We often talk about the teaching-learning process as if it was just one thing, but we know that even though they are closely related, they are two different processes. Assessment is a third process that is intimately related to these two, so I’d like to say just a bit about learning and teaching first, and then take a look at assessment.
In recent years we have all been presented with workshops, ideas, and materials that are aimed at helping to bring about changes in the way we teach, leaving behind the very “teacher-centered” classrooms of the past and working towards increasing the “learner-centeredness” that educators (and most teachers) believe will lead to greater learning. After all, education is about learning, not what the teacher already knows.
This change reflects a better understanding of the learning process; learning, and especially language learning, does not come about as a result of a series of rewards and punishments for certain behavior. It involves a mental effort to comprehend new information – words and structures – and connect the new to what we already know. We learn by building on our previous knowledge and using that knowledge to make sense of the new knowledge.
Changes in teaching
This understanding of learning as a construction of knowledge on the part of the student, and not a simple transmission of the knowledge from the teacher to the learner, has changed the way we teach. We don’t base the class on rote memorization, we try to scaffold our students’ learning through activating their prior knowledge of the topic, structuring the learning tasks so that they lead to improved development of understanding.
If there are changes in our teaching practice then necessarily the way we assess the learning that is going on needs to evolve and change, also. Reliance on an end of unit written test is not going to be the best indicator of what has been learned.
The assessment process
Assessment is how a teacher gathers information about what the students know, what they can do, their attitudes and beliefs, and what they have learned. Gathering this information is important for a variety of reasons. First of all, we need to inform the parents, the administration, and society in general of how much learning is going on in our classrooms, we could call this an administrative reason.
In addition, this information is of key importance for us as teachers – it can be reliable feedback on our teaching techniques and strategies. Does our teaching match the way our students are learning?
Finally, and probably most importantly, assessment is a way for students to receive feedback on how well they are learning.
Teachers assess before even teaching anything to have an understanding of what the students already know, both what is correct and what misconceptions they might have. This helps by allowing the teacher to better plan the lessons – finding a starting point for the new information. It helps the students prepare to learn new information by getting them to think about what they already know. Putting this information up on a K-W-L chart is a good way to let everyone show what they know and find out what others know.
As the class is progressing it is important to continue to assess, to ensure that students are understanding and making sense of what is going on in the class. Asking students to put into their own words what has been going on, or explain to a classmate, while the teacher is monitoring, are just two ways to check this.
After teaching takes place there are still many options for assessing besides giving your students a test. One way is the use of portfolios. Portfolios are examples of use or production of language that are chosen by the student as representing their best effort.
Project work is another way to assess – not only does it integrate the language skills, but it also gives students an opportunity to use their XXI century skills too. Critical thinking, communication, collaboration and creativity are all incorporated in project work. Project work allows students to see more real-world applications of what they are learning.
Using a project or a portfolio for assessment means that we as teachers need to inform students very clearly of the criteria that will be used. Having a rubric that will allow the teacher to identify how well those criteria have been met gives the assessment process more reliability.
Assessment is sometimes the part of the teaching-learning process that is not discussed much. We teachers put a lot of time into planning our lessons, finding or preparing the materials to be used, making sure our instructions are clear, and in general working hard to create interesting and engaging classes. Using the appropriate assessment techniques to see if all this work has been worth the effort is just as important.
I encourage you to venture beyond “tests” and try a variety of assessment techniques.
Barbara Bangle is originally from the United States but has lived and worked in Mexico for many years. She is the former director of the CELe language institute at the University of the State of Mexico (UAEMex), and has spent the past 35 years both teaching English and working in the field of Teacher Education.
In addition to currently being an academic consultant for Oxford University Press, she has been a Speaking Examiner for the Cambridge University exams, and is co-author of several English language teaching books. In addition to working free-lance for Oxford University Press, she currently holds a full-time teaching position at the Universidad Autónoma del Estado de Mexico.