Most of the time, ESL courses and activities are considered non-credit by their host institutions. Private language schools and larger corporations usually run some form of progress assessments for their students, but rarely are these associated to grades. In some rare cases, ESL courses may be graded and may also count for credit, especially in the case of EAP (English for Academic Purposes). To many, the fact that they are “non-credit” courses seems to imply that they are taken less seriously or are “less important” than for-credit courses. Regardless of how your language institution handles success in language courses, timely and “aligned” formative evaluations are a must in the teaching and learning process. The “non-credit” label given to ESL courses may lead to inadequate assessment and/or feedback for students, which can ultimately lead to less achievement. Below are a few guidelines for creating assessments that promote learning and self-reflection as well as target the language skills you are trying to develop in your students.
The concept of “aligned assessments” revolves around ensuring that the learning outcomes set out by your course or student expectations are properly assessed through “authentic” assessments. How many ESL conversation courses have you taught in which the final assessment was a paper-and-pencil grammar exam? The learning outcomes of such a course probably state that the student will learn to “speak” at a certain level with a certain set of linguistic concepts. Briefly, students need to speak. So why test them on how well they can conjugate verbs on paper? Speaking implies an application level as per Bloom’s cognitive dimensions. It also implies a certain psychomotor mastery at the “precision” level as defined by Bloom. Grammar exams, on the other hand, imply at most an “understand” level on the cognitive spectrum and virtually no psychomotor ability. So, in order to assess speaking, the evaluation task should involve speaking.
Gate-keeping vs. Enabling
In high-stakes (difficult, with few but large assessments) courses, a gate-keeping perspective is often put in place in order to “weed out” the weakest students. This happens a lot at the undergraduate level in which instructors may do very little to help students develop in the hope that only the most talented students move on to graduate studies. Unfortunately, this kind of perspective does not help students in the least. If our goal as instructors is to “facilitate” the learning process, our assessments should also do the same. In other words, assessments should not be used to limit success, but rather improve it. So, once an assessment is finished and “graded”, effective feedback should follow. Also, allowing students to evaluate themselves based on a clear evaluation rubric can go a long way in developing self-reflection in their learning.
Frequent Formative Feedback
Assessments do not need to be associated to grades to be effective, but they need to be followed by effective and formative feedback. Most students in ESL care primarily about their development and actual ability rather than a numerical score. Providing them with many little assessments (low stakes) throughout the course, coupled with effective and timely feedback, can curb bad approaches and completely change how a student perceives their linguistic ability. So, weight your tests lightly, provide many small, aligned tasks and give your students feedback all the time.
Do you have any preferred strategies for providing formative feedback? Please share your ideas in the comments below.