In my work I prefer to use an informal approach to evaluating the progress of my students. As I don’t work in a school environment, there are no end of term tests or exams which have to be done, so assessing the progress of each student is carried out almost routinely at every lesson. I feel it is necessary to do this so that I can adapt my lessons to specific problem areas as they occur. The earlier I can intervene, the better.
Initially, every new student I take on goes through a diagnostic level test and assessment to give me a clear understanding of whether they actually do know any English. I find it is important to test all students initially, as some who claim to be proficient in English fail to get even numbers or colours correct when tested. While those who say they have no English language skills can sometimes be proven to know more than they might believe.
I use two forms of assessment for new students, a short written test which is supported by a nice friendly conversation exercise, usually based around what they have done (for past tenses), what they are doing now (present tenses) and what they want to do in the future (future tenses). This works for everyone and it helps me to understand the students' interests plus why they want to either learn something specific or generally improve their English. For those students who really know nothing, then no test is actually required other than to ascertain the why's and wherefores for learning so you know what to provide - so an assessment of needs rather than ability
What about me?
Teachers also need to be assessed, but while I work outside of the formal assessments that the likes of OFSTED provide, I do believe that it is in my own interest to be evaluated as a teacher. There is no easy way for me to go about obtaining an independent assessment of my teaching skills, so I tend to evaluate how well I have done as a teacher, in my role of imparting new language skills to students through the informal assessments of my students, or self assessing me! If a student is obviously struggling with some concept of the language, then I may need to reassess how I go about teaching that particular student and that concept in general. If a student is progressing, then I feel that I have also achieved something worthwhile, which while not being a formal assessment of my skills, it is definitely an informal tick in the box for me.
I do however also always ask for feedback from the students. If I am completing a specific group course (series of lessons) then every participant is asked to complete an anonymous survey of what they liked, didn’t like, what they would have preferred more or less of, how approachable I was as the teacher, how much individual attention they felt they received and if they would recommend me to others. I prefer this with group classes as the results can really be anonymous and are more honest. If I ask my private 1-to-1 students they are more likely to give the ‘nice’ answers, so it really negates the purpose of the exercise.
I think the ultimate proof of your students and your own progress is when students go on to achieve qualifications or new employment using the language skills you have taught them, or perhaps to progress in life in general thanks to improved language abilities. When you as a teacher are continually recommended by word of mouth, there is no better evidence, or compliment, than this.
Formal tests offer students security
While I am not against formal tests and examinations, they have no real bearing for my work, or most of my students. However, I do believe that students like to see their progress as it gives them a level of security that they are actually learning something. In order to convey progress to my students I openly test beginners every 5-6 lessons, it is a simple test and they are always similar so that each can be easily compared. As they start to progress further, I carry out little formal tests with them every 10 lessons to ensure that they are still progressing effectively. These tests build up over time and if my student isn’t working towards a school or university exam, I like to give them a certificate once they have reached a certain level.
Yes, I know that I am not an Exam board, I am just a freelance teacher working in rural Italy, but the certificates I produce help to encourage my students and many have eventually taken the plunge with either Cambridge or Trinity exams thanks to receiving a printed certificate from me saying I have found them to be competent learners.
I also like to help improve the confidence of my students speaking and pronunciation, so once in a while where I feel it is appropriate I like to record their progress on video. This may seem a little unusual for some, but being able to actually show my students past and present videos is a great way to boost their confidence levels and get them out into the world speaking English, which I think is a vital key to being an effective language teacher.
In order to do this I simply get the students to write a short story using a selection of nouns, verbs, adjectives, tenses etc, but then I get them to say this story out loud and I video them. After some time, some pronunciation and speaking training and practice, I then get them to read it again and we examine the differences and the improvement.
We should asses formally and informally
Formal tests and exams do have a place in the academic world, but I don’t believe that teachers or students should rely wholly upon them, there should always be a mix of informal and formal techniques used and I also believe that we can use these tools to effectively encourage our students throughout their entire learning experience.