What is the purpose of classroom testing, assessment and evaluation?

When we think of testing, we often think of TOEFL or IELTS. These high stakes exams, with their potential to help make or break futures, are what many think of as the typical exam.

In classes across the world, teachers emulate these exams by using the same question types e.g. multiple choice questions (MCQs).

Often, testing, assessment or evaluation is reduced to a quiz of some kind. Students get a mark, and that’s the end of the story.

At the same time, people in the testing industry, who are mainly involved with the big examination bodies, cannot understand why teachers cannot grasp the ideas of validity and reliability.

I think that unless ‘testing people’ are not teaching themselves, they will never be able to understand class dynamics, and thus why there is such a gap or disconnect between those with testing knowledge, and people who want to assess in the classroom. But is it really up to people who are testers? What about teachers? What’s their take on this? Are they worried? Are they also unhappy about testing in their contexts?

In the Middle East, there is a tendency to reduce the role of teachers to just receiving centrally written quizzes and tests. In reality this reflects the lack of confidence in teacher testing ability.

There are a lot of issues.

I think we need to simplify things and create a take-off point, from which teachers can move forward in terms of their testing knowledge. Let’s keep the testing and assessment jargon to one side.

What I’m proposing, is that we start off with a simple question. The question being. “What is the purpose of classroom testing, assessment and evaluation?”

Once we have the answer to this, we can then take the discussion further. I have my own answers, but if you are a teacher, who teaches a language, what in your view is the purpose of a test?

Once you have an idea of this, it’ll open doors, and hopefully result in an innovative movement in testing, although it’ll be a tough job to convince those who see testing as merely a score producing exercise. But the point is, that we need to look at the classroom as a different context, and study it’s dynamics. The classroom is a learning environment. The role of testing has to be seen as something that contributes to this. Unless we start looking at testing in this sense, it is difficult to see how large numbers of teachers will see tests as anything beyond the merely producing a score.

Lastly, we mustn’t forget our most important stakeholder, the student. After all, they are the ones directly affected by all of this.

Until next time..

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Teaching very very weak students how to write

picture source: emiller27.wordpress.com

How many times have you ended up with a class of students who seem to be well below the level required for a particular class?

They cannot seem to comprehend what you say (listening and vocabulary knowledge?), and are unable to respond when you speak to them. They seem to lack basic words, and yet you have to teach them how to write a 5 paragraph essay!

You have a course schedule with a number of units to cover within a finite period of time. You cannot at this point resort to teaching them grammar and improving their lexis.  Admittedly the latter is easier to do than the former.

They also seem to have a problem when it comes to brainstorming, and seem to lack ideas. May be the ideas are there for a restricted list of topics, as they have probably not had to talk about societal issues. I’m assuming that if ideas exist, they are unable to convey these as those ideas can only be conveyed in their L1.

Strategy so far

I’ve been focussing on ensuring that the students internalise the framework of an essay. What I mean is, the idea of having introductions, body paragraphs and a conclusion, and the sub-levels for these important pillars of an essay, e.g. a hook, thesis statement and supporting ideas.

In every class, we have a new topic or topics, and a brainstorming session. This is followed by trying to fit the ideas into the framework. Which of course is then followed by adding meat to this skeleton. This is a good way to introduce new vocabulary. Throughout this period, I’ve been acting ‘all enthusiastic’ as if I’m some kind of football team manager/ motivator.

In addition to the above, I’ve come to the conclusion, that in order to get the attention of the students, we need to brainstorm topics that they can relate to, or are close to their hearts.

I’ve covered topics like ‘finding a marriage partner’, ‘why a certain famous person is famous’ and even how to make ‘rice and meat’ also known as kabsa! I’ve been amazed at the attention the students give, and how familiar, interesting topics engage them. You can see their eyes light-up and of course the smirks when I try to introduce some ‘silly’ topic.

How are we progressing? Well, the prognosis is, that irrespective of how well the student understands the framework, or likes the topic under discussion, if the message cannot be conveyed, which requires a reasonable level of language, then the chances of success are low. Ultimately, the reader needs to understand the message being conveyed. Being able to piece together accurate sentences with appropriate vocabulary is a necessity. Even part accurate will do. But we are even below that. You know how serious word order problems, along with inappropriate vocabulary can just totally confuse the reader.

I’m sure there are ways that others deal with such difficulties, but when you are teaching a 2-3 credit hour course over a semester, it can be difficult to do anything extra. I have asked them to revise certain tenses they may have studied as part of a grammar course in the past. But should I be following this up? There’s little time.

All of the above obviously brings up issues relating to teaching, learning and assessment issues. Issues that I’ll try to discuss in the future. My final thoughts link in to these issues.

Final thoughts: Who let these students pass the previous courses? They could not possibly have passed looking at their current performance. What were they being taught before and how? What kind of assessment was going on, and using what standard? Is the context a major problem, and do we need to take a closer look at this?

All the best.

From sentence to paragraph to essay – Teaching paragraph writing in Saudi Arabia

After having taught in Saudi Arabia for around 8 years, it is only now that some aspects of what makes Saudi students ‘tick’ is making me re-think my preconceptions of why students struggle to write.

During a recent writing course I was teaching, the best student in the class made me aware that he and the other students had never been taught how to write paragraphs at school. “We were just told to write”. So that’s what they did – write.

They were not taught to:

  • Plan
  • Write an outline
  • Brain storm
  • To write their ideas in any particular order
  • Or to write with any kind of interconnectedness
  • Or to summarise their ideas

There were told “just to write”.

This information is important, as what this brief piece of information reveals, is that students lack basic cognitive/thinking/learning skills, and that in the EFL classroom in addition to worrying about language, a great deal of time needs to be spent in just developing these more ‘lateral skills’.

If anyone knows of any traits within Arabic writing that might help us understand the Arabic writing/thinking process, then could they please share their experiences?

It’s not an Arab problem, it’s a Saudi problem. I say this, as all Arabs tend to be boxed into one category, but as experience shows, cultural and experiential factors play a significant part in how learning and language skills develop. We certainly need more research in this area.

Jumping around like a monkey and trying to motivate the unmotivateable

The title is I must admit a bit harsh (does the word unmotivateable exist?), but in a way describes the context I found myself in the other day.

From a language instructor background, I’m used to ‘jumping around like a monkey’.

Most language instructors try hard to get the attention of their students, trying to get them involved in class activities, with the goal that by the end of the class they will have taken another step in their language learning. When I see a student yawn, I feel the need to access my ‘teaching strategy file’ in that upper stratum we call the brain!

The other day, I was facing a group of BA English students. I had been placed within a ‘lecturing environment’ where as one of the students told me, “teacher we are used to listening, not speaking. We just take notes.”

Tasked with having to teach modals (I was teaching grammar of course) I was faced with a bleary-eyed group of young to mature adult males.It was also late afternoon – 5.30 pm to be exact.

After a few minutes, I realised that my students were not only having difficulty with the concept, they did not seem to understand what I was saying!! When I asked them a question, all I got was silence.

What now I thought as I rubbed my chin and raised one eyebrow (in a James Bond like fashion of course).

Eureka!! (I thought)

I offered to let all of my students go home if they each wrote a sentence for the words must, might, may and could.

I wrote the words on the white board, drew four columns and made my board markers available to anyone who was brave enough to come to the front and take a risk. “Even if you make a mistake, I’ll be happy, the point is to try!!”

I waited a few minutes. Two to three students (the best ones as expected) wrote four sentences each, followed by immediate feedback from yours truly. They then all went home.

After what then seemed quite a few minutes, one or two of the students came forward and started writing. They could look at their grammar book, but they had to use different vocabulary.

The students ‘I think’ had observed the other students writing, looked at what they had written, as well as my feedback, and were beginning to pick up a pattern.

Slowly but surely, some of the more shy students started coming to the front. In a way they had no choice, as the class was becoming empty as more and more of the students started leaving. I gave individual feedback and made sure all the students were watching and at the same time was rallying them to “have a go”.

The class ended at about the same time it normally would.

I was beginning to wonder. Do I have to offer them a chance to go home early in every class to get them to actually learn something or even motivate them? Remember, this was an unusually difficult situation?

And is lecturing really the right way to be teaching a second language? Obviously I can’t use this strategy all of the time.

What would you have done?