In my experience of teaching juniors (6-11) and seniors (11-16) I have found that there is a notable difference in their attitudes to assessment.
Jenny Bedwell, British Council, Spain

For example, the older age group are much more likely to anticipate a forthcoming test with nervousness and dread, whereas the younger learners display a certain amount of excitement and even pleasure at the prospect of being able to show off what they have learnt. I suppose this is not so surprising when we consider the fact that the outcome of senior tests are likely to have more serious consequences with the added pressure of parent and teacher expectations.

  • Overall assessment
  • Formative assessment
  • Examples
  • Results
  • Summary

    Overall assessment
    Another reason for the difference is perhaps the type of assessment that we, as teachers, often administer to juniors and seniors. Whereas the younger learners are usually assessed in a non-threatening, enjoyable environment; working in groups to demonstrate their collective ability, seniors are more likely to experience assessment carried out individually where they are expected to reproduce discrete language items from memory. This more formal type of testing would probably occur at the end of a semester or academic year and the results then used to write a school report and to determine where the student is placed the following year. This is known as overall assessment or summative assessment, which may provide straightforward results for teachers to analyse, but does not necessarily provide a clear picture of an individual’s overall progress or even their full potential, especially if they are hindered by the fear factor of physically sitting a test.

    Formative assessment
    The alternative type of testing is referred to as ongoing or formative assessment and as well as providing a more positive experience for learners it can also be invaluable for us as teachers, to see if our lesson aims have been fulfilled and our overall objectives have been met. It can also help us to assess student strengths and weaknesses and give us a strong indication as to which type of activities students like and dislike.

    Here is an example of ongoing assessment, which I carried out with a group of 8-9 year old Portuguese learners in their second year of learning English. We were using a coursebook and at the end of each module students were required to complete an evaluation sheet that was divided into 4 parts.

    Part 1 - A series of 5 or 6 tasks to demonstrate the skills and language they had just learnt.
    These tasks were generally completed in pairs or small groups and would vary in type; matching exercises, sentence ordering, gap-fills, songs, miming actions, reading comprehension, labelling diagrams, describing pictures, performing mini dialogues etc. The important thing was not to repeat the same task-type that the students had completed in the module so that they were demonstrating their understanding of the language, not from memory alone, but by their ability to manipulate it in a different way. After completing the task students coloured in one of three related icons to demonstrate how well they had performed.

    • One icon = quite well
    • Two icons = well
    • Three icons = very well

      Part 2 - A list of statements referring to students’ general behaviour and overall class participation.

      These statements were presented in a chart that students coloured in according to how well they rated their own performance. For example:

       Never Sometimes Always
      I speak to the teacher in English   
      I do my homework   
      I try to speak to my friends in English   
      I work well on my own   

      Part 3 - A simple self-reflection task to show how much the students enjoyed the activities in the coursebook module. Again, they coloured in one of three simple face icons.

      • Sad face = didn’t enjoy it
      • Neutral face = it was ok
      • Smiley face = enjoyed it

        Part 4 - A separate box for the teacher to write his/her own comments. Also, a box for parents to sign, as students were expected to take the evaluation sheet home to display as part of their ongoing portfolio of work. 

        I found that the students really looked forward to these assessment lessons and were very proud of their completed evaluation sheets. Surprisingly, even at this age, they were able to self-reflect quite openly and honestly and did not automatically give themselves the maximum award if they felt it was undeserved. Sometimes, though, it was necessary for me to intervene if students were colouring in 3 pictures when they had clearly struggled to complete the task.

        The opportunity to complete the tasks in pairs or small groups removed the pressure of being individually tested and added an enjoyable element to the assessment process. Clearly, there is also a necessity for students to be able to work independently, which is why students are asked to reflect on their ability to work alone in Part 2. If desired, an individual task could easily be included in the assessment to distinguish the stronger students from the weaker ones.

        Overall, I think this type of ongoing assessment is effective not only in recycling and revising language but also in encouraging younger learners to be aware of their own abilities and needs and to perceive assessment as a positive experience.

        As far as teachers are concerned, it is also an excellent way of monitoring student progress on a regular basis and discovering which activities students respond to more favourably. This is invaluable information when planning future lessons to suit the learning styles within the group as well as pinpointing which language areas and which skills need developing further.

        Finally, I think ongoing assessment works best when it is combined with an element of overall assessment, particularly with seniors, who are perhaps more motivated by the opportunity to display their individual knowledge as well as their ability to work as a group. Personally, I find the productive skills, speaking and writing, which require a process of drafting and editing, are better suited to formative assessment, whereas the receptive skills, listening and reading, can be effectively tested using summative assessment methods. In this way learners benefit from the social, co-operative skills required for group work but also have the opportunity to demonstrate their individual potential.

        First published in January 2007

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