Assessment of Learning or for Learning?

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mario herrera

Mario Herrera has taught English for over 30 years. He has a degree in education and an MA in EFL,  and is the author and co-author of many ESL/EFL series for Pearson. His most recent course is Big English, a 6-level primary course, and he is also well known for Parade and Backpack. He has also written a number of courses for pre-primary and teen learners. A well-known and highly-respected international education consultant and teacher trainer, Mario travels across the world giving seminars and teaching workshops throughout the Americas, Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. Mario believes that in the world of teaching, motivation and learning have always gone hand in hand. In this post, he flips the conventional idea of Assessment of Learning to discuss a much more dynamic and learning-centered process … 

The assessment most teachers are familiar with is Assessment of Learning, which is mostly associated with evaluating in a more effective way, not just testing. It represents the opportunity to figure out which aspects of the curriculum need to be reinforced through re-teaching, etc., but what if that could be practiced daily? What if everything we do in the classroom every day could be assessed on the spot by monitoring what students are doing and immediately assisting them? To do it, we must make sure students are always aware of the objective pursued, and challenged at the end of the process, to develop tasks never reached before. That is Assessment for Learning. Teachers that practice it are very interested in differentiating one from the other, as it truly does make a big difference in learning when teaching activities can also provide useful feedback. It becomes formative assessment when the resulting “evidence” is used to adapt teaching to meet students’ learning needs there and then.

We can now categorically say that Assessment for Learning (AfL) is not only a way of showing knowledge, but also of learning during the process: a method for teaching, not just for the determination of strengths and shortcomings at the end of the road. The results couldn’t be better. The whole lesson is under the spotlight. Attention is paid to how students learn, not just if or what they have learned.

Assessment for Learning as a method

In English language teaching, particularly with young learners, AfL can be represented through a very easy lesson layout, if we follow certain basic criteria. It’s important that from the get-go students are aware of which objectives are being pursued, and what the final results should look like. We must describe to them what’s going to happen in our lesson and what they are expected to do. Once that’s covered, we follow some simple teaching steps:

  1. Involve. With the best attitude possible, we tell our students what we are going to do. It could be singing a song, reading a text, practicing a dialogue, brainstorming about something, or anything else that we have lined up for them. The important thing is that they feel motivated to participate and that that sentiment persists throughout the lesson. This is when we are presenting the new language and it’s important that we recreate a positive moment for our students. While they are happy and involved, the teacher is attentive to how the activities are being received. Are they understanding it? Is everybody participating? Were we able to recreate reality in the classroom while setting the needed context?
  2. Monitor. Now it’s time to gather diagnostic information. As the students practice, the teacher walks around, participating with students in their activities and listening in to what they are saying. The idea is to determine how well they are doing compared to the objectives being pursued. Teachers must mingle, correct students politely when needed, and keep track of gaps found in achievement and performance … all without losing their smile.
  3. Assist. It’s time to close the identified gaps. The idea is to reteach what was identified as unachieved. This is when all those sessions on multiple intelligences we sat through will pay off. We learned that students have different ways of learning and we should find a convenient path for them to do so. Now we need to propose an alternate way to close the gaps detected when monitoring. If we presented the new language by asking students to read, we can have them speak; if we asked them to sing, we can now ask them to write, etc. We call it “assist,” rather than just “reteach” because we should be aware of the emotional element attached to being supported when needing help with something.
  4. Challenge. Without a doubt, one of the best improvements in the teaching process based on Assessment for Learning is the possibility of taking the learning experience one cognitive step forward. We can now get into a deeper cognitive momentum by asking our students to extend what they now know into producing language, both oral and in writing, where they feel challenged. We can ask our students to express topic-related opinions, followed by tag questions such as “why?” or “why not?” These challenges should be carefully designed so they do not demand more than what’s possible, yet they give students an opportunity for self-awareness of their improvement. There’s nothing better than knowing that you know!

For more information on how Big English 2nd Edition (American English) incorporates the Assessment for Learning approach, take a look at the course’s website

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