currently in the process of buying tablets to help facilitate this, should learners not have appropriate devices.

There were other projects looking at gap analysis; we collaborated and discussed how we analyse gaps and encourage learners to self-study. These discussions are still continuing as we work in an FE environment with so little data on our learners when they arrive. Working to learners’ gaps is the most effective way for learners to progress and is more valuable than implementing a ‘conveyor belt’ curriculum.

I identified the questions that the majority of learners answered incorrectly within an assessment, which is done with the click of a button on DFM, and used them as starters.

Evidence of improved collaboration and changes in organisation practices

Over the course of the year members of staff have been implementing DFM in new and exciting ways; it is far more than just an assessment tool. It has been rewarding to chat with colleagues about what they have been doing and learning new things from each other. For example, I had mainly used the bank of GCSE questions with my learners, but some colleagues have explored the key skills platform for lower-level learners and functional skills learners. Others created their own worksheets or diagnostic questions using the GCSE bank. The DFM whiteboard was used a lot by colleagues too.

DFM also has a shared area where worksheets created by teachers can be accessed by anyone in the organisation. This has led to members of staff sharing and using each other’s worksheets which has cut down on workload.

One of the successes of this project has been staff participation. Every member of the maths department has used DFM in some way. I believe this is due to members of staff being able to implement as they wished. We have had many discussions in departmental meetings about on line learning and shared experiences. This has led to colleagues learning from each other and trying new things.

A lot of discussions happened informally too. Colleagues would ask each other how do something if they did not know and often figure out new things together.
It was important to keep lines of communication open during homeworking and we used Microsoft Teams to do this. The chat feature was a great way for colleagues to quickly ask questions about how to do something on DFM and receive a quick response. The channels feature allowed us to create troubleshooting threads about DFM and collect any information about glitches. We all saw the benefits of using DFM in an FE environment. I believe the site’s ability to cut workload and allow us to use our time more effectively was another reason for staff participation being so high.

Evidence of improvement in learners’ achievements, retention and progression

“I have never revised for a maths exam before now”.

Many of my Kickstart learners have described a change in how they revise with some learners revising for the first time.

After returning to college in March I stopped on-line learning in class and encouraged learners to use DFM to identify gaps and for self-study. During a class discussion over Teams (Appendix 4) with Kickstart learners it was clear the learners saw value in knowing the names of topics they were weaker on and being able to set targets. Knowing the name of the topic meant that the gap and progress tables made sense to them and they could do internet searches for help if they didn’t like DFM videos. This has promoted more independent learning.

Engagement on DFM has varied over the year for Kickstart learners due to trying out different approaches and learners finding out which methods of self-study they preferred. Kickstart learners have often had poor educational experiences consequently have negative attitudes towards mathematics and academic learning. They are often difficult to motivate and rarely work outside the class. The fact that they were evaluating how useful DFM was for them and experimenting with other platforms indicates an increasing confidence and independence.

Some learners showed an increased activity in March and April when revising for assessments but others have decreased activity on DFM, but this may have been because some of them had found sites that they liked more.

Learning from this project

  • We have found that it is really productive to have the whole department being involved with the project and having freedom to experiment and do things in their own way. This has led to colleagues finding out new things independently which promoted productive departmental discussions about further implementation.
  • The data collected by DFM on each learner and for whole classes enables us to know far more about them. In turn we are able to; plan for class/individual feedback, set detailed targets for learners to improve, and adapt schemes of work. This information can also be accessed by catch up or intervention colleagues for effective small group corrective teaching.
  • Learners can be empowered to identify their own gaps and use DFM videos to revise and then practice the skills they need. They can see their progress within each topic as they improve. The new ‘courses’ feature allows learners to find topics and skills covered in lessons easily.
  • Learners are encouraged and supported by targeted feedback on DFM. Automated marking allows more time to do this and concentrate on adapting lessons and schemes of work to suit a class.
  • Reward and recognition is a motivator to use DFM. Leader boards make it easy to identify the number of points and questions answered per learner. This can be displayed in your institution. The home page lets you know the activity of your learners so it is simple to spot when learners are doing independent practice and praise them.
  • Some learners can be disadvantaged using DFM if they are using an old device, mainly when showing working out. This can be remedied by making working out optional when setting a task and allowing learners to hand in written working.
  • For equal access, DFM allows paper-based versions of online worksheets to be printed easily.
  • The already motivated seem to have benefitted most from DFM. Our challenge is to show all learners the benefits, help them be more independent and to take charge of their learning.