The Assessment Issue – Divya

Divya Madhavan

Taking the Tension Out of Test Time
– Divya Madhavan

I only give one tenth of my students’ oral exam grades. Their peers give the other nine tenths.

Does this work?


Does this work better?

I certainly think so 😉

Do they enjoy working this way?

Very much

Is it ethical?

I explain it all to them at the beginning and if anyone doesn’t want to (which does happen occasionally), we don’t do it. I only use this model of assessment if I get 100% consent from the people in the room.

Is it efficient?

Well, if you remember the kick you got out of marking stuff with a red pen when you played ‘teacher’ as a child, you might agree that students tend to put heart and soul into the process…

But… can second language learners assess each other? I mean…don’t we need a ‘proper’ teacher to pronounce the final judgment? Perhaps even a native speaker because it’s oral assessment?

Yes they can, no we don’t, and OMG native speaker supremacy? Do we really wanna open this can of worms?

What I do:

I pick a class where the assessment is low stakes, i.e. no external to prepare them for, just your average classroom with a group of people who want to boost their English and move onto the next step in their studies/jobs/lives.

I decide at the beginning how I will systematically note down information about oral skills (in my case it’s usually a little black book I write in) and make it clear that we will co-construct the assessment and most importantly, make sure everyone’s ok with this.

I write in my ’can do’ journal (what they can do in spoken English quite simply) throughout the course to give me ideas come assessment time. I devote one lesson about three quarters of the way through to writing the rubrics for assessment.

I create the assessment questions and marking scheme based on my journal and the general emergent content of the course, keeping an ear out for my ’can do’ perceptions and their ’want to do’ expectations.

We examine each student as a panel. Yes, this takes time but it’s been three years going and it’s often the most energizing moment in the course.

Why I do it:

I believe that oral assessment, when unnecessarily administered, creates huge imbalances in the human dynamics of a classroom. The teacher’s role gets inflated to the level of examiner and the student is diagnosed as the examinee, with ensuing rigmarole and protocol.

In classes where there is no real justification for assessment apart from fueling the generalizing juggernaut of accountability, outcomes and box-ticking, participatory assessment of this kind is a wonderful opportunity to empower student voices and, thus teacher voices as well by bringing course objectives back into the organic sphere of the classroom and assessing from the people up and not the system down.

Who this really works for:

Students who are bored of English classes and the malady of Cambridge past papers.

Students who hate being tested, find it causes a lot of stress in their otherwise busy and fulfillable lives.

Students who like calling teachers by their first names.

Times when it failed:

When I didn’t make it clear what we were doing at the beginning.

When I wasn’t systematic about keeping a journal and thus panicking myself when I had to assess them.

When the learners didn’t quite have the vocabulary to handle the writing of assessment rubrics, coming to an agreement in the discussions of the areas to be tested and so forth.

(By the way, I draw on as many of the languages I can function in when I teach, I don’t believe in the stoicism of an English-only law in classrooms)

Why I’ll carry on doing it:

Because I strive to be a cuddly old Freirean one day?

I saw a poster in Paris today with a picture of a bicycle and the tag was: the solution to reducing congestion and conquering obesity is rusting in your garage. It’s nice keeping things simple.

Join the conversation:

Box-ticking or mind-mapping? Questions about ELT professional knowledge – Divya Madhavan and Willy Cardoso

IATEFL Harrogate 2014, April 2nd, 5.15pm


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The Assessment Issue – Matt

Matt Shannon

I Like Big Assessment And I Cannot Lie
  – Matt Shannon


I’m going to make the case for qualitative assessment in your classroom, and in yourself. Let’s start with what assessment (in this context) isn’t: grades. I don’t really have much heartfelt appreciation for numbers on a scale, even if we make nice graphs out of them. What I do see as valuable are self-assessments, peer-assessments, “can-do” assessments, and all the healthy habits formed for teachers and students alike when one chooses to pursue a reflective culture in the classroom.


Results from the easiest assessment I know  – “Did we make it?”

In the early days of our city’s experimental curriculum, we tried a number of things to build up a variety of scales suitable for discussing a given student’s performance. Some schools

released a checklist in which a lesson was broken down into how many boys and girls we talked to, if we spoke with a smile, and if it was “fun.” A white space was given to capture other comments, which more often than got were written with a translation of “it was fun” in the L2. It wasn’t really inspiring stuff.

However, other schools found footing on a structure simple to the point of elegance: in the context of a specifically-stated and understood goal, ask if the students were able to  reach it. Responses to “were you able to achieve our goal?” and follow-ups “Yeah? Why or why not? How did that feel?” started to fill the pages, and with them grew a new and frankly surprising culture of feedback for all learners and educators involved.


Fruits of critical, qualitative, (and positive) assessment 

A note – all of our classes and processes are conducted exclusively with positive feedback. There is no failing score, no red ink, and no tests. In being asked to base our own assessments on the self-assessments of students, many teachers saw this as a head-scratcher with way too much trust placed in the hands of our charges. But here’s what happened: we quickly found that students could handle the task when our goals were easily laid out, and as teacher we found out a lot about our own lessons and teaching. Responses helped us understand what went right – the presentation steps were clear and helpful; it was cool to try on another country’s school uniform, etc, as well as our missteps. A tremendous amount of information can be transferred in something as formally simple as a “self-assessment.”

Moreover, directly linking to what students might says about themselves in regards to achieving goals and activities done well, we might ask students to praise their peers. “We saw a lot of great performers today, and a lot of people working hard. Who put in the effort today? Who was a little nervous, but fought hard anyhow?” In a really open classroom, students might volunteer their responses and praise publicly – and in line with a response that explains how, why, and of course by whom our goals were met or exceeded. In a quieter class, it allowed me to view the learning logs of students, garner a piece of sincere feedback from one student to another, and become the agent of shared praise. Finishing classes like that quickly grows on you.

Finally, we encountered emergent forms of feedback early on in the student assessments. These were comments in which the students linked the content and goal to another class, an experience outside of the classroom, or their own interests, opinions, experiences, or future. It’s these comments that were most likely to help my ESL courses as something implicitly within the community, despite also being easy to generate follow-ups to the did-we-make-it prompt. “Right, today we discussed the merits of two different places, and we talked a lot about what made each place special. Were you able to see both the positive and negative qualities of each? What’s good and bad about our town?”


Easy to understand and apply: Can-Do Assessments

When we look at the rubrics for major tests and skill batteries, we find items like, “student is able to solve for XYZ using a _____” – and then these get lumped into some composite score, most likely digested in the form of a number or letter. For anyone less than a maximum score, this can be sort of a bummer. As Japan has in writing for its future English curricula, we can make use of “can-do” assessments, achievement of which provides nothing less than a series of targets for which we can break through, and then use as a foundation for the future. Can-Do assessments offer systematic difference from more typical scores, at which only the very top should feel entirely proud of themselves. Think of a speech contest in which thirty skilled participants of roughly equal ability have entered, and only three prizes can be awarded, versus an organization like the Girl Scouts in which each individual’s merits are recognized and treasured.


The effects of long-term assessment use

As someone who has been employing self, peer, and can-do assessments for a while, I can tell you that there are finally some benefits unique to the teacher that I would never want to be without. As the establishment of objectives in the beginning directly effects how we may enjoy our assessments, I now implicitly plan my lessons as wholes, keeping an eye on the clarity of the contents, another eye on time or project management, and apparently a third eye on how clear it is that we are there with a chance to truly learn. I am absolutely interested in my students and what they have to say, and this attention is pretty contagious, and I make use of what I learn, and I’m doing this while being witness to people talk about themselves and their cohorts in a positive, healthy, and constructive manner. That’s a great feeling.


And now for a little self-assessment of my own.

I believe I’ve made the case for qualitative assessment in your classroom. I provided several examples in different contexts, and I was able to talk about it in a way directly incorporating my experience in the classroom. I talked a little bit about Can-Do assessments, which I’m still learning about, as well as self- and peer-assessments. It felt great doing so, because it reminded me of how I’ve grown as a teacher, and definitely as a listener. Whether it is the attention given to my students, my self, or the world around us, using this manner of assessment makes me feel wonderful. I hope you can feel it, too.


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The Assessment Issue – Rose

Rose Bard

Assessment is A Destination – Rose Bard


Assessment should work for learners and teachers, not against them. It should be a compass showing the way rather than taking the role or image of a judge. It should point the way, not be a burden to carry. Unfortunately the latter is the most common view among teachers and learners. One too many people feel trapped instead of liberated, thus the perspective that assessment is there to help you grow is quite often not present in many classrooms and minds.

To prove to you this fact, ask your learners what assessment is, and probably they will use a lot of negative words to describe it or how they feel about it. In order to change such a view in students’ way of seeing any type of evaluation they might have to take, the teacher has to shift her own view of learning, how knowledge is constructed and therefore the very nature of assessment.

We should ask ourselves questions like: What is the purpose of assessment? Is it to categorize learners into those who fail and those who pass? Is it to help teachers see what stage of the journey their learners are in so they can prepare better lessons? Is it to punish learners for not being engaged enough during our lessons? Is it to actually help them to succeed by showing them the way?

Do you ever take the time to explain to learners what you are assessing? The criteria you are using to measure learning? Do you actually give feedback on whatever type of evaluation you chose to give? Do you go through the results with each learner?

A lot of learners complain about this. They feel it isn’t fair. They shut themselves out. They disconnect simply because they don’t understand the purpose. They feel they are trapped in the competition and labeling system. Many along the way just give up. Some may decide to make your life miserable. This might be because it’s normal to react badly to stuff as a defense mechanism. Each context is a context, but moreoften than not, that is what I have seen happening in mine. The more anxious learners are, the less involved they get in the learning process, turning the whole thing into a burden to carry. It becomes a matter of just surviving.

I take the affective side of this matter seriously, and it takes time and strategies to change students’ point of view about what assessment really is. Regarding time, don’t rush. No matter what the system wants you to believe, take plenty of time at the beginning to work on shifting those negative thoughts by teaching students how to learn and the purpose of assessing their journey.

Do not just talk about it. Create opportunities for you and your group to feel that assessment is working for you as a positive tool. Also, position yourself as a lifelong learner instead of someone who knows it all – the expert in English. And I’m not saying you don’t have to be. We long to be experts. English is our trade, so we must be at the level of proficiency that our job requires. Period. But none of us knows it all. And that is what our learners should see in front of them. A teacher is just someone some steps ahead of them, leading the way for them to get to the same point where we are or beyond it. We should hope for that. As I side story, I usually tell my learners that they might become better at English than me. They laugh, but I truly believe it. And when my mind is so tired that I slip with a spelling or put the wrong word on the board, I thank them for helping me. Be kind to yourself and to your learners. Be fair. Treat mistakes and lack of knowledge with kindness.

Our school requires formality, and formality requires us to give grades, but I really think that it is not fair to just give them a mark. Learners should be able to know what exactly we are assessing and why. From class one, I start working on error and mistakes with kindness. Analyzing errors and mistakes is a good way to help learners move forward. Spotting mistakes/errors is easy. Create any kind of evaluation and they will pop out like a big neon billboard. But what really makes assessment shift from summative to formative is the actions teachers and learners decide to take afterwards. Is the error part of the process? Is it a persistent one? What strategies can the teacher and the learner use to overcome it?

Although the literature on assessment defines summative and formative differently, and I know that in nature they are, an evaluation can be both. Summative is concerned with giving a conclusive mark indicating what the student knows and is able to do on a given test. Formative on the other hand is concerned with the quality of the learning and how that is achieved.

I often use three types of assessment: diagnostic, summative, and formative. The diagnostic assessments, though simple and informal, help me identify who knows what. The formative assessment involves for me the diagnostic stage, then further evaluation tasks followed by reflection of my own and often discussion with students about what strategies are needed to achieve a certain goal. In feedback sessions with students I ask them how they did something or what they think was the reason they didn’t achieve a particular goal.  Then, I use summative assessment because grading is the formal aspect of the system for parents and schools and they need to see it quantified.

Still I also prefer to look at how learners progress in the learning of a language a bit differently. Instead of grammar points and vocabulary, I prefer to look at it from the perspective of continuing development in the ability to communicate, and until they become more confident, critical and autonomous, assessment is not just my job, it’s everyone’s job. Assessment is not the destination. It is the process where learning is critically thought of and a new course of action is taken.


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The Assessment Issue

What is assessment? What is it good for? How might it best be done? In this issue
Divya Madhavan, Matt Shannon, and Rose Bard provide three different perspectives.


Divya Madhavan
Divya Madhavan
Matt Shannon
Matt Shannon
Rose Bard
Rose Bard


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