Some practical ideas

• Tests in the school year

Tests given during the school year can be seen as ways to help bring about changes in our teaching. In this way they move away from being merely 'attainment' or 'achievement' tests and instead become 'formative' or 'diagnostic'. In this case evaluation is used to improve certain aspects of the course or to change or add different activities in order to improve the progress of more of the students in the class during the course of the school year.The short tests given during the year usually refer back to units recently covered in class and usually focus on grammar and vocabulary. Often they are 'gap fill' so the teacher or even students can mark them quickly. These provide quantitative feedback - they tell us how much the students have remembered but they do not tell us how they learnt it or which kind of tasks the students found most useful to help them understand it. However, if the students are involved in evaluating the contents of the test, we can acquire qualitative feedback on the basis of which we can re-assess our teaching and testing behaviours. There are different ways in which students can be involved in this qualitative process of assessment and evaluation.We can bring the students into the process of 'how' by, for example, ... inviting them to think about what kind of exercise would best test their knowledge of vocabulary.


• Evaluation in vocabulary assessment

involving the studentsFirst, all tests consist of 'what' and 'how': students usually know 'what' they will be tested on but they are probably not told 'how'. We often underestimate the 'how': that is, the exercise type we choose may not be a factor taken into account when we design the test. Nevertheless, it is this 'how' of the test which can help us make our teaching and the students' learning more effective. We can bring the students into the process of 'how' by, for example, telling them that there will be a vocabulary test and inviting them to think about what kind of exercise would test their knowledge of vocabulary best. First, students can look at the kinds of vocabulary exercises they did in previous tests. If the vocabulary exercise in all the tests is always the same type it will be worth spending some time thinking about why this is the case.


• Exercise types

If, however, there is a range of exercise types which test vocabulary, students can be asked to consider how successful they think each exercise type is : how much guesswork is involved in each exercise? what kind of guesswork? Guessing from context in a cloze text, for example, is a different kind of guessing from three or four choices in a multiple choice sentence. What other language knowledge do they use to make guesses in multiple choice sentences? Which kinds of exercise ask them to think about the words? Which ones ask them to use the words creatively? Which exercise types require other skills? (Comprehension questions require reading skills for example.) Which kind of exercise do they prefer and why?Then, to get a broader picture, students can look through their Students' Books and Workbooks and find as many different kinds of vocabulary exercises as they can, and, at the same time, they can consider which types are appropriate to use in a test. By this time, a list of different vocabulary exercise test types can be written on the board and students can be asked to rank them in order on a piece of paper: putting the ones which they like and are good at at the top and the ones they don't like and are not so good at at the bottom. In pairs they can then discuss reasons for their reactions and write them on their sheet. The sheets are collected in and the results are collated on a poster or overhead transparency.Already the students have been able to evaluate 'how' they are tested, to think about a variety of options and to think about which type of exercise suits them best. The teacher has collected in some important qualitative information about the process of testing which can be used to inform the construction of the next test and, perhaps also, the teaching which leads up to the next test.
• The next test
The next test can be prepared in the normal way except that, on the test paper, the teacher can put two or possibly three different kinds of exercises to test the same material from which the students have a choice: they must do the exercise which they think they will do best at. The teacher marks the test as usual but at the same time, makes a note of the choices the students made and checks whether students did better or worse than they did on previous tests. When the test is returned to the students they will know not just how much they know but also how correct they were in their choice. In other words, they will have learnt something more about their own learning strength.This kind of evaluation process allows the teacher to understand more about the individual students learning preferences but also shows that often it may not be the material, in this case, the vocabulary, which is causing a problem for the students, but the manner - the way - in which it is being tested, or, possibly even being taught. This kind of approach to a test allows for the results to become the next stage of the teaching process and the next stage of the students learning process.Students spend about 10,000 hours of their lifetime trying to learn at school: it is important that some of those hours are spent on evaluating and discussing how that learning happens, or doesn't happen!

• Students follow up
vocabulary learningTests are often graded by the teacher, returned to the students, the correct answers are provided in class and the test is then put away and forgotten. If the students have chosen which part of the test to do, the success or failure of that choice can become a subject of discussion: how did they prepare for the vocabulary test? What different approaches did they use and why? Finding out what students do to help themselves learn provides fundamental qualitative data for all teachers. Some students may not prepare well for a test because they are not sure what to do or they know that the strategies they have used before have been unsuccessful and they don't know how to replace them. Unless they learn other strategies they may stop preparing for tests altogether because they know they will fail. Some students may like to keep an evaluation 'diary' or journal in which they can record what kinds of strategies they used to prepare for tests or learn their new vocabulary.Students spend about 10,000 hours of their lifetime trying to learn at school: it is important that some of those hours are spent on evaluating and discussing how that learning happens, or doesn't happen!

• Teachers' follow up
vocabulary teachingOnce the students have discussed their successes, failures and strategies, the teacher can then decide how to adapt vocabulary teaching in the future. Perhaps too much time is spent on 'pre-teaching' vocabulary? Perhaps students know more words than the teacher thinks? Perhaps they know different ones? Perhaps students do not feel comfortable with dictionaries? Perhaps the problem isn't one of vocabulary but of spelling? Perhaps there is too much emphasis on short term memory rather than long term memory? Perhaps some students would prefer more vocabulary practice in a variety of ways - more reading, more puzzles, more writing.

• Assessment in writing
Many students find writing in English very difficult because there are so many different things to get right - spelling, tenses, vocabulary, agreements, prepositions, syntax particularly word order, register, punctuation and organisation. Correcting written work is often very time consuming and frequently ineffective in that it changes little in the students' approach in the future. When students produce a piece of writing it can be marked subjectively or holistically. This means that an overall grade is given which does not take into account specific strengths and weaknesses such as spelling, sentence structure or punctuation but is concerned with the general impression. This is an assessment strategy which has no built in evaluation. Students do not know from a holistic mark where their weak points are or what they should do to improve. On the other hand, correcting every error in the writing has little or no evaluative worth either because it often leaves students feeling that they don't know where to start to improve.

• Evaluation in writing
In order to build evaluation into the assessment of writing during the course it is worth having an analytic marking scheme which the students are familiar with. If, for example, the piece of writing has a total of 20 marks, separate marks need to be allocated for each aspect of the writing. The teacher can put on the blackboard a list of the features to correct in a piece of writing and ask the students to decide how many marks they think should be given to each feature (with the total amounting to 20). When the students have a writing test or produce a piece of writing in class or for homework, marks can be given for each individual feature, eg 2/4 spelling, 3/5 punctuation etc. Before the students hand in the work, they can be asked to write their own grades for each feature at the bottom of the paper. This will encourage students not only to look through their work carefully when they have finished but will also help them evaluate their own weak and strong points.

• Follow up
writingA breakdown of areas for marking will give the students a clearer idea of their strengths and weaknesses. Students who have spelling problems, for example, can be asked to analyse what kind of mistakes they make, perhaps to compare them with patterns of spelling errors in mother tongue. The teacher may then need to provide spelling worksheets or the students can be asked to prepare spelling quizzes. If all the students are weak on cohesion - that is, if the texts they write do not hang together well - it may be worth spending time analysing the texts in the student’s book or in other resources. Perhaps on one test, the students can be allowed to have English-English dictionaries, on the next test they could be allowed to take in English-mother tongue dictionaries. The teacher can then discuss with them afterwards the differences this made to their writing. Perhaps some students write and think very slowly and this affects their work. In this case the next writing test can be set with double the time limit, making sure there is something else for the students who finish early to do.Assessment and evaluation cannot always walk hand in hand: assessment is needed for administration purposes, teachers, parents, students, employers and universities. However, the process of teaching and learning can benefit enormously from the flexibility provided by building evaluative systems into smaller assessment tests so that on going testing becomes a 'user-friendly' 'hand holding' activity rather than an isolating threat.

* The above article is courtesy of Mr Jim Kalathas, Senior ELT and Education Consultant, Cambridge University Press, Thessalonica.