As I watched my literacy students doing, or, in several cases, trying to do, a formal assessment task recently, I thought of that old joke: schools are places where students go to watch teachers work. I questioned my competence. We’d spent over a week doing skill building activities, spiralling back to skills and activities, reviewing, repeating, repeating, and repeating. Oh, the repetition. I checked comprehension. Checked again. The students nodded. They did well in the lessons. Then the task. Back to square one.
The stronger students finished first, of course. However, instead of sitting quietly waiting for the others to finish, some of them did what they’ve been doing in class: helping their weaker peers. This being a formal assessment, my first impulse was to stop this helping, or as the academic term has it, cheating.
Helping or Cheating?
Many of our students come from communal cultures, where there’s a fine line between what Westerners brought up in a culture of individualism call cheating, and what many other cultures around the world call helping. Even though my students speak different languages, they don’t let that language barrier prevent them taking ownership of their own learning by becoming instructional resources for one another. For example, when a student misspells a word on the board, another student will guide them towards the correct spelling. When a student doesn’t know what picture on a flashcard goes with what word on the board, the students help.
Similarly, during a formal assessment task, say students are required to write words legibly between lines. One student doesn’t do this. They write words that tilt up or down the page. There’s no space between the words. A stronger student may tell the weaker student their work is wrong. The weaker student erases their work, and the stronger student shows the weaker student what to do – keep their handwriting between lines, on the lines, and with spaces between the words. I’ve also taught them these things. However, even while the students nodded “yes, teacher” when I asked them if they understood, their understanding was more watching me work than actually comprehending me.
One student helping another during a test is considered cheating. However, what purpose does it serve for me to get uppity, give the helpless student a red zero, and take their paper away? Does it move the student forward in acquiring the skills they need to learn English?
Quality Control or Quality Assurance?
When I give an assessment, I ask myself, is the purpose of this task — assessment of learning, or assessment for learning? What’s more important, quality control or quality assurance?
Why not use learners’ skills to support each other? Is the point to pass or to improve?
I’m not saying cheating should be allowed. I’m saying that the aim of assessments at the literacy level is for students to learn. Students helping each other is a way of creating a supportive, safe environment where the students feel that they are there to learn, not to be judged or classified according to grades. The students who require a lot of help to finish a task aren’t going to pass, of course. They haven’t acquired the skills needed to complete the task successfully. At the same time, it’s important that they actually do complete the task, even with help, because they are building their skills. The students who help also learn by teaching and, in doing so, reinforce their knowledge.
At the literacy level, it’s vital that students gain the necessary skills that are the fundamental building blocks for learning English. So, I see assessments at this level not so much in terms of grades, but as learning opportunities for the students. They move forward, no matter how tiny that step is. As long as they move forward, that’s all that counts in our classes—forward motion.