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Assessing Your Learners

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"May you live in interesting times" is considered to be a Chinese curse. Now we are all living it.

Life in a small town has its own peculiarities. Add to that the fact that I have been working as a teacher at all levels for twenty five years, also as teacher trainer and consultant, and it becomes clear that all this gives me ample opportunities for hearing people’s opinions on many subjects without the need to even ask a question. Understandably education is one of the two most often mentioned topics at hand, the other being scientific research since I live in an academic research community. As the saying goes, everybody and his brother seems to know me because they either went to school with me back in the prehistoric days, or were my own students later, or are parents of my former students, or all together. Sometimes I marvel at this simple truth: for many of my co-towners, I am the authority on everything teaching and learning, regardless of whether they are parents, teachers or students.

No I don’t know all the answers but I can keep up appearances when needed.

This year is unique in the whole history of mankind. Never before have all the countries faced the challenges we are up against now. A lot of data, a lot of experience have accumulated, and a few things I believe became clear. One, nobody knows exactly what to do, how to stop the pandemic. Two, every country, every state is trying to come up with solutions and of course The Cure. Three, though in a different way, all the adults connected to education realize that the situation is dire, yet none of us can solve the problem. What we can offer are some measures to help alleviate it.

One of the questions that float up in my head is the following: what exactly are we assessing now? To explain and illustrate a bit, let us listen to some real parents, grandparents and children. When students of any age are asked now if they miss school, face to face learning and their teachers, their reactions may vary, but one opinion is universal. They miss communication with their peers, normal social interactions, the familiar routines and processes, and yes, they miss their teachers. As my twelve-year-old neighbor put it, “Our EL teacher always yelled at us when we flunked a test and we laughed behind her back”. This pretty much sums it up in some cases. Grandparents to a girl aged 11 confide that with the sudden advent of online learning, they realized that if they did not help their grand-daughter, did not watch over her, she would not be able to keep up. And they barely coped with all the tasks. One positive side effect? They became so busy, they forgot about their ailments. I would say that grandparents are the worst helpers because they would perform all the tasks themselves if their beloved grandchild cannot cope. Parents work or try to; the economic situation is really bad by now for millions of people. So sometimes what we grade are not our students’ efforts but those of their family’s.

During in-class lessons, we teachers provide not only the knowledge, the current topic, the explanation and tasks. We watch over the children, coordinate their efforts, help those who lag behind and give extra tasks to those who are way ahead of their classmates. In essence we provide adult supervision during the whole school day. At home, kids may not get enough of that. I was accosted by a group of teenagers the other day; one of them knows me as his parents’ former teacher, thus a person whom they trust. They asked some questions, none of them connected to the actual process of online teaching, but mostly on my thoughts as to when “this whole situation may end”. And they willingly answered my questions. They say online process is mostly fine; they like a more flexible schedule; they cooperate. “And we experiment with sex because some parents are always out at work”. They assured me that they check safety rules on the web too, “for everything”. It seems that with older students, though in many cases we may assess not an individual’s level but rather a group effort, we are fine.

Helpful tip: look at your own system of assessment and grading. With the younger students, I never use the lowest grades, in fact either online or in class I use only three markers for primary school. They are “Excellent”, “Good” and “Again”. Knowing that they can correct their mistakes, not being afraid of failure plays a huge role in the students’ performance. I would eliminate the “F” (any designation used for Failure) for now with ALL students. They do not need any extra stress. Such a step requires the support of the school administration or district authorities. Another tip seems to be clear too. The regular schedules are disrupted, not only at school but everywhere, meaning that any family may be in a tough situation due to health or financial reasons or both. For our own well-being, as well as for that of our students, we may wish to look at the number of tests and try to gauge how many or how few of them we may realistically conduct online, and then spend days and nights grading, correcting, emailing or downloading.

It pays to always make notes about areas of concern. If, say, the majority of your class has problems with the article or any other grammar topic, you may leave it for whenever the regular schooling resumes. If you notice that their active vocabulary leaves a little or a lot to be desired, suggest that they read a page a day from a real chapter book, with a dictionary, rather than try to make them learn all the new lexis by heart and then double check it online.

Nina Koptyug, Ph.D.