Decisions regarding assessment have a great impact in course design and teaching practice. This entry is an invitation to reflect about the subject and its implications for remote teaching. Tom Booth has been working for Cambridge Assessment for the past 12 years. He works on digital products that bring together learning and assessment. We talked to him about the importance of becoming aware of constructs surrounding assessment, principles such as constructive alignment and learner-oriented assessment, and how these translate to good teaching practice.
Tom invites us to think about assessment in a comprehensive way that goes beyond high-stakes exams. In his words, assessment is ‘anything where we are collecting evidence and, importantly, using evidence about learning’. This can include all of the things that teachers do, observe or notice everyday in their lessons.
Teachers’ beliefs about assessment and language learning greatly affect their teaching practice. For example, it will influence the tasks they prioritise, the subjects they decide to spend more time on, etc. For this reason, taking the time to reflect about the constructs surrounding them is worthwhile i.e. what their implicit or explicit understanding about the skill or ability they’re trying to assess is, what they understand by language ability and, more broadly, by language learning.
This ELT Research publication conducted by the University of Huddersfield with the support of the British Council explored teacher’s beliefs about assessment.
Principles of assessment that reflect principles of good teaching and are worth reflecting upon are:
Simply put, this means that assessment, learning objectives and outcomes, and what teachers and learners do in class are all aligned, which, once again, would imply teachers’ beliefs about these are aligned as well. However, this is often not the case. Learning processes are complex and they do not follow a straight line. Understanding that even when learners have the same goals, they might take different paths to attain them is key to this notion.
As Biggs (2003) puts it in this short article in which he introduces the concept, it means that ‘all components in the teaching system - the curriculum and its intended outcomes, the teaching methods used, the assessment tasks - are aligned to each other.’
Learning-oriented assessment cycle
This cycle refers to the sequence in which a learner does something (e.g. completes a task) and a teacher observes something about the student’s performance, makes some form of interpretation and the learner gets some feedback on that task, which influences what the learner does next.
Teacher’s noticing what the learner does is essential for this, as well as their flexibility to respond to it. It is necessary to pay close attention to learners to understand where they are, what their needs are and take action based on that. It is especially important to bear this in mind when students are engaged in tasks, as these are opportunities to observe them closely, learn from them and use that to feed into the next teaching decisions.
Implications for teaching practice
Taking these points into consideration will affect lesson planning. It means teachers need to plan tasks thinking about what they will be looking for in the learners as they carry them out, asking themselves: What will I observe? What can I learn from my learners? What might I be able to do with the information I get from watching them do these activities? How can I create opportunities for useful feedback?
Applying these principles in remote lessons requires careful planning and activity set up. In contexts in which all learners share the physical space and connect with the teacher through videoconference, it can be challenging to notice individual needs. Strategic placement of the microphone, close collaboration with supporting classroom teachers and use of backchannels and LMS would need to be used in order to do that. In scenarios in which each learner connects from a different remote location, varied strategies and videoconference features and functions need to be used to create opportunities to notice individual learners. An example of this is setting up group work in breakout rooms that the teacher can monitor to notice aspects of students’ performance that will inform future decisions.
This latter idea is the starting point for the second part of our conversation with Tom, which centres on effective feedback: how can we create opportunities for useful feedback for our students? Watch part 2 here!