Taking the Fear out of Assessment - By Lee McCallum
Assessment mysteries and fears
In my current Higher Education teaching context, we are gearing up for final exams and to say students are worried, stressed and anxious would be an understatement. While I began my teaching career working with YLs, teens and adults in a variety of different contexts and situations, the commonality between these settings and groups is always the same: students see testing/assessment as a negative, stressful and potentially damaging personal and professional experience which they have little control over.
As a teacher, trainer and examiner in my current context, I have tried hard to eradicate the belief that the teacher is the only one with the power to set the agenda for assessment and have widely championed different tools that can form formative and summative assessment components on a course. This short article will compare attitudes to assessment and highlight the benefits of adopting a student-centred approach before finally providing some examples of student-centred tasks that can be used as formative and summative measures on a range of skills-based language courses.
Traditional attitudes to assessment
Traditional attitudes and approaches to student assessment have focused on the final outcome of a course in that students have to pass a final exam. This approach focuses on students being able to achieve the course’s learning outcomes by the end of the course and has been termed ‘assessment of learning’. When this approach is taken, students’ efforts are often geared towards this end of course assessment and, from my own experience, this is where the majority of their attention is focused. This focus leads to students experiencing great anxiety and stress because in their eyes they have only one chance to pass the course and often with high-stakes language exams like IELTS, TOEFL and the Cambridge English exams, these exams determine students’ future study and career options.
A more student-centred approach to assessment
Unlike the standardized tests or teacher-made tests which have become such a key part of learning, student-centred assessment takes an individualized approach to assessment and moves away from the end product to focus more on continuous student learning and growth (Andrade, Huff & Brooke, 2012). Students are an integral part of the assessment process, with tasks being co-created with the help of the teacher. Similarly, students are encouraged to self-assess their own learning as well as assess their peers’ learning with guidance from the teacher (Andrade, Huff & Brooke, 2012). This approach is termed ‘assessment for learning’, where the assessment acts as a learning tool that encourages future growth (Pearson ELT, n.d).
Why should we adopt a student-centred approach?
Adopting student-centred assessment has the following benefits:
- Student-centred assessment allows students to be part of the assessment process and so there is no mystery about what the assessment involves (Nicol & MacFarlane-Dick, 2006)
- There is a greater balance between formative and summative assessment whereby teachers can give students on-going assessment feedback that helps target weaknesses throughout the course (Nicol & MacFarlane-Dick, 2006).
- Students are given opportunities to self-reflect on their learning and increase their confidence because they understand what standard of performance the teacher expects (Nicol & MacFarlane-Dick, 2006).
- Student-centred assessment moves away from the one size fits all standardized approach and caters for different learning preferences (Rich, Colon, Mines & Jivers, 2014).
Tasks need to be achievable and themed around not only the course/material being taught, but what students have an interest in. Possible tasks might include:
- Video blog entries and ethnolinguistic digital stories
- Poster creations on material previously taught on the course
- E-portfolios (electronic version of traditional portfolios that showcase students’ best work)
- Pair/group generated quizzes
- Creating a wiki or Facebook group for the course with weekly tasks
- Learner diaries and short story entries.
Applications and platforms that can help create tasks and assessments
- FluentU: Lessons can be themed around videos (http://www.fluentu.com/).
- Voxy: News and stories, games for language practice and quizzes (https://voxy.com/blog/index.php/2011/04/voxy-location-based-iphone).
- SpellMeRight: Word scramble game that is useful for working with students whose first language has very different spelling patterns from English, e.g. Arabic (https://www.nala.ie/content/spell-me-right-app).
- Quizlet: Allows teachers to generate flashcard sets and vocabulary quizzes (https://quizlet.com/).
- Edmodo: This application/platform is accessible to parents, teachers and students and encourages teachers to experiment with blended learning (https://www.edmodo.com).
- ClassDojo: This application/platform is accessible to parents, teachers and students and allows the teacher to award points for tasks and monitor student progress and is particularly useful for monitoring class behaviour with YLs (https://www.classdojo.com/).
- WriteToLearn: Allows students to practice reading comprehension skills as well as essay and summary writing (http://www.writetolearn.net/).
All of the above apps are available online and most are also available through the Google Play store for download. These applications can help foster a collaborative and competitive attitude to class and assessment with a variety of different learner groups and classes. FluentU and Voxy are particularly useful for preparing adults and teens for speaking exams and/or academic writing classes where the videos can act as a springboard to writing tasks.
This article has hopefully shared some useful ideas for creating assessments that students find engaging, motivating and achievable. The article also hopes to remind teachers that assessment should not be made to into a stressful experience and that it should receive the same attention as learning in the classroom.
Ethnolinguistic: Highlights the relationship between language and culture where language influences culture and culture influences language in a loop. An ethnolinguistic digital story uses a media platform like video to share stories on how language influences and is influenced by people’s lives.
Andrade, H., Huff, K., & Brooke, G. (2012). Assessing learning. The Students at the Centre
Series. Available at: http://www.studentsatthecenter.org/sites/scl.dl-dev.com/files/Assessing%20Learning.pdf. Last accessed: 15/05/2016.
Nicol, D.J., & Macfarlane-dick, D.(2006). Formative assessment and self-regulated learning:
A model and seven principles of good feedback practice. Studies in Higher Education, 31(2), 199-218.
Pearson ELT (n.d). Assessment for learning. Available at:
Rich, J.D., Colon, A.N., Mines, D., & Jivers, K.L. (2014). Creating learner-centred
assessment strategies for promoting greater student retention and class participation. Frontiers in Psychology, 5, 1-3.
Ms. Lee McCallum is an EdD candidate at the University of Exeter and currently lectures in Saudi Arabia. She has wide ranging experience from Europe and the Middle East. She previously taught exam classes including Cambridge English exams, IELTS and TOEFL. Her interests include: testing, corpus linguistics and L2 writing.