I recently updated my book, Teach and Leorn: Reflections on Communicative Language Teaching, from which this is a chapter, and made it available on Kindle and as an inexpensive book. To enjoy a read, please click here.
By Peter McKenzie-Brown
Students hate tests, and so do teachers. For the student, they are a pain to study for and a worry to take. For the teacher, they are a nuisance to give and a bother to grade. But research shows that failing to give tests is bad educational practice. This is because if you test your students, they will probably better retain the material you are presenting. And oddly enough, they can do so without studying more or harder.
The Testing Effect: The journal Psychological Science noted this outcome in a 2006 report. According to the researchers, “Taking a memory test not only assesses what one knows, but also enhances later retention, a phenomenon known as the testing effect.” They added, “Testing is a powerful means of improving learning, not just assessing.”
Oddly enough, tested students can actually do better with less study. According to a media report,
….students who relied on repeated study alone frequently developed a false sense of confidence about their mastery of the materials even while their grasp of important detail was sliding away. By comparison, students who were either tested repeatedly or tested themselves while revising scored dramatically higher marks. A group of students who read a piece of text 14 times, for example, recalled less than a self-testing group who had read the piece only three or four times.
Now, let’s move from the immediate findings of this research to the realm of common sense. Teachers have long known that testing plays a key role in teaching and learning.
Self-tests in language promote retention, while process-focused tests (for example, writing a journal or preparing to give an oral presentation) activate language. Testing has many other uses. Through testing, both teacher and learner get a better sense of the student’s progress. They encourage students to self-evaluate and they promote autonomy in learning. We can use them to provide a sense of closure to a unit or a course of study. They can give your students a better sense of where their competence has improved, and they can give you feedback on how effective you are as a teacher.
Traditional and Alternative Assessments: Traditional forms of testing fall into four basic categories. (1) Proficiency tests give general information on student language proficiency level. They are not specific to any particular program. (2) Placement tests are designed to be appropriate for a specific program. These tests should reflect the goals and ability levels in the program and help you place students within the program. (3) Achievement tests, which should be part of every language curriculum, should be specific to the goals and objectives of a specific language course. (4) Finally, diagnostic tests focus on individual student’s strengths and weaknesses. You can use information from diagnostic tests to help your students improve in particular areas of weakness.
There are many ways to create standard tests for language students. They are commercially available, and many schools have files of hoary old tests you can borrow or emulate. A frequently raised concern about these tests is the question of whether they have validity (they measure what they are supposed to measure); reliability (the tests are consistent); and objectivity (the assessment is unbiased). In terms of this discussion, those are issues for another day.
From the communicative language teaching perspective, a more pressing weakness of traditional testing is that it is neither communicative nor authentic. Given the importance of assessment as a teaching aid, however, it is worth looking at alternative ways to test foreign language students. For language learners more than for other learners, perhaps, alternatives are particularly important.
There are four obvious forms of alternative assessment. Observe your students, writing notes in student records. Meet with them. Have them write journals. And have them create portfolios of their work. These are just a sample, however, and they are not systematic. For system, consider a review by Jo-Ellen Tannenbaum.
The Alternatives: The American educator wrote a commentary on alternative assessment. She pictures the landscape in these words:
Many educators have come to recognize that alternative assessments are an important means of gaining a dynamic picture of students' academic and linguistic development. “Alternative assessment refers to procedures and techniques which can be used within the context of instruction and can be easily incorporated into the daily activities of the school or classroom”. It is particularly useful with (language) students because it employs strategies that ask students to show what they can do. In contrast to traditional testing, “students are evaluated on what they integrate and produce rather than on what they are able to recall and reproduce”. Although there is no single definition of alternative assessment, the main goal is to “gather evidence about how students are approaching, processing, and completing real-life tasks in a particular domain”.
Alternative assessments, she added, generally meet the following criteria:
• Focus is on documenting individual student growth over time, rather than comparing students with one another.
• Emphasis is on students' strengths (what they know), rather than weaknesses (what they don't know).
• Consideration is given to the learning styles, language proficiencies, cultural and educational backgrounds, and grade levels of students.
In her thoughtful article, Tannenbaum puts alternative assessments into five categories. The first she calls “non-verbal assessment strategies”, in which students use physical demonstration or pictures, for example, to illustrate their comprehension.
A second is the KWL chart. The initials refer to “what I know/what I want to know/what I've learned”, and she advocates using this tool to begin and end a unit of study. In an EFL class, you might begin by surveying students on their course expectations. At various points in the course, you could then assess what they know and what they are learning. At the end of the unit, you can work with the students to determine how much they have learned of what they wanted to know.
Tannenbaum also suggests oral performances or presentations as alternative forms of testing. “Performance-based assessments include interviews, oral reports, role plays, describing, explaining, summarizing, retelling, paraphrasing stories or text material, and so on.” Other possibilities include role play and oral presentations. She adds that oral assessments should be conducted regularly so you can monitor your students’ comprehension and thinking skills.
A fourth cluster of alternatives includes what she calls “oral and written products.” She suggests that the teacher can assess student progress include “content area thinking and learning logs, reading response logs, writing assignments (both structured and creative), dialogue journals, and audio or video cassettes.”
Finally, she advocates the portfolio of student work, collected over time to track student development. She suggests that portfolios should include a variety of materials -- audio- and videotaped recordings of readings or oral presentations, for example; writing samples and assignments; conference or interview notes and anecdotal records; and tests and quizzes.
Individualized assessment can be a time-consuming task, and it will drift into the realm of the virtually impossible if you ever find yourself with, for example, several large classes of university students. However, the case for assessment is compelling. After all, your responsibility as a teacher is to promote learning among your students, and the much-hated practice of testing can be one of the great tools toward achieving that goal.