Adrian Tennant takes a look at what is meant by assessment in this introductory article in the Assessment matters series.

Photo of two people having a conversation, one should look like a teacher.

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When people see, or hear, the word assessment they normally react in a fairly negative way. It might be a deep sigh or a cry of Oh no!, but rarely will it be a smile or a cry of joy. Why is it that people feel this way at the mention of assessment? I think the first problem is that people don’t really understand what is meant (or should be meant) by assessment. A second issue could be that they have had fairly bad experiences in the past and this has an influence on them. And, thirdly, it could be that assessment is often seen as a pass or fail thing – and nobody likes to fail.

So, what do we mean by assessment?

assessment, noun [U]
the process of making a judgement or forming an opinion, after considering something or someone carefully

I think the most interesting thing here is the word process. The purpose of most forms of assessment in the English Language classroom should be to inform people of how much progress a student is making. Assessment can take many different forms and does not need to be limited to tests and exams. Here are two types of assessment:

1. Activity assessment

  • Did you like that activity?
  • Was that activity easy or difficult?
  • What was the hardest part of that?
  • Was the activity useful? How? Why?

2. Self-assessment

  • Now I can …
  • I still need to work on …
  • I’ve improved in …
  • Today I learnt …
  • In the test I got X and Y wrong. I’m going to study these for homework.

As you can see, the onus here is on the students to think about what they’ve done. Unlike tests which are handed out, collected in and marked by a teacher and then handed back, these forms of assessment are about the process of learning rather than only on the product.

Does this mean that tests are not a valid form of assessment?

No, not at all. But they are not the only form of assessment. If students only think of assessment in terms of a formal test or exam then it is likely that they will have negative feelings towards the idea of assessment. It’s also important to emphasize that assessment shouldn’t be about how good or bad someone is at a particular point in time; it should be about the progress they have made, the work they’ve put in and the learning that has taken place. In other words, it should be about the process of learning and not simply the results.

One thing that is quite useful to do with formal tests is to actually analyze the process as well as the product. Here are a couple of ideas that can be used for this purpose:

  1. After collecting in the test, hand out a blank copy to each student. Ask them to look at the test and a) say how well they think they did on each particular question; b) say which questions were easy, ok, difficult; and, c) say what score they think they got. Then, when you hand back the marked tests ask them to compare their thoughts to the actual test, i.e. did they get the questions right that they thought they had, etc.
  2. After collecting in the test, hand out a blank copy to each student. Ask them to look at the test, choose two questions and tell a partner how they worked out the answer.

When should assessment take place?

The simple answer is that it should take place at every stage of the learning process and it should be fairly frequent. Of course, there are many different forms of assessment. So, at the start of a course some form of diagnostic assessment should take place to see how much students know. This can then be used as a form of ‘benchmark’ used later on to see how much progress has been made.

Throughout a course, various forms of assessment can be used, from homework, project work and in class activities, to more formal tests. If you are required to give students a certain number of tests each year – say, three – then one thing you could do is give them five and tell them that only the best three will be used. This kind of flexibility not only helps students be a little less worried, but also takes into account that people have bad days sometimes. In fact, you can see this idea of selection in this article about portfolios.

Helping students become comfortable

One of our first tasks as a teacher has got to be to help our students become more comfortable with the idea of assessment. Because assessment often has a negative connotation and is equated with tests, passing, failing and scores, this can be quite a challenge. But if we can make our students understand that assessment is actually beneficial then it will make the whole process easier. Here are a few simple ideas aimed at achieving this:

1. Talk about assessment with your students.

  • What is assessment?
  • Why do we assess students?
  • How are we going to assess them?
  • What are the criteria used? Are these criteria clear?

2. Get students involved in assessment.

  • Use self-assessment, i.e. ‘Can do’ statements.
  • Use peer assessment.
  • Get students to come up with assessment criteria / agree criteria with students.
  • Get students involved in picking or designing assessment tasks.

3. Make assessment part of the teaching and learning process.

  • If you can build in a form of assessment regularly, maybe even every lesson, then your students will become used to it and therefore more comfortable.
  • Make sure you include the results of any assessment into your teaching. For example, if students have a particular problem with an aspect of grammar then go back over the grammar in a lesson, making it clear that you are doing this because it was identified as a problem from the assessment. If students can see that you actually take notice of the assessment, and not simply the score, it will become more meaningful and positive for them


There are more specific ideas in some of the subsequent articles in this series. However, the key here is to make students see assessment as part of the teaching and learning process that has a direct influence on what is taught. If students understand that assessment is about the process and not simply about a product (i.e. a score), then they will start to have a more positive attitude towards it.