Sunday, 3 August 2014

A better form of assessment - with a little help from ICT

In an earlier post, I outlined how podcasting tools can be used to extend student speaking practice opportunities beyond the confines of the physical classroom. Much the same can also be said of MyBrainshark and Present.Me.

However, earlier this year I was still a bit concerned about the potential overhead of teachers having continuously to respond to content posted online by eager students. However, as I'm a bit better informed now I realize there's a way round this that not only promotes regular formative assessment (a good thing) but also involves students in the assessment process, thereby promoting learner autonomy.

As Russell Stannard has several good things to say on this subject, I'll be referencing his work a number of times in this post.

Assessment: views past and present
As Stannard (2014) points out, the assessment process of yesteryear was somewhat narrow in its conceptualization, and designed with a relatively narrow range of stakeholders (school, the learner, employers) in mind. Tests might focus on discrete language items and principally reading and writing skills. Other than taking the tests, learners would have no input.

Nowadays, however, we might be said to have a much broader notion of what language learning is (one centring on communicative competence), and likewise a much broader conceptualization of who the stakeholders are. Learner autonomy is now deemed desirable - and assessment is increasingly viewed as something that can profitably occur before, during and after teaching and learning (Stoynoff 2012, cited by Stannard 2014:8).

The implications for assessment
The assessments we create - both formal and informal - should reflect what we now believe we know about language learning, Stannard argues. We need to be aware of the wider implications of any assessments we set - such as the wash back effect (Podromou 1995, cited by Stannard 2014:8) - and may even want to involve students in the process of assessment, thereby supporting learner autonomy and motivation.

So how can teachers implement this?
It is with this in mind that Stannard recommends an e-Portfolio approach towards assessment, with learners regularly creating content and posting it on a VLE platform and/or blog. In the case of speaking assignments, this means regularly recording podcasts (or presentations) both individually and in collaboration with classmates as a form of homework.

This does not mean that teachers need be inundated with marking, however: if learners are given task assessment criteria they can evaluate both their own performance and that of peers. Besides being asked to record themselves performing a task previously introduced during class, the participants can also be required to reflect on their performance and, equipped with a rubric, post evaluative comments to accompany the recordings.

Teachers can intervene at intervals (checkpoints, perhaps) and invite students to submit a selection of their favourite contributions for assessment at the end of the course. Stannard is also quick to point out that similar things might be done with online writing using blogs, should the occasion suggest it.

What are the benefits of doing things this way?
The benefits to learners are potentially significant. Learners get to evaluate their own work and that of peers with the support of clear criteria: a critically aware learner is likely to improve their performance. Plus learners become much more autonomous, taking responsibility for their own learning.

And the benefits of this to teachers are clear. If learners become more autonomous and self-directed, and if assessment of speaking need no longer occur in class time, significant class time has been saved and no learners' time is wasted! This is mightily important.

What about the platform? Does it depend on what one's institution provides?
Some VLEs or e-Portfolio tools licensed to institutions may already support this approach; however, if not Google Classroom is a free, cloud-based solution that both supports an e-Portfolio implementation. So nothing is standing in teachers' way!

All in all, I think Stannard is onto something important here. As educators we are likely to want learners to become more autonomous and develop a sense of agency in relation to their language learning; as language teachers we are also likely to have a keen interest in reducing the impact of speaking tests on class time. By inviting learners themselves to take responsibility, we can achieve two aims at once. I am certain interested in giving this approach a go when I return to teaching this coming September.

Stannard, R. & Basiel, A. (2013). A practice-based exploration of technology-enhanced assessment for English language teaching. In: Motteram, G. (2013). Innovations in learning technologies for English language teaching. Chapter 6, pp. 145-174.

Stannard, R. (2014). From blogs to e-portfolios: new ways of assessing students. Presentation given at Exeter College, Oxford on 28 July 2014. Retrieved from

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