Assessment and motivation: end-of-year debates
Assessment has always been an area of great debate among ELT professionals, given its apparent intangibility in connection to the real use of the language. Many of us have been faced with learners watching TV in English and getting back to class saying they understood nothing the actors said, thus questioning the evaluation system that has always told them they are doing well. In that case, most of us have had the chance to show learners they are doing well in certain task and contexts (e.g. predictable familiar contexts) that suit the level of performance they are studying (e.g. A2 in the CEFR).
We have also been challenged with the reverse case: learners who travel somewhere, read or watch something and whose perception was that they understood everything (they needed). These may complain assessment is not fair as they are only average, but performing well in the real world. Again, we may adjust expectations and clarify contexts of language use (or in-depth understanding of underlying messages, for instance. While decoding words may seem as we understand what people say, the combined lexical items may not mean exactly what we think). However, one of the questions I consider very important is actually how aware we are of what and how we are assessing language learners. This may be followed by how much we understand the way it affects learners and help them perceive assessment from different viewpoints.
This post aims at raising questions to generate discussion regarding assessment and learner motivation to encourage them to continue making efforts and embracing challenges that may take them beyond what they can already do with the language. The real trigger for the current text was a conversation with a friend who seemed to be stuck with a conundrum: in her end-of-year lessons she wanted to keep learners motivated by telling them how much they have learned throughout the year, but by doing so she would omit the challenges, the gaps they could tackle in the next year as these may disencourage learners (she had been told). And here, fellow ELT professionals, I believe I have made an informal gathering into a very philosophical lunch to debate our role as educators.
I strongly believe we must keep an empathetic attitude to contribute to learners’ motivation and enthusiasm in learning English. At the same time, I do not conceive any educational context where we purposefully lie to learners expecting a positive outcome. If we tell them about the great accomplishments of the year but fail to inform them about areas they may want to focus on in the future, we may risk giving them reason to become the learner in the first paragraph – the one who feels we have not been honest with them during the learning process. This seems to be a terrible position for an educator, placing us among the least reliable professionals. Whereas when we carefully observe our learners, providing them with timely feedback that addresses their needs we may help them go beyond, really stretching their ZPD (Vygotsky, 1978) and supporting learning.
It may sound very easy, but most of the time there is a fine line between supporting learning and being the ‘nice’ or the ‘strict’ teacher. Especially because all attitudes will also be read through the perspective of our learners, despite our best intentions. Given the fact that we cannot control how learners will perceive feedback, it seems reasonable to aim at being the best professional we can in terms of building our own repertoire of ways to give feedback. That may be a lot of work in varying the manner, the amount, the frequency, according to the learners.
However, it also seems that we have a chance of making a greater difference in the learning process with differentiated approaches to feedback that do not neglect what learners need praise on and information about to keep developing. Denying learners assessment based on what they can or cannot do (yet) with the language may cause more damage in the long run, even if it seems to motivate them in the end of the year. To be really honest, I feel that we sometimes underestimate the learners’ capacity for self-assessment: simply telling them they are doing well when they may use their resources and skills to observe they still have a lot to learn may give them the impression we are not trustworthy.
I have the impression this text is a lot more philosophical and perhaps confusing than others I have published here. I hope it has served its purpose in raising questions and I look forward to discussing the issues with you all.
Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.