Making Assessment a More Positive Experience

I had the enjoyable experience last week of speaking to a group of school and university language teachers on the theme of how to make assessment a more positive experience for students. I built on themes I have discussed in previous blogs on assessment, such as this one and this one too. Here’s a summary of some key points.

Most teachers would agree (i.e. stated beliefs) that assessment should serve positive functions. The 69 responses below collected through an in-session poll reflect this, with higher levels of agreement on the two positive items:

In practice, though (i.e. enacted beliefs), the ways in which assessment is conducted often do not reflect these positive views. This becomes clear when assessment processes and tasks are analysed and especially when students’ perceptions about assessment are explored. Here’s what a secondary school student said when I asked him whether there was anything pleasant about his assessment experiences:

To be honest, it’s pleasant because you’re done with it. You know, you get your mark and you don’t have to worry about that anymore.

A key question for teachers, then, is what adjustments to assessment will give students the best chance to show what they know and make assessment a more motivating and constructive process for them? We can consider this question at different stages of the assessment process:

For example, at the preparation stage, giving students clear information about what is to be assessed and the possible assessment tasks can help them prepare with greater confidence. Effective (i.e. valid) assessment design also gives students better opportunities to perform well. And, especially when students do not perform well, feedback can play an important role in encouraging students to sustain motivation and continue learning.

Many students, though, do not experience motivating feedback of this kind. I asked my student informant what feedback he gets when he does not do well on assessments:

Well, then they don’t really say anything. They just say, ‘oh, you didn’t do well’.

Teachers who write lengthy feedback highlighting what students did wrong may feel they are working hard to support students, but students may not feel this is helpful. Here’s a further extract from my conversation with the same student:

How do you feel when you get a page of writing back and it’s all red?
Annoyed mostly.
Why annoyed?
Well, because if you got the answers wrong there’s nothing you can do about that on an essay. No, there’s no need, like you make a mistake once and then she writes a whole paragraph. ‘Why did you do this?’ and fills up your whole page.
So that kind of detailed feedback doesn’t make you feel good?
No, because it’s not feedback, it is ‘you did this wrong’.

The key messages from the talk were:

  1. Assessment affects student motivation towards the subject.
  2. It does not have to be an unpleasant experience for students and can be motivating.
  3. Small adjustments at different stages of the process can improve students’ ability to prepare, perform, and continue learning afterwards.
  4. Improving teachers’ assessment literacy is a key factor in the process of allowing assessment to serve a more positive function.
  5. Evaluating assessment (stage 6 above) involves reflecting on how effective it was and can be informed by feedback from students.
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Planning Teacher CPD – Key Principles

This post is linked to yesterday’s webinar on key principles in planning effective CPD for teachers. A recording of the webinar will be available soon on the TeachingEnglish website, but here is the final summary slide with the 10 principles that I presented:

(Borg 2023)

These are 10 (rather than the 10) key issues to consider when CPD for teachers is being planned and implemented. Some approaches to CPD lend themselves more easily to these principles, but, generally, attention to these issues can enhance the value for teachers of organized CPD – both smaller-scale (such as school level) or on larger programmes seeking systemic change in an education system.

The list could be extended. For example, a principle about the importance of evaluating the impact of CPD could be added.

Another issue relates to teacher autonomy – though the principle here is not that teachers should always be given the freedom to take part in CPD and to make decisions about what and how they learn. These are desirable features of CPD but in many contexts (and especially where large-scale educational reform is being targeted) giving teachers too much choice will not generate positive results. The principle, then, might be that decisions about how much choice teachers have in their CPD should reflect the goals of the programme, the educational culture and teachers’ readiness to exercise autonomy.

Teacher motivation is another vital component in CPD, but it is not explicitly addressed in the above list of 10 principles. While attention to these principles (such as making CPD an active and relevant experience for teachers) will enhance their motivation to participate, the issue is probably important enough to merit a principle of its own – for example, ‘teacher motivation to engage in CPD is a key element in its effectiveness’. I must stress, though, that teacher motivation alone is insufficient for CPD to lead to positive changes in teaching and learning – effective opportunities for teachers to develop are also required, as suggested by the original 10 principles.

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Initial Teacher Education in ELT

Back in May I wrote about what matters most when education systems are trying to improve levels of English among learners. I concluded that the qualiity of initial teacher education is vital. Studies of high-performing education systems often refer to the emphasis that is placed on attracting the best candidates to teacher education programmes and on providing initial teacher education that equips graduates with the knowledge, skills and other attributes that underpin teacher competence. But it remains the case in many countries that graduates qualify to become teachers of English without doing a programme that is specific to English and, even where it is about English, without doing many courses that have a teaching focus (as opposed to literarature, linguistics or education generally). A recent report on ELT in India, for example, noted that

There are few opportunities available for initial teacher
training designed specifically for aspiring teachers
of English or for newly recruited teachers of English.
Whatever training they receive is in the form of limited
input on teaching English as part of courses or training
programmes meant for all teachers teaching at the
primary level
. (p.34)

In Iraq, English programmes in Colleges of Education have traditionally been dominated by literature and lingustics courses (though reform is taking place), while a report that has just been published about Nepal also raises questions about the quality of initial English teacher preparation. For example, one B.Ed. English programme contained 45 courses but the first ELT course was the 24th. A course on ‘An Introduction to SLA’ was the 39th. Assessment on the programme was also found to focus largely on the recall of factual information.

While different contexts require specific approaches, insights from the international literature can provide direction for the design of initial teacher education programmes in ELT. A discussion is provided in Section 3.1 of this report while further insight is also available in broader discussions of the competences teachers need, such as the ‘Global Framework of Professional Teaching Standards’ proposed by Education International and UNESCO. Frameworks from our field provided by the British Council (CPD Framework) and Cambridge (English Teaching Framework) are also important sources of guidance for programme content.

This list can without doubt be extended (please make suggestions). Overall, though, initial teacher preparation programmes for teachers of English will be more effective (i.e. will produce graduates who are well-equipped to support the learning of English) when they

  • are based on clearly defined and sound standards for teacher competence
  • guided by principles of teaching and learning which are consistently applied across courses
  • model effective pedagogical and assessment practices
  • support the development of graduates’ English language abilities
  • develop high levels of teaching knowledge (specific to English and more generally educational)
  • focus deeply on subject matter pedagogy (teaching English)
  • make learning to teach (often in a particular context) the central concern
  • emphasise the development of students’ identities as teachers from the outset
  • provide insights from and experiences of real classrooms throughout programme (not just a practicum in the final year)
  • involve student teachers in a range of assessments, including those of a more performative, inquiry-based and reflective nature.

It is also important to stress the importance of teacher educator competence in effective pre-service programmes; programme reform must also often involve professional development for the teacher educators themselves (see this CPD framework for teacher educators for one analysis of the competences teacher educators need).

It would interesting to hear about pre-service programmes in different contexts and comments on what makes them more and less effective in preparing teachers of English.

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What do ELT Consultants Actually Do?

Several months have passed since my last blog, where I promised to follow up the discussion of what matters most in rasing national standards of English by discussing some features of effective pre-service teacher education programmes. I will post that blog today. But I thought it would also be interesting to first review what it is that has kept me away from my blog for so long.

One of the hardest questions my family get asked is ‘what exactly does Simon do’? My daughter tends to blurt out something about ‘teacher cognition’ (see here for an important early paper) and this remains an area of interest; for example, colleagues at the Western Norway University of Applied Sciences are studying metalinguistic awareness in Norwegian primary schools and I am leading the part of the study which examines teachers’ understandings of metalinguistic awareness and how they promote it in their lessons. But I am not a full-time academic and the bulk of my work these days involves consultancy work. But what exactly does this involve? Recent projects are listed here but let me provide more detail about some of these to explain how I spend most of my time.

The status of teacher education and development in Nepal (Aug 2022-Feb 2023). The report for this project was actually launched today (read it here) at an event in Kathmandu and due to the time difference I did a Zoom presentation about the report at 0600! With support from colleagues at the British Council and the local research team from Vertex Consult, this project examined current approaches to initial teacher education and CPD in Nepal. Qualitative case studies from three provinces in the country were compiled, and along with a a national teacher survey, provided the basis of 32 recommendations for improving pre-service and in-service teacher education in the country.

Review of pre-service teacher education in Iraq (Sep 2022-Mar 2023)
This project was mentioned in my last blog. Building on research I carried out with Tony Capstick in 2021, I have been working with representatives from the Ministries of Higher Education in Iraq to revise the pre-service teacher education for English teachers. Most of the work has been conducted online, though I was also able to visit Erbil for a two-day workshop in December. The goal of this project is to move from a curriculum which has traditionally placed more weight on literature and linguistics to one which has teaching English as its main focus. The working groups have submitted proposals for revised curricula and this afternoon we are meeting to discuss these.

Professional inquiry for foreign language teachers in higher education (Jul 2022-Mar 2023). This has been a very interesting smaller-scale and more localised project. In 2020 I was invited to the Language Centre at the University of Bochum to run a workshop on professional inquiry (which is now my preferred term for practitioner research). The Language Centre wanted to promote this further as a new form of professsional development and I have been supporting five teachers as they design, carry out and present their own professsional inquiry projects on mediation in language learning, the flipped classroom and online writing tools. We are all looking forward to the final presentations at an event in Bochum next month.

Evaluation of the British Council’s ELTRA scheme (Nov 2022-Mar 2023). Much of my work as a consultant involves evaluation, most commonly evaluating the impact of CPD programmes (answering questions such as ‘what do teachers learn from CPD?’ and ‘does CPD lead to any change in what teachers do in the classroom?’). Occasionally, though, evaluation work has a different focus, such as in this project. With my colleague Nicky Hockly, we are looking at the impact of a research scheme – what kinds of impacts on knowledge, policy and practice do the ELTRA research projects funded by the British Council have? We are surveying researchers, interviewing them, and looking at their research reports to seek anwers to these questions and make recommendations for how the impact of research on teachers and policy makers can be strengthened.

These are just four examples of projects that keep me busy as a consultant. Perhaps I should share a link to this blog with my family so that next time they are asked what I do they have some answers!

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Improving National Levels of English – What Matters Most?

Two recent projects I have worked on had the common goal of trying to understand at a national level the status of English learning and the factors that influence it. The two countries involved were Iraq and India – very different contexts but both characterised by what are seen to be modest levels of English proficiency amongst school leavers.

In Iraq, one important issue to emerge from the study was that a typical strategy adopted by educational authorities to boost the quality of English teaching and learning was to change the curriculum. It was assumed that by providing a more communicative curriculum and introducing it to teachers through intensive training, the quality of teaching and learning would improve. While a new curriculum can stimulate pedagogical change, the difficulty with this approach is that it does not address gaps in teacher competence – if teachers lack the knowledge, skills and English proficiency to teach communicatively, providing a new curriculum will not lead to the desired improvements. This has in fact been the case in Iraq and a key contributing factor highlighted by the project was the quality of pre-service education for teachers of English: graduates lacked the English proficiency and pedagogical knowledge and skills needed to deliver a communicative curriculum effectively.

The work in India was recently published here (along with similar studies in four other South Asian countries). The education system in India is incredibly complex and, while the value of English is widely acknowledged, the quality of English teaching and learning in primary education is modest. No single factor explains this but two interesting points were highlighted. One is that while India invests heavily in developing educational policies

National- and state-level educational policies operate simultaneously but may not always be wholly consistent given the autonomy that states have. Policies provide a good basis for reform but are often not supported by mechanisms that lead to effective implementation. (p.12)

The second issue is that

Limitations in pre-service teacher education mean that graduates become primary school teachers of English with insufficient subject-specific pedagogical competence and modest levels of English proficiency. (p.12)

This second point echoes conclusions from the work in Iraq. What both studies suggest, then, is that improving the quality of pre-service teacher education is essential to longer-term progress in the quality of English language teaching and learning. Reform of this kind, of course, takes time, and its benefits will not be immediate either, so it is also important for effective systems of in-service training to be available. However, the provision of high quality graduates is critical to efforts to improve national levels of English. Graduate quality is perhaps even more important than a new curriculum – a competent cook can make an good meal with modest ingredients and equipment, but the best ingredients and equipment are of limited value in hands of someone who is unskilled.

If we accept this argument about the central role of pre-service teacher education in improving the learning outcomes of school children, it is, then, important to identify some characteristics of an effective pre-service programme for teachers of English. This will be the focus of my next blog.

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