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How to Maximize 5 Assessment Methods in Language Teaching

You walk into your classroom and announce a pop quiz on last night’s homework.

Your students jump up from their desks and cheer.

Yeah, that’s never happened to me either.

When most students—and most teachers—think of assessment, they get long in the face and anticipate unending drudgery.

You probably already know a thing or two about common methods of assessment, and maybe even have a couple old standbys you use regularly to measure your students’ proficiency and progress (like multiple choice tests, fill-in-the-blank, etc.).

And sometimes these common methods of assessment are in fact very useful… but sometimes they’re not.

Popular assessment methods are popular for a reason, but if you want to make assessment as comfortable and effective as possible for both you and your students, you need to go a bit deeper into the “why” and “how” of these methods.

In this post, we’ll look at five common language teaching assessment methods, when to use them and how to implement them successfully.

We’ll also look at the different categories these methods fall into and reasons you may have for assessing your students in the first place.

The key to successful assessment in the language classroom is knowing what you want to assess and the best way to do it. And that’s what we’re here to talk about today.
 


 
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Why Do We Assess Students?

First off, it’s worth taking a minute to talk about why we assess students in the first place. Not all assessments are simply to see how much information from the current unit your students have retained.

Here are some possible reasons you may be assessing students:

  • To place students. I once taught in a program where we got new students every four weeks. Every month we gave assessments to the incoming students to see where they would best fit into the classes we were offering that term.
  • To determine if learning goals been met. This is probably the most common reason for assessment in the foreign language classroom. Have the students learned what you wanted them to? The right assessment can answer this question.
  • To determine what the students need help with. Not everyone learns language in the same way, and not all students have the same speed of progress. You might find yourself assessing your students to see where each individual is with what you’re teaching and where each person needs individualized attention.
  • To determine if your teaching methods are effective. I’m not a perfect teacher, and I’m willing to bet you aren’t either. Unfortunately, I’ve had more than one time when an activity I thought would work great with a class flopped instead. But I might not have known my hit was really a miss if I hadn’t assessed to see what students had retained.

Keeping in mind why you’re assessing students will help you consider which types of assessment you may want to use in your class.

Understanding the Difference Between Direct and Indirect Language Assessment

W. S. Gilbert said, “Let the punishment fit the crime.” In the same way, we need to let the assessment fit the purpose. It’s important when assessing students to make sure the assessment type fits the kind of information you want to assess.

Here are two categories of assessment that are essential for you to understand in order to choose the right type of assessment for your students.

Indirect Language Assessment

Indirect language assessment is an assessment of a person’s receptive language. That means it measures how well someone understands language that’s presented to them.

This type of assessment gives students choices and asks them to pick the best answer.

Advantages of Indirect Language Assessment

This type of assessment has many advantages:

  • It’s very objective, as there’s one correct answer to each question.
  • Because receptive language skills tend to be higher than productive language skills, you can assess a larger bank of information.
  • It’s also a type of testing that’s good for low-level students since their productive language skills may not be in a place where they can be successful at other types of assessment.

Disadvantages of Indirect Language Assessment

Indirect language assessment also has disadvantages, however:

  • Because students are choosing an answer, guessing is possible and can be effective. No one wants “When in doubt, choose letter C” to be their students’ motto.
  • Besides which, writing a high-quality test of this sort isn’t easy to do and can be time consuming.

Types of Indirect Language Assessment

Common types of indirect assessment include:

  • Multiple choice tests.
  • True/false tests.
  • Fill-in-the-blank tests (with a word bank).

Direct Language Assessment

Direct language assessment is an assessment of a person’s productive language. That means it measures how well someone is able to produce language on their own.

This type of assessment gives students a task and asks them to produce the language necessary to complete it.

Advantages of Direct Language Assessment

Direct language assessment has many advantages:

  • The biggest advantage is that students can demonstrate their language proficiency in many ways.
  • It’s also a communicative type of assessment, meaning it’s more like real-life language, and because of that it’s considered a more authentic type of assessment.

Disadvantages of Direct Language Assessment

But as with anything, there are disadvantages as well:

  • While these types of assessments may be easy to create, they can be difficult to score.
  • Some students, especially those with performance anxiety, may experience more stress with direct language assessments.
  • These assessments also take more time to both assess and score.

Types of Direct Language Assessment

Common types of direct assessment include:

  • Presentations.
  • Interviews.
  • Essays.
  • Short answer questions.

Gain Total Mastery of 5 Language Teaching Assessment Tools

Now that we’ve looked at the two main types of assessment, let’s consider some specific assessment methods you’ve probably used in your class and see when they’re the best choice for your students. Keep in mind that some methods and resources may use both types of assessment, which may allow for greater flexibility, especially if this gives you a chance to use pre-made material.

For example, a FluentU Teacher account gives you the ability to assess students without them even knowing it by tracking their answers to customized quizzes on FluentU videos that use a variety of question-and-answer formats. FluentU takes real-world videos—like news, music videos, movie trailers and other interesting material—and turns them into personalized language lessons (and great teaching tools!).

We’ll also look at ways you can maximize the effectiveness of each method below.

Multiple Choice

As we said earlier, multiple choice tests are indirect methods of assessment, so they measure how much language a student is able to recognize.

When Is This the Right Testing Method?

If you’re testing for specific information or need to test a lot of information, this type of assessment may fit the bill. That’s why this type of assessment makes up the bulk of the TOEFL test.

This is also a good choice for beginning students or those who may have performance anxiety. Because they have a bank of answers in front of them, they can rely on their receptive language skills rather than drawing from their productive language skills.

This is also a good type of assessment to use when you’re placing students in a program and you need to know what they do and don’t know. You’re testing a lot of information when you need to place a student, and you want your assessment to be easy to score.

Tips for Successful Implementation

  • When you use multiple choice tests, you may want to give both the instructions and feedback in the students’ L1 (first language). That way they’ll know exactly what’s expected of them and how they performed, and confusion over instructions won’t play a role in the examination.
  • Know that this is not a communicative type of assessment, so if you want to get a fuller picture of your students’ language skills, be sure to include other types of assessment and don’t base their entire grade on whether they can pick the right letter in answer to a question.
  • Writing a quality test of this nature isn’t as easy as some people might think. You’ll want to:
    • Avoid answers using always and never. 
    • Make sure all choices are grammatical.
    • Keep your questions phrased in the positive.

For more tips on how to write effective multiple choice tests, check out this post on Faculty Focus.

Cloze Exercises

A cloze exercise, though primarily an indirect assessment method, does allow for some creativity on the part of the student (that is, if you don’t include a word bank), so there’s a bit of direct assessment there, too. This is a nice transition point for beginning students to move from indirect assessment to direct assessment.

When Is This the Right Testing Method?

When you have students who are lower-level but you want to test their productive language skills, this method will give you the best of both worlds. They don’t have to produce all the language in the assessment, but they do need to produce some of it.

You can still assess a larger amount of information, and your students still have room for creativity in their answers.

Tips for Successful Implementation

  • You’ll need to be very specific in your instructions for this type of assessment. Consider giving them in the students’ L1 so they’re completely clear on what to do with all the blanks.
  • This type of test will take more time to score than a simple multiple choice test since there can be variety in students’ answers. So think ahead about what answers are acceptable and what aren’t, and be flexible when you do score the test. If an answer is grammatical and makes logical sense, even if it isn’t what you expected or hoped your student would write, consider it a right answer.

Guide students in deep breathing for 2-3 minutes before the test.

Go through the directions for the test and tell students to read through the whole thing before starting in on it.

Let students chew gum during the test to distract them from their stress.

Rubric

Full disclosure, a rubric is one of my favorite methods of assessment. Perhaps that’s because it makes subjective assessment more objective, and the expectations are clear from the start.

When Is This the Right Testing Method?

When you want to allow students a lot of freedom in the language they produce for their assessment, this may be a good choice for you. It will give you specific qualities to look for in the language that’s produced.

It’s also a nice method for advanced students because you can involve them in creating the rubric. Then they’ll have clear expectations in what you’re looking for.

A Tip for Successful Implementation

When you create a rubric for an assignment, you have objective standards students must meet. That means that you’re not the only one who can score their assignments. This is a good time to incorporate peer assessment into your program, having students use the rubric to assess their classmates’ assignments. It provides a communicative activity in class as partners explain their assessments to each other.

If you haven’t tried peer assessment, you really should give it a shot. There are lots of benefits to peer assessment, including a deeper understanding of the subject matter, communicative and project-based use of language, development of critical thinking skills and opportunities for students to share their cultures with each other.

Oral Presentation

Speaking in class can be stressful for many language students, but that doesn’t mean you should write off this type of assessment. It’s a great way to take a look at students’ productive language and bring lots of creativity into the classroom.

When Is This the Right Testing Method?

When you want to give students lots of room for creativity in their assessment, this is the way to do it. You can have students give a lecture-type presentation, but they can also do a skit, make a movie, perform a debate… the possibilities are only limited by your and your students’ imaginations.

When you ask students to give oral presentations, you give them a lot of freedom, and this is about as similar to real-life language use as you can get.

Tips for Successful Implementation

  • Because students have so much freedom for creativity, this type of assessment is going to take a lot of time and effort. First because you’ll have to let each student have their own time for the presentation and second because you’ll have to think about how each person met the set objectives. This type of assessment may not allow you to test specific language skills in your students, so plan on using it as part of a set of assessments in the classroom, and don’t base a student’s entire grade on this type of assessment.
  • If you do have students present to the rest of the class, video record them with their own phones or tablets. Then, as part of the assessment, have students watch their own presentation and self-assess just how well they did by giving them a set of questions to answer. (Here’s an example that’s used at the University of Hawaii.) Answer those same questions on your own and then meet with the student to compare answers. Take time to discuss any points your answers differed on.

Portfolio Assessment

Portfolio assessments are becoming more popular in education in general, and there’s good reason for it. It takes multiple days and activities into account, so you aren’t basing a student’s entire grade on one day or one test.

When Is This the Right Testing Method?

If you have students who get nervous about traditional testing or even other specific assessment methods, this is a good choice for you. Because it’s a big-picture look at a student’s performance, there’s no one event that becomes “do or die” in their minds, and that reduces their stress.

Portfolios are also good for assessing multiple skills, so if you have a reading, writing, speaking and grammar class, you can include items for each area in one portfolio.

If your class is a blend of native speakers and ESL students, you’ll find this more customizable method especially effective, as they did at the Brooklyn International High School.

Tips for Successful Implementation

  • Since portfolios are a collection of evidence, it will take organization on your part as well as your students’ to put together a great portfolio. Have in mind at the beginning of the semester what you want students to include, and have a designated place for them to keep their portfolios. Take materials from the entire semester, not just the end.
  • You can include tests, compositions and homework in the portfolio, but don’t forget about assessments from oral presentations, videos or creative compositions such as brochures, maps and family trees when planning a portfolio.
  • Consider scoring how much a student improved rather than just the hard scores on each item.

 

“Let the assessment fit the purpose.”

It’s probably not going to make it into any great quotation collections, but it can make a difference in your classroom.

By taking the time to think about what you’re assessing and how to best accomplish it, you can be sure that your classroom and your gradebook look the way they should.
 


 

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