Assessment for learning

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I’ve recently had the opportunity to participate in Macmillan Asia’s EALTea Time where we chatted about assessment for learning (AfL), also known as formative assessment. Besides really enjoying the session, I also found it useful to discuss my views on the subject with other ELT practitioners. We defined AfL before talking about some of the reasons we believe it helps learners take ownership of their own learning. Watch the session for more details, it really was an interesting conversation.

What I’d like to focus on in this post is the last question we discussed – our favourite assessment for learning activities. Super, my fellow panelist, and I each shared 3 of our top activities and I think it’s worth listing them here with some extras of my own.

Traffic lights

Get learners to make sets of coloured cards (or make them yourself) in the fashion of traffic lights. Teach your learners that green stands for feeling confident about a task, yellow means they might have questions or there are parts they can’t do independently, and red means they need immediate support because they don’t know what and how to do.

Hand these out in every lesson or have them in a place where learners can easily get to them and ask them to use them frequently. You do not have to wait till the end of a lesson to ask for feedback. You can ask them to show you a card to indicate how much they think they already know about a topic you are about to start or ask them to show you how they are progressing halfway through a lesson or an activity.

The beauty of this strategy is that you get immediate feedback, and you can course correct accordingly. You see some red, go and help right away. There are some yellow cards – offer support or ask some guiding questions. Seeing lots of green? Give yourself a pat on the back!

It also does not require much, or any, language on the part of the learners so even EAL learners will be able to participate. Not to mention that it, of course, works regardless of age. I’ve used this strategy successfully with teens and even adults.

Using gestures or smiley faces

Another alternative to the traffic lights idea is to ask learners to use hand gestures or smiley faces. For instance, they can show you a thumbs up if they are feeling confident and a thumbs down if they aren’t. They can use mini whiteboards to draw smiley faces to show their level of confidence with the task or even clap once, twice or three times to give feedback about their learning.

Can-do statements

Using can-do statements is a great way of getting learners to assess themselves. Lots of modern coursebooks use this strategy as well where they have a list of these at the end of a unit as reflection. The learners then get the chance to evaluate their own learning. Can-do statements are a great way of making the learning visible and to bridge the aim of a lesson to the outcomes. Here is an example:

Learning objective: By the end of the lesson, learners will be better able to use the present simple to talk about their daily routines.

Can-do statements:

  1. I can use present simple verbs to make sentences about my daily routine. E.g. I get up at 7 every weekday morning.
  2. I can use present simple questions to ask about somebody else’s daily routine. E.g. When do you usually get up?

Targeted questioning

One of the easiest ways to implement AfL in any lesson is utilising questions. Asking the right kinds of questions is key and there are a few things we need to be aware of:

  • Give ample time for your learners to process the question, think about their response, process the language they need to respond before expecting them to say anything.
  • Ask concept checking questions to find out whether your learners understand the topic at hand.
  • Use ‘might’ to elicit how to get to the next stage, e.g. So how might you correct that mistake? What might you do next? What might you need to succeed?
  • Try not to put your learners on the spot. Don’t target learners individually unless you are 100% certain they will be able to give you an answer. Instead, you could ask them to write their response on a whiteboard and hold it up towards you. That way, you can see everyone’s responses without singling anybody out.

Using rubrics, assessment criteria and checklists

To succeed at anything, it’s important to know what is expected. It’s no different for our learners! Assessment criteria, rubrics and checklists can provide learners this information and they can be referred to during and after the task as well. With older learners I like getting them involved in making the assessment criteria that will be used. This way I can make sure they fully understand what is expected of them and they get the chance to engage with the expectations before they attempt the task. I then ask them to use the same set of criteria for peer assessment and I mark their final draft using the same too.

An added advantage of these is that they can be as detailed as you wish. The professional ones, e.g., IELTS, are quite complex and might need to be graded for your students. However, it is important to train them to be able to deduce information from them. Another pro is that they can be highly visual. I like giving feedback by highlighting parts of the rubric that apply to the work I’m marking and adding personalised comments. When the learner gets their work back, they receive it with the highlighted rubric attached. They can easily see where they are at and what they need to do to progress to the next stage.

Dealing with mistakes

I absolutely love mistakes! Mistakes are great because we can learn from them and because I get to learn more about the way my learners are thinking. Eliciting reasons for correct and incorrect answers, especially if done before the correct answer is revealed, often leads to highly useful conversations that tell teachers a lot about where things might have gone wrong or what needs to be clarified.

Students also learn that mistakes are part and parcel of the learning process and not something that we need to be ashamed of or avoid at all costs. This builds motivation, confidence and rapport in the classroom.

Comment only marking

Grades and points can be scary. Learners and parents tend to put too much emphasis on this measure of performance. The problem, other than the pressure it puts on the learners, is that they often can’t seem to see past that one letter or number. Therefore, whatever feedback they receive won’t be as useful as it could be.

Sticking to comments only and avoiding grades, if possible, help learners focus on how to get better. It encourages them to engage with the feedback and make corrections to get better. Even when I was teaching in a secondary school, I would often return assessments (these were summative ones!) without a grade at first and I would ask my students to make corrections in a different colour and resubmit, only then would they get their grade. This forced learners to focus on the feedback over the grade.

For more ideas on how to make assessments work for your students, click here.

Two stars and a wish

This is a great peer assessment activity that encourages learners to look at someone else’s work and find positives as well as give constructive criticism. We all tend to find mistakes in other people’s work much more easily than in our own so the ‘one wish’ part is usually quite easy for students to do. They might need a bit of help with phrasing that wish, though. However, in my experience, learners tend to be much harsher on themselves and each other than the teacher would be, so they might struggle to come up with two positive comments at first. Eliciting a few areas to comment on before they do the activity will help them with this.

Special note for primary

When working with younger learners, care needs to be taken to ensure that whatever task we set for them is age appropriate. It is no different for assessment activities either. Over the years I’ve spent in academic management, I’ve often come across teachers who feel that doing any kind of assessment might overwhelm their primary learners and therefore they should be avoided at all costs. But often when I observed these same teachers, I saw them run activities that served to gather feedback from students and about their learning. Fascinating!

It just goes to show that most experienced teachers will already have strategies that fall under the umbrella of assessment for learning, although they might not think about them in those terms. I strongly believe that as long as a teacher regularly checks on their students and the improvements they are making, feeds this back to them while also getting feedback from them, the basics of formative assessment are present.

Primary aged learners can also participate in AfL activities, just like secondary ones or adults. Some of the activities from this post lend themselves to this age group more than others. For instance, the traffic lights idea, the use of gestures and the comment only marking all work well with any age groups.

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