Number one for English language teachers

Assessment matters: Assessing young learners

Type: Article, Reference material

Adrian Tennant looks at how young learners feel about assessment; marks, grades and comments; ongoing assessment; self-assessment; and the general benefits of assessment for this age group.

How do young learners feel about assessment?

The answer to this question frequently depends on their initial experiences of assessment. If they have had bad experiences where assessment concentrated on what they can’t do, has been critical, or has simply been test after test, then the chances are that young learners will have an incredibly negative attitude towards assessment and will see it as ‘checking up’. However, if assessment has been carried out in a supportive and non-threatening way then young learners (like any other learners) often have a fairly positive approach to it.

But how can assessment be non-threatening? There are a number of ways this can be accomplished. Firstly, by making clear what is being assessed and why; secondly, making sure that assessment is not only about the marks or grades but can be used to show progress and help with future learning; and thirdly, by using a variety of assessment methods including project work, group assessment, peer assessment and self-assessment.

Marks, grades and comments

An important aspect of assessment, especially when it comes to young learners, is the way in which their work is marked or graded and, in particular, the type of comments and how they are delivered. Teachers may well feel that giving a mark such as 9/10 or a grade B- is part and parcel of assessing any piece of work, whether it be a test, a piece of homework or a project. However, it is such marking that can prove to be the first reason that many young learners feel negatively towards assessment. Even comments such as ‘Well done!’ or symbols such as ü, û, J can in fact have the opposite effect to the one the teacher expects.

One reason for this is that marks and grades become the focus of the assessment, rather than just a part of it. To put this into practice, hand out work to your students and observe where their eyes go. They don’t read through the whole of the work; they immediately look towards the mark, grade or final comment. Quite clearly, for many young learners, this is what they perceive as being the most important thing. Even comments or symbols are seen in the same way, with a ‘Good’ being less welcome than a ‘Well done!’

Although we do need to give marks and grades, it is not necessary to give them for every piece of work, nor should it only be the teacher that gives the mark or grade. Sometimes it is worth giving back a piece of work that has no final mark or grade and asking the students to read through the comments and either redo the work in light of the comments, make note of the comments for future pieces or give themselves a grade based on the comments (more about self-assessment later).

Ongoing assessment (feedback)

Ongoing assessment (often referred to as formative assessment) is actually something that both the teacher and student do anyway. Teachers are always assessing their students, even if it’s not done as part of a formal system. They look at particular students and note things such as ‘Claire can do X’, ‘Sam found Y difficult’, ‘Mark isn’t very good at …’, etc. This, for all intents and purposes, is a form of ongoing assessment. Students also go through a similar process, i.e. ‘I can …’; ‘I found … difficult’; ‘I don’t understand …’, etc.

This type of assessment is not only natural, but can also be extremely beneficial for all involved. Making it more structured can be useful, and formalizing it does not necessarily reinforce the negative connotations associated with assessment. Instigating student reflection diaries in which they record their personal thoughts about their progress and performance is a positive step. These can be kept private but used as the basis for self-assessment by the students.

Self-assessment for young learners

Young learners are quite capable of assessing their own performance and their own work. They are no more or less likely to be overgenerous or overcritical than any other student, and both extremes are things that need to be expected and managed when they arise. Below are a few of the advantages and disadvantages of self-assessment:

Advantages

  • The development of learner autonomy
  • A clearer understanding of what is expected in terms of each piece of work
  • Students are more likely learning from their own mistakes
  • A positive view of assessment as being part of the learning process

Disadvantages

  • Over- or under- marking
  • Potential for a lack of guidance in what is needed to improve (abdication of a teacher’s responsibility)
  • Students not having enough information or experience to accurately assess themselves

In reality, the disadvantages can be overcome and do not really need to be obstacles to effective self-assessment.

The first can be overcome by both the teacher and student independently grading the work and then holding a discussion. As long as the teacher doesn’t insist that their mark is the right one, trust can be built up and students can learn to be more realistic when marking their own work.

The second can easily be overcome by the teacher giving clear guidance / criteria before the piece of work is done and not just after it has been completed. It is always useful for students to know the assessment criteria, regardless of whether the piece of work is to be self-assessed or marked by the teacher.

The third point is overcome by clear guidance and practice. The more opportunities the students have to assess themselves, the better they will become at doing it.

Assessing speaking, reading, etc

Up until now, we have mainly focused on assessing the written element of a student’s work. However, there are plenty of times when we will want to assess the other skills such as reading, speaking and listening. In the case of very young learners (VYL) it may well be that they are unable to write, even in their first language, and therefore any assessment that does take place has to be on the other skills.

Many of the points already mentioned in this article apply regardless of which skill is being assessed. For example, if we are assessing the students speaking we might well make verbal comments such as ‘Well done! That’s good’, etc. Just as with written comments, we need to realise that these can be construed as grades, so any comments we might make need to be delivered with great care. Also, it is useful to share the criteria we will use with the students before we start the task. This is no different whether we are assessing a piece of writing or a student’s ability to read a page from a story book.

For more on assessing skills please refer to the following articles: Assessing skills (in this series) and Assessing speaking (in the Speaking matters series of articles).

Benefits of assessment for young learners

Assessment can have many benefits that have a direct impact on the teaching. Firstly, the teacher can become more aware of areas that are causing problems for the students and then concentrate on them; secondly, the teacher can adjust their teaching to suit the needs and learning styles of the students; thirdly, the teacher will have a better understanding of what can be achieved in a class from the results of any assessment carried out.

Assessment, especially where marks are given, can also be seen as competitive in nature, i.e. ‘I got better than X; I got a higher mark than I got last time.’ For some students this might be a negative aspect of assessment, but for others it might well be what makes them want to improve, so it is important that we don’t just dismiss giving marks.

It is quite easy to observe what effect marking and grading has on students. For those where it has a positive effect, it can be used to motivate them. These students may also benefit from class activities such as quizzes and competitions. Alternatively, for those students where marks have a negative impact, teachers can choose activities that don’t have an explicit ‘score’ but are more about the process and are assessed in terms of what is done and how things develop, i.e. projects. By doing this, assessment is being used to motivate the students.

Finally, students can be involved in discussing and choosing the assessment criteria for certain activities. This would mean that they are involved in the assessment from the start and may well feel more positive towards it as a result.

Conclusion

We’ve looked at a number of issues surrounding assessment with particular reference to young learners. However, most of the comments are applicable to all learners. What makes young learners really important is that this is where opinions and beliefs are started. If a young learner has negative experiences when it comes to assessment then they are likely to develop into students who are adverse to learning and don’t enjoy being in the classroom. However, if first experiences are positive this will have an impact throughout their learning and is more likely to make the whole area of assessment easier to deal with as they get older.

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