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There have been numerous mentions of the importance of focusing on skills, such as building resilience, self-control, empathy, curiosity, love of learning, etc. in the EFL classroom. We are becoming more and more aware of what these are and how to help our students develop in these areas. However, as these skills are all subjective and seem completely intangible, as teachers we tend to refrain from even considering assessing these. After teaching a set of vocabulary or a grammar point, we are naturally used to evaluating improvement through different tests or tasks, but how do we assess the development of skills such as collaboration or self-control?
Why do we need to assess these?
Most education systems still put more emphasis on academic knowledge, assessed through tests by grades, so students might have the impression that this is all they need for their future. We also need to assess a variety of other skills in the EFL classroom to shed light on the importance of these for our students. This can demonstrate how being creative, co-operative or accepting helps students to live a more successful and happier life outside the classroom, beyond learning a language. It is also key to involve all the stakeholders, such as parents and colleagues, in this process. Let them know which skills you have been working on, the ones where your students shine and which ones they might need more support in other classes as well as in the home environment. Careful and on-going assessment of these skills, therefore, becomes equally paramount as assessing language knowledge and application.
The key in this assessment process is engaging the students themselves in helping them realise their own potential so that they can take responsibility for their improvement. Teacher assessment and guidance also plays a vital role in this developmental process. Above all, we need to empower students to be able to set learning goals for themselves, reflect and analyse their own behaviour and draw up action plans that suit their learning preferences. Here are a few tips on how this can be achieved.
How can we assess these skills?
We can help students improve in these areas by using the Assessment For Learning framework that “…is the process of seeking and interpreting evidence for use by learners and their teachers to decide: where the learners are in their learning, where they need to go and how best to get there.” (Assessment reform group (2002)
1. Brainstorm skills used for particular tasks
After setting a collaborative language task, ask students to brainstorm skills they might need for success by imagining the process. For example, a group project where students have to come up with a survey questionnaire, conduct the survey and present their findings through graphs. Students might suggest teamwork, openness towards different ideas, listening to each other, etc. If you can think of other important skills, add these to the list (e.g. creativity in coming up with good questions, ways in which they represent their findings, etc.) Students can assess themselves, or each other, with this check-list at the end of the task, but it could also become a reference list to refer to throughout the process. Make sure there are not more than five skills at this stage, to make self-reflection and peer-assessment manageable.
2. Reflect and Predict.
Ask students to identify their current emotional state, as this might play an important role in their ability to use specific skills. Follow this up with questions to predict their competence in each skill area, on a scale from 1 to 5 (1=not at all…5=very well). Students can use their answers as a quiet self-reflective task or the basis of group discussion.
“How do I feel right now?”
“How well will I be able to work with others? Why?”
“How patient will I be with others? Why?”
“How creative will I be with ideas?”
Getting students to reflect and predict their use of such skills from time to time gives them more focus and helps them become more self-aware. It is important to encourage students to do this without any judgement, simply as a way to evaluate their current feelings and self-image.
3. Reflective questionnaires
The same questions as above can be used at the end of a task too as a way for students to reflect on how they used the particular skills retrospectively. This can then form the basis of a group discussion in which students share their experiences. Remind students that it is important that they offer their full attention to each other during the discussion without any judgement.
4. Setting weekly personal goals
Once students become acquainted with such self-reflective practice, you can ask them at the beginning of the week to set personal goals for themselves depending on the area they feel needs some improvement. To encourage students to set these goals, it is a good idea to share some of your own personal goals for the week first. For example, you can tell them ‘This week I aim to be more open and curious, rather than having concrete ideas about how things should turn out in my lessons.’ Modelling such behaviour can become the main drive for students to be able to set their own personal goals.
5. Using rubrics.
Design assessment rubrics for the main skills being used for self and peer-assessment. Create these as a whole group task, getting input from the students. This could also serve as an assessment tool for the teacher.
6. Peer-observation and skills assessment
As students are motivated and learn a lot through observing each other, you can set peer-observation and assessment tasks for particular tasks, say role-plays or group discussions. Put students in groups and ask them to agree on who the observer is going to be. It is key that there is a consensus on this. Then give the observer a checklist of the skills in focus, where they can make note of how they see the behaviour of their peers. The observer does not contribute to the group task, only observes the behaviour of their peers. At the end of the group task, the observer tells their peers about the things they noted.
7. End-of-term tutorials
At the end of the term, it is a good idea to have a few minutes individually with students and using the checklist and the questions mentioned in points 1,2 and 3 above to discuss how they see their development in the skills in focus. This shows students the importance of these skills and gives them a sense of security and self-assurance of ‘I matter’. It may be challenging to find the time to do this for most of us, teachers. Allocating two weeks for the tutorials with a specific time-window can give you a manageable time-frame, however. The tutorials can then be conducted either during lesson time while you set some free tasks – say watching a film in English – for students to do and/or a couple of hours in the afternoons after school, for which students sign up in ten-minute chat-slots with the teacher.
Are you interested in teaching with a course that uses a skills-based approach? You can find our new title, Oxford Discover Futures, here:
Erika Osváth, MEd in Maths, DTEFLA, is a freelance teacher, teacher trainer, materials writer and co-author of the European Language Award-winning 6-week eLearning programme for language exam preparation. Before becoming a freelance trainer in 2009, she worked for International House schools for 16 years in Eastern and Central Europe, where she worked as a YL co-ordinator, trainer on CELTA, LCCI,1-1, Business English, YL and VYL courses, and Director of Studies. She has extensive experience in teaching very young learners, young learners and teenagers.
Her main interests lie in these areas as well as making the best of technology in ELT. She regularly travels to different parts of Hungary and other parts of the world to teach demonstration lessons with local children, do workshops for teachers, and this is something she particularly enjoys doing as it allows her to delve into the human aspects of these experiences. Erika is co-author with Edmund Dudley of Mixed Ability Teaching (Into the Classroom series).