Assessments for learner development: How, what and who?

Kay Irie and Rachelle R. Meilleur discuss issues and events of interest to the LD SIG

Rachelle: Last month we talked about the use of portfolios both in and out of the classroom, and with another school year (almost) over the problem of evaluation and assessment is one that I always struggle with to improve. I must admit, that even though I try using alternative forms of evaluation, like portfolios, I also depend on traditional methods such as homework, tests, and the all-inclusive “participation” grade for the majority of the students’ grades. These latter types of assessments do not necessarily evaluate learner development or autonomy over the course of a semester, or school year. As I have only been trialing e-portfolios for the past year, they only form a small component of the students’ overall grades. I was wondering what your experience has been with evaluating portfolios.

Kay: Rachelle, I find the assessment difficult as well. But I always try to think of assessments as collecting information about the progress our students made towards the goals (hopefully) agreed by both the teacher and the students at the beginning of the course and sharing the information with the students (feedback). So I believe how to collect the information depends on the focus and goals of the course. The traditional methods you mentioned can be very appropriate and useful in many situations. The purpose of introducing the portfolio in my writing class was mainly to provide an opportunity for the students to see their own progress in writing, reflect on their own learning and raise their sense of achievement. Considering the purpose of the task, I asked the students to write a reflection on each of the selected writing projects included in the portfolio. Some wrote a lot and others wrote only a few sentences, and I initially was tempted to grade them but I felt uncomfortable about assigning a value (whether numerical or letter grade) based on their “writing” as it would disadvantage those who are not so skillful at writing. So I accepted their reflection in Japanese and decided not to give grades to the reflection itself. Instead, I gave them the checklist of what to be included. For example, the list included their three favorite pieces of writing and anything related to the pieces (free writing, ideas jotted down on a piece of paper, the first draft, etc), a reaction/reflection to each piece (why they like it, what was difficult, what they want to improve, etc.), a short essay on what they learned in the course, and the logically organized presentation of the works. I gave a full mark for the portfolio portion of the course grade to those who submitted the complete portfolio regardless of the quality or length of the writing. There are pros and cons for this approach and one that worried me the most was that some students would just mechanically go through the “to-do-list” rather than reflecting on their own work. However, I continued using the approach as it seemed to reduce the students’ anxiety of being assessed on their self-assessment (does that make sense?) and helped them to write/reflect freely about their work. And I guess I valued that over the possibility of non-learning by some students.

In an ideal classroom, I would like to negotiate the content of the portfolio and the checklist with the students, but they were first year students and it was quite difficult to do this with them at the beginning of the academic year.

What about you? How do you assess the e-portfolio? Do you use continuous/ongoing assessment? Do you have a students’ self-assessment component that is part of official grade?

Rachelle: I also do a bit like you do in the e-portfolios, that is, I give a checklist of what I expect the students to have finished, but it’s not done in the same way as a traditional portfolio, where often the students can choose their best or favorite work to present for consideration. I find that the e-portfolios have developed more into the students’ ongoing work and my continuous assessment. During the break, I will need to reconsider how I might re-assess my students, which includes having them assess themselves and each other. Like you, I have also tried to negotiate with the students – not so much about portfolios, but of content and assessment in general. I haven’t really gotten much input from students, regardless of where I’ve taught – Japan, France, or Canada. I guess most students aren’t sure what the teachers are asking for, or what they should ask for. To be fair, I probably wouldn’t have been able to either, at 18 years old! It would be nice if we could have the same students for more than a semester or a year to be able to help them develop and be more involved in their own language learning process.

I do have students reflect on how they feel they did about certain activities, such as presentations and speaking tests, but those reflections are usually buried in homework and don’t form a large part of the final assessment. Part of the reason is that, due to my limited Japanese, I can’t have them reflect in their own L1. I do tell them they are more than welcome to do it, and then to write the reflection again as best they can in English, but they only do it English. The other consideration is the students themselves. I currently teach low-level (mostly A0-A2), mostly unmotivated science and tech boys who are not that interested in English and don’t really reflect all that well about their language learning, even in Japanese (according to my colleagues who’ve tried it). Partly for these reasons, reflections tend to take up a minimal part of their final grade.

What other forms of alternative assessments have you done that focus on learner development?

Kay: Another form of alternative assessment I’ve tried is a three-way assessment on group presentations. When I taught a communication class using a task-based approach following a fun textbook by Marcos Benevides and Chris Valvona called Widgets, the students were mostly graded on their group presentations. At the end of each unit, they gave a presentation and everyone in class – the group, other students in the class, and the teacher (me) – evaluated using a simple scale. The students and I wrote comments about each presentation, which were also given to the group with the averaged scores. I asked them to write what they liked about the presentation and what they thought could be better. Through that, I hoped to raise the students’ sense of ownership and control over the learning in the class. It was difficult for the students to write critical comments but I think they got used to it over the semester.

Rachelle: That’s interesting Kay – I’ve done something very similar with my students as well. Moving forward, I think that I may revisit and revise something I’ve used in the past, which is to have students think about and outline what they would like to achieve over the course of their school year with me. In the past I always did this as a way to help them develop their language learning goals, in part to make sure they were realistic and achievable, but for some reason I have never revisited those goals with my students at the end of the year to see if they’ve actually achieved them. I feel that might be a nice complement to both portfolio and continuous assessment. As a language learner myself, that might also help me in my goal to learn Japanese!

Kay: I agree. Revisiting the goals at the end of the semester is a great wrap-up to the course and makes reflections easier, I think.

Rachelle: This is a huge topic, but I was wondering if you had thoughts on any of the following issues: the role of the student/teacher in both teacher-directed and self-directed learning, how evaluations have to adapt to the use of technology (or the other way around), or turning the tables around and having the students evaluate the teacher, and not just with the use of surveys.

Kay: All those issues are important, and we can talk about them in these Talking Points over the year. I’m quite interested in the issue of students’ evaluation of teachers. I feel that it is important and essential for teacher development, but I have never really spent much time getting feedback from the students to improve my teaching or the course. Well, you said you were going to revisit the way of assessing your students and for your students to assess themselves. I think my homework for the break will be to think about what area of teaching I want to improve or make changes in and how to get the feedback from the students during and at the end of the semester.

Rachelle: Well, it looks like I’ll have bit of homework for myself as well. And of course, I’d be interested in hearing from others about their approaches to assessment here on our blog. Hope you have a nice spring break!

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.