Chia Suan Chong considers how a range of assessment methods can help teachers better support students of differing abilities. She looks at the importance of integrative testing and self-assessment as tools to enable teachers and students to better understand their learning processes.
There are lesson materials including a needs analysis and teacher’s notes at the bottom of the article as well as a link to the webinar for Macmillan Education in which Chia discusses these ideas at length.
Educators have noticed that after a break from their usual classes, whether because of a summer holiday or an imposed lockdown, students experience a slide in their ability. This slide is due to the regression and stagnation of student performance as their academic progress slows down during the break.
Although some schools have continued to provide online learning support, there will undoubtedly be some students who have struggled with the changes to their learning circumstances more than others. Some students might continue working on their English while others might focus on other more pressing priorities and their English abilities might suffer as a result. When classes resume, teachers are thus faced with a mixed-ability class that has a significant variation in abilities.
To gain a better understanding of how to help each learner, it is important that teachers assess their English abilities. Doing diagnostic testing at the start of a course or a new school term allows teachers to better plan their syllabus to address their students’ needs more effectively.
There are several types of tests that are used diagnostically. Placement tests are meant to help schools accurately place students in the same class with other students of similar abilities. Some institutions have their own ready-made placement tests. Free online placement tests, such as are available for students using the Open Mind course by Macmillan Education. These placement tests help teachers diagnose the grammar and vocabulary levels of their students. The benefit of linking a placement test to a specific course like is that the results are mapped to specific learning outcomes of the lessons in their coursebooks”. While discrete item tests such as these, with rubrics like ‘Fill in the gap with correct preposition/tense/collocation’, may be able to reveal the student’s knowledge of a specific area of grammar or vocabulary, they aren’t able to assess the student’s ability to combine these isolated pieces of language and use the language to communicate in different contexts.
In order to truly understand the student’s ability to use the language, teachers need to incorporate integrative testing by using activities that require students to draw on different language abilities, e.g., their ability to signpost, their awareness of context, and their use of communicative strategies to negotiate meaning, in addition to their understanding of syntax, grammar and lexis.
Integrative tests can informally assess learners in an authentic environment. They often take the form of a group lesson activity involving interaction, without students being aware of the assessment. The absence of pressure can be better suited to the purpose of finding out what learners need or lack. The informal nature of the test means that students are more relaxed, have a lowered affective filter and deliver a performance that is more similar to their true language ability.
The best tasks for integrative testing are those that offer students opportunities to use their own language resources to communicate meaning. This might take the form of task-based class activities that we often associate with fluency in spoken or written practice, such as:
Group Discussions“What has been your biggest challenge with remote learning?”
Class Debates“Some people say the lockdown has been good for the environment. Do you agree?”
Roleplays“Student A calls Student B to schedule a meeting.”
Group projects“Create a poster to show how a student can effectively learn English from home.”
Emails“Write an email to your friend, telling them how you’ve been doing recently.”
Re-writing a text“You have two minutes to read this short text. Then cover it and re-write it in your own words.”
The use of integrative testing needs to be accompanied by extensive monitoring of the students’ language use to see what each individual student lacks and needs. By using level descriptors like the Common European Framework, teachers can map their students’ abilities to the ‘can-do’ statements and use the results to guide the focus of future lessons.
When we think about testing and assessment, many of us assume it is teacher-centred: the teacher hands out preset tests selected or set by the teachers or institution. These completed tests are subsequently marked and graded by the teacher, who has one piece of information about the learner in a point in time.
There is, however, another way of looking at assessment over the long term – student-centred assessment. In order for students to be active participants in their own learning and progress, it is important that they assess their language abilities. By getting students to describe and evaluate their own learning journey and self-reflect, teachers can help students understand how they can learn best, how they can relate their learning to their own needs and how they can take control of their learning process.
To self-assess, learners need to clarify:
their own learning objectivese.g. I want to be able to have chats in English with people I meet in social situations.
the criteria they have to meete.g. A2 = I can have short social exchanges but I can’t usually understand enough to keep the conversation going.
their ability to meet this criteriae.g. Right now, I can have a conversation about familiar topics but sometimes I struggle to give my opinions in discussions because I feel I don’t have enough language to do this. I think I’m between B1 and B2 at the moment, and with more vocabulary and more practice, I feel I can achieve the B2 criteria.
A needs analysis is a key tool in getting students to reflect on their own needs, goals and learning journey, but its effectiveness can largely depend on the questions asked. For example, simply asking students ‘Why are you learning English?’ elicits the answer “Because I want to be able to speak English!” A needs analysis goes much deeper.
Language learning is an emotional affair, and feelings about language ability often affect language performance. It is therefore important that a needs analysis gives learners the opportunity to consider how they feel about their English – what they feel confident about, what they feel inadequate about, and what they wish they were able to do. As learners reflect on those feelings, they and their teachers can gain a better understanding of their specific wants and needs.
The needs analysis can then be complemented with the mapping of the students’ abilities and goals onto a language ability descriptor like the Common European Framework self-assessment grid. This activity that can be done in small groups or pairs to facilitate discussion and reflection. For low level students, the descriptor grid is available to the students’ first language for ease of self-assessment.
Assessments of students’ ability should by no means be only limited to the start of a new course or term. Continuous assessments through regular quizzes, student-created mind maps, carefully-monitored group tasks, and language recycling games can all serve to inform the teacher about the quality of the learning taking place and the effectiveness of teaching. Adjustments can be made to the course content when it becomes apparent that learning objectives are not being met.
Self-assessment should also be on-going. This can take the form of exit slips or entries in learner journals. For example, “Write down your three take-aways of today” or “What are three things you’ve learnt, two things you’re curious about and one thing you don’t understand?” or “Write a paragraph about how you felt about your lesson today.”
Understanding should be the goal of assessment. We assess to understand our students’ academic progress, but we also assess to gain a better understanding of our students. We encourage our students to self-assess in order for them to better understand themselves. And with better understanding comes motivation, engagement and progress.
Tomlinson, Carol Ann (2014) ”The bridge between today’s lesson and tomorrow’s” in Using Assessments Thoughtfully March 2014, Vol 71, No. 6, pp 10-14.
Chia Suan Chong’s webinar for Macmillan English on different types of assessments and testing and how to know where our students are at.
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