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7 Steps to Assessing Skills in the Secondary Classroom

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Teecher giving feedback to teenagers

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.

 

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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).


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Get the most out of group, peer, and self-assessment

Adult woman assessing another womanStacey Hughes, former teacher and current teacher trainer in the Professional Development team at Oxford University Press, shares some practical tips on getting your students to assess themselves, and each other.

We all need a fresh set of eyes sometimes. Successful writers or speakers often ask a peer for feedback. So, what is group, peer and self-assessment in the language classroom? For starters, it is not necessarily part of grading – we are not asking students to give each other a mark that will then count towards their grade. What it should involve is peer-to-peer communication about what is good about a piece of work and how it can be improved. It involves some learner training and it is important that assessment is not aimed at the individual, but at the work.

In this article, I’ll give examples of how group assessment might work for a presentation, how peer assessment might work for writing and how self-assessment might work in several contexts.

Preparing students to peer assess

Peer assessment may be new to students, so it is important to show them why it is a good idea, how it can benefit them and, most importantly, agree to some behavioural guidelines. Talk to your students about the benefits of peer assessment and get the class to draw up a list of guidelines. Some key points are below:

  • Peers can help us review our work so we can get a better grade.
  • Learning to help each other is a skill that will be used in a job.
  • Assessing a peer’s work can help us develop our own work by making us more aware of how a piece of writing or speaking affects the audience.

Example guidelines:

  • Comment on what is good.
  • Don’t make personal comments – just comment on the work.
  • Don’t judge. Be helpful.
  • Don’t just say something is bad or good. Say what is bad or good and why it’s bad or good.
  • Try to explain how it could be better.

Group assessment – group assesses group

As part of preparing for group presentations, set a date when all groups present to another group. You may need to send some groups out or if your classroom is suitable, just group them around the room. Give each member of the groups a sheet to fill in (see the example below) to help guide their comments. For a presentation, there are a number of different aspects that you might want groups to comment on. Create a feedback sheet that reflects what you have taught and what you will be grading on. The example below is fairly comprehensive and includes example student comments.

Please write a comment
Structure Is it clear?
Is there an introduction?
Is there a conclusion?
You need an introduction. I wasn’t sure what you were going to talk about. You could say what your conclusion is. The main body was clear.
Content Clear?
Engaging?
Did each person’s contribution connect with the others’?
Did each person contribute equally?
I really liked your topic. It was interesting. Maybe you could refer to each other’s section to make the presentation feel more connected. I think everyone spoke for the same amount of time.
Visuals Clear?
Did they add to the content?
The visuals were clear and made the presentation more interesting.
Body language & voice Confident?
Volume?
Eye contact?
Raul – very confident; good eye contact
Maria – I couldn’t hear you well; please speak more loudly Nida – maybe more eye contact; maybe use note cards instead of reading from a paper
Language & pronunciation Clear?
Key words pronounced clearly?
Mostly clear. Raul, I didn’t understand what you said about the water on the roads. Nida – you were reading, so it didn’t sound natural. Maybe practice in front of a mirror.
Answering questions How well did the group answer questions? You answered questions well. You have good knowledge of the topic.

Peer assesses peer

As part of the writing process, ask peers to assess each other’s written work. Sometimes students think that they can’t judge another’s work because they think their English isn’t good enough. To help students realise that their contribution can be valuable, make sure have clear guidelines for what to look for in each piece of writing. Tell them that their goal is not to find every grammar mistake, but to just comment from the reader’s perspective.

The example below (with example student comment) is based on a paragraph about a holiday.

Please write a comment
Structure Clear?
Topic sentence?
The structure is OK. You need a topic sentence. Your sentences are very short. You need to combine sentences 1 and 2 and 3 and 4. Maybe you can use and and but.
Content Does it answer the question?
Does it make sense?
Why is it interesting?
You wrote about your holiday, but not about your feelings. You need to include your feelings. It makes sense. It is interesting because I have never been to Thailand.
Language Vocabulary
Grammar
Punctuation
Spelling
You used good words like hotel reception and flew. Grammar is good, but past of take is took. You need to capitalise the city. Spelling is good.
Presentation Indented paragraph handwriting You should indent the first sentence. Your handwriting is very clear and neat.

Self-assessment

Self-assessment is not only useful as part of the writing process, but can also help students see the progress they are making.

The following simple checklist is an example of how to raise a student’s awareness of what they should be including in writing. It also gives them guidance on how to go about editing their work. It is based on writing a summary and review of a story.

  • Have you got two paragraphs?
  • Is the first paragraph a summary of the plot of the story?
  • Is the second paragraph about your views on the story?
  • Did you give reasons for your opinions?
  • Do you have topic sentences?
  • Look at your grammar: did you use present tense?
  • Look at your vocabulary: did you use some of the words you learned to describe plot? Did you use words like, because and for example?

Students can also assess their speaking performance in pair and group work. This could help motivate students to speak in English when it is often more natural to use the L1. Make a simple checklist which highlights the goals for speaking in pairs or groups:

  • I spoke in English
  • I asked another person a question
  • If I didn’t understand, I asked for clarification
  • If someone wasn’t speaking, I asked them for their opinion
  • When I didn’t know what to say, I said it another way

Can-do statements are a great way for students to assess whether or not they have achieved language aims. They should be very specific; for example, they can be directly linked to a unit. Collectively, these will help students see the progress they have made over time.

I have finished unit X and I can:

  • Use the past tense to talk about what I did yesterday
  • Use words like, last week, yesterday, a month ago in a sentence
  • Ask someone questions about what they did last week/ last month/ last year
  • Understand someone telling a story about their problems last week on the train

This article first appeared in the March 2014 edition of the Teaching Adults Newsletter – a round-up of news, interviews and resources specifically for teachers of adults. If you teach adults, subscribe to the Teaching Adults Newsletter now.